I’ve awoken from my coma to share with you a brilliant piece of writing from an award-winning writer whom I admire very much. Click on the link and read it twice. Thank you, Libba Bray. You speak for many.
I’ve awoken from my coma to share with you a brilliant piece of writing from an award-winning writer whom I admire very much. Click on the link and read it twice. Thank you, Libba Bray. You speak for many.
Common Application Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Hello There, Admissions Associate! Research shows that no two voices are alike. However, after a while, the thousands of personal statements you read from the same demographic must begin to sound fairly familiar. Not mine. My background gives me a unique perspective that most students entering college today simply cannot duplicate. Unlike most applicants, who are on their iPhones creating Snap Chat streaks, I have written my stories in longhand, sometimes joyfully, sometimes painfully, without the benefit of instant replay. I am a living time capsule, and my very existence from the late sixties through today makes me a valuable contributor in any classroom. Following are examples from my life that make me uniquely qualified to attend your distinguished university.
I am resilient. I don’t crumble at the first sign of adversity. You won’t have to worry about my helicopter parents calling you to protest a B-minus, or complaining that my dorm isn’t nice enough. As an only child of divorced narcissists, and a product of benign neglect (now called “free range parenting”) I learned early how to fend for myself. Way early. I wasn’t given the benefit of a boosted immune system through prenatal nutrition and round-the-clock breastfeeding. I was ripped from the womb and fattened up like a Christmas goose on Similac. When I had 104-degree fever I didn’t stay home from school; I toughed it out. When I had an abscess in my lymph node, my parents didn’t even bring me to the doctor until I looked like the Elephant Man. As a kid who spent a week off school during The Blizzard of ’79, roaming the city on municipal buses, holding on to the sides of buildings to avoid being blown away in the Chicago wind, I think I can handle a full course load at your school and a couple loads of laundry per week.
I’m smart but, more importantly, I’m savvy. Being able to read people saves you a lot of heartache. My years in the workforce have taught me that most bosses reward people who make their lives easier; they don’t care about genius, they want the path of least resistance. The same goes with professors. I know how to strike the balance of being a hardworking team player without appearing to be too brilliant. Nobody likes a smarty-pants. Having a six octave range won’t get you to Carnegie Hall if people hate your guts. On a related note, I don’t give any credence to standardized tests, and you shouldn’t either. Let’s be honest, you and I both know that shit has no bearing on real life. Also, while being a strong writer of both fiction and non-fiction, I’m not that into math. Again, life experience shows me that beyond basic financial management, if you’re not going into a STEM career it doesn’t matter. Nobody lists Trig as a skill on their resume.
I have excellent executive functioning skills and the wisdom that goes along with having made a few mis-steps in balancing academics and a social life. First of all, I won’t make the rookie mistake of scheduling any classes before 11am, especially on Thursdays, a well-documented day of partying. I will never think that because you can’t taste grain alcohol when it’s mixed with Kool-Aid, that it isn’t effective. Generally, less punch means a quicker reaction time when your toga falls off. I won’t buy mushrooms from a random person at a Grateful Dead concert, because they could kick-in as you’re approaching the on-ramp to the expressway. And I know that the munchies brought on by copious amounts of weed make it almost impossible to tell the difference between green icing and green mold on a cake that’s been sitting in a frat house basement refrigerator for several weeks. Fortunately, the intoxicating ABC lineup of Ryan’s Hope, All My Children, One Life to Live, and General Hospital is no longer a temptation.
Having experienced misogyny, racism, sexism, unfair pay practices, sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions, verbally abusive bosses, and date rape first hand, I don’t sweat the small stuff. If you happen to make an inappropriate comment in front of me, or refer to me by the wrong pronoun, no biggie. You have no way of knowing that my brother and sister are biracial, or that my husband is Jewish. How could you possibly know that there are gay people on both sides of my family? Micro-aggressions do not ruffle my feathers, at least not until you’ve fixed the big stuff. As long as you can protect me from spoiled athletes who don’t know the difference between “getting some action” and sexual assault, and nerdy white boys in full body armor with AR-15s play acting Call of Duty, I’m good. In the words of Matthew McConaughey, my goal is to “just keep livin”.
In conclusion, college can be a magical time, four years of intellectual stimulation, personal growth, creativity, close friendships and maybe even love, if you’re lucky. There are the benefits of independence while being nurtured within a community, freedom within the structure and safety net of an institution, and relatively little real-life responsibility. If anyone can appreciate those things, it’s a middle-aged adult like me. And that is why I deserve the chance to do it all over again, without the beer goggles on. I will scale back a bit on the partying in favor of some of the fabulous extra-curricular activities that your fine institution has to offer. I’ll take a few more visual arts classes, even though they are outside of my major, because they put a smile on my face. I’ll be the best damned 50-year-old Freshman you’ve ever seen, if you’ll just give me the chance.
“What do you want for your birthday, Mama?” My 11-year-old refuses to give up, no matter how many times I try to dodge the question. He warned my husband that he’d better come up with something mind blowing for my 50th. He thinks I’ll be disappointed if I don’t get a spectacular present.
Back in August, some big offers were put on the table. Like, really big. A car. A trip to Europe. I come from a family of ridiculously over-the-top gift giving. My husband comes from the school of “You like those boots? Good. Those are your birthday present”. No wrapping. No fanfare. And yet, despite his lack of training, he is ready and willing to lavish me with something fantastic this year if only I would just pick something. Which kind of makes me feel like a kid in the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Am I dying and nobody has told me?
All throughout September he nags me constantly to think about what I might want. And the more he does so, the more pressured I feel. I test drive my dream car but it isn’t all that. My milestone birthday is now less than two weeks away, squeezed right in between Halloween and the Apocalypse (aka the presidential election). Admittedly, I have been wishy-washy about it. Yes, of course I’d like a present. Who wouldn’t? But by choosing, that eliminates all other possibilities. If I don’t choose wisely I may never get another chance to have something really great. And that’s the problem right there; I’m focused on lack rather than abundance.
“Close your eyes and imagine it’s already November 4th,” he tells me. “Where do you want to be? Who do you want to be with?” I want to throw a party for myself, I think. My friend Holly does it almost every year. Two summers ago she hosted a girls’ get-together at her weekend house and it was epic. Every year when my birthday comes around I think of Holly and secretly wish that I could have that kind of celebration. When I’m hanging out with her, I am reminded of the me I was before I had kids, before I noticed every sharp corner and specious cough. Before my mantra was “no slippery socks on the marble floor!” I kind of miss that Laurie.
In early adulthood I had two favorite birthdays that were basically just get-togethers in clubs, my 21st at Neo in Chicago and my 29th at The Martini Lounge in Hollywood, where the guy who would become my husband and I made out on the dance floor. I decide to do a version of those parties this year. No speeches, no This Is Your Life. Just booze, food, bowling, and good music. I feel much relieved. Except there’s still the nagging problem of that gift.
How simple life would be if we could just go into Bloomingdales and lay down a credit card in exchange for our greatest desires? My second unpublished novel and the business card of a New York literary agent who expressed an interest in reading it (a year ago) lingers in my mind. Now that would be the perfect, everlasting gift. You can’t take it with you, but having your words live on in perpetuity is pretty close. But getting a book published is not a gift someone else can give me. It’s about my own commitment, perseverance, and courage. Why courage? Because telling the truth in any art form is bound to piss a few people off.
In the midst of this revelation I run into a friend who recently solved her son’s problem in math. She got him tested and it turns out he has a slight processing deficiency. Now on tests he gets an extra five seconds per problem and all is good. I decide that is what I need: more time. Time to write, time to take my dog on a really long walk, time to watch both a feature length movie and the most recent SNL in one night. So, husband, all you have to do is go to the time store in the mall and buy me about 5 more years. That should do it. Or maybe 8. That’s a good round number.
I scoop up some tickets a friend is selling to Desert Trip, and take my family to the concert with classic rock legends Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, The Who, and Roger Waters. It is a magical weekend of peace, love and rock music. Like a West Coast modern Woodstock with good bathrooms and fancy food. I still can’t bear to take off the wristband.
My husband and I agree that the concert is at least a partial birthday gift. And, unlike the material possessions that fill my house and two storage units, the happy memories of it don’t take up any room. Just as the good vibes of Desert Trip are fading, the Universe delivers another special present, a different gift of song. My son leads the assembly at his elementary school, a rite of passage for fifth graders. He sings and plays The Eagles’ “Take It Easy” on rhythm guitar, accompanied by his ninth grade brother on lead. I’m amazed at the younger one’s generosity on stage; he is the natural showman but gives props to his brother’s string skills. My heart explodes with joy and gratitude. I got my premier gift. All else is gravy.
It is December 31, 2001, and I am four months pregnant with my first child. We’re having a quiet a lobster tail dinner at Palette’s, my mom and stepdad’s art-themed restaurant in Chicago. We have the best seat in the house, with a view of the frescoed ceiling and wrought iron statue of Icarus, the mythological figure who flew too close to the sun with wings of wax. This is the last New Year’s Eve we will spend here; like Icarus, Heinz had a plan for the space that was too ambitious. Somebody will take over the lease and it will become just another Italian restaurant.
“So, what do you plan to do after the baby is born?” Heinz casually asks. He’s on his third glass of champagne; I’m saving my one for the stroke of midnight.
“Hire a nanny, and go back to work.” At 35, I’ve finally found something that feels right and have every intention of finding another job as a staff writer on a TV show. Babies sleep most of the time anyway. I’ll hire a nanny to do the boring work of watching the baby while I’m busy crafting pithy plot lines and crisp dialogue. It’s not like I’m going to miss much. Babies don’t really get interesting until they can walk and talk, right?
My mom smiles. “Good for you.”
“Hmm,” Heinz says. Then he gets that look on his face. Having had many heated debates with him over the years, I know this is the beginning of trouble. Still, I take the bait.
“What?” I say.
“Nothing, I’m just listening.”
“You obviously have an opinion, so why don’t you come out and say it?”
That’s when he gives me some version of how he knows me better than I know myself. How going back to work and leaving the baby with some nanny will never work for me. My mom defends my decision; she was a working mother and look how great I turned out. My husband wisely stays silent. By then I’m so worked up I am on the brink of tears.
“I’m just being the Devil’s advocate…” he says.
“That’s enough,” my mom snaps.
“Five, four, three, two, one. Happy New Year!” Just like that, it is 2002, the year that I will become a mother.
As my belly grows, I develop a detailed plan for how I am going to get the baby out. Egged on by a friend I meet in a prenatal yoga class, I become obsessed with natural childbirth. I want no medical interventions – no C-section, no episiotomy, and absolutely NO DRUGS. I could probably put a wee bit more thought into what I am going to do with this baby after it is born. There are vague notions of private school like the one I attended in Chicago. And pre-school. Every kid goes to preschool nowadays. The birth itself, though, I have that totally covered.
Except, not really. I do not plan for a 36-hour labor, a nearly 10-pound baby, or the fact that I will fall madly in love with this child from the first moment I hold him in my arms. I have no way of knowing that the very act of creating another human being will bring all the deficiencies of my childhood bubbling to the surface. The alcoholic nanny who cleaned out our liquor cabinet and left a pile of vomit in the front hall closet; the community college student who got pregnant; the barely literate woman who stole half of my mom’s clothing; and the nicest one of all, a sweet Vietnamese girl who was deported. Enabled by my husband and his upbringing of benign neglect, my raison d’etre becomes the creation of a Leave It to Beaver life, updated for a modern audience.
There are plenty of parents with partners who earn enough so that they don’t have to work, but few who forego any help at all. For the first three years of my son’s life, I am that rare bird. I cannot grasp the concept of the nanny-housekeeper; a caretaker who spends hours each day with my child during his formative years should be held to a higher standard than a person tasked with scrubbing the toilets. There is a beloved nanny culture among the affluent; my inability to buy into that puts me in the vast minority. I get used to being the only mom at the park, surrounded by nannies who are often more focused on chatting with each other than the toddlers in their charge. I see nannies taking kids to birthday parties, and waiting in the doctor’s office while the kids get vaccinations. I feel superior to these kids’ working moms until I find myself at an adult dinner and someone asks the inevitable question: “What do you do?”
The focus on career is such an American thing. My stepfather, the same one who knew me well enough to know that my hire-a-nanny-and-go-straight-back-to-work plan was never going to fly, is from Germany. He thinks that question is just plain rude and refuses to answer it (he’s a former chef and hotel executive, nothing to scoff at). There’s also the dreaded, “Do you work?” Man I hate those words. Just writing them makes my shoulders rise up to my ears, and heat radiate through my body. The short answer is, yes, I do work. And I approach motherhood with the same intensity, creativity, and thoughtfulness that I have exhibited in every other career I’ve ever had. Among my responsibilities: reading to my son (with voices) several times each day. Taking him to concerts with kid performers like Justin Roberts at McCabe’s Guitar Shop. Drawing, painting, and carving pumpkins together. Playing with Legos. Baking cookies and pies and making costumes from scratch. And lunch. I do not go to Soul Cycle, followed by lunch at Neiman-Marcus while my son stays home and eats chicken fingers. We go out for nice meals together. He develops a taste for gruyere cheese and learns how to behave in polite company.
If I had to pay someone to replace me, it would cost a minimum of $25 per hour for 12 hours each day, five days per week. But that’s the mathematical reason, when the real one is emotional. Nobody can do what I do as well as I can, because I’ve got skin in the game.
I am pregnant again, and exhausted. Mary Poppins is unavailable, so I settle on a day care with young college students studying early childhood development. For a few hours each week I run errands without stopping to change diapers. He likes being around other kids and can’t wait till his baby brother is old enough to play. Boy number two emerges, charming and brilliant, so I am forced to fall in love with him as well. I am overwhelmed by these two gifts I have been given, that are exactly what I wanted but nothing like I imagined. So why am I sad? I’ve thrown myself so deeply into motherhood that I’ve lost the other parts of my identity. I feel terribly guilty about cheating on the boys with time for myself, but I also think I might die if I don’t start writing again. So I sign up for a novel writing class at UCLA to give myself some deadlines. And I hire a nanny recommended by my close friend from college. Ana is good with the baby and he seems to like her, but I never do. Early on, I catch her in a lie and decide not to fire her because I am afraid to trust his care to a total stranger. (Refer to the above description of my own childhood caretakers). By the time the big one is in private school and the little one is four, he complains that Ana does not read stories as well as I do. A year later, he complains because she doesn’t read stories as well as he does. Eventually we work in a few young women as babysitters. But going out is never as much fun for me as dinners in the den during Family Movie Night.
Today that first baby who captured my heart is in 9th grade. The second one is in his last year of elementary school. They are two very different but equally self-possessed, outrageously creative boys who perform well academically. They are athletic but not overly sporty, have sophisticated culinary tastes, and wicked senses of humor. Thanks to all those Family Movie Nights, they also have an unusual grasp of 70s and 80s pop culture. Can I take credit for the way they’ve turned out? Yes. Is it all because I leaned in to motherhood instead of my writing? Another favorite expression of my German stepdad: other parents have smart children, too. And some of those other children come from mothers who work full time and leave the bulk of parenting to outside help. If I were the Flash, I could run back and create an alternate timeline, one where I’m a television staff writer who squeezes in as much quality time as I can with my boys on weekends and holidays. Am I as conflicted by that choice as I have been over the years with this one? And what difference do all the insignificant moments make to a child, anyway? It’s impossible to say. I only know what they mean to me, and that is everything.
On a day when I have just read a letter of despair from a friend and former colleague who is bankrupt from paying for her sister’s cancer treatment, I walk into my fancy Westside coffee place. As I digest the words of a fellow writer, begging for an act of mercy to keep from becoming homeless, I wonder, what can I do? Charity begins at home; my grandfather’s words echo in my head. I could send her a few hundred bucks. I’ve blown more at the outlet mall.
And now I’m in line ordering my hot Gibraltar and seeded baguette with raspberry jam. In front of me in line, two boys. Or men. I cannot really tell their age but they are tall and blondish with designer clothes and expensive tennis shoes. The one pulls a gold American Express card from his Goyard wallet and a third friend appears, adds a drink to his order. They discuss their plans for the day: going into Beverly Hills, shopping at Gucci, lunch at a trendy restaurant. A fourth one enters and tries to cut the line but the boy/man with the gold card points to me. The barista thanks him for following the rules.
Something about them reminds me of the Trump boys. Maybe it’s the audacity of the blondest one to sit on the stool I’ve clearly reserved with my laptop. “Oh, sorry,” he says when I give him a look. I am close to their mother’s age and white; they show me respect. Their actual mothers may be closer to my friend’s age. She is a 60-plus award-winning former news producer who cannot find a job in her chosen field, or any field. She has no kids; just one-eyed cats she takes in because they are less adoptable. And her sister’s two cats. These man-boys most definitely come from households with purebred dogs. Are they in college? Out of college? Do they have jobs? Their allowance could probably support my single friend and her cats for a year.
Where do these privileged young males and my bankrupt Boomer friend intersect? With me, of course. I am the fulcrum today.
I imagine writing my friend a letter. I am so sorry about the death of your sister. I’m sorry that you got suckered by the health care system in this country, one where oncologists set their own prices for treatments that only delay the inevitable. You should have used the money on a trip to Hawaii, so the two of you could enjoy her last days on earth together. Because that story, where you pay retail for the latest rat poison to kill the bad cells in your sister’s body, that was only going to end one way. Here are a few hundred dollars to ease the pain. Of course, it’s only a temporary salve. And I, like you, being of the belief that it is better to teach a man to fish than give him one stinky plate of Tilapia, feel powerless to truly help. What can I possibly teach you? You’ve been a writer longer than I have been out of braces. You pioneered sports writing for women. You used to write stories beyond journalism, creative short stories. God knows you are funny. Would you try that again? Do I have the right to share your plight and start a Go Fund Me or whatever those things are that raise money online from random strangers?
Here are some random strangers right in front of me. I imagine asking the kid to add a pound of coffee beans to his gold card for my friend. And while he’s at it, he can go on Amazon Fresh and send her some groceries. My kids would do that much for someone in need.
I write my friend a letter. It looks very little like the above. I will send her money. It’s easy to judge someone else’s situation. Perhaps those man-boys are not as shallow as I think. They haven’t even had the opportunity to become hedge fund managers or real estate developers yet. They could be the next Warren Buffet. I sure hope so.
Sometimes I imagine myself one of the heroes in “Jaws” on a rickety fishing boat in the middle of the Atlantic, sucking down cheap liquor and talking about all of my scars while waiting for the shark to attack. Or a pirate in the Caribbean, arm in arm with my fellow shipmates, singing 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall and waxing poetic of how our scars came to be. I’d fit right in. I have plenty of scars.
The slash through my left eyebrow occurred when I fell out of bed and hit the sharp corner of a hotel nightstand. I remember the clock radio with the numbers that turned like pages, the dark brown Formica of the nightstand, and blood gushing everywhere. It is one of the few childhood memories where my mom and dad are together. Each parent grabbed one of my hands and whisked me down the hallway in my nightgown, my bare feet not even touching the ground. There were no stitches. Someone taped my eyebrow together with a butterfly bandage and that was that.
At the tip of my chin are classic markers of a 1970s youth spent running around slippery cement swimming pools. A more notable scar sits further back, under my jawbone. A lump half the size of my head that doctors thought to be cancerous but ultimately turned out to be an abscess in my lymph node kept me out of school for six weeks. By the time they decided to remove it, I had missed Long Division and Valentine’s Day. I’ll never forget munching on the contraband McDonald’s cheeseburger my dad had snuck into the hospital, and my second grade teacher stopping by with a pile of Valentines from my classmates. “You’ll never have a double chin,” my mother said, always looking for the silver lining. She was right, sort of. I will never have a double chin on my left side.
The majority of my scarring occurred during childhood, both the physical and emotional kinds. And while both types fade over time, there’s no getting rid of either one completely. When scars are no longer fresh, you think about them less and less until they’re just there, subtle reminders of accidents or acts of aggression or medical events (or vanity). Emotional scars blend into the fabric of your personality, visible as a few snags on the surface but mostly camouflaged by the superego, unnoticeable to anyone except the closest of friends. People tend to show me their scars, people in airports and bank lines, and at Bar Mitzvahs. Either they’re prone to TMI or they recognize in me a kindred spirit.
My very first scar is the one that strangers notice most. The thin “bracelet” on my right arm is the only evidence of a birthmark my parents had removed when I was just a year old. I don’t remember the surgery, although I’ve seen the before and after photos. Before, is a chubby baby with a wide grin and brown mark on her forearm, a drop of God’s chocolate ice cream cone. After, is a hazy photo of a smiling toddler in a green hospital gown. Nearly a half century later, the scar is faded but still visible. My mom claims it looks like a tan line, but more than one person has asked if I tried to commit suicide. Given that the scar is positioned almost halfway between my wrist and elbow, it doesn’t seem like the most efficient way to off one’s self.
My stomach is a constellation of scars, from childhood Chicken Pox to adult moles that were burned, frozen and sliced off by my dermatologist. The worst by far is the one that looks like train tracks and sits just below my belly button. I’ve thought about getting a tattoo with an arrow pointing to that scar with the words: “this is not from an appendectomy”, to avoid any confusion in the future. I’d hate to show up at the ER with an appendicitis only to be misdiagnosed because they assume I’ve already had one. Yep, it’s that ugly. “You’re not planning to wear a bikini, anyway,” Dr. Gottlieb said as she cut a big chunk of flesh from my abdomen. “Well, actually…” I do still wear a bikini, despite frequenting beaches with some of the flattest stomachs in the Western Hemisphere. Even women whose bodies have been sculpted by personal trainers are not perfect. We all have scars.
8:31 Drop off Child 1 at school in West LA
8:47 Drop off dog at daycare in West LA
9:00 Get coffee and baguette in Brentwood; write until 10:30 am while intermittently listening to privileged Westside mom complain about how her kid is the only one who cries at pre-school drop-off. She doesn’t know what to do; he has an acre of land and many animals at home and is great “dinner conversation” with adults but he isn’t “socialized” with other kids
10:45 Arrive home to Palisades. Let in housekeeper who smells gas from the vintage stove I’ve paid to have refurbished and have used zero times since they delivered it last week; explain work housekeeper is to do; Call stove company
12:00 Go to Coffee Bean to do more writing but get called back home immediately for stove repairman
12:30-1:45 Watch and listen while he takes apart stovetop for third time and solves problem with a sewing needle I give him
1:45 Turn on computer to write and give up because I can’t focus with housekeeper vacuuming under my feet. Watch Terence Crutcher video on Facebook and wonder if there’s hope for humanity.
2:30 Pick up title to car and lien release from business manager’s office in West LA so I can prove to the DMV that I do own my car and they can give me the registration renewal stickers that I’ve already paid for (Part 2 of my 2 ½ hour DMV experience from yesterday)
3:00 Pick up dog in West LA
3:25 Pick up Child 2 in Mar Vista
3:50 Pick up Child 1 in West LA
4:12 Pick up racket at house in Palisades
4:16 Drop off Child 2 at park in Palisades for tennis lesson
4:45 Burn frozen snack I made for myself to replace lunch; eat half because Child 1 takes the rest
5:15 Pick up Child 2 at park
5:30 Make this list as a way to explain to my family why I’m in a bad mood
5:54 Call School of Rock to confirm son’s lesson time
6:00 Realize I’ve burned frozen pizza for Child 2 and tell him to feed the dog
6:02 Snap at Child 1 who tries to hone in on the burnt pizza
6:15 Take Child 1 to School of Rock for 30-minute lesson
6:30 Squeeze in another errand due tomorrow
6:50 Pick up Child 1
7:15 Pick up to-go dinner at Wahoo’s
7:30 Pick up iced tea at Coffee Bean
7:45 Walk in door as husband arrives home wondering why we are eating out of paper bags again
8:00 Eat to-go burritos for family dinner
8:30-9:30 Watch something on TV with family
9:30-10:00 Lie with Child 2 until he falls asleep while beating the computer at advanced Scrabble. Justify the game as vocabulary building
10:15 Entertain possibility of watching something with husband but he’s already in bed with his iPad
10:30 Begin illustrious writing career!
This is my Italian sports car. This is my platinum pixie cut. This is my facelift — specifically, the nose job, the brow lift. This is my tattoo. This is my LSD, my cocaine. This is me, jumping out of an airplane. Scuba diving with the Cousteaus. Driving a Jeep across the border into Mexico, my tanned arm dangling out the window, silver bangles jingling and a lit cigarette pinched between my fingers. This is my free pass. This is me, a five-foot-ten flat chested, small nosed blonde, a coat hanger for designer clothes, living in the West Village, partying at Studio 54. This is my rage against all that is wrong, my complete psychotic break, my Thelma and Louise moment, driving off a cliff into infinity. It’s my yoga, my meditation, my Nirvana.
This is me, in a million alternate universes, unencumbered by time, space, gender, marital status, parenthood, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, geography, morality, religion, the law, logic, sanity, and, most importantly, perfectionism.
What is this, exactly?
This is my writing. And it is a verb.
Producing 50 pieces of writing in 50 days is my goal. But it isn’t the finished prose or poetry that’s crucial to the challenge. Those things are only bi-products of the action, just like a fit body is a bi-product of exercise and healthy eating. My 50 pieces of writing are quite simply the evidence and accountability that I’m doing this. This, being the action of writing. Whether they are “good” is not relevant. The latest research indicates that it takes 66 days on average to form a habit. The writing is to become habit. The work itself is the reward.
On the cusp of turning fifty years old, I am aware that if I do not do this single action of committing words to the page daily, I will die. Sounds dramatic, right? A little over the top? Maybe. But it’s also the truth. In less than 50 days, I will reach the midpoint of my own story. This is a time when, according to the rules of fiction, a major reversal takes place. I (the main character) will be forced to look into a mirror, confront my flaws, and spin the story in a whole new direction. The midpoint is a reflection of the climax, so if I have any shot at a happy ending, I must start now.
Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to simply bear witness and occasionally, if necessary, remind me to do my exercise. 66 days to form a habit, 10,000 hours to become an expert. Ready, set, write!
I’ve had many addresses during my nearly five decades on planet earth, from a sorority house in Evanston to a couch in a shared New York one-bedroom, a hotel in Arlington, Virginia to a depressing stint in Charlotte, North Carolina. But the only two places that have ever felt like home were my mom’s turn-of-the-century building in Chicago’s Lincoln Park and my grandparents’ 1920’s English Tudor in Canton, Ohio. Most people see the Lincoln Park in me – the city girl who likes to be a part of the bustle, with easy access to cool restaurants, shops and diverse culture. My lesser known alter ego enjoys the safety and familiarity of a small town with manicured lawns and a postman who knows your name.
Twenty years ago, I moved in with a Canadian guy who would eventually become my husband and we began our own residential journey in Los Angeles together, which included the purchase of our first house and, fifteen years later, what appears to be our last one. I wasn’t quite prepared for the reactions from friends and acquaintances when we shared the news that we had put an offer on a property in Pacific Palisades. Comments ranged from “it’s so far” to “it just doesn’t seem like you” to “movin’ on up, huh?” Whatever words were actually said, there was a definite subtext of just who do you think you are? from everyone except, of course, our friends who already live in the Palisades.
My defenses went up. It’s a major fixer upper. On a busy street. It’s smaller than our old house. I swear, I thought we’d end up in a modern spec house in Mar Vista. (Nobody would have had issues with that; everyone likes Mar Vista). We’re only making necessary upgrades like heat, electric and plumbing… and floors, bathrooms, kitchen, front yard, back yard. We got the last affordable house in the Palisades.
But you’re in the Palisades.
It isn’t like we didn’t look anywhere else. We did. For like, fifteen years. Before purchasing our first home, we took a cursory glance at the Palisades. It felt too suburban, too sleepy, too Desperate Housewives. What I really wanted was to live in North Santa Monica, but everything we could afford there was a dump. At the time we were in a swanky rental off Robertson, walking distance to Chaya Brasserie and The Ivy. We settled on a newly remodeled Mediterranean in Rancho Park. Everyone pointed out what a nice, safe neighborhood we chose to raise our family. Sure, it was pretty and walkable, but there was still the exhaust of a major freeway separating me from the ocean.
We had two kids and turned the backyard into a gorgeous oasis, the site of many memorable barbecues and birthday parties. It felt like home, but I still drove West every chance I got. By the time we discovered affordable West-of-the-405 areas like Sunset Park, Mar Vista and Venice (imagine! Venice was once affordable), we had become pickier. I wanted walkability, cool restaurants, a big back yard and the ocean. He wanted an area without campers in the driveway and meth dealers in every alley. I wanted the urban feel of Ocean Park; he wanted the Jacaranda-lined streets and classic street lamps of Cheviot Hills. We widened our search to include every beachside community 20 minutes or less from our kids’ school.
There was a house in Mar Vista that we both loved, a 1936 two-story Spanish with a finished garage on a huge lot. It was an even trade for our house, but we couldn’t buy without selling our house first. Fast forward four years. Mar Vista is blowing up, due to its proximity to Venice. Venetians cannot even afford Venice. Maybe it’s time to think outside the box. We tour homes in Marina adjacent Westchester, where you can get a six bedroom, five bath new construction for less than a Venice bungalow. We realize that we’re not that far outside the box.
We meet with a realtor we’ve known for years, stage our house and get an offer close to the asking price the week before Thanksgiving. At the same time, we tour a fixer in the Palisades. The house reminds us both of our grandparents. It’s walking distance to the village. You can feel the ocean breeze. We write a letter to the adult children who grew up in the Palisades house, promising not to tear it down and make a McMansion. They accept our offer while we’re on vacation in Europe and we wonder what we just got ourselves into. We close escrow three days before Christmas.
On our first Saturday after moving in, my husband walks to the Starbucks where he reports seeing “lots of white people in exercise outfits.” The prototype Westside housewife, suspiciously un-sweaty in her Lulu Lemon Athletica and running shoes, Goyard tote swinging from the crease in her arm, is a fixture of affluent communities from Brentwood to Beverly Hills, North of Montana to Westwood. She’s not my people, but neither are the Silicon Beach hipsters with their ironic grey hair and carefully curated tats spilling out of Gjelina on Abbot Kinney.
Where are my “peeps”? They’re in Hancock Park and Toluca Lake, Culver City and… San Francisco, Rome, Paris. One friend, who recently moved to Paris from a giant property in Mar Vista, said the Palisades felt too “precious”. But now there’s me in my paint-splashed denim overalls and well worn Blundstones, buying screwdrivers at Norris Hardware. And there I am in my 6-months dirty Volvo in the Gelson’s parking lot. Picking up fluff-and-fold at Royal Cleaners. Having minestrone soup at Pinocchio. My husband compares the Palisades to Bayside, the fictional beach town from The Hardy Boys. There is no nightlife. They roll up the sidewalks at 6pm. That may change when the new development is finished, but I don’t foresee the area becoming Century City any time soon. People in town know other people’s business. It’s a lot more like Canton, Ohio than it is like Lincoln Park.
Week three and having no kitchen or laundry is starting to wear thin. We may have watched a few too many episodes of HGTV’s Fixer Upper. It’s easy to romanticize a house project before you are knee deep in it. We are all four sharing one bathroom, the roof may have a leak, and the single pane windows in all of our bedrooms create the effect of free air conditioning on full blast every night. And there are the cars zipping by at high speeds as I back out of my driveway. We really need to put in a circular driveway and some lights. And a fence. And fix those fireplaces. I used to have a gorgeous Carrera marble bathroom. And a huge kitchen…
But now you live in the Palisades.
Check out PYPO! And find out why I’m a recovering perfectionist.
Butt in chair. That’s really the only rule of writing. Beyond that, we all have our own quirks. If it were solely up to me, I’d write in five-star hotels, preferably with a view of the ocean. Think Casa del Mar in Santa Monica on a sunny day. But my muse doesn’t roll that way. She likes to get down and dirty, as long as the coffee is strong and the bathrooms are clean. Pleasing us both is a more difficult task than one might think, even in the dense javadom of West L.A.
Lately, I’ve been writing at Caffe’ Luxxe (two f’s, two x’s) in the Brentwood Country Mart. Or, rather, I’ve been sipping their smooth, chocolatey Gibraltars and eating baguettes with raspberry jam while trying to write. My girl refuses to join me there. Maybe it’s the desperate housewives in their Lulu Lemon tanks and Goyard totes. Or the the snippets of conversation… I’ve been on Xanax since 9-11… I told him, he’s got to push himself now that he’s in sixth grade. She has little patience for the worried well and their first world problems. I’m more empathetic, but easily distracted. The minute my fingers start typing, my brain loses focus. I wonder, what’s up with those middle-aged men in head-to-toe spandex riding three thousand dollar racing bikes in the middle of the day? They’re not nerdy enough to be television writers, but not hip enough to be film directors. Agency chiefs with took a buyout? I’ve got to get out before I create any more backstory.
Deus Ex Machina is a motorcycle accessories shop-slash-café at the Corner of Lincoln and Venice Boulevard. With its rustic wood tables, comfy couches, and dogs roaming around, it feels like sitting in your own garage, if the white noise in your garage were a blend of milk steaming and Spotify. The food is tasty, especially the thick toast and serve-yourself jam in flavors like Bourbon Peach and Jalapeno Blueberry. Their liberal canine policy edits out the jerky element; in fact, if you’re bothered by a strange dog licking your toes, this is perhaps not the best place for you. My muse loves it. She did some of her best work there this summer. There’s just one small issue: cleanliness. I actually believe you can’t maintain a healthy immune system without eating a little dirt. But the day I witnessed one of the baristas wipe up some dog vomit and then go immediately to the espresso machine without washing his hands, my inner germaphobe took pause. And I’m pretty sure there was rat poop on the table when I arrived one morning shortly after opening. Just sayin’.
So I decide to return to my old stomping grounds on Abbot Kinney in Venice, Intelligentsia. With the summer tourist traffic thinned out, there’s virtually no line, and I’m looking forward to sitting down with a nice short-pour cappuccino. I’m hungry but not in the mood for anything sugary so the barista suggests the Spam and Kimchi croissant. “It’s really good. Especially with some Sriracha on top.” “Really?” I say. “Because that sounds disgusting.” I want to tell him that just because something is vintage and ironic and trendy, that doesn’t make it good. I want to dare him to spell sriracha. As if on cue, a guy covered in neck tattoos walks by. My muse rolls her eyes as if to say “Told ya so.” Somehow, I’d forgotten how loud the music is and, frankly, how annoyingly hip the people are. No offense to my friends who were early adapters to the area. You moved in when the real estate was cheap. You dug the surfer-aging hippie-struggling artist-homeless veteran-smalltime drug dealer all living together in a kumbaya of ocean breeze. But with the advent of “Silicon Beach” driving prices up so that only chain stores can afford the rent, Abbot Kinney’s old charm is rapidly evaporating.
My final stop is the Venice Grind in Mar Vista, where all the people who cannot afford three million dollar bungalows still live. There are a few more businesses popping up on this stretch of Venice Boulevard, but still plenty of grit to satisfy my girl. A more mellow but still hip crowd populates the local businesses, the way Venice used to be twenty years ago. The neck tattoos feel more earned here, like they belong to a person who knows his way around a Fender, as opposed to the poseurs on Abbot Kinney who seem inked up for the occasion. One drawback to the Grind: the coffee is like Colon Blow. But they have normal food (bagels, croissants, cookies) and plenty of places to plug in your laptop. The music is soft and the guy behind the counter is nice. I think I’ll stay for a while.
The sun reboots over a slightly less polluted Pacific
than the one I first viewed
A grad student in a Green Wrangler on that rollercoaster incline
to a future long past, but ever present
Today it is fortified, the road, made stronger by steel rods and containing walls but lacking the charm
Where that old sign welcomed you to
I come from true North now,
Long ago traded the land of plastic faces and eternal sunshine, for a chilly bay of tech magnates and vineyard dwellers,
Millennials who ascended from their parents’ basements to microchip thrones
In a real city on a million hills overlooking the rock museum
We have that ocean here, too. With more ice cubes and fewer surfers
Sea spray and Chinatown
And farther still, over the bridge, the magnet for spiritual awakenings –
The New Age Bethlehem, that’s where I live.
Writing and wearing holey jeans and boots, and hopping into my Jeep-shaped Benz
A cool granny, a published author, a hippie with diamond rings
Most of the hair turned ash by time, the skin leathered by topless automobiles, smokes, sun.
A face, the foundation of which was built back in ’66, still standing with no major renovations.
The curtain of a smile rises each morning to greet the things that I love –
A man, a dog; they’re here.
The boys reside elsewhere, places I visit often but don’t call home.
Outliving me was the only deal breaker and the Universe has upheld its bargain so far
Others bowed out earlier, their presence catalogued by walk-of-fame footprints on my heart
Tiny fissures that exist because I indulged it, let it feel.
“Checking in, Ma’am?” A simple question, and I only hesitate briefly,
for a memory montage of Chantilly lace, sandy toddler toes, and club sandwiches
I am just a guest; I don’t live here, even though in my mind it has always been mi Casa
A grand brick house by the sea where I vowed, vodka in hand, crisp Pratesi sheets on the bed,
To one day reside, a dowager with a view of the pier.
The timing was never right for us, Santa Monica.
But I’m thrilled you’re still here, neither demolished by progress nor tsunami
As permanent as you get in this world.
…nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films,
new films,music,books,paintings,photographs,poems,dreams,random conversations,architecture,bridges,street signs,trees,clouds,bodies of water,light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul…if you do this your work(and theft) will be authentic.Authenticity is invaulable; originality is non-existent…and don`t bother concealing your thievery-celebrate it if you like it…in any case,always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ” it`s not where you take things from- it`s where you take them to.
– Jim Jarmusch
On a day when my 12-year-old Gabriel* is texting with girls on his iPhone, I am reminded of the mushy cheeked boy who sat on my lap at The Wiggles concert, too shy to run up on stage with the other toddlers. Wasn’t that, like, five minutes ago? What happened to Woody and Buzz, Lego Batman and Harry Potter? When did those obsessions become replaced with group chats and late night Face-Timing?
I should have seen this coming last year when Gabriel started wearing all black. Every day. Specifically, a black motorcycle jacket and Greek fisherman’s cap he got as a souvenir at The Beatles’ Love show in Las Vegas. Then he and a bunch of other kids formed a band, with Gabe on lead guitar. A few girls joined as back-up singers and he made a point to complain about how annoying they were.
Fast forward to the first middle school dance. Gabriel can’t go because we’ll be out of town at his cousin’s Bar Mitzvah. He is seriously bummed. The night before we leave, there is an art gallery at school. A cute blonde who he swears is “just a friend” comes to see his exhibit and hangs around till the cheese and crackers are put away. They text the whole time we’re gone; when we get back she messages him, “we should hang out”.
We’ve already planned to see a movie together and I suggest that he invite her along. Next thing I know the girl’s dad, whom I’ve only met in passing, joins us. Afterward, I suggest that Gabriel and his friend have lunch by themselves at the food court while we shop. But the only plan her dad finds acceptable is to take him back to his house. Gabriel awkwardly hugs me goodbye. I can’t pretend he’s just on a play date; an invisible line has been crossed. As we roam around the mall it feels weird not to have the fourth member of our team with us.
“Remember Teagan?” my husband Andrew says. Teagan was Gabriel’s first preschool crush. She was the kid who could never sit still during circle time, who needed a daily talking-to from the teachers. We had a birthday party where everyone came in costume. Gabriel was Batman. Teagan, with messy blonde hair and red lipstick, was the sexiest five-year-old Wonder Woman around. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Her mom was a tough talking muscular brunette with a white-blonde streak of hair who had built her big guns by working as a grip on Hollywood movie sets.
At least I still have one boy who hasn’t hit puberty. I turn to my 9-year-old son, Sage. “Do you think Gabe likes this girl as a girlfriend, or just a friend?”
“I’m not getting involved in that,” Sage says. A week later he’ll complain that his brother spends too much time on his phone talking to girls, but today he just wants to go home and ride his bike.
Back at the house, our Jack Russell terrier has gotten into some chocolate and is running around like he’s high on cocaine. I don’t have time to obsess over Gabe’s date because we have to go to the emergency vet. When we’re back home, safe and sound, I hold Cowboy in my arms and remember what it’s like to have a baby that size. The worries were much simpler then, at least compared to the ones ahead: driving, alcohol, drugs, sex, heartbreak (and not necessarily in that order).
If the next twelve years go as quickly as the first, I want to maximize every second and so I decide to splurge on tickets to see Billy Joel. Gabriel doesn’t remember The Wiggles concert, but he’ll remember this one. It’s not exactly the hippest crowd at the Hollywood Bowl; there are lots of middle-aged men with paunches and Hawaiian shirts. But there’s something magical about our family of four communing with seventeen thousand strangers under a full moon. The boys know the words to every song; we’ve taught them well. Afterwards, we collect posters and overpriced t-shirts, and commence the 30-minute journey back to our car. Sage falls asleep the minute he hits the back seat but Gabriel replays the parts of the show he recorded on his iPhone all the way home. There will be many more concerts and many more girls, but for now we have this moment together.
* names have been changed to protect the privacy of minors