Writing to me took courage
As words often tend to do
And though I’ve replied a thousand times
I still can’t be quite as brave as you.
Someday he’ll tell you
Of the rain we drank
On that sunny day
When a broken bridge
Brought us together
In a forever
After sort of way
His name spoke sadness
But my eyes saw a love
That he never heard.
Yesterday, I went to Wal-Mart.
I know, I know. That’s where I went wrong. But I drove right by one on my way back from taking my 6-year-old daughter to her cousin’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese and simply couldn’t resist stopping.
Clearly I’m a glutton for punishment.
But I’m not the only one, apparently, because Wal-Mart was mobbed.
You see, here in Iowa we’re expecting a blizzard—forecasters are calling it Snowmageddon—even Jim Cantore arrived yesterday (along with most of the presidential candidates preparing for another kind of storm). So grocery stores, supermarkets and super stores like Wal-Mart have been stocking their shelves in preparation for the mad rushes of people seeking milk, eggs, bread—the usual.
I’m obviously not the only one who associates snow with French toast. Yum.
I’ll admit, even I had two of the three ingredients in my cart (I’ve not needed to buy bread since receiving a bread machine for Christmas and soon after the bread making addiction that goes with it).
Wal-Mart was, as it always is, a mad house. The store was packed with last minute shoppers. The checkout lines were practically wrapped around the store. Well, the few which were actually open.
I’m a rather patient in-line stander. My mind sort of drifts away as I casually wait my turn. I don’t tend to get frustrated or impatient in line. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not always a patient person. In fact, I practically lose my mind altogether when I misplace something as meaningless as a flip-flop in December. But while in line and even in traffic, I manage to remain calm as the time slowly passes.
This may be my inner-city east coast upbringing that explains why I’m used to waiting—in line, in traffic, at the DMV. Or perhaps I somehow inherited the I’m-okay-with-waiting-as-long-as-I’m-around-others-who-are-also-waiting gene from my parents. It’s hard to say for sure.
But, from what I witnessed at Wal-Mart yesterday, the woman standing in line in front of me was obviously missing that gene… or perhaps she was missing something else altogether.
Again, it’s hard to say for sure. But when the woman in front of her dropped that two gallon canister of water (because you can never have too much bottled water in a Snowmageddon) and it shattered causing a flood of H2O and a necessary cleanup in aisle 11 (ironically, my lucky number), the seemingly normal enough lady in front of me lost her patience and her mind.
I didn’t even notice when it happened. My mind was in another place. The checkout kid didn’t say anything. He simply continued checking as slowly as humanly possible. Then at some point much later he nonchalantly told me that the man behind me and I would need to find another lane because he was closing his. It was in that moment that I noticed the woman in front of me start to twitch.
The problem was there was nowhere for us to go and she took it upon herself to stand up for us and say so. It wasn’t necessary but, at the time, I thought it was rather nice of her so I thanked her for doing so. There were so many people behind us already and all the other lines were just as long if not even longer than ours so when the woman spoke up, the checker changed his mind and said we could stay.
A few minutes or twenty later a woman pushing an industrial sized mop bucket came along but instead of using it and the matching mop to clean up the mess, she grabbed a large roll of paper towels (not the Bounty quicker picker upper variety either) and proceeded to roll them out all over the floor and try to sop up the tsunami. It didn’t work, of course. She created waves of water and waves of anger, as well.
The woman in front of me suggested (albeit snarkily) to the employee with the mop bucket that she should actually try using the mop instead. Then when the employee admitted she did not know how to ring out the mop, the demeanor of the lady in front of me changed altogether. She went from helpful to horrible in a snap. Had I expected it or had I been paying closer attention at the time, I might have tried to listen for the clicking sound her brain likely made in the moment when she in fact snapped.
The employee (a rather large woman in her late 50s or so) got down on her hands and knees in the checkout lane and started pushing the dirty water around with the paper towels. The woman in front of me turned to me with eyes dilated and breathing heavily and asked me if I thought she should mop it up herself. Huh? Then she simply disregarded my “I wouldn’t” and did.
She aggressively grabbed the mop, rung it out in some of the grossest water I’ve ever seen and started mopping the floor. The employee, still on all fours, tried to tell the woman to stop but she wouldn’t listen. The lady just kept on angrily mopping the floor, pausing briefly to aggressively ring out the mop.
I turned to the man behind me, who was equally in shock at the show and just as stuck as me since there really was no place for either of us to go, and we shared a nonverbal what the fuck is happening?
Then as the water swished and swashed to and fro and every which way, including ours, until we were in fact standing in it too, I moved around a few of my groceries so I could pick up my daughter and put her in the seat of the cart. I didn’t want her in the wacko’s way or to slip in the approaching puddles.
I’m glad I did because it was at that moment when things got really… um, muddy?
The lady who brought the mop but didn’t know how to use it reprimanded the crazy customer while she was mopping the slop and told her to put down the mop. The customer lost what was left of her mind, refused to stop mopping and claimed she was doing Wal-Mart a service, that she was in fact concerned for the safety of the employee and the other customers.
None of this made any sense, really, and she was more likely frustrated by the stupidity of the situation and unfortunately allowed that frustration and the fact that she was probably off her meds (and her rocker, quite frankly) to get the best of her.
The two women shouted profanities at each other with me and my daughter and the man behind us all trapped between them, the water, the industrial sized mop bucket contraption and the various shelves full of all the usual impulse buy items until the cashier finally called a manager and security for backup.
At which point, things actually got worse.
An assistant manager showed up and slogged through the water and tried to tell us the lane was closed, due to the flood and the frenzy, but Crazy Mop Lady refused to let this happen. She started shouting that we (as if she, the guy behind me, my daughter and I were indeed a team) had been waiting for at least 40 minutes by this point… To be fair, the time flew and the other lines weren’t moving any faster.
Assistant Manager Chad (I couldn’t have picked a better name for him) tried to take charge of the situation, simply by standing in the middle of it all like a buffoon while his employee continued to crawl around on the floor. He stood between her and Crazy Mop Lady and proceeded to shout to anyone who would listen that if she didn’t stop mopping he would call the police.
Well, she didn’t care and continued to mop up the slop. And, despite the fact that she was obviously insane, she did a pretty decent job of it.
Once Crazy Mop Lady finally finished her task, she put the mop back in the bucket, paid for her groceries and left the store. But Assistant Manager Chad, for no obvious reason, stayed put blocking me and the man behind me. Meanwhile, security showed up and then Chad and his employee, the mop-lady-who-couldn’t-actually-mop, stuck around to tell their versions of the story to the security person.
With the floor mostly mopped up, aside from the sea of dirty wet paper towels, I moved ahead and starting unloading my cart onto the conveyor. The man behind me did the same. I think we both thought the ordeal was over. But Chad was just getting started. Now standing a little too close to my daughter, who was still sitting in the cart, Chad ranted his version of what happened to security and really anyone who would listen. His tone got angrier with each sentence so I wiggled my way between him and my daughter simply as a buffer so he wouldn’t be shouting in her face (at no time did I touch him).
Then, as Chad spoke to security, the mop bucket employee started to cry. I felt awful for her. I imagined it being her first day and my heart sank for her. I told her it wasn’t her fault, even though it was partially since she wasn’t good at her job, but that didn’t matter really because none of the madness would have happened if that other woman had simply taken her meds or skipped shopping at Wal-Mart altogether.
Like an idiot, I was still trying to console the mop bucket employee when she and Assistant Manager Chad suddenly turned on me.
Somehow, they both confused me with Crazy Mop Lady, who was by this point long gone and who for the record looked nothing like me. The two Wal-Mart employees began pointing at me and telling security all the awful things I’d allegedly said and done to them. They corroborated a rather detailed and mostly accurate story about the string of ridiculous events which had taken place. The only real problem with their story was that they had somehow agreed that the crazy mop customer lady was if fact me.
Chad claimed I’d pushed him out of the way while his minion said I stole her mop and cleaned the floor, putting her and everyone else in the store at risk. I tried to explain that they were clearly confusing me with that other customer but they wouldn’t listen. They kept insisting that I was the one who had stolen the mop and who had lost my mind at Wal-Mart that day.
Assistant Manager Chad threatened to have me arrested for all of it while my child sat quietly in the cart watching and listening.
In addition to yelling at me for no reason whatsoever in front of my daughter and a store full of customers, Chad kept using and abusing the word “literally” while pointing at me and shouting things such as “she literally grabbed the mop” and “she literally pushed me out of her way.”
Thank God for that part because it somehow kept me grounded in the humor beneath the insanity and for the man behind me in line who (in a thick Irish accent) finally shouted, “Are you all insane? This woman wasn’t the loon who lost her shit and mopped up that mess. This woman and her child were literally trapped here in the middle of all of it just like me.”
Irish dude and I were on the same page.
After asking to speak to a real manager and telling our version of the story, we finally escaped.
I loaded our groceries into the car, secured my daughter in her booster seat and drove away.
Then, as we pulled out of the Wal-Mart parking lot, I thought I’d better take a moment to tell my daughter how inappropriate the adults in this situation had acted. Mostly I wanted to make sure she was okay so I calmly explained to her what had happened and asked her if she had any questions.
She had one.
“Mommy, is literally a bad word?”
I love birthdays. Mine. Yours. Anyone’s really.
In my opinion birthdays are yet another reason to celebrate and I especially love doing that.
I’ve never been one to dread getting older either. I know some folks truly despise their birthdays like each one is another step closer to death. I never thought about it like that. Rather, I’ve always thought of my birthday as exciting and fun and honestly not at all scary or intimidating.
Maybe it’s because I don’t really feel older or because age is just a number, blah blah blah, or maybe it’s the childlike enthusiasm that comes with looking forward to an upcoming birthday that makes each year feel more magical and important than the one before. Or maybe it’s the cards and gifts and all the special “happy birthday” messages and songs. I love all that stuff!
I’m not sure what it is entirely but like every other year I’m looking forward to my birthday and as I approach this one—the big 4-0—I’ve been thinking a lot about my life, about the person I’ve become and about all the people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had along the way, and specifically the things that happened in my 30s, as well as my goals and accomplishments, too.
In addition to birthdays, I also love making lists so, to mark the occasion and as a sort of decade sendoff, I made a list of thirty things I accomplished in my 30s. I made a similar list about my 20s (with just twenty things) when I turned 30 but I didn’t blog back then, or I’d have probably posted it too. To keep with the theme, in another ten years, I guess I’ll probably have to come up with forty things for my next big milestone birthday. Looks like I’ll be pretty busy in my 40s!
I also made a list of goals for the year ahead when I turned 39 (my insanity isn’t strictly limited to whole decades) and as I reviewed it recently I came to realize just how much I snuck in during the previous ten (and still counting) months.
Truly, a whole lot has happened this year! A whole fucking lot in fact! But it makes sense since it has sort of been an overall theme to the entire decade. 39 (which isn’t quite yet over but will be soon enough) has indeed been—and continues to be—a proper climax to my 30s.
It’s been a dramatic year filled with many twists and turns and more highs and lows than you can shake a stick at (I’m not sure what that means but I like how it sounds). I might even consider revising my Things to Accomplish in my 40s list (yes, of course, I’ve already drafted that, too).
Anyway. Here’s my list.
30 Things I accomplished in my 30s
- Lived in three states: Texas, New York and Iowa (prior to my 30s I lived in PA and NJ, too)
- Directed numerous large scale international events and ran a department at a media company
- Traveled nationally and internationally to many places and met lots of interesting people
- Directed two celebrity golf tournaments (in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic)
- Married my soul mate, Jason. Awww!
- Took a huge risk in giving up my career as an event planner to write a novel!
- Lived at the beach!
- Started my own company and eventually realized it wasn’t for me (this is a 2 for 1 deal)
- Designed two websites all by myself
- Started blogging
- Gave birth to a beautiful girl named Lyla. Being her mom has been awesome!
- Got diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease – not exactly a traditional accomplishment but still
- Learned to live with PKD and battled and survived postpartum depression!
- Connected with my inner hippy through meditation and astrology (I even met Susan Miller!)
- Taught myself how to read Tarot (this comes in super handy at parties!)
- Saw Prince in concert (checked that one off my concert bucket list!)
- Made the decision to move to Iowa!
- Bought a house!
- Made lots of amazing new friends and became a part of an awesome little community
- Bought new carpet for the house (so far, this is the moment I felt the most grown up)
- Wrote a bunch of poems and two novels (and revised and rewrote both several times)
- Went back to school to acquire my MFA in Creative Writing
- Wrote an award winning screenplay!! Yay!
- Got to stay downtown in Philly and play tourist in my hometown with my family
- Lost 50 pounds (gained half back but who’s counting?)
- Finally completed my novel Private Mommies Society!
- Graduated with honors!! I officially have my MFA in Creative Writing!
- Queried literary agents and kept pushing forward and revising despite rejections
- Received an offer of representation and signed with my agent!
- Hmm… Looks like I have room for one more… I have a feeling it’ll be a good one.
My great niece Hailie turned one on 8/8/14. Tragically, her mother committed suicide the day before. This has been a painful shock to our families and especially to my nephew CJ, Hailie’s father. I’m still not sure how to process it but I know in my heart that I need to do something for him and Hailie.
So I’ve created a donation page called Helping Hailie. All donations received will be put into a trust fund for Hailie’s future. While this won’t heal the pain or diminish the loss, it will help Hailie down the road.
Donations of all sizes as well as prayers, love, positive vibes and inspirational thoughts and messages are greatly appreciated. Thank you for your support during this difficult time. xo
Joan Didion’s essay On Self-Respect (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 142) is a beautifully-written essay about what self-respect is and what it really means. Didion’s tone is open and honest throughout and she uses it, along with thoughtful language and examples to skillfully establish her attitude, thoughts, feelings and her frustrations on the topic of self-respect.
This essay shined a new light on Didion for me and allowed me to see her and her work in a whole new way. While the topic of self-respect could have so easily lent itself to Didion talking down to her readers, it didn’t have the same pretentious tone I’ve come to expect from her essays. For me, it was a breath of fresh air and it caused me to view Didion in the same positive way I had when I was first introduced to her work. The title itself sounds pretentious and I honestly expected the tone of the essay to match and manifest itself into a lecture. But it didn’t.
Instead, I felt connected to what Didion had to say and, perhaps more importantly, to the way she was saying it. For the first time in what felt like a long time, I could relate to her and to her feelings, ideas and thought processes. To me, the essay shines as a powerful representation of how writing can help make us feel less alone in the world and gives us an opportunity to share the burden of our problems and our struggles with others as well as our hopes and dreams, too. One writer to another, I felt connected to Didion as I read her essay.
I love how Didion made her points through dissecting bits of culture and history and time. The line: “Self-respect is something our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about” stands out as a gem in that it’s something we can all understand and agree upon. We all have (or had) grandparents and, whether or not we have (or had) a personal relationship with our own, we each have a similar perception of what grandparents are like. Even if one has never met his or her own grandparents, we still maintain this ideal and hold them up to this sort of standard.
Similarly, by speaking of Indians, again Didion touches on something we all know or believe to be true based on what we’ve learned and/or been told and taught all along. Didion uses common knowledge, bits of history, relatable memories and information we all already know to make her points, perhaps the most poignant one being: “To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.”
Wow! I think that bears repeating, so here goes: “To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.”
Didion makes broad sweeping points which consistently feel borderline pretentious (or maybe it’s my expectation more so than an actual feeling, though it’s sometimes hard to separate an expectation, once one has been established through repetition and experience, from an actual feeling) at times but then in this particular essay she follows up with examples and illustrations and then turns those examples and illustrations loose on herself to provide another emotional dimension that helps bolster her points and somehow makes her relatable and even likeable.
For example, she states: “That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth.” In that moment, I sighed audibly and probably even rolled my eyes and thought “oh here it comes” since I honestly believed I saw the next part—the pretentious and seemingly self-absorbed part where I feel talked at or spoken down to—coming. But, then she surprised me and followed that line by recounting a particular moment when she herself learned this lesson by breathing into a paper bag as an antidote to crying. Of course, breathing into a paper bag to stop hyperventilation is common knowledge (or at least common practice) but as a reader, I paused at this admission and thought “why was she crying?” She doesn’t go into the details in regards to the why but that doesn’t matter. In essence, the admission itself—the fact that there was a time when she was so distraught that she bordered on panic attack and needed to breathe into a paper bag—is to admit she’s human.
On that note, this essay spoke to me as one human speaking to another about an issue we all care about. We all want to be respected. But Didion is saying, something we all know is true, that first you must respect yourself and others. But what does that even mean?
Well, for one, at least for me as I read this essay, it meant me having a moment of clarity, revelation and self-reflection in which I had to pause and say “Okay, enough already, Val. Open your mind and read the essay without trying to guess where it’s going.”
Even if we dislike a piece of work, or even more so have decided to dislike the writer as a result of something he or she has written, we must choose to respect the act of writing and the writing itself for it’s a part of us, too. Disrespecting the writer is, in turn, disrespecting ourselves.
Once I realized this lesson on self-respect, I knew I needed to respect Didion and her writing style, too, despite any previous experiences, and read her essay with an open mind. I could see that I was being disrespectful—to her and to me—and deep down I knew it all along. If I wanted to learn from her and benefit in some way from her writing and from this experience I needed to set aside my griping and grumbling and pay her and her writing their due respect.
Doing so meant respecting my own writing, too, as well as my time and energy as a reader. But beyond that, it allowed me to set aside judgment and preconceived notions of taste in terms of style or delivery and instead to absorb Didion’s message and the meaning behind her writing. As a fellow writer, as a writing student and most of all as a person, I’m glad I did.
Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
Last week I picked apart Picka Pocketoni. So this week I’d like to pick apart—in a more positive way—another Sedaris essay: The Learning Curve (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 83-96).
This essay hit home for me (and I assume for many of you) in many ways, particularly as a writer, writing student and someone who would someday love to teach writing workshops. But also, I’m currently writing a novel and one of the main themes is how we all find ourselves faking it (or feeling as though we’re faking it) at one point or another. We don’t start out being experienced. It takes time but we all have to start somewhere. That’s simply how life works.
Thematically, this story speaks to anyone who has ever felt like a faker. When Sedaris gets his first teaching gig, he feels like an imposter. And in a way he is one. But I bet anyone who’s ever been in his shoes has felt the same way. Of course, while most of us might not admit it or write a whole essay shouting it to the world, personally, I love how honest he is about it.
Sedaris exposes so many parts of himself to us, including: Sedaris as writer, Sedaris as teacher, Sedaris as the child who just wants to be loved and, perhaps most notably in this essay Sedaris as self-proclaimed, self-deprecating, low self-esteem fraud. All of these elements somehow add up to expose Sedaris as a charming, humorous, honest and relatable human.
“Like branding steers or embalming the dead, teaching was a profession I had never seriously considered.” Ha! Me either! Until recently anyway. Workshops have turned me on to a whole new side of myself. I’ve always loved writing and my initial goal coming into the MFA program here was to get my writing to the next level, where I will hopefully get my novels published. My writing has certainly improved but another side of me, one I didn’t know existed, has been nurtured, too. I love reading my peers’ work and offering my feedback. That critiquing part of workshops that so many of us dislike? Yeah, I love that part. In eight grade I was voted “Most Likely to Become a Teacher” and I’ve always scoffed at the notion but now I’m looking at it and thinking maybe my classmates back in 1989 knew something I wasn’t yet able to see or willing to admit. I flashed back to that moment while reading The Learning Curve and as I read about Sedaris’s experiences, I thought about all of these things I’m learning about myself.
I could picture myself standing before a classroom frantically trying to say and do all the right things, trying to make an impact on these students who expect to learn something. Just like any other experience in life, Sedaris started out self-conscious and self-absorbed and once those things fell away, along with all the butterflies, that’s when everything came together for him.
All of this adds to the tone of the piece. I found the tone of this story as well as Sedaris himself as the story’s main character to be honest and sincere. While he, at times, borders on self-deprecation he does so humorously and that adds to the gritty, realistic feel of the piece. Plus, there’s just something sweet about it, too. While each of his essays affects me in different ways and while I don’t find all of them as relatable as this one, I could follow his tone anywhere.
Structurally speaking, this essay hits all the right notes. He grounds the setting for us in the classroom and allows us to picture everything from his perspective. He starts by showing and telling us about himself physically and even adds insight into his mind through sharing his thoughts and fears as well as comparing himself to his father. Then he introduces the rest of the cast of characters and simultaneously presents the main conflicts which will affect all of them. He lets us see the floor fall from beneath his feet as he stands clueless before this classroom for the very first time. We get to see him squirm and then watch as he tries and fails multiple times, continuously adding tension along the way, giving us the opportunity to root for him and care about what happens to him and his students so we feel satisfied when he figures it all out in the end. The work he does with characterization in general but also in particular with his set up and descriptions, are awesome, too, because if we as the reader cannot relate to him or even find him likeable in some way, then surely we can relate to one of his students instead. That’s brilliant!
There was a point when I felt bad for him and for his students, too. Sedaris somehow became the protagonist and the antagonist and his students played villains and victims. He gives us just the right amount of detail to picture him (right down to his briefcase) and enough detail, physically and emotionally, on each of his students to picture each of them staring back at him. In one way or another, through his characters, this story becomes relatable to just about everyone. Additionally, he pays close attention to his own arc in the story. He starts out a little cocky and then falls from grace. We see all of his insecurities and we can see and judge his mistakes and along the way he himself does the same. Eventually he figures it out and succeeds.
The only thing this was missing for me from his experience in the workshop was the actual critique portion and how that transpired in his classroom. He tells us his thoughts on critiquing (he says whoever designed the workshops “struck the perfect balance between sadism and masochism.”) but he never gets overly detailed about the process. But I can’t help but think that may simply be because Sedaris was more concerned with being critiqued and letting us know how he felt than in critiquing his students and/or in watching them critique each other. In a way, it was like he was saying that he only really knows and can speak honestly about how he feels about the situation and if we want to know how they felt, then we’d have to ask them.
In The Learning Curve, Sedaris invites us into a personal side of himself and he shows and tells us more than what “normal” people would dare show and tell. He sets aside any sort of pretense or shield one might have when discussing our views of ourselves, specifically our skills and abilities, and he puts all of his insecurities out on the table for everyone to see and judge.
I absolutely loved this story. I felt connected to it and to all of its characters, including Sedaris and his students. I felt like I was learning along with them and experiencing their trials and tribulations, as if I was actually one of the characters in the story. I felt invested in what happened. The story kept my attention and kept me laughing from start to finish, too.
Sedaris doesn’t seem to care what others might think or say about him; he just puts it all out there, blurting at times, and then lets the experience speak for itself. He lets us decide what’s weird, embarrassing and/or shameful. The fact that he’s not embarrassed to reveal such things makes him charming, I think, and his point of view personable and it’s what makes me feel connected to him and really love reading his essays. I want to know what else he’ll reveal and even more than the content I want to know how he’ll reveal it. It’s safe to say it’ll always be with some level of humor, but there are varying degrees of emotion and sentimentality there, too.
After reading The Learning Curve, I wonder how many new teachers feel like children playing teacher on that first day of school. Sedaris struck a chord here and it’s one that goes beyond the classroom. In truth, don’t we all feel like we’re faking it at one point or another?
Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.