(This is part of a series I’m starting here on the blog and I’m calling it, “Everyday People Doing Good Every Day.” There are a lot of folks feeling many different feelings right now. This isn’t an easy time for many of us. But every now and then someone sends me something special or tells me a story that makes me feel good again. It helps me remember how much goodness there is around us, and when I see this goodness I’ll post it here to share with everyone. Hopefully, it’ll inspire us to do good things ourselves in whatever ways we can to enrich our world.)
Daniel F. Craviotto Jr. is an orthopedic surgeon.
He’s also my cousin and a very good man.
I don’t just say that because he’s my cousin. You can ask anyone in Santa Barbara who knows him and I’m sure you’ll hear the same.
I don’t get emails at midnight from my cousin Dan. So last night when my phone “dinged” at a little after 12, and I saw there was an email from him, I figured it was important. The guy has been getting up at 4 each morning to handle extra patients, and I hoped everything was okay. Here is Dan’s email…
“He’s 95 now and still has that smile. I’ve known him for 20 years. Operated on him twice. And always the same question: How’s Charlie? You see he’s forgotten that my Uncle Charlie passed away quite a few years ago, but he still remembers him. They played basketball together in the 1930s and 1940s at the Rec Center on Carrillo Street. It is when he asks how Charlie’s doing when I remember that my Uncle shared the story of how his good friend was sent away to a Japanese Internment Camp during WW II. Uncle Charlie said he was a helluva nice guy and even at 95, even now I can see that. Humble, soft spoken and always smiling. My uncle, who served in WW II, took a flesh wound and saw his platoon decimated in the Battle of the Bulge, always said, “It’s the shits what they did to our Japanese Americans, putting them in internment camps.” So my uncle’s friend – in spite of all the memories that he’s lost because of age – still remembers Charlie. And for the first time today I tell him, “You know my uncle shared these stories with me about you. About your family and the internment and how it wasn’t fair. How you were such a good friend to him and how they carted you off.”And this man, with tears rolling down his eyes, but still with a smile on his face, just looked at me and said, “What were we to do?” He reached his hand out and shook mine, told me he missed Charlie and my father, Danny, and he thanked me for taking care of him. What a sweet man. Dignified. Full of grace. Always a kind word. I love that guy.”
Dad always felt badly that he couldn’t do anything to help his friend or his family. “They lost everything,” Dad told us. “Their business, their house, their friendships.” In fact, Dad was the only friend who went to the train station to say goodbye to the whole family as they were being transported to the camps. No one else wanted anything to do with the family – a family that had lived in Santa Barbara for many years.
When Dad showed up at the train station, it meant the world to his friend. He gave him a gift, something he’d made at school: a set of black ceramic coffee mugs. They were a parting gift of thanks to a good friend.
We never used those cups growing up; they were always hidden away. I think they were a reminder to my father of something terrible, something beyond understanding, a time that made him feel helpless.
One of those cups sits prominently on my desk.
I keep it there to honor the man who made it. And the friend who didn’t follow the crowd, but who still remained a friend.
Maybe my father couldn’t have done more.
But at least he did something.
The first time is something we don’t ever forget.
We may not talk about it with anyone, but it changes us. There’s a loss of innocence, and we carry that with us forever. We keep it secretly to ourselves, never willing to bring it out of the darkness or to share it at all.
But it’s time to be bold and talk about it — about that very first time.
The first time you tasted sexism.
It’s tough right now to be a woman. You can’t turn on the television or scroll through social media without hearing words that aren’t just words to us, but for many are triggers that make us feel ill, alienated, and hurting. Misogyny. Sexual assault. Rape culture. We’re learning ad nauseam the dirty details about lines being crossed and bodies being shamed, by word and by deed. Everything we’re talking about has to do with that “ism” that many of us don’t like to use. We talk about Racism. Anti-Semitism. Ageism, even. But Sexism makes us pause and think twice.
When I was growing up as a little girl, I heard a lot of comments about females. And none of them were good. Women were bad drivers, scatter-brained, gossipers, irrational, overly-emotional, not to be trusted, and they only were interested in spending their husband’s money. With a gender description such as this, it’s amazing that I ever wanted to grow up to be a woman.
Was it sexism?
You bet it was.
But did I know it at the time, or feel it was wrong? Not really. That’s how I was raised, and everything I heard in my family was also what I was seeing in movies and television. Like background music in an elevator or a dentist office, you get used to it after awhile and pretty soon you just tune it out. But there was one time I couldn’t tune it out. There was a moment in my life when something was said that made me hear in a new way, made me feel something deep inside, and changed me forever.
It was the first time I truly understood the ugliness of sexism.
I was pregnant with my first child, and there are no words to describe the joy I felt as I carried a new life inside of me. With every movement within my womb, I felt a newfound pride at being a woman and being able to give life. My husband’s uncle called us one night to congratulate us — I was seven months pregnant, and nervous as hell. He was a dear man, this uncle, generous and charming, and I loved him. He was thrilled to hear we were going to be parents and offered us a bit of wisdom.
“You know it’s going to be a boy, don’t you? Our family only has boys,” he told me.
“And if it’s a girl?” I asked in all innocence.
He laughed at that thought, and then added, “Well, you know what they do in China? They kill girls.”
He laughed again and I felt ill.
The conversation went on, and I just listened.
Not just by his cruel comment, but by my sudden silence. I didn’t have a voice to answer him. Or to confront him for what he had said. I knew it was racist, but I had a hard time telling myself it was sexist.
I spent most of the night quietly thinking about what this favorite uncle had said to me. How could I speak up to this when I didn’t fully understand the pain I was experiencing as a woman? This wasn’t the first time I’d heard something bad said about being female in this world. Why couldn’t I just forget it, and move on? This man was a loving person, and someone I had always respected. He didn’t really mean the comment, I was sure. So why not just forgive him? But by morning I couldn’t find it in my heart to let this moment go by.
I spoke to my husband about it, and he laughed and said, “Oh, he was just kidding.”
Somehow that wasn’t enough.
“You’re Jewish,” I reminded him. “What if we replaced the word “girl” with “Jew?” How would you feel?”
It’s the only time in my life I’ve seen my husband truly speechless. He understood. He felt the pain that I’d felt for being treated as less, as inferior, as something without value. This was the first time sexism became more than just a word in the dictionary. I felt it for the first time.
But not for the last.
I have a theory about all those nasty, hateful terms with “ism” in them. When we don’t talk about them, they linger. If we just let them happen, or ignore them, they don’t go away. How can we find an answer, if we’re unwilling to talk about it with each other?
There’s a conversation going on right now in our country and for the first time it has captured the attention of television cameras, radio microphones, and every bit of cyberspace of social media. I know it hurts to keep hearing ugly words, and witnessing hateful attitudes we’ve spent our lifetimes as women experiencing. But as painful as this might be right now, it’s the only way for this “ism” to get better.
So that all the little girls to come never have to go through what we’ve gone through.
And all the little boys will never be burdened by such hatred.
Today was the day the Craviotto family walked through our 100 year old Shop to look at all of the tools, scrolls, machinery, and memorabilia, deciding what items to keep and what to sell.
It’s time to say good-bye to Craviotto Brothers Ironworks.
The business has been a part of the Santa Barbara landscape for almost 100 years, but now it’s time for its corrugated iron doors to close forever. A “Going Out of Business” sale will take place April 25 at what our family has lovingly called “The Shop” ever since three generations have worked there.
It was started by this man, Erasmo John Craviotto.
E.J. Craviotto bought the land in 1914, but when WWI called his name and he went off to Europe to fight, he left the Shop in the capable hands of his brother, Fred Craviotto.
That’s when the Shop was named Craviotto Brothers.
When E.J. came back from war, his brother moved on, and E.J. ran the business until 1958 when his two sons, Charlie and Danny Craviotto, took over.
When most people think of Craviotto Brothers nowadays they think of these two brothers. You almost never saw one without the other. They used to finish each other’s sentences, and sometimes they didn’t even need to finish them to understand what the other one was saying. They went everywhere together, did everything together – work, play, and vacations. You could see them at lunch time, sitting in the open doorway of the Shop, eating their sack lunches, watching the girls walk by, and commenting on the world for thirty minutes a day at noon. Some of us called them the unofficial mayors of Anacapa Street. Danny used to say, “I couldn’t have picked a better brother, a better friend or a better business partner.” Charlie never said the same thing because he didn’t have to – his brother said it for him. They were as close as any two brothers could ever be except for twins.
Danny, on the left, and Charlie, on the right.
Charlie, on the left, and Danny, on the right.
Charlie passed away in 2004 and Danny followed after him in 2011.
But the Shop still remained.
Now, it’s time for the Shop to go.
Today, Danny’s widow, Carmen, and the children and grandchildren of Charlie and Danny, walked through the shop and had to do an impossible task – We had to choose the artifacts of 100 years of hard work that our individual families will keep, while allowing the rest to be sold to the public.
While we did this, two pigeons (two, not one, or three, or any other inappropriate number) flew into the Shop and perched in the rafters high overhead, watching us as we worked. And there sat those two pigeons for the whole day, just watching us pick through all the artifacts from a business that was started in 1914, passed off from the father of those two boys, who groomed and grew the family business into a Santa Barbara tradition, a tradition that saw three generations of workers trained there, learning not only how to be iron workers, but also how to be Craviotto men. And here’s the thing: It was two pigeons, not two sparrows, or two Jay birds, or two hummingbirds. Two pigeons.
Danny Craviotto used to raise and race homing pigeons, with his pigeon coop in the backyard of his ma and pa’s house over on San Andres Street.
That’s Uncle Danny and me with one of his pigeons. He really loved those birds, and he especially loved that he could take them anywhere, release them, and let them fly high into the sky, flying far away.
But they always came home.
I never see a pigeon without thinking of my uncle, and it always gives me a sense of comfort to know that a pigeon will always recognize his home and know how to get back there when he’s ready.
Today, we looked up at those two pigeons sitting high up in the rafters of the Shop and we smiled at them. We also shed a few tears just seeing them there. Here’s a photo my cousin, Dan, took with his phone.
We were all in agreement that Charlie, the big brother, was on the left – looking puffed up and wanting to take on the world, while Danny, the younger, was on the right, still at his side, always the loyal brother.
Sometimes life just makes you shake your head and say, “Wow!”
I miss you.
Every one of you.
If you’ve ever left a comment here, or somehow let me know you’ve been reading my blog, whether reaching out to me by email, Facebook,or Twitter: I think of you when I sit here all alone and write.
Or at least try to write.
That’s what I’ve been doing for over a year now – writing a novel. This is where I’ve been writing it…
That’s the view from my office – from a picnic table in the middle of a redwood grove.
I’ve never been an outdoors-type writer – I prefer the comfort of a computer screen and indoor plumbing. Hot cups of tea, and an occasional nap in an armchair. But I’m writing outdoors now because the story I’m working on is an outdoor adventure – about the first Californio families who traveled over a thousand miles on mules and horseback to start their lives in a place called Nueva California. Somehow being outdoors makes me feel a little bit closer to these people who I’ve just recently met on the page.
It’s not easy to write a novel.
Fiction writing makes writing screenplays seem like finger painting in kindergarten. The average screenplay uses 15,000 to 20,000 words to say what it needs to say. I’ve written 52,000 and I’m maybe halfway done. Adult fiction can run from 75,000 to 100,000 words, so I’m guessing mine will come in long. But I’m a wicked editor and I love to use my red pen, so (unlike dieting) I have no problem slimming down my words.
In the meantime though, while I’m still in the throes of a first draft, I try not to edit or I’ll slow myself down. In fact, on those days when my persnickety internal editor is working overtime, I find it hard to write at all. I sit there in the middle of those beautiful trees and wonder why I’m even doing this. Why am I struggling with this story when it would be so much easier to not be writing at all?
That’s when I think of you.
Some of you have photos to your names or avatars, and those cross my mind. Others are only email addresses, but my imagination pictures you there beyond the .com. When I’m stuck and searching for a way to continue, for a reason why I should keep going and not give up, you come to me in my thoughts, and I think about you some day reading this story. And remembering that makes quitting this novel not an option at all.
The joy of writing comes from sharing. From connecting with another human being. That’s why I wrote screenplays. That’s why every time one of my screenplays became a film, on the big screen or small, I was sharing, connecting with other people. The words had found their purpose. That’s why I started this blog, and why I miss coming here more often. You keep me writing. You keep me battling with that pesky editor, keep me focused when the squirrels are scrambling in the overhead branches, and the people are walking their dogs past this strange woman scribbling on legal pads and mumbling to herself. You keep me going forward. Knowing that you are here is what keeps me on this path, taking this journey and finishing this story.
That’s why I’m writing this today.
To let you know how much I miss you.
And I can’t wait to share this story with you.
No one ever referred to him as anything other than my cousin, but it was obvious that Waynie wasn’t like the rest of us. For one thing, he didn’t dress like everybody else. Nothing seemed to match; he wore very thick lensed glasses, high-waisted pants, heavy-soled shoes; his speech was a little slurred; and I remember he was in Mr. Alvino’s “special” class in high school.
“Special Education,” my mother had explained softly, with great solemnity
I also remember Waynie smiled a lot.
He just seemed so nice. Friendly and easy-going. Sweet is the only word I know to describe Waynie. And even though he was older than us by at least fifteen years Waynie seemed boy-like, more like us kids in elementary school than someone who was in their 20s and already out in the world.
No one ever gave us a diagnosis of why Waynie was different; we were just told that something happened to him when he was a baby, and it affected his brain, and he was never like the rest of us after that.
Waynie was just different.
He lived with our elderly Aunt Irene in her guest house in the backyard, and he held down a little job “making things” for a “handicapped organization.” That’s how it was explained to us. I can’t ever remember anyone ever using the “R-Word” when they talked about Waynie.
I didn’t hear the “R-Word” until I started going to school. And then, I’d hear it being kicked around the playground with as much ease as a dodge ball making its rounds around the blacktop. It was the “go-to” word whenever one of us made a mistake, didn’t measure up, or just did something that fell short of what everyone else was doing, or what everyone else wanted us to be doing.
It was the worst kind of insult.
That was years ago, of course, and the world has changed since then. But maybe not so much on the blacktops and playgrounds of the world. The R-Word is still thrown around; I catch it at times being tossed off by one kid to another. I don’t know these kids that are using it, so I keep quiet. And maybe that’s wrong. Maybe that’s why the R-Word still has some life in it. Maybe next time I hear it I should say something, and risk being called the B-Word.
I don’t often think about Waynie but he popped into my mind the other night when we were visiting a loved one at an assisted living home. The facility is filled with people on walkers or in wheelchairs, along with those who have Alzheimer’s or dementia. The campus is absolutely beautiful – looking more like a resort than anything else. The people who live here are able to afford the steep monthly bill for such beauty, and I guess you can say, in many ways, they’re lucky. But still, there’s a sadness here for families who come to visit, and so, dinners are oftentimes just for the residents after families have made their obligatory weekend visit and then, gratefully fled back to their own lives and their own purposes in the world. The residents dine only with themselves: table after table filled with grey-haired and stooped-over remnants of their former selves.
When we visit here, it’s hard not to be sad.
Until I look around the room and see Kyle.
The wait staff here is made up of young people – most of them high school students or recent graduates. My husband is a teacher, and some of these young workers were students in his English classes. Kyle was one of those students in a class that was filled with second-language-learners, at-risk kids, and six Special Ed teens, Kyle being one of the six. These are the kids who aren’t the easiest to reach. A population of students that most teachers would rather not see sitting at a desk in their classroom.
But these kids, including Kyle, did just fine.
It’s hard not to think that doing just fine comes with its own rewards, confidence being one of them. That’s what Kyle brings to the dining room of this fancy assisted living facility, with it’s padded high-back chairs, linen-covered tables, cozy fireplace, and piped-in soft melodies of the 50s. Kyle is front and center the grand master-of-ceremony of an evening to remember.
With a smile that lights up the room just because he’s in it.
Tall and proud, sporting a tiny Clark Gable moustache, he welcomes each resident as they enter and leads them majestically to their table. At times, offering a lady his arm – like Fred Astaire to Ginger Rodgers. It doesn’t matter who they are or how they look, whether with an aide, a walker, or shuffling alone by themselves, Kyle is there for them. Helping them to their seat, adding an extra chair or taking one away, making sure the water glasses are filled, the menus are in place. And all of this is done with such charm and care. With a hello and a how are you tonight? And when they answer he listens.
Even if the answer is lost and rambling.
Kyle listens, and nods, and smiles the most amazing of smiles. He makes a little joke, and maybe sometimes, on a good night, they even laugh. He knows which ones are restless and which ones are cranky. And he gives each and every one of them whatever they need. Patience when their mind wanders, and respect when they’re frustrated and lashing out. He is there for them in many ways that families are afraid to be. He accepts each one for who they are – right now – not for who they used to be. Kyle is fine with each and every one of them for this moment in time, this moment only. He’s truly amazing to watch as he works the room with his charm.
Kyle’s a Rock Star.
And that’s the only R-Word that fits.
I’m not a saint.
I’m a wife and a mom, and I hate to admit I’m anything less than Mother Teresa, but yeah, self-sacrificing, stoic, patient, and charitable are not me. I’m also a writer and maybe that’s the problem. At our best, writers are anti-social. That’s us sitting in the farthest corner of a room at any kind of gathering that has more than one person. At our worst, we’re just downright cranky as hell. J.D. Salinger used to lock himself away from his family while he wrote in a bunker. Only someone who isn’t a writer is shocked to hear that. I, on the other hand, understand completely and wonder if our backyard is big enough to accommodate one.
I love my family, but I also love putting words to paper, and sometimes those two worlds collide. While I do the mandatory labor – cooking, cleaning, and laundry, I do it at the barest minimum. I’m content being the C- student, unless we’re having company over and then, like an undergrad illicitly buying a Moby Dick essay online, I pay someone to do the cleaning for me. And as for taking care of everyone’s needs: I nurture when it’s needed, and I hope to God it’s not needed for long.
Unfortunately, a hip operation and rehab takes months.
That’s what my dear husband went through in December, and as we are approaching February, he’s still on the mend. He’s graduated from physical therapy in the home to three days a week every week at a physical rehab center. So in addition to all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, picking up of groceries (which is a real challenge for a recovering agoraphobic terrified of Albertsons), and doctor appointments, I now have to be a chauffeur to and from physical therapy. The only writing that’s getting done by me are To Do lists.
Yes, I know – My dear husband is the one who is going through all of the pain from the operation and the hard work involved in getting better. I’m just the wife and caregiver. But you know how marathoners talk about “hitting the wall” at mile 20. I hit the wall yesterday.
We had rehab yesterday and also a doctor’s appointment. That meant one hour at one location waiting in the car, and another hour at another location waiting. That was after a morning of doing my version of grocery shopping: Quickly running into Albertson’s (at daybreak when no one is there) to grab the first eight items I saw, and then, rushing to the checkout (to avoid a panic attack), and out to the car where I then drove to Walgreens to pick up paper towels, toilet paper, milk, and cereal, before going to a little butcher shop to buy meat for the week. Small stores and short errands are the only way I can manage grocery shopping on my own, so yep, I was ready for a nap by 1 pm.
Which is exactly the hour when we had to drive to physical therapy.
I had just enough time to pack up my iPad, research books, and work-in-progress pages before driving to the mall (taking side streets since I still don’t drive freeways) and dropping off my husband at the physical therapy place at the mall. I had every intention of attempting an hour of responsibility-free writing, with the hope that I wasn’t too tired to nod off mid-sentence. What I needed was a strong hot cup of tea for vitality, and with that in mind, I put the car in reverse, and drove off for the exit of the mall and the closest Coffee Bean & Tea.
That’s when I saw her.
What I noticed first was the mechanized wheelchair, and the fact that it was just sitting there in the middle of the road. Then, I noticed the plastic bags filled with God-knows-what that had fallen off of her lap and onto the ground at her feet. I couldn’t tell how old the woman was – only that she was bending over and trying to gather up her bags, and she wasn’t having much luck at all. She’d grab one bag, and another bag would fall, and she’d start the process all over again. All the time while just sitting there in the middle of the road right in front of the exit of the mall. Cars were whizzing by her, and really, I ask you: How could I not stop?
I didn’t want to stop. I wanted that cup of tea. I wanted to write! I had planned on writing. I’m a writer – I need to write. If I don’t write, God help you if you have the misfortune of being around me. I’m moody. I sulk. I get angry. I roar. The last thing in the world I wanted was to encounter a woman in her late 60s (being closer now I could tell this) who was juggling her personal belongings in shopping bags while sitting in a broken down wheelchair. The exit was just in front of me. All I had to do was do as the other cars were doing – drive around her. It would have been so simple. Just pass her by, and then, I could have my day back.
“Can I help you with something?”
I asked her, after rolling down the window in a momentary lapse of self-survival.
Any decent person might have answered me, “No, I’m fine. Go do some writing, why don’t you? You look like you might be a writer – a damn fine one too! Go put those words of yours on paper, not just for you, but for all of mankind.”
But no, this woman didn’t say that to me. She had the audacity to say, “I think I do need some help.”
Well, now what?
The thing about offering help to someone is that you should have some idea how you can help. Maybe I was expecting another car to stop, and another citizen to lead the way. But as far as I could see, everyone else was content to just drive around us. “Oh look, honey, there’s a woman who needs help in a wheelchair. We should probably stop and help…Nope, there’s a lady doing that now. Let’s just go on with our day. Hey, let’s go get some coffee and write!”
I was in this scene all by myself.
Well, not really. The wheelchair lady was in it too.
But I was clearly the person who needed to start the ball rolling. So, I did what I was certain I knew how to do best: I parked the car. After that, I just ad-libbed, going moment by moment.
“So…uh….what’s the problem?
Now, the two of us stood (well, she was sitting) in the middle of the road at the exit of the mall, and I tried not to think that this was how people get run over: by offering to help. When you don’t help, a Honda can’t hit you. That’s just a fact.
And then I noticed all of her plastic bags.
They were crammed with empty tupperware. Call me shallow, but I did not want to lose my life for Tupperware. I needed to speed this encounter along.
“Where do you live? Can I take you home?”
She looked at me.
“I don’t even know you…How can I trust you?”
Well, that makes two of us, lady.
This woman with hair that hasn’t been combed in weeks, wearing not a blush of make-up (God forbid), dressed in ancient peddle-pushers, a stained sweat shirt, and old Keds is asking me a question I should be asking her. It’s a good question. It’s the perfect question to be asking at the moment. But why is it the woman who looks like a bag lady is the one asking it of the woman who looks like a soccer mom from the suburbs?
And how the hell do I prove to her she can trust me?
I pointed to my nine-year-old Camry with the 2008 Hillary bumper sticker.
“That’s my car,” I say proudly. Meaning what exactly?! That I voted so I’m trustworthy?! “With the Hillary sticker!” I add, as if she hasn’t seen it and that my support for a woman candidate only proves my solidarity to sisterhood. So yes, Sister, trust away.
The bag lady looks at me like I’m crazy.
I actually feel a little crazy at the moment.
But clearly, this woman is desperate and decides to take a chance on me.
“I don’t live too far – You can follow me home,” she says and hands me an armful of Tupperware.
Putting her wheelchair in gear, she leads me over to my car – obviously, taking charge because I seem like an idiot. I open my trunk where I deposit her many plastic bags, and she gives me directions to her house, “It’s past the condominiums.”
O-Kay. What condominiums?
“Is there a street name?” I ask.
“Walnut,” she tells me and is about to leave.
“By the condominiums!”
I’m thinking I better take charge of the adult reins here because she’s about to disappear down Walnut street (a very long street, I might add), and I’ll never see her again, and end up with more Tupperware than I could ever use.
“How about I write down my cell phone number, and I give it to you, and that way if I get lost, you can call me?” I suggest.
This makes perfect sense to me. But to this woman, not so much. “Ho-kay,” she tells me with a little laugh, looking at me like I’m a bit desperate for her taste. She just needs to get her Tupperware home, not make a new friend. Humoring me, she takes my cell number I’ve scribbled on a sheet from a notepad, and when I insist, she reluctantly gives me her address that I write down.
Obviously, this will be the only writing I do today.
Negotiations accomplished, I jump into the car, ready for this new adventure, and put the key in the ignition, turning the engine on.
That’s when there is a tap at my back window.
“Your trunk is still open,” she tells me.
And I can see in her eyes that my stupidity has now won her trust.
By the time I’m out of the car, and slamming down the trunk, the woman and her wheelchair are roaring down the road to the mall exit, and crossing the street against the light in the middle of the block. By the time I get my car in gear and follow her route, I’ve lost sight of her and only praying that I haven’t hallucinated this entire event.
I find Walnut and go block by block looking for the numbers on the street signs, and of course in typical Santa Barbara suburban fashion there are no numbers. I have almost reached the dead end of the street when my cell phone rings.
“I know. I’m lost,” I tell her without needing to hear her voice.
Of course, she expected this. We’re old friends by now.
She’s standing on the sidewalk…well, sitting in her wheelchair on the sidewalk, so it’s not that big of a challenge to find her house. She disappears down a little driveway and I follow tentatively behind her, parking the car.
While I unload the trunk of Tupperware, she heads into her house, and tells me to follow.
It’s an old house, and it probably hasn’t seen a paint brush since the last century. The front of it is overgrown with bushes and shrubs – a wooden fence holding in the backyard has a couple of broken slats, and a huge tree trying to bust out over it. There is a small hand-crafted plywood ramp leading up to the open front door, and I hesitate only slightly when I walk up it and enter.
It’s too late to turn back now.
Someone has to carry home the Tupperware.
The lady’s name is Loretta and she lives with her father, Charles. He looks like he’ll never see 90 again, closer to 100 maybe. He’s in a wheelchair too, and he wears an old faded baseball cap. He meets me in the oversized living room that looks more like a rumpus room – no carpet, no lights on, and just about everything they own sitting out in the open. Dishes, pots and pans, half-finished little jobs still hanging around on top of a formica kitchen table, the couch, an armchair, and a kitchen counter with a box of wine as its centerpiece with a Dixie cup poised underneath the spout.
Always at the ready, I guess.
Charles just smiles at me but never talks.
Loretta does, non-stop.
Out of the motorized wheelchair, she hobbles around now,
“I don’t really need that wheelchair – It’s my father’s, not mine. I hurt my ankle in the garden so it was easier to take the chair to the mall. I don’t need it. You like avocados?”
How can I say no?
“I do,” I tell her.
Charles keeps smiling.
Loretta grabs up one of her endless plastic bags that seem to be everywhere, and goes into an enclosed porch, talking non-stop as she gathers up the fruit.
“This is the good stuff, not from the store. Grown here, right off the tree. The best!”
This is the Goleta Valley, and all of this land used to have fruit trees on it. But the track homes and condos around this old house have replaced the walnut, avocado, and orange trees that once grew here.
“These are for you,” Loretta says, as she hobbles over to me and holds out the plastic Ralph’s bag now filled with six avocados. “One or two of them are ready to eat. You can have them tonight.”
I thanked her as she thanked me.
And as I left that house and was heading back to my car, I could hear Loretta say to Charles, in a voice loud enough for a man his age to hear her: “She’s a nice lady!”
It took me a moment to realize she meant me.
I never got a chance to get myself that cup of tea yesterday. It’s exhausting when you stop your life to help somebody. So I went back to the car and took a nap. And you know, of course, I didn’t do any writing at all the rest of the day. But I made a point to cut open one of those avocados later that night, and slice it up really pretty on a plate. We ate it for dinner and I thought of Loretta and Charles.
And she was right.
It was the sweetest avocado I’ve ever had.
Last year I wrote a story about a Monterey Pine that wanted to grow up to become a Christmas tree. The response to that story was heartwarming for me as a writer. Many of you encouraged me to make it into a book.
And that’s what happened.
With whimsical illustrations by Terrie Yeatts, a video, some sound effects, and a beautiful song by Alex Khaskin called, “Journey of a Lifetime,” our little story, “Longings of a Monterey Pine” is now an enhanced e-book on Apple’s iBooks. The additional media will bring an extra delight to the children in your life or the child within you, keeping you busy and warm on a cold winter’s eve.
For those of you who are regular readers of this blog, I’d like to thank you for all of your comments and words of encouragement you’ve given me for the posts you’ve read here. Because of you, the story of the Monterey Pine goes into the world now, and has a life of its own.
The Monterey Pine thanks you.
And I thank you too.
(In honor of this year’s Veteran’s Day, I’m reposting this in memory of all those who fought and lost their lives in the Great War. It was also called World War I, and it was fought with the hope that it would end all future wars. Sadly, that was a dream never realized.)
I first met him as a name carved into a marble memorial. That we were connected as family was lost to me at the time. I was only 24 and my vision was limited by my youth. It was only years later when I visited his town again, and I stood once more in front of that monument that I began to wonder about the man beyond the name. Gratien Ocafrain. A name so foreign, yet so familiar. He links me to this day we celebrate every year – Armistice Day it used to be called. Veteran’s Day we now call it in the U.S., and it’s known as Remembrance Day in Britain and the Commonwealth countries. The date is always the same – November 11th – a date that symbolizes hope and peace. The Great War ended on November 11, 1918– after 15 million soldiers lost their lives, and 20 million souls were forever wounded. It was the war to end all wars and so it was called the “Great War.” But we know the truth now – that it didn’t stop others from happening. We now call it World War I and it’s taken its place just as one more war in a list of too many others. We remember it only for its ending and for the holiday that comes with it. Few of us know much about the Great War. What little I know, I’ve learned from Gratien. Most towns in France have Great War memorials inscribed with the names of the sons of that town who didn’t come back – “Mort pour La France.” Gratien’s name is one of fifteen engraved on a marble obelisk watched over by a brass mother of France sheltering her young child. The first time I saw it – years ago – I took photos and moved on. But two years ago when I returned to his village, Gratien’s name held me there in front of that memorial longer than I expected. I wanted to know more about him – about this uncle I never met. I searched the Internet, and found one single piece of paper, and nothing more. Gratien was a common man with no accomplishments, no titles, no loving wife or children to leave behind. But he attained greatness as a “Mort pour La France.” A single piece of paper remains forever as a testament that he lived, and that he fought for his country. And because of it his name is carved in marble. Gratien was 20 when he was inducted into the French Army in 1907 at Bayonne, France – a city perched near the Atlantic Ocean, 45 minutes west and down slope from the Pyrenees mountains. It was the first time Gratien had ever been in a city, that day his train pulled into the Bayonne station. He was a mountain boy. His village, St. Etienne de Baigorry, with only a few hundred people in it, sat at the beginning of a valley called Baigorry, with its two roads leading out of town climbing higher and higher through the Pyrenees, and on to Spain a few kilometers away. Gratien was in the Infantry – the 49th Regiment. He was already in the Army for seven years when France declared war against Germany in August, 1914. The infantry soldiers were confident of a win, and they were called, in slang, “poilus” for their swagger. But they soon lost that cockiness. Dressed in red trousers, and blue jacket – the colorful uniform of Napoleon’s army, they were a perfect target for the Germans’ machine guns and artillery. The French casualties were devastating in those early battles. The uniforms were changed in the winter of 1914 – the soldiers now dressed in sky-blue and steel helmets – the first soldiers ever to wear metal helmets. I can only imagine Gratien, how he looked, and the way he stood. He might have had a moustache like the soldiers in this photo, like so many others I’ve seen. I have no photographs, or letters to show me the man. I know he was 27 when the war began and I know where it ended for him. But the rest of his story I have to fill in, with history books, and faded maps. From September to November in 1914, the fighting was fierce. And Gratien was probably in the middle of it all. He wasn’t new to the Army – he had seven years of training, and he knew how to be a soldier. He was an infantryman – “cannon fodder” is what my father used to call it when talking of his own days in the infantry. The list of battlefields for those early months of the war is long: Lorraine. Ardenne. Charleroi. I look at names of towns I can’t pronounce and wonder in which ones Gratien might have fought. In early December of 1914, I notice that the battles seem to slow down, and pause. And in their place, there is something different, something new – trench warfare – at a place called “The Western Front.” Long wooden trenches dug into the earth stretch almost 450 miles from the North Sea coast of Belgium all the way to the Swiss border. What part of those 450 miles of trenches did Gratien hunker down in? Amidst the sewage, and the rats, the stench of unwashed soldiers and death, where was Gratien? Or was he part of the First Battle of Champagne – the first significant Allied attack against the Germans since the trenches were built? It started December 20th and went all the way into the new year, until March,1915. There were 90,000 French casualties, and Gratien might have been one of them. His “Mort pour La France” paperwork lists a date – January 27, 1915. The handwriting is too small for me to read how Gratien died, or what wounds or sickness might have stopped his life. Only two-thirds of military deaths were from battle; the other came from sicknesses like the Spanish flu. I can’t even be sure that 1915 is the year of Gratien’s death. The memorial in his town says it is, but the military officer who filled out the form seems unsure. The “5” has been written over and looks almost like a “6.” Thousands upon thousands of soldiers who died in “no man’s land” – between the barbed wire fences of the opposing trenches – remained there, unable to be moved in this static yet deadly warfare. The remains of hundreds of thousands of French, German, British and Commonwealth soldiers still lie undiscovered in the soil of the Western front. Dozens of bodies are found each year during ploughing and construction work. Perhaps this is what happened to Gratien. The signature at the bottom of his “Partie A Remplar Par Le Corps” – is signed by an official in Gratien’s hometown of Baigorry, and the date is marked February, 1916 – one year later than the one listed on the memorial as Gratien’s “Mort pour La France.” If Gratien was ever found, or lost forever in the sacred soil of a battlefield, is a question that may never be answered. But the date, February 21, 1916, is significant: It was the day the Battle of Verdun began – the longest and one of the most devastating battles in the Great War and in the history of warfare. There were over 976,000 casualties. I’m glad that Gratien didn’t live to fight through it. And although I can’t be certain the year in which he died, I do know where he died – at Oulches, France. The name Aisne has been written off to the side – whether the district or the River, I’m not sure. But photos from the area tell me that fighting must have been intense. Gratien’s story seems to stop here. But in a way, it doesn’t: It just pauses. It would be another year – 1917 – when the U.S. would enter the war to fight with France, and the rest of the Allies, against Germany. Among those American doughboys was a 26-year-old blacksmith, Erasmo John (E.J.) Craviotto, a private in the 115th Engineers, E Company, 2nd Army.
E.J. Craviotto, last man on the right.
E.J. never knew Gratien Ocafrain, but unlike him, he would survive this Great War to go home when it was all over and to eventually meet and marry Gratien’s sister, an immigrant who had fled France with her three sisters, just a few months before war broke out. E.J.’s Great War story is one that I never knew either, until my research about Gratien led me to it. Tucked away among some old papers, I found E.J.’s little address book from the Great War. Never a man of many words, he simply listed all of the dates he was gone from his family. Like Gratien, he had never been away from his hometown before. E.J.’s small handwriting shows the path he took, from the moment he was signed in at the Presidio in San Francisco, then, crossing the country in a railroad car filled with troops, across land as foreign to him as the European landscape would soon be. He traveled all the way to Camp Mills on Long Island and then on to embarkation at Hoboken, New Jersey where thousands of troops on his ship suffered through sweltering heat, and E.J. would note, “It was so hot there that some of the boys went down like chickens.” They were twelve long days on the ship, through the submarine zone where life jackets were worn 24 hours a day, until finally twelve English torpedo boats came out to greet them, and lead the way into Liverpool. It would be four days later – days filled with much marching, and long rides on troop trains – when finally, E.J. would first set foot on France, at Cherbourg. The date was August 23rd 1918 – It would be 79 long, difficult days until the fighting would stop. E.J. would chart his advancement by the name of the location and how close they were to the Front, “Traveled two and a half days in a boxcar – Reach woods in Alsace Lorraine about eight miles from the front.” “October 20th, working on road under shell fire about two miles from the front.” He didn’t write any more dates after that one. But on a page below that entry something has been scratched out, a furtive erasure almost clear through the page. I can make out the words…”…under shell fire..credit on frontline trenches.” I don’t know what “credit” means or if maybe it’s something else; I can’t make out the words that come before it or what he meant to write, but whatever it was, he didn’t want anyone to ever read it. I don’t know what E.J. saw, or what he was called upon to do between October 20th and the next entry in his diary. There were another eleven days until the end of October and eleven more after that until the armistice. The next date E.J. wrote was November 11, 1918. “At 11o’clock sharp quit firing.” Whether that was the command or whether that’s what he witnessed isn’t clear. Not all the boys were told to stop shooting – an oversight by General Pershing who thought the armistice was a German trick, and who allowed the fighting to continue a few more hours, at the loss of another 4,000 American lives. This was the Great War, after all, and it had to be fought to the finish. When the guns went silent that November morning, E.J. was in the Forest du Puvenelle, 628 kilometers from where Gratien’s life had ended, and only 25 kilometers from where E.J.’s own son’s life, one day in the future, would miraculously be spared by fate: by a piece of shrapnel entering his face just a matter of inches away from his temple. And that’s what saved E.J.’s son – my father – from an ending like Gratien’s. 26 years after his father had written, “At 11’oclock sharp quit firing,” my father first stepped on French soil – the country of his mother’s birth and the birth of his Uncle Gratien who had fought so valiantly for its protection, and lost his life doing it. The Big War did not accomplish what it had set out to do, what it had promised to be – the war to end all wars. And my father’s generation would learn that the hard way. I never much thought about World War I when I was younger. It was too long ago, and my grandfather’s silence I mistook as him not having much to say. I was wrong. Only Gratien – without personal artifacts, with no photos, or a loving wife and children to remember him, caught my attention. Seeing his name engraved in gold with “Mort pour La France” above it, and discovering his birthdate, his date of death, and the location where he fell made me pause and want to know more: to find the dots and to connect them. For some reason, these few little facts spoke to me, and the Great War, for the first time in my life, became something real and understandable. Gratien’s silence somehow reached me.
- Boy of 12 was Britain’s youngest Great War soldier (telegraph.co.uk)
- Veteran’s Day is a prayer for peace (salon.com)
- Some thoughts on Remembrance Day and the Symbol of Sacrifice. (roberthorvat30.wordpress.com)
(This is the last post in the CALIFORNIO series. You can read the four earlier posts by clicking on each title: Californio, Facebook Friends & Cousins, Searching for the Garcias, and Following Felipe.)
I’ve come to Monterey to find a grave.
Two graves, to be precise – the graves belonging to my fifth great-grandparents. Felipe Santiago Garcia and Maria Petra Lugo Garcia are both buried at Mission San Carlos cemetery at the Royal Presidio Chapel. They are two of only 119 people who are buried there, at a church that was founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1770, on the shores of Monterey Bay. It was supposed to be the cornerstone of Serra’s first California Mission, but a year later Mission San Carlos was relocated to Carmel, a site where more indigenous tribes lived, making it easier for Serra to convert them to Christianity. The small church left behind in Monterey remained as a Royal Chapel for the soldiers guarding the new Spanish Presidio of Monterey.
Felipe was one of those soldiers.
Monterey was where Felipe was first stationed as un soldado de cuera, and where Petra set up their first home as man and wife. They would eventually travel to many other missions and presidios when Felipe would be re-assigned by his commanding officers to new posts. Missions were being built up and down the coast of California, from San Diego to San Francisco. Felipe was sent wherever soldiers were needed, for whatever reason they were needed at that location. But when he was finally ready to retire, Felipe came back to Monterey – the place he looked at as his one true home.
After a lifetime of service for his country, as a retired soldier, Felipe was given land. He became a farmer. He had his own home, and acres that belonged only to him and his family. Several of his nine sons remained in Monterey to help him. But still, there was much work to be done. When his 6th son, Jose Antonio died, his 8th son, Inocente, petitioned the Governor so he could be released from the military to go home to his family in Monterey “…in order to take care of what little property they had.” When Petra got ill and eventually died in 1817, it was only natural that she be buried at the Royal Presidio church that her husband had protected as a soldier, and where they had worshipped as a family. And when it was Felipe’s time to pass on, as a retired soldier of that Presidio, there was no other final resting place (or greater honor) than burial at the small church he had helped to build, and guard. It was Spain’s payback to him for dedicating his life to his country. In 1822, Felipe Santiago Garcia died and was buried at the Royal Presidio Cathedral.
And now, in 2013, I can’t find him.
I can’t find Petra either. I know this for a fact because I’ve travelled four hours, 241 miles (at $4.39 a gallon for gas), from Goleta to Monterey, and I not only can’t find the graves of the Garcias, but I don’t see a cemetery at all. There isn’t one headstone in sight. Not one.
We Spend The Day Searching.
Arriving at the Presidio Chapel in the middle of noon mass, we find every office and the Heritage Center locked up and currently unavailable to the public until mass is over. Not the best timing. But after a quick search on our iPhone we discover the main Catholic cemetery is just a few blocks away, and head over there to find out some answers.
The people at the San Carlos Catholic Cemetery office very graciously search their computer records for Felipe and Petra Garcia’s names. Although the cemetery certainly has its share of old (and fascinating) graves, there’s nothing as ancient as 1817 or 1822. Felipe and Petra aren’t listed in the computer.
“They would have been buried up at the Presidio Chapel,” they inform us.
Murder in Monterey, 1855
They send us back to the Presidio Chapel, where now it’s lunchtime; offices and the Heritage Center are still locked up. The only person who seems to be working is the janitor, and we follow him as he carries mop and pail into the vestibule of the church. When we ask him about the Presidio cemetery and where the graves might be located, he tries to send us back over to the Catholic cemetery we just visited.
“They’re supposed to be here,” I tell the janitor. “They told us at the Catholic cemetery to come back to the Chapel,” I explain, trying not to sound too exasperated.
“Well, they might be under the floor,” the janitor suggests, and leads us all the way to the back of the church where a large wooden information booth is tucked into a corner. We help him push the booth out of the way, and magically an old square of marble with hard-to-read letters carved on it appears. The janitor is right – there are people buried under the church floor.
“But those are Pachecos,” he informs us, just as I was getting optimistic. “You can’t hardly read the names, but the Pachecos have people buried here. Are you a Pacheco?”
He sends us back to the Heritage Center, and when I try the locked door again, I notice the operating hours are only for a couple of days a week because of cutbacks. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those days, and we’re scheduled to leave Monterey tomorrow. Oh well, at least I tried. Giving up, I turn away and we start to head back to the car. But then, I notice a woman exiting from the office.
“Excuse me! Can I ask you something?”
She stops to listen. And (poor woman) I proceed to tell her my long story about the search for the Garcias. Maybe she thinks I’m crazy or just takes pity on me, but she offers me a glimmer of hope by saying, “If your Felipe was an early soldier in Monterey, then by all means, he would be buried here.” Even though the museum is officially closed, she asks me to come inside as she starts to look up information.
Her name is Fay and she is the kindest and most patient woman I’ve ever met. I try to limit my questions but I have a lot.
“You need to speak to our archivist,” she tells me. And she hands me a card with Father Carl Faria’s name on it. “He’ll have your answers,” she says with a smile.
A Priest With All The Answers
It’s a week before I can connect with Father Faria because he’s on a cruise. But when I reach him and tell him I’m looking for Felipe Santiago Garcia’s grave, he hesitates.
“…Do you know a David Gonzalez from Florida?” he asks me.
I tell him no and ask him why.
“He was just this moment in my office looking for Felipe Santiago Garcia’s grave.”
“Felipe was his fifth great-grandfather too.”
What are the odds? Am I the only one who thinks this is little strange? Two cousins who don’t know each other on opposite ends of the country looking for the same ancestor at exactly the same moment?
“What did you tell him?” I ask the good Father.
He explains to me everything he just told my Gonzalez cousin: Yes, it’s true that both Felipe and his wife, Petra, were buried at the Presidio Cathedral. He gives me their burial numbers that were written in the church book that Father Serra first started. It’s a record of all baptisms, marriages, and deaths, and Petra is #2225 in the book; Felipe is #2428. Father Faria tells me that the book itself has recently been sent to the Huntington Library for an exhibit commemorating Father Serra’s 300th birthday.
“You can go there and see where it’s written – the names of your fifth great-grandparents.”
But what about their graves?
“We’re not exactly sure where they are,” he admits, sheepishly.
“They were buried here, at the Presidio Chapel, but we can only guess at the location. Somewhere on the church grounds,” he explains. There’s a Catholic school that has been built on the land, a road that was expanded, and even part of a small strip mall, and all are on land owned by the Church. “They could be anywhere in those areas,” he tells me. “They expanded the road just behind the church in 1940, and they found quite a lot of bones. There were no markers so they were buried, all of them together, in a common grave at the Catholic cemetery,” he explains.
But why weren’t there any headstones on the original graves?
“The grave markers were all wooden – made from the bark of trees,” he tells me. “By the time the Americans came, most had broken apart and crumpled, like dust into the ground.”
We come from the dirt, we go back to the dirt.
I can’t help but think of my father, and our family saying.
Losing One Thing, Finding Another
I don’t know what I would have done had I found Felipe and Petra’s graves. Would I have brought flowers to leave there? Or knelt and said a quick “Hail Mary?” Maybe I just would’ve sat a moment in silence, reflecting on this amazing couple that traveled over 1400 miles, on horseback and mule, across desert, through scorching heat and relentless rainstorms, with no permanent shelter – risking their lives to the elements, bears and mountains lions, and sometimes, hostile indigenous tribes – the first of our bloodlines to come here to California. It somehow seems wrong that when people die their graves just disappear, and there aren’t any words to acknowledge they were here, that they lived, they contributed; and their families, thousands of descendants (both sharing their name or not) are scattered around the country, from Florida to California. And maybe a lot of those descendants know nothing about the people who came before them, who struggled and survived, and worked so hard to make a new land their home.
Even though I wasn’t able to find Felipe and Petra, I found something else there in Monterey. With every one of my footsteps following after them, I started to see Felipe and Petra in my imagination. What they looked like, how they sounded, and what dreams they must have had. They were newlyweds going into the unknown, and not sure they would even survive the journey. And as I saw them, I also started to see their son, Carlos, and their grandson, Hilarion, and what their lives might have been like as California grew and changed along with each generation of Garcias. But mostly, it is Rosa, whose voice I can hear the strongest – a tiny old woman who used to sit at her kitchen table, counting out beans into five stacks – one stack for each one of her children. The beans represented the money she had saved for them. Money in five banks that once a week she would visit – taking along with her the young grandson who would translate because even in the 1920s Rosa still didn’t speak English. She didn’t write and she didn’t read and on her own will she marked an “X” because she didn’t know how to write her name. But she managed to save and to give to the next generation – money, and more importantly, land. Land to build their own homes where they would raise the next generation, and the one after that.
A family’s history is like a palimpsest – a parchment that is written on over and over again, with some of the earlier writing still visible, even after it’s been erased. Although one generation’s story has been written, that next generation writes its own story, layered over the last, whether they are aware of it or not. There are times when the generations intersect, in what they desire, or what they believe. What one generation strives for, and perhaps never accomplishes might be passed along to the next generation, and perhaps in that particular layer, and in that unique time, dreams – the ones that may have started long ago – might now be realized.
There’s a story about the Garcia family that I’d like to write. But I have to go inward now – into my imagination – to find that story. It parallels the tale of early California which is rich, multi-cultural, and hasn’t been told in many books at all. I know this because I’ve been looking for those books as I’ve been writing these Californio posts. Although there are non-fiction and academic works, I want to delve deeper, and sometimes the only way to do that is through fiction. Who were the Californios? And how did they evolve from their identities as Espanioles, Mexicans, Anglos, and Indigenous tribes, into the people who would become known as Californios? I can research these questions, and learn the knowledge, or I can experience it with my heart and soul. I’d rather do the latter.
Toni Morrison once wrote, “Write the books you want to read.” Californio is a book I really want to read. But since it’s not written, I guess that means I have to try to write it.
When I take a screenplay assignment in Hollywood, I always do it with the proviso that I will only work on one project at a time. Writing, for me, is like being pregnant, and my creative womb can only accommodate one pregnancy at a time. So while I’m writing the book, this blog will have to be silent for awhile. I’ll take breaks every now and then, and when I do I’ll post a little something here. Maybe to share how Californio is going, or maybe just to change the topic completely. But I’ll always be reachable. If any of you have questions about anything we’ve talked about here, you can always leave me a comment on the blog. I’ll read it and write back to you.
But it might take me a little while.
I’m off to Californio.
You don’t ever expect to find a relative’s name in a history book.
At least I didn’t.
But there was the name, in black & white text on the page in front of me: “Felipe Santiago Garcia.” I stared at it, and gave myself a thousand reasons to doubt it. Then, I looked closer and confirmed the facts. The dates matched: Felipe was born in 1748 in Sinaloa, Mexico, and married in 1773 to Maria Petra Alcantara Lugo. Both husband and wife arrived in San Diego, in 1774. They had a son named Carlos Maria who went on to have a son named Hilarion. All three names were on the Garcia list I was searching for, and there they all were in the history book in front of me.
The three volumes of Spanish-Mexican Families of Early California: 1769 – 1850 ( by Marie Northrop) are considered the Bible when it comes to historical research on the beginnings of California. The books are out of print (except for Volume 3) and if you are persistent enough to look for them, and lucky enough to find them, two volumes will easily set you back $500.
My cousin Eileen was smart enough to track down the first two volumes in 1997 for a little over $40 to give to her father (my uncle) as a Christmas gift. Now, sixteen years later, with my uncle’s passing, my aunt had handed me both volumes along with my uncle’s files of genealogical research. Having found Felipe’s name on the internet, I had called her and asked if Uncle Danny had ever written down any information about the family.
The file my aunt shared with me was brimming over with notes, scribblings in my uncle’s handwriting, and yes, there was Felipe on a roughly sketched out family tree, along with Carlos, Hilarion, and Rosa. But the Marie Northrop books she also loaned me gave a legitimacy to those names. The Garcias were true Californios, and historians had acknowledged that.
Felipe had been a soldado de cuera – a special type of Spanish soldier in California named after the “cuera” or the thick “leather vest” they wore for protection in combat from arrows, or spears.
These soldiers were sent to Alta California as early as 1769 to escort the Franciscans as they set up their missions, and the soldiers built the presidios. In 1774, Father Serra and the Crown decided that no longer would soldados de cuera travel to the unsettled region as single men. Families were to be sent with them, to help settle the land, and to ease the loneliness of the soldiers in Spain’s new territory.
The first land expedition that brought both soldiers and their families to California was led by Captain Rivera in 1774. Felipe and his new wife were among the 51 people on that expedition. Petra was pregnant at the time, and on November 10th she went into labor while the expedition was on its way to Monterey. A son, Juan Joseph, was born outside Oso Flaco and was baptized immediately when they reached the San Luis Obispo Mission because the baby wasn’t expected to live. He lived, however, and his birth was recorded as the first European child to be born in California. Petra and Felipe went on to have eighteen more children – Rosa Garcia’s grandfather (our family connection), was their second son, Carlos.
The soldados de cuera were moved from mission to mission. Felipe, along with his family, went from the Presidio of Monterey to Mission San Antonio de Padua, San Gabriel Mission, Pueblo Los Angeles, and the Santa Barbara Presidio, until his retirement took him back to Monterey. Most of the early soldados were given land as gratitude for their service to Spain, and I wonder if Felipe received land, and if so, what happened to it? Was this the beginning of our family’s connection to owning land?
Seven of Petra and Felipe’s sons became soldiers; the eighth son resisted and was smuggled out of the country on a ship that was bound for Chile. He chose exile from his family rather than hanging for refusing mandatory military service. His brother, Inocente, (who would write about the experience in Garcia Hechos and Other Garcia Papers) helped his brother escape and the family never saw him again.
I’m hooked. And I want to know more.
In July, I ask my husband if he’d like to take a road trip up to Monterey to follow in some of the footsteps of Felipe and Petra. Maybe see a mission or two where he was stationed, and some of those nineteen children were born.
“I’d like to visit their graves,” I tell him, knowing that both Felipe and Petra had died in Monterey.
“Let’s go!” he tells me, sensing an adventure and a much-needed summer vacation.
And so, we headed up north to San Luis Obispo, picking up our friend Marie who took us to our first stop, Mission San Luis Obispo, the place were Felipe’s first son was baptized.
(There was a wedding going on and the Mariachi’s helped to set the mood.)
Next, we travelled by car to another mission where Felipe was once stationed, driving across land that would have taken him a day’s ride to reach the mission. We arrive there in less than an hour and a half.
Mission San Antonio de Padua is one I’ve never heard of before. An hour outside of Paso Robles, and set away from any major cities, it’s in a rural setting much like Felipe and Petra would have travelled through to get there. It’s easy to imagine a column of women, soldiers, friars, and a few small children, all on the back of horses or mules, traveling in the San Antonio valley’s oppressive heat. When we were at the mission, the temperature reading in our car at one time read 118 degrees.
We’re expecting to see no one at the mission – it’s hidden away under the careful watch of the Santa Lucia mountains, surrounded by thousands of oak trees, and in the middle of military land – Fort Hunter Liggett. But when our car pulls up we see hundreds of other cars parked around the mission, and it turns out we have arrived on Founder’s Day. It’s July 14th, exactly 242 years after Father Serra erected a cross and named the mission, San Antonio de Padua.
If ever I felt like Felipe was walking at my side, it was on that day as I moved across the mission grounds, poking my head into every nook and cranny I could find. There was the church where Petra and Felipe had gone to Mass, the barracks where the soldiers were housed, and even the baptismal font where three of Petra and Felipe’s children had been baptized.
I could feel the Garcia family surrounding me.
And I wondered what would happen when I finally got to Monterey?
(NEXT WEEK: The final post in the CALIFORNIO series: Lost & Found in Monterey)
“We come from the dirt, we go back to the dirt.”
That was the phrase my father was fond of saying. He used it often, and he did it to remind us of who we were, and what our family was all about. No pretensions. No highfaluting ways. We were humble, hard-working people with common wants and needs, and no lofty sense of importance. We were the peasants working the land. As a matter of fact, this was my father’s favorite family photo and one that was the basis of his dust-to-dust philosophy:
The man behind the team of horses was my father’s grandfather, the son of an Italian immigrant, and a man who worked the land to feed his family. My father always liked to point out that the land being toiled wasn’t ours; it was leased. He also liked to point out how skinny the dog was, and that it was a sign of how poor we were.
What my dad forgot to mention was the grocery and grain store his grandfather co-owned with his cousin (supplied by those crops on that leased land) or the property his great-grandmother owned, acres of land high above Santa Barbara, on the Mesa. These facts were missing from his dust-to-dust scenario. I learned the truth, however, in the yellowed papers of our family’s history that my uncle had handed off to me.
As I read those papers, I learned more about my father’s great-grandmother Rosa Garcia.
“When Rosa got married she had all this land,” that distant cousin had reminisced many years ago, and I was now finally reading about it. “Every time they could get a dollar and a quarter together they would buy another acre. They had these cows and chickens and they used to plant their own vegetables, and Rosa used to go to town; she’d make cheese and butter, and bring eggs to trade for coffee, sugar, and flour. They raised their own pigs for lard and they raised their own beef. And when they could spare a little, in between they would buy another acre.”
Rosa Garcia had owned land.
But she was a Garcia, and my dad had never mentioned the Garcias at all, or talked about the land his great-grandmother had worked so hard to own. That family name always was missing in our conversation until Pam, the cousin-I-didn’t-even-know-I-had, friended me on Facebook. Now, I was faced with an entire list of Garcia names that Pam had sent me, and here was this new-found cousin telling me I was related to all of them.
And what did I do with that list of Garcia names Pam sent me?
I ignored it. Forgot about it. Put it out of my mind completely.
Voices From The Past
Why do you want to go digging in the past? I could hear my father’s voice ringing out loudly inside my head. These were people I never knew, names I’d never even heard of before. Besides, I didn’t need to be reminded that we “came from the dirt, we go back to the dirt.” I didn’t want to face more people behind ploughs with starving dogs, working dawn to dust. Even Rosa had to scrimp and save, raising and growing their own food, to buy another acre for her family. She had buried two husbands, but the one remaining constant in her life was the land she had worked so hard to own. We were farmers, carpenters, and iron workers; okay, I got it. Just plain working folks. The history books are never filled with our kind of people. Those Garcia names would only mean something to the people who inhabited their world, their time, and that time was over. The most I could hope for would be names on a headstone; there wouldn’t even be any photos of these people, or any real record of who they were, or how they had lived. They were simply anonymous names who lived anonymous lives.
But I was wrong.
It took me almost a year before I went back to my private messages on Facebook and took a closer look at those Garcia names that came before Rosa. And when I did what I learned surprised me and made me want to learn even more.
There were six names on the Garcia list that Pam had sent me. The last name was Rosa’s and since I was 100% sure we were “parientes” (kin), I looked at the other five names on the list. The first two had lived in Spain – in Alpera, Albacete, Castilla-La Mancha, Spain. Quite a mouthful. Google was kind enough to show me where in Spain that mouthful is located (150 km. from Valencia and the coast overlooking the Mediterranean). But the other names – Hilarion, Carlos Maria, and Felipe Santiago – only connected us to a generation, and not to where they lived. I wrote Pam and asked her, and she wrote back immediately.
California, she told me.
Names On A LIst
I didn’t have all of their birth dates, or the dates they died; I didn’t know who they married, or how many children they had, but each one of the three men had lived here in California. Hilarion, who was Rosa’s father, was baptized in Santa Barbara; Carlos Maria, Rosa’s grandfather, was baptized at the Mission in Carmel and died at the Mission San Gabirel, and Felipe Santiago Garcia, Rosa’s great-grandfather, was buried at San Carlos Mission in Monterey. They were three men with roots here in California. But who were they, and how would I ever learn anything about them?
When in doubt, turn to Google.
I wasn’t expecting to find any of their names listed there on the Internet, but I started with the first name, Felipe Santiago Garcia, since he seemed to be the first of the Garcias to be connected to California. I typed out his name and a rush of data suddenly appeared, 3 million and 30 results, to be precise.
I didn’t know where to start.
I clicked from one site to the next, skipping through the entries like a kid in a candy store. I got lost momentarily by another man named Felipe Garcia, but who turned out to be a Romero, and not my grandfather five times removed. But I corrected that misstep and found my way back to Felipe Santiago, our Felipe, as I read and re-read a night long series of websites, genealogical listings, and yes, even California history. I compared dates and locations, and the information pointed to one name, one man called Felipe Santiago Garcia, who had a past and a history, and a rich connection to California. Felipe was a soldier – un soldado de cuera – a special soldier of Spain that was sent from Nueva España (Mexico) to Alta California in 1774.
The Garcias were the first Europeans to settle in California – the first of the California Spanish.
(NEXT WEEK: Following Felipe – the beginnings of an untold story.)
“Tell me again: How are we related?”
The wonderful (and frightening) part about the Internet is that strangers often meet with the click of a cursor. The stranger I had recently started exchanging emails with had found me through Facebook (of course). Her name wasn’t familiar, nor was the face on her profile. But it was a friendly face so I took a chance and made her my Facebook friend.
It turned out we were cousins.
Her last name was one that I hadn’t recognized, but then she told me about her father.
“He was a Gonzales,” she emailed me.
That name I knew.
Throughout the years, my uncle had mentioned once or twice that his grandfather’s sister, Bridget, had been a very smart woman. “There was a rumor that her parents sent her to live with a wealthy doctor in Hayward, and she went to the university there,” he would tell us. When we asked him for more information, he’d just shrug. “She came back home to Santa Barbara, married a Gonzales, and ended up having eight kids.”
That story always intrigued me. A woman in the 1850s who attended a university near Hayward? That had to be the University of California at Berkeley, a prestigious school, and Bridget would have attended it back in the days when not many women went to college. I was impressed. And here was this woman named Pam who I had just friended on Facebook whose father was Bridget’s grandson.
So we started exchanging emails.
We talked a little about Bridget, and of course Pam never knew her or knew anything about the rumor of her attending Cal Berkeley. We did figure out that we were “double cousins.” Bridget’s brother, Frederico Craviotto had married Bridget’s husband’s sister, Mary Gonzales. So the Craviotto brother and sister had married a Gonzales sister and brother. Our heads were spinning at how that would look on a family tree. But clearly, we were definitely cousins.
We shared what little information we had about both sets of our great-great-grandparents. It wasn’t much: Antonio Craviotto was an immigrant from Italy, and Jose Antonio Gonzales was an immigrant from Chile. Both sides were made up of hard-working folks who had lived in Santa Barbara and that was all we knew about them. I shared with Pam the one photo of Bridget that my uncle had once shown me; an old woman with white hair wearing glasses, she lived well into her 80s and looked like she came from sturdy stock. With thick legs, and strong shoulders, she looked like a woman who could give birth to eight children and still be around to talk about it.
More than this photo and my uncle’s intriguing story, we didn’t know anything else about Bridget Craviotto Gonzales.
Time passed and we continued to exchange emails. Our lives were much more interesting than the Gonzales/Craviotto bloodlines. We talked about our children, our husbands, our careers. Pam was a university professor and I told her I was a professional screenwriter. When my book came out she read it, and we talked about that and screenwriting. After awhile, our emails thinned out and then, one day she sent me a list of names.
“You should write about these people,” she emailed me.
It was a list of six names, all of them with the surname of “Garcia.”
I wrote her back and asked who these people were.
“Our family,” she explained. “Great, great grandparents and beyond.”
I looked closer at the names and at the dates attached to them. The last one dated back to 1720 and La Mancha, Spain. But the other names before it had lived in California, most of them in Santa Barbara. It was a list of names I had never known before.
“How did you get this list?” I wrote her back, immediately.
She told me that a friend of hers – someone who did genealogy – had offered to trace the family bloodlines. That list of six names is what she had found. Although there wasn’t a Gonzales listed, the Garcia side was our other side of the family. The last name on the list was Rosa Garcia, and that name Rosa was one that sounded familiar.
It took me days to sort through my office papers: through drawers, filing cabinets,, and long-ago forgotten personal papers. But the search was successful and I found what I had been looking for – a link to Rosa.
Six months earlier, my uncle had passed away. He had spent a lot of his later years researching our family bloodlines. He didn’t often share what he had learned, or maybe I wasn’t around or when I was I just wasn’t listening. But a few years earlier he had given me a handful of papers that one of our cousins had sent to him. Yellowed copies from a typewriter, they were 35 years old, and I barely glanced at them when my uncle had first shared them with me. I only skimmed through those old pages, enough to see that they were part of a transcription of an oral history. Someone had used a tape recorder to share memories and names of people I had never heard of before. I had tossed the papers into a cabinet and forgot all about them until Pam’s list of Garcias found me on Facebook.
This time I looked closer.
When I did, that’s when I found Rosa.
A Woman Named Rosa
“It’s too bad you never got to meet your great-great grandmother,” began the yellowed papers my uncle had given me. “Her name was Rosa,” our cousin’s grandfather had spoken more than thirty-five years ago, and the tape had recorded it.
I quickly checked my uncle’s notes scrawled across the borders of the transcript. There was my grandfather’s name, and the name of his parents. And yes, there was Rosa’s name. The words spoken were about a woman we shared in common – Rosa Garcia.
In my imagination, I tried to picture Rosa as I read the words on that yellowed paper.
“As a little boy I would interpret for her when Rosa would go into town to the bank. She only spoke Spanish so I would speak for her in English,” he said. “I used to take her to get her interest, for her money in the bank. She had five accounts in five different banks because she was so afraid something would happen to her money; she didn’t trust it to be in just one. I’d go out to her ranch in the morning and there’d she be, waiting for me. She had a round oak kitchen table and it was full of pink beans. She had these five bunches – one bunch of beans for each bank. And she knew exactly how much she had in each bank account. She got three or four percent and each bean represented that amount and each pile had exactly that amount of beans. She stayed up all night figuring out how much money she was going to have in interest. And each pile was for one of her children.”
One of those five children was my grandfather’s mother. Rosa Garcia and I were definitely related – My grandfather was her grandson, and I was her great-great granddaughter.
I decided to take a closer look at Pam’s list of Garcias.
(NEXT WEEK: A list of names, forgotten on Facebook, until a Google search begins an adventure. The 3rd post in the CALIFORNIO series: Searching for the Garcias.)
(This week’s blog begins a multi-part web series – a look behind-the-scenes as I start writing the book, Californio.)
They called my father a spic.
I haven’t heard the word used in years. Now, other words have taken its place – more descriptive perhaps, but just as derogatory. What I knew it to mean was the color brown – a skin darker than the all-powerful color of white. Of course no skins are really white or brown, but for some reason the darker the skin tone, the greater the insults.
I never thought of my father as dark. His hair was jet black, that’s true, and his eyes were the deepest of browns. I knew him only as a working man – an iron worker and welder who toiled outside under the sun on most days when he wasn’t in the shop, running the business. The sun darkened him, I thought. It didn’t have more meaning to me than that.
But to other people that deep pigment meant something else. I learned what that something was through my father’s own perception of what “being brown” meant to him. From the story he told about being a young soldier in a bar while another soldier spit that spic word in his direction, to the fights he almost got into until he learned he could always just say, “I’m Italian.”
My father wasn’t lying when he’d use “Italian” as a reason for turning his back on being brown. His grandfather’s father was an Italian immigrant – the owner of my father’s name, a name that had come from thousands of miles away, from Genoa. A name that I now own as my father’s blue-eyed, once-blonde-haired daughter.
My father loved holding me as a baby because people would ask him, “Who’s baby is that?” He’d always answer them proudly (knowing they were only questioning him because I was blonde and he wasn’t), “She’s mine!”
When I was old enough to hear these stories, and to notice a different language, other than English, that was spoken between my grandparents, I only assumed that what made our family what it was came from being Italian. My grandmother, Nanie, had an accent, and so did Bobbie, my grandfather. I was too little to know what Italian sounded like, or to notice that my grandmother spoke a different language with her sisters and sheep-herding brother than she did with her own husband. All I really understood was that my father didn’t like it. “Ma, speak English!” he’d tell her, and she’d shush him and keep speaking in words to her siblings that I didn’t understand. Until Bobbie would “Tsk!” in disgust and shake his head, barking a word – foreign again – and Nanie would go silent.
I was in kindergarten when I learned Nanie was French Basque. That our family wasn’t only Italian, we were Basque too. I listened closer to those strange words that she spoke and realized they were different than the other ones she used with my grandfather. Both were languages that my father never spoke at all. Not with his parents. Not with me. Not with absolutely anyone in this world. It would be a few years later that I learned my grandparents weren’t speaking Italian at all.
It was Spanish.
Every family has its share of secrets and I guess that was ours, that my grandparents spoke exclusively in Spanish to each other, throwing the odd slang word at us every now and then, whether we knew what it meant or not. In spite of my father’s protestations, we were told to wipe our “colinos” and that girls had “chi-chis” but boys didn’t. Someone was either a “cabron” or a “pendejo” when they were acting silly, or a “boboso” if they weren’t too smart. We were told “cholos” lived down the street and not to play with them, but we were also instructed never to use that word “cholo” because it could cause a fight if someone heard you call them that. “Vino” was wine, “Tia Marquesa” was what we called our old aunt, and “Quieres cafe?” were always the words my grandmother asked my grandfather when it was time for coffee and dessert. We never questioned why they spoke in Spanish, or why our table had frijoles or salsa at all of our barbecues. Our special Christmas enchiladas (made of cheese, onions, and chopped hard boiled eggs) didn’t seem out of place, nor did the chile rellenos my Nanie would sometimes make along with empaniditas, tamales, and homemade tortillas – flour, never corn. It just seemed normal to us; it was family, our family. And when I was little, I just assumed everyone’s family was like ours.
Then, I grew up.
I became aware that the Craviottos weren’t like any other family I saw on television, in the movies, or in the living rooms and backyards of my friends. In my teens, as my body started to feel uncomfortable with its new changes, so too did my perceptions of my family begin to grow less certain. Who were we? The only places that had salsa on the table, frijoles on the plates, enchiladas, tamales, and the sound of a language that made me feel l was home were Mexican restaurants. And for some reason, we never went to “those” kind of restaurants. Not if my father had anything to say about it.
Sometimes you get so busy growing up you forget to ask questions. Or maybe you just get the message as a kid that some things are okay to ask, and other things are off limits. We were Italian and that was okay to talk about. We were also French Basque and that was also fine to discuss. My mother’s family was Scotch/Irish and that was certainly no secret. But I never asked my father why his parents spoke Spanish, or why it embarrassed him so much. When our town celebrated Old Spanish Days Fiesta every August, commemorating its Spanish/Mexican early beginnings and my dad never participated, never wanted to dress up in Spanish costumes, or go down to El Mercado De La Guera to have Mexican food, I never wanted to know why. We went to Hawaii instead of El Mercado, or to Sea World, Yosemite, or even Bass Lake instead of La Noches de Ronda, or the Mission steps for La Fiesta Pequena. Dad wanted nothing to do with the celebration of anything Spanish, anything Mexican, and I never questioned or asked him why.
We were an old-time Santa Barbara family that had lived in that one small coastal California town for generations. “Everybody back in the old days in Santa Barbara spoke Spanish,” my father once admitted. End of story. That was a good enough explanation, I thought. It made sense to me: why look any deeper?
And I didn’t.
Unraveling the Past
The years passed, and so did Nanie and Bobbie, my only connection to those lyrical Spanish sounds, and to the answers of questions I never asked, but maybe should’ve. Occasionally, as my father and his brother aged, I’d overhear conversations, and names like “Gonzales,” and “Buelna.” My uncle would share some bit of information he’d discovered about some relative or some piece of the past, but dad would always stop him with: “You’re going to look so deep some day, Danny, you’re going to find something you don’t want to know.” And that would stop my uncle in his tracks; the conversation would just peter out, and they’d switch the subject to Notre Dame football, or some job they had to go measure for work.
Now, my father and my uncle are both gone – the last links to our family’s past, to the old days and customs long ago forgotten, to the old-timers who never spoke English but who shared a past that held all the answers to every question I now want to ask. I can’t ask those questions now because there’s no one left who can answer me.
Somehow I don’t think that will stop me from asking them.
I’m a writer and my imagination is restless. My ability to research is tireless; my talent for using words, and for creating stories is boundless. I will ask those questions anyway. And if I have to, I will be the one now to provide the answers.
(NEXT WEEK: Opening doors that have been locked for years. The 2nd CALIFORNIO post: Facebook Friends & Cousins.)
It’s been a year since starting this blog and I want to thank every one of you who’s dropped by to read these posts, and to linger a little longer to leave a comment. You’ve made me feel very welcome in this tiny corner of the Internet.
Many of you have been kind enough to leave a word or two and to keep the conversation rolling. I can always count on Lynne, behindthemaskofabuse, Raani, Wayne, Heather, Jen, valeriedavis, Jeri, June, virginialorca, Cookie, bldodson, lindalochridge, alesiablogs, lpaulick, Dixie, Bette, Susan, quirky books, Adrienne, stutleytales, Shirley, 1dlagarino, Jodi, catnipoflife, Jessica, Expat Alien, Ria, Deanna, and Yasseen to let me know their feelings and ideas, as well as giving this writer a real motivation to keep posting. If you write me a comment, I value that, and I will always write you back.
It used to be that writing was something done in the loneliness of an empty room. Just the writer, some paper, a pen or a typewriter, making up stories for anonymous readers. Blogging came along and changed that. Now, there are names and identities attached to readers, and I find myself eager to hear from people who I’ve come to know over the last 365 (or more) days I’ve been writing here.
So here’s to another 365 (or more) days of Can You All Hear Me In The Back? I am toasting each and every one of you tonight – from those who comment, to those who are so considerate to “like” my posts or to click that “WordPress This” “Facebook” or “Twitter” button at the bottom of every post. I wish I could send each and every one of you flowers.
After all, it is our anniversary.
(To honor my father – and all the soldiers who didn’t make it home – I’m sharing this story I first posted Memorial Day, 2012)
My father didn’t cry.
He didn’t believe in it; he didn’t like what he called those “weak, goddamn emotions.” When I was a toddler I swallowed paint thinner as my parents were busy (and distracted) painting our house. My father silenced my mother’s tears as he rushed us in the truck to the hospital. “Stop your crying!” he ordered her. “It’s too late for crying!”
And she stopped.
We all learned to stop. We followed his lead, replacing tears with strength, courage, and many times anger. He was a good role model, and we followed his command.
I only saw him cry once.
I didn’t actually witness it – it happened in a phone call. And maybe that’s why it happened at all. Somehow it was safer that way. There was distance, and a kind of privacy. I couldn’t actually see his tears. I only heard the pain, the catch in his voice, the hard sobbing at the other end of the line. I was confused, and lost by those sounds. One minute he was my father, and we were talking. And then, without warning, he was crying – inconsolable and without words. And I wondered: who was this man at the other end of the phone?
It was a PBS program we were watching – that’s what started it: a documentary about World War II and the infantry. Dad was infantry – he landed at Omaha Beach “90 days plus” – 90 days after the big invasion. They were given rifles left over from D-Day that were covered in dried blood. He was injured the first night he arrived at the front – a face wound that sent him back to England. It kept him there long enough to miss the bloodiest days of the Battle of the Bulge. I knew these things about my father. We shared this war together, the two of us – his tomboy of a daughter who used to dress up in his Army reserve fatigues just to feel closer to him. I could always have a conversation with Dad if I asked him about the war. Nothing too personal, no “gut” questions, just “Where did you train?” “What countries did you see?” “How old were you?” Name, rank, and serial number, but nothing deeper.
The PBS show that spring evening, with me 100 miles away and settled in my life, was a part of that sharing. I called him as soon as I saw that World War II program listed on PBS. He knew about and yes, he would watch it. We had a date to talk after the credits had rolled. I called him after the show before he could even dial my number. Maybe that was a mistake. Maybe if I had waited, he would have had some time, a moment to right himself, to hold steady the course.
“What’d you think? Did you like it?” I asked him.
He proceeded to tell me, clinically, objectively.
“Pretty good,” he admitted. “Some of the stuff they get wrong.” he wanted me to know. “It’s not like the movies,” he told me. “It’s not like they’re shooting all the time,” he explained to me. “Sometimes, it just happens.”
I didn’t have time to ask him what he meant – he just kept talking.
“There was one guy from Portland, Oregon. I met him in a bunker. It was about 30 feet wide, a concrete pillbox on the Siegfried line. The Germans had built it – the concrete was very thick. We slept in there one night, four or five hours. At about four o’clock in the morning I had to get up with this Portland guy – there was an entrance into the bunker and we had to guard it while the other guys inside slept. The two of us, that was our job. So of course we started talking, you talk to keep yourself awake. He was from Portland. We stayed on guard maybe for a couple hours, talking about different things. So early in the morning, after our guard duty was over, we all got out of the bunker because we had to go to another place. They never tell you where you’re going. You just got to go there and set up for whatever you’re going to do. So we’re walking to different places, and I’m digging a goddamn hole at all of these places, and then all of a sudden they tell us they’re taking us in another direction. That’s what happens in combat: just when you get settled, they change their mind. Something changes. So we go down into this little town, and you can see these big mines in the ground for tanks. And then, all of a sudden, they change their mind again – the head honchos are making judgment calls, see? And you got nothing to say about it, you just go and do what they tell you. So we move back to the area where we were that morning and we came to this ridge, and there’s only two guys in front of me. There’s an officer and we have to pass the officer, and he says, “Keep going until you get hit.” That’s what he says to us. And he tells us, unlock your rifle and fire at will. So we came out of this little brush area, these two guys and me – this one guy that was on guard duty with me – Portland. He goes off to the right, and this guy who was in front of me went to the left. I figured I had no other way to go – I had to go with one of them. So I went with the guy who went to the left. I turned down the hill with him. I don’t know what happened…I found out the next day. That night I saw the guy laying on the ground all night long. But nobody went to see him or anything.”
He stopped talking.
A catch in his voice,
There was a silence that ended in sobs.
I waited for him, wanting to comfort but not knowing how.
“He had been hit, a shell came there and hit him. That guy from Portland.”
He cried, and I let him. I don’t remember saying one word, just listening to him cry. So many years had passed and this story had never been told. He was finally telling it, finally able to find the words.
“I don’t know…why? Why him and not me?” he asked. “Why was my life saved and not his? Why did I go right and live, and not go left and die?”
I didn’t have the answer for him. I don’t know if there is an answer. But I think the question is something he had waited his whole life to ask.
I didn’t understand the significance of my Dad sharing this with me until I started writing this story. My father spent his whole life focused on working hard for his family. It wasn’t enough just to have a job 9 to 5; he was filled with a quest to do big things, to buy land, to build, to make a fortune, to have a purpose in life. He was an ironworker driven to succeed in a way he only knew as success – to build a legacy for his family.
And that meant no crying.
No tears, or feeling weakness, or regret. You dig the holes, you do your job, and above all else, you don’t make friends. My father had many men who called him a friend, but he never sought their friendship, never let them in. I used to ask him, “Dad, why don’t you go out to lunch with that guy when he asks you?” or “How come you and Mom don’t go to dinner with friends like other people do?” He’d just keep his eyes centered on the television program he was watching and say to me, “I’m not built that way.”
Maybe that’s what saved his life.
He had a choice to go to the right with Portland – the guy who sat up with him late at night, talking about everything, sharing hopes and dreams, and maybe some fears too. You don’t get any closer than sharing late night guard duty outside a bunker in the middle of a war. Why didn’t Dad go to the right with Portland instead of off to the left with another soldier he barely knew? No wonder he never wanted to have close friends. When you get too close and they get hit by a shell, you get hit too.
On this Memorial Day weekend, I will think of that soldier – Portland. I’ll wonder what his real name was, what kind of family he came from, and what he wanted to do with this life. On Memorial Day, I will put a little American flag on the grave of my father, and wonder if anyone is doing the same for Portland. This year I will think of all the soldiers who didn’t make it home. But I’ll also be thinking of those who did return – changed, and with parts of themselves buried deeply, as deeply as those soldiers who never returned.
(New to my website? Read my first post, Can You All Hear Me In The Back?)
- Soldiers with PTSD, Physically Ill, Financially Compromised, Emotionally Depressed Receive Help from the Least Expected Place: Croatian Healer, Braco in Portland, Oregon (prweb.com)
- Remembering the Fallen and Walking on Hallowed Ground at Arlington National Cemetery (icedteawithlemon.wordpress.com)
- Once-oldest-living guard of Tomb of Unknown Soldier dies (stripes.com)
- Memorial Day (mackinac.org)
Friends manage to talk you into doing things, going places, and tasting life outside your comfort zone. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Friends can help your agoraphobia get better. Not the ones who shake their head and tell you you’re being dramatic, just get out of the house. Not the ones who laugh and say, “You’re a agor…ah…a WTF?” Not the ones who try to talk you out of the house, or guilt you into stepping outside. Those people you will eventually learn are not your friends; they’re simply people that you know.
The friends that I’m talking about are those that love you for who you are. And if that means you don’t get out much (for whatever reason) well, that’s okay, and they’ll sit in the house with you and be perfectly fine with it. At my most phobic, when I was terrified of so many things, a rather large space station called “Skylab” (yes, a whole space station!) was poised to re-enter our atmosphere and come crashing back to earth.
I was certain it would fall on my head.
Actually, fall directly on my head. Nobody else would be injured, I was sure, except for me. And boy, that did nothing to get me to budge from my couch. The logic escaped me that perhaps if I left the house and moved around a lot, that maybe I could avoid this 169,000 pound massive missile from the skies. No, my idea of saving myself was to become a sitting duck on my sofa in West Hollywood.
The truth was I was just too terrified to move.
So what did my friends do? We had a party to celebrate Skylab’s return. Well, actually, I threw the party because I was the only one with a blender at the time and we were having frozen daiquiris. But the point is: my friends came to keep me company. There I was sitting on my couch, so terrified that Skylab had my name on it, and my friends came over to join me on that couch. In my mind, they were risking their lives just to be there with me.
And that’s not all.
They showed up – all of my friends – wearing construction hard hats, an Army helmet, and my dear friend John even put a large bullseye and a magnet on top of his baseball hat just to defy fate. Or maybe to save me from a direct hit. I was so busy laughing and enjoying our “impromptu” party that I completely forgot about Skylab. All that dread and terror my imagination had been feasting on simply was forgotten that evening.
My friends got me through the night.
Thanks to my friends (and 9 other things that helped me go from agoraphobic to recovering agoraphobic) I now get out of my house. I still need help with driving – I don’t do freeways. So if there are freeways involved, my hubbie is the one behind the wheel. And that’s how I will be getting to Ventura this Saturday for a book signing and personal appearance at Bank of Books at 748 E. Main Street. It’s an hour away from my house so I’m calling it a road trip. Yes I’m a little bit nervous – it’s definitely out of my comfort zone. But I’m certain I can do it.
My friend Wayne talked me into it and he’ll be there.
And thankfully, no space stations are scheduled to fall this weekend.
(If you live in or around Ventura, please come by and keep me company. It always helps to be around friends. Not sure I can bring any frozen daiquiris…Will cookies do?)
I don’t want to say I have a one track mind, but I definitely do.
Always known as someone who mixes her metaphors, I’ve said for years, “Simple minds run on a track like a choo choo.” It made perfect sense to me, so I never understood why my husband always laughed when I said it. What I mean, of course, is that when I’m focused on something important I can’t concentrate on anything else.
Which brings us back to my daughter’s wedding.
If it can’t be bought, ordered, or color-coordinated it doesn’t have a place in my life at the moment. We are t-minus nine weeks and counting and my imagination has gone on vacation, taking my concentration along with it. I was determined to write a blog post this week, but all I can think about is what color gels should be in the up-lighting, and if the seating for the ceremony should be three-quarters, or traditional. How did I ever survive without knowing what a sweetheart neckline was, or that Wedgwood blue is not periwinkle? I’m in a foreign land without a parachute. I haven’t felt so out of my league since I first became a mom.
Everything was new back then too: DPT shots, with the P or not? Swaddling a newborn and which position – on tummy, back or side? Colic, croup, diaper rash, cloth diapers or Huggies? Breastfeeding or bottle? To Pump or Not To Pump? And what about toilet training?! How the hell does a mother ever survive toilet training?! I used to follow my daughter around the house holding a plastic potty while she ran naked after her bath, and when she stopped, her eyes crossing in concentration, I planted her on the plastic seat and applauded her success. And bingo! she was trained! Nobody taught me that – I learned on the job. That’s how mothers do it – learning on the job, correcting our mistakes as we make them. Somehow I survived, and so did my kids. And that’s what motherhood is all about. No giant eagle swept down and grabbed one of my litter. Hell, human moms have it easy.
Now, that baby who was so new and foreign to me is all grown up, a bride-to-be, and getting married. Somehow I’ll make my way through this rite of passage too. I’ll shed a few tears (all right, a lot) remembering those endless days when being a new mom seemed unsurmountable, overwhelming, and totally exhausting.
It’s funny how you miss those days when you look back.
Somehow moms get through it – we adjust. We change as the job demands us to change. We hold close when we have to, and we let go when it’s time to let go. Even though every fiber inside of us wants to hold on forever. We learn “to hold close with open arms” and love from a distance. Those hugs from little arms, that tiny hand holding ours, those kisses and “I love you, Mommy” we give up because we have to. Not because we want to.
That’s what it means to be a mother.
If you’re a mom, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’re not, just think of your own mom, and if you’re lucky to still have her around, hug her a little tighter this year on Mother’s Day. She may not admit it, but she misses you.
Every difficult moment you ever gave her.
Happy Mother’s Day!
I had no idea!
As we’re getting closer to the Big Day my nerves are fraying as fast as the days are passing. It’s taken us months to decide on the venue, find the wedding dress, book the music, flowers, lighting, drapery (don’t ask!) etc., etc, and more ETC. It’s bigger than a Broadway production, but hopefully, with not as big of a budget (fingers crossed). But in addition to all the hard work a Mother of the Bride has to do for planning the event, she also has to look good at the wedding. That not only means buying a special M.O.B dress (done!), but also (gulp) accessorizing it (not done).
I’ve already written about the dilemma I faced finding the perfect dress (Should I Say Yes To The Dress?, Saying Yes To The Dress (UPDATE), Sometimes Yes To The Dress Is A No), and thanks to the help of many readers of this blog, I finally made my choice. All I can say is “Thank God for the Internet! ” I’ve never been one for clothes shopping, but it can be especially challenging when you’re a recovering agoraphobic. My usual mode of buying new clothes is to just not buy them – My husband loves me for this. But as M.O.B the pressure was on and I was really feeling it.
I tried one day of shopping for a dress with my friend Marie. But let’s face it, the M.O.B isn’t exactly the B.R.I.D.E, so no one is really paying attention to us at all. We’re just the breed mare that brought the bride into the world, so no one gives a hoot what the hell we’re wearing. I learned that at the first wedding boutique Marie and I checked out. The store was filled with hundreds of bridal gowns (all priced in four figures) but the salesgirl (who after fifteen minutes finally approached us) pointed to one pathetic rack of faded M.O.B dresses off in the corner.
“Those are all we’ve got,” she explained. “If you can fit into one of those, you can buy it. Good luck!”
Those were the last words we ever heard from her as she moved on to help a blushing (and much more lucrative) bride-to-be and we sorted through size 4’s of the ugliest colors you’ve ever seen. I don’t even think these were colors. These were what finger paint looks like when your four-year-old mixes all the colors together and spills them on your rug.
One day in wedding boutique-hell was all I needed.
I went online and tried Nordstrom. Unlike a wedding boutique, an online site can care less if you’re a M.O.B, a B.R.I.D.E, or the C.A.T.E.R.E.R. There were hundreds of dresses, and the good news was that every time I liked one of these dresses, I just clicked on it and in a few days that dress showed up magically at my doorstep. In any size or sizes I wanted!
I felt like Goldilocks: “No, this one is too big.” “This one is too small!” “This one is the wrong color and makes me look hippy!” I finally found the perfect dress, but in a green and my daughter’s wedding color is blue.
I persevered, kept checking the online wedding site, and finally found the same dress in “Wedgwood Blue.” Thank you, Nordstrom’s Purchasing Agent, whoever you are! The dress was a petite, but I was willing to squeeze myself into it for my daughter’s sake. I waited anxiously every day for that UPS truck to bring it, and a few weeks ago it arrived. And Voila!!! – It fits!!!! More importantly, the bride (my daughter) likes it. So here it is – the winner:
I packed up the last of the Nordstrom rejects a few days ago, mailed them back, and I am now on a first name basis with the UPS guy.
Now, it’s time for accessories.
Do I go with silver (to highlight my hair) or gold (always a favorite)? What kind of necklace, earrings, bracelet, and evening bag? I’m hyperventilating from all the choices I have to make. In the meantime, there are still catering tastings to go to, invitations that have to be sent out, wines to choose, flowers to order, etc., etc., and more ETC.
I haven’t worked this hard since I was in labor.
(Here’s a collage with some of my choices. Since all of you did such a great job helping me pick out my dress, any suggestions to build the rest of my M.O.B outfit is much appreciated.)
(If you enjoyed these posts, you might enjoy: A Few Words About Being A Mom)
(For those of you who are new to this blog and who missed this when I first posted it, I share it with you now as one of my favorites. It’s that time of the year – Springtime – when the metal ping of bats at a local high school practice reminds me of freckled-faced little girls (my own sweet daughter among them) with skinned knees, the biggest of smiles, and the hearts of champions)
It’s Spring and ‘Tis the Season.
Softball season, that is.
True, there’s that other sport the boys play– the one that pays big salaries when boys grow into men. But Spring is also when the girls play their own sport – the one that doesn’t pay, the one you play simply because you love it.
Girls Fastpitch Softball.
I watched my daughter play softball from the age of 5 until she hung up her glove after freshman year playing at UCSD. She’d accomplished what she wanted to accomplish with the sport: She’d been drafted by a great school (a difficult college to get into, but softball got her into it), played in her freshman year (not as much as she was used to playing, but she played nonetheless), got her home run in a college game (along with 5 RBIs), and she was named female athlete of the week at UCSD. After freshman year, it was time to figure out what she wanted to really do with her life. So in her sophomore year she quit the sport. I took it harder than she did, I think. I missed watching her play, and the enjoyment I had at observing the spectacle of softball and a team hard at work.
It’s different when boys play ball.
I’m lucky to also be blessed with a son who played sports. But every time I watched him in the field, or on a court, I couldn’t help but think his manhood was being tested. The boys looked so serious with their game faces on for the coaches. There weren’t a lot of laughs, not unless they wanted to be called “girls” or “ladies.” And absolutely no tears! There’s no crying in baseball, as Tom Hanks told us in A League of Their Own. Not that girls in softball cry. It’s just that nobody ever expects them not to cry or to be so tough.
But girls are tough.
They play just as hard, whether college, high school, or league games. And when summer comes they take the field under a blistering sun, 100-degree heat, playing four games a day, sometimes until midnight, in nationwide tournament play. Crushing the ball with their bats, sliding fearlessly, striking out batters on a full count with bases loaded, and all at the age of 10. Making the outs, stealing those bases, coming through with a hit or a bunt when they’re losing by three runs, and winning seems out of the question. They never give up. They work hard, they play hard, and most importantly, they learn how to depend on each other, and to cheer each team member on to do her best.
After my daughter’s 10 and under team lost a squeaker of a game at the Nationals in Oakdale, California, the parents took the girls to MacDonald’s. It was almost midnight, and the team had skipped dinner to play back-to-back games and the last game of the night was to determine which team would go to the finals the following day. We had lost, but every one of the girls was wearing a huge smile, and they were filled with excitement.
After placing our order (chicken nuggets, of course), I took a seat next to our shortstop/second string pitcher named Melissa. With a bridge of freckles across a freshly sunburned nose, and still wearing her cleats, she quietly licked at a well-earned chocolate-dipped ice cream cone.
“How are you doing?” I asked her, concerned by her silence.
She thought a moment, and then said with great pride: “We played good together.”
I will always remember her answer.
Every time I hear someone say, “Women don’t get along,” or “Women don’t trust each other,” I think of Melissa. I think of softball and watching the girls on a softball team: playing their hardest for each other; sharing sunflower seeds in a dugout; doing cheers together; hugs at a home plate; high fives in the field; sleepovers in tournament motel rooms; braiding their hair with colorful ribbons; sneaking a swim together when the coaches weren’t looking; pushing each other to go further, try harder, dig deeper; laughing together, being silly off the field, and maybe even shedding a tear or two when the game is over, and it’s time to move on.
And then they grow up
There comes a time when the girls of summer do move on – when those 10 and unders with the scabby knees, wearing the scent of sunblock, grow up and become women. Women who are beautiful, strong, and confident; women who know that hard work always pays off. You may not always win but you play your hardest anyway, and you’re not afraid to try, even if it means that sometimes you lose.
So the next time you hear a male coach yelling at his boys, trying to motivate his team by calling them girls – Don’t think of it as an insult. Think of softball, and those grueling weekend tournaments. Remember how hard girls play.
And how “good they play together.”
(Photo courtesy of Lynne Pariseau)
She’s back at home after that nasty fall, and a couple of days at the hospital. There were no broken bones (which is amazing), but she’s bruised and on the mend. Still filled with piss and vinegar, she’s sick of all the fuss over her (all the extra help and extra people cluttering up her house), and she’s slowly getting back into the swing (and schedule) of her life.
Thanks to all of you for your prayers, well wishes, and good thoughts sent our way. I found your support especially comforting, and there aren’t enough words to explain how much your kindness means to me.
I’ll be back next week with a new blog post.
My mom fell last Friday and life has been crazy ever since.
She’s going to be fine (Thank God). Two days in the hospital, a C-Scan, one MRI, and numerous blood tests later, she’s back at home and eager to be living independently again. I won’t tell you her age; let’s just say she’s definitely a card carrying member of the Greatest (and toughest)Generation. She’s still sore, cranky as hell, and stiff (damn arthritis!), and so she’s still healing, meaning 24 hour surveillance for awhile. Not that she’s happy about it, but she’s agreeing to it for her kids peace of mind, and we appreciate her motherly sacrifice.
Needless to say, my days aren’t my own at the moment, and this blog will have to sit here quietly while I focus on my mom. I figured I should let all of you know since I’ve already had a couple of emails from people telling me they miss this blog and wondered if everything was fine. Well, things are getting fine. But there’s not much time for writing anything except grocery lists, caregiver schedules, and to-do lists. So please bear with me until life quiets down enough for me to find my way back to the keyboard again.
This week made me realize, by the way, that sometimes you can take for granted that which you love the most. I’m not talking about my mom, although there are times when maybe I might take her a wee bit for granted. She’s one strong lady and I’ve gotten used to that vitality and tenacity of hers, always assuming she’ll bounce back from whatever troubles come her way. She’s proving me right in this latest challenge that’s been thrown in her direction, and it doesn’t surprise me at all. But the one thing I never realized before was how much I’ve taken for granted my writing.
Every day I wake up and writing is always there for me. When I get an idea I reach for a pen or click on my computer and the words flow – sometimes effortlessly and sometimes after a little prodding. But this week there’s been no time to write and no way of predicting when I’d find the time to even think about writing.
That was a first for me.
I’ve always found the time. As a professional screenwriter with a paycheck waiting for my words to fill the paper, it was my job to make the time to write. Even when my two babies came along while I was in the middle of of screenwriting assignments, I’d write the scenes in my head while breast feeding. And after putting the little darlings back into the crib, I’d scribble down those scenes in the middle of the night and write them up the next morning.
Somehow I always found time to write.
But this last week was way beyond hectic, and juggling my own needs (my husband, my kids, my house, my dog) with what my mom needed was more hours and energy than this writer could barely manage. Through all of these busy days and nights I realized just how full my life feels when I’m writing. And how empty and lonely it can be when I’m not.
It might be a little quiet around here for awhile. So please, leave a comment just to let me know you’re still out there. It’ll give me a chance to write you back, and it’ll probably be the only writing I’ll be able to do for awhile.
Love at first sight doesn’t always end happily.
That guy in high school? In truth, he probably never asked us out. But that didn’t stop our heart from skipping a beat every time he was near us. Brad Pitt. Ryan Gosling. Bradley Cooper. Oh yeah. None of those guys even know we exist. But it doesn’t mean we don’t smile in a darkened theater the moment our eyes catch sight of them. My friend Adrienne always says, “The heart wants what the heart wants.” But it’s Mick Jagger who keeps us grounded by reminding us, “You can’t always get what you want.”
I’ve given up trying to find that damn dress.
You know the one:
Yeah, it’s beautiful. But it’s taken over my life trying to find it. And it’s time to put a stop to this unrequited love affair.
There was a moment of hope last week when my dear cousin Nancy, and my good friend Lynne both text messaged and emailed me (ten minutes apart) a website address with the dress featured on it. I held my breath as I checked the price – half off! But when I tried to order it there was no place to enter my size. Hmmmm. I sensed a problem.
The next day I called the store (yes, an actual store and not located in China) and I got a guy (yes, a guy) who gruffly told me the website wasn’t working. When I asked him when he thought it might be working, he annoyingly said, “I don’t know!”
I didn’t let this throw me. I was on a mission.
“I want to buy one of your dresses,” I explained. He sighed, and transferred me.
It wasn’t long before a salesgirl picked up the line. I asked her if I could place an order, and after she checked with the manager, I was told yes, that’s fine. Finally! Things were looking up – I could just imagine the feel of the fabric, and how wonderful the dress would look.
Until she told me the price.
It was double what was quoted online. And then to make matters worse, suddenly the salesgirl grew dumber by the minute. She had no idea why the dress was that price. She didn’t know anything about the online site, or the price quoted. As a matter of fact, she didn’t know anything about anything. Oh except for one thing: no returns.
You buy it. It’s yours.
I.don’t.think.so. I didn’t just come into the big city from pumpkinville. As much as I wanted to get my hands on that dress, I wasn’t about to be taken to the cleaners. I could hear all of your voices (sort of like an online Greek chorus) telling me to walk away. “Walk away from the dress!” “Put you hands in the air, free of credit cards! And walk away from the dress!”
And that’s what I did.
So now I’m still looking for a Mother of the Bride dress.
I’m not worried though. Last night the Mother of the Groom called me out of the blue to ask what I was wearing for the wedding.
“I have no idea,” I told her, in all honesty.
“Oh thank goodness!” she admitted. “I don’t have a dress yet either!”
We spent the rest of the phone call commiserating with each other about colors, dress styles, online shopping, and department stores. I actually felt pretty good speaking with this lovely woman, who by the way is an hourglass figure and not just an old Bartlett pear like me. This woman would look great in any dress but she was having the same fashionista doubts that I was having. That’s when I realized that for a lot of women fashion doesn’t come easily. I thought it was just me, this over-aged tomboy, who was intimidated by chiffon and taffeta, sweetheart necklines and tea-length hemlines.
But I was wrong.
Most of us don’t dress like the women we see in style magazines, television shows, or in the movies. But guess what? Those women – those characters – have wardrobe departments buying them clothes, altering them to their unique figures (not all hourglass and not all perfect). All we end up seeing are the results, and all we know is that we don’t look like them. We don’t measure up. But in my book, I think we all just measure up fine.
I’m still looking for my Mother of the Bride dress. But now I’m doing it with much more confidence, and a sense of fun and adventure. Everyone who commented on these blog posts helped me find my way in this crazy world of dress up elegance. I appreciate all of your kind words and suggestions. I wish we could all go shopping together; I know we’d have fun. But instead, I’m taking my good friend Marie with me, who is Ethel to my Lucy, and Lucy to my Ethel, and I will keep all of your fashion advice in mind as we go shopping on Saturday. We may not find the right dress this weekend, but I know we’ll have a lot of fun and good laughs while we’re looking. Eventually, I’ll find my dress. The correct color. The right length. The perfect style. A dress that’s beautiful, and makes me feel beautiful wearing it.
And I won’t think twice about the one that got away.
(Want to see the dress I finally found? Read the next installment: It’s Hard Work Being Mother Of The Bride)
Don’t get your hopes up – They’re the wrong color!
(One woman’s quest for a simple but elusive Mother of the Bride Dress…)
Your responses to last week’s blog post (Should I Say Yes To The Dress?) were so enthusiastic and helpful I wanted to let you know how the search for my special Mother of the Bride dress is going.
Not too good.
First, to recap: Here is the dress I’m looking for:
All of you who commented last week agreed that the dress was beautiful and it would make a wonderful Mother of the Bride dress. But the problem was that the closest store that “might” have this dress was listed as being in Yucaipa. Besides not knowing where the hell Yucaipa was, that word “might” was making me mighty nervous. Mary’s Bridal (the designer) was not willing to commit one way or the other if the dress was actually in Yucaipa or not. Only that it had been delivered there in the last year.
Yeah. Not much help.
Encouraged by those of you who suggested a road trip, I reached for my phone and called the Yucaipa store that Mary’s Bridals had listed on its website as a possible location for this Dress Style #S13-M2172. With today’s gas prices, I wasn’t about to take a second mortgage out on my house to finance a Yucaipa road trip if the dress wasn’t there.
So I decided to call the store in Yucaipa.
On Friday no one answered the phone. On Saturday when I called I got a Sprint mailbox and a strange beep. I tried again on Monday and still got the answering machine with no one’s name attached to it, and no name of the store. On Tuesday night, I decided to google the store just to make sure it actually existed. And voila, I found it!
Yucaipa’s “European Famous Tailor” was listed online – right there in Google. There was an address listed (a good sign!) and I could see by the listing that it actually existed. Now, we all know you can’t judge a store just by its name, so I decided to use the store’s address and Google Street View just to get a look at European Famous Tailor’s store front. Here’s what Google showed me:
That’s right, a strip mall.
Call me silly, but when people ask me where I got my Mother Of The Bride dress, I don’t want to say a strip mall in Yucaipa. “Around the corner from Rob’s Gun shop and Terry’s Bail Bonds.”
I took a day to think about it. There were four other stores listed at Mary’s Bridal website that also “might” have the dress. The next closest was in Tucson. Okay, why not? I called. They answered. They’d never heard of Dress Style #S13-M2172.
“But we can order it!” the cheerful saleslady told me.
“…Can I return it if it doesn’t fit?” I asked.
Goodbye, $458 (that’s not including alterations).
Tucson was a helluva lot further than Yucaipa, and I still wouldn’t get a chance to see the dress before buying it. I wouldn’t even be able to try it on. But I’m the kind of person who gets an idea in my head and I don’t give up easily. As a matter of fact, I like challenges so much, I’ve been known to persevere in spite of the fact it’s a stupid idea. And this is where all of your comments helped me: I could just hear in my imagination Adrienne, catnipoflife, June Collins, Lynne, jubileewriter, and so many others of you who commented telling me to take a deep breath, and not commit to buying a dress without trying it on, or at least seeing it up close. I could hear those words of wisdom from JeriWB, quirkybooks, Raani, Wayne, Yaseen, Jen, and the rest of you. It made me look before leaping: I thanked the saleslady, hung up, and called Yucaipa again. This time I dialed a second number listed on the Google website. And someone finally answered the phone.
“Do you speak English?”
“Un poquito,” the woman admitted, sounding not the most confident.
“I’m looking for a dress,” I told her, speaking as loudly as possible, as though volume alone would help her understand English. Rambling on, nervously (even I would have trouble understanding me) I told her I was looking for a Mother of the Bride dress, the name of the designer, and I gave her the style number.
“Call back, ten minutes” she told me, with great certainty.
I hung up. I waited fifteen minutes (giving her an extra five so she’d be prepared). I dialed her again, the phone rang and rang and rang and is probably still ringing.
You know what I’m thinking? I’m willing to bet that Yucaipa’s European Famous Tailor has never even seen Mary’s #S13-2172 dress. Or if they have seen it, maybe it sold right away. Just to make sure, I called one more dress store – this time in Glendale, a store that lists Mary’s Bridal as one of its designers.
“We haven’t had that dress for months,” the woman with a thick accent explained to me. “It sold right away!” she said. And rubbing the wound even harder, “It’s such a beautiful dress! One of the most beautiful dresses I’ve ever seen.”
There are two more stores on Mary’s Bridal list that I could call: Chrsitina’s Bridal in Caspar, Wyoming or Debi’s Bridal Shop in San Antonio, Texas.
Frankly, I think it’s time to look for another dress.
What do you all think?
(Read the next installment of the hunt for a Mother of the Bride dress: Sometimes Yes To The Dress Is No)
(I apologize to my guy readers in advance, but when a woman needs help she usually turns to her girlfriends. Although a man’s opinion is always welcome, so please feel free to speak up, if you’re brave enough to do so.)
I need fashion help.
I wasn’t going to write about this but after a third night of not sleeping I decided to turn to the best drug I know: writing. Have you ever noticed how writing about a problem sometimes helps you find an answer? Well, I’m taking it a step further – I’m writing this post to reach out to my readers.
Here’s why I need your help: This summer I will be a Mother of the Bride for the first time in my life. I haven’t wanted to write about this because I made myself a promise that I wouldn’t write about my kids now that they’re old enough to read what I write and yell at me for writing it. It’s an exciting, busy, emotional time and it’s been difficult not to write an entire blog series about the event. I’ve been a good mother, however, and avoided the topic completely here at my blog. But now my back is up against the wall and there’s no way around this without writing about it. Here’s my dilemma: The Dress.
Not the bride’s, but mine.
Somewhere between the time it’s taken to find the venue, choose the menu, book the band, and help my daughter find her perfect wedding dress, I overlooked the painful fact that I need to buy myself a dress. And not just any kind of dress, but a MOTHER OF THE BRIDE DRESS.
Oy, the pressure!
You have to understand one thing about me: I grew up a tomboy. I was comfortable wearing jeans (for climbing trees) and my Dad’s Army fatigue jacket (cause it was cool). To me, the perfect outfit is sweatpants and tennis shoes. My daughter would ban me from her wedding if I showed up in a running outfit. And unlike her lucky dad or brother who barely have to show up at all (fashionwise), and just have to wear the de rigueur tuxedo, I have to wade through the world of women’s couture to find the ultimate MOTHER OF THE BRIDE DRESS.
My friend Vicki is facing a similar problem but she’s only the mother of the groom, and somehow (we both agreed) nobody really cares what the groom’s mother is wearing.
“I’m going with a pantsuit,” she finally announced to me the other day as we commiserated on the phone. “Who the hell cares? The wedding’s out-of-town anyways, and we don’t know a damn person in Detroit.”
I envy the Mother of the Groom.
“I can’t get away with that,” I tell her. “…Can I?” I ask hopefully, like maybe there’s some kind of loophole I don’t know about in the wedding guidebook.
“Nope. First they look at the bride, and then they’ll be checking out the mother of the bride. You better look good,” she warned me.
Could she be any less reassuring?
“Plus, in your case, you’re really going to need help.”
Yep, I guess she can.
I asked her what she meant.
“You’re not normal!” she tells me, a little too easily.
I’m wondering now: Why is it we’re friends?!
“I just mean you’re creative, and artistic, and well, I don’t think you should wear what everyone else is wearing,” she explains to me with words that make me understand just how much she knows me, and how much I really love her as a friend. “You’re your own person – unique and talented, and you may not see many dresses you really want to wear.”
Vicki was right: I’d been looking on the internet and all the dresses listed under MOTHER OF THE BRIDE were, in fact, beautiful.
For other women, not for me.
They were vampy or too low cut and my best look is a turtleneck. They were covered with sequins, beaded, and jeweled and I’m a 100% plain cotton girl. They were clingy and hip hugging and well, I’m a writer, and my work’s muscles are what I sit on. Nordstrom would call me a “pear” so no way do I want anything clinging on my Bartlett rear.
Is there any wonder why I’m not sleeping?
I was starting to reconsider my decision about the sweat pants (velour?) and sneakers (brand new Air Jordans?), when I decided to take one more journey into The Wedding Knot website and click on MOTHER OF THE BRIDE.
And there is was: my dress!
It jumped out at me from my computer screen: perfect color (blue), perfect shape (for a pear) elegant yet simple, and not like any other dress I’d seen. I clicked my way over to the designer’s website and there was my dress again on the front webpage. I even loved the name of the dress style: Beautiful Mothers.
I was close to crying.
True, it was a little pricey, but I figured with more than one kid I could always wear it again when the next one of our progeny took the matrimonial leap. And besides, I’d pay the price gladly just to be able to stop looking. So, I quickly did a search to find out where I could buy my beautiful dress. I figured they wouldn’t have it here in our little California suburb; I’d probably have to go to L.A. or maybe San Diego. But I could get my husband to drive, and we’d make it a weekend out of it. It would be fun! I quickly entered my zip code and the website gave me the closest store where I could buy it.
Okay, now I was crying.
I’m not even sure I know where Yucaipa is located, but it just sounds FAR. Not as far, however, as Tucson, Arizona; San Antonio, Texas; or Caspar Wyoming, where the only other stores that carry my dress are located.
Do I do a road trip?! Seriously, this is what I’m asking: Is it worth all the trouble (and expense) to go on a scavenger hunt for this dress? I’ll let you, my dear readers, help me make this decision. Here’s a photo of the dress, and you tell me what you think:
Do I call the designer (Mary’s), order my size, pay for it, and pray it fits or at least looks somewhat good on me? It looks wonderful on the model in the photo (probably a size 2), but it’s liable to look like yesterday’s garbage when I’m wearing it (never in my dreams a size 2). And if I’ve already paid for it and hate it, then what do I do?
Do you think I should say yes to this dress?
Or do I just take my dad’s Army fatigue jacket out of mothballs?
What do you think I should do?!
(The quest for the elusive dress continues at Saying Yes To The Dress (UPDATE)…)
(This is the last post in my series on professional screenwriting.)
So you sell your screenplay, and then what?
You get that first professional job and all those dreams of becoming rich, famous, and respected for your cinematic brilliance are about to come true.
Until the alarm clock rudely wakes you up.
Because you, my dear friend, are definitely dreaming. Never lose sight that those visions of greatness that brought you to Hollywood have nothing to do with a real-life screenwriting career. The true work of the professional is being able to take a punch below the belt and to keep going.
I don’t know how Astrid Cruz knows this about screenwriting, but she does. When we traded emails last month, and she asked me what it was like to be a professional screenwriter, I was amazed to see such a keen understanding about the most difficult part of the job: surviving.
“What you write will be taken to pieces by a director, rewritten and reshaped, ” Astrid wrote me, with a sophisticated savvy of filmmaking well beyond her years. “Does it bother you?” she wanted to know. “Does it hurt you that some of your writing may never make it to the screen?”
Does surgery hurt without an anesthetic?
“But how do you let go?” was what Astrid really wanted to know.
Reading this last question that this young screenwriter/filmmaker/student sent me made me realize this is what they don’t teach you in film schools: the truth about Hollywood, and how to survive it.
So here’s what I’ve learned along the way…
Tips They Won’t Teach You At Film School
The first rule in screenwriting is:
#1: Don’t take it personally.
The biggest problem about Hollywood is that everyone will seem like your friend. Remember: They’re not. If you think your agent, manager, producer, director, or studio executive really cares about you, you should get back on the bus right now and go home. I don’t care how many parties they invite you to, or how many muffin baskets they send you, Hollywood is a business and screenwriters are simply part of the machinery. And machinery can be replaced. No one ever takes a machine personally.
#2: Yes, you will get screwed (or rewritten) eventually.
If you’re asking “Why?” you need to re-read Rule #1.
#3 Getting paid definitely soothes the pain, especially in the “letting go” stage of screenwriting.
I don’t want to sound like some creative whore, but getting paid for the job helps you to move on to the next job (which hopefully you’ve already started writing – more on that later). When you’re able to pay your rent, clothe your children (or yourself), buy a car, and have something left over for unnecessary baubles, over-indulgent vacations, and the next generation of Apple products, you’re able to say to yourself, “Okay, so this is why I go through all the pain.”
As a screenwriter you have to come to terms with the fact that the only draft that you own is your first draft. You learn to put all of your unbridled passion, brilliance, and hope into that first set of 110 pages. Of course, you will be certain that no one will ever change a word because it’s so brilliant, and of course you will be lying to yourself. But screenwriting is like giving birth – you eventually forget the pain and go on to conceive again, only to go through the grunting, bloody, painful event once more (if you’re lucky) at some later date. That brings me to the fourth rule of screenwriting:
#4 Nothing you write is perfect.
As soon as you put your story down on paper and turn it in you will begin to get notes from everyone. And not just the director. (NOTE: Usually a director isn’t hired until the script is “green lighted” by the studio. Unless the director is developing the script through his own company, but that’s another story completely.) If you’re a professional screenwriter and lucky enough to have your script “green lighted” and a director is hired that means the cocoon stage of your story is about to end and an entire new creature is about to be born. You can only hope it emerges beautiful and looking somewhat like what you imagined: a beautiful butterfly – and not some blood-sucking parasite. But a screenwriter must live in a constant state of denial and always expect the most beautiful of butterflies to be born from our well-crafted cocoons. Yes, and that brings us to the fifth rule of screenwriting:
# 5: Keep your head down, working on your next screenplay.
Forget about that script you spent a year and a half writing that is now in the middle of its transformation into a film. Just separate from it as quickly as possible. Literally, take the money and run because as brilliant as you felt on that day when your agent/producer/studio executive called to say, “We’ve got a go!” you will feel like a total failure when the “production polishes” begin.
Chances are they won’t be coming to you for those polishes. Every director wants to leave his imprint on the screen – like a dog pissing on a tree. Yes, I’m using the male pronoun because in spite of Kathryn Bigelow, chances are the director will be a guy. Please check out this link: http://www.thewrap.com/music/article/sexist-hollywood-women-still-struggle-find-film-jobs-study-finds-74076 , and if you’re a woman in the film industry, try not to sob too much while reading it.
No director ever takes a film job and sets out to do what the screenwriter has written. Suddenly, this very perfect piece of writing that was so great, so exciting, so promising that people wanted to invest millions of dollars into making it, has morphed into a flawed, terribly-executed, lackluster piece-of-shit that only the brilliance of (fill in here with the name of a current director) can save. And how does the director do this?
By bringing in another screenwriter.
Depending on how prestigious this director is, this can be a name screenwriter that commands more money than you received for writing the story in the first place. When this happens, you can kiss your solo writing credit goodbye. Especially if the new screenwriter has time to do a total rewrite. When that happens, you’ll be lucky to even end up with a “story by” credit.
Rule # 6: It’s all about the credits.
When you get a credit for writing a screenplay you get paid every time that film plays somewhere – on television, on a DVD, or as a download. Also, when you get a credit you automatically join an elite club of professionals. Production credits are what get film professionals more jobs. Whether the film sucks or not will determine what kind of jobs you’ll get in the future. But if your agent is smart you’ll have at least a year and a half to two years to line up as many jobs as possible (hopefully, good ones) until the film is released and dies a quick death either in reviews or (more importantly) at the box office.
As if you couldn’t tell by now: Going through the screenwriting process hurts like hell. Most of the time you can rant and scream in private, or throw things at home (I had a black walnut tree in my backyard where on more than one occasion I would hurl a recently emptied cocktail glass against its massive trunk, watching it shatter into a thousand pieces while imagining it to be the head of some producer, director, or studio executive). But the real test of a screenwriter’s mettle (and ability to develop a poker face) is during a “notes session” at a production office. To understand how this works, you have to know how a screenplay is developed.
Understanding Your Deal
There are two ways a script is developed and a screenwriter gets a job: 1) Write your own screenplay based on your own story and sell it. 2) Get hired to write a screenplay based on someone else’s story, idea, book, play, comic, or video game. Originals can sometimes bring in more money, especially if it’s a hot topic, or a unique premise. Sometimes there are “bidding wars” among the studios and that can really push a script price up. The problem with selling an original script is that it’s your own little baby, and it’ll be much more difficult not to take all the shit you’re about to go through as personal (See Screenwriting Rule #1).
Once you’re hired, your agent (or lawyer) will negotiate a contract. Every screenwriting contract makes clear how many drafts are expected from the writer. Typically, there are two drafts, and then a couple of polishes. Hopefully, your agent (or lawyer) will be a good one and you won’t end up with a “cut off” deal. That means that they can say buh-bye to you after any one of those steps, including the oftentimes dreaded “treatment” first step. The other steps listed are just “wishful thinking” and will be worded as “optional” But let’s say that you are guaranteed two drafts and a polish – You will have “reading times” in-between those drafts. You’ll also have time built in when you develop the story. That means that once the deal memo has been signed you can go off and do research or start stepping out your story beats. You may or may not be required to include the development team (studio executives, and/or producer) in this step. If you go in and tell them the story it just gives them another opportunity to try to shape their own story and not yours. Ideally, you want to just sign the deal memo, and go off to write your first draft. You don’t want to develop the story and then go in and get permission to write the first draft you want to write. They can really screw you up creatively by giving you bad ideas, and you’ll have to rebuild your story (taking more time out of your writing schedule) to incorporate their ideas. Nevertheless, that might happen. So deal with it – you’re getting paid and that should help heal the pain.
Usually, you’ll get 10–12 weeks to write your first draft. Once you turn it in you might have a reading period of four weeks and this is when you work hard at letting go. That’s easier said than done because when you finish your first draft you begin this euphoric high for having completed the script and you feel like a genius. But trust me, let go of that perfect script the moment you finish typing, “Fade Out.” Here are some ways you can do that:
Say Goodbye To That Brilliant First Draft
TIPS FOR LETTING GO
1) Be already working on another screenplay. Just like a love affair that’s falling apart, it helps if you have another lover lined up waiting in the wings. The more creatively promiscuous you are as a screenwriter, the better you can protect your heart from breaking. I was always a loyal lover and I learned the hard way that it hurts to “stand by your man” because sometimes that man likes to sleep around with other screenwriters for rewrites.
2) Use the reading period (in-between drafts) to separate emotionally from your work. Go on a vacation. Do research for another project. Distance yourself, move as far away from your current project as possible. You probably will have three or four weeks (maybe longer if it’s near a holiday period) before you meet with the development team, and this is your separation period so use it to clear your mind and to rest your body. You will need as much energy and objectivity as possible for the next hell you are about to enter. And trust me, it will be hell. Because the seventh rule in screenwriting is:
#7: No matter how much they tell you they love your first draft, they’ll still want to change it.
And you will sit in an office and have to take it without crying or throwing things.
If you play poker, you know the importance of having a poker face. Get good at this because you will be asked to sit in many meetings when you will hear the most asinine suggestions for improving your script. Just remember Rule #1 and don’t take it personally. This is one of the jobs of a film industry executive/ producer/director/development person: to give notes. If a non-creative doesn’t give notes he/she (Yes, there are women development people) is not doing his/her job so he/she comes up sometimes with ridiculous notes, notes that make no sense, that only show he/she didn’t really read the script or read it too quickly (usually while sitting in traffic). These people are paid to make suggestions (no matter how ill-informed or stupid) and you are being paid to write them down as notes in these sweat-inducing next-draft meetings. My advice to you is to keep your mouth shut, your head down, and your hands busy scribbling notes (even if your notes are simply creative ways for the people to f&!# themselves). Remember – You can always have your nervous breakdown in the comfort of your own home, and not in some over-air-conditioned Hollywood office.
You’re Not The Only Member On The Team
Now begins one of the biggest challenges you will face as a screenwriter: Do I make the changes they give me and possibly ruin my brilliant story, or do I refuse to do the changes and possibly risk being replaced by another writer who will whore his/her services and make the changes themselves? That is a very personal, moral decision that every screenwriter faces, and I would never suggest to you what your choice should be. Just remember that making films is a collaborative effort, and if you’re unwilling to play with the team, there are thousands of players on the bench more than willing to take your place.
The best advice I was ever given about how to deal with notes was from David Jacobs – the creator of “Dallas” and “Knott’s Landing” – who told me: “Don’t argue with them, just take the notes. Use the ones that make sense, and don’t do the ones that are stupid. Chances are they won’t even remember what they told you to fix. But sometimes they DO give good notes and those are the ones you want to use.”
I will also share with you something written about Sonya Levien – an amazing screenwriter who first started out in the industry by doing scenarios for silent films, became one of the big screenwriters in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and won the Academy Award in 1956 for Interrupted Melody:
“Levien possessed a certain plot cleverness or dexterity and an editor’s willingness to cut and paste. She succeeded as a screenwriter because she knew how to adapt stories, plays, and novels into “entertaining,” filmable movie scripts, wrote quickly, and made, without argument, whatever script changes her supervisors directed. In addition, she willingly doctored other writers’ problem scripts, never missed a deadline, and worked as many hours as necessary to solve script problems. Seemingly without ego investment in the words she wrote, she rarely complained, and she helped anyone who asked.”
from “A Great Lady” by Larry Ceplair
In my book, that about sums up what it takes to be a successful screenwriter. It worked for Sonya, it can work for you.
The key to doing Hollywood is to be the best damn screenwriter in the business. Know that in your heart, keep improving and learning, get yourself an agent who can do all the battles (and negotiations), and just keep writing, writing, and writing.
And then direct. Or produce.
A screenwriter has no power in Hollywood, and Hollywood is all about the power. When Disney wanted me to write a specific screenplay and I said no, they sweetened the deal by offering me the director position. I was extremely agoraphobic at the time and just getting to the damn note meetings was difficult so I turned down the opportunity to direct. For me, that was the right decision to make (I hate bossing people around), but for anyone wanting to be a filmmaker, you have to move up to a power position – directing (for films) and producing (for television).
And that leads us to the eighth rule for surviving professional screenwriting:
# 8: Be flexible
You will make decisions you won’t like, but you will have to make them anyway. You will have to work with people you don’t like (you don’t respect), but you will have to work with them anyway. You will get hurt, but you must never show it. There’s a saying in show business: Never forget what they’ve done to you. But never let them know that you know.
Smile big. Look confident. Be prepared. Work harder than anyone else.
And enjoy the adventure.
- Emails To A Young Screenwriter (artistikemwrites.wordpress.com)
Like those with stars in their eyes that came before me, and the greatly talented unknowns who are there right now, I wanted to be an actress. I won’t bore you with the details. If you’re interested, you can always read my book. Let’s just say the fates decided on screenwriting: agoraphobia and acting don’t really mix that well.
Astrid read my book, so she knew I had studied to be an actress. She wanted to know if it had helped my writing.
“Has being an actress and having knowledge of the process an actor goes through when getting into character help you understand how to develop your own characters.” she asked in her email.
It’s no secret that writers live in their heads – We’re in there poking around at our imaginations 24/7. We’re either looking for a story or writing one, and unless we’re writing with a partner, we’re doing it all by ourselves. That’s not only lonely but it’s limiting. Where do we find all of our characters?
You can’t be an actor without observing people, and you can’t observe people from behind a desk. Acting forces you into the world – you become a microscope for observing the human condition. You don’t just go through life getting from point A to point B – you open your eyes, your ears, your heart to those fellow travelers around you. You capture their quirks, their voices, their gaits, and you slip all of this on, trying it out for size. You really do learn how to walk in someone else’s shoes. You lose yourself and in your place you find characters.
Three Steps to Finding Characters
The best thing I ever did as a writer was to take improvisation classes. Here is what was expected of us as actors:
As actors, we didn’t just work in the classroom. We were expected to go out into the world and study people, bring back what we observed, and then, perform it. Those same three steps are also invaluable to creating fascinating characters that one day you will slip into a screenplay. And make no mistake, the more fascinating, and complicated, (yet identifiable) characters you put on the page, the greater the chance some executive (reading your script while in rush hour traffic on Laurel Canyon) will be hooked.
But it’s that third step – performing – that helps you understand what to do with those original characters. It teaches you about the structure of a scene – the beginning (a hook), the middle (complications and conflict), and the end (the payoff). When you perform in an improvisation you learn about tension, and how it helps a scene develop. You can tell what is working in a scene and what is falling flat because you’re right there in the room with an audience. You can hear them laugh, feel their silences (both good and bad), you can sense if they’re watching, and (most importantly) if they’re caring. Those are lessons screenwriters have to learn and take back to the workshop, to inject into our writing.
If you’re shy or an introvert as a writer, acting forces you to not be shy on the page. You can’t be an introvert in improvisations – it’ll push you past your comfort zone and stretch you as a writer. It won’t be easy – it’s painful. I always felt like throwing up when I was in improv class. I used to pop Tums or Maalox because the butterflies were so huge. But looking back, those classes are what started me on a path to becoming a good screenwriter: You will learn how to make your characters much more interesting – how to create multi-dimensional characters that an audience will want to watch. You will learn how conflict moves a story along and how to construct entertaining scenes. Once you’ve taken those improv classes then take a couple of acting classes too. As a screenwriter, you should understand what it feels like to play emotions – not just to feel them, but to perform them. Like a painter, you want to have a palette filled with a wide variety of colors (emotions) for your canvas (the screen), and you do that through acting and improvisation. I honestly don’t know how anyone can write a screenplay (or play) without having been an actor. If you haven’t tried acting or taken an improv class, stop reading right now and go find one. Seriously, sign up.
Someday you’ll thank me for it.
(Read the last post in this screenwriting series, 8 Rules For Surviving Screenwriting.)
(Got a question or comment? Don’t be shy – I’ll actually write you back!)
Astrid’s first question that she emailed me was a good one.
How do you write a screenplay?
“I took only one screenwriting class during my BA and, to this day, I’ve only managed to complete very short scripts,” she wrote. “Every time I sit down to write a screenplay I find that I want to write all sorts of stuff (thoughts and philosophical pondering) that will never be transformed into action.”
She’s right – It won’t.
“How do you deal with the economic language supposed to reign in scripts?” Astrid wanted to know.
If you write books, short stories, or anything other than screenplays, you’re going to have to change your writing style. Here’s what you need to remember – Always think of writing for film as utilizing only two elements:
1) Action (Show it, don’t tell us about it).
2) Dialogue (Skip the long speeches unless it’s an Oscar quality premise).
As you develop a story always ask yourself: What are my characters doing and what are they saying? Nothing else should end up on the page. Why your characters are doing what they’re doing is called “motivation” and while those motivations should be clearly understood by your audience (tip: show, don’t tell), avoid scenes talking about them. If you are a brutal editor – meaning that you’re not afraid of red penciling and cutting your work – then overwrite, if you want to. Just make sure that when you turn in that script it’s not over 110 – 112 pages. And understand this: Usually what a character thinks, especially what the screenwriter thinks, and any “philosophical pondering” doesn’t play in film. Those kind of scenes “lose” an audience.
Always Remember Your Audience
I read Franny & Zooey by J.D. Salinger in junior high school, and I was very affected by one of its passages – the story of the Fat Lady. Zooey is a young girl who is on one of those “quiz kid” radio programs every week, and she’s becoming very jaded, cynical, and resentful about having to perform every week. Her brother (Seymour) gives her some advice: to shine her shoes every time she’s going into the studio to be on the air:
“Seymour’d told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door with Waker. I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn’t going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn’t see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but he had a very Seymour look on his face, and so I did it. He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again — all the years you and I were on the program together, if you remember. I don’t think I missed more than just a couple of times. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and — I don’t know. Anyway, it seemed goddamn clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense.”
That passage really stayed with me and because of it I developed a strong instinct for what will keep an audience interested (“in their seats”) and what will “lose them.” Losing an audience is when they go to the refreshment stand for popcorn instead of being so hooked by what’s on the screen they don’t want to leave their seats. Any self-analysis by a character, any injected philosophical wonderings by the screenwriter simply won’t play.
You can always overwrite a scene in a screenplay but then you have to go back and cut the fat out – anything that doesn’t entertain or keep the tension in a scene has to be red pencilled. As a writer, it’s important that you understand what your character is thinking (what’s their background and their back story) but it’s how you use that thinking – whether in a dialogue quip or a bit of action that makes for a powerful screenplay. Just keep the “Fat Lady” on that porch entertained.
Know Your Strength and Weaknesses
My strength has always been with dialogue so writing lines for my characters has never been a problem for me. (If you’re not good at writing dialogue, I have suggestions about how you can improve those skills – More about that in the next post). I’ve always hated writing description and action. I confess I used to skip reading a lot of it if it went on too long in novels. Unfortunately, writing action demands an ability to write description. But you can’t go on for long paragraphs; you have to be succinct in your description of the action. Action – or movement of a story without using words – used to be the most difficult part of writing screenplays for me. Luckily, my first writing jobs were in episodic television and unless you’re writing a cop/detective show (with a lot of chase sequences) television is known to be a medium that’s heavy on dialogue. The big challenge came for me when I moved out of episodic television into movies. I made that transition because I was brave enough (or stupid enough) to take on a rewrite assignment for a three-hour movie-made-for-television.
Normally, it takes months to write such a long movie (180 pages). However, there was already a script that the network was on the fence about “green lighting” (giving a go ahead for production) and the producer wanted another writer to do a “pass” to see if the rewrite could convince the network to go into pre-production.
They gave me ten days.
That was a lot of pressure to take on a complete rewrite of a 180 page teleplay in such a short amount of time, but luckily the structure of the script worked fine. All I really had to do was write a new opening sequence to hook the audience, add a couple of new scenes for character development, and do a “Page 1 Rewrite” of most of the dialogue in the script. The action sequences played well enough to leave alone so I was thankful for that because (as I said) I hated writing action.
Because of my three hour rewrite the movie was green lighted and went into production. I was thrilled until I was notified that I wouldn’t be getting a screen credit. A screenwriter only shares a credit when he/she changes at least 50% of the structure of the screenplay. I had written several new scenes, and changed every line of dialogue, but I didn’t alter 50% of the telling of the story. I was using the same characters that the original writer had created – even if they were saying my words, and not his. So that writing job provided me with a couple of valuable lessons about screenwriting: I was paid for my rewriting but because I didn’t have a screen credit I never got to share in any residuals every time that film played on television. But the fact that I had stepped in and “saved” a production from being scrapped added to my credentials as a screenwriter, and I started to get other assignments. Working on that script also showed me that if I was going to write features (which was my goal) I had to somehow learn how to write action.
Keep Learning, Keep Growing
The big growth for me as a screenwriter came when I was hired to write a sequel to a television movie about a little deaf boy. I wanted to get a better understanding of sign language so I set out to find someone who could come over to my apartment and teach me sign. I was very agoraphobic at the time and I couldn’t just seek out a class somewhere and go there every week. By luck, I was at a theatre awards function, and after I had stayed my obligatory half hour (before all the people and anxiety finally kicked in) I headed for the lobby. While there I saw a young man and woman signing to each other. I stopped and decided to ask them a little about sign language and when I introduced myself I learned that the woman was a deaf actress and the young man was her hearing interpreter. She would use her hands to sign to me and he would use his voice (and hands at the same time) to interpret. I was fascinated watching how they worked together and I expressed an interest in learning sign. I asked them if they had any suggestions on how I could do that.
The woman paused a moment and then signed (as the young man spoke): “Let me think about it and I will call you.”
Several days later, the phone rang and when I answered it a male voice said, “Hi, this is Julianna Fjeld. We met at the NRT Awards. I’ve been thinking about what you asked me, and I decided that I would like to teach you sign.”
All of this was said in one long sentence, and all I heard was this male voice saying, “I want to teach you sign.” I thanked him gratefully and then asked (because I had forgotten the male interpreter’s name), “What was your name again?”
He answered, “Julianna Fjeld.”
Well, I was pretty sure that Julianna was a woman’s name so I persisted again by asking the man, “No…What’s YOUR name. You’re the one wanting to teach me sign.”
There was a pause at the other end of the phone, and then the young man said to me very slowly, “…Let me explain how this works. I’m Julianna Fjeld. I’ve called you on the phone to talk with you, and I am using my friend Dave’s voice. But when you’re talking to me, you are talking to ME, and not Dave.”
Whoa. Talk about being schooled in deaf culture.
That was the first big lesson I learned from Julianna Fjeld, and it wasn’t the last. She offered to be my sign language teacher…in my home.
How could I say no?
Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone
I was so nervous about being alone with a deaf person (who I assumed I wouldn’t understand and we would sit awkwardly for hours in my little apartment until I started having panic attacks inside my house as well as outside) I recruited my boyfriend, and two of my closest friends to join Julianna and me in our little sign language class. Well, I was worried about nothing because as soon as we met Julianna we were all communicating like the best of friends. She’s one of the most amazing communicators I have met in my lifetime. She not only taught me how to use my hands to communicate but how to see the world with open eyes.
For the first time in my life I became aware of the “visual” in our world.
Words and dialogue remained important to me, but now the element of silence took on a life and a power that was equal to the words. I grew as a writer because of Julianna. First, through her sign language classes, and then through the power of a film that we made together.
One day I asked Julianna if she had ever read, In This Sign – a wonderful novel by Joanne Greenberg about a deaf couple with a hearing child. I had read the book several years earlier and it was one of the most powerful novels I’d ever experienced. When I signed the title of the book, Julianna’s hands quickly (and excitedly) joined with mine to spell out the title with me.
Her eyes widened and her hands spoke quickly, “I have the rights to the book!”
She went on to tell me that she had loved In This Sign so much she tracked down the writer who was living in Colorado where Julianna was born and raised. She told Joanne Greenberg how much she loved the book – that it was so powerful she wanted everyone to be able to experience the story as a film. Well, Joanne was so impressed with Julianna that she offered her the option to her book…for $1.00. You would have to know Julianna to understand why an author would trust her so much to make such a deal. But Julianna is so amazing, and such a wonderful life force that it made perfect sense to me why she got the rights for only $1.00. As it turned out, Joanna Greenberg had made a very wise choice.
Julianna immediately went to work trying to get any of the studios interested in making a film from the book. She was able to set up something at Warner Brothers but they wanted to use hearing actors and Julianna was against that because the deaf culture would be offended. The deal with Warners was not going to happen.
“Do you still own the rights?” I asked her.
“Warners gave me back the rights before they ever hired a screenwriter to write a script,” she explained.
That was good news because I knew a producer who I thought might be interested.
When I called Marian Rees (of Marian Rees Associates) and asked her, “Have you ever heard of a book called In This Sign?” I thought she’d jump out of the phone with her excitement. It was one of her favorite books.
“I’ve been trying to make that book into a film but Warners has it.”
“Not anymore,” I told her with a smile. “But I know who owns the rights.”
That began the transformation of the novel, In This Sign, into the television film, Love Is Never Silent with Julianna as one of the executive producers and me as the writer. The screenplay profoundly changed me as a screenwriter – action sequences no longer bored me, and I found a new excitement in writing them. And because of the success of Love Is Never Silent (the film won an Emmy for Best Picture) I was able to transition into writing screenplays for films – a medium that relies heavily on action and the visual.
But now I could write action.
So you can learn how to write action just as you can hone your skills as a writer and learn the “economic language” that is supposed to “reign in screenwriting.” What’s important to remember is that even if you are hired as a screenwriter and you’re making money as a professional, your talent should always be evolving, getting better, and adapting to whatever needs are there for the medium you’re working in.
(Tomorrow’s post: If It’s Screenwriting, What’s Acting Got To Do With It?)
(Got questions, comments, or thoughts? Don’t be shy – I’ll answer them below.)
- It All Begins With A Screenwriter (artistikemwrites.wordpress.com)
(This is the first post of an ongoing series, Emails to a Young Screenwriter. If you haven’t read the introduction to the series, you’ll find it at So You Want To Be A Screenwriter?)
A script is a dream that’s been captured on paper – by a screenwriter.
We take that dream and give it structure, inhabit it with people, give it motion, and make it into a story. We shape that story into a script. And it’s our script that captures the imagination, the talents, and the hard work of a few hundred people working together to make that dream into something real – a film.
Astrid Cruz knows all about dreams – she’s a writer, a filmmaker, a student. Each one of those roles finds its raison d’être in chasing dreams. She’s not new to the craft of stringing words together and using those words to communicate with an audience. When we traded emails over the last month, Astrid’s questions about screenwriting that she sent me weren’t early wonderings from someone new to filmmaking. They indicated a sophistication, a definite understanding of the filmmaking process and the screenwriter’s role within the hierarchy of film production.
But not everyone knows as much as Astrid.
If you’re not a film student, or you haven’t started to really think seriously about screenwriting, you have some catching up to do. Luckily, you can do it on your own time, and it won’t feel like homework at all.
You Don’t Have To Pay To Learn Screenwriting
We live in an amazing age – If you want to learn about anything, all you have to do is reach for your keyboard and do a search. That’s what I did a few days ago when I realized people were going to be reading these posts about screenwriting, and maybe they had never even seen a script before. Or read one. Or knew that the pages within one don’t exactly look like the pages of a book. We all know you can spend a lot of money buying textbooks, classes, tutorials, seminars, etc. from (sometimes) knowledgeable people and sources. But I always wonder when I go on those websites of these experts: How many screenplays have they really worked on? How many have been produced? How many story meetings have they taken within the guarded walls of a studio or a network, and how many notes have they sweated over and sweared at?
I’m a big believer in self-education – especially now, with so much knowledge within our reach. You can learn the basics of screenwriting on your own. That’s how I got started.
My first episodic television job came from a pitch I had to do for a new limited series on CBS. I loved watching 60 minute shows, but I had no idea how to write one. My pitch meeting was scheduled for a Monday, and on the Friday before that meeting my agent came by my house (agoraphobic that I was) and dropped off two seasons worth of scripts from a prestigious ABC television series. I devoured those scripts, teaching myself about the format: Act Breaks. Characterizations. Story Structure. Tension. Conflict. Resolve. Tag. Day and night I analyzed those award-winning-lessons-in-episodic television. When Monday came, I pitched three story ideas – They bought two of them for me to write, and asked me to be Story Editor for the entire series.
So if you’re wondering if you can become a professional screenwriter without a degree in film, or without the tutelage of some expert (charging you $$$ for it) , my answer would be a resounding “Yes!” If you’re a student still in college, please don’t drop out and blame it on me. College will give you life experiences and you’ll need that as a screenwriter. Stay in school: You may meet contacts, and you can network with them later.
But for those of you not in school, those who are flirting with the idea of becoming a screenwriter, this is what you should do before you dive deeply into the questions Astrid asked me about screenwriting:
1) Read screenplays (Until your eyes can’t focus anymore).
2) Watch films (Not with friends, and not sprawled on the couch, dozing. Take notes!).
3) Learn the screenwriting format.
There are two good websites where you can do those three steps listed above. At Script Frenzy you’ll find everything you need to know about script formatting. There are other pages on that website that I didn’t explore, so don’t hold me responsible for whatever is on that site that they’re marketing. If you stick to the “How to Format a Screenplay” page, you’ll learn what you need to learn, and it’ll be free. The second website, Simply Scripts is where you will find movie and television scripts, and it’s also free.
Everybody’s Got A Disclaimer – Here’s Mine
Okay, here’s my disclaimer for everything I wrote to Astrid about screenwriting (and what you’ll be reading this week):
My experiences have been with the Hollywood system – mainstream films and television. I’ve never been involved with independent filmmaking unless you count the documentary (No Girls Allowed) that I just finished. But the experience I had making that film is for another day, and another blog post. Independent films (and shorts) are completely different creatures that allow a screenwriter/filmmaker much more creative freedom and power. Hollywood is a much harder creature to tame. There is a reason why studios are enclosed by thick walls, and visitors go through a checkpoint with a guard stationed at the gate.
They want to keep us out.
The film industry is a closed private club. It’s impossible to get into, difficult to stay a member, and for very few is it a membership for life. It’s the toughest business in the world. If you want to be a dentist, you go to school, learn dentistry, and become a dentist. Careers work that way. But not in the film industry. You can’t even get your own jobs in Hollywood – you need an agent to do that for you. And maybe a manager too. Oh and don’t forget your lawyer. And there are no guarantees in Hollywood. An accountant still working after twenty years in the real world is considered experienced, and that builds up a career even bigger. But not in the film industry where the question is always asked, “What have you done recently?” If it’s the wrong answer, if it’s been awhile since you’ve made a sale or collected a development deal check, you can find yourself falling several rungs lower on that ladder of success. Hollywood is cruel. If you don’t know that going into it you most certainly will know it on your way out.
If any of this frightens you, you shouldn’t start screenwriting. It’s habit-forming, and addictive, exhilarating, and life altering. Writing scripts, and getting lost in your story is the only thing I can think of that makes Hollywood tolerable. So if you’re interested, if I haven’t scared you away, and you want to learn a little bit more about screenwriting and what it’s like to write a script, come back and read the next post, Emails To A Young Screenwriter.
In the meantime, go watch a film.
A couple of months ago a wonderful blogger named Jen Owenby emailed me and asked if she could do a contest involving my book, An Agoraphobic’s Guide to Hollywood. She had read it earlier in the year and really enjoyed it. She also discovered my website, contacted me, and we started exchanging emails. I was honored that she had chosen my book as one that she wanted to talk about on her website, so I said yes.
I was a little embarrassed when Jen wrote her post about the book and me, but I liked the idea that six people would get a chance to read my book. After all, that’s why I wrote it – for people to read. Jen randomly was going to choose five lucky winners who would win a copy of the book, and one extra lucky person also would have a chance to ask a professional screenwriter (me) any questions they had about screenwriting. Well, as fates would have it, that sixth person was Astrid “Artistikem” Cruz, a young Master in Communications student at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus.
When Jen emailed me the name of the grand prize winner I smiled because I had just discovered Astrid’s work on a writers group website where she had posted a short film she had made based on her poem, “A Study On Character Development.” I had sent her an email a few weeks earlier telling her how much I enjoyed the poem and the film, and she had written back to tell me she was developing a Transmedia project based on it. I was excited to meet a young writer who also was involved in making film. Small world, (small internet): Astrid entered Jen’s contest, and she won the grand prize.
After the holidays, Astrid quickly wrote me four questions – four excellent, multi-dimensional questions (Astrid could also add investigative reporting to her résumé if she ever wanted) and she really made me think about the craft of screenwriting and what it’s like to be a professional.
Over the years, I’ve had people ask me about screenwriting (I worked non-stop in Hollywood for 25 years), and some of them even suggested that I teach a class about it. Well, my husband is a teacher, and that’s about as close to teaching I ever want to get. As my own kids will probably acknowledge: I don’t have the most patience in the world when it comes to teaching people anything. Maybe that’s why my son and daughter both learned how to drive from their father and not me, and when my daughter had to learn about camping as a Brownie I insisted we stay at a hotel instead and order room service (true story). But Astrid’s questions really made me stop and think about the process of screenwriting – something that most screenwriters take for granted when they’re so busy doing it for a living. For the first time, someone was sincerely asking me how to be a screenwriter. And for whatever reason, maybe because with age sometimes comes patience, I wanted to explain how it’s done. Or at least how I did it.
I’ve never won an Oscar. I’m not a Hollywood name. But I’ve written some movies, and television over those 25 years of working in Hollywood, and yes, I’ve gotten paid for it. Enough to raise a family, buy a house, a couple of cars, and have a very nice pension to look forward to (Thank you, Writers Guild of America!) So when Astrid sent me her questions, and I found myself writing, writing, and (still) writing all of the answers, I thought: Why not share this with anyone interested in screenwriting?
So I asked Astrid.
“Do you mind if I share this on my blog?”
And she was kind enough to say yes.
So here’s what we’re going to do: Next week I’ll be doing several posts about screenwriting. Make sure you’re signed up to this blog so you’re notified via email when they’re posted. If you’re not interested in screenwriting, I understand, and maybe you’ll come back in a couple of weeks and read something else here on the blog. But if you’re a writer, a screenwriter wannabe, or you’re just someone who’s always wondered about how movies are written, then you might find it interesting to hear it from someone who has been in the trenches. And if you know of any young filmmakers, or anyone interested in screenwriting, please tell them to drop by next week.
I promise to be patient.
(Are you interested in learning about screenwriting? Please raise your hand if you think you’ll be attending – I want to make sure there are enough chairs. And yes, this is free.)
(To read the first part of this series click here: It All Begins With A Screenwriter)
- The power of screenwriters (gointothestory.blcklst.com)
- The Business of Screenwriting: Sometimes you just have to say “Yes”… even to crap projects (gointothestory.blcklst.com)
- Just Effing Ask Julie Gray: What Qualifications Are Needed to Break Into Screenwriting? (scriptmag.com)
I went to the dentist yesterday.
That’s no easy feat for a recovering agoraphobic. It was only for a cleaning, so it was relatively low on my panic scale. Thankfully, I’ve learned a few tricks over the years to get me there and keep me in the chair.
One of the things I try to focus on now when I leave the house (to get my mind off of myself and my nerves) is conversation with other people. I don’t wait for someone to talk to me first, I start the ball rolling right away. If I can concentrate on talking with somebody I can usually trick my mind into forgetting I’m sitting in an office and not in the safety of my own home. So yesterday, as the technician was escorting me to the dental chair, I gave her my best smile, said hello, and asked, “How’s your new year so far?”
The young woman hesitated, and was silent for a moment. Her pause gave me pause. Was I asking too much? Should I have just queried her with that obligatory, “How are you doing?” – the question that everyone always answers with, “I’m fine. How are you?” Maybe I was being too specific, too inquisitive by narrowing the question to the beginning of the new year.
“It’s been…interesting,” the dental hygienist finally answered.
By her tone of voice I knew not to pursue it, not to ask, “Really? What’s been going on?” I also knew what was coming next.
“How’s your new year going?”
I gave her the same pause that she had given me.
There was a lot going on in my life, but it involved other people, not just me. 2013 had rushed in impatiently filled with big decisions and even bigger emotions. But I realized that everything happening in my life wasn’t mine to share. Not just in this dental office, but also on the page.
One of the freeing aspects of writing is being able to write anything you want. Carefully disguised in fiction, names can be changed, and events somewhat altered. It feels good to be able to purge yourself of some deep hurt, some great moment of drama, or to just reveal the hilarity at times of being human. But when you write a blog, it’s a whole different kettle of fish.
I feel an obligation to be careful about what I write here about the people I love – the ones who are unlucky enough to have a writer living among them. I won’t write something if I feel it violates their sense of propriety or their need to remain private. After all, they’re not celebrities who have given up a portion of their privacy in exchange for notoriety. That’s a bargain that’s struck by anyone who chases fame. I write about everyday people, and there are some days when I simply won’t write about them at all. I’m sure my friends and family feel much better knowing that.
But it sure makes for a quiet blog.
(Where do you draw the line as a writer? Do you feel a need to protect as well as create? Or are all bets off when it comes to your writing? Have you ever written something only to find out later that it’s hurt someone that you love? Or have you put down the pen, pushed away from the keyboard, and waited to write about something else on another day. What’s off limits for you as a writer?)
The DVDs are here!
We have an official release date – Sales will begin at nogirlsallowedfilm.com on February 15, 2013.
No Girls Allowed is a 48 minute documentary about the 1983 gender integration of the nation’s second oldest public high school. Central High School in Philadelphia was an all-male public high school for over 145 years until a court-ordered mandate allowed girls to attend for the first time in its history. If you’re new to my website, you can read about the film in my two posts, No Girls Allowed and No Girls Allowed (Update).
We wanted the film to be ready in time for Women’s History Month, and with that in mind, Central High School will be planning a student screening of No Girls Allowed in March. We’re still working on setting up a public screening in Philadelphia, and if any of you are Central grads, or simply live in the Philadelphia area, and you’re interested in sponsoring a screening please contact us at nogirlsallowedfilm(at)gmail(dot)com (email address spelled out to prevent spam).
No Girls Allowed is a non-profit, educational film and all net proceeds will be going to the Nathaniel Kirkland Young Filmmakers Fund at Central High School. Nate graduated from Central High School, class of 266, where he was producer of CTV (Central News Network), president of the audio/visual club, and was Jr. Prom King. While attending Dickinson College as a second year English major, Nate accidentally drowned on a school trip to Guatemala to help repair hurricane-ravaged adobe classrooms.
We were privileged to meet and interview Nate in 2007 when we travelled to Central High School for filming No Girls Allowed. A young filmmaker who made a number of documentaries and short films while at Central High and Dickinson, Nate wanted to become a professional writer and director. In his memory, we established the Nathaniel Kirkland Young Filmmakers Fund for the encouragement and development of young filmmakers.
Films remain an important part of our cultural language. They serve not only to entertain but they can also be powerful tools for achieving social justice.
“If films are to be instrumental in the process of change, they must be made not only about people directly implicated in change, but with and for those people as well.”
What better people for change than young filmmakers?
This is a tough season when you’re feeling blue. All the bright lights and music, and holiday fun: You’d think that the season would cheer a person up.
Except that’s not the way it works, is it?
I had a tough holiday season a number of years ago. I was out of work, with no prospects on the horizon. Money wasn’t easy to come by as it had been in the past. My kids were growing up – entering those years when the last thing they wanted was to spend time with their mom. No job. No money. No kids to play with. It seemed as though everywhere I turned, I couldn’t find my purpose. I was even having trouble writing – something I had always been able to turn to for solace when life was tough. Writing had always been my buffer for when the world felt a little too cruel. Now, I didn’t even have that to comfort me.
And then, one morning I woke up to a story just beginning. I could hear its words so clearly, and in my imagination I could see it. I wasn’t sure what it was exactly – it wasn’t a story like any I had ever written before. I didn’t even know what to call what I was writing. Only recently did I learn, when I asked my husband (an English teacher), and he told me, “It’s a fable.”
Longings of a Monterey Pine poured out of me quickly, and when I’d finished it, I felt better. My worries, my fears, my regrets were all replaced by something new: hope and peace. Those two words, for me, sum up the season. And this season we need them now more than ever. No matter what holidays you celebrate at this time of the year, I offer you those two words – hope and peace – as a gift in this little story that I wrote, this fable that helped me in so many ways when I wrote it.
(It’s a story best told when read aloud in the silence of the night. Whether alone, or with the company of little ones with eyes so bright. Click on the link, the one just below. It’ll take you to the story, and you’re all set to go…)
I was born a Catholic but last night I did what I’ve been doing for many years – I made latkes. Our family is interfaith – my husband is Jewish, and I guess I’ve been an honorary Jew ever since our first Hanukkah together when I tried to buy a menorah for my husband-to-be.
When I was a kid growing up in my Southern California community, Jews (and Jewish items like a menorah) were not so easily found. I didn’t have a clue where to buy a menorah so I went to the most cosmopolitan place I could think of – a department store.
“Do you carry menorahs?” I asked a clerk on the ground floor.
She looked at me like I was speaking in tongues.
I tried to explain, but I really didn’t have a clue myself.
She suggested I try bedding.
A department store was obviously not the best place to go looking for a menorah, but back then, who knew? Luckily, I was rescued by a little old lady who got my attention with a very loud, “Psssst!” I looked over her way and she beckoned me like one of those ticket scalpers at a sporting event.
“You want a menorah?” she asked in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Yes,” I answered. “Do you know what department?”
“Honey, you won’t find it here.”
“You won’t find it anywhere in this mall, or any mall in this whole town. You’ve got to call the Temple!”
The old lady sighed deeply and reached into her purse for paper and a pen.
I didn’t understand: Why was it so difficult to find something Jewish? And then, I started thinking back to all my Jewish friends I had growing up: I had one. I think. I went through junior and senior high with my friend, Carol, but she never talked about being Jewish and nobody ever asked her, so who knew?! There weren’t a lot of Jews in our town, or at least we didn’t know them. My only understanding of what it meant to be Jewish was when my mother explained to me when I was a little girl that “Jewish people get eight presents at Christmas.”
Clearly, I had a lot of learning to do.
And I started the moment I bought that menorah.
Unfortunately, I didn’t buy it at the Temple – It was too far for me to drive (Yes, this was during the beginnings of my agoraphobia) and I made the mistake of going into Susie’s Hallmark Gifts and Stationary Store across the street from my old high school. Hallmark is known for celebrating the holidays – I was sure they’d have a menorah.
I was right.
Until I gave the wrapped gift to my husband-to-be.
His smile froze as he peeled away the wrapping.
I detected a problem.
“…What…is it?” he asked, carefully.
“It’s a menorah for Hanukkah!” I said proudly.
“Uh, honey…It’s not.”
“Yes, it is! It definitely is! It’s from a Hallmark Store!
“I’m pretty sure, no, it’s not.”
“But it holds candles…”
“Six candles. We light eight candles on Hanukkah.”
This was the beginning of my education in Jewish culture.
To this day I have no idea what that item was that I bought for my husband. But he was so touched that I had tried to find him a Hanukkah menorah that he used it anyway. We set up two small candleholders next to the six on the menorah-wannabee and just-like-that we created our own Hanukkah menorah. Once our son was born (and catalogue ordering became a possibility) we bought a real menorah for Hanukkah. And I learned about latkes, dreidels, and Hanukkah gelt. More importantly, I learned what Hanukkah was all about.
It’s about a miracle.
And that’s something any Catholic or Christian can understand.
The Hanukkah Handbook If You’re Not Jewish
Hanukkah: In 168 B.C.E. the Jewish Temple was seized by Syrian-Greek soldiers and their emperor made the observance of Judaism an offense punishable by death.
Jewish resistance began and these rebels became known as the Maccabees. Eventually, they succeeded in retaking their land from the Greeks and once the Maccabees had regained control they returned to their Temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish troops were determined to purify the Temple by burning ritual oil in the Temple’s menorah for eight days. But to their dismay, they discovered that there was only one day’s worth of oil left in the Temple. They lit the menorah anyway and to their surprise the small amount of oil lasted the full eight days. This is the miracle of the Hanukkah oil that is celebrated every year when Jews light a special menorah known as a hanukkiyah for eight days. One candle is lit on the first night of Hanukkah, two on the second, and so on, until eight candles are lit.
Latkes: Potato pancakes that are fried in oil – symbolizing the oil used by the Macabees.
Dreidel: A four-sided spinning top played with during Hanukkah.
Happy 6th Night of Hanukkah!
How do we ever survive the holidays?!
Between cooking, cleaning, staining bathroom vanities (Yes, I was that dumb to take on a home makeover project during the holidays) shopping, family get-togethers…Well, you know the routine. I had every intention to write a new blog entry this week but here I sit with stained fingers, a filthy kitchen, kids coming home for Thanksgiving, a dog that needs to be walked, and…Well, why bore you with what you too are probably going through at this very moment.
Do you ever feel on top of it?
On top of these bigger-than-life-family-get-togethers that you want so desperately to be perfect but never quite make it? Well, maybe in my mother’s house they’re perfect. I swear, Martha Stewart looks like a slacker compared to my mom. She’s well into her 80s and she doesn’t move with the same speed as she used to move, oh and yes, the last couple of years she’s said, “I just don’t know if I even care to go through all this fuss for the holidays.” But the other day I noticed she’s already decorated her table with the autumn colored tablecloth, the Pilgrim See’s Candy foiled turkeys; the Thanksgiving wreath is on the door, the little wooden pilgrims are perched on top of the t.v., the pies are already made, and the stuffing is too.
And this is mom at half-speed.
Maybe my brother might have to help her pull the huge turkey out of the oven nowadays, but damn if she’s not still doing it. Even with all her aches and pains (and Lord knows she could put Job to shame with everything that ails her) she still stands strong at her kitchen counter and gets the job done. Her house is always immaculate, and her life just seems to click along like the finest of calibrated machines.
My mom just amazes me.
So this week’s post celebrates all the women (and some men too) who are shining stars during these holidays. The ones who do the crafts, bake the cookies, decorate their homes, do all the shopping, take care of their families, and maybe even hold down a job or two. I’ll never be one of them, but I sure do love and respect the way they organize, accessorize, and do the holidays right.
To the rest of us, the ones who try their best, and run themselves ragged, but just end up tired, frazzled, and certain that mashed potatoes are supposed to be lumpy: Be kind to yourself, people. Thanksgiving is only the beginning of a very long marathon of shopping, cooking, cleaning, and trying to keep the family happy.
(Do you always feel on top of the holidays or do the holidays always end up on top of you?What are your tips for making the holidays a less stressful time around your house?)
(Are you new to my blog? Read how Can You All hear Me In The Back? got started.)
(In honor of this year’s Veteran’s Day on Monday, I’m reposting this in memory of all those who fought and lost their lives in the Great War. It was also called World War I, and it was fought with the hope that it would end all future wars. Sadly, that was a dream never realized.)
I first met him as a name carved into a marble memorial.
That we were connected as family was lost to me at the time. I was only 24 and my vision was limited by my youth. It was only years later when I visited his town again, and I stood once more in front of that monument that I began to wonder about the man beyond the name.
A name so foreign, yet so familiar. He links me to this day we celebrate every year – Armistice Day it used to be called. Veteran’s Day we now call it in the U.S., and it’s known as Remembrance Day in Britain and the Commonwealth countries. The date is always the same – November 11th – a date that symbolizes hope and peace.
The Great War ended on November 11, 1918– after 15 million soldiers lost their lives, and 20 million souls were forever wounded. It was the war to end all wars and so it was called the “Great War.” But we know the truth now – that it didn’t stop others from happening. We now call it World War I and it’s taken its place just as one more war in a list of too many others. We remember it only for its ending and for the holiday that comes with it. Few of us know much about the Great War. What little I know, I’ve learned from Gratien.
Most towns in France have Great War memorials inscribed with the names of the sons of that town who didn’t come back – “Mort pour La France.” Gratien’s name is one of fifteen engraved on a marble obelisk watched over by a brass mother of France sheltering her young child. The first time I saw it – years ago – I took photos and moved on. But two years ago when I returned to his village, Gratien’s name held me there in front of that memorial longer than I expected.
I wanted to know more about him – about this uncle I never met. I searched the Internet, and found one single piece of paper, and nothing more. Gratien was a common man with no accomplishments, no titles, no loving wife or children to leave behind. But he attained greatness as a “Mort pour La France.” A single piece of paper remains forever as a testament that he lived, and that he fought for his country.
And because of it his name is carved in marble.
Gratien was 20 when he was inducted into the French Army in 1907 at Bayonne, France – a city perched near the Atlantic Ocean, 45 minutes west and down slope from the Pyrenees mountains. It was the first time Gratien had ever been in a city, that day his train pulled into the Bayonne station. He was a mountain boy. His village, St. Etienne de Baigorry, with only a few hundred people in it, sat at the beginning of a valley called Baigorry, with its two roads leading out of town climbing higher and higher through the Pyrenees, and on to Spain a few kilometers away.
Gratien was in the Infantry – the 49th Regiment. He was already in the Army for seven years when France declared war against Germany in August, 1914. The infantry soldiers were confident of a win, and they were called, in slang, “poilus” for their swagger.
But they soon lost that cockiness.
Dressed in red trousers, and blue jacket – the colorful uniform of Napoleon’s army, they were a perfect target for the Germans’ machine guns and artillery. The French casualties were devastating in those early battles. The uniforms were changed in the winter of 1914 – the soldiers now dressed in sky-blue and steel helmets – the first soldiers ever to wear metal helmets.
I can only imagine Gratien, how he looked, and the way he stood. He might have had a moustache like the soldiers in this photo, like so many others I’ve seen. I have no photographs, or letters to show me the man. I know he was 27 when the war began and I know where it ended for him. But the rest of his story I have to fill in, with history books, and faded maps.
From September to November in 1914, the fighting was fierce. And Gratien was probably in the middle of it all. He wasn’t new to the Army – he had seven years of training, and he knew how to be a soldier. He was an infantryman – “cannon fodder” is what my father used to call it when talking of his own days in the infantry. The list of battlefields for those early months of the war is long: Lorraine. Ardenne. Charleroi. I look at names of towns I can’t pronounce and wonder in which ones Gratien might have fought. In early December of 1914, I notice that the battles seem to slow down, and pause. And in their place, there is something different, something new – trench warfare – at a place called “The Western Front.”
Long wooden trenches dug into the earth stretch almost 450 miles from the North Sea coast of Belgium all the way to the Swiss border. What part of those 450 miles of trenches did Gratien hunker down in? Amidst the sewage, and the rats, the stench of unwashed soldiers and death, where was Gratien?
Or was he part of the First Battle of Champagne – the first significant Allied attack against the Germans since the trenches were built? It started December 20th and went all the way into the new year, until March,1915. There were 90,000 French casualties, and Gratien might have been one of them. His “Mort pour La France” paperwork lists a date – January 27, 1915.
The handwriting is too small for me to read how Gratien died, or what wounds or sickness might have stopped his life. Only two-thirds of military deaths were from battle; the other came from sicknesses like the Spanish flu.
I can’t even be sure that 1915 is the year of Gratien’s death. The memorial in his town says it is, but the military officer who filled out the form seems unsure. The “5” has been written over and looks almost like a “6.”
Thousands upon thousands of soldiers who died in “no man’s land” – between the barbed wire fences of the opposing trenches – remained there, unable to be moved in this static yet deadly warfare. The remains of hundreds of thousands of French, German, British and Commonwealth soldiers still lie undiscovered in the soil of the Western front. Dozens of bodies are found each year during ploughing and construction work.
Perhaps this is what happened to Gratien.
The signature at the bottom of his “Partie A Remplar Par Le Corps” – is signed by an official in Gratien’s hometown of Baigorry, and the date is marked February, 1916 – one year later than the one listed on the memorial as Gratien’s “Mort pour La France.” If Gratien was ever found, or lost forever in the sacred soil of a battlefield, is a question that may never be answered. But the date, February 21, 1916, is significant: It was the day the Battle of Verdun began – the longest and one of the most devastating battles in the Great War and in the history of warfare. There were over 976,000 casualties.
I’m glad that Gratien didn’t live to fight through it.
And although I can’t be certain the year in which he died, I do know where he died – at Oulches, France. The name Aisne has been written off to the side – whether the district or the River, I’m not sure. But photos from the area tell me that fighting must have been intense.
Gratien’s story seems to stop here.
But in a way, it doesn’t: It just pauses.
It would be another year – 1917 – when the U.S. would enter the war to fight with France, and the rest of the Allies, against Germany. Among those American doughboys was a 26-year-old blacksmith, Erasmo John (E.J.) Craviotto, a private in the 115th Engineers, E Company, 2nd Army.
E.J. Craviotto, last man on the right.
E.J. never knew Gratien Ocafrain, but unlike him, he would survive this Great War to go home when it was all over and to eventually meet and marry Gratien’s sister, an immigrant who had fled France with her three sisters, just a few months before war broke out. E.J.’s Great War story is one that I never knew either, until my research about Gratien led me to it.
Tucked away among some old papers, I found E.J.’s little address book from the Great War. Never a man of many words, he simply listed all of the dates he was gone from his family. Like Gratien, he had never been away from his hometown before.
E.J.’s small handwriting shows the path he took, from the moment he was signed in at the Presidio in San Francisco, then, crossing the country in a railroad car filled with troops, across land as foreign to him as the European landscape would soon be. He traveled all the way to Camp Mills on Long Island and then on to embarkation at Hoboken, New Jersey where thousands of troops on his ship suffered through sweltering heat, and E.J. would note, “It was so hot there that some of the boys went down like chickens.” They were twelve long days on the ship, through the submarine zone where life jackets were worn 24 hours a day, until finally twelve English torpedo boats came out to greet them, and lead the way into Liverpool. It would be four days later – days filled with much marching, and long rides on troop trains – when finally, E.J. would first set foot on France, at Cherbourg. The date was August 23rd 1918 – It would be 79 long, difficult days until the fighting would stop.
E.J. would chart his advancement by the name of the location and how close they were to the Front, “Traveled two and a half days in a boxcar – Reach woods in Alsace Lorraine about eight miles from the front.” “October 20th, working on road under shell fire about two miles from the front.” He didn’t write any more dates after that one. But on a page below that entry something has been scratched out, a furtive erasure almost clear through the page. I can make out the words…”…under shell fire..credit on frontline trenches.”
I don’t know what “credit” means or if maybe it’s something else; I can’t make out the words that come before it or what he meant to write, but whatever it was, he didn’t want anyone to ever read it.
I don’t know what E.J. saw, or what he was called upon to do between October 20th and the next entry in his diary. There were another eleven days until the end of October and eleven more after that until the armistice. The next date E.J. wrote was November 11, 1918.
“At 11o’clock sharp quit firing.”
Whether that was the command or whether that’s what he witnessed isn’t clear. Not all the boys were told to stop shooting – an oversight by General Pershing who thought the armistice was a German trick, and who allowed the fighting to continue a few more hours, at the loss of another 4,000 American lives. This was the Great War, after all, and it had to be fought to the finish.
When the guns went silent that November morning, E.J. was in the Forest du Puvenelle, 628 kilometers from where Gratien’s life had ended, and only 25 kilometers from where E.J.’s own son’s life, one day in the future, would miraculously be spared by fate: by a piece of shrapnel entering his face just a matter of inches away from his temple. And that’s what saved E.J.’s son – my father – from an ending like Gratien’s. 26 years after his father had written, “At 11’oclock sharp quit firing,” my father first stepped on French soil – the country of his mother’s birth and the birth of his Uncle Gratien who had fought so valiantly for its protection, and lost his life doing it. The Big War did not accomplish what it had set out to do, what it had promised to be – the war to end all wars. And my father’s generation would learn that the hard way.
I never much thought about World War I when I was younger. It was too long ago, and my grandfather’s silence I mistook as him not having much to say.
I was wrong.
Only Gratien – without personal artifacts, with no photos, or a loving wife and children to remember him, caught my attention. Seeing his name engraved in gold with “Mort pour La France” above it, and discovering his birthdate, his date of death, and the location where he fell made me pause and want to know more: to find the dots and to connect them. For some reason, these few little facts spoke to me, and the Great War, for the first time in my life, became something real and understandable.
Gratien’s silence somehow reached me.
- ‘Commander: The Great War’ – 12 New Screens (worthplaying.com)
- Walter Tull and the black Great War heroes of the British Army (greatwarlondon.wordpress.com)
- November 11 1918 World War I ends (craighill.net)
(New to Darlene Craviotto’s blog? Here’s where it all started: Can You All Hear Me In The Back?)
A few months ago I met a wonderful writer named Jen Owenby who contacted me after reading my book, An Agoraphobic’s Guide to Hollywood. She also has a blog (Jen’s Thoughts) and we’ve exchanged emails, talked about writing, and about juggling life with family, work, and answering the muse. Well, several weeks ago Jen asked if she could interview me for her blog, and I said (gulp) sure. She sent me some preliminary questions and asked if I wouldn’t mind answering them for her interview. Once again, I said (gulp) sure.
Well, Jen’s questions sat on my desk for more weeks than I care to count. It’s not that I was too busy to answer them; it’s just that I was afraid. You see, I’ve got this problem: I don’t really enjoy talking about myself. It’s one thing to use my point of view in a story I’m telling, or in a post that’s here at my website. But I just find it difficult to talk about my accomplishments, or what I’ve done as a professional screenwriter.
It just feels too much like bragging.
The one rule that my parents taught us (along with never allowing us to say “Shut up!”) was that bragging or being boastful was rude. They never said that to us in so many words. But if they thought we were boasting a little too long (and too loudly) about some great feat we had accomplished, one of them would just smile and the other would say, “Careful, or your arm will fall off.” That was our cue to get humble.
I never stopped and thought as a kid what the heck that phrase meant. But I know that it usually worked, and I kept my conquests to myself. It was only today that I thought about it (thanks to Jen’s interview questions) and I decided to look up that saying on the Internet.
I couldn’t find it anywhere.
But I found something like it. And I think this is probably what my parents meant when they cautioned us about losing a limb by bragging: “Don’t break your arm by patting yourself on the back.” My parents had their own graphic way of interpreting that saying, and well, whatever the phrasing, it took hold of me and still sticks today.
That’s why it took me so long to answer Jen’s questions. But I did manage to answer those questions, and Jen’s two-part interview with me is currently posted at her site. I tell you this not to (God Forbid!) boast, but because Jen is doing a random drawing – giving away five copies of my book to five people who show up at her website and say hello. Also, as a Grand Prize, one person who wins will be able to talk with me (and ask questions) one-on-one about professional screenwriting.
People seem to really enjoy An Agoraphobic’s Guide to Hollywood – How Michael Jackson Got Me Out of the House (except for the occasional Michael Jackson ultra-fan who hates me for writing a particular scene in the book), and I like the fact that it’s not going to cost five people anything to get a chance to read it, if they win. The Grand Prize makes me a little nervous because of that bragging issue I have, but I’ve had a twenty-five year career as a professional screenwriter in Hollywood and people seem to like to ask me questions about writing for movies and television.
So, if you haven’t read my memoir, or you’d like to win a copy for a friend, or if you’re just interested in learning more about professional screenwriting, you might want to check in with Jen at her website (Jen’s Thoughts), and say hello. And when you read Jen’s interview with me, please don’t think I’m bragging, or patting myself on the back. My mom wouldn’t like that.
And I don’t want my arm to break.
I was just a kid when dad came home one night and announced that he and my uncle had bought a building.
I was certain we were rich.
And then, he explained that the building – an old two-story house in the center of the city – really didn’t belong to them yet; the bank was the real owner. We’d have to pay a mortgage every month, 12 months a year, for 30 years, and then it would be ours.
Now I was certain we would be poor.
This just didn’t make sense to my ten-year-old ears. We already lived in a pretty nice house; we didn’t need another one. Plus, this new one was old and in the middle of the city, with buses and traffic and all the noise and grime that comes with city life, while we lived in the pristine safety of the suburbs. It’s not like it was a newly built house or special in any way. It didn’t have a backyard we could play in or even a swimming pool we could use on the weekend. This one was two stories, subdivided, and it was going to have a couple of “tenants,” Dad explained. One day, he told us proudly, it would be all ours.
Frankly, I wasn’t impressed.
We drove downtown on Sunday to take a look at the house – my dad, my uncle, my brother, four cousins and me. We crammed into the two family cars and drove downtown to take our first look at dad and uncle’s big investment.
It was the ugliest old house I’d ever seen.
A ramshackle clapboard that had been mended, and fixed-up – you could see 50 years of handiwork from its chipped concrete foundation all the way up to its mismatched and faded shingles. It was covered with a patchwork-quilt of repairs.
“All it needs is a paint job,” my father told my uncle, who grunted – I guess, in agreement.
We tagged after our two fathers as they walked around the old house, surveying their new land, like Lords of the Manor. A small patch of brown lawn accessorized the peeling clapboard, and the back of the building looked even worse than the front. But all my father and uncle could see was potential.
I wasn’t as farsighted or as hopeful as they were.
We all mounted the back steps (which were missing a handrail) and entered the old building. It was dark, musty, and smelled like most ancient things that are neglected and unused. It had been sub-divided into three apartments that were small, cramped, and in desperate need of new flooring and paint. It was all fixable, my father and uncle told one another. Little by little, they both agreed that they could make this old house rentable. And what wasn’t rentable, they’d use for storage.
I didn’t have their vision.
There was nothing good about this old house that I could see. Room by room we all walked through it, sizing up every inch. The rooms were barren, the walls unfilled. Empty of furniture, it was hard for me to imagine people ever living there.
Until dad and my uncle decided to check the attic.
Attics are mysterious and exciting when you’re a kid. They’re dark, and unknown – filled with creepy things like spiders and rats, but a place with promise of surprise and treasure too. Strictly off-limits unless you’re with an adult – at least that was the rule in our family. But that day in the old house we had our fathers with us and we felt invincible. There was nowhere too dark or too frightening we couldn’t explore.
Led by my uncle, one by one, each kid followed, with my father protecting our rear flank. We mounted the pull-down ladder and disappeared into the darkness. It took a moment for our eyes to adjust, but when they did we saw that the attic was as empty as the rest of the rooms below it. There was no treasure waiting there to be found. Nothing but a few ragtag books that lay on the floor, with pages filled with dust and some nibbled by God-knows-what. My uncle handed them to each of us kids, who eagerly saw merit in every decrepit, ripped up volume, much like we did when we’d find metal slugs on job sites. But one book in particular caused my uncle to pause. A simple black cover, ripped at the top, and without a title, made him carry the bound pages closer to the opening of the attic where the light spilled brightly into the darkness. What he had found was a true treasure, and as he opened it, he graciously revealed its pages to our eager young eyes.
It was a scrapbook.
Not like any scrapbook I had ever seen, it’s black satin-like pages were filled from edge to edge – with postcards. Bright, colorful pictures filled its pages, along with black and white photographs of long ago, with women in long dresses and men staring blanking into the camera. Among the oohs and ahs that quickly filled that attic, my uncle slipped a postcard out and turned it over. There was writing on the back! He pulled out another and found more writing. Each card he turned over, there was a message and a date. “June 14, ’09,” “July 16, 1909.” “November 1, 1909.” We had found a time capsule into the past.
I hadn’t discovered writing yet at that tender age of ten. I was a year away from taking a creative writing class in summer school, and falling in love with making up stories. Looking back, maybe that day in the attic is what put me on a writer’s path. All I know is that I couldn’t take my eyes off that scrapbook, or those postcards with all those words from people who had lived so long ago. Like characters in a book, they seemed to be waiting there, to be discovered, just by me. Perhaps I stayed longer, looking at those postcards, while the other kids moved on to far corners of the attic, and other explorations. Perhaps because I was the oldest I was trusted with the responsibility. Or maybe I was just the kid standing the nearest to my uncle, and he saw my fascination up close. Whatever his reason, he handed me the scrapbook, and I took it for my own.
I spent so many days reading those postcards and imagining all those people who had written them:
Young Rollin Curtis who was just a boy when Aunt Libby wrote him a letter in 1901 thanking him for remembering her with a Valentine.
Little Jessie who remains young in all the postcards – with blonde hair, and never a smile.
The relatives of the Curtis’ and the Anderas who lived in Kendall, South Dakota, Salt Lake City. Utah, and Waterloo, Iowa. Mrs. Andera’s friends who sent her postcards of Hermosa Beach, Ocean Park, and a place Rollin called “City of Angels.”
I looked at the pictures and what I didn’t see I made up in my mind – the way they spoke, and laughed, the voices they had, the emotions they felt, the lives they lived. That scrapbook opened my imagination and made me ready and eager to create on paper what I was learning to do in my mind.
That day we found that scrapbook was years ago – a lifetime really. My father and my uncle are both gone now. All of us cousins have grown up with the next generation following close behind us. We have all been touched with change.
Only one thing has remained the same: that ugly old house.
My father and uncle’s investment has been all paid off to the bank. It belongs to my cousins, my brother and me now. Through the years it’s had its tenants – only two apartments have been livable. My brother was even a tenant at one time when he was a young artist and a student. But it’s a different day, a new century, and now even the city doesn’t like our ugly old house. Too many years, and too many patchwork repairs aren’t enough anymore. There’s a list of items to be upgraded, too many rules and regulations to be followed, and costing more money than we have, or that’s more than the worth of this ramshackle clapboard old-timer.
We have to tear it down.
But that’s not as easy as you would guess. The city wants a historical review done, and at $1500 we have to do it. A lovely historian lady came and walked through the house – very much like we all did many years ago. She also oohed and ahhed, but when it was time to write her report, she followed the rules and regulations to the letter, and deemed the building, “not historical.”
We could have saved the $1500 and told her that.
But the city needed an official report and so they received one – fourteen pages long. We found out some interesting facts about that old ugly house. It was probably built in 1895 in the middle of vineyards. And it was a Queen Anne. It probably looked like this:
We also learned about the people who had lived in that old house. 1927 was the year it was subdivided into four apartments. The occupants were working class people, with occupations as “watchman, barber, motorcycle police, clerk, bookkeeper, SCE lineman, fire dispatcher, typist, storekeeper, upholsterer, salesman, stone cutter, and auto operator.”
I liked learning about the people who had lived in that old house. I didn’t have a problem with most of the report, but what gave me pause was something the historian had written at the end of the report – that the house had no historical value because there was “no integrity of association.” And as the historian explained further, “None of the people living in the house were important to the community.”
None of those professions are important to a community?
Reading that historian’s report made me remember those postcards. I hadn’t looked at them for many years, but I searched through my closets and bookcases until I found them. I had transferred most of them into a new binder so it was easier to slip them out and read their messages.
I’ve spent the last few days reading through these old postcards and studying the faces of the people, looking at the places they went, where they lived, and who they knew. They are as real to me as when I first discovered them – when the old house introduced me to them in its attic – these long ago forgotten people who in history will never be considered important.
I beg to differ.
(Here’s a little film I made about the old house and those postcards from so many years ago. The song, “This Old House” is performed by The Rice Brothers on the Bluegrass Class of 1990 album.)
(New to my website? Read my first post, Can You All Hear Me In The Back?)
I have a speaking engagement for my book, An Agoraphobic’s Guide to Hollywood, on Monday. The P.E.O. International Sisterhood promotes educational opportunities for women, and they asked me to make a personal appearance at their local chapter.
I’m already getting butterflies in my stomach.
The title of my speech (or at least how the events programmer is advertising it) is: “Darlene Craviotto – Getting Out of the House.” I can talk about screenwriting for days, or how to be a working mom for hours on end. But when it comes to speaking about my struggles with agoraphobia my mouth suddenly goes dry, and the room gets unbearably hot. The only way to fight through this is to make sure I’m prepared for next Monday. I’m no Ph.D. with all of the answers, but I’ve had my adventures with agoraphobia over the years, and (as nervous as it makes me to admit it) I’m doing much better now than I did in the past. I’ve gotten healthy enough to step out of the house on a regular basis. And if I had to tell you how or why I got better, I think I could list ten things that have helped me go from a full-blown agoraphobic to someone who regularly gets out of the house – and usually has a pretty good time while doing it.
(Not counting the panic attack I had in the Home Depot this morning.)
Here’s my Top Ten List for Overcoming Agoraphobia:
Having somebody else drive taught me that if I was too nervous to get behind the wheel I could let someone (hopefully, less nervous) do the driving for me. This worked fine for a while until one day I got a cab driver that drove like a crazy man. It took me a few minutes of internal debate (“You have to speak up!” “I can’t speak up – He’ll drive even faster!”) before I finally found my voice and asked the cab driver to slow down. I told him I was in no hurry, and I didn’t mind if it cost me extra. Well, he turned into one of the slowest drivers I ever had – which was fine with me. That experience taught me that I had the power to speak up even when I was terrified, and that lesson was worth every dollar I paid for that overpriced cab ride.
I don’t have to explain this one, do I? The more you talk about your problems (preferably with an expert) the better you feel. And feeling confident and good about yourself not only helps agoraphobia, but it’ll help a whole list of other problems too.
No matter how badly you want to hide in your house, you’ve got to force yourself to get out. NEVER LET THE PANIC ATTACKS WIN. No matter what happens: Get out there past your front door and try it again. I did have a panic attack in the Home Depot this morning – just a day after I had gone there with my husband. Ironically, while we were going to the back of the store (a real problem area for me), I said to him, “Wow! This is the first time I’ve been in the Home Depot and not wanted to run for the nearest exit.” Well, okay, so today that flee-right-now-feeling found me again in the Home Depot (I had to return a towel rack) and this time the panic won. But the important news is that I walked (not ran) to the exit, went outside, took some deep breaths, and drove home leisurely, intent to (one day soon, but not today) return again to that huge behemoth of a store known as Home Depot. I’m in charge of my life, not the panic attacks.
I took a job that forced me to get out of the house every day even though I felt miserable trying to get there. Just having that regular commitment of a place to go every day – a place that’s familiar – can put you in a better frame of mind. I met people; I interacted with them; I even dated one of them and eventually married him. He became my support person and that really helped me and well…that brings me to the next step in my recovery:
You have to leave the house eventually when you have kids – there’s no way around that. One of my readers here at my blog (who has had her own challenges with agoraphobia) wrote me: “Doing something for my kids gets me out of my comfort zone.” Every parent can relate to that – even if they don’t struggle with agoraphobia. There is no comfort zone once you become a parent: kids are messy (toddlers and public bathrooms are a real challenge), noisy (we preferred to call our kids “extremely verbal”), and overly honest (“Mommy, why is that man so fat?”). But here’s the good part for an agoraphobic who is a parent: As my kids started to explore the world, they took me with with them. There were times when I needed some help – Hubby would drive, or I’d have someone else drive us. But what was important was that my kids were getting me out of my house – away from my comfort zone. And the excitement in their eyes at looking at the world (a place that for me felt so frightening at times) made me see life with a brand new enthusiasm – a zest for living that only children understand.
Part of the fear you face as an agoraphobic is being in a new (and unknown) environment. Thanks to Google maps no location is ever surprising to me anymore because I know what to expect (and what it will look like) when I get there. And now you can see the world at street level and 3-D! When we went to England two years ago, I immediately recognized the outside of all of our hotels; I could walk down the street like a local. I knew every building in the neighborhood, from the pub next door, to the Italian restaurant around the corner. Google has given me the confidence again to travel.
Make some. Or become closer to the ones you already have. For the longest time, Hubby was my only safety person – someone with whom I could venture out into the world and feel safe doing it. I didn’t have that feeling with my friends. If a friend wanted to go out to lunch or meet for coffee or a movie I’d always find a reason not to go or I’d cancel last minute. It wasn’t the fault of my friends: it was me. I just didn’t have the same level of trust with them. That changed the summer my husband was hired to star in a play in Colorado. While he rehearsed during the day, I stayed alone in the condo and wrote. I didn’t dare venture outside. As a matter of fact, I was a nervous wreck just being there, thousands of miles away from my comfort zone – our home in West Hollywood. And then a good friend came to visit, and I had a choice to make: spend all of our time indoors (there’s a limit to how much telelvision you can watch) or venture outside with our friend. I was a wreck trying to decide what to do. What was I afraid of, you might ask. That’s certainly what the therapist had asked me, when I called her frantically all the way from Colorado. “What if something bad happens to me?” I told her. “I trust my husband to help me, but I’m not sure about my friend.” Well, thanks to that therapist (See Item #2 above) for saying: “You’ll never find out, Darlene, unless you get out of the house.” So my friend (Jeff) and I went fishing at a nearby river. For a first step, it was a big one. A big step that turned into an even bigger stumble: I slipped on a rock on the muddy river bed, fell backwards into the water, and I couldn’t move. My ankle was sprained and I couldn’t get back up. I was trapped there and my head was slowly sinking under water. Jeff did what any of my other friends would’ve done: he laughed. I looked ridiculous, spread-eagled, still wearing a cowboy hat (somewhat cock-eyed on my head), and still holding my fishing pole. But Jeff did something else too: he came running, reached down to stop me from slipping completely underwater, and he helped me back up to my feet. Easier said than done – we slipped and slided along the muddy river bank, both of us now laughing (and me wincing in pain and hopping on one foot). Jeff saved me from drowning. And he taught me that day that I could feel safe in the world with a friend.
My daughter started playing competitive softball when she was five. When she was seven she was asked to be on an All-Star team and to travel during the summer to tournaments. I remember how exciting this was, but also frightening for me. We had to go to new towns every weekend, adjusting to different motels, new restaurants, and thousands of people at the tournaments. The first time we had a team meal I was certain I couldn’t do it. There must have been 50 of us all sitting together with tables joined – everyone talking non-stop, people I barely knew. I thought to myself, “If I can get through this meal without bolting out of the restaurant in hysterics, maybe this won’t be so bad after all.” I made it through that meal, and after that, team meals started to feel okay. As a matter of fact, they started to feel like we were one big noisy family.
Softball taught me how to be flexible, and how to travel to strange new towns (like Mesquite,Nevada) and how to feel comfortable in a group of people, even if my husband had to miss a tournament. I had to fly with my daughter and her team to Denver (thanks to valium) and Houston (thanks to valium again) and one time my best friend Marie drove my daughter and me to a tournament in St. George, Utah. Marie’s not exactly a softball fan but she drove us anyway (See Item #7 above). Softball taught me “to hit whatever strikes were sent my way.” And in return, my confidence really started to build.
I stopped driving completely in Los Angeles, and anyone who has driven in a large city can understand why: the streets are crowded with traffic. Once we moved two hours away (back to my hometown) and to a suburb, I couldn’t use traffic as an excuse not to drive anymore. Plus, my kids were older, and getting busier. True, they were in school all day in one location, but after school they had sports (located all over town). I realized that I needed to start driving again full time. That was easier said than done. I was able to make short trips – down the street one block, and around the corner to pick up my kids after school. But I had to get more comfortable behind the wheel for longer drives, and I just wasn’t sure how to do that. If I could’ve put wheels on my house, that would’ve helped. Then it dawned on me: that’s what an RV is. It’s a house on wheels. All right, maybe an RV was too large, but if I could get something like an RV, maybe I’d feel more secure while driving. I looked in the newspaper one day and I saw an ad for converted vans. That sounded promising. We had to drive an hour away to test drive it, but the moment I saw the Great White Van I knew that I’d found my home away from home. Complete with wood paneling inside, a television set, mood lighting, and a third seat that (with the push of a button) turned into a bed, it was more like a pimp mobile than anything else. But it was exactly what I needed. I called it my mobile office. And I would drive it to the beach, park it with a 360 degree view of the beautiful Pacific Ocean, and feel as safe and happy inside as I did in my own little track house in the suburbs. My Big White Van became my home away from home, and I started driving (the kids and anybody else who would go with me) all over our small town. Except for freeways – I’m still working on that.
As I worked on the revisions, I started to feel a lot freer because I was finally opening up (publicly) about something I had kept hidden for years. When the book came out, (and through this website) I started hearing from people who wanted to know more about what it was like to battle agoraphobia. For the first time in my life, I was giving myself permission to talk about all the fears I’d so carefully locked away because I was afraid people would think of me as weird. I had been terrified that if I talked about it people wouldn’t understand, or they’d put me down as a whiner, or some kind of malingerer. Writing the book helped me in one other way too: it became another reason for me to get out of the house. There have been book signings, and personal appearances (like the one coming up next week) and I have to leave my house to do them. True, they’ve only been in my local community, but still, I can’t hide behind my computer in my home office anymore.
When you struggle with a BIG PROBLEM in your life, its difficulty tricks you into believing that you’re the only person in the world suffering from it. The bad thing about agoraphobia is that it keeps us suffering all by ourselves. I once wanted to find a support group for agoraphobics, but then I realized probably no one would show up to the meetings. That’s what’s so great about the Internet. You can show up here without really showing up.
There’s one more item I should add to this Top Ten list (even though that would make it a Top Eleven List) , and that’s humor. Never take anything so seriously that you can’t find a way to laugh about it. Remember the Irish proverb, “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.”
I shed a lot of tears in the worst of times – when agoraphobia first called my name and I answered. But life only started to get better once I figured out that it’s not about getting out of the house – it’s just about trying.
Anyway, it’s worked for me.
(New to my website? Read my first post, Can You All Hear Me In The Back? Want to read more of my posts about agoraphobia? Read One More Thing Before I Forget, and One Small Step For Mankind, One Giant Step For Me.)
I’m not a fan of the iPhone 5.
I know that it’s thinner, lighter, and faster. The screen is larger, and the resolution is sharper, and it’s the best of the iPhones that Apple has to offer. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not anti-progress, or an Apple hater. I own an iPhone 4, and an iPad 2, and I’m madly in love with both.
But they’re fine just the way they are.
I don’t need them to be perfected every six months or so. They work just swell, and honestly, I couldn’t care less if Apple makes them better. Or at least better for the moment. Because you know what happens in another six months or so…Apple will make the iPhone or the iPad even better! So that means what?…another three hundred, four hundred, FIVE hundred dollars we have to spend?! Just to keep up with what’s supposed to be the best. Well, the best until the next numbered item is announced to the world.
I’m tired of playing that game.
I get it. We’re not supposed to be happy with what we have; we’re supposed to want something even better. Technology is moving at lightning speed, and we have to keep up with it. We dump the old, and reach for the new. Even if what we have is perfectly okay.
I’m bothered by what I see on the screen: The news comes into my life and makes me pause. On the day the iPhone 5 came out Americans died overseas. People protested in the streets, and anger ruled the day. This world is split down the middle with those waiting in line for something faster, larger, and better, while others just want to live, feed their family, or be free.
Forgive me if I don’t want an iPhone 5.
It’s not as perfect as it looks.
(Have you taken a bigger bite of the Apple – Will you be buying the iPhone 5?)
- iPhone 5 Goes On Sale Today With Huge Lines Outside Apple Stores (redmondpie.com)
- Why I Didn’t Get My iPhone 5 (appadvice.com)
I hate cleaning my house.
I’ll do anything to get out of it. I’d rather write 10,000 words straight and skip dinner than face a dirty house. Sometimes I think it’s because I’ve gotten older so it’s like cooking those textbook-beautiful, gourmet meals when you first learn to cook: I’m so over it. But then the other day I was going through some writings I did in my early twenties – I should’ve been scrubbing the toilets at the time, but like I say: I’ll do anything to get out of house cleaning. Turns out my twenty-something-self hated “domestic engineering” just as much as I do now. Here’s a little ditty I wrote when I probably should’ve been waxing the floors:
Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my house to keep.
If I should die before the dawn,
please forgive my unmown lawn.
The dirty dishes in the sink,
the laundry which I’m sure must stink.
It’s been awhile since I’ve done the floors,
cleaned the windows, dusted, and much more.
Lord, if you take my soul without warning,
please know I planned to clean in the morning.
Do you avoid cleaning your house? How do you motivate yourself to (in the words of Nike) “just do it?” Please leave me a comment so I’ll be busy answering it and it’ll give me a good reason not to go vacuum.
Your dedication to our family, and your loyalty to your big brother were lessons for us all.
And when it was your turn to lead, you did so with honor, humility, strength, and love. You were a wonderful uncle: my skinny, curly-haired, very tall uncle who used to sing Rag Top to me while dancing me around Nanie’s dining room, before rushing off to play basketball.
I will always remember you as the man who taught me how to hold a pigeon so gently when I was five, and how you showed me that no matter how far they would fly, they’d always know their way back home again.
Your love for life, and for the people in it was palpable – visible in the way you worked, the way you played, the way you appreciated everything around you. This is your legacy – who you were, and what you believed in. And it will go on forever: in the hearts and deeds of those you loved and who loved you.
Thank you, Uncle Danny.
Wow, what a week!
If you came to this blog and read last week’s post you got a chance to be a part of the test screening of No Girls Allowed. Hollywood films have been screening to test audiences for many years. Studios hire “focus group” companies (for many thousands of dollars) to bring in people so they can measure what works in a film and what doesn’t.
I’m not a big studio. I’m just a writer who found a story that I thought needed to be remembered. Film has the power to reach many people, and so I decided to tell this story through film, as a documentary. For one moment in my life I stepped away from the role of writer to become a filmmaker.
If you’re an independent filmmaker you don’t have thousands of dollars for test screenings, so you rely on other ways to see how audiences will receive your film. That’s what I did this week, using this blog to reach a specific focus group: the alumni and extended community of Central High School.
I never expected such a huge response. The CHS community is amazing – and large! Intelligent, articulate, passionate, and involved. I thank you all for viewing the film, and for starting a conversation here in the comments you’ve made about your experiences, your feelings, and your thoughts about the 1983 gender integration of Central High.
This is just the beginning of the conversation.
No Girls Allowed now begins its journey as a film. We will be scheduling a screening in Philadelphia in 2013 to commemorate, and acknowledge those brave young girls who helped make co-education at Central High School a reality. If you are interested in being contacted about the screening, please let us know in the comment section on this website, or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are a member of the Press, please email us about a password-protected review screening on Vimeo.
(A few years ago I went back to college. I won’t tell you how many years separated my freshman year at the University of California at Santa Barbara and my sophomore return in 2005. Let’s just say it was enough years to have a screenwriting career in Hollywood, meet and marry my husband, become a mother, and raise my two kids until they graduated from high school. After the two little ones became big people of their own, I decided to go back to UCSB and finish the final two years of academic work to get a B.A. It took me four years so that’ll give you an idea that it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. But I loved every minute of it. I wrote a lot of papers in that time, met some amazing twenty-something-year-olds, and embarked upon an adventure that I finally completed this week: I made a film. Here’s the story of how that film began…)
Seven years ago I sat in a crowded lecture hall at UCSB and listened while a professor reminisced about being one of the first female students to attend an all-male public high school in Philadelphia. The school had practiced single sex education (for males only) for 147 years until 1983 when a court in Pennsylvania ordered the mandatory co-education of Central High School. I was used to seeing students during lecture text messaging, checking email on their laptops, or dozing during most lectures. But as the professor spoke openly and honestly about her first-year experiences (sometimes difficult) at Central High, the two hundred students around me sat in stunned and respectful silence. They were riveted by what she was telling them.
After the lecture, I went up to the professor and asked her if any books had ever been written about the gender integration of Central High. Public high schools are known to be coed, and yet, Central had avoided going coed until it was legally required as late as 1983. She confessed to me that nothing had ever been written about the case, or the women who were the first to attend Central.
“I think it might make an interesting documentary,” I suggested.
“Count me in!” she told me with a smile. And she was looking directly at me when she said it.
Me and my big mouth.
I went home that night and started researching. But no matter how many Google searches I did I couldn’t find anything about that 1983 Central High story that the professor had assured me had been front page news. Now I was intrigued. I decided to just keep digging by searching Philadelphia newspaper archives at UCSB’s Davidson Library. What I found in my months of research surprised, angered, enlightened, and convinced me that it was an amazing story that had to be told.
And film was the best way to tell it.
The Central High 6 in 1983
No Girls Allowed is a 50-minute documentary about the first young women who attended the all-male, academically elite Central High School in Philadelphia. It’s taken seven years to write, film, and edit. To watch the trailer, click HERE: No Girls Allowed – Trailer. You can now purchase a DVD of No Girls Allowed by going HERE: No Girls Allowed – DVD.
(This is the fourth and final post of the Cookie & Marty series. If you’d like to read the other three posts you can find them here in the order they were written: A Love Story (Sort of), A Love Story Continues (Sort of), A Love Story (Sort of): The New York Rendezvous (Pt. 1)…)
It’s Thursday and Cookie still hasn’t called.
I don’t know what that means.
I spoke to her on Monday when she first arrived in New York, and she sounded terrible. She’s only supposed to be there for five days, so is no news good news? Or is she just too miserable to talk about it? My imagination is playing out all kinds of scenarios, and most of them aren’t good.
My cell phone finally rings in the afternoon.
“Boy, do I need a drink!”
But wait…It’s 2:15 p.m. in California, so technically it’s cocktail hour in New York. Not necessarily a bad sign.
“There’s a diner across the street. Maybe they’ve got alcohol,” she tells me as she takes the cell phone with her to explore, with me at the other end. She’s in luck at the diner and quickly orders a Gin & Tonic.
“Look at me – I’m having a Gin & Tonic at a counter surrounded by people eating tuna fish sandwiches.”
“Has it been that bad?!”
She takes a long sip before answering.
“It’s been wonderful!”
After the fiasco of the flight-that-never-seemed-to-end, Cookie awoke the next day feeling that the pressure was off her shoulders.
“We met. We saw each other. And we lived through it,” she explained. “The hard part was already over!”
It had been 55 years since the two of them had seen each other, and even though they had shared photos in their emails, seeing one another up close was the real deal.
“I didn’t exactly look 15, but he didn’t look 22 either! So it was a draw.”
Marty had arrived at the motel the next morning, picked her up, and they went non-stop all day. Breakfast at a diner. Beachcombing at the beach. A ferry ride out to Ocean Beach on Fire Island. A sudden rainstorm and lots of laughter. A walk in the village, window shopping, and ice cream cones. Holding hands, and arms tight around each other. Non-stop conversation, and a feeling that they had known each other for all of the 55 years they had missed spending together. They did so many activities that first day, Marty called her up later that night.
“I’m exhausted! You’ve got so much energy! How do you do it?!”
“I’ve got a big personality,” she explains to me. As if I hadn’t noticed.
The next day Cookie spent with her New York family: two nieces, their husbands, and all of their kids. It was an amazing family reunion, a trek into Manhattan for Chinese food, while Marty stayed at home.
“Were you nervous that maybe he was ditching you?” I ask.
“No way! I exhausted him! He needed to rest!”
Sure enough, on Thursday he picked her up bright and early, and confessed, “I missed you yesterday. You’re under my skin.”
Thursday was filled with more beaches, and a visit to a magnificent old lighthouse.
The Lighthouse at Fire Island
Originally lit in 1858, its light still burns bright and steady – for decades offering the first evidence of land across a vast, oftentimes turbulent Atlantic Ocean.
In the afternoon, they walked further down the beach, collecting seashells. Her head down, and searching the sand, Cookie’s attention was on the ocean’s beautiful bounty when Marty suddenly stopped her.
“Don’t walk any further or you’ll be on the nude beach.”
Cookie stopped in her tracks. She knew all about this beach because Marty had told her about it when they had talked on the phone. He was always a beach lover, and so he would walk along this shore for hours, all by himself. One day when he was strolling along he came across the clothing optional beach. He started meeting people there – from all walks of life – nice people, mostly middle-aged, and he liked them. So he kept going back. And one day he figured, what the hell: he took off his shirt, and then took the big step and lost his shorts.
“Where’s your beach? Where exactly is it?” Cookie wanted to know. But Marty wanted her to be comfortable.
“Don’t look up,” he told her. “I don’t want you to see something that’ll maybe make you uncomfortable.”
Cookie stopped in her tracks and didn’t look up. But then something wonderful happened – all of Marty’s friends, the ones there on that clothing optional beach, knew about Cookie and they wanted to meet her. They wanted to meet the woman who Marty talked so much about, and who’d made their friend so happy. So they did something special just for her. They put on their shirts, reached for a robe or a towel, slipped into their shorts, and they went over to the other side of the beach just to meet her and to say hello.
“I love his friends!!!”
They were all different kinds of people. One guy worked for a trucking firm, another guy had the NY Yankee logo on his bicep (with the year of every series they’d won). One of the women worked on bridges, and another woman was a special needs teacher. They all gathered around Cookie, introducing themselves (now fully dressed), meeting her and hitting it off like long-lost friends. One of the women was scheduled to go to New Hampshire to begin her vacation, but she postponed leaving so she and her husband could throw Cookie and Marty a barbecue and the rest of Marty’s friends could meet Cookie.
“Can you imagine? They all put on their clothes just to meet me!”
It was a great week for Cookie.
“Marty is wonderful!”
A real gentleman, she tells me: always holding open her car door, and taking her hand. They had long conversations, and even the pauses felt right. After only the first couple of days.
“I stopped wearing makeup after the second day!” she says proudly.
And Cookie always wears makeup.
“I felt like I had been with this man forever. There wasn’t one moment when I wasn’t having a nice time. We’re like an old married couple.”
“And you don’t give something like that up.”
“But I’m sorry about your ending,” she tells me, as I hear her finishing the last of her Gin & Tonic, the ice clicking against the glass.
“What ending?” I ask.
“Exactly! There is no ending.”
Marty is comfortable with his life there on Long Island. He loves his friends, loves to walk his dog, loves his beach (clothing optional), and he loves going back to his home when the day is over. Cookie is also happy with her life – 3,000 miles away in L.A.
“There’s no kind of ending to our story,” Cookie explains.
I tell her not to worry about it. Sometimes the best story doesn’t really end – it just stops. But what matters the most are the feelings you’re left with when it does stop.
Cookie went back to L.A. on Saturday, and she called me once the weekend was over. Her flight home had been just as hectic as the one going out to New York: the flight was cancelled, and she had to spend hours in line at the airport trying to get another one.
“I’ll never book another flight using free mileage!!!” she wails.
She was ecstatic to be home.
“Are you sorry you traveled the 3,000 miles?” I ask her.
“Not at all!” she says without hesitation. “One of the best things I’ve ever done. If anything, this made me and Marty closer.”
Marty still calls promptly at 8 a.m. every morning, and Cookie calls him a couple of times during the day. They email each other constantly. And when the snow globe Cookie bought for her granddaughter at Ocean Beach broke, Marty insisted on taking the ferry back out there to buy her another. What the two of them have now, before Cookie schlepped 3000 miles east, are new shared memories. Before, the only memories they had were 55 years old, intense, youth-filled experiences. But now there’s that ferry ride to Ocean Beach, the Lighthouse on Fire Island, the sudden thunderstorm, sharing an ice cream cone, collecting seashells on the beach, the good friends who welcomed Cookie like a member of their own family, holding hands and cuddling, and a comfort they share with each other and no one else in this world. If that ain’t love, what is?
All animals mate, but few mate for life. With the divorce rate at 40 – 50%, Homo sapiens seem to change partners like the rest of the animal world. And yet, we try for something different. We stand up in front of our friends and family and we take vows – for better or worse, in all kinds of bad times, sickness and health, whether we’re rich or we’re poor. We say those vows because we mean them and we try to stay together for a lifetime. The lucky ones make it, but even if we fail, we still want to try again. The one quality we have that the animals don’t is our need for intimacy. Not just that physical act of reproduction, but that rare connection that happens between two people, that bond uniting two souls that takes away our loneliness, comforting, and soothing us to make those bumps in life a little more tolerable. It’s hearing another voice, or looking into another pair of eyes, and feeling more comfortable there than you do within yourself. That’s intimacy, and it can happen with or without sex, in and out of a marriage, with best friends, and with soul mates. It’s amazing that it even happens at all, but it does. And when you find another human being with whom you can share that intimacy, you’ve found your home. You recognize it and say, “Yeah, this is it. I’m safe with this person, and so I’ll stay.”
In those old Hollywood movies you never really see the end of a love story. Instead, the romance is sealed with a kiss, and the audience is sent home happy. That’s all we need to know – that in this oh-too-painful-at-times world, filled with stress and craziness, two people have found one another. That’s all we really need to know about Cookie & Marty: that these two people, living separate lives on two faraway coasts, somehow connected with one another. And they both lived happily ever after.
Because we want them to.
It’s one word that can mean either good news or bad. I was hoping this wasn’t bad news but, honestly, Cookie didn’t sound that excited saying it. She was calling me all the way from Long Island after twelve hours of an aviation marathon: a 6:30 a.m. flight out of LAX, a change of planes in the Midwest, one and a half hours on the tarmac in Minneapolis, and almost an hour circling high above the five boroughs of New York, waiting to land.
“Somebody gave me five valium to take with me on the trip, thank God! That’s all I’ve had in my stomach all day.”
“No, no. But I was tempted, believe me.”
She sounded terrible. Way past disappointed.
“What happened?” I asked her.
I knew the plan: Cookie had free miles and was using them for a flight from LAX to JFK, and a trip to spend some time with Marty. Marty was going to meet her at the airport and pick her up. She was planning to spend a week on Long Island, staying at a Best Western located midway between her niece’s apartment and Marty’s house. It would be a week for visiting her family, and getting to know Marty again after 55 years. I also knew that if she’d been nervous in L.A about doing this she wasn’t about to disembark from that plane looking calm and poised, like Audrey Hepburn.
“It was horrible!!!” she wailed at the other end of the phone. She was exhausted. “I’ve been up since 3, and I didn’t sleep too good a couple of nights before.” I could hear her at the other end trying to pull herself together.
Who the hell wanted to feel this vulnerable? She wasn’t a kid anymore; who had the energy for this? She wasn’t that fifteen-year-old with stars in her eyes coming off of that plane. And she could see by the look on Marty’s face that was who he had expected to meet at the airport.
“Today was a scratch,” she said, using a term from horseracing when a horse has to be removed from a race. “Let’s just say it was a scratch.”
Maybe this was a bad idea flying 3,000 miles so she and Marty could meet up. There was just too much pressure riding on this New York rendezvous. Who knew it would feel this wrong? After 55 years the love story of Marty and Cookie was getting another shot. A chance encounter on the internet (Cookie looked him up on Facebook) connected the two of them for the first time since she was 15 and Marty was 22, when the Army took him away, and the distance and age difference had split them apart. Now, years later, the two had finally reconnected through Facebook, emails, and the phone. Marty and Cookie had rekindled a spark while 3,000 miles away from each other: Marty, living on the east coast, and Cookie (a transplanted New Yorker) now living in L.A. Their new love story (sort of) wasn’t without complications: They were thousands of miles away from each other, and Marty was already taken. He was married, but it was a marriage of convenience. They were both too old and set in their ways to break apart. But he had his life, and his wife had hers. So what did that mean to Cookie and Marty? They both agreed that they should meet in person and see what would happen.
“I walked off of that plane, and there he was, and I could just tell from the look on his face that he was disappointed,” Cookie told me.
They had both exchanged current photos through email. And both had seemed content with how they now looked in this 21st century.
“Yeah, but it’s different when you’re staring up close, face to face. I didn’t look my best, trust me.”
I tried to cheer her up. Maybe she was wrong. Sometimes we’re so anxious our mind plays tricks on us, and it’s so easy to sabotage ourselves when we want something so much.
“Let’s put it this way: It wasn’t exactly love at first sight.”
“What were you wearing?” I asked her.
There’s that word again.
“Black capris and a white t shirt that was clinging to all the wrong parts of my body.”
“My hair was a mess. My make-up was all over the place. I could just see on his face that this whole thing was one big mistake.”
All Cookie wanted to do was to get to the motel and climb into bed and sleep. Instead, Marty took her out to a restaurant for hamburgers. They talked, but the words didn’t come as easily as they did when traveling 3,000 miles across phone lines. And when the meal was over all Cookie wanted was for Marty to drive her to the motel. After she had checked in (as quickly as possible), Marty walked her to her room, and Cookie told him she wanted to be alone.
“You’re not expecting to come in, are you?” she asked him.
Marty shook his head no – maybe a little too quickly for Cookie’s taste. “It was a scratch,” she told me again just in case I hadn’t heard her the first time.
“You need your rest,” Marty told her, and Cookie agreed.
“Maybe it’ll be better tomorrow?” I suggest to her.
“It couldn’t be any worse.”
(TO BE CONTINUED: Tomorrow (8/10/12) – A Love Story (Sort of): The New York Rendezvous (Pt. 2) 7 p.m. EST, 6 p.m. CST, 4 p.m. PST)
(If you’d like to read the earlier segments of the Cookie & Marty story, follow these links…
For those of you who have asked how the Cookie & Marty story has developed, you’ll find out this week. I usually write a new post every Thursday and put it up on this website. But there’s so much to share with everyone I can’t write just one post. It looks like it’ll take a couple of days to cover everything, and so, I’ll be posting the first part on Thursday, and the second part (instead of having you wait a week) this Friday.
If you have no idea who Cookie & Marty are, or what the heck I’m talking about, you might want to read my earlier two posts just to catch up:
See you all on Thursday!
“Hey, it’s Thursday. Isn’t that blogger (with the name I never remember) supposed to have a new post out?”
Yep, guilty as charged.
Here it is Thursday and it’s not that I don’t have something I want to share with all of you (I do and I’ll write about that on Monday) but I don’t have any time today to write a new post. Instead, I’m out having margaritas and tortas, smashing cascarones (hollowed out eggs filled with confetti) against someone’s head, and yelling, “Viva la!!!” It’s Fiesta time once again in Santa Barbara. If you don’t know about Fiesta, let me fill you in: it’s a five-day excuse to party. There’s a parade, LOTS of alcohol (mostly involving tequila and cervezas (beer), but hey, in a pinch anything alcoholic will do) and so many displays of Spanish-style dancing in colorful costumes you’ll think you wandered onto the set of “Zorro.”
Today’s Fiesta, now called “Old Spanish Days,” centering around a Courthouse evening known as “Las Noches de Ronda,” originally was started by the Poole-Verhelle Group of Dancers in 1922. Dancing for enjoyment and entertainment eventually evolved into a community party now known as Fiesta. Here’s a picture of that original group.
My grandfather is supposed to be somewhere in that photo. But for the life of me, I don’t see him anywhere – maybe he was behind the camera taking the picture. You can see him (and my grandmother) in this photo below, all dressed up in their Fiesta finest.
And going back one more generation, here’s my great-grandfather…
If you’re a certain type of local, however, Fiesta time in Santa Barbara is when you abandon the town to the tourists and take off to Hawaii, or some other exotic location where you can party according to their local traditions. My dad and uncle always took ten days off on the dates when Fiesta would fall during the year. They had their own business – an ironworks/welding shop – and they’d hurry up like hell to finish up their jobs, sometimes right up to the night before Fiesta Pequena kicked off that year’s Big Party. How they managed to get all of their work done in time for their getaway was always a miracle, and involved much yelling, swearing, and both brothers threatening each other, “I’m not going on vacation!!” “NO, I’m not going!” Although their parents generation had started Fiesta, the two brothers hated that time of the year in their hometown. Maybe this photo had something to do with it:
That must have been the one and only time the brothers dressed up in costumes. Too bad because they were awfully cute hombresitos.
In spite of the dislike the two brothers had for Old Spanish Days craziness, the love for Fiesta still beats strongly in the younger generation. My kids always stop their own lives to return like spawning salmon to their hometown, and the sweet sounds of mariachis and “Viva La!!!” So forgive me if I can’t write a post today. Sometimes there’s a greater calling than just the need to put thoughts into words. It’s Old Spanish Days in Santa Barbara!
And I have to get the hell out of this town before the tourists take it over.
Viva La Fiesta!!!!
(Click on the title in Blue)
I’m going to write something today that I probably shouldn’t be writing but I’m going to write it anyway. I’m opening this up for discussion and maybe some of you can help me figure this out.
I have an “online hater.”
Is that an actual term or am I making that up? Does anybody know? Well, if it’s not a legitimate term, I’m now coining it. Here’s what it means: An online hater is someone who is the opposite of a fan. Or a friend. Or even some nice-enough acquaintance you just met on Twitter. My online hater is somebody who doesn’t like me because I wrote a book with Michael Jackson as one of the central characters. She thinks it was wrong for me to write it, and that I said bad things about Michael. She told me this in a brief exchange on an Amazon chat board; we actually had a discussion about it when the book first came out. I guess that discussion wasn’t enough for her because then she showed up on my blog, on the book’s Facebook, the Amazon review site, and once when I visited a blog site for a Q & A. She just keeps showing up and trash talking me.
Is it wrong that I’m upset about this?
Because I am. I know I shouldn’t probably admit that. I know you’re supposed to turn the other cheek. I know that words aren’t supposed to hurt you. And yet, I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t hurt. I guess there’s just something in my double-X chromosomes that makes me want to please everybody, and to make sure everyone’s happy. Well, my online hater certainly isn’t happy. And I’m trying to figure out how to deal with this.
I’m not good with criticism, but as I get older, I’m getting better at it. You can tell me you don’t like my writing, you don’t like my stories, you don’t like my hair, or the way I laugh, or that I laugh at the wrong moments, my eyes are too close, I wear funny clothes, or ridiculous looking shoes; you don’t like my politics, or you don’t like me because I’m not political. There are any number of reasons you might find fault with me. I’ve learned to accept the fact that some people just love to criticize, and they’ll do it openly, and often. My emotional skin has thickened (a little) over the years, and I can deal with most (all right, some) disapproval thrown my way. But I draw the line when you attack my honesty. Honesty is the way I try to live my life, and it’s what I bring to my writing.
All + Everything.
To do something well you have to be passionate about what you’re doing, and you have to do it to the max: Body and soul. All + Everything. That’s what I do when I write. I give you my point of view, honestly; and I don’t hold back. And that’s what I did in my book. Michael Jackson was in my life for a brief period of time, and what I wrote about him was from my point of view. Honest, and to the point. I didn’t hold back anything – my observations or my thoughts. I told my story (and the key words here are my story) exactly the way I experienced it.
So for the benefit of my online hater: If you want to find fault with me, for writing about my honest point of view, well, I guess you and I will have to agree to disagree. You’re not going to change my way of thinking, and I know that I certainly won’t change yours. I guess this conversation between the two of us is now over.
It’s time for you to move on.
(How do you handle the haters in your life? The ones that find meaning in attacking, criticizing, and judging who you are and what you do? Do you let them know how you’re feeling and confront them? Or do you just keep quiet and hold it in?)
“Hi! Can I take your order?!”
The barista was young – with more spring in his voice than ever was in my step. I really doubted that he shaved. Or even knew how.
“I’ll have a decaf latte,” I placed my order.
And then, feeling brave.
“Double shot of vanilla,” I added. And not the sugar-free.
“And your name?” he asked, poising the black marker at the top of the paper cup.
“Darlene,” I said, and then quickly added, not willing to risk another “Darling” scribbled on my order. “D-A-R…”
“I know that name!” he said proudly. And then, finished spelling it aloud as I did, “…L…E…N…E.”
Maybe he did know how to shave.
He took my stare of amazement as a challenge and explained.
“I have a cousin named Darlene,” he told me, with a victorious smile. “She’s 65.”
65? Really?! Who dragged age into this conversation? Of course, my grey hair sneaking out the sides of my son’s old baseball cap might have been a hint or two. Do I politely nod and let the subject drop? Not willing to “date” myself? Or do I keep the ball rolling, possibly revealing my own age?
Aw hell, I took the plunge.
“Your cousin’s probably named after “Darlene” from the Mickey Mouse Club. A lot of us with that name were named after her. So when you see a “Darlene,” we’re usually from around that same period of time.”
“It’s such a great name!!!” he said, scrawling the name on my cup.
I smiled. It wasn’t so bad admitting my age range. I mean, I’m sure he could tell I wasn’t twenty. Even though I must admit that in my heart I am still twenty, especially when a cute young man (guy? dude?) like this takes the time to even talk to me. And when they actually look you in the eyes and smile, well, there’s no difference now at 60-something and when I was really twenty. So yeah, I looked him in the eyes and I smiled my most fetching smile.
“I really love that name of “Darlene,” he murmured, softly. “It reminds me of Old America.”
Ohhh – Kay.
I must admit this made me pause.
I wasn’t aware there was an “Old America,” but I guess there is.
And I’m it.
I’m one of the Baby Boomers who was filled with idealism, hope, and promise. There were a lot of us, and we helped stop a war and impeach a President; we spoke out against injustice, worked for diversity and equity, and stepped up, when it was our time, to do our jobs, raise our families, and run the country. We didn’t always find our way; we might have stumbled trying to do so much, but we tried. And we believed that if we worked together – all of us, Americans – we could make anything better.
That’s what the barista called it. Called those of us who grew up with the Mickey Mouse Club and the new medium of television, long hair and the belief that love would bring us peace. And he said “Old America” with respect. He said it with longing. He said it like someone sitting on the edge of adulthood, looking back at that time of innocence when all questions were answered. When we felt safe and sure about the future, and we hoped our children and grandchildren felt the same way. He said it like he missed that Old America.
I know what he means.
I miss it too.
(An important article for these times by James Osborne)
A recent news report told the story of a reformed Skinhead who now volunteers his time telling high school students about prejudice and extremism. “We live in a world that is very complicated,” he …
Source: Whither Thy Prejudice
(Every now and then someone sends me something special or tells me a story that helps me remember how much goodness there is around us. I’ll post these stories to share with everyone, hoping we’ll be inspired to do good things ourselves, in whatever ways we can to enrich our world.)
She was a little girl dressed in a Spiderman costume.
And he’ll never forget the day he met her.
His name is Jason.
Born and bred in the U.S.A, he grew up in Rancho Cucamonga, a middle class All American boy-next-door, through and through. A topnotch athlete in any sport he ever played, and he played them all. One of those millennials all those articles tell us are privileged and self-absorbed, Jason would be the first to say that was right – well, the privileged part, at least. He grew up with two loving parents in a big beautiful home; there was plenty of food on the table every day, clean clothes on his back, and he didn’t have a worry in the world.
But that self-absorbed part?
Not a chance.
Jason was living in a bubble, that’s how he describes it. “I’m thankful my parents gave me everything I needed or wanted. But why me? There are so many other kids out there without equity.”
When he went to college, he soon saw that up close.
At UCSD, Jason met all types of people – from all different races, classes, cultures, and religions. “Going to college gave me a different perspective on the world, and it opened my eyes. It showed me all the work that had to be done.”
As an undergraduate, he worked at The Pruess School that was comprised of students living in poverty. The goal was to provide educational equity for those students, surrounding them with the best teachers and resources. The school became one of the top high schools in California. And Jason was there, opening his eyes and learning.
It was just a natural fit for him to graduate from UCSD with a major in History and a minor in Teacher Education. He didn’t waste any time at all before putting himself through Point Loma’s teaching credential program by tutoring students ages 5-18, subjects ranging from learning the alphabet to AP Calculus. And he landed his first teaching job right away at Mount Miguel High School where he motivated students, and turned the failing baseball program into a winning one.
Three years later, he was offered a job as Vice Principal.
That’s what brought him to El Cajon Valley High School. A school with a large transient student population, over 20% of its students are refugees from Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and other countries in Africa. Maybe because of its demographics, ECVHS was a perfect school to get involved with the “Bridge Baskets” program that took place this last December.
“One of our teachers – Ryan Trammell – sent out an email about a project started by Bridge – a community organization that was set up to help refugee families recently resettled in El Cajon. These were people in our community – mothers and dads with little children – who were struggling just to get by. And they really needed help.”
Everybody at ECVHS jumped on board.
From the administrative staff, to the faculty and students, the school became the drop off center where supplies for “Bridge Baskets” were gathered and sorted.
Bridge is an initiative that provides services to Middle Eastern newcomers (specifically low income families) in the San Diego area. Many Syrian and Iraqi families have arrived in the United States with minimal resources and limited English. They’ve been traumatized by conflicts and wars that have forced them to flee for their lives and the lives of their children. Suffering from hardships and the difficulties of getting out from their countries, many have had to leave other family members and loved ones behind. These survivors are suffering and in great need. The organization helps by providing the necessities of day-to-day living to these families when they first arrive here in the U.S. “Bridge Baskets” contain simple everyday items: toothbrushes and toothpaste, bath soap, laundry detergent, a water filter for a faucet, and one bike per family for transportation. Items we probably take for granted, but they are items so important in everyday life.
“The power of action was overwhelming in the amount of support that came from that one email that was sent out by Ryan,” Jason said, with more than a hint of pride for his school.
“Everybody pitched in and took that next step, not really knowing what to do but putting it out there anyway and having the community work together.”
For two days in December, items were dropped off at El Cajon Valley High School.
The school community bonded together as collectively they found a way to help. Staff members worked side-by-side with student leaders to sort everything – clothes, toys, and everyday supplies.
A collaborative effort between Bridge, Bright Nations, and ECVHS, with assistance from the Persian Cultural Center, the Bridge Baskets were packed up and loaded into pickup trucks, and the deliveries were made to the thirty families living at a small motel in El Cajon.
“When we drove up to the motel I couldn’t believe that this run down looking place was where families were staying.” said Jason, knowing this was a big difference from the way he grew up in Rancho Cucamonga.
But some things were the same.
“A bunch of kids were playing in the parking lot, like they had no cares in the world. They were happy to see us, not even knowing who we were!”
“We put room numbers on every bag. There was an equity when we handed everything out. It wasn’t a free-for-all; we brought the boxes to each motel room where a refugee family was living. Families of five, six, seven, and eight were living in one room with only one bed.”
It was a mix of people – young children, not even in high school, with their mothers and fathers. All had recently fled from the war in Syria. The International Rescue Committee had placed the refugees there for 30 days as temporary housing.
Jason was very affected by what he saw. “To go from war, straight off the plane, and to this inhumane environment now – the small crowded rooms, a little rundown motel, and without much to live on.”
But he soon found hope there in the faces of the refugees.
“In their eyes, they were so thankful. Their sheer appreciation for everything we were giving them was remarkable. In spite of the trauma they had seen, in spite of knowing their lives in the U.S. would be difficult, they were relieved that their kids were finally safe. The sacrifices they had made in the name of the love for their kids was powerful. And I couldn’t help but think that my parents would have done the same for my brother and me.”
And then, he saw the little girl in the Spiderman costume.
“The look in her eyes I will never forget. In spite of those conditions around her, and the trauma she had been through, there was such a look of joy and freedom on her face. She knew where she had come from but she just knew she would be okay now.”
Jason still is silenced and humbled by that moment.
“It will be ingrained in my core, forever,” he finally says. “I wish every human could experience that moment in time. Anyone who loves kids or who’s raised them,” he added. “Any concerns Americans might have, it would all make sense to them – to understand what it means to be a refugee.”
“Although this little girl and I didn’t understand a word we were saying to each other, we realized we didn’t have to. Love knows no language. God bless America.”
(If you’d like to help a refugee family in need, you can learn more information or make a donation to Bridge of Hope – San Diego (Facebook page) or International Rescue Committee by clicking the organization’s name in blue. )
I watch a lot of new films at this time of the year because I’m a member of the WGA and I have to vote on best screenplay. Seldom do I recommend a movie, but last night I saw one that I urge everyone to see.
“Hidden Figures” is based on the true story of three African-American women who played pivotal roles in the early days of NASA and America’s first space missions. Already nominated for two Screen Actors Guild awards, two Golden Globes, and having recently won awards from the Women Film Critics Circle and the African American Film Critics Association, this is an important, smart film that is also fun to watch. And yes, you should take your kids. It’s the perfect family film.
“Hidden Figures” opens nationwide on January 5.
Mark your calendars.