Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Pivot Point

I see a woman in a brightly patterned dress with a calf-length hemline and big shoulders, a business owner of the 80s—accounting. Someone who had been busy for a long time but who really hadn’t done much. A great world lurked outside her door and she was determined to experience it.

1987 dawned for me over the San Rafael Canal. I’d traded in my rented Sausalito houseboat for a free berth on my then boyfriend’s not-quite-built 42’ steel-hulled Bruce Roberts design sailboat. A serious relationship, along with the purchase of my Isuzu Trooper II late in ’86 sparked my move. Although the Trooper marked a milestone in my life—the first new car I ever bought—I now had a car payment.

On a nice day, living on the water beat all. I loved watching the birds, the other boats, and the flotsam passing by on the currents of the tide. I loved the rock and roll of the hull in the water and the tang of salt-laced petrol in the air. But it wasn’t always a nice day, and the winter of ’87 proved cold, damp and cramped on the Flying Penguin.

We moored at the end of a dock between the derelict Holiday Magic building, a defunct multi-level marketing cosmetics company needing some of its own lipstick, and a seedy apartment complex. To get to the boat we had to cross through the apartment building’s pool area or take a narrow, overgrown walkway around Holiday Magic. Not long after moving in, we heard a drunken row between a couple from the apartments. Believing I was a respectable businesswoman—even if a bit off-beat—I peeked out of a porthole and was mortified to realize the drunk was someone I’d dated years before. I avoided the apartment building after that, but when I tripped over an unsavory man sleeping on the dark, secluded path, I knew the bohemian dream was over. I started saving up to move.

Like my personal year, the year-at-large also suffered climate swings—on the one hand, it was a sunny day. The Dow closed twice at record-breaking highs; Aretha Franklin was the first woman artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Klaus Barbie went on trial for his war crimes. On the other hand, a grey drizzle pervaded the culture: President Regan kicked off the Iran-Contra Affair, world population hit 5 billion people, and the first Palestinian Intifada began. But Aretha got her r-e-s-p-e-c-t, and I decided to find out what that meant for me.

By the summer solstice, at the same time the Petaluma Post was laboring to launch into broad daylight, and the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act was passed—the first of its kind in the world—we were packing out of our temporary sub-let for three weeks in Australia, compliments of the sale of the Flying Penguin and my devoted sailboat-less boyfriend. I’d signed the lease on an under-construction houseboat and stored my worldly goods, ready to retrieve when I got back from down under. But arriving home, the floors weren’t built yet, and we became nomads, camping out in my boyfriend’s mother’s RV. I recall sleeping in Homestead Valley under the spreading canopy of an old valley oak.

Even though I moved the fashionable shoulder-padded wardrobe (and my iron and ironing board) out of the closet in my office to my brand new two-story, two-bedroom floating home on Main Dock, that new topaz Trooper in the parking lot constantly tempted me to adventure. And everywhere radios played I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, U2’s #1 hit.

But I anchored in, harmonizing with the rhythm of tides, work, and life in my hip houseboat community as the planets converged in the sky over Mt. Tam and Richardson Bay. So when the boyfriend started lip-sync-ing, “yo no soy marinero, soy capitan, soy capitan,” to La Bamba, and started shopping for another sailboat, I stepped up my Spanish language studies. The stock market had a Black Monday in October, but I scoured the surplus store for Trooper-camping gear, preparing for our imminent camping trip to Baja.

As the tide went out at the end of the year, my world opened like an oyster. I think of ’87 as my pivotal year—the year I jumped into adventure with both feet. I knew by then I was going to write a book set in Mexico, and I needed to know more than double entry bookkeeping and classroom Spanish to do it. I needed to see whales breeching, to discover hot springs, to track armies of boojum cactus to the sea, to swim with the manta rays, to know the color of the horizon where the Mexican sky meets the Sea of Cortez, and I really needed to practice my Spanish. Late in the year we drove down to Mulagé and camped on the beach at Bahía Conceptíon for two weeks. But it was obvious to me that I was going to need a lot more experiences to write my book than drinking Pacifico in the warm Sea of Cortez tethered to my sunshade.

It’s taken many years and many trips to gain that experience. Like the Post, I launched this project 25+ years ago and I’m still at it in the shadow of Sonoma Mountain.

I found a hot spring at Bahía de Concepción

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

I Was a Teen-aged Undercover Writer

My mother loves everything I write; she’s my greatest supporter. She chortles; she guffaws; she giggles over my columns. She ooohs over a bright image and ahhhs over every tightly crafted phrase I read to her. Mom turns pensive, wistful even, when I write a story from my past—our shared past. “Is that what happened?” she asks. “Well, it’s what I remember, Mom,” I tell her.  And it’s her, “That’s so wonderful!” that shores me up for the next assignment.
            This was not always the case. I began my writing career as a pre-teen, imitating the trashy stories I read in True Confessions magazine, clandestinely by flashlight under my covers after “lights out.” I read wonderfully awful stories like My Father Sold Me, Marked for Scandal, When a Girl Goes to Prison, and my favorite,
I Was a Teen-aged Drug Addict, which I read in 1963 or 1964 in eighth grade.
            The stories I wrote were far more seemly. As an early teen, I just didn’t have the tawdry experience to imbue my sad tales with salacious thrills. Not that a lack of skid row experience stopped my writing. I wrote about girls my age in sticky situations with mean stepsisters, pushy boyfriends, motorcycle gangs (I’ve always feared motorcycles), or turn-coat best friends and usually a “prince charming” Dad-type figure coming to the rescue—pre-runners to the modern genre of Chick-lit.
            It wasn’t important that my stories didn’t steam off the pages of my notebook. I had something to say, and my mother wasn’t going to like it! Hence, I hid all my drafts between my mattress and the box spring—way deep in the middle where no one could possibly discover my cache. Not even when the sheets were changed, something I was taking care of by then—as well as ironing Dad’s shirts—but that’s another story.
            Imagine my thirteen-year-old surprise as I slammed through the back door after school one day, and Mom shrilled, “What do you mean by this?” wagging my precious notebook in my face.
            “What do you mean, ‘what do you mean’?” I prided myself on scintillating dialog.
            She latched onto my arm and guided me to the nearest cane-seated chair at the oak table and produced a copy of True Confessions from behind the notebook and slapped it down onto the table. “What is this?”  
            I sat head bowed and mumbled, “Stories.”
            “Did you think you could get away with…”
            I tuned-out. It was always best to do what my siblings later termed fogging, with my mother. Blah blah blah, she blathered. I don’t remember now what the punishment was for reading True Confessions, aside from confiscating the magazines, but I do remember the punishment for writing. Mom became my editor. She edited each piece of my “fairy confessions.”
            Mom was a tough editor from the old school—that school that taught English grammar and spelling, which was,  “not the school you attended, obviously. How do you think you’ll write if you can’t spell?”
            “I’ll get an editor,” I replied with a pithy comeback.
            “You better learn how to diagram a sentence if you want to write one.”
            There still is no comeback to that jibe.
            And talk about killing your darlings, Mom didn’t so much carve out the weak phrases with one of my dad’s medical scalpels, as amputate my poor stories at the neck with his circular saw feom the garage. “Who’s your audience?” she asked.
            Then she dropped the magazine into the blazing incinerator in the yard over by the fence. She may as well have tossed in my masterpieces, too. I metaphorically watched my writing career drift lazily out into the sky, a little ash-flurry framed by Mt. Tam., looming across the Ross Valley.
            After the shock and anger wore off, I felt only shame. I was a bad writer! My mother said so. I stopped writing short stories and learned how to hide my True Confessions magazines better.
            But writing is like an itch that won’t be ignored. I’ve taken to heart those early literary criticisms: identify my audience, vary my sentence patterns, write in an active voice, and since I’ve come to Petaluma, where every other citizen is a writer, I’ve gone public. 
            I never did learn to spell or diagram a sentence, but Mom doesn’t notice. She’s too caught up in the story. When I write something really awful, she doesn’t see it. I ball it up into a wad and toss it into the woodstove (not on Spare-the-Air days) to watch the ashes of my literary failure blow over Sonoma Mountain.