Category Archives: True Stories

What Can It Hurt?

My room is crowded with furniture and things, because I live in a small house and I enjoy being surrounded by stuff. Blankets overflow onto mountains of stuffed toys, books cascade across end tables and doll armoires, video game consoles perch on guitar cases. I have four separate wind chimes in one room, three windsocks, two kites, and a toy glider plane.

I also have terrible balance. One day, I tripped over my own pant leg–of course it wouldn’t be over any of the actual clutter, that would make sense. In the infinite stretch of time between losing my balance and actually hitting the ground, I had the presence of mind to really consider my potential landing places. I was initially headed for the doll armoire, both filled and topped with ceramics and glass.

“Not great,” I thought to myself. “What’s in reach to brace against? Window? Mm. That…is not going to hold me up. Death by broken glass sounds unpleasant.

“How about the cat bed? Not occupied by cat. Good start. Is occupied by yarn and, ah, sewing scissors. Questionable. The cover is on them, though. Probably not capable of stabbing me. Okay. Let’s do this. What’s the worst that can happen?”

So I executed a beautiful pirouette and landed on my ass in the cat bed, entirely unstabbed.

Sometimes, that’s the only real question: what can it hurt if I…?

Right now, I’m working out the logistics of quitting my day job and everything that comes after doing so. I’ve written elsewhere about what a fiasco it is. Bad boss, unhelpful coworkers, long hours without breaks, physical demands unsuitable for a body breaking down like mine.

Change scares humans, though, as a general rule. Right now, I’m trying to get past the paralysis that says, no matter how bad it is, leaving will ruin everything. That even this mess has to be better than the unknown.

There’s a game played by those managing their anxiety. Best case, worst case, most likely case. It forces your anxiety to test the logic of its assumptions.

Worst case if I leave my job? I lose my income source and can’t get anyone else to hire me. The writing doesn’t bring in enough to cover my expenses. I lose my health coverage, get substantially sicker, and rack up medical bills. I run through my (surprisingly decent) savings and can no longer help pay the bills. We stop being able to pay the mortgage, lose the property, and die of starvation in our cars in the riverbed.

(Pause to shake and whimper in a corner.)

Best case? I don’t have to answer to an incompetent who can’t do the job I’m saddled with. With my suddenly open schedule and increased rest time, my fatigue and pain improve or at least become manageable. I start spending all that time on writing. I get brave and creative because I’m not constantly on the verge of collapse. I publish frequently, get noticed, make a name for myself, and start making real money. I replace my lost income with money made doing something I love. I stop feeling like a stranger in my own house. I have the time to pursue other creative projects, and my career just keeps growing.

Most likely? I use some of that new free time to job hunt. I still write and publish more. I find another low-income job to help make ends meet. With the benefit of experience, I avoid some of the pitfalls of my current job, like working many hours off the clock. It stays just a job, kind of crappy but not actively harmful to my well being. The writing still starts to pay off, thanks to the increased attention. My career is slow and steady, and I still eventually get to quit having a day job entirely.

Okay, so, really. What can it hurt if I quit? How likely is it that going through the window is unavoidable? How much more likely is it that the worst I will face is scissors with the safety cover on? What sort of balletic moves do I need to pull off in order to minimize the fallout?

(In this metaphor, the best case scenario is one where I spontaneously sprout wings and never have to hit the ground at all. I’ve always wanted to fly. Maybe even that isn’t as unlikely as I fear.)

Implicit in all this is the answer to another question: what can it hurt if I stay and change nothing?

My body. My spirit. My future.

I’m working up the courage to jump, to brace for impact while trying to grow wings on the way down.

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Runaway

Exit SignThe first week of my first year at college, Friday was the only day with any classes. My parents had helped me move in on Wednesday. I had brought a bed-full of stuffed animals and an entire padlocked trunk of books, among other things from which I derived comfort. They bid me tearful goodbyes and wished me luck.

Friday afternoon, I packed a bag and walked to the bus stop; I was headed home for the weekend.

It took two buses to get to the Amtrak station, where a reserved ticket waited for me. I disembarked the first bus and, carefully referencing the route map I had printed out, confidently strode across the road to another stop. Despite never having traveled by bus before, I could do this. I was a mature and worldly college student now. In the molded plastic seat, I sat and buzzed with nervous energy.

The second bus eventually stopped at what was, I learned, the terminus of the line. We parked curbside at some diner, on a street called something cheery like Sunflower. This was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the Amtrak station. The driver, heartless, offered me neither explanation nor reassurance and ordered me off.

Cross the street, I learned, and you will be headed south. North is the only direction for me.

Close to tears, I called my parents, who in turn called me a cab. I counted the minutes on my phone, urging each mile to pass faster. Still, I arrived with plenty of time for my train. (While I was not, at age eighteen, well-equipped to cope with life’s little disasters, I at least knew to schedule for them.) I reached home none the worse for wear. I would take a cab to the station the following weekend. But after that, I learned how to navigate public transportation properly. I eventually switched to Metrolink, became one of the regular Friday commuters, and learned to both love and hate the California train system.

I spent three years going home every weekend. Like a hitchhiking ghost, all I wanted was to go north by any means necessary. Like a ghost, every Monday I would be forced to reset back south at college. In year three, I started driving myself. For the final six months, I commuted from home four days a week, three to six hours depending on traffic.

I spent a lot of time on the road. I lived on the road. I learned the road by dawn light and by darkness. Audiobooks and music were entertainment, but the road was company.

Highway at NightSometimes, all I wanted was to miss my exit and keep driving north forever. Or at least until I found a place where life as I knew it ceased, until I crossed a pale red border drawn to mark where someplace better began. This was my alternative to driving off a cliff, with much the same motivation. I wanted my life to end, to change, to pass over into happiness or peace or just blessed silence at last.

I never, to the best of my or anyone else’s recollection, made any practical attempt to run away from home as a child. Escape nonetheless became an obsessive interest. I didn’t have any practical framework for running away, but I had books. They told me that if I strayed far enough from where I ought to be, I would get lost and then… Then things would be different, which would be enough. Like Alice, I would tumble down the rabbit hole.

So I wandered into the hills, deep amongst the oak trees and sagebrush. I followed animal trails barely visible to the eye. I found roads, strange and faint and never meant for humans. I thought I would find my way to Away. Away had to be better than Here.

I have a history with suicide. Even once the attempts stopped, the impulse continued to crop up periodically. And every time, it has arrived hand in hand with the desperate, irrational desire to pack a bag and run away. Eventually, I learned to recognize them both for what they were:

Because I have never believed that I had enough control to improve my circumstances, I instead believed that if I just run fast and far enough, I could start over. If I’m miserable where I am, the only possible solution is to escape.

Powerlessness. Helplessness. Hopelessness. And yet. Mixed up with a sense that something better is possible, if I become someone new in someplace strange. A gambler’s hope, perhaps. Throw a dart, toss a coin, pick a direction. Fill the tank and drive until it runs empty. Try again in the place you break down.

Right now, I have a bad job, a mystery health problem, and not enough money. Every day when I head to work, when I drive bleary-eyed back home after my shift, I feel a ghost’s hands on the wheel, trying to turn off and away from the known.

What should a person do, though, when they’re also a homebody tied to a patch of land and a family, for whom running away from home isn’t an option, or even particularly desirable? Ignoring the impulse isn’t good enough. I believe in the value of pain, of anger, to point the way. Letting them dictate your actions doesn’t work; that’s the path of tragedy. But they are guides that tell you when something isn’t right. They tell you where the damage is.

So how do I harness this sensation that makes me want to drive into the night and never come back? How do I metaphorically change the road I’m on?
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Everything Is Boring, Everything Is Fascinating

Growing up, most children seem to have at least a brief phase when they want a pony. There’s a good market out there for horse-related products aimed at little girls. Have a pink sparkle unicorn school binder, a Breyer collectible, and a coloring book. Because while this passion for horses is some kind of truth of childhood (at least in the US), very few children will ever get that real pony with a ribbon around her neck.

Unless, of course, you grow up on a horse ranch like I did.

(For reference, ponies frequently have appalling personalities and a propensity for bad behavior. They are little balls of fluff and rudeness.) Whatever else can be said about my social life during grade school, this aspect of my life had some serious value to some of my classmates. At least one girl maintained a casual friendship with me for the sole purpose of being invited over to see the horses on a Saturday afternoon.

I, however, couldn’t have been more bored. Horses meant corrals to be cleaned, emergency drives to the equine hospital, and parents occupied with caring for someone else for most of the day. They were the permanent baby siblings I hadn’t exactly signed on for. I saw our horses every day. I liked them, or didn’t, on an individual basis. That baby kicked me and I’m holding a grudge. This one makes a funny face if I tickle his nose right. Horses could be fun, or annoying, or upsetting, or calming. They were never fascinating, though.

(Truth: I did, nonetheless, collect Breyers. Toy horses have significantly fewer annoyances associated with them.)

To this day, I forget. I forget that my lifestyle is special and unusual to other people. I forget that they want to hear about it and understand the secrets I take for granted. I forget that, just as I am weirdly interested in the daily lives of mechanics and painters and trash collectors, other people are interested in the daily life of a rancher. (Or a writer.) Only when something goes wrong do I remember that horses are strange and delicate and complex, harder to fix than I would like, and that life with them is anything but dull.

I forget that everything is boring and everything is fascinating, depending on who is doing the living and who is doing the looking.

Some day in the future, space travel with be an annoying routine. People will complain about the traffic at the space station and the line of ships backed up at the wormhole entrance. They’ll complain that the food synthesizer on board is making everything taste like licorice AGAIN. Exploring new planets will be someone’s daily grind. It has very little to do with the reality and everything to do with our perceptions. Do something enough and it becomes boring. Invisible. Often, catastrophe is the only thing strong enough to shake us up: scare us, and we start to look at our own lives with the eyes of strangers.

Humans will need to remember: anything can be boring, anything can be fascinating. If we forget, life has a way of sending a little mayhem in to remind us.

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Birding With Technology

One of the interesting bits about moving a significant distance is that all the wildlife changes. For example, while I like rabbits, I’m not exactly mourning the loss of them and their destruction of the vegetable garden. (Don’t worry; the voles and ground squirrels are picking up the slack.) The most dramatic has been the birds. There are a friggin’ lot of them, okay?

A few mainstays of California are familiar from the old place: we have no shortage of turkey vultures and mourning doves, and egrets pass over us daily. Most of them, though, are a big ???. I have a 1983 copy of Golden’s Birds of North America. Usually, that’s enough. With only a couple drawings of each bird, sorted by scientific family, and a description of less than fifty words, though, it has its limitations. It didn’t give me any help in identifying the midsize, brown and yellow bird making a loud, distinctive warble throughout the day.

This is when I fall in love with modern information technology all over again. I looked through a lot of bird guide sites, local and general. I ended up on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They have an app–doesn’t everyone? It’s a free bird identification app. I gave it my zip code, plus estimates of the bird’s size, main colors, and the date and area I saw it. It gave me a short list of half a dozen possibilities.

Western MeadowlarkIt’s a Western Meadowlark. It gave me pictures, a description, and a map of its territory. The app even played clips of its distinctive song. It took longer to download the app than it did to identify my bird. Which I can tell it–“Yes, That’s My Bird”–and it sends the information to its database for improved future results.

While I was at it, I discovered what the weird black birds with sideways tails had been over summer. Great-tailed grackles. Do you know what a grackle is? I damn well didn’t. Noisy goofballs, as it turns out. The book says they aren’t this far west, but there they were, and the app agrees. Grackle.

It’s trivial, being able to identify a bird like this. Neither my safety nor my sustenance depends on a familiarity with local wildlife. It’s satisfying, though, in the way all knowledge is. Where there had been an annoying blank space, there is now a name, a picture, maps, data. I could have taken photos to my local Audubon Society, I suppose. Consulted more books at the library. Visited a natural history museum, perhaps. With the internet, though, it’s the matter of an afternoon at home. Identifying birds is as simple and satisfying as any game app I have on my tablet.

Sort of makes me want to sing too.

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Half a Lifetime Later, at the DMV

I played the most boring game of Bingo today with the DMV. Now serving. B-zero-three-point-one-four at. The forbidden window. Two and a half hours for a two and a half minute license renewal. The one interesting bit is this: for the first time since getting my learner’s permit, nearly half my lifetime ago, I had my picture taken again. I decided to really look at that old photo before it goes away.

JS at 15 according to the DMVBaby Joyce Doesn’t Know Curls

I come from a family of people with wavy, frequently short hair. My hair, left to its own devices, curls into tight little ringlets ready to strangle passers-by. With no one to guide me, it took until adulthood for me to learn how to take care of curly hair. So Joyce at fifteen had some problems in the this department.

This was about a year after hacking all my hair off for the second time. (I grew it out when I decided I wasn’t going to crossdress any more. I miss passing as a boy, but I would do the hair very differently now.) Now at that agonizingly awkward length between chin and shoulder, I insisted on pulling the top back, because then it would dry straighter. I hated my curls. They just turned to frizz and got everywhere.

Oh, Joyce, sweetheart, you’ll learn. You don’t have to hold so tight all the time to keep things under control. Also, next time you dye your hair, go for a brighter red. Better yet, go for orange. Subtlety is overrated.

Baby Joyce Doesn’t Know How To Smile

If you tell me to smile, I probably already think I am. I have trouble gauging my facial expressions, and “normal” ones don’t come naturally. I taught myself to make faces other people could recognize, which means they tend to be exaggerated. You get nothing or everything. At fifteen, I seldom felt happy enough to show off my Cheshire grin. So this was what I produced when ordered to smile: an awkward, tight-lipped expression that has more in common with a grimace than anything else. That is not a pleased face.

When I get my new license and see the photo, I hope I won’t look like I’m smiling at all to anyone else. I coached myself in the bathroom and car rearview mirrors before going to the DMV. I wanted to get my real smile, the one no one else looked close enough to see for all those years. The slight tilt at the corners, the opening of the eyes, the way even my ears pull up and back to show it. I hope, in the new photo, I see myself.

Joyce, my darling, you’ll learn. You have your own way of doing things. You don’t have to pretend. There will be people who see all the same.

Baby Joyce Doesn’t Hide Well

Oh, the spiked collar. At fifteen, I wore layers, I wrapped my hands in cords and charms, and I wore a spiked collar for maximum “don’t touch me” vibes. You can’t tell in the picture, but I’ve got two, maybe three (month-to-month memories of that time fail me) of my sets of ear piercings. Two years from this point, I would have my neck draped with about six necklaces daily. I wore enough rings to qualify as permanent brass knuckles.

I warded myself and branded myself with all that metal and twine. I wanted to declare my loves, and my allegiances, and my protections. I wanted to be seen and understood. I wanted, with all the terror of being fifteen and lonely, to show the world my heart and have them covet it. The spikes, in retrospect, were hardly adequate protection for that.

Joyce, you half-feral stray, you’ll learn. You don’t know it yet, but you’re going to find bigger stages and louder microphones as time passes. There will be value in showing your heart to strangers through elaborate codes, and symbols, and outright rooftop screaming. (It’s called storytelling, and also the internet. You’ll like them both.)

That, after half a lifetime, remains true.

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