Tiny True Story: Spring Cleaning

butterfly girl
Back sore and shoulders tight, my aching body takes over the frenetic energy of my mind, allowing it to rest for the first time in a long while. Something about moving boxes from one side of the garage to the other soothes me. There’s a rhythm to dusting old Easter decorations, balling up cobwebs, and power spraying the grime off blinds, watching the water drip down to the base of a fig tree. I don’t need to tell you there’s abundant metaphor in that.

Cleaning the garage starts to mean more as the first signs of spring crop up around the farm. A black and yellow butterfly has taken a liking to one pompom of Joe Pye weed by the riding ring. I can’t help but take its consistency as a sign. What that sign is, I haven’t yet figured out, but that hardly seems to be the point.

Showers have never felt so good as when I’m covered in dirt and paint. That gnawing ache in my calves and the heaviness of my eyes lets me know I’ve done a hard day’s work. More so, anyway, than the ringing in my ears after locking eyes for eight hours with a screen. That off-kilter dizziness I tend to carry has gone away in a few short days. I’ve given up all notions of getting “real work” done in favor of accomplishing the essentials. At our new place, there will need to be a place to sleep, to eat, to write. There will need to be electricity and water and gas to heat the home that one day of the year it dips below sixty. They are not existential questions. They are practical necessities. Those things I can manage.

Soon enough, the dread of where am I going, where have I been will creep back in and I will likely revert to my old, worrisome self. But for the moment, getting the house in order represents a ritualistic cleansing that blissfully fulfills me.

I’m Afraid to Read My High School Journals

I came home from a bad weekend. You know the kind—restless, slow, and somehow exhausting. Every so often, I waste a whole weekend agonizing over every decision I’ve ever made. I question whether I have one smidgen of talent and contemplate giving up altogether. So I came home from one of those weekends to find them lying by the front door: my high school journals.

I thought at first it must be a sick joke. I’d been thinking about them lately and semi hoping I’d never see them again. But no. There they were, double-wrapped and pristine as though cryogenically sealing my embarrassing teenage mind. For whatever reason, my high school first sent them to my dad, who then had one of his secretaries forward them to me. I haven’t spoken to my father in months, so there was the initial pang of seeing a package from him, but that’s another story.

old journals

You have to know something about the atmosphere in which I wrote these journals. The school I went to, nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley, made up of half boarders and half day students, sent us on intense backpacking trips. Not day hikes through manicured woods, but weeklong treks through the Sierras, each one of us carrying 40-pound packs on our backs. We’d spend days hiking from one campsite to another, coming up with games to keep our minds occupied and off the blisters on our feet. Did we all have drug problems to warrant a tech-free, toilet-free week in nature? No. Were we privileged? Very.

Toward the end of the trip, we’d have anywhere from a few hours to a full day left alone to self-reflect in solitude. Because we were still in school after all, we’d have our journals to write in and prompts to address. And because I was one of those straight-A types who couldn’t turn down extra credit if I wanted to, I answered those prompts like there was some right answer.

Where do you see yourself in four years when you receive this journal?

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Because I wanted to get an 4.0 GPA in life, naturally I wanted to graduate early from the best college, be a lawyer, make lots of money, and change the world. I was sixteen at the time, so you can imagine how little I knew. How could I know that by 24 I’d end up living with the love of my life, broke, and scared shitless? If my life had gone according to plan, I’d be alone by now—conventionally successful, possibly—but very much alone. I know now better than I did then that you can only plan and prepare so much before those expectations get in the way of living. These days, I exist one hundred percent outside of my comfort zone and hopefully stronger for it.

Still, there’s something unsettling about revisiting the dreams I used to have. I distinctly remember feeling insincere as I wrote them. As I wrote down everything I hoped to achieve in my too-perfect script, something felt off. My own words read like a rigid instruction manual. I couldn’t relax and write something honest even if it was just for my eyes only. I remember feeling sad about that, that I couldn’t be comfortable with myself. I remember being aware of that much but unequipped with the tools or experience to do anything about it.

red and black journals

To clarify, I did not have a great time in high school. A straight-A student, student government president, and conventionally pretty, most people probably assumed I had all my shit together. The truth is I felt more like an anxious butterball of fear and self-loathing. Or, who knows! Maybe they saw right through my polished veneer to the lonely little dweeb I really was.

As of today, I’ve strayed so far from that little dweeb’s plans. I’m not braving a lucrative, demanding corporate career until I finally decide to call myself a writer. I’m leaping into that right now with no money and no concrete plan. Maybe there’s some small part of me that worries my little me might be right. Maybe I should have settled into something more stable and put away my dreams for when I had a retirement plan and a responsible amount of savings to fall back on.

I’ll admit it feels weird to be threatened by my younger self. That naïve, arrogant girl who thinks SAT scores actually matter? That’s not me. That must be some other girl. I feel sorry for her. I don’t envy her in the same way I hope to look back ten years from now and not envy current myself. I guess that’s the way it goes if you’re doing anything right.

What do you think, dear reader? Should I read my old high school journals or not? Or, better yet, who cares? I could burn them for symbolic purposes and I’d only be superficially changed. My mind will continue to construct stories that suit me better in the present than they did in the past. The hard part is pretending my old mindset doesn’t still have a hold on my new one.


A Cringeworthy Week in Hollywood

Started out optimistically, only to go so far south I might as well have been in San Diego. We went to see Maps to the Stars at the Sundance Theater on Sunset, and thank god it was discount Tuesday because that movie is so dreadful I could cry. Still, six dollars was too much to be tortured by that train wreck, and I’m thinking of filing a lawsuit against the writer for making my ears bleed. It truly baffles me that Maps to the Stars currently has a 6.4 rating on IMDB right now, so much that I’m afraid six out of ten people walking the streets must be insane.

The piece of garbage was written by supposed Hollywood insider, Bruce Wagner, who’s pretty much only known for writing Nightmare on Elm Street…. THREE. Doesn’t sound like much of an insider to me. The more interviews I read, the more I realize he’s not only not an insider, but also a narcissistic douchebag of epic proportions. A reporter who interviewed him for the LA Times wrote, “Ambulance-driver-turned-novelist Bruce Wagner, a man of tattooed fingers and wild prose, knows precisely where the hobgoblin of his creativity resides: ‘Failure and anguish,’ he says, an e-cigarette skimming his lips. ‘I feel those are truly golden doors through which … one becomes a kind of pilgrim in a great cathedral’ where the ‘full force of one’s insignificance’ is laid bare.” Excuse me while I go barf.

maps to the stars movie poster

Here’s a tip: If you hate LA so much, don’t get Beverly Hills street names tattooed to your fucking fingers!

The whiny outbursts in Maps to the Stars are supposed to be delivered as satire, but without a coherent narrative or an ounce of intelligence, the script free falls into the kind of melodrama Wagner tries to make fun of. I’m all for shining a light on Hollywood’s nasty underbelly, but for me, this glorified trash does just the opposite. Instead, I’m reminded that Hollywood continues to flounder in a dick-sucking frenzy of self-congratulatory white male directors, writers, and producers.

Which reminds me—thanks for nothing, HBO. When I first heard there would be an opportunity to apply for a writing fellowship, I thought, gee, that’s good of HBO to try including more women and people of color. What’s not good of them is setting a cap at 1,000 applicants so that when the floodgates open at 9:00am, everyone tries to apply at the same time on a funky server from the nineties. So after trying all morning to get my script in, stopping at a Starbucks for Wi-Fi on the way to Palm Desert, and tweeting a firestorm, the gates closed and that was that. HBOAccess denied. I still haven’t heard back about the magical waivers they promised either.

I’m going to keep writing anyway because even if I passed out drunk on the keys and my face produced nothing but an endless line of Js, it would still have more artistic merit than the dribble Wagner passes for dialogue in Maps to the Stars.

Did I mention one of the most cringeworthy parts? Watching it in Hollywood meant having to listen to the guffaws of the audience at the mention of names like “Harvey.” Several sniveling jerks in the audience audibly chortled because they knew that character was talking about obese producer, Harvey Weinstein. You know who Harvey Weinstein is, do you? Good for fucking you. So does just about everyone. The laughs started to taper off, however, when most of the crowd seemed to realize how pathetically Wagner was trying to be salacious. Spoiler alert: Julianne Moore gets her brains beaten out with a golden trophy, and it is not poetic or symbolic or even a little bit provoking. It’s just plain gross.

Julianne Moore Maps to the Stars

I feel ya, Julianne.

To top it all off, I get to listen to my obnoxious buffoon of a neighbor screaming on the phone every morning, shouting things like, “If you want Sheena to be the lead hot bikini girl, fine! But what she said about Anthony Hopkins is just a bold-faced lie.”

And, “I’m going to call Quentin tomorrow.”

Sigh. I guess I’ll just keep shouting everything he says verbatim until he notices me, which may be never because you can’t hear much with your own head up your ass.

Fingers crossed I’ll have a week in Hollywood soon that isn’t quite so douchey, and that this cringe won’t be a permanent fixture on my face.

Flash Nonfiction: At The Millburn Library

chick lit books

At the Millburn Free Public Library, while the woman gives a slideshow presentation about her romance novel, her kids run wild down the hallway, threatening to send the geriatric woman clutching her walker down a flight of stairs. Her husband sits in a folding chair, a Danish in one hand and a blackberry in the other, occupied. A round of applause. The crowd of twelve files out. She’s on the tail end.

“I asked him to do one thing,” she says, lips smiling, pearls ornamenting her noticeable collarbone. “Do you want me to sign some of these?”

Even though we won’t be able to send the signed copies back to the publisher, I hand her a pen.

She seems like the kind of woman to chime I have everything! I have it all! The kind to hum to herself while vacuuming the living room, fixing coq au vin for him and macaroni for the kids, putting the last touches on a memo for the board meeting, plowing through the next thousand words of her novel about a PR girl looking for love, dreaming of sticking a knife in whoever dares to leave their socks in the entryway.

I don’t envy her. I want to befriend her, get inside her head a little bit, maybe find the place where she knew what she wanted, if ever, and crack a leak in it. I wonder what she makes of me, the girl from the small town bookstore, sitting at the booth trying to peddle the books no one will buy—not willingly.

Working Girls, Beauty Myths, and Mullets

If you’ve ever seen Working Girl, then you know how horrific fashion was in the 80s. If you’re a feminist, then I bet you also feel like the premise is kind of messed up. When savvy receptionist, Tess (played by Melanie Griffith), finds out her boss (Sigourney Weaver) stole her business idea, she exacts revenge by pretending to have her job. A whole lot of cat fighting, demeaning old white guys, shoulder pads, and perms ensue and it ends on a triumphant note when Tess secures an office with a window. A window! It’s hard not to feel triumphant when you’ve got Carly Simon singing her heart out, but something feels off when the camera zooms out and you see Tess is only one of a thousand little worker bees in a sad, grey monstrosity of a building. My editor and love-ah, being the genius he is, put together an ending* with a different tune (thanks to Trent Reznor) that I think is better pant-suited for the reality of working girls everywhere:

I still love this movie because it’s so goofy, and it feels like a prequel to Alien—if Alien represents motherhood for Sigourney Weaver’s character. Beauty plays an important role, which is clearly symbolized by the contrast between Joan Cusack’s ghoulish makeup and Melanie Griffith’s toned down make-under. In the movie, the few women who make it to the top physically distance themselves from the sea of secretaries dressed up like buffoons. Women are expected to be beautiful if they want to succeed, but they also need to play down their femininity if they want to be taken seriously. No line encapsulates that better than when Tess cuts off her mullet and says, “If you want to be taken seriously, you need serious hair.” So much for a party in the back.

Joan, always the sidekick.

Joan, always the sidekick.

Which brings me to The Beauty Myth. Since its initial publication in 1991, right around the time Working Girl came out, much has changed and yet so very little has changed. While still burdened by the oppressive weight of an unachievable beauty ideal, women are now allowed to protest it—to a degree. We aren’t immediately dismissed when we argue for change, as long as we look pretty while doing it. The Internet has enabled us to spread our opinions widely, but not without the unrelenting backlash of cruel, hate-mongering trolls. We all feel like we’ve achieved progress when reading insightful feminist essays online, as long as we don’t read the comments below them.

If you still don’t think the struggle is real, read this little gem from 1991: “Photographs of the bodies of models are often trimmed with scissors. ‘Computer imaging’—the controversial new technology that tampers with photographic reality—has been used for years in women’s magazines’ beauty advertising” (83). Oh, Naomi, if only you knew then.

In 2015, there are approximately 1.3 bajillion different products on the market, all promising to make you acceptable by an impossibly narrow social standard. While the 80s and 90s expected us to be thin, blonde, big-chested and big-haired, modern beauty ideals target everything from thigh gaps to armpit hair. There is no end to the variety of beauty articles that announce a new problem we never knew we had. Granted, in the same order I bought The Beauty Myth, I also picked up some purple goo hoping it’ll take the brassiness out of my bleached blonde hair. One step forward, two steps nowhere, because the goo just left me with random streaks of blue.

Here’s my favorite quote from Tina Fey on body image:

tina-fey-body-image-quote_thumb1

Beauty, by definition, is an illusive, temporary quality. By reinforcing beauty as a woman’s only true value, we will constantly disparage ourselves and question our worth.

Beauty, like fear, acts as a means of control. I’m not suggesting one entity singlehandedly oppresses us (like the patriarchy, god forbid), or that women are purely victims, because we do have a part in doing it to ourselves. We read the magazines, watch the commercials, and buy the products the beauty industry tells us to buy. We agonize over our appearance when these products don’t perform the miracles they promised they would. We hate ourselves. We then turn the blame back on ourselves when we realize our self-hatred is futile, feeling even worse for being weak-minded. Then the cycle repeats. I know because I’ve been through it countless times, and it’s exhausting.

Let me attempt to address this in a way that satisfies everyone because the cisgender woman in me always looks to please:

There’s the concern that this argument doesn’t include women of color, poor women, and disabled women because only women of privilege can take on a problem like body image. And it’s true. They haven’t been included, at least not until very recently. In a review of The Beauty Myth, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper from NewStatesman acknowledges that with so many other problems to tackle, modern feminists might “dismiss beauty as a trivial matter” or regard it “with annoyance, even faint embarrassment.” She then raises the important question, though, “How much more painful must the beauty myth be for those women for whom it is even more out of reach, and requires even more alienation from their bodies and identities, than for the white middle-class women Wolf has in mind?”

If I feel like shit all the time and I’m the one the beauty industry caters to—young, white, privileged—then I can’t imagine how someone unlike me—not young, not white, not privileged—would feel. The most marginalized women in our culture are left out entirely, deemed unworthy for their sheer inability to participate. Feeling inadequate is not a trivial problem when it drains our emotional, physical, and psychological resources—not to mention our bank accounts. The average woman spends $15,000 on beauty products in her lifetime. Let’s face it. It’s more expensive to be a woman, and if we continue to get paid less than our male counterparts, that’s really not going to fly.

Oh, and men are affected by the beauty myth, too.

Like this guy.

Like this guy.

So yes, of course there will always be bigger problems than feeling inadequate, like simply surviving. Surviving is pretty important. But how much better could we be at surviving if the message wasn’t constantly reinforced that without beauty, we have no value? I’m curious about how much time I would save by not putting on stitch of makeup, or the brainpower I’d have if my insecurities had a weaker gravitational pull. I wonder what would happen if, for just one week, women exercised their buying power by not buying a single beauty product. No lip-gloss, moisturizer, eyeliner, liquid eyeliner, concealer, eye shadow, blush, BB cream, bronzer, or foundation. Nothing. I feel like cosmetic companies would collectively poop their pants. I don’t know about you, but that’s something I’d like to see.

As Naomi Wolf writes, “Women work hard—twice as hard as men. All over the world, and for longer than records have been kept, that has been true” (22). She goes on to cite multiple studies that show how women, from prehistoric times to the Industrial Revolution to today, have been expected to do the majority of the work for little or no pay. In the last twenty years, I doubt that statistic has changed much. As in Working Girl, we’re expected to bend over backwards, working twice as hard as anyone, all while maintaining an attractive, sexy-but-not-too-sexy, feminine-but-not-too-girly, perfectly composed, and seemingly effortless appearance. There’s a lot more to be done in order to dismantle the modern beauty myth, and I have no doubt this generation of women will be the ones to do it. But I’m also in favor of doing less. Don’t micromanage your roots. Don’t obsess over a pimple. Don’t wear any makeup if you want, or do. Don’t for one second think your value depends on what you see in the mirror.

 

blonde girl

*Disclaimer: I do not claim to own any part of this video. Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, “Allowance is made for fair use for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.” I DO NOT intend to make money off of this video, nor is there a snowball’s chance in hell that I could. Please don’t sue me!