enjoy-the-little-things-for-one-day-you-may-look-back-and-realize-they-were-the-big-things-3It used to be, I would turn on all the lights, turn the tv to full blast, and bask in the electronic buzz of fullness. I scribbled in diaries and set headphones on my ears until they rang.

It will get better, it will get better, this can’t last…If only…  When… Hang on until the future when you find love and meaning and belonging and contentment.

Then I woke up one day and realized it’s here now, the future. I’m married with a kid. I have a fulfilling career. Most days I sleep soundly, the future is now.

I like to call it an “awakening” and not a “breakdown,” because I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t stop crying. This was it– I’d loved, created, written, touched lives and what was next? Retirement? Old age? Death?

I stayed up for days in a panic, looking for an external cause to this internal shift, and then I noticed editing some writing, I felt at peace for the first time. Sometimes you just need your snow globe shaken, a wise woman said to me.

I learned to stop thinking about the future and focus on the now.

I will stop whatever I’m doing when I get on that hamster wheel of anxiety, doubt, and fear– go outside, sit on the grass, soak up the sun like a solar-powered battery, until I feel grounded again.

I will cuddle up with my son in his bunk bed and catalog fears for him as he sleeps– will he ever have a job? live independently? will he ever make a real friend? will he ever find love? And then I drop this list and notice the lamplight against the foliage and hear his open-mouthed sighing breaths. His future is uncertain but his little body right now is warm and his heart beats happily despite all he’s been through in his short life.

I stop and smell the roses. I take my life and the lives of my fellow drivers into my hands as I try to snap a photo of a rainbow on my way to work.

I see the same, long-haired old man pushing $10 worth of recycling, making his way up the driest, longest street in town, every day at 2:30 PM. He’s on his journey. He’s almost there, but then he starts again, Sisyphus pushing the stolen cart back up to town.

When I start to worry or think too much, usually a dragonfly buzzes around my head to remind me to look around at the streaking clouds, to see the mountains lounging in the distance, to hear my son begging me to jump in the pool so he can watch my body hit the water as he looks on underwater with his goggles on.

I have a sign in my classroom next to the clock and it says, “BE HERE NOW.” Yes, wouldn’t life be better if this class was over? If it was lunch? If it was after school? The weekend? The summer? Only if we could graduate, then go to college, then graduate again, then get jobs, then find love, then have kids, and then, repeat.

Life is good enough now. Talk to a stranger next to you. Embrace the cold air because it won’t last forever. Read the graffiti. Stretch out when you’re alone in bed. Pet a soft cat until you fall asleep. Feel how amazing it is, the simple act of drinking a glass of water after a hard day, to feel water on your dirty head right before you shampoo it.

I used to hold on, just for the “big things” in life and now I just wallow in the “little things” instead.

I think enough time has passed between posts that I can effectively rant about this situation without pinging someone’s sense of esteem, but honestly, it’s time to retire the competitive hashtag forever and ever.

I love Instagram. I scroll through it multiple times a day. Instagram has a soothing effect on me, while Facebook is unpredictable– a veritable mine field of triggering topics and infuriating and flippant posts. But my Instagram is full of street art, food, cats, books, and girls of all ages and belt colors posing in gis. Occasionally there will be a selfie of a friend of mine, standing gussied up with friends of hers who aren’t friends of mine. I click the little heart icon because she looks cute and happy, and then I see the dreaded hashtag: #wehavemorefunthanyou or #wearecuterthanyou and my rage peaks and I push back the heart icon so it’s no longer highlighted. I was all in favor of recognizing your moment of fun, of beauty, of holding on to your youth and/or happiness, but then you insult me, personally, then forget it. You called me out with your nebulous form of second person pronouns and you can say, “I didn’t mean ‘you.'” Then who?

I’m not sorry I’m wearing pj’s as street clothes, that one beer is just enough for me, that I don’t take selfies in public restrooms with my friends posing Rockettes style. But when you call attention to the fact that you’re prettier, more fun, more adventurous, etc. it makes me hostile.

Maybe that’s what they’re going for– to stoke up feelings of envy, because before I read the hashtag, it’s a subconscious kind of envy– Wow, looks like fun! Too bad I don’t drink anymore… but when the following hashtag gets such a quick rise out of me, what else can it be than envy? If I truly was undisturbed by being called out by an aggressive hashtag, I would just laugh and keep scrolling. But the jeer makes me lose respect for the poster and it makes me reevaluate the picture. In the space of about 20 seconds, I take stock of the picture again– I notice the fake smiles, the uncomfortable clothing, I take mental stock of any unhappy confessions the poster has recently updated, and I think that she’s overcompensating.

I unabashedly say “she” because my male friends never post those kinds of hashtags. Maybe because I have vetted my male friends to death but as a feminist, I cut my female friends so much slack and allow them to post such stupid, awful comments because a twisted part of me doesn’t want to cut off a female “friend” over something small like a hashtag, but I will dump males for posting memes with spelling mistakes.

Mombragging is just as bad–if not worse. #mykidiscuterthanyours #mykidismoretalentedthanyours and the dreaded, superbly subjective #mykidiscoolerthanyours. It’s absurd because I sit on a tuffet of humility when I see those posts because it is not physically possible to have a kid cuter than mine or metaphysically possible to have a kid cooler than mine, but when it comes to intelligence or talent, it hurts. It hurts because my kid isn’t good at math or dancing or sports or philosophy. He’s a genius when it comes to 70s actors– just this morning he told me, “You look like Madeline Kahn with that shirt.” But I did not start the hashtag #mykidknowshowtogiveweirdcomplimentsbetterthanyours

But do they know? Do they know? Or are they just having fun and thinking everyone is chuckling along? “Yeah, your kid is pretty cute/talented/funny/cool. You’re right!” I wonder who thinks that. Except maybe the grandparents. Everyone else calls bullshit in their minds and does the most active passive-aggressive act possible on social media, they keep scrolling. They do not click “like” or “heart”; They do not unfollow. They just think, #keeptellingyourselfthat and #maybeitwillbetrue

As we wandered the aisles of Wacko, looking at traditional old school tattoo-themed air fresheners and incense holders in the shape of Ganesh, the silly twang of Shonen Knife came piping through the store’s PA. Immediately my neutral mood soured and I mentally blocked the rhyming babble of those women from my mind. My ears would hear it, but I wouldn’t allow my mind to register it.

WackoIntI glowered and pulled my son along by the words, him shrugging me off violently every time I tried to grab him by the hand or the arm to continue our exploration of the shop. My husband glimpsed my mood. “What’s going on?”

“I just cannot deal with this,” I muttered.

“What? With what?”

“This…music,” I closed my eyes and sighed painfully.

My secret is that music moves me emotionally to such an extent that a few years ago, I was really experiencing a nervous breakdown, or a healing crisis, or a spiritual awakening– whatever way you want to paint it, I was an emotional wreck. I couldn’t look at people on the street without imaging the pain they were in. I couldn’t hear music with lyrics without being plunged into the narrative. I couldn’t even sleep without waking up every 45 minutes, not sure what my internal antenna was picking up on, but I know that after months of work, I learned to ground myself: To eat animal protein, to grapple on dirty mats, to allow myself to think negative thoughts (I was so entrenched in the yogic principle of ahimsa, I couldn’t even think something negative about someone without staying up til 3 or 4 in the morning, meditating on what a horrible person I was) and now, I no longer listen to just classical and kirtan. Now I can listen to rock music again.

thI started making peace one decade at a time. I started processing my feelings of disconnection and rejection from the mod (and ska) scene. A music that pulled me out of depression over and over again. I feeling of elation when we stomped our feet during the chorus of Who songs, the rage and betrayal I excised listening to angry women through the Supremes and the Flirtations. The connection I found when we donned our best vintage dress clothes and sweat and screamed and smoked and drank til all hours of the morning. But I’m not friends with any of those people anymore. That most of them, I didn’t even know their last names. When the lights came up at the club or the drugs wore off at the party, no one wanted to go catch a movie or a bite to eat. I knew a lot of people, but did I have any friends?

th (1)I pieced together my strange childhood which looks normal on paper– moving a lot, bullied and teased, solace in music and books, taking what was probably a penchant for introvertedness and forcing myself to become an extrovert because the teasing stopped hurting when I started shouting epithets back. Leo Sayer, Thelma Houston, the Village People, these artists make me feel like a kid again, when it was normal to have psychic powers and to wear costumes on the street. When the world was a big disco ball and everyone had big hair and open arms.

The 80s were easy because of my husband. My burgeoning personality had a lot more to do with rejection than with acceptance, but imagine how empowering it was to find acceptance and a community from rejection. Punk, death rock, ska, new wave… even hip hop, these subcultures thrived on rejecting the masses and determining our own labels and social hierarchy. Because my husband was there with me, we like so many of the same bands, and we were always in and out of each other’s lives, it doesn’t hurt (anymore) to hear the Cure, the Smiths, Siouxsie, the Specials, Black Flag, Depeche Mode. It reminds me of when I had real friends– who were there through everything– broken bottles, tear-smeared mascara, ripped tights. We had a tight group that got bigger then more intimate every minute.th (2)

The 90s have been hard for me. Hearing Shonen Knife, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile reminds me of the world I thought I’d create. If the 80s was about finding community, the 90s was about making our own world. I really thought I’d do something amazing– be an actress, a rock star, a writer, a director. Finding the DIY scene solidified all that. From the 80s being a consumer and a collector, to being a producer in the “we’re all equal, do your own thing” scene. But to really be “anything you want to be,” as the adults told us in the 80s required talent, discipline, dedication, and connections. I did a little bit of everything and not enough of anything. I painted, drew, played guitar, drums, sang. I did improv comedy, played roles in friends’ films, held a boom mic, I created zines first to try to make friends at Gilman Street via jokes and collages, then to expose my frustrations and love for friends and lovers and missed connections. But I was always small potatoes, which is fine, because I thought that “one day,” things would change.

So listening to 90s reminds me of the years that I didn’t know my best friend’s real name. So many people had made-up last names and you didn’t know where they were from and what their story was but you knew how they ate and how they voted. The mod scene and its own judgments– how as a girl, you were supposed to be pretty and cool, while being loud and writing zines made you too punk but you could not be denied because of your impeccable taste in records… I never stopped listening to Britpop and soul music never stopped making me smile and hit “repeat” when my favorite Edwin K. Starr jam came on. But I couldn’t deal with the punk side of the 90s. The fact that I always hoped one day I’d meet a boy who’d understand and appreciate me. That I’d find that one talent and make it work so I wouldn’t have to get a day job. That I never wanted to have my face plastered on the walls of some kid’s bedroom, but I wanted to be able to go some place and have people I didn’t know know me. I wanted to make my mark and live the punk rock version of the American dream.

But now, I’m making peace with it. With the realization that nostalgia is the bitterest pill because it reminds me of the hope I once had for my life, and now my life is profoundly different than how I imagined it to be– I’m not an actress, a director, a rock star, a punk legend. And for years, I’ve been working on accepting life as it is. Through mindfulness, I have learned to focus on the beauty of the hills in the distance while stuck in traffic. It all sounds so new age-y and vapid, but I have learned that when I’m mad or frustrated with my son, I just catch my breath and look at how beautiful he is. How he may be back talking but he’s using words in a way that conveys clear communication. When I’m mad at myself for eating something I know I’ll pay for later, I slow down my chewing and let the saliva liquefy the substance so I can taste it better. So my life is all about acceptance and the 90s was all about rebellion and the true, clear belief that things were going to change.

th (3)I teach at my old high school– I realize that I am a product of the wall-to-wall carpeting of the suburbs and that I love the city, but I want to raise my child in an environment as good or better than my old neighborhood– where you could ride your bike without fear of broken glass and you could make a weekly visit to 7/11 for a slurpee. You could go to public school and maybe be picked on–but that you face reality of the injustice of the world, instead of being coddled by some alternative education. I work a day job because I never had the connections to make an alternative career work– some money here and there but nothing to buy a house, a car, organic groceries. I never found that dream boy– that mysterious boy I wanted to write letters to because I felt so lonely and misunderstood. Instead, I have known my husband since high school and he knows me better than anyone else. I love “our story” but it’s like finding an old dress in the back of your closet you didn’t realize still fit and looks amazing, rather than buying an awesome new dress from a shop you and only you have discovered.

One way I’m dealing with the 90s is through zines. I dealt with my insomnia by throwing myself into my writing, and I found that editing huge bulks of text calms me (whether it’s through student essays or my own writing). Printing on cardstock with my Gocco machine prevented my nightly anxiety attack (always occurring somewhere between 5 and 6pm and lasting until 5am). And through zines, I have met amazing people and have reconnected with old friends who have that same love and distance from what we were a part of, but mostly a ton of new people. In the 90s, good writers were few and far between (admit it!) and zinefests were incestuous and more about the afterparty at the bar, but now I would say 2/3 of the zines I trade for are amazingly written, thought-provoking, unique, fun. Zinefests attract thousands of people– people with their kids in strollers, old punks, new teenage writers, bearded comic artists, waify poets, and more bespectacled cute-dress-wearing feminists in their late 30 and early 40s than you can shake a phallic stick at.

8885468665_62f0593d0c_zAnd then, the punk record store I volunteered at is having their 25th anniversary. When I thought about that place, I remembered the negatives– how much I hated the Make-Up, how the grumpy boys at the new records table would give you the hairy eyeball if you came back to ask about a release date, how the punx took advantage and made everything dirty and scabied and messed up the place with their savage disregard for respecting how cool that space was. But then I started flipping through photo albums and started liking people’s posts and comments on Facebook. I remembered how many cool people I met through the space, how many rad shows, how many fun parties, how I pretty much chose to remember the negative because I wasn’t as political as everyone else and it made me self-conscious. But now, I don’t care. I’m that meat-eating middle-class girl from the suburbs, only now I’m in my 40s, and I can probably handle the judgment and the ribbing more because there is no denying that I embody all of the evils that they accused me of. So I started inundating the closed Facebook group with photos and memories, and I know I’m over-posting and over-sharing but it is helping me make peace with a time that I used to look back at with shame– oh my god, that hair– but now I’m remembering how fun it all was, as long as you didn’t wear leather to a vegan potluck, and you had friends to hang out with to talk trash while some horrible band was playing.

th (4)Reading Kim Gordon’s book has made me listen to Sonic Youth’s discography in chronological order. And while I used to hate their early stuff (I became a fan during Daydream Nation when they “sold out” yet I still consider “Washing Machine” to be their ‘new album’ because I fully stopped buying new music in the late 90s), it’s soothing to wash dishes to their droning noise now. And “Brother James” reminds me of loneliness and teenage angst but I can listen to “My Friend Goo” and appreciate how it used to make me bop around, instead of getting triggered so hard with negative nostalgia that I’d have to listen to an entire Pablo Cruise album to cleanse my mental palate. Though I have to admit that I didn’t have cable tv in the 90s and pretty much rejected all mainstream media (I only saw Jurassic Park when I started teaching the book in 2003), so I didn’t know that Sonic Youth had so many awful videos. I just went on a Youtube marathon yesterday and I don’t think I would have been so dedicated a Sonic Youth fan if I knew their vision of “Sugar Kane,” compared to my own version (remember I thought I was going to be a film maker so my own vision of my favorite songs was infinitely better than the lame videos I would catch on 120 Minutes when I was back visiting my parents). Oh my god, 100%. Good lord. I thought “Kool Thing” was the best when I was a teenage kid who was confused by all the Nirvana fans surfacing– “Wait, these guys look like heshers but think like punks. I don’t get it.” But now I read that it was all satire and tongue-in-cheek, but still, what’s up with all the horrible storylines that look like home movies set to music? That’s why up until recently, I didn’t watch any movies about punk subculture– Times Square, Dogs in Space, RepoMan or any documentaries like the Punk Singer or the Year Punk Broke or Decline of the Western Civilization. I lived “Dirty Boots.” I don’t need to watch the awkwardness and weirdness of my life in a video from the comfort of my couch.

The 00s, I have no beef with. The music reminds me of my son, and if he didn’t make it out of that hospital, I would– if I didn’t kill myself first– be a big, sore, opened wound if I heard Radiohead, Cold Play, OutKast, Amy Winehouse, etc. but because he didn’t die, I love to hear those songs and think about wearing velour jogging suits and getting judged by the conservatives at Ralphs for producing my WIC coupons. I think about the desert and psychedelia and photography and off-roading and Mexico and India and flip flops and my heart is wide open.

th (5)So when I say, “I can’t listen to this.” and I smack the power button on the stereo, it’s no longer because I’m the elitist I once was. It’s because the song is pulling something out of me I’m not ready to deal with, yet.

“I can’t believe you didn’t check in to Facebook!” a low-lighted, business casual forty-something called across the drug store to a lady who looked like mid-2000s Kate Gosslin– graduated bob, swooped up bangs, silver hoops, dressed in black and gray.th

“Yeah, I know! I check in everywhere!” she called back.

I smiled.  I’m on my best behavior because I’m visiting the post office satellite office blocks away from my work. I work in the most conservative part of my valley. Everyone drives big trucks, and in my honors English class out of 120 argumentative essays on gun control, a mere two were in favor of moderate gun control. The rest were little Charleton Hestons, painting pathos-laden scenarios:

Imagine you’re in your bed after guns have been taken away by the government. You got a new Xbox but then a robber breaks into your house. You reach under your pillow to grab your gun but it’s gone. The robber still has his gun because criminals don’t follow laws anyway. If it wasn’t for gun control, you would still have your Xbox and you would still be alive.

Now I realize that this paints a very vivid picture, and if the intended audience was fellow 15 year old boys, this would be damned effective. But the red pen twitches at the over-use of 2nd person point-of-view and the heart wonders what 15 year old boy actually 1) has his own gun 2) actually sleeps with it under his pillow. 3) would kill someone over an Xbox. But luckily I’m not grading on content, so I just put my signature, “!!!” next to the introduction, which nebulously means, “That’s pretty intense.”

So this is the environment these elite, top-of-their-class students are raised in. Not to belabor the point, but when I returned their essays, I asked them how many have a gun in their house and how many of them feel safer because there is a gun in their house. Pretty much a hair-raising majority. I keep silent about the fact that I live in a part of town infinitely more dangerous, that it literally is “on the wrong side of the tracks.” That the valley community FB  has numerous posts about how “scary” my neighborhood is, and that one poster even claimed he will only visit my part of town on  Google Earth, and that’s “as close” as he “feels comfortable.” So I get in hollering matches with high-as-a-kite profanity-muttering gangsters tagging up the wash by my house, they’re clad in classic gangster uniforms—the ubiquitous white t-shirt, the patchy facial hair—and I am infinitely more afraid that my son would stumble into someone’s closet and find their loaded gun and shoot himself with it, or shoot someone else, than I am afraid of home invasion or a mugging, even walking through the dark streets to the liquor store that features sullen paranoid owners scowling at the customers like a mid 90’s G-funk video.

Back in the old neighborhood, they post screenshots from their home surveillance systems, looking for teenage hoodlums who stole their Amazon Prime packages off their porches. They crow about how they “never answer the door” to salespeople and solicitors and if the person keeps knocking, they open the door and point a gun in their face “and they never come back! LOL!” While we answer the door to Girl Scouts and candy bar salesmen and the local evangelists looking for people who speak “Spanish? Spanish?” and window weather-proofers and anyone else. We open the door with a smile and politely decline, and they move on to the next house. Maybe a little defeated but at least we gave them the time of day because not everyone is a scam-artist, a criminal, a rapist, or an evil master-mind.

I smile to myself as I watch the lady weigh my media mail package on the post office scale. I love Facebook but I have to keep my posts under strict scrutiny. I used to be freer with liking my sex worker friends’ wry commentary and sharing hyperbolic political memes, but now my friends from high school have high schoolers of their own, and I know that despite my “Friends Only” status, a student told me her mom shares my FB posts with her. So as has become my new motto: “Don’t post anything you don’t want printed out and sitting on your boss’ desk Monday morning,” I try to stay pretty mild. But I am tempted, like all overly-wired suburban mothers, to check in everywhere, to post everything, and to like every post.

“Yeah, I gave up Facebook for Lent!”

I look over,delighted and surprised, and nod approvingly. She smiles back at me and we nod at each other. What a cool idea—not white sugar or cursing, but Facebook. That’s a brilliant sacrifice.

“I know!” the friend is closer now, not yelling quite as loud. “It must be so hard for you! You were always checking in everywhere!”

I turn back to the postal clerk as I know how the next step of this mom dance plays out. She’s going to ask me what I gave up for Lent, and I’m going to have to figure out if I need to just vague away or if I need to take a stand.

The bottoms of my feet begin to sweat as I play out my options. “Nothing.” But that seems laconically rude.

“I’m not Catholic,” would be accurate but a little snippy. The fact that I actually ask people, when they walk around with an ash cross on their foreheads, what they have given up means maybe I’m more connected to that community than I really am.  Anthropology is just my hobby, though, and I am enamored of most rituals and customs, no matter how seemingly innocuous.

“Actually, I’m Buddhist,” I consider saying and instantly, I get dizzy. Am I Buddhist? I identify with so many tenets of Buddhism that it’s the religion I identify closest with. But then I think how smug that sounds, “Actually, I’m Buddhist…” *wry hipster yogi smile* A wrist tattoo suddenly manifests…I already drink my coffee with almond milk and consider kale one of the main foodgroups. But then I’m not full-fledged Buddhist. I actually identify as Christian. It was the way I was raised, yet I’m not “that kind” of Christian. Whatever that means. I believe in some things, ignore the rest, and wish I really could just say, “I believe in God, and I really love aspects of Buddhism and Sikhism but I really ascribe to hypothetical Christianity, like Christ’s teachings of the New Testament but Christianity in practice in the last 2,000 years makes me angry and turns me off. I feel the same way about Islam. What I’ve read of the Quran, I really like but then I see orthodoxy in practice and it’s ugly. So yeah, I think the smartest people I know are atheists but I’ve had too many unexplainable spiritual experiences to not believe in God, so basically I just believe in God and I’m waiting for a religion that I can believe whole-heartedly in, and I haven’t found it yet.”

She doesn’t ask me, though. I think she knows that my fervent nodding and smile, then abrupt removal of eye contact, my hands clutching the edge of the postal clerk’s desk, means I don’t want to take the conversation to the next step, whereas a gel manicured hand on hip, and a knee turned out of my cargo pants, means I want to talk more about faith as we are surrounded by bedazzled fleur de lys and crosses, and black boxes with jolly sayings in all white capital letters: “DON’T TALK TO ME UNTIL AFTER I’VE HAD MY MORNING WINE!”

“GERMS AND JESUS ARE EVERYWHERE!” was chalked on the blackboard. I had to stifle a choke. The English teacher in me did not approve of that compound subject. It implies well, you know… but I was a guest in this mid70s tract home. Our sons were on a soccer team together, and we were attempting to patch up a budding friendship. My husband uttered an explicative at my son when he wasn’t following directions, and this mom told our ABA provider. The ABA provider informed us, anonymously, and laughed. And the coaches laughed as I cried because it is So Hard to raise and nurture a special needs child. Sometimes you need to fucking cuss at him when he’s spitting at his teammates, head banging his tutor’s arm, and running in the opposite direction, on purpose, for task avoidance. I asked if Child Services would be involved and they all hugged me, and they told me we are human and we all say and do things that we might regret but that the blond boy laughing and spinning on the freshly cut grass is absolutely undamaged and unphased.

She still doesn’t know we figured out it was she who complained about us, thanks to the Starbucks drive-through gossip grapevine, but we decided to kill her with kindness. We were on our best behavior as she invited us over and we watched our only child attempt to mingle and blend with her extended brood in the garage turned playroom. He formed a particular attachment to a Wonder Pets toy, and she let him borrow it. And I like to think it was her way of apologizing for judging us. Either that, or she was showing him some kindness that his egregiously messed up parents couldn’t fathom.

I wonder about that sometimes. I feel like my son is uniformly accepted by moms everywhere. He’s handsome, out-going, affectionate, and kind. But I feel like I’m being judged as his mother—I let him eat too much junk food, I let him watch ipad for hours on the weekend, I respond to his hypotactile seeking needs by wrestling with him, and I let him cuss when he asks permission. “Mom, can I say a naughty word?” he asks a few times a day. “Which one?” “B word.” “Okay.” “Summa bitch!” The release is achieved, and nothing got headbutted. But I feel like moms are quietly judging, watching, keeping score. “If he was my kid, I wouldn’t xyz,” I think they’re saying, especially the ones who have neurotypical kids. I feel like they think they can cure his autism by their far-superior parenting skills, and they are watching us like a hit-and-run accident. “Should I get involved?” they think, fists clenched, ready to jump in with SuperMom powers gleaned from hours of internet research and practical application on their own children. “No,” they think, “I wouldn’t want someone to tell me how to parent!” And they watch us stumble through parenting with tears brimming. But I notice. I see them. I smile at them. I appreciate their concern, but they’re right. I may not be the perfect mom but I am damned proud of the job my husband and I have done so far. And sorry to be a jerk, but unless your kid is special needs and is a teenager, I’ll only half-listen to your advice anyway. If you have come out on the other side of parenting and are a success, I will respect you, and I will thank you for your words of wisdom.

Growing up, I relished my individualism. Nonconformity was my by-line for everything. I got good grades and was a punk. I was a punk who didn’t drink. I was a terrible flirt who didn’t put out. I wore dresses but paired them with orange tights and fishnets. I wore glasses but they were granny bifocals or tinted John Lennon specs. I did horn-rimmed and cat-eye glasses before I knew anyone else who wore them. I drove a huge car and was a kick-ass driver. I dated boys from Hollywood but lived in a 4 bedroom two-story house with a pool. But I had my community. I had my best friends—girls who wore all black, who fell in love with men 5 to 10 years older than we. We drove weird cars and ate at McDonald’s. We sat on the ground no matter where we were. We wore dark eye make-up and striped tights. Maybe one girl was more into glam rock than the rest of us, another couldn’t get out of bed due to depression, and me, I wanted to go to college and become a famous writer. But we had each other, and if the rest of the world yelled “FREAK!” and “NICE HAIR!” and threw food at us, we would just laugh and scream some obscenity back. We had each other, we had our scene, and we had our community.

But now I find myself in that exact same environment 25 years later. I married the boy I dated in 10th grade. I teach at the school I used to attend. My classroom is right next to the spot we used to sit at freshman year. I have a season pass to Magic Mountain again. And now the old bullies have grown up and want to make amends on Facebook. They send me friend requests although I haven’t forgotten that they tried to beat me up next to the lockers adjacent to the library. “Don’t hold on to old grudges!” they say. “Maybe they’re cool now!” they say, and I get it but when the guy who humiliated me every day for three years, drives by on a golf cart and calls my real name, not that annoying epithet he spat at me every day, with a smile and wants to hand me his business card for his booming real estate company, I just want to shake him out of his chinos and remind me how miserable and insecure he and his 6th grade and 8th grade friends made me (I had that year of reprieve when I was in sixth grade and they were mercifully at the junior high, where I actually had a slight, wonderful break from the constant bullying I experienced from 4th grade to 11th grade).

I look around me, and I see well-meaning women, trying to balance career and family. Or others who stay home but try to keep busy by making their lives a living Pinterest experiment. They are trying paleo, they want to learn to sew curtains, they love to take control of their changing bodies through exercise. They are learning to support each other in a world that fosters competition between women. But then, they mention the C word. “Where do you go to church?” And then it always gets awkward. The phone calls cease, the friendly propositions for a playdate, the liking of the Facebook posts. I am never rude even though inwardly I’m screaming, “WHY CAN’T WE JUST BE FRIENDS? WHY DID YOU HAVE TO BRING RELIGION INTO IT?!” Because I know, so many women get grounded through religion. They struggle with depression and anxiety, but they “give it up to God.” They sare tempted by cynicism and nihilism but then are buoyed up with the question, “What does God want to me do with my life? Is this what God intended for me?” And I just…can’t. You can say “vegan,” you can even say “conservative values,” and I will only slightly waver, but the minute someone says, “The Lord” or “at my church, you should come,” I feel estranged and put on the spot. That I have to defend my beliefs, that I have the opportunity to become someone’s “progressive” liberal friend with weird ideas about religion, but I don’t want that. And I know, I know, that my religious friends will say, “I accept you for who you are! It doesn’t matter that you’re going to burn in hell for not proclaiming Jesus Christ is your lord and savior from the rooftops! I’ll still be your friend!” But I long for that sense of community and camaraderie of old.

Why do we suburban moms all look the same? How are we following trends on point without consulting each other? There is a mom zeitgeist. And I get swept into this tide of momconformity but then I struggle against the current. I do not want my child playing team sports because he doesn’t like to and I feel betrayed by the experiences of judginess we’ve had on the field. I want to grow my hair long because my whole life, I keep chopping it short and bleaching it out, so I want to see what it looks like long and semi-natural looking, but as I sit in the salon chair, my stylist with a little pink curly bob framing her face and I see all the other women in their 40s with hair mid-back, dark in the back, light in the front with just enough interplay of low-lights and highlights to make it look like your hair did in third grade before it all went dark and sad, I realize I’m a dime a dozen. I feel like a rebel subverting gender norms when I pull on my tired old day-off pants and my flip-flops but all the other moms are reclaiming loungewear because they’re so busy during the week. I wear my dark circles under my eyes, no concealer, my jeans, my BJJ t-shirt as I bump into no less than two other tired old moms with thinning ponytails, wrinkled faces, and faded Gracie Barra shirts. What are the odds at Costco on a Saturday morning that three middle-aged women who practice Brazilian jiujitsu are all in the same line somehow? Buying bananas and Kirkland conditioner. I pride myself on my box of delivered box of organic vegetables that I make my homemade soup from, and the other moms post recipes—no gluten, no dairy, all organic! “Yeah, I’m doing #whole30 too!”

I embrace this momconformity to an extent. You are a product of your environment. And when you’re 15, you get a certain sense of pride of bucking the system, of embracing your so-called individualism, but when you get older, you just wanna do what you wanna do, and sometimes that goes along with everyone else who is just doing their own thing and your tastes are formed by the aesthetics around you instead of a reaction against the aesthetics around you.

I wonder how life would be different if we lived in the city. Would the momconformity be short, chopped hair, hand-knit sweaters and raw veganism? Are there atheist mom groups where they squint with concern when you say you believe in a higher power? Forget Pascal’s wager, these women think your brain is rotting if you believe in the supernatural. Would I continue to feel alienated because I don’t ride my bike to work and I don’t grow my own vegetables in a small box on my window sill?

Undoubtedly it’s hard to make friends, no matter your age, your politics, your scene. And the older you get, the more you accept yourself but also, it seems, the more you accept that other people and their perceptions of you don’t matter. So when I attempt to connect to some mom who looks cool or seems to have common interests or hell, who is just in the same room as me, and they don’t acknowledge, they don’t smile, they don’t even register a flicker of recognition that you have verbalized a greeting, you have to think, “ Well, alright then.” Everyone has their family, their friend, their church, their little box. They don’t need anyone else, and you’re the oddball because you try to nudge your way into acknowledgement. Maybe our kids would like to play with each other? Maybe we can share ideas and learn from each other? Maybe we can just make each other laugh for a minute instead of being so tunnel-visioned on what’s doing wrong in the world, in our lives. But it’s true, I have given up. I will drop the smile, the salutation,the acknowledgement and will leave it there for a minute to see if it’s reciprocated. If it’s not, I’m too jaded in this mom game to care anymore. I’ve been snubbed more times at Scooter’s Jungle than I ever was at a keg party, and I can live with that.

Sometimes I like to think that someone will smile back, say hi, acknowledge a budding connection, and that we might go out for high tea at the tea place or I can invite her to roll around for some amateur mom jitsu, but then the opportunity presents itself, and it’s just easier to turn away and focus on completing my errands and return to what Huxely sardonically called a “rabbit hole, a midden, hot with the frictions of tightly packed life, reeking with emotion.”

Our family sustains us and gives us unconditional love and acceptance but every once in a while, wouldn’t it be nice, just on the weekends, or maybe once a month, to have a person, not legally bound to you by any means, to call a friend?

downloadBefore zines, there were friendship books. Small scraps of paper stapled together in a corner, or even, one 8 1/2 x 11 sized sheet folded up into small squares. Each square, each sheet, was a page for you to sell yourself to an elite group of penpals. Your page was your identity. We first found each other in the penpals section in Star Hits and then it was just an underground thing that united bored alternative girls (and a handful of guys) across the country.

Your label communicated what bands you liked, what lyrics you identified with, and who your friends were– a label was a small piece of paper with dried adhesive on the back you’d lick to affix to your page. The label always had: a photo on the left, some lyrics on the right, and your name at the bottom, and if you were stable, your address, too. Penguin Productions made everyone’s labels from the sports fans with no sense of style to the last labels I ordered featuring Bukowski, Bratmobile, Sonic Youth.

I met Ericka through fb’s, as we called them. Ericka was a dark, mysterious, sexy, brooding creature in the Midwest. Her labels were mostly Lydia Lunch with lipsticked mouth agape, quasi-pornographic words, and an association of other like-minded women– Lolita, Suzette, Snow. Her pages were always purple, black, red, and later pink. Her handwriting was impeccable, and the paint she used entranced the eye.

Fb’s, I’d say, aren’t the predecessor for zines, since there have been fanzines for 50+ years, but they filled a similar purpose– a way to communicate your identity, a way to meet like-minded people, and a means to express yourself. Fb’s, though, were one-of-a-kind. You had only one page to stake your claim and that one page would become a piece of art never to be replicated, though many of us lined up our fb’s conveyor belt style, preferring the same colors and images, bands and messages. My dad got rid of my desk and replaced it with a huge plank of wood on two sawhorses so the paint, the leaked ink, the dried glue wouldn’t ruin the furniture.

Ericka was soulmates with Elekta and her pages got lighter and funny and cute as these two forged their friendship. They were obsessed with Kids in the Hall, so quotes from Man Servant Hecubus and quirky quips from the Pixies began to appear alongside a wistful Marilyn Monroe in bright purples and cursive writing. We began to take ourselves less seriously and our pages became inside jokes. I know I still have a banker’s box full of clippings I gathered from the LA Weekly, from gift wrapping paper, from wig catalogs, expired calendars, junk mail, coupons from specialty grocery stores. Wdownload (1)e switched out silver pens that you had to shake to get the metallic ink flowing to scratch off transfer letters. I think we began to think of ourselves as graphic designers more than bored penpals.

Suddenly we looked around and we were all friends with each other. What was the point of making fb’s if everyone on each page you knew already? There was no one left to impress. Then it was just time to entertain each other. “ICR” meant “I Can Return” as each fb was made in tribute to one person whose name was on the front page. Usually someone made the fb for you and it was pretty selfish and gauche to make one in tribute to yourself. But soon every page featured “ICR,” every person knew the person on the front page. We stopped putting our addresses on our labels and on our pages. For some of us, we moved too much and the address of the state university dorm was too bulky anyway. For some, we didn’t want any more penpals, as you’d go to the mailbox every late morning to find it overfull with huge envelope stuffed with enough fb’s to while away many hours that day. And yet if you went to the mailbox and it was empty, that was more depressing than anything. And yet we couldn’t keep up with mail to each other. Months would go by and the boy you were crushing on for 7 pages was just a fleeting memory and the fight you’d had with your husband seemed like old news by the time your penpal wound up writing you back to counsel you on it.

Sometimes you’d meet someone who you wanted as your real friend. You’d exchange phone numbers and call each other long distance and you’d get in trouble for the phone bill a few weeks later. Sometimes you’d find a way to travel states away to hang out with a complete stranger only to become best friends for that week you were in town. Ericka, Elekta, and I met at Chandra’s house in West LA before heading off to Disneyland together. It was awesome to hang out with these people in the flesh and to ride the teacups, getting hair stuck on our lipsticked mouths.

I had met girls up north who were into zines and bands, and taking my love of collage and irony, I started my first zine freshman year of college. Ericka took to zines like I did, publishing the awesome Power Candy shortly after. Our love of fonts, beautiful vintage women, feminism, fear and angst translated well into zines. Suddenly it seemed pointless to smother a page with poster paint and scribble on it with Japanese gel pens for only 10 people to see when you could create a zine and reach hundreds of like-minded people all across the world.

Ericka started Pander and that sense of community bloomed as she gathered all her favorite zines under one roof. I didn’t know much about distros so I tried to figure out how to make flats for her and I marveled as she built a website and a message board that had a fierce following. I still have my Pander Mafia pin attached to my quilt made up of old t-shirts, patches, with pins dotting the fabric.

Visual imagery, decoupage, collage, glitter glue, stickers, Sharpies, colored staples. Now we focused more on words than imagery. We created our own aesthetic instead of banking imagery from our favorite magazines (Interview, ID, Elle) and writing our own diatribes instead of borrowing snippets of lyrics from bands.

We still did fb’s sometimes but we started using our real names. I was Clytie, named after a mythological oppressed fairy tale character I loved from a record of stories I had as a kid. Popsicle Slut Girlie became Erickalyn then just Ericka. Our zines got personal fast, maybe too personal, but our friendship grew as I would take trips out to see her and she’d come visit her mom. We’d always try to find a way to hang out. I was there for her wedding and she came to the hospital after the birth of my son.

Our styles have changed– Ericka wore nothing but black and her hair was shiny and burgundy. Now she’s more colorful than I, gingham and flowers with bright ringlets and skyblue cat glasses. I was my own brand of Cindy Brady meets Courtney Love and now you’ll find me in my suburban mom uniform– jeans, t-shirt, and highlighted blond hair.

We bought matching dresses for the Portland Zine Fair last year and were ready to head off the snickers with the idea that we’d been friends for 25 years and we’d earned the right to dress alike.

There are many days when I crave a “like” or a comment for a post, an email in the inbox, a package of zines, a postcaimagesrd, a letter stuffed with artwork, a 10 page confession, a box of brand-new labels with Dennis Hopper & quotes from Blue Velvet on them.

If it wasn’t for Star Hits, there would be no fbs for me, and if there were no fbs, there’d be no zines, and if there were no zines, I’d have a lot less awesome people in my life right now. I know the USPS did wonders for connecting like-minded souls whether it’s through scraps of paper painted or photocopied. People are cynical about e-zines and blogs. While the ability to reach a wider audience is there, no one communicates like they used to– a special packet of just the right pens, a stack of expensive and rare stationery, a stack of art to take your mind away from your minimum wage job at Goodwill or the stack of dishes that need cleaning.

hqdefaultI’m so glad that places that Sky High Sports exist because my kid is getting older and I’m getting scared.

I’m not worried about how we’ll get along. I deal with teenagers for a living, so I look forward to him at that age. I think we’ll have more in common than less– video games, tv series, movies– the things that he now looks over while watching his show on the computer and he’ll scream out, “Turn that show off!” He hates violence. He wrote a note to my students one day that said, “Dear students, I hate this show.” We were watching American Horror Story, and he was worried that the girl was doing to cut the guy’s head off. She was aiming for his wiener, but we didn’t want to give him another phobia, so we just told him to go finish his homework, as he stood there in dismay. He hates Breaking Bad the most and covers his ears when he runs downstairs to tell us that “Tiger is winning the race!” He’ll watch the tv for a minute, waiting for the pay off of the gun shot or the slap, then he’ll admonish us for watching “stupid grown up shows.”

My fear comes from missing out on his childhood. I read and hear over and over about how “they grow up so fast” and “next thing you know!” This will be my only child and I want to experience everything with him. So I indulge him a little too much but I also drag him everywhere because I don’t want to wake up one day and go, “Oh! You’re too old for miniature golf!” Now I know no one is too old for miniature golf, but when he gets too tall to ride the special train ride for kids only at Magic Mountain, I don’t know what I’m going to do.

I was worried about this age– 9, specifically. For me, 9 was the precipice over adulthood. I was content to play with my Barbies but my peers kept trying to pull me over the edge– to kiss a boy, say a cuss word, then later to shave your legs, drink a beer, wear this make-up. I know I’m lucky in a way because my kid’s developmental delays mean he’s more stubborn than I was and has an iron-clad force field against peer pressure. He could care less that everyone else thinks fart jokes are juvenile or that Sesame Street is for babies. He didn’t speak until age 4, so I didn’t really know what he thought about the world. So when he was old enough to talk back, I asked him about Santa Claus. “He’s not real,” he reported. And that’s that, I thought. Okay, well, I felt weird about lying about the old man anyway, so that makes it easy. Then we saw Santa at the mall a few months later, and then he was very real. Now we’re on the cusp of 10, and he’s absolutely real. Whenever I probe, “Is Santa real or pretend?” He sighs at me and clips, “Real.” End of story. Stop asking, Mom.

I know I shouldn’t compare myself to him, but I found out at the age of 6. I was watching an episode of Charlie’s Angels, and I think Bosley dressed up like Santa. Then Sabrina or someone said, “It looks like Santa is real, after all.” I remember glaring at my parents. “What does that mean?” They squirmed and looked at each other, and then tried to cover it up with, “Oh of course he’s real!” but the damage was done. Those 5 seconds of confusion and discomfort told me all I needed to know. So I spent most of my adulthood believing that I wouldn’t lie to my child. I also spent many years thinking I wouldn’t put meat on his plate or allow him to watch tv unsupervised. But now I just go along with the lie. We visit him once a year but I keep my mouth shut. I don’t use “Santa’s watching!” as a threat or a bribe. We buy one Santa gift just because we don’t want the old man to look like a liar when he asks for a toy; although we could just buy him the toy and say it’s from us, but that seems a little under-handed.

I knew we were at the precipice of adulthood when he started taking charge of his own style. He goes in waves in his interests and he circled back to Guitar Hero a few months back. He decided he wanted his hair spiky and pink, so gone were his chin length 70s child star locks. He picked up a pair of horn rimmed glasses and swore he “couldn’t see a thing without them!” (ala Velma from Scooby Doo).Never mind that I pop out the lenses of each pair otherwise they’ll be too smudged. I remember my own decision to cut my hair short and buck the crowd and I see the other kids give him a double take– with his striped sweater and his polka dot bow tie and his purple galoshes– and he duly ignores them. In a way, I think it makes him look “more autistic” if there can be such a thing– the skater shoes and the Luke Skywalker haircut made him look like every other suburban kid– but now I see the nerd beginning to blossom. I can imagine a fur-lined parka in May, a long-sleeved Punisher t-shirt, draw-string sweatpants and dirty black moccasins, bed head and glasses slightly bent and broken. I pass by those kids every morning on my way to work as they wait for the bus that transports them across town to the school more equipped to serve them. I used to just think those kids were awkward. Now I understand them more. I understand when I’m behind them and they don’t hold the door open for me, they don’t even realize I’m there. And when I do pass by and one of them wants to tell me he has “the heart of a tiger and the soul of a beast” over and over, while the aide smiles tiredly, I stop walking and look him in the eye before I say, “Yeah? That’s very cool” and smile.

I know there’s a place in the world for my son. I know he’s got support on all sides and people believe in him. I also know that every time I think he’s getting too old, he will abruptly push the rewind button. He spent the early part of this winter wetting the bed every night, and he’s on a Baby Einstein kick again. Only now instead of headbutting the screen when he gets overstimulated, he calls over to me, “Can I say a naughty word one time?” “Sure,” I most likely reply. I remember the power of cussing when I was little. “Horse, you SUCK!” he calls out. Or “What the hell are you doing, Duck?” Sometimes it’s worse and I have to wrangle him in, “Heyyyy!” but I love that he asks my permission.

The hard part is finding someone on the same page as him. I’m sitting here after three weeks on vacation and we haven’t had one successful playdate. A few days ago,  I had him go find his friend who lives two buildings over. I let him go on his own and I scrubbed the hell out of that countertop as I waited.”He’s almost 10! He can go ask a friend to play by himself,” I told my nervous mama mind. A few minutes later, his friend walks through the door, in pj’s, clutching his tablet, and it’s 2:30 pm. I guess we’re not the only ones who spend the days in Mario fleece, watching Super Why on YouTube. But they couldn’t agree on anything, so the boy left after 10 minutes.

I do have a complex about that– him spending his childhood without friends. He doesn’t seem to know the difference but when the psychologist heading up a failed attempt at a  social group glared at me when he said his favorite show was Angelina Ballerina, I know that allowing him stay a goofy little kid may be preventing him from making friends. As all the other kids mumbled about their favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, my kid is jumping in their faces, making Evil Minion sounds. But it’s “age-appropriate,” I tell myself. Maybe he’s annoying and weird, but he is completely entertained, and loneliness doesn’t even make sense when you’ve got your hovering mom who is dragging you to this place and that, who’s got her cameraphone pointed at you to capture that smile or that clever little quip.

As I clean out the clutter from the office, I try to clean out the clutter from old Groupons. We hit up Sky High Sports and I note that a good third of the kids are teenaged. The rest are “school-aged.” No babies, no toddlers, no pre-schoolers. I jump with him while the other mom lounge on black leather massaging chairs. I break my twenty so I can play his favorite song on the juke box as he flips across the mat. We’ve easily got another 10 years here, I think, as I remember the full-grown man with his fingers in his ears at the arcade, a woman, probably his sister, leading him through the crowd, as he stared at the flashing lights and the gaggles of kids pushing the gate at the rock-climbing wall. My boy lops along the trampolines, a plastic toy zebra with a wristband kindly taped around its neck. The sweat makes his hair spiky as he flips onto his back and stares up at me. “Come on, Mom. You try.”

I’m thinking of taking him to kids museum today– they say the age limit is up to 8, but I think we can squeeze by a 9 3/4ths. I think about this as any time now, he could tell me he doesn’t want the Disney stuffed animals, he wants to avoid Bugs Bunny World, he’ll want to donate his Backyardigans DVDs to Goodnightwill so it’s important to take him every place I can to indulge in the kidness. I record him saying words because it’s won’t be like this for long– he wants tickles on his “kneepips” (knee pits). He knows he needs to “hip-eskate” (hip-escape) in jiu jitsu. He doesn’t call zebras “zebrat” anymore and he’s self-conscious about the color of his teeth. The dentist mentioned braces the other day, and I just refused. Forget about head gear, money, pain, rubber bands, cuts on the inside of your mouth. I just want my baby to stay my baby. For as long as possible.

jeep_side_riding“Can I be R2D2?” he says, every day.


He presses the button and the window rolls down. The snap of the seat belt unbuckles as I turn in the driveway. I hear a “boom! boom!” on the roof of the car. Then I hear, “Louder! Louder!” He’s playing co-pilot and navigator with half his body propped on the car door.

I turn up the stereo to 60 or more, sometimes max, as we cruise through the complex, blasting Quiet Riot. Recently, he asks me to “Drive fast!” which means to speed up to 15 mph in the 5 mph zone. We skid over the speed bumps and round a corner fast enough where his body lurches right as he calls out, “Whooooa!”

I know the neighbors think I’m a bad mom. Heck, I know most people think I’m a bad mom. As he straddles the cart at Ross with a purple rain booted foot caught in the child seat, the clerk admonishes, “That’s dangerous…He could have an accident…He could fall.”

As he struggles, I stare at the clerk, “And break his arm? Maybe. But accidents happen.”

“But yesterday, a child fell out of the cart.”

“And what? Did he break something?”

“Well, no…”

In the meantime, he’s swung his leg free and he’s beaming at both of us, clutching his stuffed Donald Duck.

Accidents will happen and if I could, I’d let him ride his bike without a helmet and I’d pile him and a bunch of pesky, meddling kids in the back of a pick up and drive them to the fair where I’d entrust the safety of their little lives to some carny and a rusty ferris wheel that hasn’t passed inspection in years.

I don’t mean to give the wrong impression– I hover, I hover badly, but mostly to 1) ensure the safety of other children (as my son used to headbutt anyone in his way– adult,baby, or child) 2) block the kidnapping of my child, which is probably the only rational fear I have about him. But accidents, accidents will happen whether he’s overzealously going to grab the whistling tea kettle, or he’ll lose his grip while scaling the outside of the tube slide. Or some kid will climb up the slide from the ground up and will get a mouthful of broken teeth, or a scooter will hit an invisible rock and send the scootee flailing.These things will happen,and I’ve got good insurance.

Having a child with autism has given me a bit of a protective layer when it comes to people judging my parenting. I’m used to incredulous stares and the clucking of tongues. So I might feel a twinge of guilt that first time we hit First Care and he, without filter, tells the nurse that he jumped out of the car, Dukes of Hazzard-style, a second too early, but mostly I will say, for now, while there is no injury, that it’s worth the risk to see him smile when we have the stereo cranked up to max, he’s banging his hands in time to the music, a stuffed Pluto in one hand, the neighbors stopped in their tracks, squirting hose gripped limply in their grasp, we buzz past the empty garbage cans, and he hops down from the car, running into the house to go grab a juice.

Summertime means riding your bike to 7-11, loading up on Big League Chew and Blow Pops, then riding down the cul-de-sac in circles until it’s time to head up to your best friend’s house where a plum tree hangs over her pool. It’s the only pool in the neighborhood but you’re all alone, practicing back flips into the deep end. You get out every few minutes or so to grab a fat, purple plum that hit the ground– the pink juice all over your pruney fingers which you clean off by diving into the cold, blue water.
But what happens after puberty? When you trade in your banana seat for a 3 speed? Candy isn’t that appealing, even Coke Slurpees are passe. You hole up in your air-conditioned house with daytime talk shows– Sally, Maury, Jerry, Oprah, Donahue, Geraldo. Your parents urge you to go do something besides eat grilled cheese and watch your hair grow out.
Suddenly they’ve enrolled you in church camp, and you find yourself on a bus traipsing up the mountainside to some unknown compound in the woods. You are alone and you are bored.
I was bunkmates with a two-sister set, Marie and Grace, two black mods from Pacoima. I had a couple of magazines in my bag, and we borrowed a roll of Scotch tape and began posting up cool photos all over the room. I was already into the 60s style thanks to the B-52s and I loved British bands like Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, and the Cure, so it was just a hop, skip, and a skank over to the Specials.
We became fast friends and these girls took me to my first thrift shop– a huge warehouse on Lankershim and San Fernando. I dreamt about it for years after– rows upon rows of racks and racks of cute sun dresses, mock turtlenecks, pencil skirts, chiffon scarves. The first time they took me I must have bought three bags full and it changed my wardrobe from nondescript black cotton to polyester dresses and tights. I rediscovered the thrift store a few years ago, after accidentally passing by as I was taking surface streets home from the valley. It was called Sun Valley Thrift and it was just as amazing as I remembered it, only now it had all the latest trade paperbacks I wanted. New owners bought it out recently and gutted the place. Now it’s clean and organized and pretty much empty except for men’s work pants and bland furniture. A neon sign that says “JESUS SAVES” is hung where all the tupperware used to be. That and a tight parking lot means I’ll never shop there again.
The girls took me to my first show– the Three o’Clock playing at Magic Mountain in the amphitheater. I had on jean shorts, black tights underneath, a black sweatshirt, black creepers with white socks, gold peace earrings. Marie bought me a Who pin to fasten on my shirt to round out the look. “But I don’t even listen to the Who!” I told her. “You will,” she smirked. The show was amazing and I still feel cool, 30 years later, telling people that my very first show was an obscure psych pop band when I was 11 years old.
It was a time where I was between junior high and high school, mod and Goth, Christian and atheist, valley and SCV. The sisters made me tapes with the Yardbirds, Selecter, and of course, the Specials and more Specials. They took me to shows with bands like the Skeletones, Donkey Show, No Doubt (whose singer was a teenage brunette who worked at Macy’s).
During this era, mod/ska was a label that made sense– and the rude boys hung out with the mods who hung out with the skinheads. They drew pictures of boys with fades wearing parkas and big boots riding shiny scooters who never smiled. We got to hang out with an older crowd at church camp– these mod boys in high school who wore striped t-shirts and monkey boots. They let us eat with them at the older kids’ table. We gave each other nicknames– Livingston and Dutch, and I was Parrot. They admired my yellow eyeshadow and loved my dresses. After camp was over, we went on beach trips with them where we dove into the waves, shouting, but then would lie panting on the sand, staring at a shirtless Dutch listening to a portable tape player while he stared at the waves. I was pretty certain I was going to marry him when I grew up, and I think I told him so. They were friends with a pop punk band called The Start who played our church. They sounded like The Clash but sang about being saved. My favorite had the chorus of “Oh, he saved my soul!” over and over. Undoubtedly I have their demo tape dubbed on Maxell Metal somewhere in a plastic box.
I had my first kiss at church camp, too. We had a small army of developing punks and rabble-rousers who gravitated toward each other. There was Ryan, freckled and spindly– braces and abrasive. He loved DRI, or at least he drew the DRI logo on everything. And Steve, who was a goofy goofball with tons of energy who recently found me via social media to tell me he was an Anglican pastor who still loved a good slampit, and there was Bobby who looked like Ricky Schroeder and Alex, the punk chick who wore make-up and bleached her black hair to orange. And then there was Wyatt. I don’t remember his real name, but we called him Wyatt because he looked like Ilan Mitchell Smith from Weird Science. We dated for one day but his hands were sweaty and his kiss had too much spit so I called it off after a few hours. This was the era of Oingo Boingo and KROQ. To this day I can’t hear “Just Another Day” without thinking of being in bed at 3AM, unable to sleep, hearing this song and thinking of how sad I was that summer was coming to an end. The same way I can’t hear Jane’s Addictions “Three Days” without thinking of my last boyfriend in high school who went back to his former girlfriend, but he told me to give him a few days to think about us, and I listened to that song on repeat while I cried away another summer because he never came back.
I don’t know who I would be today if I had stayed with the church. The schism happened one session where I told my youth pastor that I was obsessed with music because we were talking about things that we loved that might not “glorify God.” He told me to get rid of my records, burn them, if I’m not mistaken, and a switch got flipped in my mind, and now and then I developed my philosophy on music and art– that this talent to feel and create is part of the energy force of God, and that even holes-in-jeans metal and baroque Goth is part of a lifeline of creativity and beauty that does not contradict the “Oh, he saved my soul!” ditties of the Christian bands, but that it is its own affirmation. It’s hard to put into words for public consumption without sounding like a sap but I believe our inspiration comes from God/ the goddess/ the universe, etc. so to destroy something just because it’s not “godly” is stupid. And so I stopped going to church, I stopped worrying about my soul, and because we lived in different area codes, I stopped talking to the mod sisters.
Our last church trip to the beach, I had invited a boy I was seeing, whom I met at Magic Mountain a few weeks before. I stood waiting at the church while my friends boarded the bus, telling me to just get on, but I waited, and he showed up thirty minutes late, looking ridiculous with his hairy legs showing from under his powder blue board shorts, his black bedhead uncombed. He didn’t look so cool out of his pointy boots, but I’m a good friend, so I went along with the plan when he said we could hang out at his house instead of hitting the beach. The church leaders had me call my folks and I left a message on the answering machine, then they dropped us at his sister’s house where he was crashing. He played the Cure’s “Staring at the Sea” VHS as he tried to romance me, then he tried to guilt me into doing things I didn’t want to do. I remember I had temporary pink dye in my hair and got it all over his sister’s bed as he tickled me into trying to take the next step. Luckily I had the wit to convince him out of the situation after a close call, and we found ourselves wandering around the air-conditioned mall where my folks picked me up after I collect-called them from a payphone.
Punk and goth won out over mod/ska as we tend to emulate the people who are nearest to us, and the closest mod was a boy named Pierre who lived in Canyon Country who liked to hang out with the goths. Kids these days are so compartmentalized in their scenes that they have no idea that there was so much play between them in the 80s- that most of the “weirdos” liked and accepted each other– that it was only when I got older that people started drawing out lists of what you could dress like, what you could listen to, who you could be friends with, who you could date. So at the end of high school, after being dumped by my long-term Hollywood squatter boyfriend, I found myself in the arms of his best friend, a skinhead from Beverly Blvd. As friends, he was the leather jacket wearing, plaid pants, Minor Threat kind of skin, but after we were in Westwood during the premiere of “Boyz n the Hood” and we got chased down by some angry movie-goers and he got pummeled with a rock that split open his face, something snapped in this boy, and he started dressing smarter with snap caps, v-neck sweaters, pressed pants, Ben Sherman shirts. It was old familiar territory to me, so we tried to make it work, til we tried to hang out with my ex as he was working at a record store on Melrose. My ex had grown his hair out and started looking more like Redd Kross than Red Cross, and he did not approve of our Quadrophenia relationship– my Jimmy and me his Monkey.
But the throwback had already taken hold and I found out one of my favorite penpals was eyeing a cute rude boy at her school. Her hair was long and burgundy. Her clothes black lace and velvet to the floor. She went by “Stigmata” but I toasted my way into her life as we met in person, and decided to become best friends. We went dancing at Marilyn’s, went to shows all over, and befriended anyone we could. We had a tight group who shared Fred Perrys and danced on rooftops in the parking lot. We had nicknames which we drew on white patches sewn to our flight jackets: Blue, Whiskey, Chester, Sharky. I was working at Goodwill and had instant access to the best vintage clothes, and I had the uncanny knack of being able to pick out a Fred Perry by looking at the collar on the rack.
I went away to college with my polyester dresses, my creepers, my pin and patch addled flight, my cat eye glasses. I remember my going away party when all my friends drove up from the east side. We had a water balloon fight and every present I got had drawings and cartoons drawn all over them– of me, of us, and the ubiquitous black and white checked border.
I had spent the spring on the east coast, explaining what a “rude girl” was to these boys whose girlfriends had chelsea cuts or big banged 80s hair. I got ditched in New York, calling my parents from a payphone sobbing, while a bobbed girl from San Francisco gave me her name and number and told me to look her up when I moved to town. However, I fell in with the punk scene up north and when I returned to LA to visit, Blue was a full skin chick. She played keyboards in a semi-famous band, and she was even the type of person to confront “fresh cuts” in the parking lot to hack off their fringe with a pair of Fiskar scissors. We stopped talking after that.
Years later, Brit pop introduced itself with a bright smile and a danceable beat. The punk kids combed their hair down and dyed it inexplicably black. A new scene hybrid emerged with white belts, short pants, button up shirts. We called them “Moths,” a mix of mod and Goth with a love of keyboards and hardcore music thrown in. For me, the dresses and tights never left, but the dancing was back, and so were the skinheads. Only this time the skins were Asian and black, whereas LA SHARP skins were almost 90% Latino with a couple of white boys desperately trying to convince the world they weren’t racist. I stalked a young Filipino until we sealed the deal and I found out he wasn’t as intriguing as I thought (par for the course for dating in San Francisco), as he lived with his parents, drove a minivan, and stole a Ken Boothe cd of mine. I had an epic “mods vs. rockers” party when I gave up the lease for my one-bedroom apartment in the Outer Mission and had a ton of my punk friends’ bands play but invited my new crew inherited through dating, when a punk wearing a cowboy hat got head-butted by a skinhead from Texas. I remember watching the confusion as the politics got weighed– he headbutted me for wearing a cowboy hat ironically! because he’s from Textas! But he’s black. “Do you really like cowboys so much that you had to defend their honor with violence?” I asked my friend. “No. That guy’s face just pissed me off” was the reply. In the meantime I was outside sitting on some poor boy’s rusty Vespa as I developed delusions of ditching the Casanova and becoming a regular at the Orbit Room.
It all turned to mush as Calvin Johnson called me a skinhead for tossing a bottle of Snapple at the Make-Up, my best friend Jared turned into a rocker with a round head of curls, a baseball jacket and a pair of Cons. I counseled young skinheads on the history of the scene as every once in a while, the youngins focused more on the violence and the suspenders than the music and unity. My siblings were immersed in Third Wave ska which was utter shite. Luckily they liked traditional, too so I took them to shows and reveled in having a cool family who traded jackets and got sweaty bouncing around the dance floor together. I realized that after all these years of liking this music and this scene and these boys and this hair and those clothes, the best of all worlds was a mix of all worlds, even if it meant having no community to belong to. So I kept the penny loafers with DM soles, I published the zine that sold at Epicenter, volunteered at MRR, danced at Pop Scene, made out with drunks I picked up at Mission Records, and ultimately sold all my clothes, shoes, and jackets on Telegraph Avenue, got a dot-com job, and started shopping at Old Navy.
I’m sticking with this– a middle-aged woman with highlighted hair who shops the clearance rack at Target. My last hurrah was some unwise purchases at Merc in London when I had the money to buy designer mod clothes but not the scene to show them off in. But I will still sport a Lonsdale hoodie when I’m heading out for a night on the town at City Walk, and I’m half in it for the mod and the other half for the MMA. And only I know I’m cool as I support the scene by picking up the Three o’Clock limited edition cd at Amoeba because if I don’t support their endeavors and remember the soaring crescendo of “Jetfighter,” who will?16lpfrance

“Do you play drums? You look like a drummer,” the girl told me. This was also the same girl who told me I should start doing zines– she was an amateur graphic designer and zines were her way of testing out imagery and typography.
“No,” I said.
“Well, we have a band,” she nodded to her friend sitting on her bed. “We don’t have any songs or gigs yet but we have stickers.” She handed me a sheet full of stickers with a 1950s cocktail flare.
So that was my first band. They wound up developing songs and getting gigs after all. They got a real drummer, you might know her as “The Real Janelle,” and while I watched them from the pit, I thought to myself, “That could have been me.”
Not Bratmobile
I played up the “looking like a drummer” bit as I came home to LA for the summer after living in the dorms during the school year. I had made a lot of friends through the mail and wound up meeting them in person. We went to Jabberjaw, getting there much, much too early in the excitement of it all. We sat out on the pavement with zines in our lunchboxes, talking and laughing.
“Oh, so you’re Bratmobile!” the sound guy said.
We just laughed.
“Cool, come on in and let’s sound check you.”
“That’s not them,” some partypooper doorgirl said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I don’t know what band they’re in but that’s not Bratmobile.”
Another fake band to add to my resume.
A few weeks later, Tiger Trap and Heavenly came to town. We hustled our way through the growing crowd, looking for a bathroom. Since the show was on a college campus, there were just locked and unlocked doors everywhere. We found an unlocked door with an empty bathroom and then opened out to a bunch of equipment.
“Oh cool cool,” was the consensus. We weren’t the band that night but we were some other cool riot grrrl band (again, not by our lying but just by our not denying the mistake). We stood around and drank the sodas.
Tiger Trap walked in and glowered. I know they recognized me enough from common Northern California shows. The singer returned my Hi without eye contact, then told someone we weren’t supposed to be there. Kicked out, so we left the entire show and laughed our butts off in the parking lot.
Macaroni Bicycle
The fun of riot grrrl came from the dismissal of all rules and regulations for who gets to create art and music, and who gets to consume it. As I worked on the second issue of my zine, my best friend from high school came over and I explained to her the entire ethos. Minutes later, we were in my garage, pounding on garbage cans, riffing on my little brother’s Stratocaster, screaming and laughing. We knew we sounded awful but we were enjoying ourselves in a way we never had before, with loud, reckless abandon, and that was my first step toward making music for me, not following sheet music or trying to replicate a punk song at my boyfriend’s frustrated insistence.
Hello Klitty
A year or two later, I found myself in a real joke band. I say “real” because we had songs, we practiced, we had gigs. I say “joke” because all of us had a wicked, satirical sense of humor and we were fully self-aware that we couldn’t play our instruments. Ideologically, we were solid, but musically we were terrible. I think we all clearly would have admitted that we were more like the Shaggs than the Frumpies, but we loved it.
Stephanie was the 17-year-old guitarist who played in “real” punk bands in the south Bay. Tim Yo from MRR was her biggest fan, so I’ll never forget him standing up front at our first show, exploding with applause, then coming up to hug her and congratulate us at the end.
Bianca and Rebecca were best friends. Bianca wrote songs about not being “Hispanic” and making guacamole out of her blood. Rebecca had a Lisa Frank sensibility. When I think of Bianca, I think about how she took me to Mexican dive bars where my margarita got mickeyed, and when I think of Rebecca, I think of a poodle wearing sunglasses riding a pink skateboard.
I should have known better, being the eldest of the group, but instead I provided my bedroom as our practice space, much to the annoyance of the students next door at New College who just wanted to have Socratic seminars on supporting local business models without listening to us caterwauling.
I wrote one real song, with rhythm and lead guitar parts, a real drum beat, lyrics that meant something to me called “My Room.” I think we could have become a “real” band if we had practiced a little more, but we were too busy making zines and coming up with funny lyrics to really commit to the music.
I remember having some out-of-town guests stay with me one week in summer, and as I was getting ready for a show, they chastised me for putting on a dress. “How can you drum in a dress like that? Won’t you be uncomfortable?”
“No” and it doesn’t matter was my response, but I think the fact that even the Canadian women soaking beans in my kitchen criticizing my band was a big indicator about how the world at large saw us.
The Piltdowns
“Hey you play drums, don’t you?” the boy I knew as the cashier for the dorm cafeteria asked me.
“No, not really,” I replied. It had been a few years, and I knew a thing about humility and defeatism. But I did still have my drumset– tiger striped with a deep green tom, my ex-boyfriend’s old hippie roommate bought it off a church band in the Western Addition for $100.
“Yes she does! She was in a band,” my friend volunteered for me.
“Can you play even a little? We’re forming a band. We want a female drummer. Like the Velvet Underground.”
And that’s how Moe Tucker became my point of reference as they taught me how to drum properly– to use brushes and mallets, to focus more on the tom drum than the bass, and that my slight syncopation would be an asset to this 60s psych/ 80s indie rock type pop group.
Again, practice would have made perfect, and we tried. We had a practice space on Turk St., we jammed in bedrooms, we had gigs in LA, Oakland, and San Francisco. We played the Purple Onion, and we actually hooked up with a couple other awesome, similar bands, so we might have developed a following in time. We covered Tommy James, Huey Lewis & the News, Velvet Underground, and the Kinks. Our songs were about overalls, daguerrotypes, and always lost love. We even had a track on a compilation cd.
At first the name was Piltdown Men, and that drove me crazy, so we agreed on the Piltdowns, but we still had to explain our name wherever we went.
I really like to think of us like the Beatles or the Monkees– and that there should have been teen magazines in tribute to us. We should have had our own tv show.
There was Ed– the Paul of the band. Cute, well-dressed, well-educated in pop music. He wrote the love songs.
Josh– the bassist– the John, cynical and smart, he wanted us to rock more. He wore cop glasses on stage. He was about 6 foot 5.
Ben– the George– a little bit hippie, a little bit mystical. His lyrics were always an enigma. He had the longest hair and always seemed to be faded.
And then me, of course I’m Ringo. I’m not the best drummer in the world. I’m not even the best drummer in the band. I’m funny. I wear silly shirts like Hawaiian shirts, shirts with the word “BITCH” ironed on them. My favorite part of being in a band is after we’re done playing and all the tension is off, and I can sit at a table and be wooed by the mop-topped, black turtle-necked cute boys in the other bands who want to talk shop over a beer.
California Pony Girls
I was living in the Tenderloin, in love with a gay mod boy who was best friend and companion. We’d go dancing every weekend and we’d hit the corner deli mart for dinner. One day we decided to rent movies and found ourselves strolling the aisles, looking for something decent. We found ourselves in the Adults Only section, as he pulled out various titles to make me laugh, and then we found California Pony Girls— a low budget VHS with two women in lingerie with harnesses and horse bits in their mouths as a leering male towers over them.
“Oh my God, this is hideous!” I said, and “But that would make a great band name.”
I tried to get him to rent the video but he refused. “You remember I’m gay, right?” he said, and all irony was lost on him.
I moved back to LA after a bitter break-up and formed my own one-woman band. I had bought a 4-track, now knowing a little bit about music, and I recorded some stuff for some of local kids around my hometown. Back to the garage I went, with the old white Stratocaster. I redid “My Room,” with layered tracks– me on drums, on guitar, lead and backing vocals.
I made a tape for CPG with a hidden bonus track where Owen from Casiotone for the Painfully Alone laid down a funky Casio beat as I plainly and repeatedly stated “I’m gonna kill Jets to Brazil,” even though I really loved the band, the song was more a commentary on their fans than them.
My best and favorite song was a collaboration between me and the singer in my brother’s band The Tagalongs. I was crushing hard on a friend who lived in Brooklyn, but I was living at my parents’ house, broke and bored, so we wrote a song about me getting a job at the mall so I could save money to move to New York. It’s my favorite song I’ve ever done, with Joel on guitar and lead vocals, me on drums, keyboards, and the chorus. We have friends cheering in the background and oodles of inside jokes in our lyrics.
When I cleaned out my tape collection this year, I got rid of everything I could find on Spotify. I kept my mixtapes from penpals and I kept all the demo tapes from all the bands I’ve known, loved, and tolerated. We may be listening to a music made and mixed on computers these days but there was a time when all you needed was an amp, a guitar, something to pound on, a little keyboard from the thrift store, a duct-taped microphone, and a shoe to prop it up. Even though one day I won’t have a way to play them anymore, I feel like these tapes mean more than just musical expression– they are an insight into our emotions and our politics 15 to 20 years ago. There’s a story behind each one and some are embarrassing, some are enlightening, and most are unforgettable if you choose to remember them.drums


I know it may be hard to tell by looking at me but I teach Science Fiction to 12th grade slackers. You might think it a prerequisite to wear glasses, have a mousy bob, to wear comfortable Easy Spirit sandals, to wear pants & a floral button up shirt while talking about Future Shock and Asimov’s robot laws, but that was the last Sci Fi teacher who I took over for. She decided she’d had enough of grading papers so she went back to school in her 50s to get her masters in library science. Now she shushes kids and helps them set their margins to 1″ in MLA format, and the only time she dips into the SF realm is to help some freshman find the third in the Divergent series.
I knew nothing about Sci Fi when I got hired, which is so typical in the education system. “We have an opening in a sheltered Mod Civ class, how do you do with the ELL population? Never worked with them before? What’s your philosophy on the best way of teaching Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato? What? Your specialty is on the French Revolution, well welcome to the world of SDAIE and the Yangtze River. You might want to brush up on these things before school starts in two weeks.”
I had a perfunctory knowledge of SF being the older sister of a D&D-playing, Star Wars loving uber-nerd, and being an iconoclastic writer, I knew a bit about dystopian fiction, so I bit my lip and nodded my head earnestly when they offered me the job my first of teaching.
What I soon found out was that there is no better class to teach– my first year was rough as I followed the previous teacher’s lessons of worksheets, constant multiple choice quizzes and awkward group projects made out of magazine collages and speculation, but when I made the class my own, and made it surrounded by the idea not of Future Shock– that the world is developing technology at such a rate that Mankind cannot keep up (cue 50s film strip beep here), but instead, my approach was, “How were the Sci Fi writers right? And if they’re not right yet, when will they be?”
We start with a research project where the students get to work with a partner and get to choose from a list of approved authors. We watch a hip, cable tv type documentary which gives them a 50 minute blitzkrieg of Sci Fi culture. I show it to gauge the temperature of the class– will they laugh when they see Octavia Butler on the screen and some flat-billed douche will inevitably call out, “IS THAT A DUDE?” and then I have to hit pause on the DVD player, flick the lights on, and then strong-arm them into realizing that their stupid reaction is actually why Butler had a hard time breaking into Sci Fi, while the rest of her female compatriots were using fake androgynous initials for names to try and get respected in the biz. The only benefit that comes out of the lecture, when it does happen, is that someone will choose Butler as their author project, forcing the kids to stare at her image on PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide. “Remember how you laughed at her? Are you laughing at her books about time travel and slavery? You privileged brats, don’t you feel guilty now?” And I just smile and nod.
I wait and see how they deal with death– Huxley asked for a massive dose of LSD on his death bed, Asimov died of AIDS– how do they death with sexuality– Delany is gay, Wells was a sex addict– how they deal with pop culture nuances– Ellison wrote for the Twilight Zone series, King wrote Carrie— and inevitably, I can identify the lazy kids right away– they choose Verne, Burroughs, Crichton. And I know immediately who are going to be the coolest kids in class– they choose Atwood, Dick, Stephenson.
We watch clips from The Handmaid’s Tale. Kids bring in their instruments and play songs dedicated to Philip K. Dick’s paranoia. I’m always jotting down notes on a scrap of paper about what to read next: Dandelion Wine, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Barefoot in the Head instead of circling scores on their rubrics. Inevitably some marginalized kid will fall in love with H.P. Lovecraft and the two of us will shiver and squeal about Cthulu while the other 38 humans in class will have no idea about the depths of fear and despair. This year I had a kid list the website of the Church of Satan in his Works Cited. His citations were correct so he got credit for a reputable source, but I shook my head the whole time. “Did you really just cite the Church of Satan in your project?” I asked him when the lights came on. He smiled sheepishly. “Okay, then!” I said, as more than a few kids started rubbing their rosaries under their desks and saying their Hail Marys as I calculated his score. C- because it was one week late.
I know I disappoint the professional geeks. They see the Leonard Nimoy record propped up on my wall, and they want to talk Tribbles. I let them wear their Naruto headbands in class and encourage their explanations of Dark Matter from Dr. Who. I explain Hard Sci Fi and Soft Sci Fi to the masses, and I can register the disappointment in their eyes when I say Soft Sci Fi is best because Hard Sci Fi is annoying and dull. I don’t read books that take place in a series. I like the classics, and when I try to encourage independent reading, I always add a rule-breaker to the list of common district-approved classics: Gates of Steel, Childhood’s End, Ender’s Game, oops! Snow Crash— sorry about that sex scene. Yikes! The Female Man— sorry about that sex with a robot scene. A Scanner Darkly— whoa, this book blew my mind. Sorry for those of you who chose that book who have never read a book on your own before and had to experience that one without a pacing calendar, study guide questions, or Spark Notes to explain it. But those are my favorite moments when I think to myself that I’d rather teach Myth and Folk, then I find a book that reminds me that Sci Fi is fertile ground for experimental fiction. As I told Sci Fi fanzine legend Don Fitch, “I teach Sci Fi to high schoolers!” He told me that teaching Sci Fi goes against its very principles, that is inherently against rules and the authority of the classroom, but we make it work. As long as I have the kids under 18 get their parents to sign a permission slip when I’m nervous.
I love teaching Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 because the kids connect with Clarisse. I guide them into this with a series of well-timed journals and discussions about book banning and addiction to technology. Are you a Clarisse or a Mildred? I silently ask them. Do you sleep with your sea-shell radios in? Do you love your tv more than your family? Do you diet to double digits? Do you alter your sensibility for a temporary and shallow happiness? Or do you want to take a walk outside after dark? Talk to your uncle about life and the universe until 2AM? Do you want to ask “Why?” of your teachers or do you want to just lose yourself in your Snap Chats and your Tweets, one eyeball on the clock because this class is so lame and once this class is over, and then school will be over, and then graduation and then college, then career, then family, then retirement, then death. Everything and everywhere is better than where you are now. I put up a silkscreened print next to my clock that says BE HERE NOW in all caps red block lettering. Enjoy this life now. Look around and talk to the people next to you, listen to what happens in class, take a vested interest in the here and the now because this minute is living and breathing.
My favorite unit is short stories though by then the dystopian themes have become old-hat: nonconformity, consumerism, alienation, the appreciation of the small and beautiful leads to the sublime. But during short stories we talk about the Other, we (I) mock the classic space opera hero via Ursula LeGuin, we talk about sexist language and careful diction: “manmade star,” “booby prize,” the captain is a woman, we find out on the penultimate page. We talk about the pain of childbirth, women in combat, why the black guy or the guy in the red shirt dies first in movies, I read them Tyler Durden’s speech from Fight Club. We bring in advertisements, looking for how we’re manipulated by marketing and advertising. At this point, they’re convinced or they never will be. Either J.G. Ballard is a genius or an old, meandering British perv. I top off the unit with a refresher on the business letter, accompanied by Gordon R. Dickson’s “Computers Don’t Argue”: I show them a clip from Summer School, as Shoop has always been my teaching hero and Chainsaw is my ideal student, when everyone gets new RayBans by writing in to the sunglasses company. We mail off our letters and get gift cards and coupons in the mail, though I have to say that the economy hit that unit hard as most kids get nothing as customer service has dwindled to naught in most companies, so the days of a package full of anything for free is now over. The best we can hope for is a generic letter and maybe 20% off at Innout.
Their own short story accompanies this unit and I have read more than enough stories about post-apocalyptic war-torn environments where Hunter or Jake and all his pals are suddenly military commandos looking for any signs of life. I prep the story by making them research current events every other week– I tell them that anything goes as long as it’s within the two-week period and that it’s from a reputable source. It is my favorite day because I kick back in my director’s chair as they talk about putting gold in one’s poop, an artist who grafted an ear to his arm, planets and stars being discovered, 3-D printing of guns and hearts, and life-enriching opportunities to check out electronic conferences or star-watching at the Griffith Park Observatory.
I used to finish with Jurassic Park, as the kids remember being terrified by the movie when they were little, so it was the perfect way to round out high school– to take this dinosaur story and then apply our social criticism chops to what Malcolm and Hammond have to say about capitalism, greed, and scientific progress. We would top it off with recreations of their favorite iteration– where kids donned bandanas and air soft guns, stalking in their lush backyards, looking for plastic dinosaurs found at the Dollar Tree, where one football player did an interpretive dance representing Dennis Nedry’s death at the hands of the dilosophaurs. But these days the kids are even more reluctant to read than they were 10 years ago, so last year when I taught the book, I found myself cajoling the kids into discussing the motives of InGen, Henry Wu, Dr. Grant. I knew they weren’t reading. They were failing the quizzes, and they didn’t care. So why am I teaching a book I don’t even like that much for the 10th time when they don’t care? So this year I switched to Brave New World.
I told them openly that if they refuse to read and to discuss then I might as well teach a book that I love so at least one person in the room will be having a good time while the rest of them clock-watch and hide in the back row, waiting for the movie I show while we’re working on drafting essays at home. So I went whole hog, and I will tell you– the kids still didn’t read, the quiz scores were still deplorable but the discussion were ace. I played them “Mother’s Little Helper,” I taught them more about Shakespeare to unlock the allusions to Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and the Tempest than I taught my AP Lit class. Somehow talking about the savage reservation segued us into talking about public breastfeeding which lead into some kid bringing up free bleeding, and I’m standing there, allowing their soon-to-be-adult minds to form opinions and hash out their passions in a safe environment. We talk about dating and relationships, the self-flagellating tribes of New Mexico, EDM, heroin and Xanax, Pussy Riot, test tube babies and cloning, Henry Ford and the benefits of genetic engineering.
No matter the book, the last essay is an argument about cloning. Thanks to the new common core standards, I present some articles, some film clips, I encourage their own research, then kick back and observe the results. After teaching this class thirteen times, shuffling through thousands of terrified anti-cloning essays, this year I found that all but one essay was about the benefits of cloning. Despite showing them Gattaca and Michael Bay’s The Island, the consensus was that cloning and genetic engineering will lead to a longer, happier, healthier life for everyone involved, despite the high number of failed clones and the potential for misuse by an unregulated market.
And I think back to Future Shock, where technology outpaces the capabilities of a human’s comprehension for dealing with the ramifications of scientific advances, and I know that I am a victim of Future Shock, as my Mildreds, my Montags, my Clarisses, my Franklins, my Hathaways, my Bernards, my Leninas, my Fannys see me as a Faber– a relic from the past with a little bit of knowledge, a typewriter, and a suitcase full of dirty clothes, ready to help them escape from society’s clutches by taking that Freudian trip down the river to be reborn into a world where books are good and friends mean more than the Spot Bargain or the newest model of the parlor walls.
So don’t blame me when this generation grows up and begins to rule the world– I did my part– but when they pass bills to develop superhuman soldiers and encourage robots to suppress the ghost in the machine to become nannies and dogwalkers, I warned them but this is their future, not ours.


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