S h o r t   F i c t i o n  /  E s s a y s


10 Things About Me


Ten things I've done that maybe you haven't:

1. Ridden on one of those elevators that goes down beneath city sidewalks (the kind under those large metal plates you walk over)
2. Uttered a complex sentence at 16 months
3. Picked prunes. Over 100 crates of prunes. Several years running. In August, in near-100-degree weather.
4. Scattered a daughter's ashes
5. Owned an electric vehicle in the '70s

6. Married someone who later had a sex change
7. Lived in a barn (for two years, with spouse and kids)
8. Nearly got locked inside a 1200-year-old church
9. Spent two different nights on the outskirts of Merida (Spain) hoping to hitch a ride
10. Painted stampeding elephants on the side of a Porsche

Okay, a bit more explanation:

1. Elevators in the sidewalk
When I was a kid my family raised several acres of gladiolas which we sold to San Francisco's premiere florist, Podesta Baldocchi. We would have to be 'up the hill' at our growing field on the wild edges of San Mateo at 5:30 a.m. At the time there were acres and acres of rolling, empty land there (something almost impossible to imagine now.) My sister and I would run flowers from my dad, who would cut them, to Mom, who would bundle them in our little makeshift shed. Then if I was lucky, Dad would take me with him to Podesta's. We had to be on the road by 6:15 and into the city before seven to avoid rush hour traffic. We'd wend our way downtown, park out front of Podesta's in the loading zone, and then--the magical part for me--take our cart laden with flowers onto an elevator that came up through the open metal plates in the sidewalk, and descend into a bustling, fragrant world full of cut flowers and arrangers. Sometimes one of the flower arranging ladies would give me a carnation or two.

2. Out of the mouth of babes
Needless to say, I don't remember this, but Mom told me about it when I got older. Evidently it was one of the first things I ever said, and it was some observation about the weather. Mom said she was completely shocked.

3. Prune picking
Ah, this was what every kid did back in the day when Sonoma County was a prune-growing region instead of the classy, upscale wine country it's been transformed into today. Dad would hire day laborers, too, but we kids had to pick as well. We got... I think it was 35 cents a box for our work, and these were standard field lugs.

4. The unthinkable
It's hard to believe, but the ashes of an infant fit inside a box no bigger than a baseball, and even then take up only a fraction of the space inside. No, you didn't want to know that. Believe me, neither did I.

We scattered N's ashes in a redwood forest--actually, only about ten feet away from the spot where we were married. M and the kids all took turns shaking a few ashes out of the plastic bag, but when it was my turn I found I just couldn't do it. I couldn't touch them.

5. In which we drive a golf cart
This was in the early seventies. M was in his electric vehicle phase, and so he could experiment (and because it was cheaper than some conventional vehicles), we bought a used golf cart. It had a top speed of 15 mph, had a fiberglass 'cab' and no doors. Later we splurged and had vinyl side curtains made that snapped into place as doors. Since it had a single axle (it was a three-wheeler), we registered it with the DMV as a motorcycle, and nobody blinked an eye. Some years later a policeman stopped us and told us it was illegal to drive it on the street, but we pointed to the license plate, and since the state had licensed it, there was nothing he could do.

You did have to be careful in it, though, going so slowly--especially in parking lots, where you could drive right up behind people without them ever realizing you were there, because the cart was pretty much silent. And kids loved it. Every kid who saw you would gape, open-mouthed, and stare after you until you'd completely disappeared from view. You knew every one of them was thinking, "I should be able to drive something like that!"

At the time we were poverty-stricken students and had no money for gas, but there was an outlet in the parking area at our apartment complex, and we'd just cruise in to a stop and plug the cart in to recharge. This was at the time of the first Arab oil embargo, when people in gas-powered cars were lined up around the block to buy fuel. But we'd just glide by--at 15 mph--and never have to make a stop.

6. The ultimate transformation
As it turned out, M had known since he was in about fourth grade that he was a transsexual. Mostly this was subconscious knowledge, I think. Although I wish I'd had a little warning, like so many other-gendered people of the time, M had hoped that by getting married and living life in the 'normal' mold, the whole identity issue that was always scratching at the back of his mind would somehow melt away.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.

There are few things as utterly Twilight Zone as watching someone you know turn into someone of the opposite gender. It really makes you realize how much you depend on slotting the people you meet into the blue box or the pink box, if only for general identification purposes. I learned that eventually you are able to wrap your mind around this new concept, though those around you who aren't forced to deal with it have a much harder time, and that kids, as always, are resilient beings and will adapt to anything fairly easily. The older boys, who had peers to deal with, settled on the pre-emptive strike as their strategy of choice: they'd tell their friends outright, before it became an issue they might appear to be hiding. And as always, humor was always around to buoy us. The kids had a running joke for a long time in which they'd address a hypothetical inquirer with, "Of course my dad's a woman! Isn't yours?"

As to the marriage: no cause for sadness. It suffered from other terminal problems anyway. The sex change forced us to a break-up point that needed to come. The next few years were extremely hard for me (disoriented, marriage down the tubes, alone and with five teen and pre-teen kids to raise, four of them boys), but in the end I realized the whole experience has made me stronger. It's true what they say about the things that don't kill you.

7. Home sweet barn
This was the result of a period of prolonged unemployment. Two years in the upstairs of a barn: two heated, insulated rooms (one with windows!), a refrigerator, microwave and electric frying pan in an open area. No running water, no plumbing. An outhouse behind the barn. For me it was seriously depressing and often scary in the struggle to make sure there was food on the table. But the kids loved it. There was a creek, two bats named Ivan and Igor who would fly up the stairs and out the end of the barn as evening approached (they lived in a store room downstairs), and redwood groves nearby. In the winter it would be 25 degrees in my 'kitchen' in the morning, so we ate in the kids' room, which was heated, where we sat at a table with rows of night-dried laundry suspended above our heads. The older kids (Paul and Ben came along post-barn) like being able to answer in the affirmative when someone says, "Were you raised in a barn?!?"

8. Nearly got locked inside a 1200-year-old church
While visiting northern Spain, our group had stopped in the Asturian countryside where two historically famous Romanesque churches (Santa Maria de Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo) are located very close together. A few of us were inside one of these little churches when all of a sudden the door closed and we could hear someone applying a padlock. It was the guardian/guide of the building, who had intended to lock up while he went to lunch. We yelled and he opened the doors for us.

9. Two nights at the edge of Merida (Spain)
The real moral of this story is: if someone suggests hitchhiking from Madrid to Lisbon and back over a weekend, don't take them up on it. Ah, but my roommate and I did indeed make this trek. It was the early '70s and hitchhiking was pretty safe at the time. But several rides fell through, and both ways we ended up at the edge of Merida, at midnight, on a deserted road with our thumbs out.

That wasn't the worst of the story. In fact, that bad parts were legion (though humorous in retrospect) and I'm not really up for the telling of them here. Suffice it to say that in the end Merida came to exemplify for us not Spain's rich Roman history; rather it became an icon for our too-rushed weekend trip with all its oddities and frustrations. However, having reasonably healthy senses of humor, for several years afterward said roomate and I would periodically send each other postcards of Merida on which we had written "Wish you were here!"

10. A bit of a decorative touch-up on the Porsche
It was an old Porsche--a 1961--that we'd picked up for $1700, a pretty good deal, actually, in spite of the fact that with the convertible top down, once the doors were opened you couldn't close them again. The floor pan was so rusted that opening the doors made the car's frame sag out of shape. Eventually M and a friend welded in a new floor pan.

But the paint: it was when I was first designing baby clothes shortly after Annie was born. We'd opened a tiny store and needed publicity. The store was called 'The Elephant's Trunk' and M figured that people would notice a sign on the car (which could have been partly because he was extremely car-centric himself.) So I went out one morning with little pots of white and pink and painted away--both doors as I recall. It did look rather amusing, and it did bring us one customer at least--my very first maternity customer, a tiny woman who at one month had outgrown her regular clothes and desperately wanted something that didn't look silly. It proved to be my entré into designing for pregnant women.


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