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Robert Cockerham is Smarter, Weirder, and Funnier Than You


Robert Cockerham and Yours Truly
Robert Cockerham and Yours Truly

(This piece was originally commissioned by MAKE Magazine, but ended up on Yahoo.com, from where it has since disappeared. I feel it is only right and just to reprint it here.)

Nerd Crush For the Connoisseur

When I first heard about this guy Robert Cockerham’s website, cockeyed.com, I pictured something along the lines of an amalgam of clever backyard engineering projects mixed with some of the milder exploits from Jackass, minus the penile injuries. I wasn’t far off, but what I didn’t know was of Robert’s righteous place in Internet pioneer nerd-dom.

And when I told a few of my friends that I had befriended Robert and, eventually, that I was going to be writing an article about him for the redoubtable Make Magazine, the din of giddy squeals from both male and female nerds of A Certain Age was deafening. My friend Summer said, “my ex-husband and I were so geeked out on him and Cockeyed! Oh my GOD!” She put her hands in her lap forcefully as if to calm herself, and was quiet for a tense and excited second or two.

“Have you met him? WHAT’S HE LIKE?” Her cheeks—I’m serious—were flushed. Flushed! Based on things like his parabolic solar concentrator, “The Light Sharpener” and the prank he played at the Roseville Galleria Hyundai Dealership display, which involved his adding a pseudo-time machine made out of a repurposed component of a Korean boxing robot (more on that later.) Ahhh, sapiosexuality. The boon to all of us who are smarter than we are cute (though Robert is cute by any measure.)

I explained to her that Robert is best described in the exact way he describes himself, on his very own website: “I feel my strongest traits are 1) my overall knowledge of material handling and properties, 2) an unnatural ability to complete projects and 3) a good sense of humor through good times and hard times. Oh, and one more, I don’t mind asking basic questions.

“If you liked any of this stuff, or have valuable suggestions, project proposals or lawsuits pending against me, please email me.”

I’ve spent some time with Robert, and what I can tell you is this: his cautious, mild-mannered demeanor does not match what one would expect from a person who once facilitated the flaming detonation of a giant, ketchup-packet-filled, wire-crafted teddy bear on the streets of his neighborhood, like a horrifically-misunderstood prescience of Burning Man. What he does seem reminiscent of, in fact, is a tech employee at a corporation like, for example, MCI, which in fact he was, when he began to gradually lure friends over to his house on weekends for help making manifest his plans for elaborate (and often surprisingly expensive) pranks, with building his mad scientist-meets-Willy-Wonka useless whirligigs, flux capacitors, and shitty-shitty-bang bangs, as well as his heartbreaking works of staggering genius.

He also started using the web in ways no one really was, yet. Back in the days of Alta Vista and Geocities, he got himself a personal URL and started blogging. In days of yore, when it was hard to find images online that were larger than a microchip, he bought a digital camera and started uploading big pictures that got lots of excitement and attention. He predated all that stuff we share like mad on social media now, the “wow . . . why?”–inducing links from eccentric engineering-types who make machines that maybe don’t do much but they’re just plain cool, the smart humor sites and the just plain weird stuff, and even the embryonic concept of flash mobs and the wildly-elaborate pranks that we see on YouTube that go viral before we even get a chance to log on in the morning.

When he and his coworkers got laid off from MCI, they used their severance pay to take a tour of Europe, and he blogged it all. He blogged it. With his (at the time) high-res camera and his growing online readership, he wrote and photographed his experiences. Robert and I are almost exactly the same age, and I, as a writer, am left slapping my forehead at my own lack of foresight: I didn’t even own a personal computer until . . . 2005? When I was thirty-five? All the opportunities missed! But he saw the potential, or maybe he was just enjoying what he was doing, and kept rolling with it.

But is he a “maker?” And where was the seed of it all, really? Way back when, when rocks were formed, little Robert, son of a forensic scientist and one of four kids, developed something of an unnatural fascination with Makita drills, and the first thing he made was a set of speaker boxes. He never lost his desire to create and build–sometimes functional objects, and sometimes things one would more accurately describe as junk sculptures, with a strong bent toward prodigal genius. And he always liked to make people laugh. His nature, then and now, was low-key and more introverted. So, how to get an audience, how to get participants, how to become the charismatic mad scientist and ne’er-do-well gadabout who is the Robert Cockerham of cockeyed.com?

The Early Days: Internet Pioneer, Mad Scientist, or Sex God?

(I’ll give you a clue: he doesn’t own any leather pants, nor does he have a profile on FetLife, nor–sadly for us all–any beefcake posters.)

He ended up at University of California Santa Barbara, struggling to survive in the oh-so-challenging environment of beach-meets-mountains geography, when he discovered a long-standing tradition there that was to inform the person he was to become: their famous annual costume parade. “I realized,” he told me, leaning forward with something of a conspiratorial tone, hands clasped together and resting on his knees, as we sat on stools across from each other in my hoarder-trashed, pink-painted, uh, office, “that with a couple days’ effort, I could be, like, a rockstar.” His eyes open up a little wider, like he’s sharing the secret to insta-fame and glory, to getting-laid-in-a-hurry, to BMOC-status.

But what he chose for his first foray into rockstar-dom says a lot about Robert. He decided to be a kiosk.

“A kiosk?”!

“Yeah, you know, the kind they always have at college campuses, I guess, with the pagoda or kind-of Kremlin-looking top? I made it out of cardboard, and stapled all these flyers to it. I cut out a small sideways oval for my eyes, and made shoulder harnesses so I could wear it. People were all, ‘oh my God, look! It’s a kiosk!’ and stuff like that. Just shouting and pointing. All night it was like that! Man, it was great.” He smiled and shook his head at the memory. The glory, the reveling.

They were pointing and shouting. At a cardboard cipher.

“But no one could see you.”

“Yeah. I guess there was that. Someone did pop under and up and got in there with me for a minute, but that was it.”

I brightened. “Did you have crazy on-the-spot sex? Set the kiosk down and get bizzay?”

“No. No, I didn’t do that.”

“Some kind of rockstar you are.”

“I guess I’m the quiet, anonymous kind.” (Introspective silence.) “There was one year I went as a map of Africa. My face poked out somewhere around Chad. It wasn’t nearly as big a hit, though.” He looked solemn and regretful.

Ultimate Success, Ultimate Prank . . . and he’s not stopping

But the crazily-creative costume-creation would become something of a specialty for Mr. Robert Cockerham, and they would bring him as much glory as some of his other famous inventions and legendary pranks. Sometime back, he had the great good fortune of attending a costume contest at Industrial Light and Magic (YES, birthplace of Star Wars and headquarters for George Lucas’ special effects creative team,) and he went as an old-school crowd of paparazzi, complete with flashing, popping cameras made from deconstructed and somehow re-purposed disposable point-and-shoots that he found, dumped by the hundreds–all the film used up but the flashes still intact.

What you need to know is this: Robert Cockerham won the freaking costume contest at freaking Industrial Light and Magic. He won. that. shit. But what made him most happy is that, apparently, in addition to that insane achievement, George Lucas’ child favored Robert’s costume over all the others as well, and came over to marvel and comment.

But my personal, favorite cockeyed.com creation got him mentioned on the morning talk shows and written about in all the expected places: his piece de resistance, the Disneyland Costume. An absolutely stunning display of attention to detail and hilarious lack of self-consciousness (easily my favorite Robert-trait,) the Disneyland Costume is like the world’s most gigantic hat (when I say gigantic, I mean gigantic: 6’5” in diameter,) worn at a steep angle for maximum view-ability, with his head poking out at the Matterhorn!

“You’ve come a long way from Chad.”

“Indeed. I started the process by studying satellite maps, and, using Adobe Fireworks, printed that all onto seventy sheets of paper, then simplified it so that it was sort of an augmented reality, highlighting the attractions that people would want to see.”

“What made you choose to do a costume of Disneyland?”

He stopped, paused, looked at me, spoke slowly: “Well, because everybody loves Disneyland.” I heard the unspoken word at the end of that sentence: “DUMMY.”

But as a resident of the conservative, moneyed, highly-law-abiding suburb of Roseville, the cockeyed.com story that intrigued me even more was the one he told about how he pulled one over on the infamous Westfield Roseville Galleria. (You know the Getty Museum in LA? The Met in NY? This is our equivalent. Marble-floored, cameras everywhere, a hushed and posh quality.) He had found an enormous . . . object . . . elaborately electronic, printed with unreadable characters and pegged throughout with blinking LED lights, along the roadside. (This sort of thing happens to Robert.) After a whole lot of Google-fu, he learned that it was half of an incredibly expensive Korean boxing robot “toy.” Like, $10,000-range expensive.

“So I got this idea . . . “

He realized that the only way he was going to get it into the rarefied confines of the plush, Nordstrom-anchored church of consumerism was to put it on a dolly and walk with casual confidence right by the front desk. You know, where Information and Security are. So he did exactly that, as-big-as-you-please, and made his way directly to where Hyundai had set up a large promotional area, complete with two parked cars, information KIOSKS [I still smart at the missed opportunity for costumed  shenanigans,] and signage. He “installed” his addition in what looked like a natural spot within, marked with a very professional-looking warning note that said: “CAUTION: TIME MACHINE OUT OF ORDER. CALIBRATION OFF BY THREE DAYS. FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT [and here he put the number of the Roseville Hyundai dealer’s service department.]”

“It lasted three months.”

I leapt off my stool and screamed, laughed, clapped.

That’s Robert. He’s not in it for the glory. He’s in it for the fun.

For Amy, With Love and Squalor


Ruby was walking her five-year-old son, Cash, home, and we were keeping them company on the journey. I was pulling the kids in the trailer, but peddling so slowly that my bike was wobbling to maintain equilibrium. I was in happy conversation with Ruby; she’s an artist and a like-minded soul in this suburban enclave.

Children often point and smile when they see me riding around town. If I’m in a good mood, I grin back and hold my arm up high like a salute to the sky. If I’m feeling grumpy, I’m just annoyed that anyone thinks it’s unusual or worthy of remark to see a flower-bedecked, rainbow-striped retro cruiser pulling a trailer full of children down the side of a busy street.

And oh, this challenging winter and spring we’ve had . . . I can’t endure the struggle anymore! Day after day of glittering sunshine, crisp mild breezes, and skies so clear you can glimpse the purple snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the distance, between the strip malls and rows of redwoods. Such hardship. Such complain.

I keep waiting for my teen daughter to announce that she hates me and the jangly sort of lifestyle that has formed around us in these lean times, or at least to be embarrassed by our shabby home and lack of car. It’s actually been sort of disconcerting, as she seems to not care at all. Maybe it’s because of the circle of support and friendship we have around us. We never find ourselves stranded without a ride if we need one, for example.

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So this afternoon, on this fine sparkling day, Ruby’s son asked, in the guileless way of the kindergartner: “Why don’t you have a car?”

“Because they’re expensive to own and operate, and we decided we couldn’t really afford it if we wanted to stay where we’re living.”

“No one really does that,” Cash said, in his lisp that’s an artifact of his toddler days, so recently passed. “No one doesn’t have a car.”

He paused, and Ruby had the grace to avoid filling the silence with embarrassed, polite excusing and correcting. “It’s actually kind of weird,” he said after some thought.

My children–possibly in a precocious desire not to hurt my feelings, which upon reflection gives me great parental satisfaction–don’t ever say anything like that; they’d censor the word “weird” from their commentary as naturally as we censor “stupid” from ours. I even press them sometimes, gently trying to goad them into confessing the frustrations and embarrassments that sometimes come with being a “poor” family. We review what we do have instead of a car: electronics we wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, a biggish house instead of a small apartment, a yard where we can grow vegetables and swing from fruit trees.

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When I was growing up, it was forever in the most polite corners of suburbia, worlds of genteel middle class-itude, where no one leaves toys in the front yard, paints their homes controversial colors, or parks their cars on the street. (And I never knew curbs symbolized a certain affluence until I was an adult and lived in neighborhoods where my parents would mutter, “no curbs,” with some distaste.) I wasn’t even allowed to tack posters to my bedroom walls, which were always painted “Navajo White”–a blandly popular neutral–in an effort to maximize resale value. There was the ticking of a clock in the living room, its carpet ever striated with vacuum cleaner markings; you could hear it in the silence like a metronome.

For a few years while I was a teenager we lived in a leafy suburb of metro New York, on the so-called “Gold Coast” that borders Long Island Sound. I made a friend there, Amy Hendrix (no mean feat when you’re an outspoken, acne-riddled wearer of grandpa’s overcoat and unflattering vintage sheath dresses,) who was also a self-identified writer and social outcast. I remember the first time I went to her house. It was one of those experiences that, looking back, showed me what life’s potential held, and it wasn’t all painted in Navajo White and at a decibel that wouldn’t be heard by the neighbors.

They had a small artful sign decoupaged to their front door, made of letters cut from magazines: “criminals are not as intelligent as other people.” Amy explained that her sister thought it both wise and useful as a burglary deterrent. The parents let her glue it above the doorknob! On the front door! Inside, they had a giant black-and-white photograph over the mantle. It was a picture of the older daughter, who was possessed of the most phenomenal head of hair I’ve ever seen: platinum ringlets, wild and long, dancing around and above her head, down to the dip of her lower back. This picture was of her, clearly topless but discreetly posed from just below her clavicle up to that balletic face and hair that had its own life and will.

The only other art in the living room was a framed album cover, and walls and walls of bookshelves filled so that some had to be laid on top of the others. I couldn’t remember whether the album was of the Velvet Underground, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, perhaps? But since Skyping with Amy, I’ve learned it  that it was Bob Dylan. And couch-matching was of no concern.

In the dining room, they had painted the walls a deep bordello rose pink, and hung dozens of faded old portraits in dark frames, mostly of somber-looking men and women, looking dolefully at the camera. “Wow, are these all relatives?”

My friend and her mother made eye contact and snorted knowingly. Apparently they had bought the whole lot of framed photos –which were, of course, of complete and utter strangers!–at a yard sale, the same yard sale where they had bought this rather wild paint color. “See? We ran out. They only had one container.” The bordello pink ended three-quarters of the way around the room with some halfhearted W- and M-zigzag swipes, before giving over to the unattractive wallpaper they’d been attempting to cover.

I’d never seen any family make such carefree aesthetic choices. We’d lived all over the country during the course of my childhood; I had attended five elementary schools and two junior high schools in areas as diverse as Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, and New Hampshire. Yet still, my exposure had been limited to the sorts of families (“corporate transients,” my parents called them, our familiars,) who lived the sorts of lives we did, families where there were two cars, tidy garages, well-kept lawns, and tastefully-appointed homes. Families who moved often, as one does in the military, when promotions or new career opportunities arose, leaving the houses easy to empty, scrub down, and stage for sale as we kids stared out the back windows of station wagons awaiting the next application of Navajo White.

So, I hadn’t met any artists, until then.

I hadn’t met anyone who was bucking tradition, or flying in the face of convention. When I met this family I felt this strong “YES,” feeling inside me; it made me feel whole and thrilled and gave me a deeper sense of belonging than I ever remember having felt.

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One thing I’ve noticed since we, as a family, moved out of our tidy suburban enclave and “downsized” to a shabbier existence in line with our new-found financial straits: we are meeting and bonding with more artists, eccentrics, and cheerful outcasts. There is this feeling like we’re pioneers in a new sort of Wild West. Bartering is common, urban homesteading is a survival mechanism, and looking and acting “right” for the neighbors never enters the picture. Mostly, the neighbors are “weirdos,” too: underemployed engineers creating bike trailer modifications and popping up their welding masks to say hi, people giving over more time to their art than to their accounting ledgers, folks learning to monetize their creative impulses because that’s all we really have right now.

So today, walking alongside one of my dearest friends, I listened to her son’s un-coached commentary. He spoke ingenuously and without hostile judgment. Just this: “not having a car is weird.”

“Yes, but I think it’s a good weird, don’t you?”

What Happens to the Apples


apples Start with a dilapidated but cheap house. Move there under duress perhaps, maybe because it’s cheaper or because you need safe haven from things that are harming you. Make sure the tree is there, in front where it can greet you with low branches, and soften the sun’s glare with its canopy. It must be really big and full of blossoms when you pull up with your moving trucks containing everything you value. It has to have been there awhile, it must have witnessed families come and go before yours.

The house should get abundant shade from that tree. This must be a sort of house that is old and has no air conditioning, a house where you throw open the windows on the first hot day after you arrive and welcome the outdoors in, and even where there are no screens, you tolerate the bug visitors because you can smell your tree and feel the breeze and its comfort. There is no hum of a machine to cool you, only the shouts of neighbors and the bugs and this tree, and a wide open front door.The blossoms need to fall, the way blossoms do when the fruit is on its way, and you should probably feel surprised at the beauty of the carpet of petals that densely covers your porch and front walk. You remember the days that petals on your car would bother you in spring, the way they would cling to your window shield after a rain and get caught in the wipers and then rot. But these are petals, and they’re beautiful, and they’re causing you no problems, even when the children track them in on their shoes.

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When the apples start to fall, they’re green and bitter and they get smashed on the street out front. Bees and flies flutter around the pulp, and neighbors kick the crushed ones back toward your yard with some irritation. This is the work, this is where it starts. The same irritable neighbors come over periodically and help you manage this early growth, irritation is softened, and you climb branches and shake the trunk and all of you laugh at the hail storm of new fruit when it hits the ground with a knocking sound and rolls around like ball bearings, making you stumble like you’re already drunk on its fermentation.

Create games on the fly. Start keeping score: who can pitch the most apples into the compost bin, without missing? Have a running tally with the guy across the street that goes on for days; shout your number with a challenging tone. Welcome the gardening couple who have no children and have time to read about what to do for the tree, let them help you prune and cull and fertilize with compost tea.

Provide beer. Sit on the porch and chat.

And when there have been some days when too many have fallen and there are too many frustrations, go gather. Make the kids do it when your back goes out. There’s always more. Pile what isn’t salvageable into baskets and dump it into the chickens’ feed bin, and stop and spend some time watching them bob their heads and dart their beaks into the crunchiest sections, leaving the mush for you to rinse out later.

What you have gathered is good but needs care. First there’s the washing—be thorough—and then of course much coring and chopping. Leave the peel on, and put the pieces through a juicer. There will be a lot of foam on the top, and it might be too tart for the children at first. Pour it through a strainer and sweeten it slightly with honey or maple syrup.

Then you must strain again. You need to rid yourself of the bitter foam and remember the delicate beauty of those blossoms when the tree greeted you. You need to do the work and make it right, make the sweetness linger on the tongue, soften the sharpness of too much disappointment that led to this bushel of fruit that must be processed in order to nourish you. You freeze some for the long winter that seems far away but that’s really right around the corner, when the tree is bare and scratching against gunmetal skies, relentlessly holding its arms out and waiting for the spark of light to return. Those are hard months and you will miss this sweetness.

It’s bound to be surprising, how many tart little apples it takes to make a quart of golden juice that makes the children smack their lips and stop what they’re doing to savor. You pour it out in measured doses so it’s not taken for granted. Each mouthful contains some small story of the year that’s passed.

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Changing How We Mow the Lawn Changed Who We Are


Sometimes a lawn mower can change everything.

I always associated nice weather with the deafening “rrrrrrrrrrrr” of lawn mowers.  It’s not a bad sound for most of us; it’s generally something that brings to mind summer days, backyards, and the smell of cut grass.  To start a lawn mower generally requires some level of finesse: the perfect amount of fuel to prime the motor, followed by meaningful yanks to the pull cord.  Having too much machine for the job is, supposedly and in some places, a uniquely American point of pride. A lawn mower is a classic symbol of suburbia, a perfectly-manicured carpet of grass the reward for its conscientious use.  Stroll through any big box hardware store and you can see them, lined up and shining, some of them even ride-on style, costing as much as a cheap used car.

We added our own din to that noisy chorus of weekend lawn mowing in our own neighborhood until, at a yard sale about year ago, we came across a barely-used, old-fashioned push reel mower. We might not have bought it if our gas-powered one had been working, but it had mysteriously stopped functioning two weeks before, and we were watching our weedy front lawn grow long and feeling reluctant to part with the cash to buy a replacement. But here was an alternative staring us right in the face: fifteen dollars for a simple, people-powered option.

We toted our reel mower home and started to use it. I was really excited for a few days, maybe for the same reasons I like vacuuming and find the chore soothing. It was so easy to pull it out and scoot around the yard with it, and I could even do it with my young children nearby. I could hear them if they needed me, I could stop what I was doing and tend to their needs, then easily come back and pick up where I left off.

Why don’t more people use push reel mowers? After using and loving ours, I was baffled by their relative rarity, so I did a little research: it turns out, getting sticks caught in the blades is an irritation for some. Also, if you have a really bumpy, hilly yard, you probably won’t get the precision cut you might prefer. And you can’t let your grass grow really long before you mow, because the blades will tend to just fold the grass over rather than cut it. Compare those negatives to the estimate that operating a gas mower for an hour is the pollution equivalent to driving a car three hundred miles.

What was more unexpected was the cascade of events that happened as a result of switching lawn mowers. The first thing was, neighbors started to ask to borrow it. I had never lent or borrowed lawn equipment; I don’t know exactly why.  Something about seeing us with our quirky, unusual and primitive mower in the front yard captured people’s interest. What grew from that is: it’s the official lawn mower of our block, now.  And we borrow the electric weed eater from another neighbor, because I can’t figure out an unpowered way to do the edging.  We’re all sharing tools, sending each other quick texts or Facebook messages, saying, “Can I use the mower tomorrow? Is it in its usual spot?”

I also didn’t expect some of the other subtle changes the new mower brought about. The simplicity of its operation gave me a confidence in outdoor chores I hadn’t previously had. I grew more excited about trying my hand at growing vegetables, and instigated a raised-bed garden building project one weekend. Now, three growing seasons later, I know how to amend soil properly, start my veggies from seed, and have a successful compost pile.

I don’t want to overstate how this small change in our family’s lawn care choice affected us, but I will say this: it’s remarkably powerful to stop what you’re doing, disrupt the status quo, and say, “Why?” And, “is there a better way?” Can holding a tool in my hand and operating it using the strength of my body lead me to a certain kind of empowerment in other parts of my life? I can mow our little patch of grass and look over at the new vegetable garden that’s growing the food that’s powering the muscles that are mowing this lawn. And our machines shouldn’t take that sort of simple pleasure away from us.

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Bright Pink Lipstick


1011074_10202997602243110_891455566_nI’ve spent the last several years writing blog posts about the Recession. Here’s how it started: an old friend of mine got hold of me. It turns out he was an editor for a website about the New Economy, and he wanted me to write my story. This is a familiar sort of occurrence among people of A Certain Age: thanks to the wild accessibility of really pretty much everyone through Facebook, people like me are reconnecting with folks we were too drunk or too careless to keep in contact with as decade after decade rolled past. For some time now, I’ve been ludicrously rewarded for epochs of bad behavior. Turns out that all of my exes and a whole bunch of lost friends are excellent and forgiving people, which makes me feel a whole lot better about my taste, but even worse about my carelessness and the time I lost with them.

Which brings me to: carlessness. My word processing program doesn’t want to even acknowledge it’s a word; it’s just a snippet of the zeitgeist and that takes longer to integrate into common parlance. It’s too close to “carelessness,” and maybe that resemblance is a bad thing. You see, outside of places like New York City and maybe Portland, not having a car–especially when you are the suburban mother of three–is a sign and symbol of having Blown It Big Time. But we are without a car. It was an easy decision at the time: we couldn’t pay the rent. What we had was a paid-for, valuable hunk of metal parked in the driveway and a roof we preferred to keep over our heads. Some people make another choice: to move in with family, perhaps. “Temporarily,” of course. But it was no accident that we had found ourselves in Northern California, far away from both of our parents’ households in Texas. We had severed the ropes of that safety net and had no regrets. You see, there are some sorts of safety that are so fraught with danger and damage that calling upon them feels like a sort of suicide.

So we carry on, working menial jobs and trying to shake money from trees. We take our children on errands in our bike trailers, pedaling in the sweltering heat or in downpours, faces held in caricature expressions of grim determination. It’s been an adventure. A noble experiment. So many others around us are in similar straits, so this whole thing–newfound poverty–has an air of camaraderie to it, and whole new ways of doing things have taken root. We’ve done it all: bartered, gotten backyard chickens, grown a vegetable garden. I’ve written so many essays about the New Simplicity that I’ve started to think of my style as “Chicken Soup for the Recessionista’s Soul.” This ghetto for my writing is eye-rolling in its tendency to put a positive spin on things but still keeps my work out there, in front of appreciative eyes.

But something horrible has happened to me this year, and I don’t know what to do. At some point–was it after the hundredth “no?” The thousandth? Was it day number 1350 of not having enough, or maybe day 1351? But somewhere along the line I realized this is not going away, and that struggling to pay the utilities is a monthly reality with no end in sight. That making Top Ramen for dinner had stopped being an amusing indulgence in crappiness, and has become–at times–economic necessity. I look at my children and I want to say, I’m sorry, I’m sorry you’re having to wear this need and pretend it’s okay, I’m sorry there are no birthdays at pizza parlors or dance lessons. I’m sorry I can’t send you with a handful of change that I don’t have so you can get a candy bar at the corner store. I’m sorry you notice what other families enjoy–simple things, a drive to the country and a weekend of camping–and you notice the difference and have to ask me why. I’m so sorry I cannot provide for you the things that were provided for me. I’m sorry that a simple trip to the doctor to check for pinkeye has to be a negotiation based on the twenty bucks in co-pay expense versus what may be curable with time and the hive mind of online medical care advice. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

I wear bright pink lipstick (one tube, annually, cheaply obtained) and have my cruiser bike decorated like a parade float. I let my children dress with lackadaisical freedom. We played by the rules and we lost everything that offered us safety and security, so to hell with the rules, I teach them. You will get screwed-over six ways to Sunday, so find the hidden magic, I say. Do you see that smooth brown stone? Pick it up and shift it towards the light, and you will see small bits of glitter like tiny stars. I try to tout this lifestyle as one we would have chosen back when we were flush with income and silly material wants, and YES: there are lessons we’ve learned. Yes, you can be a band of hobos with torn parasols, in satin and velvet castoffs, and yes, there are blackberries that grow wild all over this town.

But I’m done. The truth is that I’m toiling for not a lot over minimum wage, and those chickens in the back yard have come home to roost. There’s only so long you can go on before all your resources are tapped, and the barrel you’re scraping has well and truly reached bottom. I know we are required to be  grateful for what we have: no one in the family has chronic health issues, we have good public schools for our kids to attend, and we live in a patch of paradise that makes living without a vehicle or air conditioning a tolerable option. We have–praise ye gods!–health insurance from my husband’s low-paying retail job.

We have a marriage where our struggles manifest themselves in silent regret and disappointment (and a lot of space between us in our marital bed) versus thrown fists or addictions. But no amount of health-insurance-provided antidepressants can prop me up forever, and it’s me who has to keep this ship afloat. It’s doubtless my lifelong sense of entitlement that has probably contributed to my lack of ability to turn things around and make something from nothing, which is probably a story for another day. I’m forty-two years old. I have three children. I pull them where they need to go. I look at my husband while we sit on the porch and the hand I reach out to him is conciliatory.

Apologetic.

Moving to Villa Villekulla


This piece  first appeared on my blog at shareable.net.

We were moving from Texas to northern California, under economic duress. There is something about driving long distances (as opposed to flying) that makes it easier handle the change from one environment to a vastly different one. In the course of your journey you can see the land swell and flatten, observe the terrain and climate change from curving mountainous roads to vast swathes of desert, and note the commensurate architectural adaptations. These are microhabitats, with each community and household navigating a different course.

We were leaving an exurban planned community that had seemed as desolate and unwelcoming as the lunar surface. When we arrived in the house we had chosen and rented by proxy, what was immediately surprising and thrilling to me was how urban it felt. Railroad tracks were a few hundred yards away from our small one-way street, and the corner strip of businesses included a mortuary, pawn shop, donut shop, and a narrow convenience store with two small aisles stacked high with Mexican pastries and cheap wine.

My positive reaction was short-lived. Although our house had a lovely rock facade, a deep and cozy front porch, and an apple tree whose blossoms were in full flower, when we went in, our economic downturn took a shift to the visceral. The walls were cheaply paneled, the aged carpeting was a matted and mottled light brown, the appliances were vintage early-eighties, and the windows either had rotten and water-logged wooden sills or cheap metal frames.

We sat on the decrepit spiral staircase (which looked hand-built by a carpenter of dubious abilities) and snapped a family portrait. Day One. Our faces in this photo are tired and apprehensive, the kids in a weary cluster at our knees.

Your home is wherever your bed is, and that very first night, we were all tucked into clean linens in our strange, new, small and oddly shaped rooms. But in the light of day, we still saw the funky junky-ness of this new dwelling of ours. There was a moist quality to the air, and a noticeable whiff of Dogs Who Had Come Before. Where once a balcony had been, there was plywood attached with foam goo forming a new “wall.” The backyard was shabby, with one side of the privacy fence leaning at a near forty-five degree pitch.

There had been a beige luxury to the house we lived in during affluent times. The carpet was so plush, you left perfect footprints squished into its thickness as you made your way (barefoot, naturally) across the room. There was a garden tub with large corner windows inside an expansive master bathroom, quietly humming central heat and air, and appliances with a heavy luster to them. The walls and ceilings met at right angles, with no softness or crumble to the plaster and drywall. Just the crisp reliability of a brand-new home and the suburban neighborhood in which it sat–gated, landscaped, predictable.

In the new/old house, creaky as a wooden ship, you can drop a marble in the farthest interior corner, and it will take a hilariously random path through the rooms, down invisible slopes and channels, until it finally clicks to a stop in the corner that tips deepest into the earth. And there’s even a basement, which is unusual in California. There are Christmas lights swinging from dusty cords down there, and the walls smell like soil and wet concrete.

One room is too small for furniture. But it is not a closet. It HAS a closet.

We added the magic little-by-little, as we went through this transformative journey from the comforts of what we had back then, and into our new, low-income recession life. Like the marble in the corner, we slid down . . . over . . . and through until we came to a stop and stayed. And that was when we painted the walls yellow–an acid citron, like the world’s ugliest crayon, because that’s the best kind of pretty. Against that went aqua furniture, and pink fabric in great swaths over the windows that don’t quite close. Red shag rugs, lamps from thrift stores, a multicolor dollhouse we rebuilt as a family. Silk monarch butterfly ornaments hang from mirrors and door frames, and cuckoo clocks from my husband’s German childhood occupy much of the wall space.

The man who owns this house is mostly a name on an envelope I mail every month. He has a beard and his eyes twinkle when he smiles. He remembers raising his sons in this house, twenty years ago. They kept rabbits in the backyard, and chickens like we do now. We eat oranges, pears, and apples from the same trees that they harvested and turned into jams and sauces.

Wild Bill watches over everything on our block. He’s the big, bald tattoo artist across the street, and a minor celebrity in this town. He leaves gifts on our porch: a fruit-picker, a pint of leftover soup, a wagon for the kids.

When everything is rough and ragged, the logical course is to festoon it with as much multicolor madness as you can muster. At least that’s my instinct. There was an untouchable sterility to the perfection of “success,” like if you made too sudden a movement, you’d disrupt the delicate balance that held it all together. The beige walls stayed beige, all rooms were regulation size, there were no chickens anywhere nearby, and a dropped marble made a small spiral and sat, solemn and as still as a stone on the kitchen floor.

Mashed Sandwiches and Empty Water Bottles


Mashed Sandwiches and Empty Water Bottles

There is no “check engine” light when you’re a car-free family. Or . . . something like that. My latest piece is up over at shareable.net; please click a star and share if so inclined.

To Exurbia and Back in One Short Year


A long time ago, we lived on Tatooine with no one but ghosts for company. And an empty porch swing, rocking fore and aft in the wind.

Here is my shareable post about that:

There was this one time we lived with ghosts.

Back when I had a real job, we lived in a planned subdivision that was specifically designed to foster the feeling of community and car-free convenience. Out in exurbia, it was far enough away from city center that it discouraged all but the most determined of commuters. We moved there after our family grew by the addition of two more children, at the same time the apartment complex we occupied downtown suffered the fate of its neighbors and was converted to expensive condominiums. Based on my income level and the seemingly-endless economic expansion, we knew we should buy a home but hesitated to commit before exploring our options more fully.

We scoured Craigslist for rental houses and put out feelers with everyone we knew north or south of the city. What we found in our price range were, without fail, located in shabby suburbs with high crime and troubled schools facing closures. It struck us that we were reconciling ourselves to suffering from the kinds of things that were supposed to be plagues of urban living, without any of the cultural benefits. Downtown had become a bastion of the moneyed, and though I was making a comfortable living as a self-employed sales exec, we could no longer afford the space needed for a family of five.

Complicating matters was the fact that we were a one-car family with a stay-at-home parent. I was on the road calling on accounts most of the time, while my husband stayed home to care for our three young children. Downtown living had suited us well, allowing as it did access to shopping, cultural events, and the kind of idle distractions that are sanity savers for otherwise isolated parents. However, after much desperate searching, we conceded that there was nothing remotely acceptable or affordable anywhere within city limits. We left the elementary school we loved, and grudgingly and sadly abandoned a neighborhood that had once been full of long-time city residents, now being forced out in turn.

I had a decent attitude about suburbia; like many children of the seventies and eighties, I was filled with good memories of the sort of freewheeling adventures kids concoct when left to their own devices. Sure I was an urban snob of the arugula-eating variety, but I had been lucky enough to spend many long years of my young-adulthood living in a few of America’s most celebrated cities. One thing I knew as I approached middle age as a parent of three impressionable young souls: I didn’t want to helicopter-parent them to death, something rampant at the tiny pocket playgrounds in our increasingly affluent city surroundings.

So after abandoning our efforts to find anything charming or safe or tolerable at all in suburbia, we drove further south past miles and miles of undeveloped acres and overgrown patches of wildflowers. Eventually, commercial districts began again, and we drove past one gloomy, treeless subdivision after another. When I had lost hope, we finally reached what would become our Valhalla. Sure, it was technically tract housing, but there was a distinctly retro flavor; the houses had shingles and window boxes and were painted in amusing sherbet pastels. White picket fences–plastic ones, but *still*–bordered each and every small lot, and every house was outfitted with a big and welcoming front porch.

There it was: our exurban paradise, on the far fringes outside of the deteriorating suburbs. Access was limited into the neighborhood, with only two or three unwalled entrances and a wide pristine arc of fenced golf course, marked “no trespassing.” Busy rural thoroughfares bordered each edge of this encampment, a thousand houses strong. We drove through and I oohhh’ed and aaahhh’ed at their spotless (if slightly uninviting) new elementary school. I pointed excitedly at the three playgrounds (which oddly all had the exact same play structure installed, an amazingly damning detail I came to find.) There were no privacy fences in sight. There was even a tiny business park with a doctor’s office, hair salon, and cafe. It was clear that every effort had been made to make this a new sort of subdivision: one that hearkened back to times when people could walk to market and school, where neighbors spent time in the evenings on their porches, chatting amiably with passers-by.

Oh, I wanted it. I wanted it BAD.

We moved into the new house over one long weekend. The streets were strangely empty, but as a longtime city dweller I was accustomed to the polite privacy people grant each other in close quarters. The emptiness, however, lingered. No one came to introduce themselves–but to be fair, we didn’t go knocking on anyone’s doors, either. Pristinely-manicured lawns contrasted with ours, which was already growing slightly wild. My husband and I spoke somewhat nervously about the unknown tyrant of the planned development: the HOA. We’d have to buy a lawnmower.

Things it was hard to miss, right away: most people drove their children the half-mile or less to the elementary school. There was never a single person sitting on any of the lovely front porches. We would sit out on ours, while the wind whipped through in that way that it does in rural Texas. We’d see the bright lights from the high school’s football field, and against that, the dark silhouettes of oil derricks on the horizon.

 We were there for months, and we hadn’t yet laid eyes on any of the neighbors on either side of us. When we were home, we often positioned ourselves on the couch that faced out the windows, and beckoned each other excitedly when a car slowed somewhere on the block. We theorized that maybe these sweet houses, so perfect as to be reminiscent of a movie set, housed super-secret meth labs, perfectly and expertly camouflaged. We marveled that we didn’t know anyone’s name on our block, and didn’t even know where to take a letter that had been mis-delivered.

I know we couldn’t have been the only family that took a daily constitutional on the three-mile perimeter that looped the neighborhood, but our forays were so utterly solitary it became downright spooky. The cafe was small, depressing, and also perpetually empty. What was this? The mailboxes were at the curb, we knew people had to walk at least that far. Without any privacy fences we could see into everyone’s back yard, too, but I never spied a vegetable garden.

We hung coir baskets with ferns on the front porch, but they got decimated within days and turned into nests for aggressive bird families. This confounded us until we realized it was because the trees were all small and new, with pliable trunks and bright tender leaves. Nothing could rest on those limbs, no kids could climb them. And then we noticed there were no squirrels, either.

One day I tried to walk to the post office. After I made the circuitous exit from the development, I found myself pushing the double-stroller through knee-high nettles and brush on a busy street with no shoulder to speak of, with drivers slowing to ask if I needed help, and did I know this wasn’t a safe street for walking? We never made the trek again, much less the two-mile journey that would have taken us to the nearest supermarket. To get there would involve crossing a ravine and concrete drainage ditch, as well as a wall of bramble and several sets of foreboding fences.

The children grew weary of the identical playgrounds.

For awhile, my husband and I couldn’t quite make eye contact with each other when we talked about the move we had made. The dam finally broke when our oldest child came home and said kids were saying the president was the antichrist, and that the apocalypse was nigh. Then we began acknowledge that mistakes had been made. We had wanted a place that would give us the things we valued from living center city, such as a vibrant pedestrian-level community. There were kind families there without a doubt, and over the course of the single year we spent there, we did eventually become casually friendly with a few. We always said “howdy” and smiled, as that is the Texas way, and we are nice people.

You know what happened eventually? We had the mother of all yard sales, packed up a UHaul, and drove cross-country to start fresh somewhere entirely new. This time, we picked a crumbling old house in the middle of a small city, across the street from Wild Bill the tattoo artist and Puma the reclusive hippie, next door to Carlos the eccentric fruit hoarder, and on the same block with a mortuary, a pawn shop, a little bodega, and a soup kitchen.Trucks and cars pass us as we sit on our shabby front porch, and swarthy homeless men walk past and ask for change. You can hear live music from the busy nearby park on summer nights. On the day we moved in, the single woman who lives two doors down pushed up her sleeves and went to work unloading the UHaul with us before we even found out her name.

Her name is Heidi.

When Life Gives You Crabapples, Make Something Somewhat Palatable


reprinted from my blog about surviving the Great Recession at shareable.net

Start with a dilapidated but cheap house. Move there under duress perhaps, maybe because it’s cheaper or because you need safe haven from things that are harming you. Make sure the tree is there, in front where it can greet you with low branches, and soften the sun’s glare with its canopy. It must be really big and full of blossoms when you pull up with your moving trucks containing everything you value. It has to have been there awhile, it must have witnessed families come and go before yours.

The house should get abundant shade from that tree. This must be a sort of house that is old and has no air conditioning, a house where you throw open the windows on the first hot day after you arrive and welcome the outdoors in, and even where there are no screens, you tolerate the bug visitors because you can smell your tree and feel the breeze and its comfort. There is no hum of a machine to cool you, only the shouts of neighbors and the bugs and this tree, and a wide open front door.The blossoms need to fall, the way blossoms do when the fruit is on its way, and you should probably feel surprised at the beauty of the carpet of petals that densely covers your porch and front walk. You remember the days that petals on your car would bother you in spring, the way they would cling to your window shield after a rain and get caught in the wipers and then rot. But these are petals, and they’re beautiful, and they’re causing you no problems, even when the children track them in on their shoes.

When the apples start to fall, they’re green and bitter and they get smashed on the street out front. Bees and flies flutter around the pulp, and neighbors kick the crushed ones back toward your yard with some irritation. This is the work, this is where it starts. The same irritable neighbors come over periodically and help you manage this early growth, irritation is softened, and you climb branches and shake the trunk and all of you laugh at the hail storm of new fruit when it hits the ground with a knocking sound and rolls around like ball bearings, making you stumble like you’re already drunk on its fermentation.

Create games on the fly. Start keeping score: who can pitch the most apples into the compost bin, without missing? Have a running tally with the guy across the street that goes on for days; shout your number with a challenging tone. Welcome the gardening couple who have no children and have time to read about what to do for the tree, let them help you prune and cull and fertilize with compost tea.

Provide beer. Sit on the porch and chat.

And when there have been some days when too many have fallen and there are too many frustrations, go gather. Make the kids do it when your back goes out. There’s always more. Pile what isn’t salvageable into baskets and dump it into the chickens’ feed bin, and stop and spend some time watching them bob their heads and dart their beaks into the crunchiest sections, leaving the mush for you to rinse out later.

What you have gathered is good but needs care. First there’s the washing—be thorough—and then of course much coring and chopping. Leave the peel on, and put the pieces through a juicer. There will be a lot of foam on the top, and it might be too tart for the children at first. Pour it through a strainer and sweeten it slightly with honey or maple syrup.

Then you must strain again. You need to rid yourself of the bitter foam and remember the delicate beauty of those blossoms when the tree greeted you. You need to do the work and make it right, make the sweetness linger on the tongue, soften the sharpness of too much disappointment that led to this bushel of fruit that must be processed in order to nourish you. You freeze some for the long winter that seems far away but that’s really right around the corner, when the tree is bare and scratching against gunmetal skies, relentlessly holding its arms out and waiting for the spark of light to return. Those are hard months and you will miss this sweetness.

It’s bound to be surprising, how many tart little apples it takes to make a quart of golden juice that makes the children smack their lips and stop what they’re doing to savor. You pour it out in measured doses so it’s not taken for granted. Each mouthful contains some small story of the year that’s passed.