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What Led Me to Having Thanksgiving with Tyranni-Sue at a Mental Hospital


Prologue: I was prepared to post this four days ago, until I got some truly horrible, absolutely devastating and completely unexpected news in the mail, which put me into such a cycle of hopelessness that I . . . forced, I guess?–through a bereft text to someone I thought was a trusted confidante–my psychiatrist of dubious professional judgment (okay, he had a half-star on Yelp, which should have been a red flag, but I have always had a thing for the underdog) to 5150 me to the local psych ward, which led to a transport to a Mental Facility. So I spent Thanksgiving Day–and the three days following–in a psychiatric hospital, acknowledged to be misplaced and thoroughly unjustly admitted by any of the few qualified experts who actually spoke to me. The rest of the time, I tried sleeping (pillow-free) while tears pooled on a bolted-down vinyl bed, all my personal belongings removed from me, prohibited from anything pleasure-giving including exposure to outdoors, touching or being touched by anyone with loving reassurance on the shoulder, reading (until my husband delivered one paperback book and some magazines,) or even using my own toiletries. I watched a young man gouge bloody chunks from his arm with a plastic spoon until he was given enough Norco and Valium that he became a tree, swaying slightly, a fixture on the perimeter of the short hallway that I paced tearfully for hours. I watched one woman go down into a prostrate pose–unresponsive for two hours–as I cried and called out “Sue! Tyranni-sue!”–her name for herself,) and tried to get help from any source, frantically alerting the nurses and ultimately the custodial staff, (who never in the days I was there cleaned the feces-smeared, solitary water fountain.) They finally pulled her away when her bladder let loose. We never found out what happened to her, but she did make off with pieces of all of our clothing. Tyranni-Sue loved to take people’s clothes, even Clarissa’s, who outweighed her four-fold.

Never in three days did I see anything therapeutic occur. I was never told anything but NO, never responded to with anything but “that’s our procedure,” and when I asked for a library, there was none. Music? No. A visit outdoors? Absolutely not. It was the darkest and most soul-murdering three-plus days of my life. I am so glad to be home. I wonder if that’s part of their therapy: show you hell, so that no matter how bad things get well, hell, you’ve seen worse. Following, the piece I had been about to publish before my slow-motion tour through a psychiatric hospital. It is my deepest hope none of you ever find yourself at a similar institution. If you do, we’re pulling a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

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I was earning five figures a month in sales commissions when the economy melted down in 2008. With shocking suddenness, my retail clients stopped ordering, and the checks stopped coming. My husband couldn’t readily help. He left the IT field when our two younger children were born in order to be a stay-at-home father, and of course found his skills had become too outmoded for him to jump back in. If we had only bought a house outside our income bracket and had been forced to foreclose, it would have been a complete cliché. Either way, my family and I were now at least one version of poster children for the Great Recession.

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For about a year, we spun our wheels, trying to adjust to our new reality. I began a much-lower paying job in my industry while concurrently starting an upbeat blog about downsizing and simplifying after living comfortably and well during the boom times, and at first I got lots of hits. Our survival decisions were often dramatic and made for good reading: superficially-speaking, we notably downgraded our lives. We gave up our tame and tidy suburban comfort and sold our only car. At the time, and for a while after, it seemed that people were paying attention and respected our choices. But eventually our story got old enough that it felt like a caricature of itself: what I dourly called, “Chicken Soup for the Recessionista’s Soul.” “The New Poor” is no longer at the top of every news feed—even though in our greater metropolitan area, Sacramento, the number of unemployed now exceeds all previous records. 

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When I was a child, the one unforgivable crime in our house was laziness. In the family’s oral history, my ancestors’ work ethic was granted near-mythological status. They were solid Midwesterners and Southern Protestants, of Scottish and Scandinavian background, and like most Oklahomans, they had a bit of Cherokee blood—but above all, they were stalwart and duty bound. My grandparents were of the generation that soldiered through the Great Depression as children, and through World War II as young adults. They planted victory gardens. They doubled-up and doubled-down in hard times, bunking with relatives and reducing their quality of life in order to Do The Right Thing while it was required of them. Through everything, they worked. And worked. And when he retired, my grandfather left behind a job he had held for 40 years, but he kept working. Every morning he put on a pair of coveralls and looked for Something To Do. Idle hands? No such thing, not in our family. There was no room for the sort of chair-sittin’ and atrophy that marked the retirement years of other types of people.

My parents had sternly warned me on occasion as I was growing up that my chosen profession, to write, to be an “author,” I said, (actually, the profession that chose me . . . the one that came most naturally, fed me at someplace deep in the dark good roots of nerves and sinew, and rolled out through my fingertips as surely and easily as crayons in that factory montage we all saw on Sesame Street, the answer I gave to anyone who asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” from as early as I can remember, the one that led to teachers nominating me for school-wide awards year after year) was not a realistic career path. So I reluctantly set that wish on a shelf, and, after years of foundering in one college, and then night school after failing the first go ‘round, doing things I didn’t want to be doing, I earned my degree at twenty-five. This led to years of a stunning study of mediocrity, progressing on through the decades through menial jobs of varying levels of enjoyment, until I eventually got plucked out of the crowd by some keen-eyed corporate executives and became their traveling salesperson. An “independent sales rep.” Quite like my father had been—perhaps not coincidentally—and finally making very good money in a job that I was at least competent in doing. I had done the right thing by denying myself the creative path, I thought, despite decades lost and friends rediscovered always asking first of me: “What did you ever do with your writing?”

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That’s partly why the first months of the recession left me dumbstruck, blinking slowly and wondering what would come next. I had done the right thing. I had pushed aside my creative aspirations and joined the flock of coffee achievers. I was a business traveler. My family wanted for nothing. Everything around me was beige and new and safe, plush and hushed by the wall-to-wall carpeting and the hum of the ice-maker and the central heat and air.

Now we find ourselves heading into our fifth year of living at less than half of the the poverty line for our family size, and I’m sitting at a café, writing with the vague hope of being paid for my work sometime in the future. It has happened before, sometimes consistently—we have been on national TV for our lack of car in suburbia (because that is worthy of note, and gets shocked reactions still, I’ve found, which shocks me, as it has become normalized in our lives.) My husband is at home with our three kids; we’ve been taking turns since he started a full-time job doing the shipping and receiving at a women’s clothing store—a job beneath his intellect that he was lucky to get. So today he is making lunch and picking up Legos while I do my best to shake money from trees. I know that my extended family would respect me more if I stopped doing my freelance writing and social media management and started taking a bus to an overnight fast-food job an hour away. Do I owe it to our children to put away the laptop and take the most grueling, menial job I can get? Is that the highest moral decision? Does that match the ethics of “the best I can do?” And could I survive it, and how would it work with biking the kids to and from school, do their homework with them? How do I act in my greatest good, for my family, without obliterating myself and my sanity in the meantime? The answer was: I didn’t maintain. I didn’t keep my sanity. 

I’d been encouraged by several sources to pursue Social Security Insurance for at least a while  based on what has become a lifestyle I can’t maintain while concurrently operating the happily functioning part of my brain. I had some sort of nervous breakdown, and a lifetime of dysthymia and depression did the Tasmanian Devil spiral dance, transporting me into fully-flowered Nutsville. So being that I’ve had the kids for much of the day, I’m legit bonkers, I have no car and can’t work full-time anyway, I’ve turned a lesser-version of what used to be my fantasy career into the only logistical way for me to earn money right now. Combine the writing with social media management for small businesses, and I can scrape quarters into the trough like in that arcade game that always looks so promising. Not the kind of money I earned in my sales job. But if I stay awake late enough, scour enough content mills for writing gigs, I can get small assignments that pay $15 or $20, and if I manage to amass enough of them in a month, it can mean paying the electricity bill on time instead of chasing the city worker down the street after he’s just shut off the power. And sometimes I get an ongoing client for a few weeks, and that’s like having a bouquet of fresh flowers on the dining table . . . until that client’s needs have dried up, and with it, their steady payment. Then it’s like brackish water in a vase with a drooping Gerbera Daisy and peonies dropping browned petals.

One week in a winter past my husband, the kids and I rode our bikes in the cold, eleven miles roundtrip, to enjoy a rare, cheap meal out at a favorite restaurant we had loved in Austin that opened a location out here in Northern California. We don’t make things easy for ourselves, and the self-flagellator in me likes that. Our resources are always stretched dangerously thin, though, and the $45,000 we salted away in plummier days is long gone. We’re not the only ones, and I know that and don’t pity myself for the destruction 2008 wrought. All around us (neighbors as well as relatives living farther away)—for years—people have been losing their extended unemployment, living in houses where renovations were begun and then abandoned, walls just spackled and left to be finished in better times, kitchen floors exposed boards. Some have abandoned previous professions and followed artistic paths, handiwork, humbler tasks. It’s a different sort of support when everyone is on the same sinking ship. They can’t help, they can only bear witness, grab elbows, barter resources, skid backwards as the tilt becomes more acute.

I’ve done some undignified things I never thought I would do and asked for help from people I never thought I would ask, after the bottom of the barrel we were scraping became well and truly bare. Not long ago, I made such a comfortable living that we never had to scrimp. It’s at this time of year I am forced to remember when I had to leave our Thanksgiving groceries behind on the checkout belt because my debit card was declined. I feel humiliated when I think about how my children are not at all surprised when utilities are shut off, or when they ask, “can we get donuts? Does that cost money, or card?”

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We have learned to be creative to get by. We have kept chickens, we have a large vegetable garden that did better when working didn’t occupy my “free time,” we barter those aforementioned resources and my social media skills for needed goods and services. One year, a few days before Christmas, I went online to sell a bicycle that my oldest had outgrown. Craigslist is strange and wonderful. It’s like this complicated and nuanced recession marketplace, and sometimes we’re one another’s saviors there. A woman wanted a not-too-expensive Christmas present for her school-age daughter, and I needed money to buy for my own kids. It was painful to remember that in past years we’d always received fat Christmas catalogs in our mailbox—and no wonder, since every marketer probably had us pegged as big spenders. It wasn’t unusual for us to drop over a thousand dollars on gifts. Now, we don’t get the J.Crew catalog, or Hearthsong, or Hanna Andersson, Sundance, or Williams-Sonoma. Just as well. Looking back, I feel stupid for not heading first to thrift, consignment, DIY, swap-meets, garage sales. Garnet Hill has not yet given up on us, but I’m not biting. It’s a game of chicken, and I guarantee I will win.

The potential bike buyer and I met on my porch. It was only 7 pm or so, but dark enough that the dangling strand of half-lit Christmas lights hanging from the leaf gutter provided the only illumination. I was glad for the forgiving darkness; maybe she wouldn’t see the slight scratches on the bike’s frame. I doubted her daughter would notice, and I knew the marks would buff out with minimal effort if she did. But then my words stumbled over themselves, and I heard myself trying to give this stranger an excuse not to buy it. “It’s not perfect, but I could come down on the price,” I said, trying not to think about what the $125 would mean to us.

She bought the bike, hurriedly handing me some folded bills. I thanked her and put the money in my pocket without counting it. It was a business transaction, but so intimate that it felt like a social one as well. We worked together to fit the bike into the backseat of her sedan, negotiating its position by micro-amounts to allow both doors to close. It was the kind of thing you do with family when you’re wedging an oversized purchase from Ikea into your car in the parking lot. Very few words, body language conveying the small adjustments that need to be made. I was struck with the urge to hug her good-bye and made a darting movement in that direction before thinking better of it. My already loose boundaries are becoming even looser as these emotionally challenging times continue.

The other day at the park, I spent hours chatting with another mom from the kindergarten, an affluent woman wearing yoga pants and driving a Lincoln Navigator. She had funny things to say about her twins. She expressed respect at seeing us on our bicycles in the rain, explained in too many words spoken too quickly about how even though they live very close to the school, there is this reason and that for why they don’t take bikes but drive instead, and I said, “Oh, if I still had a car, I would likely find any excuse, every day. I’m not holier than thou.” She complimented me on my thrift shop dress. It was only later, when talking about the vacation house her family rents in Tahoe and the ski boots she bought for the boys, that she stopped short. It was awkward. She ceased speaking as if I had poked her with a stick. The silence hung for a few beats, and then she continued but haltingly, as if embarrassed. She talked about scouring Groupon for deals, and about her religious Sunday coupon clipping. She mentioned having been poor as a child and how that’s not what matters, that it’s not what she remembers and that it’s not what my children will remember. I would like to believe her. I was taken aback that knowledge of my family’s economic situation is something that preceded us, that was such a part of our identity that it stopped our conversation cold. (And no, she doesn’t read this blog.)

I can be abrasive (who, moi?), and when younger, I wore my convictions like a blazing cloak of righteousness. I hope that now, at this vulnerable time in my life, I have become less judgmental and more approachable. I had not wanted this other woman, this mother like me, to feel anything but at ease. Still, there was this chasm between us, of needs and not-needs, and she filled it with her own embarrassed rationales. I smiled and nodded, full of sympathetic head tilts and raised eyebrows. I touched her arm, reassured her with dismissive noises. That would have been me had the recession not hit us so hard and so relentlessly.

So I’m writing this in the dark on the front porch swing, as brutally cold as it is, because I just need to get out of the house. There’s been a lot of rain, and I’ve felt uniquely trapped and what with the kids all being home from school and nothing to get them out of doors. (We did take an afternoon to adventure along the creek where the salmon are making their journey to spawn. Although it’s very much against the law, it was fascinating to watch a young boy—he couldn’t have been older than ten—trudge upstream in nothing but cut off blue jeans carrying a fish as large as his torso: “I done wrassled it and knifed its haid,” he shouted proudly to his waif-like mother. “Good work, boy, that’s dinner for tonight and then some!” It’s been a few weeks since our monthly food stamp card was re-upped. Armed with $340 for our family of five, we can just barely fill some gaps on our refrigerator and pantry shelves. No, there’s nothing romantic about being poor—but there is joy in small things. This morning, as I slept for the last precious hour or so before waking, I dreamed of eating bacon. I could get bacon, maybe. Soon, even, I think. And there’s a waffle-maker somewhere in our house of too-much-stuff, which I’ve been slowly but surely selling on these buy/sell/trade groups on Facebook. But I won’t sell the waffle-maker: because dang it, one of these weekend mornings, I hope my future holds a plate with a waffle soaked in butter and good, real maple syrup, and bacon on the side.

And that leads me to this admission: The color and clatter of our chaotic existence now gives me more pleasure, (when I’m able to claw with un-manicured fingernails and raise my tear-weary eyes just high enough to see beyond the edge of my dark and cavernous hole of paralyzing guilt, fear, and worry—insert sardonic laugh,) than my corporate affluence ever did. There is a joyous, delicious jangle and pop to this sort of freedom, (when I’m not deep in depression and anxiety—more sardonic laughter.) My northern European ancestors populated Oklahoma Territory, and my Cherokee relatives, having been relocated against their will, endured the Trail of Tears and joined them. That land, that time, and the people who embraced those challenges mark those aforementioned sinews and synapses deep at the heart of me. Maybe it is those ancestors who made me a writer and a survivor, although of late, I feel like I’m not doing the “surviving” part very well. But each day my children feel loved and go to bed with full bellies is a successful day, and those keep happening, so I’m going to call that “survival.” Can I get a group agreement on that? At any rate, it feels like an evolutionary imperative: I just need to concentrate on the map inscribed at a cellular level and summon the strength and capability to lift us up and carry us through these hard years. Then I can see the sparks of light that illuminate and inspire me, more than any empty material successes ever had. And days come when I get an email through Facebook or somewhere that says, “Hey, I’m with such-and-such company. We’re very impressed with your writing, and we’d like to pay you to do some for us. May we trouble you for your phone number?”

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Today was a day like any other. The children emerged from their beds, as pink and helpless as mewling kittens, and skittered downstairs where they could cocoon themselves in blankets and cluster near our one wall-heater against the early-morning chill. Regardless of the weather, my plan is to straddle my colorfully-festooned bicycle and head out the door to the food bank, as we are so close to the only holiday that isn’t commercially commodified to death, but one in which I hope my family will add to the neighbors’ feast we’ve been invited to join, and have abundance in the weeks that follow. (If I’m lucky, I’ll get a ride. We’ll see.) Later, I will purge some of the soil from the neglected garden and use it to fill the pots on the porch that have been holding plants donated by a friend, but remain root-bound in their plastic shop containers. Maybe I’ll fill the empty slow cooker with simple soup components . . . or maybe I’ll rely on my husband’s far-superior culinary abilities. Yes, that. I might wield the pick axe and continue my work on the side yard, cut down the dead branches from the pear tree, and check on the ripeness of our obscenely overloaded orange tree (our traditional Christmas offering to neighbors and loved ones or anyone who wants oranges, they’re ready right around Dec. 22, consider yourself notified. I deliver,) because the instinct for hard physical labor is built into me, too, and just like my elderly grandfather who kept dragging brush and cleaning leaf gutters into his nineties, it flat-out feels good. And feeling good has been hard to come by for me, as late. (I’ve not been doing well in the state-of-mind aspect of surviving. Molly says, “I love my crying mom.”) Then I will open my laptop and do the work I was meant to do, which sometimes pays well but, for a long time, has not. Throughout, I will keep my knees (metaphorically) slightly bent so I am ready for movement, my back strong and locked straight, my eyes cast forward, ever forward.

My Husband Had a Vasectomy and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt


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My husband is the introverted type, so out of respect for his privacy, I’d like to talk to you about his vasectomy.

We put it off longer than we should have. I guess the ideal time might have been between baby no. 2 and baby no. 3, but we’re super happy with the one that slid underneath the closing door, all Indiana Jones-style: “Waaaaiiiiit you have one moooore!” But at some point you have to just make the arbitrary decision that you’re done meeting new offspring.

So we finally made the call that it was time to turn the spigot off. An informal survey revealed that getting a vasectomy was the birth control method of choice among the vast majority of older parents in our circle. It’s minimally-invasive, complications are rare, and (who knew?) our insurance covered it. Seemed as though the only prerequisite was a few days’ freedom to convalesce on the couch and several bags of frozen peas.

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We described the procedure to our children, the youngest of whom is five, figuring they’d naturally wonder what was going to make Daddy walk around the house in a half-crouch in a Vicodin-created fugue state. We spent some time describing the vas deferens, and the special seeds that help Mama’s egg become a baby, carefully playing up the benefits (no additional sibling rivalry!) and downplaying the discomfort (it won’t hurt more than getting a shot).

Yet still, the very next time I brought my youngest, Molly (who’s five) out in public, she announced to any and all within earshot: “My daddy’s getting his penis cut off.” I protested with nervous giggles the first few times, but after awhile took great satisfaction in merely raising my eyebrows and glaring silently.

In honor of the procedure, my husband’s coworkers served two types of cheese balls with carrots and celery sticks, artfully arranged. Oh: and mixed nuts.

I kind of assumed I’d be on The Pill until menopause rendered my womb a windswept desert nurturing nothing but a bleached rock outcropping and occasional tumbleweed, but lo! Verdant and lavishly fertile, and already relieved of the threat of childbearing. It’s a medical miracle.

I’d like to chalk up the following unsuspected side effect to the array of painkillers my husband was on when he came home from the surgery: when I arrived from taking our Molly to her first dance class, I sat next to him, all propped with pillows and sipping water through a straw, and flipped through the photos I’d snapped on my phone. Molly’s leotard and tutu are far from new — like all of her clothes, they’re hand-me-downs several times over. So the crotch hangs to mid-thigh and the tutu is torn and hanging low on one side. There’s a small rip in one knee of the black tights. At first glance there is nothing pathetic about this picture; she’s a happy girl, hands on hips, looking off to the side. She has the sort of hardscrabble disposition you would expect from the youngest of three. But of our children, she is the only dancer. Music moves her physically. My husband slid past this picture and then slid back and regarded it silently for a moment. I felt the wonder and grief behind his simple words: “That’s my last baby.”

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And in a flash: my own times of bed confinement, postponing early labor. Cups of crushed ice and marshmallows, surer signs of pregnancy than a positive test for me. Vernix-covered little red crying faces, one after the other, lain against my chest. There was the cutting of the umbilical cord, always a bittersweet moment, giving that baby over to the world and all its variables, the concept of protection an illusion. And then there is this last cut. A “relatively pain-free procedure.” And just like that, we say goodbye to all of it, say with certainty that we are done, we are parents to these three and no more, no longer getting to rewind the tape with each newborn, to relive that particular kind of falling in love.

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epilogue:

The things we have LOST, oh the things we’ve lost. Big, important things. But you know what we STILL have? The most interesting accessory that was ever made for a Barbie doll: the dog turd that was made to be pooped out, scooped up by Barbie’s fancy dog-poop-picker-upper, and then fed to Barbie’s coprophagia-having kinkster dog to go through the process again. And on and on. The same little Tic-Tac sized/shaped little doodoo-dad that Molly pushed as far up her wee nostril as she could a couple years ago, and Larry, parenting alone, was panicking trying to squeeze her sinus and get it out, pull it out with various tiny tools, etc., until I texted, “do the cartoon pepper thing!” And sure enough, she sniffed a good toot of it, sneezed, and BLAST! The tiny plastic turd flew through the air, and now we find it everywhere, all the time, and can’t bear to throw it away.

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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Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before


By request, a consolidated list of published pieces:

 

Huffington Post, May 10, 2012: “The President Recognizes My Family” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/corbyn-hightower/marriage-equality_b_1505784.html

 

Huffington Post, May 21, 2012: “My Husband Had a Vasectomy and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/corbyn-hightower/husband-vasectomy_b_1495617.html

More Magazine, May 2012: “Broke But Not Broken” http://www.more.com/broke-not-broken-finances-post-recession%20

 

NYTimes “Motherlode” blog, April 7, 2011: “Feeding Your Family From a Dumpster” http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/07/feeding-your-family-from-a-dumpster/

 

NYTimes “Motherlode” blog, June 15, 2012: “Memories of a Father’s Rage” http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/memories-of-a-fathers-rage/

 

Scary Mommy blog, August 9, 2011: “These Chickens, This Life” http://www.scarymommy.com/these-chickens-this-life/

 

Yes! Magazine, Sept. 2011: “Living Right on the ‘Wrong’ Side of Town” http://www.yesmagazine.org/new-economy/living-right-on-the-wrong-side-of-town

 

Yes! Magazine, Spring 2012: “Renting With Style: How I Found Bliss in a Creaky Old Rental” http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/making-it-home/renting-with-style

 

shareable.net recession-living blog: http://www.shareable.net/users/corbyn

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.

All That Glitters


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

I am a happy poor person. There are many things I have had to give up and get adjusted to, going from a comfortably middle-class, corporate-suburban existence to living a lifestyle far below the poverty line. But make no mistake: I’m happy. Extraordinarily so. More than I have ever been. I’m not sure I talk about that enough. It’s time to rhapsodize.

We live in a neighborhood that is not as safe as it could be, not pristine, not the suburban enclave we once enjoyed, but it’s filled with joyous secrets. There’s the hot pink fire hydrant at the base of the hill covered in volunteer daisies and ivy, the giant, bald tattoo artist in the well-manicured house across the street, the Russian family that comes over to cheerfully pluck apples from our tree. There’s the trail head that you can see from our backyard, which leads to patches of blackberry bramble, glens of lichen-covered oaks, and pebble-covered beaches where the kids can frolic and wade in the clear, bubbling water. We take that trail for miles and miles; without a car in our lives, its narrow curving path has become our major thoroughfare for pretty much anywhere we have to go.

Have I told you about the library? It’s designed like a hobbit fortress, with a vaulted ceiling twenty feet high topped with stained glass. So cool and dark in there, and there are hot days when we stay for hours and hours, away from our intolerably hot house. The librarians know the children, and don’t comment on their bare feet and rowdy ways. Over an arched and ancient footbridge, there is a playground that is canopied by old-growth trees, so much so that it’s ten- to twenty degrees cooler there on a hot summer day. There’s a painted dolphin statue and a turtle, too, and kids can climb them. There’s a tennis court in this wooded park, and casual players shout smack at each other on the cracked asphalt ground while the balls go Thock! Thock! Mexican families have birthday parties on the long rows of aluminum picnic tables; there is always a piñata and a radio plugged into the street light pole.

Our street is short and zoned partially commercial, but there is the childless couple next door who never show up at our house without four cold bottles of beer in hand. The day we moved in, the wife shouted, “Hey! Do you need help?” And before we could answer, she had pushed the sleeves up of her corporate casual and proceeded to give us two or three hours of grueling labor. And we didn’t even get her name ‘til halfway through, she was too busy hauling. Now, they give me monthly rides to Costco, and we repay them with mismatched dozens of eggs in a bright pink crate, when the hens are productive.

If a neighbor sees a rogue chicken, they will run and catch it and bring it home to us.

When our internet was shut off, we had more than one offer to hitch a ride on a neighbor’s Wifi when needed. I sat on someone else’s porch with my creaky laptop, paying bills and responding to emails. We share tools and harvests with the neighbors, too. As a group, we all erected and planted raised garden beds in the front of our house, on the driveway concrete pad that hadn’t had a car parked on it for the year since we sold ours. There was a big hill of soil dropped off from the nursery, and we all had shovels. We would stop for beer breaks and watch the children climb up and down the loamy pile.

The other night after the babies went to sleep and I was alone, curled on the couch and reading, I heard shouts and happy laughter out front. Then I heard apples falling—lots of them, all at once. I suddenly remembered a neighbor whose wife works at a garden supply store had told me he was going to cull the early apples to support the future harvest. I looked out between the blinds and saw him in a crook of the trunk, shaking the branches with all his might, while the tattoo-artist guy shoveled loads of tart, tiny green apples into the compost bin. The wives were there, too, helping, shouting encouragement, gathering the bigger apples that might be good to eat. All of this in the dark of a late summer evening, under a clear night sky with a cool delta breeze blowing just enough to break the heat of the long June day.

I lost my wallet at the grocery store, and a stranger bought our small bag’s worth of groceries while I wiped away tears of frustration and desperate gratitude.

There is the giant, somewhat-dilapidated old rental house that is our creaking ship in these recession-rocked seas, complete with sails made of patchwork quilts. We’ve painted every room a different color, and the spiral staircase is wrapped with fairy lights. No longer do we live in the fancy new suburban home with the balcony, but in this place the children can wrestle and climb, erect forts, and raise up baby chicks under a warming light without us having to be concerned. This is a house in which you can ride tricycles.

Getting everywhere by riding bikes and walking—exclusively—means you might notice the patch of strawberries growing on the curb outside the Goodwill parking lot, or the smell of the night-blooming jasmine as you bike back from a late evening concert, or the blackberries as they begin to ripen on the trail. What would be a quick weekend errand by car ends up being a day of adventure and, sometimes, travail. But then you have a story to relive: “Remember that day? We must have walked for miles, and we never found it. . . . ” More things happen by accident, like the day we ran out of water waiting for a bus that never came, and ended up playing in the sprinklers outside an office building, drinking from a broken, bubbling pipe. We went home muddy, pink, so happy and tired.

Everything takes an extraordinarily long time to get done, but I look back and wonder what I was in a hurry to do when everything could be accomplished with money. It was as though fun and happiness were something that required planning, provisions, and car seats, whereas now it just happens on the walk to the grocery store. And they know all the kids because we go there to escape the heat, too.

There is noticing the red glitter shoe-cubby shelf left on the curb, there is the energy and time to bring it home. There is the excitement of finding just the perfect glorious castoff versus the twinge of guilt that comes after spending at the big store. Sometimes there is wanting, when making-do becomes a struggle, and the electronics are wheezing and dying one by one. But the cost exacted to acquire, replace, keep up, and obtain is too dear. The thrift store is so much more fun than the mall.

I was so afraid to lose what I had when we were making good money and “living well.” The panic of  what if: “What if I lose my job and can’t make the car payment? What if we have to move from this safe neighborhood? The kids will miss the pool! The school is so good . . . “

Now, I feel peace and joy while we ride the rocky waves. The crests are so much higher than I thought they’d be, and the troughs are filled with other people, treading water and holding out a hand.

Reflecting on a Year of Shareable Living


(reprinted from my blog about surviving the recession over at shareable.net)

I’m writing this on Earth Day, 2011. I’ve watered the seedlings in the raised garden beds; the tomato plants have blooms, and the variety of squashes and pole beans are straining upward, still small but impressively strong, with their broad leaves facing toward the sun. Yesterday we feasted on the first truly awesome strawberries of this spring, red all the way through, without the slightly-too-tart tang of previous early-season pints. We tried to savor them, to make them last, to appreciate each strawberry for how it’s slightly different from the rest. The way the sparkling flavor and the seeds make it taste almost carbonated, like a festival, a joyous clarion heralding the long sunny days through the power of sensory memory.

even the tween helps with bed-building

even the tween helps with bed-building

Our raised beds are new. We erected them in an unexpected place: atop the concrete pad of our unused driveway. The symbolism was not lost on us.

The other day, an acquaintance posted a status update on Facebook that she was newly car-less, due to a failed transmission where the repair exceeded the cost of the vehicle itself. I added a comment to the thread, something along the lines of “try going intentionally car-free, and see how it feels! It might work for you,” probably followed by a smiling emoticon to make sure she understood I intended no pressure. (I’m sensitive to sounding like a tree-hugging crank.) Immediately after I posted that, though, someone else wrote, “WHATEVER. Living without a car in this age isn’t realistic in ANY WAY, unless of course you’re Amish. But even they have horse-drawn carriages.”

A little over one year ago, we sold our car and embarked on a new phase of our family’s story. Looking back over that year, I’m remembering the freedom we felt at making the decision to liquidate and downsize, to buy ourselves time during a time of financial crisis that had come to a head. It started with just a couple text messages floated in the middle of the day, back and forth with my husband, in which we decided not to replace the car we were selling. “Screw it,” I typed. “I’m thinking we should consider not getting another car at all. Let’s just outfit everyone for biking instead.”  I was surprised when he wrote back, “Tell me more . . . ”

group effort

group effort

There were some hard lessons learned in the early days, straight off. One thing you realize is how important it is to fully plan each day’s outings, making sure you have all equipment and necessities for every task. My husband had to do the six-mile ride between our house and my son’s swimming lessons four times in one day, when he arrived sans swimsuit and towel at the first go-‘round. Ouch. We had a few other debacles that stick out, mostly during the long rainy winter, when there was someplace we had to be, with cold wet miles stretching between us and the destination, and not enough time to make alternate arrangements. I assure you, a rain-soaked skirt clinging to your thighs after getting caught in an unexpected downpour on the way to your oldest child’s choir performance is not an enviable experience.

Our learning curve has been long, not steep. I expected we’d have all this mastered by now, but we still cheerfully fail at every turn, sometimes in fantastic ways. It seems like each lesson squeaks uncomfortably through an opening cluttered with the comforts we once enjoyed. Oh, interesting, we can’t haul home four-foot-long planks of wood on the bike trailers, what now? Hmmm, can’t fit both preschoolers and that fifty-pound bag of chicken feed, I guess I’ll have to make this seven-mile bike ride again, alone next time . . .

Hilda the hen

Hilda the hen

I’ve written a lot about the ways simplifying has brought new color, beauty, and grace to our lives, but the real gift is much harder to put into words, but it is this: the year of strife has opened us to a way of living that is so much more reliant on how intertwined we are with our neighbors and friends. We had some dental and medical crises come up this year also, and because of our situation, we were open to some unconventional arrangements with our caregivers. Our dentist greets us with hugs; her staff has cared for our children for hours on end, with crayons on the floor and the kind of barefoot comfort that feels like family. The dentist hopped into her car between patients and drove me to the endodontist. Just being open with your needs can result in surprisingly-loving connections with those you’d least expect. Our letter-carrier was reluctant to deliver the foreclosure notice she worried would devastate us, and even suggested we not sign for it. The diner owner sent us on our way after a rare meal out, trusting us to return after our debit card got unexpectedly declined (turns out it was a clerical error, whew.)

Once we took the bus to the supermarket, but found out that the bus we had taken to get there was the last bus running that route, and that we’d be stranded. There was a moment of regret and frustration with what seems to be at times a constant barrage of small obstacles, but then relief and comfort when we realized there were literally a half-dozen or more people who would be able to come scoop us up in an instant, whenever needed.

Social resources, for us, have proven more valuable to our lives than financial resources. Or rather, when financial resources are less available, social resources fill in the gap in a more rewarding way, like replacing a missing table leg with a gold-painted cherub holding its arm upright. Instead of finding a lid for the jar, you get a bouquet of flowers to put in it.

apple and pear trees are "blooming most recklessly"

apple and pear trees are “blooming most recklessly”

I don’t mean to overstate the case. What with our landlord’s foreclosure crisis, the scary era when we were waiting for biopsy results, and the thefts we’ve (thankfully, rarely) endured, there have been threats to safety and security coming from every direction. But it is no exaggeration to say that this has been the watershed year of our lives, in the best possible of ways. Things and people have fallen away, but what has taken occupation in exchange has been everything we didn’t know we needed.

The other day, we built new raised beds in our unused driveway. A truck dumped the delivery of beautiful soil into a black and loamy heap on the sidewalk, and neighbors came over with shovels, advice, cold beers, and spare seedlings. We’re all planning for a big harvest trade, maybe a “family” grill-out with all the folks on our ragtag block using the zucchinis soon to come in that charmingly vulgar, over-abundant way that they do. Our chickens have been loud but prolific, and true to the roots of Easter celebrations, there are plenty of eggs for all of us right now.

yep, those are eggs from our hens--undyed!

yep, those are eggs from our hens–undyed!

This summer post seems so long ago now.


In a previous entry of her Great Recession diary, Corbyn described waiting for the results of a biopsy….

Not a whole lot else is important when you find out you don’t have cancer. Then after awhile, everything is even more significant than it was before.

Even in this heat, there is gorgeousness around me, and I try to remember to appreciate it every day. I know I’m teaching this by example: this morning my four-year-old said, “Look at the spider living in our house and doing its work! This is a magical moment!”

It’s hard to remember gratitude in the course of this heat wave, which makes me as still as a lizard. There are oscillating fans all over the house, watching their invisible tennis match. I sit as motionless as possible, one leg thrown over the arm of the chair. We’re running the swamp coolers, which lower the temperature by four- or five degrees, with the price paid in increased humidity. The intense sunshine is meaning great yield for our homegrown vegetables, but I wish our cool California nights would return.

Several months ago, we relinquished our car and many of our inessential luxuries, which marginalized us far more than I thought it would. It took us out of the game, but took us back to the garden. Riding our bikes everywhere as a family makes me feel like we’re a pack of grubby kids, off to buy candy for our tree-fort. I think we all feel more connected to the environment in a house with little climate control, and I know growing our own food has done that, too.

Our community elevates us and supports my family. A loving friend drove me to my recent surgery, and then tended to my children. I know if the prognosis had been worse, I could have counted on any number of people for the needs that would have come.

When I was worried about a malignancy, I felt further marginalized. I shrugged my shoulders and dyed my hair pink.

I painted the rooms of my house vibrant colors from the “miss-tint” shelf at the hardware store.

I started making candy-striped hula hoops.

I thought I wouldn’t be here much longer, which inspired this sort of frenzied creativity. Finding out I was going to be okay made everything stop. Things were going to unfold differently than I expected, and I could put down my paintbrush and just enjoy living in the beauty and color around me, versus racing a premature end to it. There’s nothing that can’t be bedecked with flowers.