Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Good Morning to Everyone Except Violent Men

This morning, my Twitter feed struck a nerve. Not the usual petty politics nerve but the legitimate kind. It was a news story about a man who had murdered his ex-wife and abducted their daughter. My thoughts began to mount up. Do I write about how hard it is to be a woman, knowing that fools will excuse male violence as something only cowards do? Indeed, they're cowards of some variety. But they're not the fringe.

When people say we live in a sick world, my instinct is to counter that: It’s not so bad. However, when it comes to being a woman, that “sick world” statement seems more fitting.
I did a little digging and came across stats that say around three women are murdered every day by a current or former partner. I have to ask: Is violence simply built into the male psyche?
I read an article in the New York Times Magazine a few days ago about a young woman who was murdered by her police officer husband because she was divorcing him. And then there’s the recent story of Eliza Fletcher in Memphis, murdered by a stranger because she was out running early in the morning.
These stories get to me. I’ve never been the victim of violence, but as a woman who has lived alone for most of her adult life and as the mother of boys, I’m deeply concerned about the safety of women.
When you look at the big picture of being a woman, merely existing is rife with challenges: periods, hormonal shifts, mammograms, pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum depression, menopause, Pap smears, child rearing, unrealistic beauty standards. And the constant concern of male violence.
This is probably part of why I push back when men say women don’t have it that hard. You really have no idea.
As fathers do, mine has made a lasting impression. He has set the tone for what a "real man" is. My dad is a gentle man. That doesn't mean I grew up unaware that he had a cabinet full of guns. It doesn't mean that when a convicted sexual predator exposed himself to me and my friends, my dad didn't grab a club and go after him. It does mean that my father set the tone: Do no harm but take no shit. With that example burned deep into my psyche, I wrestle with the reality that so many men don't have the restraint and discernment of my father.
It's not a sick world. And then again, sometimes it is.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

It Can't Hurt to Ask

In the early 90s, I began my campaign of asking. A small-town West Virginia girl, I wasn't born and bred for the worldly curiosities that consumed my heart and mind, but it was a done deal. So I did what came naturally: I expressed myself. From letters to MTV and E! to cold-calling modeling agencies in South Beach and NYC, I took shots in the dark better than a college kid in an underground bar. 

Since I'm a writer and not a TV host, you can see some of it didn't work out. I did get hired as an agent's assistant by a South Beach modeling agency after persistently asking for an internship and then showing them what I was made of (that being a strong work ethic with a side of attitude). When the agency director from NYC came to visit, he decided I was big-time material and whisked me away to their offices on Gansevoort Street in the meatpacking district. My journey from the hills of West by God to the grid of NYC culminated in a fine salary and a title: Junior Agent. My big-city glory died a quick and relatively painless death, but my motivation lived on. 

After the city chewed me up, I landed like a spitball back in my second hometown, Morgantown, West Virginia, to finish college. A couple of years later, I graduated with honors: BA, English, creative writing concentration. I don't mean graduated as in "wasted money on a cap and gown and spent a whole afternoon sitting in an uncomfortable chair at the WVU coliseum." I skipped that and got my diploma in the mail. It was the least I could do as a burgeoning iconoclast. 

A few years passed. 

Where to? asked The Salty Barista who spent her days behind the counter sparring with halitosis-wielding political junkies, coffee-guzzling tech nerds, Guiness-sipping professors, and lawyers lunching over egg salad bagels. So I closed my eyes and said a prayer. “For some strange reason it had to be. He guided me to Tennessee.” And there I was in Memphis.

A new acquaintance hooked me up to interview with the president of a big theater downtown. A big, tall, older gentleman, he was either a tyrant or a delight depending on who you ask. For me it was the latter. We respected each other’s fire. However, my fire for assistant work fizzled out quickly. With no experience, I applied for a copywriter job at a B2B agency. Aced the writing sample. Salary and benefits, signed on the dot. This job was where I met my first rooftop lounge and my first Apple computer. I felt very fancy with the agency playlist on iTunes as I wrote copy for international shipping and medical device companies.   

Days in the office started to stretch too long, and I felt that familiar urge to ask. Ask for more. This time, I was asking myself — for permission to leave stability behind. So I did. 

What now? asked the writer, the runner, the pitbull lover, the single woman creating a life far from home. Be your own boss. 

My agency experience was a springboard. I soon became a regular presence in agencies around the city, writing tri-fold brochures and proofreading printed design drafts that are done digitally these days. My experience at one agency was particularly formative, leading me to a job as the copy editor of a regional health and fitness magazine. Along with handing over clean copy, I asked for more, like improvements in our publishing process, eventually resulting in a new title: managing editor. Our small team was led by two women channeling a combination of Thelma and Louise and Laverne and Shirley, and so I functioned as the voice of reason in the group. Which goes to show that everything is relative. 

I managed a magazine and freelanced on the side for a number of years. All the while nurturing big dreams of bylines in magazines and books. Until the stork made a surprise delivery. Since then, coming upon 11 years ago, plus one more stint in the delivery room, I’ve been asking bigger and harder than ever before. The sheer number of letdowns — as unkept promises, un-implemented contracts, unanswered emails — could crush the spirit of Thich That Nhan himself. Yet the wins keep coming. A new client here. A publication there. It's enough.  

It can’t hurt to ask. My mom’s favorite phrase of encouragement has held fast to my heart for many years. I ask because I’m my mother’s daughter. Because I’m my children’s mother. Like anyone who chooses the path to Fulfilment, I never stop asking.  

What's next? asks the 46-year-old woman who can’t help but believe. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

If Cover Letters Were Lanternflies

If cover letters were lanternflies, I’d smash them. And I do. I write a mean cover. Lately I’ve been at it with a vengeance trying to fill a gap in my client roster. 

My days consist of paid work followed by lots of unpaid work writing cover letters. Each inquiry must be tailored. No template will do. If you write it, they will come. So knock it out of the park.

Although I wish you the very best, the above does not translate  — not in the Queen’s English or Esperanto or The Five Love Languages — to “I want to write cover letters for you.” Your writer friends, like your MD friends, have chosen a specialty, and it isn’t  cover letters. 

I excel at writing my own covers not because I enjoy it but because the potential reward includes things like homeownership, midcentury furniture, vintage Harley Davidson shirts, more dogs, and Things That Keep My Children Alive.

However, if you’ve already done the grunt work, then I'll be happy to edit your cover letters and make them extra shiny. Bonus: If your dog is spayed/neutered, I’ll give you a friend discount. If you don’t like dogs, then you need more help than I can give. 

Thursday, September 8, 2022

For Eliza Fletcher

Along with women across the country, my heart ached as I saw Eliza Fletcher's story unfold in Memphis. Many of those women are runners like me. Mothers like me. Many are Memphians, like I once was. A decade ago, I ran the same street, Central Avenue, whose well-lit, heavily trafficked boundaries weren't enough to keep Eliza safe.  

Women should be able to run. Walk to our car in a parking lot. Live alone. Wear what we want. Leave a relationship.

Women should be able to experience life without a thought of men harming us. But we can't.

Fresh from the womb, our fate is sealed: We are the target and the trophy. Endowed with weapons we didn't ask for and can't control. The mere existence of breasts and a vagina wield power over men that maniacal dictators can only dream of. 

There will always be a man out there who is both spellbound and repulsed by us. We have to be on guard.

As a woman who has lived alone more than not, in small Appalachian towns and major metropolitan areas, I've learned how to take care of myself — resenting it every step of the way.

In my 30s, living alone in Memphis, I was on high alert each time I walked 30 feet from the carport to my front door at night. When a male neighbor I didn't know approached me in the dark during a power outage, I had to be unfriendly to him, not knowing his intentions. When I discovered a man outside my bedroom window at 4 a.m., I was afraid to sleep in my own home.

None of that is fair.

In my small West Virginia city, I don't feel comfortable running on the rail trail because women have been assaulted there. When I crossed paths with a man acting strangely a few steps from my home, I was concerned that now he knows where I live. I worry if one dog, my German Shepherd, will be enough to keep me and my kids safe once my aging pit bull passes away. After Eliza's murder, I began looking for a women's self-defense class so I can learn how to escape a choke hold.

None of this is fair.

I saw a social media post Eliza Fletcher had made about motherhood, and it haunts me. She said she hopes to learn to be less rigid, to let things go. It's no surprise that a marathon runner would describe herself that way. That level of athleticism requires supreme discipline. If I had known her, I would've said, I get it. But you know what? Your discipline is a gift. It makes you a wonderful teacher, a dedicated friend, a conscientious mother. Give yourself grace — you're doing better than you think.

Like any good mother, Eliza gave her best. Like every mom who knows what's good for her, she made time for herself, through running. Like any working mother with a mile-long to-do list, she had an unforgiving schedule, so she ran at dawn. Eliza should've gone home to her young sons that morning after her run. Should've felt the frenzy of getting her kids and herself ready for the day. Should've come home from work to two little boys wound up from a day at school, ready to dump all those big feelings on mom. Should've felt the pressure of cooking dinner, cleaning up, more big feelings, more To Do's, and Don't forget quality time! Should've felt the relief of her head hitting the pillow, quickly followed by thoughts of whether she'd gotten it all right that day.

Eliza should've gone home to the painful, beautiful chaos of being everything to everyone: a woman and a mother. A stranger felt entitled to take that from her. He wanted to destroy her power in order to feel his own. Except he has none. Like all men who harm women, he is weak. Emotionally fragile. Seeking anything to fill the void in his soul, which has been rotting since he was a young child beginning his criminal path.

It's not as simple as blaming her murderer's "innate evil." Men who are capable of atrocities are hurt people. What happened in their childhood? Who hurt them? In the midst of tragedy, most of us lack the emotional fortitude to view this with a clinician's eye. In the present, we choose to focus on the senseless loss of a life. Here is an occasion of righteous anger. 

My heart aches. I'm not alone. Women all over the world are thinking about Eliza. Running for her. I run for her too, through dusk in Morgantown, mace in hand.

Being a woman is inherently unfair. Eliza Fletcher paid the ultimate price for it. In her memory and in spite of the monsters, may we live in our power, believe our worth, and guard our safety. 

Writer With Heart Seeks Client With Soul

I wrote my first poem around age 6 and my first flash fiction at 9. In college, I wrote a notebook full of terrible angsty poems and a handful of other poems and essays that I'm still proud of at age 46. After I had my first son and life resembled the freaky normalcy that most of my friends had already been living for many years, I was afraid the lack of chaos would leave me with nothing left to write about.

I was wrong (about the chaos and the writing).

I can't help but write. It's like blinking.

My love of writing has matured into full-grown goals. One is to publish essays on womanhood, motherhood, and growing up in small-town Appalachia. The search for an editor is a labor of love, similar to finding love in real life — a combination of compatibility and timing.

In the meantime, an ongoing goal is to maintain my career as a content and copy writer. Across two decades, work has flowed like water over creek rocks, slowly but surely. There were times the "crick," as they say here in West Virginia, looked pretty dry, but the rains always came.

Over the past few months, I've found myself with a blank spot in my client roster. Leads have landed plentifully, like autumn leaves in the creek. I watch them pass by and become flaccid. Nothing has felt right.

One thing remains: I can't help but write. It's like breathing.

And no matter the kind of writing I do, I'm all in. My depth of experience is an asset to my clients, but my passion is the driving force of it all. Writing is joyful, and when something feels that fulfilling, I pursue it with everything in me.

When that new client and I cross paths eventually, it'll be a lucky day for both of us. In me they'll have a writer bursting with enthusiasm, drive, and talent. In them, I'll find integrity and capability. Awesome Client and I will do great work together, we'll share some laughs and maybe some low-sugar dessert recipes, and they won't mind my Zoom background, which could be a German Shepherd humping a boho pouf or a petite 46-year-old brunette smiling while growling through her teeth at a couple of little boys beating the crap out of each other in a makeshift living room WWE ring.

If you or anyone you know is looking for a not-your-average content writer, she'll be over here in West by God, enjoying the view.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Forgiveness Is Divine, Unless It’s Student Loans

The outrage over student loan forgiveness is as deep as a Real Housewives episode. From pundits to politicians to everyday Joes and Janes, it's all about basket weavers and paying other people’s bills and this isn't fair for those who did life the right way. 

First, let's talk about the right way. There isn't one. 

Some students paid their loans off in a relatively short timeframe. Some didn't. Both of these paths are okay. 

There is no Student Loan Moral Code. Unless I missed the last copy on the shelf at the WVU book store that day in 1994 when I blew my budget on a biker jacket instead of requisite materials for Geology 101 and Being a Good American. Even my father — who believes preparedness is next to Godliness — did not tell me it was imperative to pay off my loans as soon as humanly possible, not only as a sound financial decision but also to claim my prize for doing things the right way. Full disclosure: Since around high school, I’ve been doing things the wrong way. My way. Given this path has been bumpier than the genitals of 100 Phi Kappa Psi bros hard-partying on WVU’s Fraternity Row, I’m certain that certain friends and family would have a heart attack if their child turned out like me. There’s a corollary lesson for their coronary condition: Life has enriching experiences that have nothing to do with a savings account. It requires taking chances. 

The Pragmatics vehemently resent non-calculated risks, unless it’s in the stock market. Because when you have money and behave like an asshole, it’s okay, because you have money. Don’t get me wrong: Money is a fantastic thing to have. I went without it most of my adult life, and now I have enough to get by, which feels good. Last year, I made 10 grand on one project and felt like Warren Buffet. That's not a regular occurrence in my world (just yet; I believe this little life of mine has yet to fully shine), but it’s not so bad for a girl who did things the wrong way. 

Balance is key. If everyone’s children did everything on the straight and narrow, we’d have a world without art and music and books and films. A world without sound and color. 

On student loan debt forgiveness, The Pragmatics are not out in left field but rather at home plate (where winners like them belong, natch) throwing a tantrum. They’re mad because this is clearly a zero-sum game, and that’s not fair because these beneficiaries chose the wrong way! 

Did they? I don’t recall having a choice. 

My parents wanted me to go to college. So I did. My first year at WVU, I got no instruction regarding my loans. What I got was a brown faux-leather checkbook in which my parents deposited $80 per month for groceries, a bed and dresser set plucked from the bedroom of a freshly departed elderly woman I’d never met, and an apartment shared with two high school friends (which our parents had to lie to get us in because freshman were supposed to live in the dorm; my dad doesn’t lie anymore because Jesus, but back then he was still a rebel Italian Stallion complete with gold chains, a ribbed white tank, and a killer tan). Along with the Student Loan Moral Code, another thing I didn’t get while in college: the infamous liberal indoctrination! The truth is, it is not Professor Evil who most influences your fragile darlings. It’s their new physical and social landscape. Besides, if your child is susceptible to indoctrination, then you should've provided them with the appropriate biological bootstraps: stronger genes. 

My parents were working class — dad a high school English teacher and mom an office manager for a home oxygen company. We didn’t have frills, but I would still consider myself spoiled —with affection and attention and plentiful examples of serving others. I wonder if the loan-forgiveness outrage crowd is being triggered. Maybe for some of them, childhood wasn’t so easy. Maybe their parents didn’t encourage them to go to college and offer to help with expenses. For that, I’m sympathetic. However, they can’t stay in that moment anymore than I can stay in the one where I want to drop-kick my accountant because she closed up shop without warning and wouldn’t answer my calls. Paying off loans quickly isn’t imperative but moving past anger is. 

During my first year of college, I smoked weed at what would be the very last West Virginia University unofficial block party in the hippified Sunnyside neighborhood yet ended up neither a pothead nor a crackhead. I must’ve missed the Gateway to Drug Addiction the same way I missed the Student Loan Moral Code. My first year, I cried to my dad about my dire need for $300 to join the Delta Gamma sisters, a group I quit post haste when I discovered that sorority girls are required to go to meetings and follow rules. Had I stayed, I might’ve graduated on time and married a Phi Kappa Psi, genital warts and all. We’d buy our first home with a downpayment from his folks back in Jersey and pay off our student loans together, and today we’d be giving a big middle finger to anyone who didn’t do it our way because it is unreal that someday soon, we’ll receive a bill for someone else’s basket-weaving degree.  

Truth be told, I’m not totally sold on this forgiveness deal. When individual outstanding balances number in the high tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, a 10k-20k reduction is negligible and isn’t worth a tax hike. However, it also isn’t worth the histrionics I encounter on the daily. Plus we don’t know how Uncle Sam plans to pay for this. All I’m asking is for Reason to enter the building. 


Less on the #bekind side: I’m tired of hearing how hard you worked for what you have. Do you understand that people can work hard and still not have much to show for it? Ask a single mom how that works. Or someone with a full-time low-wage job — you know, the kind of job that you have clearly explained is only meant for students and stepping stones, facts some of us must have missed in the smash-hit follow up to the Student Loan Moral Code, titled Jobs for Patriots. I understand that all you're asking is for fairness to prevail. A just world where people who try their best get their due. Alas, there's no way to standardize "trying your best." In lieu, try poking a hole in your bubble to see how trying looks for others. If you don’t regularly associate with people who buy furniture made with particle board, I’ll gladly hook you up with one, if you dare.  

Monday, August 15, 2022

Belonging to West Virginia, Not Belonging in It

After a week in Hilton Head, I'm island-smitten. Its water warm and gentle, streets lined with cabbage palms and mossy live oaks. No clamorous tourist traps or growling motorcycles. Not a trace of neon or a sign over four feet tall. 

Aerial view of Hilton Head coast.
Amid the serenity, my brow furrowed at the awfully WASPy travelers, my judgements of them just as awful: Do all of her outfits match perfectly down to the purse and shoes? Do they know what it's like to take un-calculated risks? Would they be surprised to know that 1 in 5 people has less than $1,000 in savings? Would she leave the house with chipped nails like I do? Does he only talk about sports and investments when he's with his friends? Do they hang out with people who wear t-shirts of bands that aren't on mainstream radio? Would they have a dog that isn't purebred?

Despite my misgivings about the vanilla problem, the island whispered its promises in the breeze. It told me this place could be a respite. But how could I — a woman who has subsisted on a steady diet of artists, musicians, skateboarders, writers, brainiacs, hippies, and weirdos for the past 20+ years — thrive without color? The island remained silent, but I found my answer in a memory from a long-ago art 101-type college course: White is not the absence of all color but the presence of it. I choose to believe that my beloved outsiders exist in the island's interstices, giving color to life the way only they can.

Also this: Wherever you go, there you are. I am an amalgam of all of my experiences, which now accumulate across 46 years of being a somebody who can fit in anywhere but can't find anywhere that fits. Lately, wisdom has come a knocking with some thoughts about this predicament: For some of us, trying things on for size is all there is. This is not a lack of completion but a journey of experiential bliss. Wherever I am, I take with me everyone I have known and everything that fills me up. 

The mountains and streams of West Virginia don't call me like the sand and the sea. In the past decade, given the stranglehold fear and anger have on my home state, all I have left is nostalgia for childhood days when I rode blissfully bareback on a pony named Misty, cleaned linoleum floors on my hands and knees with vinegar water at my Nanni's, and rode sitting down on a hot-pink Nash skateboard in the parking lot of the Methodist church that is now a blank lot in my childhood neighborhood. Still, the weedy hills and shallow cricks of West Virginia are a part of me in ways I'm still learning to appreciate. This is a new awareness, one that taps me on the shoulder and admonishes me to practice temperance. I tend to cast aside anything that doesn't command my full attention (which constitutes a precious few things). I'm opening up to the realization that I'm allowed — by decree of my own free will — to order my life as I see fit, no guilt or forced allegiance. 

It helps to visualize my life in concentric circles, like so: A certain set of things belong in the core, where I'm most fulfilled; things that are meaningful go a circle removed; things that matter, another circle removed; and still other things belong way out on the edge where I'll know not to let them trouble me. In this way, I can relish the knowledge that my love for the warm embrace of the subtropical U.S. south need not occlude an appreciation for the rough topography of my birthplace. Each has a place in my circle of life. 

After a week on the island, I'm all the more resolute about creating the life of my dreams, where I'll write the days away — ever-satiated by thoughts on being a dreamer, a mother, a woman, a passionate lover of few precious things — from my home near the wide-open sea, from my heart shaped by Appalachian hills.