Just call me Little Shit

About 3 years or so ago, I started to write a memoir of the summer of 1972. When I enrolled in a Ph.D. program, I put aside the work in progress, but I still think about it a lot, and hope to get back to it someday. I envision something poignant yet with humor, along the lines of Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy. If you can’t laugh at your own dysfunctional family, life can be pretty grim.

 

A little back story: in the summer of 1972, my mother, who until late 1971 had seemed to be a sensible, level-headed woman, married her second husband, Van, who I thought then and still sometimes think, was the devil. He was tall and freakishly thin, with a pointy beard. He smoked and drank pretty much all of the time, and didn’t really seem to like children.

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My mother, at the time 36 years old, a pretty widow with 4 children, had dated and had some serious beaux, some of whom we all liked and wouldn’t have minded her marrying. All 4 of us were in agreement that we greatly minded her marrying Van.

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My beautiful mother in 1969.

But marry him she did, on July 15, 1972. She sold our beloved house on Dyson Drive, and we moved to the previously unknown (to us) city of Sacramento, California.

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Or some of us did. Cathy, #1 sister, was already married herself, with an adorable baby who I was going to miss seeing grow up. Ellen, next up, was forced on the death march to Sacramento, but then would fly back to Atlanta to finish her senior year of high school while living with her best friend. Brother Steve and I had no choice in the matter. I was 10 and he was 14. I even considered asking to live with my grandmother, Nanna, but I was a little afraid of her anyway and figured it wasn’t going to happen.

We were loaded up in the Chevrolet Impala station wagon, and began the 2 week trek along the southern route from Georgia to California. Remember, it was summer and there was no air conditioning in said station wagon. No one used the term second-hand smoke. MADD had yet to be formed. And Ellen has a tendency to car sickness (somewhat exagerrated in my writing, sorry Ellen).

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Van did all of the driving, both he and Mom smoking and drinking Seagram’s Seven with ginger ale the entire journey. He had this black case that looked like it was for some sort of spy business; it was the mobile bartending set.

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He was never pulled over for drinking while driving or, as I hoped he would be, child endangerment. In my daydreams while in the hot, smoky car, we would be taken by law enforcement and sent back to Nanna and Cathy in Atlanta. My mother would cry and realize the error of her ways, Van would be thrown in jail, and we’d go back to life as it was meant to be.

No such luck. I spent a lot of the trip in the “way back” of the station wagon, as far from the front seat and the devil as possible. Have you seen the film The Way, Way Back? That brings up a lot of memories for me.

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Liam James in The Way, Way Back (2013).

That’s the summer I was given my nickname Little Shit. Of course, Van was the only one who ever called me that, or even seemed to think I was such a thing. He did bring out the worst in me, I admit.

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At the Alamo on the 1972 cross-country trip. From left, Van (aka Satan), Ellen, Steve, and me (aka Little Shit). I don’t remember what I was mad about.

 

I’ve decided to start posting some excerpts of what I’ve written so far, just for fun. It’s the first draft, not particularly polished. Today’s vignette takes place in the New Mexico desert. We have just spent way too long in Texas, and are finally headed from El Paso to Tucson, Arizona.

 

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[text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]

“I really need to pee!” I wail from the way back of the station wagon, where I’ve set up camp behind the ice chest with my books and art supplies. Ellen moans from the back seat, “I have to throw up.” She’s been carsick since we left Georgia. We all hoped the straight, flat roads of the New Mexico desert would help, but she’s still curled in a hot, sweaty, miserable ball. Up in the driver’s seat, Van takes a sip of his drink and, through exhaled cigarette smoke, says grudgingly, “Okay, but be quick,” as he pulls off the road into the only gas station for miles.

            I jump out of the car and run to the gas station bathroom. As I hurry back out, I can see Steve’s gleeful face at the back window, waving goodbye to me and pressing down the door lock as the station wagon pulls out of the gas station and enters the lonely highway, a trail of dust in its wake.

            I don’t cry. I don’t chase the car. It’s hot in New Mexico, but different from the heat of Georgia, and I like the way the sky stretches out in all directions, nothing green to be seen. “Excuse me, sir, is there a Coke machine?” The man at the pump points the way. I finger the cat’s-head shaped coin purse I have tucked in my pocket, insert the coins in the machine. It’s my favorite, the Coke in small glass bottles, and it’s icy cold.

            I can see the car heading across the desert, getting smaller as it heads toward Tucson on the way to California. Part of me wants it to keep going without me, but part of me wonders how long it will take Mom to notice or care that I’m not in the car.

            “They’ll come back,” says the attendant, whose name patch identifies him as Eddie. “Not the first time a family’s driven off without somebody. There’s a chair inside, where it’s a little cooler.” Maybe he’ll adopt me, I think. He seems nice enough, and I much prefer his smell of gasoline and oil to Van’s smell of whisky and cigarettes. I sip the Coke and wish I had my book. I look longingly at the television set in the corner but Eddie doesn’t take the hint.

            I don’t wear a watch, and have no idea how long I’ve been sitting here, my shorts-clad legs sticking to the vinyl chair and my hair damp against my neck. “Here they come,” points out Eddie, though the overloaded station wagon is hard to miss in the empty surroundings.

            “Little shit,” Van grumbles as he opens the car door and lets me in. Mom is lighting a cigarette. Ellen is clutching her paper barf bag. Steve is trying not to laugh. I get in the car and crawl over the seats into the way back. I wave to Eddie as we pull back out on the highway.

 

 

Please let me know what you think! I’ll post more bits and pieces if you like them. I think the next one up might be Mom and Van’s wedding.

Peace and hugs from A Girl Named Little Shit.

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Let’s Go Glamping!

I was sitting outside at work the other day, drinking my iced tea and eating grapes on my break, when the random thought, “It’d be nice to go camping!” occured to me. I am able to ignore a lot of random thoughts, but this one startled me. I do not camp. I have in the past, but I’d rather not do it again. Like the David Foster Wallace essay about going on a cruise, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, camping seems like it should be fun, in theory, but in reality, not so much. And I have no desire to ever go on a cruise, either, thank you very much.

Camping. First of all, why should I sleep on the ground when there is this great invention called the BED? Second, I hate dirt. And peeing behind trees. Indoor plumbing, hello?!

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Any activity that involves this, please let me stay home!

my idea of camping

Have you ever watched the show Monk? Mr. Monk is one of my idols. Mr. Monk had to go camping once. He didn’t like it.

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I’m fine not taking a shower for a day or 2, and being outdoors is great. Within reason. But outdoor living should refer to the Sunset magazine, California lifestyle variety, not living in a tent for fun!

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1953 Sunset cover; my kind of outdoor living.

I love a good picnic; eating out of doors is nice. Especially if you bring really good food. And make it really pretty and romantic.

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I like the idea of outdoor living. If it’s civilized.

There are wonderful ways to spend time outdoors with friends and family while remaining clean and comfortable and having access to an actual bathroom. Outdoor kitchens and living rooms are quite “the thing” these days where the weather permits.

There are more modest ways to follow this idea:

I adore the idea of the unfortunately named “she shed”, the feminine alternative to the man cave.

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These can be basic too.

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This one veers a little close to camping, but I’ll allow it since it’s adorble.

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But please don’t ask me to go camping.

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My camping experiences started when my mother married her second husband, Van. He loved camping. But his idea of camping was parking his GMC truck, equipped with a camper shell, by the side of any old river and proceeding to fish (boring) and drink a lot. I always took a lot of books. Anytime I was forced into outings with Mom and Van I made sure to have a book. I spent a lot of time in bars and by the sides of rivers reading while they drank. But since he was a cabinet maker, the camper was nicely kitted out, and Mom always tried to cook something nice. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it.

Then when I got married, we thought we liked camping. Like Van before us, what we liked was a different setting for drinking.

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We made a point of going to walk-in only sites so it would be more private and we wouldn’t be surrounded by RVs.

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Campground at Yellowstone. No thanks.

I would cook a lot of gourmet food ahead of time, we would make sure to have lots of wine, and off we’d go. I never slept well, partly from the wine, and partly because sleeping on the ground in a tent sucks! I don’t even do well with cabin camping. I didn’t sleep for an entire week last summer when I went to Maine, but I did gain a new appreciation for frogs.

Given half a chance, my ex-husband would probably have had us going out camping in an old VW hippie van.

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If we had to go camping, I’d have preferred a somewhat less conspicuous van back then (although I do love the hippie van now as a look).

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But we were poor, so it had to be a tent and sleeping bags. As long as we had the money for the wine. I can see us in something like this as well.

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I’m older, wiser, and sober now. And I think life is too short to do things we don’t like if we don’t have to.  I don’t have to go camping, and despite my random thoughts I don’t really want to.

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What about camping even appears to be fun?

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This does not look fun.

Camping is dangerous, besides. There are crazy people out there looking for dummies zipped into sleeping bags and tents, ready-made targets for horror movie mayhem. There are bugs and spiders and creepy crawly things.

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The food chain is fine and all, but I’d rather not be a part of it, thanks.

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And coffee. Let’s talk coffee. I’m sorry, cowboy romanticism aside, boiled coffee made over a campfire does not taste good.

I haven’t mastered the art of campfire espresso, although I suppose it’s possible. But I am not really interested in learning the art. My beautiful Rancilio Silvia machine at home is just fine.

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Admit it, this looks like a serious coffee maker. My best friend.

I’d consider easing myself into the idea with the she-shed (buit it does need a better name), and work my way up to “glamping”(glamour camping).

I could be a glamper. See this Project Runway clip for a good description of glamping. If Tim Gunn is on board, okay!

I’d even go with an Airstream or tear-drop trailer if they were glamped up.

There’s a book for people like me: I Hate Camping, but I Love Glamping! by Lynn Sable. There is also Glamping with MaryJane, by MaryJane Butters. I’m sure there are many more.

One thing I will grant on the plus side for camping: s’mores. I had never had a s’more until I went to Maine last summer. Zoe Weil at the Institute for Humane Education taught me how to make and eat a vegan s’more at the campfire, and I even willingly sang camp songs after ingesting a couple of those. All that was missing was a great cup of coffee.

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Age 54, my first s’mores experience.
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Use a vegan dark chocolate and Dandies vegan marshmallows for cruelty-free s’mores.

But are s’mores enough reason for camping? No, you can make s’mores at home. There is not enough chocolate in the world to make camping fun.

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Only 10?

If all tents could be like the magical ones in Harry Potter, that would be okay too. Wave a wand and have all the comforts of home at your fingertips. Or, alternatively, stay home! Or go to a nice hotel.

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The Weasley tent in one of the numerous Harry Potter films.

As we enter the summer season, I’ll be enjoying outdoor time and sunshine. Just my way, not the cowboy way. And I’ll be a happy camper, ignoring my random thoughts.

I’m finally headed to summer camp…

Not really, but I’m going to Maine for a week for a residency at the Institute for Humane Education in Surry, Maine for my doctoral program. Fourteen (yes, 14)  of us will be staying in a cabin with bunk beds and 1 (yes, one) bathroom. Am I excited? Anxious, more like.

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Surry, it’s there somewhere.
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Surry, Maine. Note the lobster traps. I don’t eat lobsters.

 

As a child, I NEVER wanted to go to summer camp. EVER. My siblings were of a more “joining” nature–sports, after school activities, student government, scouts (ugh). I was not of this nature. In the least. I much preferred the solitude of a good book in a quiet place ALONE.

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A child after my own heart.

Mom signed me up for Brownies. I was okay with that. Brownies is basically craft time with snacks, things I love (still).

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Arts and crafts, yes.

Then came Girl Scouts. I was an awful Girl Scout. Sell cookies and earn badges and make camp stoves out of tin cans? Exactly what were the tin can stoves for? CAMPING! I played hookey from troop meetings until Mom caught on and then she let me drop out. Thank you, Mom!

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Not me.

 

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Not interested if I have to actually work for them.

She know better than to propose summer camp. I spent my summersreading books, drawing pictures, and watching way too much television. I was so happy!

My vision of summer camp is of mean girls, being humiliated and probably drowning, awful food, and bug bites and sunburn. The word rustic should be applied to expensive artisanal foods, not living arrangements.

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What I see when you say rustic cabin.
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Rustic bread? Now you’re speaking my language!

When I was about 10 or 11, in an effort to get us out of the house, my stepfather gave my brother money to take me to the movies. He took me to see the double feature of Butterflies are Free and Bless the Beasts and the Children. Probably not appropriate for my age. Have you seen Bless the Beasts and the Children? (Get the Carpenters song out of your head.) Summer camp is not a nice place. People and animals DIE.

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How I imagine myself at summer camp:

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The letter I would write to my mother (soaked in tears):

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I am sure the house will be very nice and surprise me. The 14 of us will become good friends (we’ll for sure get to know each other), have a good time, and learn a lot from our instructors and mentors. That part I am excited about. I have a feeling I’ll be taking showers at weird hours and mostly avoiding the bathroom as much as possible. I will post updates, no worries about that! And if anyone pushes me in any body of water, maybe I’ll finally learn to swim.

 

 

 

Summer on a plate/in a glass

It has been unusually hot for the Bay Area of California the last few days. Maybe it was earthquake weather? I don’t really know what that means, but it’s been hot, muggy, and hazy.  And voilà, this morning we had a 4.0 earthquake centered in the Piedmont area of Oakland. I was awake, up and feeding the foster kitten, Abracadabra. I was in the middle of my open kitchen so I couldn’t really get under a doorway or a desk or table, so I held on and hoped for the best! No damage at our house. The pets weren’t impressed.

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For your entertainment, a little shot of foster kitten Abracadabra.

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Despite the heat this weekend, I decided to make a trip into San Francisco. I got on BART at 10:51 a.m.  and since there was a Giants baseball game in the early afternoon, the cars were already awash in orange and black hats and t-shirts; and it was unbearable in the cars, like being in a sauna with a whole bunch of other people, not all of whom smell so good. Not necessarily a reflection on Giants fans! I am one!

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I headed toward the San Francisco Street Food Festival at Pier 70, but it was so hot, and Pier 70 is not really that nice (all hot black asphalt, no shade, and the roasting pigs on spits were way more than this vegan could stand).

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Instead, I ended up in nearby Esprit Park, with trees and shades (!), and home to the Urban Open Air Street Market, much more my speed.

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Not necessarily a lot of vegan eats (but no animals on spits, thank goodness), but I had a wonderful cold and refreshing watermelon agua fresca that kept me going for the trip back to the East Bay.

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You might be able to see from the shot of the Ferry Building how hazy the air is. The fires north of here are affecting our air quality. It’s really frightening with the fire danger so high, and so many people have been evacuated in the fire zones. And the loss of wildlife and habitat is unthinkable.

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Back in Oakland, our air conditioner was deployed, one of the few days every summer we feel compelled to use it. Neither of us felt like cooking and it was too hot for anything heavy, so we opted for salad bar dinner (or as my family calls it, big weird salad). Summer on a plate!

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Eating on folding trays in front of the television in the air conditioning–childhood memories for sure. However, as a child I wouldn’t have been watching Rectify, one of the best shows on right now but not 1960s mother-approved fare, for sure. I think we would have been watching The Doris Day Show.

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What better way to wind up a hot summer night than with an iced coffee? Decaf of course.

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The foster kitten returns to the East Bay SPCA tomorrow to prep for adoptions now that she’s put on some weight. I’ll miss her! But hopefully we will get another one when traveling dies down. I am off to Seattle in a couple of days; expect some blogging as I start on my doctoral program in humane education with Saybrook University at our term opening from Cedarbrook Lodge!

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