Do I Dare? (redux edition)

Last summer, I wrote about not being able to resist a challenge. I was writing specifically about the 24 Hour Project and about seeing that I respond to challenges the way I responded to dares as a child … the way I still quite often respond to dares as an adult. And that got me thinking about other challenges I’ve taken on. And I realized that the challenges definitely take the form of wanting to make a point, wanting to prove something to someone, wanting to be clear about not accepting anyone’s underestimation of me.

I learned to throw darts primarily because men seemed to think women couldn’t be good at it, and I enjoyed beating them. I didn’t throw “the right way,” and that made my victories all the sweeter. Men would see me playing darts in my old roommate’s bar and feel the need to help me understand how to throw correctly — I didn’t stand where or how a “real” darts player should, didn’t aim properly, blah, blah, blah. I’d let them blather on a bit and then tell them I was perfectly happy with my stance and my aim. This always seemed infuriating to them, enough to make them challenge me to a game so they could demonstrate how superior their methods were to mine. I didn’t always win, but even when I lost, I put in a strong enough showing to shut them up. And when I won, I shut them down entirely. Or, nearly entirely … there were always guys who insisted I was experiencing beginner’s luck. It was that much more satisfying to beat them two times, three times, five.

I became a strong enough darts player to be invited to join a couple of teams. I didn’t join. I wasn’t so interested in the commitment of league play or spending that much time in bars, so thus ended my career. I’d had a similar experience with pool as a college student. I wasn’t ever good enough to be a true hustler, but I had fun seeing the looks on men’s faces when I made particularly impressive shots, when I cleared a table without them having the chance at more than a turn or two. Occasionally now I’ll make a shot that would have made 20-year-old Stacie proud, but I play so infrequently, all my real skill has faded.

I do the National Chorale’s Messiah Sign-in because it’s so very much fun and also because it offers a number of challenges:

  • Am I still a soprano, can I still hit those highest notes?
  • How many choruses can I get through without having to look at the score?
  • Have a gotten over my shyness about leading a group of sopranos around me who are just as shy as I am about coming in first on certain passages?
  • Am I able to fake my way through when choruses I haven’t practiced are added to the line up?

These are small, relatively harmless challenges. I enjoyed and enjoy them immensely, but none of them put me in any danger, offer no risk of physical harm. I haven’t avoided scary challenges because they were scary. I just haven’t come face to face with too many. I can really only think of two. Two! That’s surprising and a little disheartening … but maybe it’s also true that I have a wonky measuring stick for what constitutes danger or risk, and I’ve actually done many more potentially-unsafe things than I realize.

Forever-ago I was hitchhiking with my friend Rachel in the south of France. We were on our way to Italy (or, really, anywhere … we didn’t have too many hard and fast plans on that hitch). We’d made the mistake of staying out too late. We should have gotten ourselves to a town before nightfall and found a hostel or cheap hotel. Instead, we’d stayed on the highway and were stuck somewhere on the road to Monaco. A van stopped and someone inside pushed open the side doors. A cloud of smoke blew out at us as the men in the front seat told us to climb in.

Although Rachel and I are no longer friends, I have to say here that I continue to be grateful to her for insisting that we not get in the van. Because yes, I was totally about to step willingly into my certain doom. It was late and I was tired, and that van was the only vehicle to even pause on the way past us. I pushed aside the rules I’d made for myself about staying safe while hitching. I knew we shouldn’t get in that van … but I was going to get in the van. Until Rachel grabbed my arm. Dangerous challenge avoided. Score one for me (well, for Rachel).

Fast forward to my late 40s when I scaled a barrier wall meant to keep commoners like me away from the beach in front of a swanky resort on the north coast of Jamaica. Resorts like to claim their beaches are private, but Jamaican law says beaches — all beaches — are for everyone, that beaches belong to the people and are, therefore, public. There’s something in there about where private property ends and public beach begins, but I don’t remember the specifics. Resorts, determined to create a private beach where there isn’t one, sometimes go to great lengths to keep the riff-raff away from the rich folks. One of the ways they do that is to build walls off the end of their property line stretching out into the sea.

I’d set out on my walk that day with absolutely no plan to do any rock climbing. I was wearing a ground-sweeping sundress and flip-flops. I had my crazy-expensive, brand new DSLR in my little cross-body bag. I was just going for a stroll.

When I ran into my first barrier — a chain-link fence that was annoyingly high, I didn’t consider climbing it because a short walk out toward the road offered the option of just walking around it, so that’s what I did.

But then I ran up against the wall. It was maybe 20 feet high and made of some unkind-looking, very large rocks. I thought I should turn back, but the wall pissed me off. The nerve of people blocking access to a beach. And there were a couple of people climbing the wall, so I figured I could do that, too.

I’ve never been a rock climber. Neither am I particularly muscular. No matter. I put my flip-flops in my purse, tied the skirt of my dress up above my knees, slung my bag to the back, and started climbing.

I realized almost immediately that I’d made a terrible mistake, but I was determined. I’d taken the challenge. There was no chance I was going to back down.

The climb was ugly. I had to go up several feet and then out over the water so I could continue up and top the wall at its lowest point and wind up on the open-to-everyone part of the beach. Pretty quickly, my dress was up around my waist because I needed the legroom to make wider and still wider steps.

I made it, my butt flashing all and sundry in my wake. I didn’t fall into the ocean and destroy my new camera or my precious body. I came down on the fancy side of the wall, sorted my dress situation and began strolling the beach. The resort guards gave me the fisheye, but they left me alone. I made the most of that beach stroll … because I was terrified thinking about how I’d get back over the wall without dying in the process. When I finally worked up the courage to take on the return trip, I was lucky enough to be guided by a man who was on the other side of the wall. He told me where I could find each of the hand- and footholds I needed to move over, across, and down the wall. Yes, it meant I was flashing him the whole time, but we both survived it. (That random man was one of many guardian angels who’ve appeared just when I needed them. He saved my life that day as surely as Rachel did on that highway in France 29 years earlier.)

Don’t tell me you think I can’t play that game. Don’t tell me I’m not allowed to take a walk in a place I am absolutely allowed to walk. Danger? Ha! I flash my quite sizeable butt at danger. And I will use whatever strength or cleverness or stubbornness I have to put your arrogant presumptions right back in your face. Do not have the audacity to count me out.

I like this piece of my personality mostly. I would, actually, like to expand it. I don’t want other people to count me out … but I count myself out all the time. La Impostora elbows her way past my bravado and shuts all my shit down. Perhaps one of the secrets to besting her is hearing her criticisms and put-downs the same way I saw that beach-blocking stone wall: just hike up my skirt and get the hell over it.

Hmm … That bears some more thinking. I like it. I need to marinate in it a bit and see if I can actually practice it.


It’s Tuesday, so that means it’s Slice of Life day over at Two Writing Teachers! Click over and see how the other slicers are starting the new year!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

The Quantum of Worst

Last night I was part of an IRL reading for the first time since before Covid. I read with Big Words, Etc., a series that has definitely become my reading home over the last several years. It was wonderful to see Stacey and Jess, the hosts, and to see some of the Big Words regulars.

I gave a few readings on zoom during the height of the pandemic, and all of them were great. It was nice to be able to be in the space with other writers and share my work. Being in person is something else entirely, of course. Getting to interact with the audience is one of my favorite things about reading. I’m always super nervous (“terrified” is a more accurate descriptor) , and getting to laugh with the audience helps so much. And there was plenty of that last night, which made me super happy.

Add to that, a full moon, the discovery of a nice bar, hanging out with Red Emma, the sipping of a jalapeno-spiced mezcal drink, and getting to listen to stunning writing by and give farewell hugs to the wonderful Aimee Herman, and it was a pretty perfect night!

Big Words always has a theme, and last night’s theme was “The Worst Job Ever.” There was such a range of pieces to fit that subject! Here’s the piece I wrote to share:

The Quantum of Worst

I worked for small-time criminals the summer after my first year of college. Technically, they ran an import-export company, but their business was theft. They took merchandise from wholesalers, claimed never to have received it, then sold it. They took payments for merchandise and never shipped the goods. One of my jobs was to organize their file rooms … the one for lawsuits against them and the one for their counter suits.

What makes a job the worst job? I’ve been working more than 40 years. And some of those jobs have sucked dramatically. Some, in spite of their awfulness, also had aspects that were good or funny or nurturing in some way. What is the right equation of crap to equal “the worst”?

Those long-ago bosses — Jack and Charlie — weren’t just crooks. When we met, Charlie asked what college I went to … and then told me how many women from my college he’d had acrobatic, porn-star sex with, wondering if Sarah Lawrence girls had changed since his day. 

(I suspect they hadn’t changed, that no one at Sarah Lawrence or anywhere else would ever have been having any kind of sex with Charlie.)

My first morning, I got an office tour, a can of Lysol, and instructions to spray my desk, chair and phone every time I returned to my space. My coworker explained that Jack and Charlie used any unattended desk, saying: “You don’t want to touch things after Jack.” When I met Jack, I understood. He was visibly filthy, his odor preceding him into the room. I doubt Lysol fully eliminated the problem of him. And Lysol couldn’t do anything about the trail of dandruff Charlie left wherever he went. Both men were loud, sloppy eaters, coughing, laughing, and spitting into our phones as they ate. For a Virgo misophone whose primary trigger is eating noises, this was maybe enough to make this job the worst.

But it was a summer job. And I left after only a month. A few short weeks, and I walked out with a trove of crazy stories I’ve told for years. So was that really the worst? Shouldn’t the worst job be the worst for a better reason? Shouldn’t it be in my chosen field, make me question my career choice or become wary and bitter?

I’ve never worked in a more physically repugnant place, but morally repugnant? Yes. I have. That seems far worse. 

Jack and Charlie eventually went to prison. They stored volatile chemicals in a Bronx basement, creating a health hazard for the residents, and couldn’t counter-sue their way out of it. It was a fitting result for two entirely-terrible people.

Thinking about my crappy jobs and my good jobs that turned crappy … I realize I’ve been lucky. There’s been real crap — I was sexually harassed at one job, regularly discriminated against at another, ugly-fired from another — but I was able to grow and move forward. And, if not, I was able to pay my bills and sustain myself until I found something better.

 “Worst” is about pieces, moments, rather than whole situations. Yes, Jack and Charlie were a whole situation, but otherwise, I have been lucky, have found myself in safe environments, working with people who felt like family, doing work that pleased me … or all of that at once.

So I’m realizing that the critical element in the equation of “worst” … is me, that I can be the force multiplier that sends everything tumbling into the depths.

In my last job I worked with an unashamedly horrible woman. She wasn’t my boss but was central to my work. 

In a discussion about the use of new funding, she listened to the pitch for a job program for young people leaving the criminal justice system, rolled her eyes, and launched into a scathing take-down of the proposal, ending with: “We’re making jobs for little criminals now? We can’t make programs for good kids?” Even at my big age, I was naive enough to be stunned. But this is my worst-of-the-worst because of me. Force-multiplier me.

This happened after the ugly-firing. For the first time, I knew how disposable I was, how easily I could find myself in jeopardy. I had just repaid the borrowed money that floated me across the gap between severance and my new job. I knew how much I couldn’t afford to be out on my ass. That woman had that power, and that knowledge cowed me, showed me I could be made to silence myself when my voice was needed. 

Any version of me before and after that moment would have called that shit out. Wounded, vulnerable me felt fear and chose self-preservation. And while I could understand that choice, it made me sick. I’d spent years teaching the exact young people she was disparaging, championing them at every opportunity, but I didn’t stand up for them.

And there it is: not a question about my career choice, but about whether I had a right to the space I occupied. How did I merit a seat at that table if I couldn’t be who my students would have needed me to be, who I needed me to be? 

Jack and Charlie stole everything, stole at every opportunity. They were despicable and disgusting. But working for them couldn’t be my worst job. They didn’t mean anything. I laughed at them for the caricatures they were and walked away when I’d had enough. Nothing they did could have made me change or swallow who I was. But that “little criminals” moment. My silence in that moment stole me from myself, made me a person I didn’t like. 

There are plenty of jobs where the determination of best and worst wouldn’t come down to my actions alone. But I haven’t worked those jobs. My cushy employment life puts the onus on me. Today, two years into what I think of as my dream job, all this worst-job thinking clarifies for me how much the truth or not of how dreamy this job will be for me is mine to create. I like having that power. I hope I use it well.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Drifting: The Slow and the Curious

So ask me why yesterday turned out to be the day I would start watching the Fast franchise? What in the actual crazypants hell? How many years have these movies been in the world? How much have I never had any interest in watching them? And then yesterday …

I was thinking about Paul Walker and the farewell video with him and Vin Diesel taking different forks at the end of the road. Why have I seen that video when I’ve never seen the movies? And why was it in my head yesterday? #TheEternalQuestions

While I certainly wasn’t a Paul Walker hater, I was never a fan, either. I often confused him with other generic-white-guy actors (Ryan Reynolds primarily … yes, I know, they look and are nothing alike). And I was pretty much unaware of most movies he was in. I knew about the “Fast Family” (as, apparently, some people call it), but not much. I love a good action movie, love car chases and crime capers and all that. Still, the Fast movies have never called my name.

Until they did yesterday.

There’s a moment pretty early in the first movie where Walker gives a smirky smile and delivers his line, and a lightbulb came on over my head. “Oh,” I thought. “So these are just really not good.”

(Because, well … yeah. I mean, isn’t that why I knew not to watch them in the first place?)

But I kept watching that first one. And then rolled right along into 2 Fast 2 Furious, which is a clever naming thing, but that’s not enough cleverness when there’s a whole movie to watch. Not by half. But Devon Aoki with her can’t-be-a-real-girl face is in it, and Ludacris’ afro is in it, and Eva Mendes’ mole … I watched it. Of course I did. I had bought in, wanted to understand how the whole Family was going to be corralled into one crew, wanted the backstory that would lead to Tyrese’s social media meltdown over Hobbs and Shaw. Sure.

It’s good that yesterday was Tuesday. That meant I needed to draw the line, close the curtain on this nonsense before it got too late in the night. I did, however, start watching Tokyo Drift. Because yes, now I’m totally bought in. I watched this overseas Part the Third through the opening plot device that gets Sean, the lead character this time around, sent to Japan. Watched a long chunk of it as I ate dinner tonight. Pretty sure I’ll watch the rest before I sleep.

Aside from being all-in with this nonsense, I’ll also watch because of Lucas Black, the actor who plays Sean, because of the mind-blowing realization of who Lucas Black is. All through that opening sequence, I tried to work out where I recognized him from. When his plane landed in Tokyo, I paused the film and turned to Google for the answer. And immediately saw that yes, of course I recognize him because he’s on NCIS: New Orleans. Okay … but then I got dope-slapped by the not-actually-believable-but-clearly-true reality of him being the boy from American Gothic. I still can’t process the fact of that. I spent at least 30 minutes scrolling through stills from the show and having to admit that yes, that boy’s face is obviously the same face as the man playing a boy in Tokyo Drift. I have to admit it, but it’s just entirely impossible.

So yes, as long as I can find them for free, I’ll keep watching these movies.

But … WHY?!

I keep watching, but I can’t lie and say that I’m enjoying them. Paul Walker had a great smile, and his face in these movies was definitely the face of a guy you’d have fun hanging out with. He looks and moves like a nice guy. Maybe he was a jackass. I have no idea. But he doesn’t look like one. It’s sad that he’s dead and that he died young. It’s still not enough of a reason for me to be watching these movies instead of the many other things I could and should be doing, could and should be spending my mental energy on.

Oh.

That last bit is the missing piece. Yes, of course it makes sense that I would choose this moment to submerge myself in something that will wash over me with little impact (aside from the Lucas Black shock).

Because so many things are whirling together in a vortex of awful, and so many of them are imploding and exploding very particularly in this moment, and it’s more than I can manage. The destruction of our system of government, the earthquake in Haiti, the building wave of delta-Covid, the instant and catastrophic collapse of Afghanistan.

It’s too much. My heart and head just … can’t.

And, frustratingly, I can’t seem to do any of the things that usually distract me from the world. I just sit and stare at my Spanish homework. My writing projects collect dust. My apartment has still not been organized into a home. …

But I can watch these movies. I can stare at these things in which I have no investment, stare at the screen and not have to think. And it didn’t have to be this franchise, of course. It could be any series, any set of movies in which I have no stake. Somehow, this just happened to be the one this time.

And it has perks. Paul Walker was cute. And this third installment has introduced me to Sung Kang, who is also cute. Eventually the Rock will make an appearance, and he’s always a pleasure to look at. Perks.

*

I’ll have to start reading the news again. And before too long, too. I’ll have to find the strength to step back into the maelstrom that is this moment in our history. But I’ve got six and a half more of these distractions to go. And I welcome the oblivion of that. I’m not completely submerged, but there’s a buffer space around me that I hope is deep and high and wide enough to give my head and heart the time they need.

I’m on the drift … and it’s exactly the ride I need.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Everything Old Is New Again

I haven’t thought of that song in forever, but it came immediately to mind when I queued up WordPress to post tonight. I spent a couple of hours yesterday and many, many hours today unpacking boxes and loading up my newly-assembled bookshelves. It was nice to rediscover my things. There’s a lot more work to do, but what’s already been done has been seriously transformational.

I am, in fact, so pleased to have done such a large chunk of unpacking, I decided to write tonight’s poem about it. The source text is Lucille Clifton’s poem “grief,” even though I am feeling anything but grief about the work I’ve done these last two days.

Unboxing

My world on pause.
No email, no tasks -- then
just one task, one job of work for
my heart. I keep the
rhythm going, simple, human.
Not instinctual, not animal.
Methodical, focused in
letting each treasure tell its
own story as I wipe the dust from its coat.

National Poetry Month 2021: the Golden Shovel

As I’ve done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. The “Golden Shovel” was created by Terrance Hayes in tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks. I learned about it from my friend Sonia (aka Red Emma). I’ll be using Lucille Clifton’s poems as my starting point this month. Here are the rules:

  • Take a line (or lines) from a poem you admire.
  • Use each word in the line (or lines) as the end word for each line in your poem.
  • Keep the end words in order.
  • Give credit to the poet who originally wrote the line (or lines).
  • The new poem does not have to be about the same subject as the poem that offers the end words.

If you pull a line with six words, your poem would be six lines long. If you pull a stanza with 24 words, your poem would be 24 lines long. And so on.

Should be interesting!

Under the Sea

Okay, one last Grand Cayman story. At the end of yesterday’s post, I mentioned that there was a lot of snorkeling on that trip. It makes sense, of course. We were in the Caribbean, of course a lot of our activities would involve the water and seeing what was in the water with us.

I’m not a great swimmer. I can swim, and could probably swim well enough to swim out of trouble if trouble approached me slowly, but Diana Nyad, I’m not. I’m fascinated by the ocean, however, and by sea creatures.

Backstory on me and snorkeling: The first time I went to Jamaica, I was excited to go snorkeling. My friends and I got gear and marched ourselves into the water. And the ocean didn’t disappoint. I saw lots of fish — including a beautiful moment when a school of silversides swam around me. I saw sea urchins, a conch, lots of coral … After I’d been paddling around a while, I was annoyed because there was a terrible noise that was distracting me from my leisurely sea-gazing. It was a loud, rasping noise, as if Darth Vader was about to tell me he was my father. I kept looking for what could be the source of the nuisance. Finally I realized that I was the source. What I was hearing was the sound of my own panic breathing, loud and terrified, amplified by the snorkel and maybe by the water. I don’t know, but it was LOUD.

Panic breathing even though I was totally fine … and would always have been totally fine because I was snorkeling in such shallow water I could just stand up when the going got too unnerving. Seriously. The second place we snorkeled on that trip was a sand bar. I couldn’t even swim there. I just lay on the ocean floor and looked around.

Why panic breathing? Because I am fascinated by the ocean, but I’m also pretty entirely afraid of it. And when I’m fully in it, swimming around with the beings that live there, I’m out of place. I’m the alien, unable to adapt, inserting myself into someone else’s territory. The landscape is foreign, the atmosphere is inhospitable — I can’t breathe there unless I have special equipment — and no one speaks my language.

And being underwater in the ocean, I discovered, makes me feel claustrophobic. Really, really claustrophobic.

All of this adds up to panic breathing. I consciously calmed my breath and forced myself to keep going. There was so much I wanted to see. And I got to see a lot, but my snorkeling fear took hold from that first day. I snorkeled a few more times on that trip — even had a barracuda swim on his own leisurely path right in front of my nose! I kept snorkeling, but my fear didn’t abate.

So when I agreed to be a chaperone on the Grand Cayman trip, I knew there would be snorkeling on our agenda. I figured it would be like what I’d done in Jamaica, and I’d make it work. I also figured that, with two other adults sharing the chaperone duties, there would be times when I could opt out of being in the water. And then the other chaperones announced that they had no intention of swimming because they couldn’t swim and were terrified of the water. So I would have to do all the snorkeling. All. And keep a brave face on while doing it so the kids who were nervous would feel better about giving it a try.

Our first outing, we got on a boat, and motored out further from shore than I’d ever snorkeled before. Our captain and guide announced that the spot he was taking us to would be great for seeing lots of things … and would be between 75 and 80 feet deep. And, while the kids were oohing and aahing at the thought of such deep water, I was repeatedly confirming for myself that no, in fact I wouldn’t be able to just stand up if I was freaking out. I’m tall, but I am woefully human-sized, so no toes on in the sand and head above the waves options there.

We put on our gear when we reached the designated spot, and our guide and his crew began helping the kids into the water. I descended the ladder and pushed off from the boat and, before I even put my face in the water, I could feel my panic breathing start. Under the guise of monitoring the kids, I treaded water and did some deep breathing exercises to calm myself. I finally got my breath back to something that could pass for normal, and went under.

And I saw lots of fabulousness, including rainbow parrotfish, who I fell in love with instantly, and gorgeous, enormous sea fan coral (gorgonia ventalina), which is one of my favorite corals. I also saw how far the floor was below me, and I had to fight back the panic breathing again. And I saw a stingray … and I decided to swim back to the boat … which at first I couldn’t find but located before a full panic attack could erupt.

I don’t remember how many snorkeling outings we had during that week. At least five, including one day when we snorkeled at two different venues. Vidalys, one of the older girls who had held my hand across the aisle on the plane because she was terrified of flying, told me she was excited to get better at snorkeling because she could see how much I loved it. I almost laughed. Then I realized that a) my “Whistle a Happy Tune” approach to being a snorkeling chaperone had worked for both Vidalys and for me because b) I was loving the snorkeling. I was loving seeing all those rainbow parrotfish and seeing corals and seeing all the other underwater-world things there were to see. And by the last couple of excursions, I no longer had to calm myself because the panic breathing had stopped clawing at my throat.

I’m still not Diana Nyad, nor will I ever be. I am, however, making some undersea plans. I have a gift I want to give myself when I hit my 60s, and it involves some serious undersea activity. Just thinking about it calls up the old panic, but Grand Cayman taught me the cure for that: I just have to keep diving in.


It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot