Stuck Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere

Quincy California Sierra Nevada Mountains Small TownWhen I was 16 years old, I decided to move to the Middle of Nowhere. With high school graduation behind me, I packed up my sparse wardrobe, shabby bicycle, and cardboard boxes filled with books and thrift-store kitchenware, and moved into my first apartment in Quincy, California.

“Why on earth would you want to live there?” asked pretty much everyone. Quincy, after all, is a tiny town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. When I moved there, it had no traffic lights, far more trees than people, and zero chain stores, unless you count the 24-hr. Safeway supermarket in the center of town. It was nothing like my Bay Area home, nothing like the dull suburb where I’d lived during high school. Quincy had no shopping mall, no Target stores, no roller skating rinks. The only movie theater had one small screen and played the latest blockbusters about two months after they’d been released.

Plus, Quincy was in the middle of nowhere.

Middle of Nowhere Sign

But I loved that little town. It was quiet, but filled with character. It was isolated from the rest of the world, but only because the outside world couldn’t be bothered with traversing the long, winding highway leading up to our Main Street. It was different from typical California suburbs, with its seeming lack of sophistication and modernization, but how is that such a bad thing? Quincy was an awful lot like me.

When I woke up in the mornings in my tiny apartment, the first thing I liked to do was throw open my bedroom curtain. The view outside was stunning — picturesque, snow-capped mountains, tall, elegant pines, and a huge meadow, where deer and other wildlife scampered around in the sunshine. Everything was green and gold, and lovely. As I hiked through the trees to my college campus, all of the darkness and stress of my high school years melted away. In the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the woods, I was in the middle of transforming into a confident and joyful young woman.

Of course, Quincy wasn’t really in the middle of Nowhere. It was literally in the middle of Somewhere. For people with cars (unlike me), you could drive for exactly one hour in one direction to get to the city of Chico, and an hour in the other direction to get to the city of Reno. At times, my college buddies and I would pile into someone’s vehicle and head out on the highway, in order to escape the calm and serenity of our little town and seek out a shopping mall, or a real movie theater, or a Target store. No matter how isolated we sometimes felt living in Quincy, we knew that we could always choose one direction or another and find ourselves somewhere, eventually.

Isn’t life kind of like that?

Sometimes, we just find ourselves in the Middle of Nowhere, like when that ex-con dropped off Pee-Wee Herman and drove away. We don’t know how we got there, and are pretty much stuck until Large Marge shows up with her big rig to cart us away.

PeeWee Herman in the middle of nowhere

Okay, bad analogy.

But sometimes, we place ourselves in the Middle of Nowhere. Unable to deal with something in our lives, we pack up our cardboard boxes and head off to live in the woods, where we can forget about the noise and crud that plagued us back in Somewhere. Sometimes, we need the Middle of Nowhere in order to heal ourselves. Or to recenter, as we transform into a better person. Kind of like a caterpillar in a chrysalis.

And for some of us, the Middle of Nowhere is where we choose to hang up our tattered wings and retire.

Just know this. The Middle of Nowhere really is a misnomer. No matter your reasons for finding yourself where you are, no matter how long you choose to stay, you are never really stuck there. When you’re ready for a change, just open up a map, get in your car, and drive. Or hitch a ride in Large Marge’s big rig. Whatever. Just pick a direction and go. You are always in the Middle of Somewhere, and you can get there, eventually.

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Pearls (a Short Story)

PEARLS

string-of-pearls

“You burned the toast again.” Stuart made clicking noises with his tongue.

Ruby shot him a scornful look. “I didn’t burn the toast,” she said, setting his plate on the table. “That cheap toaster you bought burned the toast.” She poured more coffee into his favorite mug – the red one with the picture of the hula girl he’d brought home from their trip to Hawaii eight years ago. Now it had a small chip on the rim, a minor defect, like a blemished tooth. Her fingers itched to throw it away, but she knew Stuart would notice its absence.

With a heavy sigh, she sat across from him and fished the soggy teabag out of her cup. “Anything interesting in the news today?”

Stuart folded his newspaper and set it aside. “The usual overblown political circus and a workplace shooting somewhere in Colorado.” He scooped his eggs onto the unburnt center of his toast and bit into it. “The community section mentioned something about that women’s circle again. The Purple People, or something.” He chuckled.

Ruby frowned. “You know perfectly well that they call themselves the Pearls.” The Purple Pearls were like a cult, always trying to recruit people to come down to the community center for Tuesday craft days and Thursday reading groups, and who knew what else. But Ruby had no intention of knotting a purple bandanna around her neck and going on outings with those women, who were always cooing and chirping like a flock of city pigeons.

“Yeah, well turns out that those Pearl girls are planning to take a big trip. Guess where to?”

“Where?”

“Fiji. Isn’t that something?” he added, when Ruby folded her arms and glared at him. “You and me have been talking for years about flying down to Fiji.”

“That’s different.”

“Different how? It’s the same Fiji. Pristine beaches. Crystal clear water, coconut trees. Paradise!”

“But I’d rather go with you.”

“I’ll be here when you get back. You can bring me a new mug.” He held up the chipped red one. “You don’t want to miss your chance. Think about sinking your toes into that white sand. Think of that warm tropical breeze.”

“But I’m not one of them. Those Pearls.”

“You could be. You already know a couple of those women. And that one with the sparkly earrings—”

“Pam.”

Stuart nods. “Yeah, Pam. She isn’t going to stop trying until you give in and join them.”

“I don’t have time for them.” Ruby stood and began briskly scraping their plates into the trash. “I’ve got to finish crocheting that blanket for Sadie’s baby.”

“You could crochet with the Pearls,” said Stuart, “while talking about your Fiji plans. Come on, sweetheart,” he coaxed, softer, when Ruby didn’t respond. “What’s that I keep saying? Come on, now.”

Ruby gripped the edge of the counter and stared down into the abyss of the sink drain. “Don’t fear death,” she started.

“Speak up!”

“Don’t fear death, fear the unlived life.” It was a quote from Tuck Everlasting, a book they’d taken turns reading aloud years ago, Ruby curled into Stuart’s lap on the soft brown sofa after they’d put the kids to bed. Fear the unlived life. Those words had wormed their way into Stuart’s very being. Suddenly fearful that he hadn’t been living life hard enough, well enough, bravely enough, he’d adopted a new favorite word. Yes. Ride a bicycle across three states? Yes. Read fifty books in a year? Yes. Give up his Saturdays to mentor young men at the job training center? Yes, yes, yes. No wonder they hadn’t had time to travel to Fiji together.

And what about Ruby? Was she living an unlived life? She thought of all the years of raising kids with Stuart. Driving Sadie and Laura to school, to tap classes, to birthday parties. Years filled with Christmases and summer barbecues and family trips to the mountains. Years of bandaging scraped knees and cleaning up after pets and sewing costumes for the annual spring play. When the girls were older, Ruby had taken a part-time job as an office clerk, which later turned into a full-time job, which lasted all the way to retirement. She and Stuart had retired on the same day. They’d planned it that way. And after retirement, Stuart had gone right on saying yes to everything and everyone. Everyone but her. Until recently, she’d had to wait her turn for moments with Stuart. She hated to admit it, hated the selfishness of it, but she was glad that now, he was here all the time. Here just for her.

“Doesn’t Pam live pretty close to where you’re going today?” asked Stuart.

Ruby gripped the counter even tighter and swayed on her feet. She’d almost forgotten she had to go. Almost. “Yeah.”

“Then here’s your chance. Ring her doorbell. Say hello. Tell her your bags are already packed for Fiji.”

“My bags aren’t packed.” She turned around to look at him, mouth twisted.

“You could get them packed in two minutes. What would you need for Fiji, anyway? Besides a swimsuit.”

“I don’t have a swimsuit that fits.” Not anymore, now that she’d lost so much weight. “Guess I could get one, though.”

“Now you’re talking.” Stuart’s grin made his eyes light up, made the whole kitchen light up. Ruby almost felt like grinning, too. “What time is Sadie supposed to pick you up?”

Before Ruby could even glance at the big wooden clock, the front doorbell rang. And rang. And rang, three long chimes and a series of short chimes. Sadie must have let the boys ring the bell, she figured, hurrying to the living room. Sure enough, when she threw open the front door, both her grandsons stood there, wearing grins that looked so much like Stuart’s, her heart squeezed tight for a moment, like someone was wringing out all the blood.

Sadie’s face fell when she saw Ruby. “Mom! You’re not even ready to go yet!”

Ruby glanced down at her stained lavender house robe, then placed a hand on her thinning cloud of white hair. “Guess I’ll just go like this,” she mumbled.

“You can’t go like that!” Sadie sounded dismayed. “It’s…it’s disrespectful!”

Ruby scowled, then headed off to pull on some real clothes to appease her daughter. “I’ll see you later,” she told Stuart as she breezed through the kitchen again.

Stuart winked, then waved his arms like a hula dancer. Ridiculous. She pursed her lips. Did they even have hula dancers in Fiji?

Sadie said nothing about Ruby’s too-baggy attire this time. In fact, her words were syrupy sweet as she drove them across town, talking about the boys’ activities and Halloween costume plans in that kitten-gentle voice people used with small children. It dug under Ruby’s skin like a tick, but she just clenched her teeth and stared out the window, picturing pristine beaches and coconut trees. She really could do it. She could fly to Fiji with the girls, maybe sip some kind of tangy, coconutty rum drink under a strip of the bluest sky. She could bring home a mug for Stuart, and maybe a new toaster so his toast wouldn’t get burned. This time, she did laugh aloud.

“Mother, are you even listening to me?” asked Sadie, her voice tinged with irritation.

“Yes,” said Ruby.

Then they were there, pulling into the parking lot. Damn the parking lot, thought Ruby as they trudged across the asphalt. Damn the tall iron bars they passed through. Damn the perfect grass, as green and manicured as a golf course. She wanted to turn and run back to the car, drive it back home, where Stuart was waiting.

“Are you ready?” asked Sadie. She was carrying a bouquet of flowers, just like a bride. Splashy, yellow flowers. Purple flowers. Tiny sprigs of white flowers. She placed them in Ruby’s empty hands. Ruby imagined herself walking barefoot across a beach, long veil flowing behind her, and Stuart in a suit with the pant legs rolled up, standing ankle-deep in the crystal blue waters.

“Hello Ruby.” Pam was here, too. Not on the beach, but here in the green grass, that damned purple bandanna knotted around her neck. Two other women stood beside her. More Pearls. “I asked Sadie if we could join you today, and she said yes.”

Yes yes yes.

Ruby’s head began throbbing. She took tiny steps forward, Sadie supporting one elbow, Pam holding the other. Fiji, she told herself in a stern voice. Think of Fiji.

“These anniversaries can be hard,” Pam was saying. “We Pearls like to support each other. All of these ladies know just what you’re going through.”

Ruby didn’t answer. She was frozen on the spot, staring down at the slab of stone jutting up from the grass.  Her blood had gone cold, like the coffee in Stuart’s chipped red mug.

“One year ago today.” Pam said this like one might say it’s raining outside, or there’s a sale at Penney’s, or we’re out of milk. “I always did like that quote.” She tilted her head to one side, squinting at the stone slab. “Don’t fear death, fear the unlived life. Wonder who said that?”

“Babbitt.” Ruby cleared her throat, tried again. “Natalie Babbitt. It’s from a book. Tuck Everlasting.”

“Well now.” Pam’s dark eyes burned into Ruby’s. “I hope that you’ll come to our next meeting and tell the Pearls some more about this book. We’re planning a big trip together, you know. To Fiji.”

“Yes.” Ruby nodded. There. She’d said it. Yes.

“So you’ll be there?”

“Yes.” Ruby laid the flowers at the foot of the grave, then turned to go. In her fingers, she clutched a single flower she’d separated from the rest. It was purple, like the Pearls. She was never going to join them, she knew. Never going to wear their stupid bandanna or attend their meetings. They might eat up all her time, then she wouldn’t have any left to spend with Stuart.

Tonight, she decided, she would cook pork chops, his favorite dinner. And she would place the flower next to his plate.

“That’s the color of my new bathing suit,” she’d tell him.

“So you’re going to go to Fiji after all?”

“That’s right,” she’d say. “You and me. So pack your bags. We’ve waited long enough.”

 

 

The Golden Hour (a Spooky Poem)

I love the tradition of Halloween. The creative costumes of young and young-at-heart. The zany and macabre decorations. The celebration of the shadow side of human nature, done in a spirit of good fun and camaraderie. Enjoy your parties and sugar-fests as we each perform a role tonight in the great play we call Halloween. Be safe out there!

jacko

The Golden Hour

At last the golden hour is here

The night we shadow-box our fear

And march into the inky night

Armed with jack-o-lantern light

So come you fierce and wicked things

Painted grins and fairy wings

Hear the magic doorbell rings

Come!

Heed the creepy creature’s stare

Perched upon her rocking chair

Grab a candy, if you dare

Beware!

Hear the whistling windy tune

Ghosts and witches flying soon

Silhouette on silver moon

Boooooo!

Tempt the spirits, play your part

Chilling bones and racing heart

Let the hurly-burly start

Happy Hallowe’en

Bastet Bast Egyptian goddess

Me, as Bastet, Egyptian Goddess of warfare and cats, protector of the pharaoh, of women, and of children.

 

The Filling in your Sandwich (aka: Gen X)

So here’s the thing. There’s a gigantic cohort of peeps born during the two decades following World War II. The Baby Boomers. You may have heard of them.

There’s also an enormous cohort of much younger peeps, born sometime between 1980 and, well, the new millenium. We call them the Millennials. You may have heard of them, too.

Three generations

If the generations are a sandwich, then Baby Boomers are a thick slice of homemade white bread. Because that was a thing, back in their day. The Millennials are a thick slice of organic, whole grain, sugar-free, non-GMO bread from a startup independent bakery that supports free-trade industries. So there you have it. The two slices of bread that make up your sandwich.

Um, hello! *Waves* Aren’t you all forgetting something? Peanut butter? Cheese? Maybe a slice of lunch meat? What’s wrong with this picture?

Oh yeah. There’s another generation. Despite all the media hype about the Amazing Aging Baby Boomers and the Magnificent Modern Millennials, there is literally an entire generation of peeps in between.

We are Gen X.

Generation X

Remember us? We’re the first and last generation of our kind. We were the last generation to grow up outdoors, on bicycles and roller skates and Big Wheels and skateboards. We were the last generation to play with toys that forced us to use our imaginations. The last generation with mostly stay-at-home moms, although many of them were starting to don suits with shoulder pads and entering the Brave New World of the workforce. We were the last generation with super fun commercial jingles that got stuck in your head. The last generation to eat foil-wrapped TV dinners on TV trays. The last generation to plan our evenings with the help of TV Guide.

We were also the firsts. We were the O.G. — the Original Gamers. We were the first to spend all our allowance on video games at the arcade. The first to get our MTV and other cable channels. The first to have computers in our classrooms. The first to connect with friends over the internet and chat with strangers on America Online.

How can the world forget about us?

Reality Bites

We Gen Xers were born between 1965-1980. We were the generation with big 80s hair, awesome 80s movies, and rad 80s music people are still listening to today. We ushered in the grunge rock era and turned TV shows like Friends and Seinfeld into pop culture gold. We took the stuffy, linear world of our Baby Boomer predecessors and flipped it inside out, added color and glitter, until we were satisfied that people could love whoever they chose to love, and be whoever they were meant to be. We called out the glass ceiling and shattered it.

Presenting Gen X, the peanut butter, the cheese, and the meat in your sandwich.

We are X-ceptional, and striving for X-cellence. X-alt us, oh media. For Gen X will not just fade away. We are the reigning generation.

That Time I Almost Ran a Marathon (aka: New Moon Bella)

So I almost ran a marathon this December. I was dangerously close. After months of saying that marathon runners must be insane (my daughter and ex-boyfriend included), I found myself training for one. By the time I managed to run 16 miles, I had made up my mind. This was it. I was totally going to go for it. So when I got home, still exhausted and sweaty from my run, I navigated to the website of the California International Marathon — the same one my daughter finished last year.

Sold out.

Disappointment and relief flooded me at the same time. Disappointment, because I really, really wanted to run that marathon! Relief, because I don’t trust my reasons for wanting to run that marathon.

running-a-marathon

There are a million great reasons for someone to want to run an entire marathon. For the bragging rights. Because they’re competitive runners. Because it’s a bucket list goal. Because they’re masochists and crave the pain. I don’t know. I suppose there are as many good reasons as there are types of people who enter to run these things. But I have no desire to brag about my accomplishments. I don’t really keep a bucket list. And god knows I’m not a competitive runner, with my typical middle-age pace.

I do it for him.

Yes, I’m talking about my ex-boyfriend, Mr. Right-for-Me, the wonderful guy I dated last year and will never get over. Let’s call him Z. The last letter of the alphabet for the last man I will ever love.

Don’t take me wrong. I don’t want to run a marathon because I believe that finishing one will impress him so much that he will come back. (Okay, maybe I kind of hope that a teensy bit). It’s not about that. I’m marathon training because I am New Moon Bella.

All right, stop pretending that you don’t know who I’m talking about. I know that you guys all read or watched the Twilight series about Bella and her sparkly perfect vampire lover, Edward. Now remember what happened when Edward suddenly left Bella’s life? He disappeared. Didn’t call. Didn’t write. Didn’t appear. The seasons passed by, and Bella was a sad wreck without him. Then one day, she discovered that by doing insane things, by pushing herself far beyond her limits, she could make Edward appear. She began riding motorcycles, cliff jumping, putting herself in dangerous situations, because when she did, a vivid vision of Edward would materialize, and he would talk to her in the voice of reason. His voice, his appearance, became her drug, her reason to keep going.

bella-and-edward

So that’s me. I can run a wimpy little 5K, and nothing. But if I keep pushing myself far beyond my limits, run to the point that my lungs are burning, and my legs are ready to collapse, and there he is. Z. On the trail with me, as vivid as life. I hear his voice, his wonderful, distinct, gentle voice, encouraging me to just keep going, keep pushing, just one more mile. And when I make it to the end, I hear his words of pride, filling me with so much warmth I could almost turn around and run some more. Almost.

running path one more mile

So there it is. I am disappointed that the marathon is sold out, because I wanted to run it with him. Even though he has disappeared from my life, and I am here without him. Even though he would not really be there with me (and knowing that still hurts so sharply that I can barely breathe). But it is like knowing that if you fall asleep just the right way, then someone you love, someone whose presence you crave deeply will appear with you in a dream. If I run just one more mile, just one more mile, just one more mile, then he will appear before me on the running trail, his voice leading me toward him.

I think I’ll keep running.

The Ah-Mazing Life of Danielle (and Annoying Audrey)

Well, Jupiter Girl is still hanging out in her cave, waiting for inspiration to strike her in the head like a rock or something. So I decided to step in and take charge of things for a while. And believe me, I am really good at taking charge. Plan your party? Manage a work project? Write your blog? I’m your girl!

Danielle and iPhone Downtown

My name is Danielle. I live and work downtown in a major metropolitan area, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I adore everything about life downtown. The fast pace. The restaurants. The nightlife. Just yesterday, I hopped on a Jump bike during my lunch break and rode over to my favorite independent coffee shop, where they make an ah-mazing pumpkin spice latte. Seriously, I don’t know how people can stand it out in the suburbs, where you have to get in your car and drive like, twenty minutes to the nearest Starbucks.

Danielle and Audrey besties

Now everybody say hi to Audrey. Audrey is my bestie. My partner-in-crime. My sistah from another mistah. I don’t know what I’d do without her. But between you and me, Audrey can also be pretty annoying. When I started going to the gym to get in shape a couple of years ago, Audrey started copying me. I lost a few pounds and felt pretty good about that. But next thing you know, she’s lost a ton of weight, gotten super strong, and now she’s a fitness instructor. Seriously, Audrey?

Danielle and Audrey gym rats

It’s like it’s her life goal to show me up. I bought a sleek little downtown condo last year and adopted a cat. So what does Audrey do? She buys a ginormous house out in the ‘burbs, and adopts a cat plus two cocker spaniels. So extra. And then this summer, I text her some photos of me relaxing by the pool. So of course she has to show me up by traveling all the way to the beach.

Audrey at the beach

Ok fine, to be fair, she did invite me to go with her to the beach. But I couldn’t get away from work. You see, I have a very busy job. When I was a girl, somehow the idea became engrained in me that I could do anything. I could become a pilot, or a veterinarian, or a lawyer. But I had more exciting ambitions than that. So I studied computer software engineering, and went to work for the U.S. government on a top-secret assignment. I get to work with ah-mazing technology and even travel the world.

Danielle working outdoors on her computer

But don’t tell Audrey. She thinks I’m just an accountant.

More Honest Names for College Classes 101 (aka: That Time I Let my Teens Write the Blog)

Because I’m apparently suffering from Blogger’s Block, I decided to let my 14 year-old son and my 17 year-old daughter write this blog post. They were sitting around sharing goofy titles they came up with to replace the boring titles of typical college courses. I’m sure that their imaginary university would be pretty interesting to attend!

  • How to Take Over the World (Political Science 101)
  • Destroy Anyone in an Argument by Insulting their Innate Human Tendencies (Psychology 101)
  • How to Design Buildings that Won’t Fall Down in the First 5 Minutes (Architecture 101)
  • Math, Except All the Numbers Are Replaced with Letters and Weird Symbols (Calculus)
  • How to Go to the Party Without Really Being There (Quantum Mechanics 101)
  • Mindfulness and Meditation (Mortuary Science 101)
  • How to Talk to People Because You Didn’t in High School so Now You’re Making Up for It (Communications 101)
  • How to Get One Step Closer to Ending the World (Robotics)
  • How to Be Totally Fake But Make Everyone Like You (Drama)
  • How to Have a Slim Chance of Striking it Rich but Probably go Bankrupt (Business 101)
  • How to Get Away With Blowing Up Entire Buildings (Chemistry 101)
  • How to Beat Someone in a Fight Without Violence (Dance 101)
  • Turn Your Parents’ Money into Art a 4 year-old Could Make (Art 101)
  • How to Make Everyone Mad at You (Gender Studies 101)
  • How to Relearn Your Own Language Because You Spent So Much Time Texting (English 101)