Playing By My Own Rules (aka: Adaptability)

(This is a candid post and may contain inappropriate content for readers under the age of 18)

Here’s the part where I may disappoint you.

You see, I adapt.

Changes come, and I learn to lean into it. Ideas shift, and I shift mine, too. When needed. With each new decade, I learn to love the music (though the oldies are always near and dear, too).

When I was a married woman, and sex meant pain and discomfort and never pleasure, I found a way to adapt. Through fantasy. Harmless daydreams about some other man, in some other place. Fantasies that lifted me up, up, and away from that dreaded marriage bed where my ex-husband did his thing and got his fill while I lay there, suffering for the sake of fulfilling my “wifely duties,” as he put them. Because that was what a good Christian woman was supposed to do. Take it. Submit. Give over her body, because it belonged to him, you see.

But I didn’t have to give over my mind.

Harmless fantasies, so I thought. Until I confessed it to the ex. Because isn’t that what married couples should do? Be honest, and truthful, and share everything, and work through everything behind closed doors?

Nope.

I was punished for my honesty. Punished for my imaginary affair. He even threw out my vibrator. My tiny, self-absorbed world of sex maybe not being the worst thing ever, destroyed. (Ironically, I was punished even more when he actually began cheating with other woman — his whipping boy, as he was unable to punish himself).

So I changed the rules.

“Z,” the wonderful man I dated over a year ago, confessed in the end that I was not the only woman he had been dating from the dating app where we both met. He chose her, he told me. And then, he left.

But know what? I was not devastated to learn that he was not dating me exclusively. I had already suspected it. It was not a big surprise. I was not jealous. That isn’t my way. I was only devastated that he left.

Perhaps you wonder, what would I have done? Stayed with a man who was disloyal? Well…yes. On this condition. He would have had to agree to an open relationship. And to brutal honesty. I’d want to know every detail of every fantasy or encounter. And to safety, because I’d rather not wind up contracting an STI.

Disappointed yet?

Well too bad. These are my rules.

Here’s what I learned: my ex-husband’s infidelity led to my being punished. My fantasizing about some other man led to my being punished. My ex-sort-of-boyfriend was dating another woman, which led to him leaving — aka, my being punished.

So it only seems logical that the way for me to avoid being punished by people crossing some invisible, man-made barrier is to…remove the barrier. Ta-da! No jealousy. No fear that one’s partner may be straying or having thoughts about someone else. No worries that I, being not very good in bed, and not very into sex, would be unable to meet my partner’s sexual needs, because he is allowed to get them met elsewhere — as long as he comes back to me.

(And no, I wouldn’t want to barriers removed so that I can stray. With my low sex drive and indifference about sex, I wouldn’t need that.)

None of the bad stuff. Just absolute trust. Absolute honesty. Absolute intimacy between two people who understand each other enough to admit that perhaps it’s not enough to keep it between two people for life. Freedom for two people who love each other to figure out how to make it work in our own way, by our own rules.

I know. For many readers, this kind of thinking is way too outside the box. But I am a problem-solver. A solutions-seeker. A highly adaptable human being who dislikes pain and prefers to make as many people happy as possible. Myself included.

Anyway, this is nothing more than a thought experiment. As I have mentioned before, “Z” will forever be my last, because I love him, and met my true match in him. I don’t ever wish to be in any relationship with anyone else, whether open or closed.

That, too, is adaptability.

Raise Your Glass! (aka: Beat the Year)

Guess what, everybody? According the Under Armour, the company who makes my favorite running app, Map My Run, I beat the year! Hooray, me! *Cheers, sets off fireworks*

What does that mean, beat the year? Well, I’m not exactly sure. Last April, I signed up for a fitness challenge to see how many kilometers I could run during 2018. My grand total was 1,019 Kilometers. I’m not sure how far that is, exactly, since we Americans generally don’t speak metric without the help of Google or Alexa. But it sounds pretty good to me!

Now, this whole “Beat the Year” thing might be even more impressive if my opponent had, say, a set amount of kilometers I was actually competing to beat. I’m pretty sure the year was just lying on the couch, watching the rest of us run like rabbits and laughing her head off.

“Look at you!” the Year says to the slowpoke who ran like, two whole kilometers throughout the whole year. “You beat me! How about that?”

Still, despite my cynicism, I feel like a winner. Why? Because I did stuff. I made an effort. I challenged myself to grow. And in my interpretation, that is what it means to “Beat the Year.”

Each new year in our lives is like a big ol’ champagne glass, minus the bubbly stuff. Our goal is to fill that glass with as much bubbly stuff as possible before it’s time for the final toast at the end of the year. (Champagne, soda, sparkling water, take your pick).

champagne bubbly New Year

Everything you do, for yourself or for others, earns you a splash of bubbly in your glass. For every choice you make to the detriment of yourself or others, you pour a splash down the drain. Help a family member move to a new town? Increased your workout routine? Ate a lot more green, healthy stuff? Fill your glass just a little bit more. Wasted money on stupid stuff? Ate a lot of fast food? Spread negative gossip about your coworkers? Dump your hard-earned bubbly into the sink.

In 2018, I:

  • Maintained my almost-daily workout schedule.
  • Ran so much, that I rewarded myself with my first-ever 20-miler race (How many kilos is that, Alexa?).
  • Volunteered a few times in our community, side-by-side with my teens.
  • Drove to SoCal with a couple of the kiddos and one of their friends, and had an AMAZING time together at Disneyland and our favorite beach.
  • Landed a role as the technical lead on a very important, prestigious statewide project at work.
  • Read a lot of books.
  • Learned to step outside of my comfy cubicle and initiate conversations and walks to the coffee shop with coworkers.
  • Stood right next to the stage at an Imagine Dragons rock concert and sang my heart out.

I mean, what an AWESOME year! True, I still walk a pretty lonesome path with only my teens to keep me company. And somewhere out there, somebody else accomplished way more, or had way more fun, or learned way more great things along the way. But so what? My glass is so full right now, on this last day of the year, that it is overflowing with bubbly stuff.

The final countdown for 2018 has begun, dear readers. It’s already next year in Australia. Wherever you are in the world, whatever your stage of this life’s journey, and whoever you walk beside (even if it’s only you), I hope that your glass is full. I raise mine to you. May we beat the pants off 2019.

Cheers!

Archery in the rain (yes, I’m a curly girl 🙂 )

It All Makes Scents (aka: Aromatherapy)

Step into my living room and take a deep sniff.

Smell that?

Yeah. It smells like Christmas. More specifically, my living room is filled with the sharp, pungent smell of noble fir tree, mixed with fresh-baked sugar cookies, and the fragrance of First Frost. Do you know what first frost smells like?

Neither do I.

But, according to Bath & Body Works, it smells like this $10 candle flickering on my TV stand, along with Caramel Apple Cider, Winter Wonderland, and Autumn Woods. If I were light them all, then I could bottle the new scent and label it, “Holiday Overload.” Better yet, I could call the combination of scents, “Childhood Christmas,” then ship it to my kids when they’re all grown up and living away from home.

Our scents…I mean sense of smell is pretty mingled up with our memories and emotions. More so than our other senses, as the olfactory bulb is pretty well connected with the parts of our brains that process emotion and memory. That’s why, when we smell a freshly sharpened pencil, your memory evokes the stern face of your 4th-grade teacher. Or why a whiff of fresh, damp mint may suddenly whisk you back to that group hike through the woods one summer thirty years ago. I tend to associate the stench of cigarettes with family road trips when I was a kid, hanging my head out of the car window to gulp in breathable air while my mother chain-smoked.

Smell is such a powerful thing. Do you know that sniffing certain essential oils can treat pain, nausea, anxiety, depression, insomnia, sore joints, and dementia?

Neither do scientists.

But that hasn’t stopped people from turning to aromatherapy as a form of alternative treatment for thousands of years. Need an energy boost? Inhale the scent of lemon or tangerine. Fill your home with lavender to boost memory, or ylang ylang to enhance intimacy. 

Despite the fuzzy science, I enjoy being surrounded by good smells. I shower daily in sunshine and daisies (according to to my favorite body wash), then lather my body with Happy Vibes skin cream. Every now and then, when no one is looking, I lift my wrists to my nose and inhale deeply. Maybe little bits of fragrance are actually releasing some feel-good chemicals in my brain, or maybe it’s totally psychological. All I know for sure is that when everything around me smells good, I feel pretty good, too. It all makes scents.

Commas from the Universe (aka: Forced Pauses)

Commas exist for a reason. They give us a way to separate ideas, or to list multiple items without miscommunication. They also tend to spark wild debates over the use of the Oxford Comma (the “gif” vs. “jif” argument of the literary world). But love commas or hate them, we can all agree that written language simply could not get along with them.

The thing about commas is, they allow us to pause. Take a beat. Which can be a real lifesaver, apparently.

I tend to be the opposite of lazy most of the time. Go go go, from before the sun rises to long after it sets. I have a full-time career. I’m a full-time mom to teens. I cook most of our family meals, and write novels and short stories in my spare time. I also workout nearly every day, and run at least 15-20 miles per week. A routine like this takes a lot of organization and a lot of energy. Which thankfully, I have. Most of the time.

But once in a while, the universe decides it’s tired of watching me run around in a blur, juggling my very active lifestyle. So what does it do? It inserts a comma in my life.

Pause.

Next thing you know, I’m stuck in bed with a cold. Any active person can tell you — we can’t stand getting sick. It keeps us from our runs and workouts and Very Important Business Meetings. Who has time for commas, when we are driven to GoGoGo?

Eventually, the pause ends, and I can get back to the business of busyness.

A couple of weeks ago, the universe inserted another pause into my life. I was out for one of my usual Saturday long runs. Since I’m not in training for anything right now, I was only planning to run for 8 miles along one of my favorite trails. I ran four miles out, and was on the run back when my knee began to complain. At first, it was just a twinge, so I continued pounding the pavement. But by five miles, the pain was excruciating. Youch! By six miles, I was walking. No, limping. So much for a good long run.

But as I limped along the trail, no longer in a hurry, I began to notice my surroundings. It was such a lovely, cold autumn day. The sky was a brilliant shade of blue, and a huge flock of hawks circled overhead, stalking their prey. The sun was just beginning to set, casting a deep golden glow on the river. Someone had stopped by this way, I saw, and stacked river stones into a tower. The leaves had finished their fiery show and had mostly taken their bows, drifting to the earth.

Rock tower

I met a stranger along the path, who was also walking, and helped her identify a weird fungus-looking plant (using iNaturalist — a great app for nature-lovers). By the time I returned to my car, I was no longer frustrated by being temporarily handicapped by a bum knee.

I slowed down for a few days, then tried to ease back into running. But this past weekend, the awful pain appeared again after running 6 miles. So it was back to walking, and observing, and listening to audiobooks instead of high-energy running music. Today, I feel great, and every inch of me is screaming to get out on the trail and run again soon, but I figure I’d better, well, pause, and go get that knee examined, before I aggravate the injury. Sometimes, it sucks to slow down. But just like you have to know when to throw in a comma to keep everything flowing well, you also have to know when to take a pause in some part of your life. Everything looks different when you slow down for a moment and look around. You may not be moving forward as quickly as you’d planned. But the views can be breathtaking.

The Price She Paid (a poem)

With a Yes, she married him

young bride in virginal white

starry-eyed lovers, high expectations

spawned from biblical promises

then…

Honeymoon tinged with blood

dripping with cold, wet shock of disappointment

while he writhed in ecstasy, head thrown back

high on new pleasure

she shrank beneath him

cringing at the sharp pain and burn

deep shame

falling short

eyes wide open at his kiss.

“You’re beautiful,” he told her. “My sexy wife.”

His own words spurring his hunger

while her stomach turned to gravel

bile filling her mouth.

Months stretched to years, a decade come and gone

while he filled himself

and she gave, and gave, and gave

an obedient faucet

succumbing to the painful act

his touch turning riverbeds dry

green grass shriveled, trampled underfoot.

She curled alone on her side of the bed

far from his gaze and wandering hands that always sought more.

“What do you want?” he asked

eager for her to know how to fix herself

(but not willing to slow his advance).

A wife must submit.

Her body belonged to him

the Bible said so, see?

What she wanted was to make it all disappear

to give him back his ring

to admit that it was all a mistake

to stop being beautiful. Hide her sexiness in sweatshirts and

dark rooms

but the more she said no, turned away, begged

the more his insistence mounted

determined to subdue his opponent

at any cost.

The word No came with steep price tag

Insults, accusations, financial withdraw

surveillance, imprisonment at home

“You have to,” he told her. “God says so.”

“Then fuck your god,” she snarled, finding her voice

and his fists pummeled her like angry rain.

The price increased.

He strayed

seeking out other females

paying for services

blaming her, taunting her

always her fault

because she said No.

If she had known

that marriage meant she would be his marionette

dancing on short strings of lust

CONSENT tattooed in blood on her forehead

even though his touch ripped her insides

and made her feel like less than dirt

made her hate being called “beautiful”

(which also came at a cost)

Then No

would have been her first word

her loudest word

long before his knee ever dropped to the ground.

Retipuj, Sneerglaw (and Other Backwards Things)

Being from Jupiter was never easy on my social life. It’s kind of like how people grow up speaking a different language, then try to learn English. No matter how fluent they become, native-born Americans can always detect the accent. No matter how much I studied and tried to behave like the other humans my age, people just always seemed to sense that I was…different. As though everything I do has an accent.

Over time, after many peer rejections, I stopped trying so hard. I just gave into my weirdness and decided to like what I like and love myself, quirks and all. I spent much of my time absorbed in books, often re-reading my favorites. I watched movies and inserted the quotes into normal conversations whenever I could. I checked out music albums from the local library and built up an eclectic repertoire ranging from silly folk songs to classic rock. I amused myself with silly pastimes, like reading signs backwards.

“Look! Walgreens spelled backwards is sneerglaw!” I would say, cracking up laughing.

“God, you are so weird,” my siblings would tell me, rolling their eyes. I just shrugged and hunted for more signs to read backwards, which for me, came just as naturally as reading them forward. Tixe! TramK! Rouqil! Atoyot! It was my own private language; words that no one else could understand, which held magical meanings for me. It could be terribly lonely, though, to understand things on a level that wasn’t common to those around me. But that’s life when you’re from Jupiter.

Backwards words

Once in a great while, I would find someone else who kind of got it. At least, to some extent. Like Sabrina in middle school, who understood the deep pleasure of living through good books. And Jason, who acted normal in real life, but in private, sang along with me to every single Madonna song in existence, including the B-sides, in harmony. Then Chris Y., who always won when our history class played Jeopardy, and who just quietly seemed to “get it,” whenever we talked about any serious subject in depth. Maybe they were from Jupiter, too. Who knows? 

Jupiter

Then in college, I met Valarie. It took maybe seconds for us to realize that we were kindred spirits from some far away world. We were so much alike, although she had the smooth resilience of obsidian, and I was basalt, riddled with small holes that let everything in. We both read obsessively. Sang along to music that our families had never even heard of. Spoke with the same bubbly energy (although my accent was decidedly more California valley girl). It never took long in any conversation for one of us to spit out a quote from a movie or TV show, and the other would spit out the next line without missing a beat. 

“Want to go shopping at Tegrat?” I would ask her. 

“Sure,” she would answer, as though this were a perfectly ordinary request. “Then afterward, we can go grab some lunch at Synned.”

The connection between us was so rare and powerful, that we were inseparable friends. That is, until we decided to work at the same Girl Scout camp one summer. Valarie told a lie to the director that ended up putting me in a very uncomfortable situation. I was hurt, very hurt by her betrayal, yet still, I forgave her.

But she couldn’t forgive herself.

After that summer, she disappeared from my life. Stopped taking my phone calls. Wouldn’t respond to my letters. I moved to a new town and attended a different college, and didn’t hear from Valarie again until 2008, when we both began to use Facebook.

“So what do you think about Harry Potter?” she asked me when we reconnected. And it was like the last decade had never happened, and we were great friends all over again. We obsessed over the Yrrah Rettop series, and argued over whether Stephen Fry or Jim Dale was the better narrator (Jim Dale, hands down, though Stephen Fry got much better by Year 5). We swapped recipes, debated politics, and spoke in the language of literature and movie quotes. 

A year later, she disappeared again, with no warning, and for no reason. At the time, it was sad, but not the end of the world, since I had two other very close friends who also “got it,” even though they weren’t quite as into my backwards-speaking tendencies. When I lost them, too, thanks in part to my own poor choices, I was devastated.


It took 7 years before at last, I connected with another kindred spirit. “Z,” the man I dated for awhile in 2017, was a kind of miracle for me. No, we didn’t speak in movie quotes, and I never did get around to confessing that I read everything backwards and forward, literally. But we clicked in so many ways, on a deep level, as well as shallow. The core of me had been thirsting for a kindred spirit like him, and I drank him in like retaw. 

Then he left. (And ah, here come the saert, right on cue). He left, and one year, three months, and almost three weeks later, my heart still aches, and I would do anything if he would just reappear, and be my good friend. But maybe he, too, detected my alien accent, and didn’t understand.

The human world is so easy with relationships. They preach of how people come and go, and how one must let go, move on, make new friends. But their language is as foreign to me as backwards-speak must be to them. Maybe they are all obsidian, like Valarie, able to let it all roll over their surface. While for me, it’s different. True connection with people, and the love I feel for them, gets deep inside my pores, and can’t be extracted or forgotten. 

Or maybe, like my odd way with words, other humans have it all backwards. For so many centuries, people lived clustered together in small, tight-knit communities. They stayed together despite their differences, because that was how humans survived and thrived. People didn’t come and go from your life until someone died. Good and bad, perfect and imperfect, they remained together, and strengthened connections. No one mysteriously disappeared from your life, unless they got dragged off by a bear. 

Maybe the modern concept of relationships coming and going like freeway traffic is the real alien here. A sort of human devolution. We were never meant to break connections the way we do.

I would love to have a chance to discuss this with the people who still live deep inside of me. With my former best friends. With Z. And with Valarie, wherever she may be now. I don’t know if they would agree with me, but I think they would really get it.

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.

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.

Spile (a poem)

Spile (a poem)


Silence

your reward and punishment

for my kindness, for my love

Your silence

spreads, acid creeping through my veins

quells the muse

binds my tongue

turns my words to ash



Your spile dug deep into my wood

honeyed spirit drained in great golden drops

spilled to the cold ground

wasted

like the blood of a too-young soldier

branches pale, leeched of life

Silence

grows like vines

webbing around me, a metal tomb

and I trapped within

my love for you

the melody

that plays on and on

drowning out your

silence

Walmartians, Meet Targetians (aka: Subculture Expectations)

Marco!

*Tries again*

MARCO!

Now if my hunch is correct, every single one of you who grew up here in the United States just mentally responded to that call with one unified voice. POLO! The rest of you are scratching your heads, wondering why the heck we’re going on about an explorer.

Okay now, let’s play a game of hide-and-seek. Ready? One-two-three…

NOT IT!

Most of you fellow Americans, if I were to ask you to describe a 4th of July picnic, you’d probably spit back a list that included foods like watermelon, potato salad, barbecue chicken, and hot dogs. And a scoop or two of Aunt Millie’s homemade strawberry ice cream, for the hard core folk. We all know the words to the Happy Birthday Song. We know that we place a right hand over our hearts to salute the flag. And we know that if a group of 4ft. tall monsters knock on our door and say the magic words, “Trick or Treat!” We’d better drop a piece of candy in their bags. This is our shared culture.

Every nation has its own sets of standards and nuances shared by pretty much everyone else within that mainstream culture. They recite the lines and lyrics from their own pop media, observe holidays and traditions, and share group ideals and values that mark them as a people. In that way, we belong to our fellow citizens, streaks of gold running along the same vein.

But somewhere along the way, that straight track of homogeneity starts to branch off in multiple directions. These subculture tracks can be due to a lot of common factors — ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, region. In fact, just yesterday, I took a little day trip to the beach, which is what most Californians do when they want to get away, or relax, or think, or seek inspiration, or chase seagulls for a few hours. And afterwards, I ate the most Californian dinner possible — spicy fish tacos. With mangos. Not quite mainstream American culture, but as common here as opioid addiction is in the middle states. (Too much?)

Being immersed in a subculture that is not your own can be a very uncomfortable thing. You can be the most skilled classical ballet dancer in your studio. But when you venture into the world of hip hop dancers, your pointe shoes and pirouettes won’t help you to fit in.

The other day, I locked my comfort zone in the car and boldly entered a place that is like another planet to me. Walmart. Yes, the good-ol’ All-American retail store. I was in search of some inexpensive household items, and that is the store to save money on such things. However, it was with great trepidation that I wandered inside. Before you count me out as a middle-class snob, let me share a little history. Once, years ago, when I was minding my own business in a Walmart, I happened to catch a fellow shopper glaring at me. I mean, throwing sharp daggers with her eyes. I was taken aback. Clearly, I had committed some unknown faux-pas while strolling behind my shopping cart. I gave the woman an uncomfortable half-smile, then quickly got out of there.

Now, if that had been an isolated incident, I could have tolerated it just fine. A misinterpretation. Or maybe she was having a bad day. Who knows? But a few months later, the same thing occurred. A couple of women in a different Walmart gave me the stink eye. I was mystified. Was I pushing my cart too fast or slow? Had I inadvertently snagged the last box of Cheerios before they could get it? Were they somehow offended by my mom jeans and plain t-shirt? Clearly, there must be some rules or customs, some unspoken alien language shared among the Walmartian people which I don’t know. I felt like Elle Woods, dressed as a Playboy bunny at a conservative non-costume party. Or maybe it was the other way around.

So now, whenever I must mingle among the Walmartians, I am very, very careful. I make no eye contact. If an aisle is crowded, I go around the long way. I make my purchase quickly and get out of there. Now maybe that isn’t quite the right way to handle it. Maybe the best way to understand a subculture group is to spend some time among them. Study their ways. Learn their rules. Maybe I could learn the correct expression to wear on my face to ward off the stink-eye of the Walmartian women. Maybe I could invite a Walmartian into my Targetian world as a cultural exchange. We could browse the latest in home decor and kitchen accessories while sipping pumpkin spice chai lattes from the Target Starbucks.

Or maybe the answer doesn’t neccessarily lie in either immersing oneself in the subcultures of others, or by expecting others to adapt to our own. Maybe the thing that merges the tracks is to focus on our similarities. When we all show up at the same 4th of July picnic together, no one is thinking about whether you’re wearing Walmart jeans or a Target sundress. We just show up, and eat watermelon and ice cream. We come from different regions. We may have different accents, or different religious customs, or different cultural expectations for behavior. But if someone calls out, “MARCO!” We’re all going to answer back in the same voice.

POLO!