On aging

Joy BianchiA writing client of mine posted a photo on Instagram this afternoon, and as it often does, a comment caused a spring in my brain to fly loose.

“Go shopping with the perennially bespectacled Joy Bianchi, a grand dame of the San Francisco philanthropy scene and one of the world’s premier couture collectors,” the caption reads. The photograph focuses on an elegant woman resplendent in deep red lipstick and a zebra-striped dress with a black sash, her dark grey hair pulled back with a bit of lift on top, her eyes covered with outsized black glasses. A huge cocktail ring hangs from her right hand as she gazes into the camera with comfort. She’s got the kind of panache that might make Diana Vreeland smile if she were still around — the sort of look that probably elicits comparisons to Iris Apfel from people who know who that is.

“So cute,” typed a commenter.

So cute.

I decided to take a moment to look up Joy Bianchi’s biography, or at least a quick swath of it. I found some interesting notes:

“The spirited woman about town has dedicated the past 62 years to supporting the Bay Area’s developmentally disabled residents with developmental disabilities -ed. through fashion.” –WhereTraveler

“In Catholic grade school, she was taught about St. Vincent de Paul and charity as his predominant virtue. ‘I got hooked on him,’ she said. What followed were decades of service to developmentally disabled people with developmental disabilities -ed.” –SFGate

“Her humanitarian spirit blossomed at Convent of the Sacred Heart in Pacific Heights. At the mere age of 14, she began working with developmentally disabled children with developmental disabilities -ed., then called mentally retarded, through Helpers of the Holy Innocence. Once a week she accompanied the nuns to visit the poor on Pixley Street, where she saw rats in the basements of homes. After graduating from San Francisco College for Women, she worked in the social work department at the University of California Medical Center but stayed involved with Helpers of the Holy Innocence. When the organization needed a new Director, Venturini Bianchi was hired. That was 1962. A year later, she opened Helpers’ first home at 2626 Fulton Street.

It was there that six developmentally disabled women women with developmental disabilities -ed. received another chance. The first female to move in had lost both of her parents, arrived from a foster home, had been physically molested, mentally abused and put in the juvenile court system. ‘She was the person who spurred this home to become this wonderful place,’ Venturini Bianchi said.

Eventually there would be three Helpers homes that simultaneously took care of 18 men and women daily. Venturini Bianchi didn’t just provide a bed and meals. The residents were afforded the same life she enjoyed.

Interior decorator Eleanor Ford and antiquarian Bernard Stout outfitted the bedrooms using the favorite colors of the residents, some of who lived at the home until their 60s and 70s. Only fresh produce was served and the residents reviewed the book Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers before going out to dinner. Wilkes Bashford dressed the men in his shirts and cashmere sweaters. The women wore clothes from I. Magnin. Nothing was too good for Helpers’ residents, who frequented museums, went to the opera and symphony, ran errands to FedEx, learned to read and write and became known in the community.” –Haute Living

We can save the lecture on using person-first language with regard to developmental disabilities for another day; for now, those edits will have to do. Today, my f-stop is set to highlight something that’s bothered me for years: the way we treat our elders as if they’re less than they are. As if they aren’t entire human beings with textured lives and stories to tell.

About the word cute

“Cute” is puppies. “Cute” is babies. “Cute” is the first scarf you ever tried to knit, the drawing a child made, the moment two people on a first date acknowledge how awkward the whole thing is. Outside of the costume of sarcasm, I think most people who call other people “cute” are attempting to pay a compliment. We mean well; we just don’t know what to say on the fly, and we’re hypocrites about the things that scare us. “She’s so cute,” we say of women who were old enough to have an informed opinion on Roe v. Wade as it was actually happening, because it’s nicer than saying “I’m terrified of getting older and this woman reminds me that I’m going to.” “He’s so cute,” we say of men who were old enough to fight in Vietnam, Korea or either world war, because winking and smiling is easier than staring the passage of time in the face and acknowledging it fully. “They’re so cute,” we say of people who’ve survived in this place for the better part of a century, reducing them to innocents on par with infants and fuzzy little yellow chicks emerging from their eggs.

But they’re not innocents. They’re not children. They’re adults.

Most had babies of their own long ago, and lots of those babies have had babies since. Many forged careers, built things, lived through hardship, got sick, broke through boundaries, fought for what they believed in, took care of other people, and tried to take care of themselves. Plenty still do. They’re good, they’re bad. They’re strong, they’re weak. They’re flawed, they’re sentient — they’re people. They’re survivors of the same things the younger among us face every day, and probably far more than that. They see us for who we are and who we might someday be, and while we pat them on the head like toddlers, some might be thinking, “Please. I could eat you for breakfast.” And you know what? They probably should.

In fact, they’re not “they.” They’re “we.” We’re all “we.”

I don’t know Joy Bianchi, nor had I ever heard of her before today. But I do know one thing, and I’ll say it three ways:

She is fierce.

She is a fox.

She is anything but cute.

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Later, gators

ROLLLLLLLLL... BOUNCEHeyyyyyyy.

It’s been a while, huh?

Sorry about that.

So, this blog was born around the time I took the leap into full-time freelance writing. I knew I’d be working my butt off to make ends meet, and I knew a lot of the stuff I’d be putting together for clients wouldn’t exactly be poetic or heartfelt or deep; a lot of it would be designed to sell product, generate traffic, and any number of other un-sexy, un-writerly things designed to, at the very least, pay my rent. So, I made a promise to myself to write something creative just once a week and publish it here. Today, looking back over the last three years’ worth of blog posts, I have to say:

No. No no no no nononononononono.

Uggggghhhhhhhh. [dives under blanket] [peeks]

Nope. Still no.  

Now, it’s not as if I’ve become some kind of Important Writer — far from it — and I’m not even sure how much I’ve grown in the past three years. But a lot’s changed since I started writing for a living without the safety net of a PR job neatly depositing a check in my account every two weeks. I’ve still got growing up to do and a lot of crap to learn, but I’ve picked up some valuable things so far, including a keen sense of what my weaknesses are as a wordsmith (and a sole proprietor, and a person). Lots of them are on full display here on this blog, and even in this post, where there isn’t an editor to correct me or a vast audience to call me out on my crap. There’s a bit too much myopic self-indulgence here, I think, and it’s kind of mortifying to come back and read it now with the benefit (if you can call it that) of hindsight.

This has always been an open journal for me to ramble on about whatever’s on my mind, and yet I haven’t had the nerve to cover the heavier stuff I’ve dealt with since I started it:

I’ve gained firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to suffer from panic attacks — sure, I’ve dealt with them in pockets before, in the weeks after a loved one died and in the first month of living in a new city, but before 2011, never at random and without warning. (Hot damn, they’re awful.)

I’ve sat in the waiting room of a cardiac wing while my dad had open heart surgery, and every day that week as I drove my aunt home from the hospital, I tried and failed to ignore the fact that we had to pass the cemetery where my mom rests.

I’ve all but come to a conclusion about whether or not I want to be a mother myself.

I’ve stood by, mostly helpless, as my friends have dealt with immeasurable pain under unthinkable circumstances.

These are all big things, but I’ve barely whispered them here. In so many of these posts, I’ve been too busy posturing and being self-conscious and writing silly sentences for the sake of filling pixels on a screen. Too consumed with being cute to write much of anything real.

It’s time for that to end, I think.

Lately, I’ve had the opportunity to write some things I’ll hopefully look back on in a few years and still be able to read with pride. I’m coming to terms with an inconvenient fact about doing this for a living: I’ll never be 100 percent happy with anything I’ve finished. I’ll always go back over old work and find ways to improve upon it. But I’m also learning that it’s kind of okay — it’s something we all do. It’s what keeps us honest; it’s what helps us learn and evolve. I feel fortunate to be in a position where I can a) hand over a stack of writing I’m stoked about when someone asks for a sampling, and b) actually give sound advice to people who are just starting out. I’ve had three talented writers come to me in the past month alone, asking for pointers on leaving their old jobs behind and launching into the world of working for themselves. It’s been a kick and an honor to have those talks. It reminds me how terrified I was in the beginning, and how lucky I am to have this life… not to mention how hard I’d better keep working, because there’s always someone more than happy to take my place.

So, as I turn the corner into year number four once the holiday season’s in full swing (yep, back when I quit my last job to work for myself, I absolutely did it between Thanksgiving and the end of that year, because idiocy), it’s time to pack it in and keep my ramblings private until they’re ready to be poured into something fully formed. Those things might be essays or articles, some long and some short, but they probably won’t be blog posts, and they probably won’t live here.

Future entries on this site will be infrequent, but when I do post them, they’ll likely focus on things I’ve learned as a freelancer (or a human being), written in the hopes that someone else can benefit from them. I’ll also share the things I’ve published that I think you might enjoy. For starters, in case you’re interested, here’s a small taste of things I’ve written in the past year that make me smile just thinking about the process of putting them together.

Built, Not Born – I’ve long been fascinated by the Texas Roller Derby — especially the rebel faction of it known as TXRD, the banked track league — and I’ve long assumed that the stories of the women within it were riveting. For Citygram Austin’s Reflect Issue, I thought I’d dive into the sport and meet some of its players to see if my assumptions were true. Turns out, they were. The ones about the women being badasses, anyway.

Be Here Now: The Wild Night Sky (Field Notes from Magical Marfa) – Also for Citygram, but this time for the Escape Issue, I put together a travel narrative from my first trip to the beautiful, quiet, otherworldly town of Marfa, Texas. If you ever want to leave your life behind for a minute and pretend you’re Stevie Nicks, then get in a car, drive to West Texas and book yourself a tent at El Cosmico. But if you litter, insult a local or otherwise act a fool, I’ll rip your face clean off.

Through Her Lens: Esther Havens – I was asked late last year to write a few pieces for Alternative Apparel’s blog, Common Thread. Although they only ran one, it happened to be my favorite: a quick profile on Esther Havens, a Dallas-based humanitarian photographer who’s worked for everyone from National Geographic and charity: water to Warby Parker and TOMS. She’s lovely and kind and exactly the sort of person you’d hope to find behind such pictures. I hope she inspires a generation of creative people to stop with the selfies, once and for all, and do something more with their lenses.

Let’s All Go to Summer Camp with Amy Poehler – My favorite day of freelancing thus far was the one in which I got to spend a couple of hours at Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls Summer Camp. Specifically, I attended the campers’ final showcase, and it honestly gave me hope for the future. I wasn’t thrilled with the way the piece came out in Refinery29, but that’s my picky, selfish ego left unchecked; for a true sense of how fantastic this organization is, just follow their Facebook page (and forward it to a young girl while you’re at it). You won’t regret it, and you’ll probably start looking forward to their posts every day. They’re a bright spot, those folks, and a much-needed one at that.

So, it’s time for another hiatus from this little corner of the web, save for an occasional pop-in when I have good enough reason to share something.

Thank you for reading this. I’ll contribute more when I have something worthwhile to say. In the meantime, no more endless babbling. I’m going to try to be a better writer — and person — today than I was yesterday.

a.

[image via Skate Talk]

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Cover to cover

image: Pamela Fugate Designs

When I was little, I wasn’t really much of a troublemaker. In fact, I was as straitlaced as a kid could be: reading was my addiction, and it was the only thing that regularly got me in trouble. I didn’t backtalk, I didn’t beg for attention — I just stayed up late almost every night, reading into the wee hours of the morning, or as long as I could get away with it before my mom would catch me. And book reports? Girl, I could bust a move on a book report. Believe it.

In college, though, I hit my limit. The summer of my first big breakup, I began the tradition that would carry me through every rough patch thereafter: I threw myself into work to get through each day. I took four accelerated summer courses all at once — those two-and-a-half-hours-a-day, four-days-a-week kinds of classes, and all of them together were supposed to satisfy my major’s literature requirement. I’ll just lose myself in the worlds of all these books, I thought, and then I realized what I’d done: I’d signed up to spend half the summer reading four books at once, one stack after another, week after week.

FOUR BOOKS AT ONCE. Have you ever tried that?

If not, don’t. If so, you’re crazy. CRAZY.

It took a few years after that for me to pick up a book again for the sake of pure pleasure. In fact, it may have taken about ten. Somewhere in my twenties I decided I was just too busy to read (Too busy doing what, exactly? Watching VH-1?), but now that I write for a living, I’ve rediscovered my addiction and fallen completely off the wagon. Stephen King’s been quoted as saying, “I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they ‘don’t have time to read.’ This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.”

So, I’ve been stocking up on rope and pitons lately. It hasn’t been the most well-read year of my life, but I’ve torn through some satisfying stuff. I don’t usually squawk a lot about what book my nose is buried in, but I think I’ll do that today. Here’s a rundown of the pages I let myself get lost in this year, plus a few I’m about to dive into… because isn’t that feeling of connection half the fun of reading, anyway?


Girl Land by Caitlin FlanaganGirl Land by Caitlin Flanagan — It’s been an interesting year in Texas politics, and our national — no, make that global — conversation (or is it more of a screaming match?) about gender equality is far from over. Girl Land, a brief but writerly glimpse into the world of being something/someone between a girl and a woman — you know, that space Judy Blume always captured so well — tackles the topic without making me cringe, which is kind of a tough thing to do. The complexities of being female in what’s long been a man’s world are deeply personal, and it’s easy to get defensive when we’re presented with viewpoints that differ from our own, but look: the author has been on staff at The Atlantic, The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, and it shows. It’s worth a quick glimpse to remind ourselves of that part of our lives when we first started figuring out who we were and why. Those things, I think, are worth talking about with intelligence.


Paris by Janelle McCullochParis: An Inspiring Tour of the City’s Creative Heart by Janelle McCulloch — I went to Europe for the first (and absolutely not last) time in my life this year, visiting London, Paris and Barcelona over the span of a week and a half. I could have spent the entire time in just one of those cities and been happy as a lark, but even in the short time I spent in the City of Light, this achingly gorgeous book helped me get a feel for the arrondissements (that’s fancytalk for “districts”) and find some tucked-away places I would never have known about otherwise. Lush and detailed, this whimsically-written guidebook is a love letter to the city itself.



The Great Gatsby by F Scott FitzgeraldThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — F*ck Baz Luhrmann. Seriously, f*ck him and however you spell his stupid name. (Oh, sorry… didn’t realize I had so much rage pent up still). See, I’ve loved The Great Gatsby since I first read it in school, and last spring, I was looking forward to a fresh cinematic take that got it right. So much for those great expectations teetering precariously on the director’s decades-old Romeo + Juliet cred. Regardless, I’ll always love the narrative voice in this Great American Novel, and I’ll always find Daisy detestable, but that last part’s okay — I’m not alone. Such a quick read packed with so much social commentary. It’ll never get old, no matter how many more auteurs try to butcher it.



On the Road by Jack KerouacOn the Road by Jack Kerouac — I have an admission. Try as I might, I never finished this book. I know it’s a (mid-century) modern classic. I know it’s got that beautiful line about the mad ones and the yellow roman candles, and I know it’s got a lot of other beautiful lines, too, but there’s just so much mania between them all. That’s not to say I’m not up to the challenge, or that I have to be spoon-fed, but let’s be real: reading this guy’s prose is like riding in a car with no brakes. He typed it up on a scroll — a scroll, mind you — because changing the pages in his typewriter supposedly damaged his flow, for god’s sake. Still, I won’t be bested by this beatnik. I’ve picked the damn thing up twice and given it the old college try. I’m hoping the third time’s exactly as charmed as all those rumors swirling around it suggest.


Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me by Mindy KalingIs Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling — With chapter titles like “I Forget Nothing: A Sensitive Kid Looks Back,” The Office (which I love) writer-plus-cast-member and Mindy Project (which I can’t get into) star nails countless perfect witticisms of a hard-working girl who’s sometimes prone to abject laziness, narcissism and materialism but who always comes through in the end. Her rant about the fact that John Cougar (Mellencamp?)’s ode to the unburdened liberty of youth, “Jack and Diane,” is patently awful and ought to be changed to “Nguyen and Ari, a little ditty about a hardworking Vietnamese girl who helps her parents with the franchised Holiday Inn they run, and does homework in the lobby, and Ari, a hardworking Jewish boy who does volunteer work at his grandmother’s old-age home, and they meet after school at Princeton Review” is… well, c’mon. You laughed, right? Me, too.


The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan EvisonThe Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison — Whoa dang. I made the mistake of reading the first half of this novel on a plane. Oh, the crying. Actually, to be honest, some of the crying came from the author’s note at the end of the book, which I skipped to during a key scene because something struck me as familiar. Turns out, Evison wrote the tragicomic book in an almost involuntary attempt to deal with the loss of his sister, which makes complete sense given his adeptness at toeing the weird tightrope grief puts us on, balancing gallows humor in one hand and real, profound sadness and rage in the other. I found myself letting go of some of my own baggage while reading this work, and I’m sure lots of other readers did as well, so here’s hoping the crass but elegant writer behind this book was able to move forward a little bit, too, while he was putting its pages together.


Farther Away by Jonathan FranzenFarther Away by Jonathan Franzen — So, apparently I had a July full of Jonathans. Two of them, anyway… one full of heart, and the other, not so much. I chose this book by chance from a shelf at Powell’s Books in Portland last summer after perusing the Essays section and haphazardly landing on a page dealing with the ethics of writing about family members, loved ones and other people who are in a position to get super pissed off about what’s been committed in ink about them. It sat on my nightstand and in a carry-on bag or two for the better part of a year, and then I finally dove in. Increasingly agitated as I trudged through his collection of essays, eulogies and commencement addresses, I finally declared, “I hate this guy.” and abandoned the book about two-thirds of the way through. A few weeks later, a link to the article “A Handy Guide to Why Jonathan Franzen Pisses You Off” popped up in my twitter feed, and I felt vindicated. I didn’t even know being pissed off by Jonathan Franzen was a thing until I’d been there myself and then realized it’s a universal thing, like loving bacon or cheese or Bill Murray.


Wild by Cheryl StrayedWild by Cheryl Strayed — Oh man. This one. This one stabbed me on page 38. Stabbed me in the ribs and kept me bleeding until the end. It’s easy to get lost in Wild and think you’re reading a work of fiction because the willpower, discipline and grit displayed by the protagonist is practically otherworldly, and yet at the same time, it’s impossible not to empathize with her. I’ve read quite a bit about how the boys’ club that is the literary establishment didn’t seem to want to let Cheryl Strayed in when this book sold like hotcakes last year. Personally, I think they’re intimidated… that’s why they tried to relegate her to the ill-fitting (for her) and utterly irrelevant chick lit section, even though she was caked in mud after hiking 1,000+ miles of the Pacific Coast Trail alone. Chick lit, my ass. This woman’s the truth. If I meet her someday, the Snapple’s on me.


Sister Mother Husband Dog by Delia EphronSister Mother Husband Dog (etc.) by Delia Ephron — Full disclosure: I read this book as research for a Q&A I got to do with the author for a Citygram feature. Good thing I fancy myself a writer but not a journalist, since the tiniest anecdote about taking BBQ onto a plane can apparently win my affection in less than a third of a second. Anyway, this memoir by an acclaimed screenwriter, playwright and essayist (and incidentally, Nora Ephron’s sister) hit home for me in a number of ways: it deals with the subject of profound loss, it finds beauty in the tiniest of things, and it exposes the inner workings of a worrier who writes for a living. Check, check and check. Delia: you had me at “Sister.”


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What have you been reading? What’s up next on your nightstand? On deck for the holidays, I’ve got The Fault in Our Stars, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky and Brave New World (nope, I’ve never read it, nor its 1958 follow-up, but that’s about to change) and a whole bunch of essays. It’s so nice to delve into parallel worlds for a while to help us learn a little something about our own. Here’s hoping next year I’ll have a whole new mess of worlds to talk about with you. Maybe even one of mine.

a.

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