A Scene from my Childhood

Often I ask my clients to write down some of their first memories.  Here is one of mine, as told to the audience at Nettie Reynolds Presents ‘These are the things we forgot to mention.‘ @ the North Door, Austin, TX on Feb 23rd 2016.

In 1977, the number one selling x-mas present for girls was Malibu Barbie.  In her very over-played commercial, Barbie had a tan, was dressed in white one piece bathing suit and came with a beach towel, and sunglasses.  In the commercial, Malibu Barbie had a car and not just any car; it was a dune buggy.  I must say that – until that year – I was not a child who played with dolls. But that commercial worked its magic on me.  And that Christmas, all I wrote down on my list for Santa…was…

Malibu Barbie With Dune Buggy!!!

Nothing else- I knew better than to ask for any of the record albums I wanted seeing as how my mother had recently called David Bowie a ‘freak’ and  Fleetwood Mac ‘devil worshipers.’  I knew enough by the age seven and had already figured out that the best music was not what she was listening to on her station.  I would beg her to let me listen to the rock station and sometimes she would but when David Bowie’s unique voice came over the dial “I, I will be king…”  she would quickly punch in the button to go back to her station and his magical lyrics would morph into the insipid sounds “Surfing safari”.  But when Dad was driving he would belt out David Bowie’s genius lyrics with me, because – for Dad – anything related to a hero was all right.

My mother was incredulous about my xmas list. “Are you sure? You don’t’ want new roller skates or Princess Lei figure? Linda Ronstadt’s new album? Just a Barbie?

‘With the Dune Buggy -MOM, the dune buggy, and Malibu Barbie.  That is it.  That is all I need.’

And need them I did. Because I had a dream.  A dream that one day I was going to have my own dune buggy.  I would take it to the beach, and I would race it and jump over the enormous dunes.  I would grow out my hair to be long and flow in the wind, and I would win all the races in my well-tuned, perfectly driven dune buggy.  In order to put into practice -this making true of my dream, I needed the Malibu Barbie and her dune buggy.

Christmas morning arrived, and my brother and I waited at the top of the stairs until dad gave us the all clear.  My mother had decided to put the tree in the sitting room that year, a room the family never used and the children WERE NOT allowed to go into.  But since she was hosting x-mas lunch for her enormous family that year, she wanted everything to look perfect.  My brother’s space under the tree was full – probably because he asked for every Star Wars figurine and all their various accouterments. My space contained only two unwrapped presents….Malibu Barbie all tanned with flawless skin and her gorgeous flowing locks.  Next to her was the dune buggy – named -‘sun in the fun buggy’….it needed to be assembled. I ripped it from its packaging and skimmed over the directions.  I managed to fit on the black steering wheel, and it did turn.  The gear shift seemed a bit far away from the driver, but I was sure Malibu Barbie could do it.  I took her out of her packaging and managed to bend her enough at the waist to wedge her into the car.  But something was wrong.  It was the Barbie herself.  Her hands were not the kind of hands that could grip anything – you know Barbie hands – cemented in a c-like cup formation, not able to hold on the steering wheel and down shift at all.  How was she going to drive this dune buggy? The other problem was her arms; they were pathetic- small pieces of hard brown plastic spaghetti.  There was no way she was going to win any race, let alone a race over mountainous sand dunes without some muscle.  Downshifting -when on a slope -required strength – her arms were nowhere near the challenge. This was disappointing…and required some thought on my part. The whole point of having this doll was to act out my fantasy.  Of winning a race that was normally only won by men.  I needed to have a representation of womanhood that was a strong and confident with grippy god damn hands.  I was not to be defeated; I just needed to re-group.  I looked over to my wrapped presents and saw one with the distinct shape of a record.  It was from my father’s blind pot smoking older brother that lived with us on and off.  He was one of my favorite adults, and I loved his presents for many reasons but mainly because they always pissed my mom off.  I opened this one quickly.  David Bowie was beautiful.  His one green eye and one blue stared out robot-like, he looked nothing like I thought he would- but it was not a disappointment.  Barbie was a disappointment, and I needed a miracle.

I looked over to my brother’s stash and saw my answer.  Discarded, and still in its packaging was a figurine of a soldier.  An action man..GI JOE.  Made to hold his US Army issued AK47 – HIS HANDS WERE GRIPPY – they were exactly what I needed. While my brother was engrossed in his new Star Wars action figurines, I snuck GI Joe over to my side and opened him up.  I removed his green army jacket, and there they were- Muscles. Big Soldier muscles. His arms were the perfect arms to drive my dune buggy and win the race. Carefully, I turned my back on x-mas morning and performed figurine surgery.  Even though GI Joe was a Hasbro issued toy and Barbie was a Mattel, the harvesting and replacement of the arms of each went well. With a little elbow grease on my part, GI JOE’s arms fit perfectly onto the bronzed torso of Malibu Barbie.  His grippy hands, now belonging to my Barbie, could grab that dune buggy’s steering wheel – no problem. Her new arms could handle the downshift, and I saw a win in my future.   While I was dreaming of dune buggy finish lines with my new and improved muscle-bound Barbie, My brother lost interest in his Millennium Falcon and turned his attention to over to his GI Joe…but …..to his horror …..GI Joe was now an Amputee.  Shrieking, piercing wails emerged from my brother’s small four year old body.  My mother came rushing from the kitchen, and Dad stood up from his doughnuts and coffee – my brother was now holding up his mutilated GI Joe and sobbing …. ‘my soldier, my soldier.’

The color drained from my mother’s face.  I looked to my dad.  I pleaded with him – he of all people would understand that Barbie wasn’t going to cut it.  No way, not with those arms.  But Dad just pointed to the door and nodded for me to go upstairs.  I tried to slip away…but my brother’s rage at his dismembered figurine knew no bounds.  He lunged for me as I tried to get up and we toppled over one another, red and green pajamas, blonde hair and fists – a tumbleweed of Christmas chaos. The tree, which my mother had worked so diligently to decorate, came down with a crash.  Decorations and bulbs burst as it fell to the floor.  Glass and metallic icicles were all over my mother’s perfectly presented sitting room.  My father reached in and grabbed my young Tasmanian-like brother off of me.  I stood up quickly, covered in bits of the ornaments and pine needles. A quiet descended over the room ….My mother was seething.  My father looked as if he wanted to throw my brother out the window and then drop kick me right behind him.

Dad put my brother down by my mother’s feet and pointed again to the door.  But the anger in his face melted when he saw me clutching my new and improved Malibu Barbie to my chest.  He started to smile.  Dad could see the truth. Barbie was much better off with stronger arms and a better grip.

But he made his angry face before my mother could notice our moment of understanding, and then he growled at me…“Upstairs, now -young lady!” He turned away from me …back to my mother to console her and start the massive clean-up of the now destroyed sitting room. I grabbed my Dune Buggy, stuffed Barbie in the driver’s seat, took my David Bowie record and went upstairs.

In my bedroom, I set up the dream scenario with David Bowie’s album spinning on my record player –  Malibu Barbie wedged into the dune buggy, her man- hands gripping the wheel, I made some dunes out of crumpled bed sheets, and the beach front was my window sill.  I practiced jumping from one sanddune to another….just like the racers I had seen on TV, Malibu Barbie could down-shift just fine now and still keep the car under control.  If I moved the car just fast enough her long blonde hair flowed in the pretend wind.  And coming from my record player I heard that song, the one where I could be a hero, if just for one day.

Helping Craft the Story

I read a lot of memoirs.  It’s a habit formed from my teenage years wanting to read everything I could about my obsessions- Adam Ant, The Stray Cats, The Smiths, The Pretenders and Siouxsie and the Banshees. I wanted all of my crushes to write down their life story then I could devour it and know everything about them.  Stalker-esque? Yes, I know, but I was thirteen. I have calmed down these days, now preferring to read about the lives of ordinary people whose struggles teach me something or strike a chord.  But, there are times when I do want to know about someone famous, someone I have identified with through their art, music, or creative work. I try and steer away from the biographies that are pulp for the masses and seek out those famous voices that write with literary genius. I can say, unequivocally, that Dear Mr. You, by Mary Louise Parker, was one that hit home. Written as a series of letters to the men in her life who shaped and molded, directly and indirectly, some of those men were completely on the fringes of her life. A love letter to an Indian boy who noticed her saw her in a way no one had. Rather than chose the obvious choice of lamenting her father’s illness, she chose to write to the young teenager, whose feet she only saw. in the bed next to her beloved father. The whole of the book is like this, an epistolary to the others, but written for the shapers of her life. It sounds like a gimmick, but it isn’t, at all. Instead, it provides a level intimacy, established immediately with the reader.  It’s something I try and get my clients to do, establish intimacy with the reader, get them to care, to hold your hand when you need, to root for you when you are down.  Ms. Parker does this seamlessly.

Another example of celebrity memoir that shines the light on just how creative one can be with their story is the book  M Train, by Patti Smith.  It is sublime. Much different from her first memoir, Just Kids, about her experiences meeting and knowing the mercurial Robert Mapplethorpe. M Train reads like a dream, something from another dimension.  It is fragmented but connected with strange almost imperceptible elliptical connections. Sad and poignant, the author has lost her loves – her husband, and Mapplethorpe – and she walks through New York City noticing, remembering, projecting and wishing. We as the reader are walking with her, experiencing French Guinea, sitting under ceiling fans, drinking coffee. It is the book to read to see how creative you can be as you tell your tale. And it’s written by Patti Smith, whose voice is as timbre-pitched on the page as it on the stage.

As someone who works with clients to help them craft their story into something not just readable, but entertaining, I am in awe of Ms. Smith’s talent.  I found myself copying down passages, to figure out how she was doing what she was doing.  (I am still drafting and figuring it all out).  She hides in coffee shops and writes scenes that leave the reader breathless and lost, but wanting so much more from her. Her writing moves through time and space without losing the reader, without losing the narrative and without losing the genius.  It is a book I will read over and over again.  Hoping to absorb her genius.

When I work with a client, I always want them to take risks with their story.  I want them to delve into spaces of their life that are waiting to be found again. Reading a book like M Train or Dear Mr. You inspired me to keep testing the waters with memoir, so I can help my clients tell their story with creative courage.

Why Our Stories Should be Told.

“When a story is told it is not forgotten, but becomes something else, a memory of who we were, the hope of what we can become.” – from the movie “Sarah’s Key”

My whole life, I have listened to people tell me stories.  To me, there is nothing stranger or more compelling than the truth of someone’s life.  Each life has a unique ‘something’ to it.  Something which breathes into nourishes it and defines it.  The first breath always starts in the past.  Like the above quote, the story itself has a life and can give life to others.

My grandfather died when I was in my early 20’s.  I think, in a way, he knew he was going to die.  The year before he passed, I was visiting him in Waco, Texas and he put me to work helping arrange all the family photos into large photo books.  He was not a man who would have thought to write down his history.  He would have considered it egotistic, I am sure.  But on that day, I know he told me some stories.  I was so young and absorbed with my silly life that I can’t remember anything we talked about.  All I recall from that day at his dining room table, are his hands.  I remember them so distinctly.  I wish those hands had written something down.  A memoir of his life and the life of his family.  There were so many stories about him, but nothing I heard came from him.  I know his life was layered with the many lives  Now, I am a writer, and I so wish he was alive so he could tell me his story.  I want to tell it to my daughter. To give her hope of what she can become.

Our stories are important; they are for those who we leave behind.  Only as a reminder of who we were and who we wanted to be.  They need to be told, if not to release the past from our selves but also so that we can let them be guides for others if they find themselves on the same path.