Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Flash Floods and Fires and Freaks, Oh My!

Photo Credit: Brandon Muncy at

Sometimes I get the feeling that I am not in Kansas anymore.

I was raised in the suburbs where semi-identical houses line up row by row. Everyone had a two-car garage, a little patch of lawn to mow and a small backyard area big enough for a pool and maybe a dog or two. My parent's house in Bakersfield was in a nice little cul-de-sac conveniently located near a good high school. Other children in the neighborhood were close to our age and many of our neighbors took their street very seriously.

On the Fourth of July, neighbors would buy firework packs and everyone would sit together to watch while the teenage boys and adult men lit them. Spectacular Christmas light displays appeared the day after Thanksgiving and disappeared by New Years Day, like clockwork. On Friday nights in the summer, one of our neighbors would light a firepit in their front yard and the adults would bring out their lawn chairs and sit and talk while the children played hide-and-go-seek around the neighborhood. Other than the occasional wind storm, gopher-sighting, or overgrowth of a mint plant, we were fairly insulated from the dangers of nature.

And then I got married and moved to the country where nature seems to constantly try and destroy people. To get from Bakersfield to Lake Isabella, you have to drive 40 miles up a windy canyon road where accidents happen at least once a week. Sometimes people drive over the edge. Sometimes rocks or cows fall on their cars. Seriously.

The canyon takes you past the glorious Kern River, which, as a giant sign advertises, has killed over 240 people in the past 40 years. Do the math, people, that's like six people a year! Yet every Labor Day and 4th of July, people from Los Angeles drive up to the river with their families, drink beer, go swimming, and get swept away and killed. The signs are written in English and Spanish, but people ignore them.

On our street, most families own plots of 5 to 15 acres. We can see their houses, but they are pretty far away. There are benefits to having a lot of land. We have orchards, terraced gardens, an above-ground pool, dogs and cats, and room to expand. But every year, after the spring rains, the weeds begin growing and they grow like crazy. We mow them, weed-whack them, hula-ho them, cut them out with shovels, and pull them out by hand. Doing this once for 15 acres is difficult, but not impossible. Once would not be too bad...but a frustrating thing happens once we get them cut...they grow back. So a few months later, we have to do the whole thing again. It might be so frustrating that we give up, except that we have a very powerful motivation to keep the grounds clear: Summer Fires.

Every year in our area, there are brush fires. Usually, the fire department deals with these so well that they never come near people's homes. Up here, the firemen are revered and loved like heroes of old. The survival of our town depends entirely on these brave young warriors and if we forget from year to year how important they are to us, we quickly remember again when walls of flames come too near our homes. However, despite the efforts of our brave warriors, sometimes the fire gets out of their hands and destroys people's homes, especially if they haven't kept their weeds under control.

Having your house burn down is not the only danger of the fires. Sometimes fire season coincides with the summer rain season. A few years ago, we had a fire a few miles up in the hill country past our home. It had burned for weeks and just as the firefighters were finally winning the battle, we had this heavy summer rain. It only lasted about an hour one afternoon, but it was enough. When it hit all that burned land with no plants to stop the erosion, it started a flash flood. Helicopters swirled overhead, screaming warnings at us about the giant wall of water coming down the creek across the street from us.

I've always been a little envious of the people with the creek in their backyard. It's cooler in the summer and they can grow plants more easily than we can being on the hillside, and of course, they have a creek running through their backyard. But that summer, I stopped feeling envious of those people, when the flash flood tore trees down, the creek rose fifteen feet above its usual course, and people's backyards and buildings were swept away. We watched it all safely from the hillside.

There are many different reasons why people live up here in this rural community. A lot of people retire up here and purchase a small plot with a view of the lake. These people are fairly normal. Other people are business owners who like living in a small town. They are also relatively normal. However, other people are like us. We are bordering on freaky. We want to be independent. The land is cheap up here and most people can afford about 15 acres of land on this rocky, weed-filled, unpleasant terrain. We don't worry about the government collapsing or the apocalypse because we have our own water supply, have the capability of growing most of our own food, and we have many many shotguns and rifles.

Some people live up here so they can permanently subsist on welfare. I am not talking about unwed mothers who just need a helping hand for a little while while they care for their children, or families who would normally be employed, but have lost their jobs because of the economy and who need cash aid to survive. They are fairly normal, sort of sad, and will one day no longer require welfare. I don't bedgrudge the help to them because any one of us could be in that position at some point in our lives.

No, I am talking about people who make welfare their entire livelihood for their entire lives. Some of them are pretty freaky. They live in trailer parks, don't wear shirts in the summer, and are often addicted to all kinds of unattractive vices, like chain-smoking, beer-drinking, and other less-than-legal substances. It's amazing how many people up here have pain-management problems who require a constant supply of medicinal marijuana. Or medicinal crystal-meth.

Lake Isabella is kind of a strange place to live, what with nature trying to kill us and all the freaks who live up here. But on the days when the sky is not filled with firesmoke, you can stand on your own property and breathe clean air. There are no cookie-cutter houses up here. I sometimes drive through the suburbs when I visit my parents and I pity the people who live in those little houses. I wonder how they can stand being so close together with no stream nearby or no rocks to climb and no room for a garden. If bears or snakes or freaky neighbors come on my property, I know where the guns are and I know enough to protect myself. It may be wild and scary and barely tamed, but this is my home now and I like it that way.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Unintentional Admission

"Schools are going to be all run by computers now. It won't be long before everything is on that internet. What will you do instead of teaching?"

My mother-in-law and I were driving to exercise class together. We had been discussing my neice's education in the car when she posed this question to me.

I was a little taken aback. Linda is not affiliated with education in any way. She doesn't even have a computer, so I have no idea where she is getting this idea. I am a high school teacher who knows how to use the internet and I highly doubt the entire education systen will transition into completely virtual teaching any time soon. But there is no arguing with Linda, so I shrug and say, "I'm going to be a stay-at-home mom."

"Oh, you won't want to do that forever, Sandy. You'll have to do something when the kids grow up."

I sigh. Why is she making me think fifteen years in the future? I have enough to think about in this decade to worry about the next. But now I feel guilty for not instantly having a plan for when my hypothetical children grow up and my hypothetical future job disappears to a hypothetical virtual teaching system.

"Well, they'll need someone to run the virtual classes," I attempt. She interrupts,

"You never know, Sandy. There will still be too many teachers left over. Those jobs will be filled."

I wonder desperately what she wants me to say.

"I am going to be a writer." I blurted out the plans I didn't even know I had before I had a chance to keep the words in. A ripple of fear shoots through me. Why did I say that? It's too precious, too tenuous a dream to speak out loud to someone I barely trust.

She has nothing to say for a few seconds. I force myself to breathe and smile faintly, gripping my arm-rest until my knuckles ache.

"Oh," she finally says. "That will be nice."

"Yeah," I say and relax my deathgrip on the arm rest. Suddenly my plan seems legitimate. Of course I'm going to be a writer. How could I have ever thought otherwise?

Monday, July 18, 2011


The following piece is one I have been working on as part of my nonfiction creative writing workshop through the Los Angeles Review.

My white Dodge Shadow was parked at an angle outside the Bakersfield beauty salon. I'd always been a lousy parker. The chipped paint and the black gash on the passenger side made it stand out among the shiny new silver and white cars it shared the lot with.
"Are you clean?" asked Renee, my mother's hairdresser. I stared at him, slightly offended.
"When did you wash your hair last?" he said impatiently when I didn't respond right away.
"Yesterday." I said.
"So it's dirty. We'll have to wash it." With a frown, he led me to the sink and started washing my hair as my twin sister Carolyn waited nearby. She wore jeans and a button up shirt, but her hair was done
already, and Renee had placed her veil perfectly on her head. Her cell phone kept ringing and she looked worried.
"Sandy, it's Meghan again," said Carolyn, " I really don't want to answer it."
"That's fine," I said, "Bring it here."
I answered the phone, "Hi Meghan!"
"Where are you guys?" came a frantic voice coming from the other end of the line.
"We're still at the hairdressers. Renee is working on my hair and we'll be done soon."
I tried to shoot Renee a placating smile, but he wouldn't look at me.
"Okay, but everyone's waiting for you. The photographer will be here any minute. Get over here."
"Okay, Meghan, we'll see you soon."
"Is she really worried about it that much?" Carolyn asked after I hung up.
"She just wants to make sure your day goes smoothly," I answered, and then I lied, "She didn't sound too worried."
After thirty more minutes of enduring Renee's scrutiny, my hair looked amazing and we were ready to go. Carolyn and I piled into my old Dodge Shadow, aka, "The Magnum" and starting driving towards Taft Highway in Bakersfield, where the church is located. We turned onto the fast lane on Oak Street and were just passing the Empty Space Theatre when I noticed that my normally vocal car was more vocal than usual. It was growling and whirring and clunking.
"It's been doing this lately," I encouraged Carolyn. "It'll pass. It'll be okay."
Suddenly I felt the engine shudder and "pop" and I knew that the car was not going to be "okay." I managed to swerve over to the side of the street before the car lost power completely. There we were, stranded. Magnum was dead.
It had been Carolyn's idea to name the car "Magnum," after that silly Ben Stiller movie, "Zoolander." She and I had been freshmen in college when that movie came out. Magnum was really supposed to be "my" car because I had earned a 4.0 in high school, but we both hung our graduation tassles from its rear view mirror and shared the car through four years of college, cramming friends and stuff into the small two-door white hatchback with the red racing stripe and fin on the back. We drove it to christian camps to work for the summer, we drove it home to Bakersfield on weekends, and we drove it all over Riverside, where our college was located. One summer we loaded it up with energy drinks and candy and drove to Beaverton, Oregon and back to visit our friends.
Magnum had his fair share of accidents and breakdowns. A few years before I had gotten too close to a guard rail on a cliff and Magnum was forever marked with a long black gash on the side. Carolyn once ran into a trash can. We had both been involved in numerous fender benders, and then of course, there was that time that I accidentally set the car on fire. And that other time that I got a speeding ticket for going over one-hundred miles per hour in a sixty-five zone. The air conditioner hadn't worked in years and the fabric on the roof inside the car had long since sagged down and bore scratches from mine and Carolyn's attempts to force luggage and furniture inside that didn't exactly fit. Magnum had been our companion through our laughter, conversations, strained silences, and fights. All the boyfriends we went through, the failed dates, the disagreements we had with our roommates, the discussions about our futures, Magnum was there. But most importantly, Carolyn was there with me.
And now on the day that she was going to marry Dave, Magnum decided to die.
We called my father who immediately arranged to come and get us. A homeless man in the area helped us push the car into an empty parking lot so it wouldn't be on the street. Carolyn and I sat inside the car together for the last time and laughed about Magnum breaking down on her wedding day.
"We'll always have each other," Carolyn said, "We'll always be twins. Being married doesn't change that."
I said, "I know; you're right. We'll always have each other."

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Poem Involving my Twin Sister Carolyn and an Adventurous Man.

The Dream I Had Last Night.

I found an adventurous man who fell in love with me on the way to the lobby

after my twin Carolyn and I had gotten lost at 4 in the morning

back on the way from the spa.

He helped me find my way past the small chinese woman who was making clay slabs

which my Carolyn had refused to stop sticking her hands into

and who had given us directions which Carolyn ignored

and then she danced away where I couldn't find her.

The adventurous man helped me search for the white-towel clad twin of mine,

but I do not think she wanted to be found.

So instead he led me back down the lobby through all the hidden parts of the hotel

where chinese laborers made clay tiles and wove bed linens and cast suspicious glances at my foreign eyes,

as he explained that he could never leave the hotel.

I was going to leave, with or without Carolyn, and so we kissed

and kissed

and kissed the tragic kisses of people who will never see each other again.

I walked out of the hotel alone.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Pardon me while I keen.

Well, I did it. I posted my first writing assignment for my writing workshop which I have been greatly enjoying. I spent all weekend thinking about what to write. I wrote my piece on Monday, let it rest for a few days and then revised it and posted it today.

If you hear a high pitched keening coming from the Lake Isabella area, it's me succumbing to writing anxiety.

Now here is the part of the blog where you choose your own adventure. If you don't want to listen to me whining, proceed to Roman Numeral I. If you want to listen to my whining, don't mind a repetitive use of the word "sucky," and would like to see a picture of Carol Burnett, proceed to Roman Numberal II.

I. I am feeling a little bit of anxiety about my first writing assignment.

II. You asked for it. I tried to make my writing evocative, uplifting, truthful, interesting, relatable, etc. But now that I read it after it's been submitted to the online forum where everyone else in the class has posted theirs which of course are incredibly good, I am reduced to 6th grade vocabulary: It sucked, sucked, sucked!

My writing is so freaking sucky. Everyone is going to hate it. What I was I thinking picking the topic that I did? What was I thinking signing up for this class? These people can actually write unlike little miss sucky-pants here who turned in the suckiest suckfest writing assignment. The other people in the class will be all like, "oh, nice work," but really they'll be thinking, "gee, that sucked," only they'll think collegiately and come up with some little clever synonmyn for sucked, further proving how sucky I am.

And all their lives are eclectic, bohemian, unconventional, where I am this boring little whitebread girl. Boring, Sucky, more boring.

Keen. Keeeeen. KEEEEEEEEEEEEEENNN! Did you ever see that Carol Burnett sketch where she's at a funeral and she teaches Robin William to keen? Comedy Gold.

I need to go back to work because I'm spending way too much time sitting around thinking about this.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A New Writing Adventure

Starting this week, I get to take a one-month online writing workshop hosted by the Los Angeles Review. The class is on the subject of nonfiction creative writing. I have had a lot of fun writing humorous nonfiction to be published in the newspaper or on this blog, so I am excited to see where this class will take me in the world of nonfiction writing.

I hope my writing is not too hyperbolic. I do have a tendency to exaggerate or "stretch" the truth for dramatic effect. Maybe they will tell me this is bad...or maybe it's good? I don't know.

It took a courage for me to sign up for the class. As soon as I heard about it, I wanted to do it, but I just...didn't. What if they think my writing is terrible? What if it's more work than I can do or will do? What if everyone else in the class has really amazing work and mine is just terrible?

It's interesting because if this were a swimming class or a pottery class, I wouldn't even worry about it, because I know I'm not a fast swimmer or a good potter. I just do those things for fun. But much of myself is wrapped up in writing and I worry that if I don't do well, it's going to hurt very badly.

And, after thinking about it, I realize that that could very well happen. I could get hurt. But that's a risk I have to take for my writing to develop.

One thing I'm proud of: The class cost $150 and I was able to use the proceeds from this blog and from my online store to pay for the whole thing.

I will keep you posted on the class and the things I am learning.