Thank You Campbell’s Soup

As much as it feels like I’ve been writing all my life, I didn’t come out of the womb demanding paper and pen to write down a sentence before I lost it. The writing bug didn’t hit until sixth grade, by my memory. My family lived in West Bloomfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. At this point I attended Abbott Middle School, notable in the late sixties for not enough class rooms to educate the baby-boom kids. Not so important here in California, where I now live, but in Michigan a trek out to a mobile classroom unit in the winter was miserable.

My teacher, whose name I’ve unfortunately lost, had us cut pictures out of magazines for several months. She’d bring in a wide selection of periodicals and hand them out. We’d page through and cut out any pictures that caught our eye. Without a purpose in sight, we were free to pick anything. The cuttings were carefully stored in a manila folder with our name on the top. It seemed the most pointless thing I’d done in school. Between math, science, and history, cutting out pictures seemed soooo kindergarten.

Warhol Campbell Soup Can

Then one day she handed back our manila folders and told us to pick out one or more of the cuttings, and write a story about it. Now with a defined purpose, my structured mind wished I’d cut out different things. Interesting things, I could clearly see a story inside.

This was 1969. Andy Warhol had been painting Campbell’s soup cans for seven years, and in 1968 the tomato soup can screen print was released, among others. In my cuttings was a large Campbell soup can, whether it was from an ad for Campbell’s or his art I can’t remember. Of all the images, it is the one that struck me the hardest, and the only one I remember now, many years later.

I remember the empty hole in my thoughts that soup can picture created. What kind of story could I come up with that would get me an A? My academic career at that point (and for all of it really) was about getting good grades. The other kids were writing away, and I just sat staring at a picture of a can of soup. I put my pencil on the paper and hoped. As a rule, hope isn’t a strategy, but it worked. Words started to flow out of the pencil. Okay, I know that is a cliché, but that’s how it felt. It still feels that way sometimes when I’m writing and I’m not sure where it’s going. I can close my eyes and let something flow through, call it my muse, the creative force, or good luck. Yes, I edit heavily afterwards, because not all the words are needed, or eloquently state, but at least the idea is there.

In this case, the story that came out would foretell my interest in fantasy and science fiction. I wish I could say I have the story now, but it has been lost to time. What I do remember is that it was a tale of a society of very small people, who lived in a used tomato soup can, in the middle of a field. They rarely ventured out of the soup can because that was “out there” where danger lurked. I can’t walk a modern shopping mall without thinking about this story, as each store looks like a home. Come to think of it, old shopping malls might make great homeless housing. As I grew up, this story became an allegory for me of the narrow ways we tend as humans to view the world. Not realizing that there is a big “there” outside our view, whether it’s another county, country, planet, or metaphysical dimension.

So, I’ve been writing intentionally since eleven. I won’t do the math for you, but that is quite a few years, and I still find joy and frustration in the act. I know that’s what keeps me coming back to it.

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Thank You Campbell’s Soup

It’s Embarrassing

Driving back from the Central California SCBWI Writers Day yesterday, I recounted my most embarrassing moment to a travel companion. She howled with laughter, “That would make a great story!” Using the philosophy that it can’t be embarrassing if you own it and use it, here goes.

neon-sign-of-treasure-island-casino-on-the-strip-in-las-vegas-nevada-A1E8N7In late October of 1993, we checked into the newly opened Treasure Island Hotel and Casino for the wedding of a colleague of my husband. The actual ceremony took place across the street in a little chapel that disappeared when another behemoth hotel and casino went up in 2007. The reception was held in a cavernous banquet room in Treasure Island. Sitting in the sea of round tables, seating ten each, we waited for the bride and groom to appear. And we sat. Until I couldn’t hold off a trip to the ladies room any longer.

Now, I should explain something here. Due to some feet problems, I was wearing flats. 2-2-flats-shoes-png-fileGenerally, I hate wearing flats because I’m vertically challenged to begin with, and feel short and squat, especially in crowds of tall people, which these all seemed to be. This was also the era of white pantyhose. I wore a pink skirt and jacket, with a white shell top, white hose and black flats. I looked like a dish of strawberry ice cream. In retrospect I shouldn’t have left the hotel room dressed that way, and the white shell was damp under the arms because even in late October, Las Vegas is too hot to be walking outside dressed like that.

So, I slipped off to the bathroom via a side door. When I returned, the hallway in front of the door was empty and only the soft music of the background track echoed in the hall. I opened the door to sneak back to my seat unseen. As I stepped into the ballroom, a spotlight flashed on and lit me up like a little pink Christmas tree, then the music began – Blue Suede Shoes I think. My face flushed a bright red and my eyes dropped to my white legs and black shoes.

elvis impersonatorThey had been expecting an Elvis Impersonator, and instead two hundred or so sets of eyes stared and laughed at my small, startled figure. I could have died right there, but I gamely walked to my seat and sat down. My husband filled in the Elvis details as I tried to regain some sense of honor. I will always remember the panic that gripped my chest and forced the breath from my lungs when the spotlight hit me. I think today I could have managed a little soft shoe and a flourished “ta-da!” ta-da (1)

It’s Embarrassing

The Simple Life

When I was just a kid, early teens, I dreamed of living high in the mountains, surviving by my wits and what I could grow. Even then I knew I couldn’t kill anything so I figured if I couldn’t coax it out of the ground or collect it already laying there I wouldn’t eat it.

Thinking about it with the clarity of age, I realize puberty was the primary culprit. Puberty and the seventies. At that time I wasn’t considered capable of holding my own checking account, renting a car or making serious decisions for myself. My age had nothing to do with it. I’m a girl. As hard as it is for young women today to comprehend, until the mid-seventies women had to have a male co-signer on everything. At least in my world, tucked away in Wisconsin and Michigan. The heart of America.

So I suppose it might be a natural psychological response to want to escape. Little did I know how hard the undertaking would have been. Hats off to those Mother Earth News types who homestead their land, grow all their own food and live off the grid. We do only a passing nod to that lifestyle and I’m here to tell ya – IT’S HARD.

With just five fruit trees, fifty grape fines, six nut trees, seven olive trees and two rather small vegetable gardens I spent the better part of six months canning, pressing, freezing and fermenting. That’s not including the other half of the year spent making sure said flora remains alive and producing. Remember I still have a Costco and numerous grocery stores to stock my shelves. The simple life isn’t simple! Yes I know what’s in the produce I grow, my olive oil has as much terroir as my wine, and I really truly appreciate consuming my own stuff. But we don’t do any protein sources (that comes from stores or my neighbor’s chickens) nor do we do dog food, many condiments, cheese (because despite my goal of becoming a cheese maker – I don’t have the set up and well – I had to draw the line somewhere), vegetables I can’t get to grow in my 100 degree, windy summer days and a whole host of odds and ends that make a dinner party pleasant and not a survival demonstration.

All this is to help you appreciate your local grocer, farmer’s market and yes – even the home gardeners who are trying to pawn their overabundance of whatever on you. Take it. Enjoy it. Simply be grateful that you can share in their joy and efforts. If the spirit hits you to try out a more agrarian lifestyle my advice is to go slow. Understand what you’re getting yourself in for before plunking down your 401K on farm acreage. Watch old episodes of Green Acres like documentaries. And if you decide to join us. Welcome – stop by and we’ll share everything we know.

The Simple Life