Somewhere Between Times Square and a Happy Valley

I looked over my new business cards, ordered so I could get them in time for my trip to New York City where I was headed to attend Robert McKee’s Story in Business seminar.

I liked the color. I liked the design. I liked the font. Pretty impressive I thought. And then I noticed my address. I live on Happy Valley Road. Would New York City take anyone who lived on Happy Valley Road seriously?

I had been so looking forward to this trip. I had recently been raked over the coals by a local group who thought my voice sounded too authoritative. Women cringed. Certain men responded with hostility to any sentence that came out of my mouth. If only I could do something about that voice, they said, maybe then they would like me.

New York City seemed like a refuge to me. An authoritative voice was just talking there. It’s how you ordered dinner, hailed a cab, or asked directions.

But then I saw it: Happy Valley Road.

Would an address as optimistic as that make me seem as alien and untrustworthy to urban dwellers as my authoritative voice had to the members of the group in the rural community I now live in?

My first truly rural experience happened shortly after I moved here. A German shepherd started running after my car as I headed down to Happy Valley Road. It was getting close to rush hour and Happy Valley Road, let’s face it, is a more or less thoroughfare. As many as five cars might barrel down the road at rush hour.

I had recently moved from a suburban town so immediately went into protect the dog mode. I stopped the car and started talking to him. Loping up the road came a second dog. He was enormous and it was clear to me that he was a wolf hybrid.

It was a sign, I thought, that I had moved to the right place. I have a wolf tattoo on my right forearm. The wolf hybrid lay down in front of my car. How very trusting. I was moved by his trust of me.

Another car drove by and stopped.

“Do you know who these dogs might belong to?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied, “but they killed one of my chickens this morning. I think that one,” she pointed to the wolf hybrid, “was the instigator. I called animal control but their truck is out of commission. It got hit by a drunk driver last night.”

Wolves get such a bad rap, I thought as she drove off. Remembering that I was in a rural environment, I now worried more that they would get shot than that a car might hit them.

I looked back at my car. I had left the driver’s side door open. The shepherd had climbed in and was sitting in the passenger’s seat, ready for a trip to the drive-in. I walked around the back of the car, opened the door and tried to coax him out.

I turned and saw that the wolf hybrid had followed me around the back of the car. There I was right smack in between the German shepherd, who occupied my car, and the ginormous wolf hybrid who stared at me with a look that said, “I hear humans taste like chickens.”

Well this was a conundrum. Was the shepherd my friend, trying to get away from the bad boy chicken-killing instigator, or was this part of the plan? Were the two of them hunting down tasty treats?

And then it occurred to me that rural living also requires street smarts—just a different kind than urban living.

I don’t honestly remember how I got the shepherd out of my car, but he did leave. As I drove off I still wondered, was the shepherd trusting me to get him away from the bad boy instigator or was he part of the plan? I drove past a house that had chickens in the yard and realized it was all out of my hands.

I enjoyed New York. I stayed in a hotel in Times Square with its overload of neon lights and teeming humanity; walked half a block to see Love Letters with Brian Dennehey and Mia Farrow. Made sure I was always aware of my surroundings.

No one seemed threatened by my authoritative voice.

I returned late in the evening to Happy Valley Road and the crisp clear autumn air, the darkness barely pierced by the lights of the farm across the street and the homes sparsely scattered across the valley.

This is where I live, I thought—somewhere between the optimism of a Happy Valley where wolf hybrids stalk chickens and naïve newcomers, and a teeming city where a human hybrid might stalk you.

It makes sense to me that I can live in both places.

As for my voice, well, I’m a writer. It makes me neither predator nor prey. Anyone can have an authoritative voice. You just have to make that choice. Like me, don’t like me, just know that without a voice, I’m not a writer so I’m not giving it up.

I’ve earned it. Get over it.

Things Are Much More up for Grabs Than You Think They Are

Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have.”
Mark Vonnegut, from the introduction to Armageddon in Retrospect

I think this is going to be about story and story is important to me.

I went to New York City two weeks ago to take a seminar from Robert McKee. I had taken his Story seminar in 2000 and 2003 in San Francisco. I took it twice because the first time I took it (in 2000), I had to stop taking notes and just let the experience of story carry me out to sea, knowing it would bring me back to shore. Or maybe I didn’t know then that it would bring me back to shore.

I just trusted.

I had been through a particularly traumatic experience in which I thought I had lost the family I had worked hard to build. I’m a stepmother. Stepfamilies are precarious. The heart is a resilient muscle. And that’s a good thing. Life tests it.

As I sat through his seminar, I began to see the story of how I discovered the heart’s resilience. A villain is not a villain in the villain’s story. The character is right from the character’s point of view. If you can’t see that, you have a caricature of a human being. You haven’t drilled down to the truth of what it is to be human.

That humanized the trauma for me. It didn’t take it away. Instead it lifted the numbness and allowed me to feel the loss. It also lifted blame.

This latest seminar I attended was called Story in Business. McKee is right about story. It is one of the most powerful tools a leader has to connect with people and move them to action.

Leader as author he says. I agree.

As the day progressed, I found myself once again being swept out to sea. I was nursing a recent disappointment. Not traumatic like what happened in 2000, but nevertheless very disappointing.

Once again, I saw the events and my experience in terms of story. No villains. No heroes, just humans acting in very human ways, driven by fear of change and life passing them by. It’s what we do when change is thrust upon us and our lives are turned upside down. We try to restore our lives to what they were before they were turned upside down, when what we need to do is use our experience to change the story we were living.

For me, it’s allowing myself to be swept out to sea and then use story to make my way back to shore. It’s what I have in place of religion, my way of making sense out of chaos—out of that which I cannot control.

I said this is about story, and I still think it is. Story does not so much give me hope and faith as it shows me that things are much more up for grabs than I thought they were. That’s how Mark Vonnegut puts it in the introduction to Armageddon in Retrospect:

What occurs to people when they read Kurt is that things are much more up for grabs than they thought they were.”

The news has been filled with dread the last few weeks. Between ISIS and Ebola, we’re all feeling as vulnerable as a young black male who’s stopped by the police, or a raped woman who wore a short skirt.

We’re all going to die, Lindsay Graham predicts.

Well, that is certainly true. We all are going to die. We have that in common.

But in the meantime, things are much more up for grabs than we thought they were. Story, our stories, can help us discover that. Not a bad thing when dread hovers over us.

Hurtling Along the Pacific Coast Highway

It was 1974. I was newly divorced and about to turn 25. I had also recently purchased my first car—a 1963, factory-equipped camper VW bus.

Owning a car was a big deal for me. My parents were terrified of my owning a car. I still don’t know why, but it had something to do with me being a woman alone in the world, though I had been the “bread-winner” in the marriage I had recently extricated myself from.

The women’s movement was nascent, but loud. Mostly we blamed men. I was as confused as anyone else. So in an act of independence, I decided I would celebrate my birthday by driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, from San Francisco to Washington—alone in my newly acquired VW bus. Well, I had my dog Rita Louise with me.

The first night out, I stopped at a campground somewhere along the northern coast of California. I have no recollection of where. I opened my can of tuna fish, dumped it in a bowl, added mayonnaise, and made myself a sandwich.

And then, darkness descended on me along with a blanket of aloneness. No one to talk to. No one to share the tuna fish with. Now what do I do?

So I made my bed, tried to read, but drifted off to sleep with Rita Louise curled up next to me.

I decided I needed company.

And there, not far down the road the next morning, was a young man, longish blond hair, wearing an army jacket, backpack beside him, his thumb stuck out—the international sign for a hitchhiker.

I had hitchhiked through New England three years earlier with my husband and his two friends (that was my honeymoon, which probably explains a lot about why the marriage didn’t last). So, of course it was fine to stop and pick up a hitchhiker. To hell with that woman-alone-in-the-world-without-a-man-to-guide-her bullshit.

“Where are you headed?” he asked.

“Washington state but I’m not in a hurry,” I said.

He climbed in. I don’t remember where he was going, but as soon as I aimed my VW bus onto the highway, the voices started in my head: “He knows no one is expecting me. There’s no on else on the highway. What if he’s a crazed murdering hitchhiker?”

“This is my dog, Rita Louise,” I said pointing to her lying on the pulled-out bed behind us. One should not name a dog Rita Louise if one wants to present her as a fierce, defend-you-to-the-death attack dog. She looked like a Disney dog. Cute and scruffy.

My terror and uncertainty filled the car. Which brought out his terror and uncertainty.

We hurtled down the winding highway making small talk—uncertainty so dense that not even subtext broke through the unspoken questions. Me, “Why did I pick up a hitchhiker?” and my hitchhiker “Why did I get in her car?”

We hurtled, that is, as much as a 1963 VW bus could hurtle, until I felt the right back wheel start to drag.

“I think I have a flat tire,” I said, though I had no idea what a flat tire actually felt like. We pulled over. Apparently I did know what a flat tire felt like.

My hitchhiker gallantly offered to change the tire. Which he did as I stood by and watched my VW bus sway and shudder as cars sped by on the narrow, winding highway that is the Pacific Coast Highway. Traffic had chosen this moment to pick up.

“Let’s go,” he said as he climbed back in the car, his face ashen. It was entirely possible that this was the first tire he had ever changed—and he had risked life and limb to do it.

And yet, still in the back of my mind, I worried that he might be out to murder me.

I decided I didn’t want to camp out that night, so as darkness descended, I pulled into a motel. He asked if he could sleep in the back of the van. I said yes, and then spent the night peeking out the window to make sure he hadn’t driven off with it.

He didn’t.

We reached his destination a couple of hours into the next morning. I think that by that time we each had developed enough trust to figure out that this was not a scene in a horror movie. It was just a ride.

I don’t remember his name.

Two days later I ended up in Sequim, Washington, where my Uncle Ray and Aunt Mary lived. Their daughter Sue, her husband, and son lived in the trailer parked on their property. Ray was my mother’s oldest brother.

“Weren’t you scared driving up here alone?“ Sue asked me as we sat together on the couch that first evening. “Whatever you do, don’t pick up a hitchhiker. Girls have been murdered and they think it’s by a hitchhiker they picked up.”

I decided not to tell her about my hitchhiker.

So now it’s forty years later. My Aunt Mary died in 1984. My cousin Sue, who was never in very good health, died sometime in the 90s. My uncle outlived my mother. She died in 2006; he died in 2010, eight months after his 100th birthday.

I visited Sequim for the second time for his memorial. That was when I decided I wanted to live here—in Sequim. And so now I do. Been here a little more than a year.

A lot has changed in forty years. That assertion of independence for my 25th birthday, as tame as it seems now (think Cheryl Strayed’s Wild), was the starting point for the path that led to where I am today on the verge of turning 65. With that act, I began to break free of the expectations and confinement that seemed almost Biblical-pronouncements of what the world was supposed to be for me.

The road has not been straightforward—more like the winding Pacific Coast Highway I drove to reach the Pacific Northwest where I celebrated my 25th birthday.

I got a wolf tattoo on my right forearm to celebrate my 55th birthday. Two weeks later, in the shower I looked at it and thought, “Wow! This isn’t washing off.”

It gave me a new understanding of permanent. It took another couple of years to understand what that meant to me: no turning back.

I have come to understand that the obstacle to freedom that the women’s movement was birthing back then really had very little to do with men. I have come to learn that often the biggest obstacles to a woman defining her own being, her own liberation, are not men, but other women. Women who fear their own liberation.

But that might mostly be women my age. I suspect it might be different for younger women—women who were born about the time I was hurtling up the Pacific Coast Highway with my hitchhiker.

I wonder where my hitchhiker is. I wonder if he was as scared of me as I of him. I wonder if he became a corporate executive or became a maverick who defined his own way in the world. I had forgotten all about him until I did a writing exercise that asked me to describe a scene in a car.

Several years ago, while conducting research for a story that included the Vietnamese orphans who perished when a plane that was trying to save them from the fall of Saigon crashed shortly after takeoff, I discovered that there indeed had been a murdering hitchhiker who was terrorizing the Northwest about the time I had picked up my non-murdering hitchhiker. He was famous—the murdering hitchhiker.

It was Ted Bundy.

Things could have turned out very different had he been my hitchhiker.