The Wild Swans

You can learn quite a lot from folklore and fairy tales. They were, after all, written to tell a story and teach a lesson. Unfortunately, some lessons should never be taught, such as the idea that in order for you to thrive in this world, you must first be rescued by a handsome prince. Ugh. Don’t get me started.

Too late.

This all had me thinking of a particular tale written by Hans Christian Andersen called The Wild Swans. I’m sure you’ve read his more well-known works, such as The Princess and the Pea, and Thumbelina and The Emperor’s New Clothes. I actually enjoy his writing, when I take it in proper context, but the Wild Swans, while a gripping story, teaches a lot of anti-feminist lessons that cause me to struggle with its whole concept.

The Wikipedia page gives a more detailed synopsis of the story, but for our purposes I will tell you that the Princess Elisa has 11 brothers, and they are cursed by their evil stepmother. All the boys are turned into swans and can only take human form after dark. The rest of the time they are birds who are forced to fly away.

So, clearly, the boys are more curse-worthy because they are ahead of Elisa in, basically, all things, not the least of which is the acquisition of the throne.

But Elisa is told that if she knits each of her brothers a sweater made of stinging nettles, she can rescue them. But she cannot speak at all during the process, or they will all die.

So not only is she expected to take on the burden of this torturous task without question, but she’s also expected to shut up and not complain about the pain, and not explain her strange behavior to anyone.

Somehow, during all this silent hand torture, a handsome king stumbles upon her, and despite being unable to converse with this odd girl, he falls in love, and proposes. Clearly he wasn’t after her intellect. And it matters not what you’ve got on your plate, ladies. If a handsome prince proposes, you should say yes, without question. Hmph.

But, as strange as she has been acting, she eventually gets accused of being a witch, and of course she can’t speak up to defend herself. She’s sentenced to be burned at the stake. She continues to knit, even as she’s being hauled off to her death, because women are supposed to be just that dedicated and nurturing.

But, of course, it wouldn’t be a fairy tale without a happy ending, so her bothers fly in and rescue her. She then throws the sweaters over their heads and they become fully human again. And it’s a darned good thing, too, because before she can redeem herself to her royal fiancée, she faints away from exhaustion, leaving her brothers to do the talking. And then the king steps in and revives her, and they get married.

So basically, a woman half kills herself to take care of the people she loves, she is completely misunderstood, she is shown to be incapable of taking care of herself, and the very people whom she’s been working so hard to rescue become the gallant rescuers instead.

The story does indeed teach lessons, but they’re not ones we need to learn. The true takeaways are more about what the author believes you need to think, and they shine a spotlight on the prevailing attitudes of the culture in question at the time they were written.

Maybe this story is why I never learned to knit.

Stinging Nettles. Ouch.

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Random Memories from Childhood and What They Taught Me

Children are very impressionable. A flip, sarcastic remark may become a life lesson for them, rightly or wrongly. Here are some lessons that I learned growing up. Some I have worked very hard to unlearn.

I had taken a magic marker and doodled “bad” words on my white Keds. Given my age, around 5, they were probably shockers like, “poopy head” and the like. My mother wasn’t thrilled, though. But she hated confrontation. We went to the grocery store and I was wearing them. After we had loaded the groceries into the trunk, I was getting into the back seat and one of my shoes fell off in the parking lot. I said, “Hold on, Mom! My shoe fell out of the car!” She sped away, saying we were in too much of a hurry to go back, and that there were other cars in the parking lot wanting her to move. Lesson: Adults can lie when it suits their purposes.

We were trailer camping, and the camp manager came up and told us to stay inside, as a man had broken out of a nearby prison. We heard helicopters and saw flashlights in the distant woods. But I had brought no toys or books (I was about 7) and after about an hour I got really bored, and I begged my mother to let me at least go outside and sit at the picnic table. She let me, because she got tired of my whining (which from my adult perspective was a horrible solution), and I went out there and sat in the dark. Then I saw a man walking toward me out of the fog. So I got up, went to the trailer’s screen door, and it was LOCKED. I didn’t want to yell for my mother, because I was afraid I’d draw the man’s attention. So I stage whispered, “Mom, let me in!” and scratched at the door. She was sitting right there, lost in her book. I could see her. She had to have heard me. She was just annoyed that I had been such a pain earlier. “Mom!” I was convinced I was about to be killed or taken hostage. Then the guy walked up behind me and said, “Ma’am, you should keep your daughter inside.” She let me in. I have never been so scared in all my life. And I also learned that my mother was indifferent to my needs at the best of times. I pretty much had to raise myself. When I look back at some of the emotionally neglectful and/or downright irresponsible things she did to me as a child, I’m horrified and disgusted. And kind of proud that I survived.

A teenaged boy, at the swimming pool, once put his hand on my head and pushed my ten-year-old self under the water and locked his elbow while I underwater screamed and struggled. If he hadn’t let me up, I would have drowned. I ran home and told my mother, and she didn’t take it seriously. I learned two things from that one. If a guy wants to kill you, you’ll be dead. And when the sh** hits the fan in my life, I’d be on my own.

When, at age 13, I finally told my mother that my stepfather had been sexually abusing me, she said, “You’re making too much of it.” Lesson: My safety mattered to no one but myself, and grown ups live in convenient little fantasy worlds and can’t be counted on.

My mother had gotten herself a brand new aluminum cake cover. I noticed that if you held it by the handle on top and thumped it, it made an amazing “bong” sound. I was 8, and was also experimenting with my cassette recorder. She wasn’t home, so I decided to record a home cake cover concert. When she returned, I proudly played the recording for her. When she discovered my instrument of choice, she went into the pantry to find her cake cover covered in dents. I had been enjoying the sound so much I hadn’t even noticed the results. Lesson: Not everyone finds joy in the same ways that you do. (And also that when I’m in the zone, everything else tends to fade away. That’s still true to this day.)

My sister, twisting a half a grapefruit in my face and laughing as I screamed and cried. From that I got that my sister (who was 9 years older) genuinely did not like me at all, to the point of taking delight in my humiliation, so I must not be likeable. (She likes me now, and always loved me. But I struggle to feel liked by anyone to this day, and while this incident wasn’t the primary reason for that, I’m sure it didn’t help.)

My other sister, 10 years older than me, got chronic kidney infections. One day she looked at me and said she may have to take one of my kidneys someday. I was 8. It made me feel as though I had no autonomy, even over my own body. (And let’s face it. As a woman, I still feel that way quite often.)

A more lighthearted one. I was sitting in the kitchen with my stepfather. There were about 3 flies buzzing around. He told me he’d give me a nickel for every fly I swatted. So I propped open the door and let in more flies. From this I learned that it pays to think outside of the box.

Lessons can come at you from all directions. They may not always be the right ones, unfortunately. You, too, are teaching, even when you don’t realize it. So it’s important to be thoughtful with your words, kind with your deeds, and make sure everyone feels safe and heard. Anything less can cause a lifetime of destruction.

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Culture Shock

When people travel to other countries, they often speak of culture shock. I’ve experienced this myself on many occasions. But I think culture shock, in general, has an unwarranted bad reputation.

Many people think that culture shock is something to be avoided. They use it as an excuse to remain in their comfort zones and not explore the wider world. Culture shock may be a bit uncomfortable, but I believe that just as a defibrillator can get your heart beating again, a culture shock can get your brain working and nourish your very soul.

Whenever I experience culture shock, I learn something about myself and the society in which I live. It makes me realize that there are certain things that I take for granted that other people do not. It makes me look at myself differently. It makes me appreciate what I have. It makes me wonder about the things that I lack. It causes me to think about the fact that there are many different ways to live, and my way may not necessarily be the best way.

Culture shock can be something very simple, such as going into a McDonalds in the Netherlands and discovering that they ask if you’d like mayonnaise with your fries rather than ketchup. (To this day, I prefer mayonnaise. I cannot remember the last time I put ketchup on anything.)

Or it can be something huge, such as not being allowed to rent a car in Turkey until I could show the agency that I could actually drive it around the block. (I then realized that I was seeing very few women behind the wheel there. It made me really appreciate my feminist freedoms.)

It can be rather jolting, such as going from Mexico, where I was the tallest person in any room, and where their extremely close concept of personal space made me uncomfortable, and then going to the Netherlands, where I was the shortest person in any room, and where their extremely distant concept of personal space made me uncomfortable.

I always thought I was a nice person until I went to Canada, where everyone is really, really, really nice. I always feel 1,000 times fatter when I go to Europe. In Croatia, I realized that I really should take the time to relax more. Spain made me appreciate a good nap. The Bahamas made me truly get how terrifying the thought of sea level rise can be. Turkey reminded me that all of civilization is built upon past history. Hungary taught me that some past history can be rather terrifying.

I have never, ever traveled to another country without learning a great deal about myself and my place in the wider world. I genuinely believe that if more Americans traveled, they’d be a lot more open minded. This trend toward rigid, “America first” inflexibility is scary and extremely detrimental.

It breaks my heart that because of COVID-19, we’re all forced to stay closer to home. I suspect I won’t leave the country again until a vaccine is developed, and that’s frustrating because the older I get, the more I realize how little time I have left. I need the occasional culture shock to appreciate being alive.

Dear reader, my wish for you is that, in healthier times, you get a chance to be shocked by the wider world.

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I Was Once a Guppy

The summer my grandfather taught his children to swim, by dragging them to the end of a dock and throwing them off, my mother was laid up with a really bad knee injury. Skipping that sink or swim experience was the only thing she was grateful for that summer. I think I’d have found it terrifying, too. She never did learn to swim.

Consequently, she was always afraid of the water, and what she’d do if one of her children were drowning. So she made sure that the three of us had formal swimming lessons. She just couldn’t bring herself to watch while they were going on.

The lessons I took, I believe at the local Girl’s Club, were divided up by age and ability. Students in the beginners’ class were called pollywogs. Next came guppies, then minnows. It went all the way up to dolphins.

Being a pollywog was kind of scary. You had to learn to hold your breath under water. You spent much of your time desperately clinging to the side of the pool. You were learning to navigate a new and deadly world.

But I liked being a guppy. We got to go in the deep end, provided we held on to kickboards. We spent a lot of time kick, kick, kicking the water as hard and as high as we could. We wore nose plugs and ear plugs and goggles and swim caps, but we had graduated from the use of water wings. We felt powerful, even if some accessories were still required.

I’m grateful that my mother chose not to transfer her fear of water to me. I love to swim to this day. I now consider myself a slow moving dolphin. I look forward to my aqua fitness classes every week at the local YMCA.

But I kind of miss kickboards. They were fun. And it never hurts to have something to fall back on.

Guppy_Fish

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The Benefits of Playing Pokemon Go

I always thought the Pokemon franchise was for little kids. Cartoons. Trading cards. The stuff of childhood. If I’m honest, I never paid it very much attention.

Then I placed a little free library in front of my house. We get a lot of foot traffic, so a lot of books are coming and going, which is fantastic. But of course, the goal is to encourage as much reading as possible, so I was casting about to find ways to attract more people to the library, especially younger readers, and one suggestion was Pokemon Go.

For the uninitiated, as you go about your daily life, the Pokemon Go avatar that you create in the game is also walking through a parallel world. If you’re walking down a street, that same street exists there. The difference is that there are pokestops within Pokemon Go where you can receive gifts and gather points. These pokestops correspond to landmarks in the real world. Public art. Historical markers. Starbucks coffee shops. Churches. Playgrounds. And, yes, little free libraries.

Players of this game are drawn to these pokestops. I want them to be similarly drawn to my library. But, how do I make my library a pokestop? Obviously, I had to put the game app on my phone. I did so. But I couldn’t find any way to suggest a pokestop.

After a little bit of internet research, I discovered that you have to get to level 40 in the game to make such suggestions. Well, alrighty then. I guess I’ll play Pokemon Go. Just for the sake of my library, of course.

But who am I kidding? By the time I reached level 5, I was hooked. I enjoy encountering, capturing and collecting the “POKEt MONsters.” Each one is unique. I enjoy visiting the pokestops and learning about places I may have otherwise overlooked. I like being part of this secret, all but invisible world.

And by the time I got hooked, I discovered that Niantic, the Pokemon company, only allows a few countries at a time to suggest pokestops, and the US is not currently one of those. I also discovered that each level is harder to get past than the last, because you have to get an increasing number of points. At this rate it will take me years to reach level 40. I only hope that the people in the US can make pokestop suggestions by the time I reach that point.

The frustrating thing is that I’ve seen little free libraries that have pokestops. How did they get them? I don’t know. If there’s anyone out there who has the ability to create a pokestop, please, I’m begging you, contact me. I’ll give you all the information you need.

In the meantime, I play on. And I’ve discovered that this game has a lot going for it. If I had a child, I would be thrilled if Pokemon Go were a part of his or her life. Here are some of the benefits of playing this game:

-First of all, and foremost, as far as I am concerned, is that Pokemon Go encourages walking. That’s outstanding in this couch potato world we’ve created for ourselves. You need to get out there to visit those pokestops. Also, if you obtain an egg, which will eventually hatch into a pokemon, you have to walk a certain distance to “incubate” that egg. And the more places you go, the more pokemon you encounter. I have actually lost three pounds since I started playing this game, and that’s even more remarkable when you consider the fact that I took a week-long, food-ladened cruise during that period.

-Second, it broadens your horizons. Not only are you discovering interesting places that have been right under your nose this whole time, but you also “meet” people from places you’ve never been. You rapidly discover that the best way to succeed in the game is to have friends with which you can exchange “gifts”. You can obtain free gifts to give to friends at pokestops.

But how do you make these friends? If you’re an adult like me, it would be a little creepy to hit up random children for friend requests. (I’m also hesitant to spend too much time at playground pokestops. It just looks weird.) So instead, I put my Pokemon friend code out there on Facebook and got a few that way. But only a few.

But then I got smart. I googled “Pokemon Go Friend Codes” and discovered this website. From there, I’ve made friends from all over the world. Not a day goes by when I don’t receive “gifts” from these friends, and the gift includes a little postcard from the pokestop where they obtained this gift. As I wrote this, I got a postcard from a quirky little statue in a small town in Portugal. Now, how cool is that? And it’s perfectly safe to make these friends. You’ll never actually communicate with them. They’ll never know your real name or contact information. It’s just fun to get the occasional cyber-hello from another part of the planet. (Incidentally, if you play Pokemon Go, my friend code is 2823 6831 5660. Friend me!)

Pokemon Go teaches you a lot, as well:

  • You can’t win them all. You won’t catch every pokemon you go after. You won’t win every competition you engage in. And that’s okay.

  • You get further in life when you’re part of a team.

  • Organization is important. There is no point in keeping duplicate Pokemon. And there are benefits within the game for getting rid of the ones you don’t need.

  • Diversity is great! The wider the variety of Pokemon you have, the more fun the game becomes.

  • It’s important to plan ahead. Some Pokemon will evolve into cooler, stronger, more beautiful Pokemon, but it takes a little effort and focus to reach that goal.

  • You begin to realize that a lot of people’s weird “migration patterns” are a result of Pokemon Go. Why do people park their cars in that deserted stretch of parking lot all the time? Because it’s a pokestop. That’s also why people often drive into that church parking lot but never enter the church. And it’s why you see parents with kids in the back seat driving slowly through intersections. Hidden world, revealed.

  • When in doubt, do some research. Unfortunately, a lot of the rules and tricks about this game are not spelled out for you. It can be a bit of a learning curve, and Niantic doesn’t explain things well, if at all. But there are a lot of forums on the internet that can tell you all you need to know.

  • Delayed gratification is tolerable. Sometimes you can’t achieve your goals or complete your tasks in this game until you’ve received a particular object or reached a particular level, and that’s okay. You’ll get there. Patience is a virtue.

Perhaps the one downside to this game is that if you do struggle with delayed gratification, there are plenty of opportunities to spend money to get to where you want to be. It’s possible to play this game without spending a dime. It just takes a lot longer. This is a temptation I wrestle with whenever I play.

Perhaps the weirdest aspect of this game is that some people protest that it encourages animal cruelty, because you capture these pokemon, and you can battle with them. But this is a far cry from dog fighting. There is no glorification of blood and guts in this game. And I think that any child who is mentally healthy can distinguish between a cartoon monster and the family pet. Give kids a little bit of credit. Sheesh.

To summarize: A) Please make my little free library a pokestop if you have the ability to do so. (And my bridge, and the statue just north of my bridge, if the spirit moves you.) B) Friend me if you play, and C) have fun while learning stuff.

Oh, and pay attention to your surroundings so as not to walk out into traffic and get yourself killed. Because that’s no fun at all. And I’d really feel horrible if you did.

Pokemon Go

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Maturity

There are certain things that one is supposed to leave behind in childhood. Cruelty. Humiliating others. Petty revenge. Foolish pranks. Bullying. Laughing at others’ misfortune. Selfishness. Name calling.

I have a hard time relating to adults who engage in such behavior. I don’t find it funny. In truth, I find it horrifying. Such blatant lack of compassion kind of scares me, because you never know when it will be aimed in your direction. Be very careful who you consider to be friends.

I am particularly worried about those of us who are just entering adulthood right now, at a time when the leader of our country demonstrates most of this conduct on a daily basis and may very well be reelected. What kind of signal are we sending to our young adults when this is countenanced?

Now, more than ever, we need to model kindness and love and generosity. We need to be the lessons that our leaders are not. And we need to ask ourselves why we have such leaders in the first place.

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Television is a Strange Teacher

Have you ever noticed that everyone who is struck in the head on TV instantly gets knocked out, and then eventually recovers with no cognitive problems whatsoever? Just once, I’d like to see someone spin around and say, “Ow! What the hell?”

As a matter of fact, when’s the last time anyone ever said ow on TV? And most of the time no one dies from a head blow either, unless it’s a forensic show. (Kids, don’t try this at home.)

Another neat television trick is that you can almost always punch someone in the face and not sustain any hand injuries at all. That’s pretty convenient. It’s also not very realistic. (Not that I’ve tested the theory.)

On television, you can go through a whole host of action scenes and your hair will remain unfazed. I wish that were the case in real life. Most days, I can’t even wake up in the morning without a mirror shock experience.

And on TV, bathrooms only exist if you a) need a place to smoke a joint, b) are nervously preparing for your wedding night, or c) are part of a group of girls who are talking about boys.

On the small screen, too, CPR always works, unless, oddly enough, you’re in a hospital. Then you’re a goner. And bones are never broken in the process, which is vastly different from what occurs in real life. (And the success rate of CPR in real life is abysmal.)

I can’t say I know the success rate of love stories in the real world, but on TV, people seem to live happily ever after a ridiculous percentage of the time. We do love a happy ending.

And it seems as though everyone gets a second chance. And no one ever needs a third chance. If only we all really learned from our mistakes the first time around.

If some alien got all his intel about humanity by watching our television broadcasts, he’d have a very strange view of the planet. For example, he’d think that all men, without exception, are prone to making grand romantic gestures. Gimme a break. But, hey, three cheers to the ones who make the effort!

Sage Advice

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I Miss Afterschool Specials

When I was growing up, about once every 5 or 6 weeks during the school year, late on a weekday afternoon (hence the name), ABC would air an Afterschool Special. Oh, how I looked forward to those shows! They really were special. They made me feel like someone was actually thinking about me and wanting to tell me what I needed to know.

They could be about just about anything. Divorce, girls in sports, bullying, blended families, stuttering, alcoholism, reproduction, death, foster parents, weight, secrets, popularity, puberty, friendship, teen pregnancy, drugs, STDs, child abuse, suicide… you name it.

And in retrospect, an amazing cast of stars popped up in these little stories. Actors included Will Smith, Adam Sandler, William H. Macy, Wil Wheaton, Michael Jackson, Marisa Tomei, Michael York, Beau Bridges, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patty Duke, Rob Lowe, Kristy McNichol, and Jodie Foster. You just never knew who was going to show up in your living room. It was really kind of exciting.

Nowadays an ABC Afterschool Special wouldn’t work. Kids don’t watch live, network TV anymore. They aren’t bound by viewing schedules. They probably don’t even have to consult the TV Guide. They watch what they want, when they want.

It kind of makes me happy that I grew up when I did. I’d have hated to miss out on all those age-appropriate life lessons, courtesy of ABC.

Oooh, but I just discovered a bunch of them are on Youtube now! I may have to take a walk down memory lane!

Afterschool Special

Maturing as a Species

It would be easy to write a post about the many stupidities that mankind is capable of. We still have a long way to go. But most of us have managed to emotionally, ethically or intellectually evolve, at least somewhat.

In ancient Rome, it used to be perfectly acceptable to leave unwanted babies on the trash heap. (I’m glad we aren’t visited with images like that in our day to day lives anymore.)

Most of us, too, think slavery is abhorrent these days, in spite of the fact that many cultures accepted it as the norm not so very long ago.

Poor houses/work houses are a thing of the past. (Not only were they horrible, but they weren’t very effective.)

We’ve outgrown foot binding and corset stays, thank heavens.

In most places, women are allowed to vote and actually own stuff. (I just wish more of us took advantage of that hard-won voting right. Things in this country would be a lot different.)

Blood-letting is no longer our go-to cure for all that ails us.

People used to think that bathing was harmful to your health. (It makes me itch just thinking about it.)

Tomatoes were considered poisonous in the late 1700’s. (I can barely make it through the week without consuming several now.)

More and more of us are delaying marriage until our common sense catches up with our decision-making processes. (Thank God for that.)

We’re even beginning to realize that texting while driving is idiotic.

Lest we forget, there used to be a time when females could not wear pants. (I wouldn’t have survived.)

At one point, we thought heroin and cocaine were health products.

No more smoking on airplanes, buses, and elevators! (Happy dance!)

How did anyone survive when lawn darts were considered an acceptable toy?

We’ve learned about lead, asbestos, and PCBs, even as they continue to harm us.

With all our communications devices, people rarely show up at your house unannounced anymore, and I couldn’t be more grateful for it.

Most people try not to waste water, and recycling has become a habit rather than a hassle.

In the 1800’s it was scandalous to curl up in bed with a good book. (I’d die.)

We seem to have figured out that radiation is to be avoided. (More or less.)

In the early 1900’s it was relatively rare to have children attend school past the 8th grade.

So next time you feel like resisting change, think, instead, that in order to survive, society needs to mature over time, just like children do. We also need to learn from our mistakes. That knowledge may be less fun than smoking on airplanes and picking up a little cocaine at your local pharmacy, but it will serve us all well in time. I promise.

Cocaine_for_kids

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Who You Were

I can’t even begin to tell you how happy I am that I’m not who I was as a teenager. Sure, I have many things in common with that girl, but frankly I don’t think I’d want to be stuck on an elevator with her. She was so dramatic it exhausts me to think about it. She was also very, very damaged and love-starved and therefore made a lot of really bad choices. Looking back at myself makes me cringe.

But we all have a past, don’t we? Some of us have more regrets than others. On the other hand, some people actually wish they were their young selves again. These people fascinate me. It must be sad to think that it’s all been downhill from there, that in the intervening years no progress has been made and no lessons have been learned. It must take quite a bit of effort to not move forward, even an inch, after years of living.

The other day I was thinking about the boy I went to school with who listed the KKK as one of his clubs in my junior high school yearbook. I didn’t know him well. I can’t imagine we moved in the same circles. Not even a little bit. But I wonder about the man he became.

Does that man look back at that yearbook entry with pride or with shame? What has he done with his life? Does he have kids? Have they seen that yearbook? My mother’s yearbook entry simply says, “A sweet and simple lass was she.” I suspect that’s a much easier legacy to live up to. It certainly doesn’t require justification or explanation.

I thought about trying to track that guy down, but to be honest, I’m afraid of what I might find. It would be wonderful if he came to his senses and dedicated his life to some form of public service, but I’m afraid that, with such a rotten core, the resulting apple might not be particularly healthy. Hate warps you. Then again, people can change. Who knows.

But then, having come from an educational system that allowed someone to list the KKK as one of their clubs in the yearbook means that none of us, from that rural southern town, had the best start. I think many of us turned out well in spite of, not because of, that twisted beginning. Your role models help to set your stage, but only you can star in the play that is your life.

I am who I am partly because the teenage me was who she was. But I’d like to think I’m so much more than that now. I’ve had life experiences. I’ve grown. I’ve evolved. She was just a part of the overall process. Because of that, I’m grateful for her. But I wouldn’t want to be her. I just wish I still had her pert little behind.

My Yearbook photo
Yup. That was me. Bless that photographer for covering up all the acne and despair.

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