ISN’T THAT FABULOUS by Jenna Jolovitz

Isn't that Fabulous Jenna Jolovitz

Fabulous. It’s not a word that comes out of my mouth naturally. Saying it feels alien, like wearing a hairpiece or playing softball.

Fabulous women have long, tousled hair or extremely short bangs. They wear vintage Chanel with jeans and scarves for belts. They throw casually chic dinners and vacation with friends on islands.

I have, however, done what I consider to be some fairly fabulous things in my life. Okay, I’ve been told that some of things I thought were “fabulous” were actually “weird,” and eating a beef rib in the women’s bathroom of Harrods is apparently “gross.” But the following, I believe, qualifies as fabulous. For you see, I went topless. Not just topless, but topless in the south of France. Cannes, to be exact.

So far, so fabulous.

Yes, it was the beach in Cannes, and everybody was doing it. In fact, I would stand out more if I didn’t do it. And even better, I knew no one, and no one knew me. I was completely anonymous.

So I did it. Like a banana, I peeled down the top of my tank suit (Did you really imagine I owned a bikini?) and into the water I went. Quickly.

There I was, topless in the Mediterranean. The tops of my breasts gleaming white like the top halves of two hardboiled eggs. I felt empowered and alive and sensuous. I felt like a woman capable of enticing an attractive Italian man, spending the evening with him, and then making out at dawn before we caught separate trains – without ever learning his last name. For the first time in my life, I was in total possession of my sensuous femininity. Electric. Powerful. I was a Jackie Collins heroine. Then, from very nearby, I heard:

“You go to Duke, don’t you?”

As it happens, I did.

Lowering myself a little further in the water, I turned to see a young man, my age, right next to me.

“We’ve met. I’m Brad Lastname’s roommate.”

Brad Lastname was a friend at school. He briefly had an unrequited crush on me before graduating, winning a great deal of money in the lottery and posting extensively on Facebook. And there his roommate happened to be: that particular day, in Europe, in the South of France, in Cannes, in the water right next to me, as I went topless.

What are the odds?

“Oh yeah, hi.”

“So, you are studying abroad?”

“Yup.”

A typical, banal conversation except for the fact that under the water, my breasts were exposed and we both knew it. That knowledge could have given our conversation a sexual charge.

“You have a Eurail pass?”

“I do.”

“The two-month one?”

“No, the one month. You can’t use it in England. That’s the BritRail pass.”

Do I need to say we didn’t make out? When he left, I pulled up my top, and left the water. Nature, or a higher power was sending me a crystal clear message.

Stop doing that.

What else was I supposed to think? To me, the lesson was laid out before me, Nathaniel Hawthorne-style. I was Hester Prynne, only there was no place to sew my “A.”

I’d like to say that since that experience I’ve found the self-love and acceptance I need to express my own uniqueness and use the word fabulous about myself without extending the “a” way too long in a deep voice. But I can’t.

I am not, nor will I ever be fabulous.

But I learned that it’s not what women wear, or do, that makes them fabulous. It’s not joining or following or copying anyone else. It’s that they dare to express their true selves — from the inside out, for all to see. They carry themselves with a confidence and boldness that no roommate of Brad Lastname could ever shake. That’s what we all find so fascinating.

And they do it in their home countries.

Age has allowed me to appreciate the fact that I am not the norm. I make instant pudding with half the milk, because I like the mortar-like texture. My hand gestures don’t illuminate what I say. And I get way too way too much joy from the $1 Ikea breakfast to be truly mainstream.

I am authentic. Isn’t that fabulous?

Jenna JolovitzJenna is a freelance writer and an alum of Second City in Chicago where she wrote and performed shows alongside Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, and others. She has been on the writing staff of such shows as MADtv, That ’80s Show, Steve Martin’s The Downer Channel and King of Queens, as well as a guest writer on Saturday Night Live. Jenna has also written an upcoming comedy feature, The Flaming Jerk.

WHAT I NEVER EXPECTED by Molly Caro May

Molly Caro May

On a cool April day, a close friend fielded my questions about motherhood as her toddler leapt from stone to stone nearby. I gazed up at cottonwood trees, stroked my pregnant belly and told her my plan.

“I’m going to strap my baby to my chest and hike into the woods right away,” I announced, “Like hours after birth. I mean women do it all over the world, right?”

“Yeah, but your vagina might hurt for a few weeks,” she said.

Somehow, I hadn’t ever considered that possibility. As a girl, I had hung upside down from tree branches and run faster than the boys. I grew into a woman of physical endurance—long bike races, long hikes, and long manual labor building projects. After birth, I would simply pull on my old jeans and get on with it. But my pregnancy had been rough. Nausea didn’t go away after the first trimester. I became a pro at vomiting into a mason jar every day while driving to/from anywhere. It was, at times, demoralizing. I complained, and yet told myself the intensity had prepared me for birth. Labor, well, labor I would do a thousand times over. I touched into my wisest animal self—all breath and moan. No fear surfaced, even in pain, even when my home-water-birth turned into a van ride to the hospital as my midwife straddled me, held an oxygen mask to my face and requested that I don’t push yet, even though the urge was strong. I ended up pushing for five hours until my umbilical-wrapped daughter came out. She wasn’t the blue breathless baby they expected. We were okay. I could have dropped to the floor and done 100 push-ups on the adrenaline of my empowerment. One of the nurses lifted her arms and said, “You were amazing! Look, I sweated through my scrubs. That was awesome.”

Pregnancy may have knocked me over, but I had labored like Wonder Woman. If the upswing trajectory followed, postpartum would be manageable, maybe even a breeze.

Within a week, it was clear that the liquid coming out of me was no longer the standard lochia but urine. And not just when I sneezed. When I walked to the mailbox. When I squatted to pick up an errant sock. When I bounced to sooth my daughter to sleep. I was officially incontinent. I bought a Costco-size box of Always extra-long pads with wings and pasted one in my underwear at all times.

Maybe this problem would go away.

But it didn’t.

I went hiking anyway.

I strapped my daughter to my chest and peed all over myself, through my pad, onto my shorts, onto the trail. My car seat smelled of urine, no matter how hard I scrubbed it. I learned to wear a skirt so other hikers wouldn’t notice. When my new mama friends couldn’t believe this was my new normal, I learned to make it normal.

“Oop, peed on myself again,” I would laugh.

But the grief pressed against my face, my mouth, my neck. I refused to acknowledge it. I couldn’t. I couldn’t do that and everything else. There was so much everything else in new motherhood.

One afternoon, at a museum, my birth class friend had to carry both our children up the stairs because being pee-soaked in a museum isn’t as acceptable as on the trail. I watched her strong arms and strong back and the sorrow of this comparison dug a groove through my heart. If I hadn’t been in a public place, I would have collapsed. Would I never be able to carry my daughter up stairs? Where was I? Why couldn’t I pull it together? Where was the woman who had labored without fear, almost without effort?

This went on for six months, for a year.

I saw some pelvic physical therapists. They looked at me with kind doe-eyes and gave me elaborated Kegel exercises. I did them solidly for a week or so. Maybe they were actually helping. At my cousin’s wedding, I couldn’t wait to dance. It had been so long. When I hit my first hip thrust/bounce, urine poured down my leg and almost onto the dance floor. I scuttled outside under the moon. There, alone, I could release my sobs. This was not what I had expected for our first evening out alone. Later that night, I begged my husband to suck the milk out of my breasts because they were so engorged without my daughter there to nurse them. So he did—in the dark of the parking lot with the car windows down, the smell of sagebrush on the night air. “It’s sweet,” he said, and we laughed, because the gap between laughing and crying was invisible. I woke desperate in the early morning. No breast pump. Hand expressing would not be fast enough. I grabbed my own large, painful breast and drank my own sweet milk. Urine or milk. Life is about fluids or being fluid, I think.

In the haze of sleep-deprivation, I couldn’t manage a plan to do my pelvic floor exercises. All I could do was lie on the concrete floor and stare at the ceiling fan, the red latex PT strap unused. One morning, I woke unable to move. “Help,” I gulped to my husband as he made his way out the door, “Help me.” My battery had died and I couldn’t lift my daughter. I watched her watch me with wide eyes. Panic washed over me in waves. A blood test revealed postpartum hypothyroidism on the edge of becoming an autoimmune condition. I morphed from someone who never took prescription medicine to someone who did. Healing this thyroid issue would also require, in part, more exercise, but every time I exercised I peed. Sometimes I found myself in the woods throwing, no hurling, rocks at a tree. How had I gotten there? My rage scared me enough to request more blood tests. No serotonin problem, no postpartum depression, but my neurotransmitters were all off. Months later, adrenal fatigue became part of the picture. My doctor started an email to me with, “Dearest Molly, …”

None of this was the worst thing possible

None of this was a death sentence

But I didn’t believe it would ever change.

This was not the mother or woman I had ever wanted to be.

Every day I scanned my perimeter for someone to blame—my husband, my mother, my father, my friends, my dog, myself. My anger became volcanic. During the day, I sang, swam, laughed, loved, and smooched my daughter. When she fell asleep, I paced the kitchen and drove down dark roads at 1:00 AM, fantasizing about walking into the woods and never returning. Was this what giving up looked like? But my daughter kept me accountable. I could never have left her. I made gratitude lists. There was so much to be grateful for. Hard as I tried, my gratitude practice fell flat.

Two years into this situation, something changed.

I don’t know what clicked. I began to swim laps at our local hot springs. There I could exercise and pee and no one would know. At my doctor’s suggestion, I stopped nursing and took progesterone and herbs. My daughter started to sleep through the night. As she potty-trained, I chanced it and stopped using pads everyday. We could let go of diapers together. Summer came around again. Sun. Heat. Green. Maybe it helped that time had passed. I don’t really know. I still wonder how nothing changed but everything did. Maybe I decided to step back from the edge.

I decided.

I decided.

I decided.

For the first time, in 35-years of living, I decided to be kind to myself. I started to talk to myself the way I talked to my daughter. “It’s okay, I know it’s hard, you can do it, do you need a hug, I see your radiance, I see you, I see you…”

When a body-worker recently told me that my pelvis was in shock and all tangled up, I didn’t catastrophize with images of doom. I let her words pass out of me and replaced them with My body is healing. I could cultivate this belief—despite the externals. Of course, this story is still alive. This, right now, is me finding my way. I still pee on myself but mostly just before my period. I still take thyroid and adrenal medicine and may have to for who knows how long. But I’m off progesterone.

And now, I wouldn’t want any part of my continuing journey to be different.

It forced me to break up with my beloved anger. That, turns out, was the only way to open the starting gates to heal. My righteous self used to quietly judge the hell out of people who make poor, life-altering decisions. Now I understand that we all walk an edge, whether we touch it or not. My pelvis is my new gal pal. We talk everyday. I’ve gotten comfy with the mess of life. I’ve learned that grief can take time. The laboring woman in me has been laboring all along. She is the woman I was looking for. And this is the only way I could have found her.

Molly Caro MayMolly Caro May is a writer whose work explores body, place, and the foreign. She leads writing workshops across the country and her work has appeared in Orion Magazine, Salon, and Fourth Genre, among others. Her memoir, The Map of Enough: One Woman’s Search For Place (Counterpoint Press) was published in 2014. She lives with her husband and daughter in Bozeman, Montana, where she is co-founder of the Thunderhead Writers’ Collective. 

MOIST: A JOURNEY OUT OF CHAPSTICK ADDICTION by Elisabeth Sharp McKetta

Moist, a journey out of chapstick addiction

Earlier this month I gave birth to a daughter. My first. She was born with midwives but had to go to St. Luke’s for an infection. She had an IV in her hand, and when it wore out after a day, they put it in her other hand. Then her foot. Then her other foot. I watched each part of her 7lb-10-oz body turn scaly as it got wrapped with IV tape and parched by the dry air of the NICU.

I wanted to rub oil onto her extremities. I wanted to touch each dry part and make it moist, but she was connected to wires and away from home, not ready for me yet. Every part of her dried out that first week of her life, her eyes, her small inverted nipples, her fingers. Everything but her lips. Her lips stayed perfect — soft and moist.

I talked to her even when I couldn’t hold her. I told her about myself, about some things I had learned. I told her, one evening, about need. About how important it is to need people, not things. How not needing too many things makes a person portable, able to travel light. I told her things I learned almost a decade ago, from being addicted to chapstick.

Since discovering lip balm at age ten, I put it on my lips between 50 and 100 times a day. These are real numbers, by the way, not fuzzy math. I had to keep it with me at all times: I had vanilla lip balm in my glove compartment; Nivea rose in the pocket of whichever boyfriend I was dating; standard cherry chapstick in my backpack; Body Shop strawberry next to my bed; Rachel Perry banana-coconut in the kitchen; and my favorite of all, Montana huckleberry in my purse – that one I always ordered in bulk in case I ran out.

Jump forward eleven years – I had just graduated from college, and I used the first paycheck of my first writing job to book a trip to NY. I packed clothes for a week, my notebook, toothbrush, and half a dozen tubes of lip balm: plain mint, gooey grape in a tub, Dr. Pepper-flavored, banana-coconut, lemon-lime, Montana huckleberry.

I stayed with my friend Yo-El who was a first year medical student, and spent my first day exploring. When Yo-El finished class, I met her for oysters at a little restaurant near Battery Park. I was telling her about my day when she interrupted me and said: “Hey, Liz, when’s the last time you looked in the mirror?”

“What?” I asked. “I don’t know. This morning, probably. Why?

“Well,” she said, “I was just wondering what’s wrong with your lips.”

She ushered me off to the bathroom to have a look.

Both my top and bottom lip looked as if they had been burned. They had this awful blistery flakiness, and had turned a bright lipstick burgundy. The corners of my mouth had cracked into sore-looking circles, sort of like the red dots on clown-cheeks.

Perhaps, I thought, I needed better lip balm. I dragged Yo-El out of the oyster bar and to a Walgreen’s a few doors down. I bought a new tube of Vaseline lip therapy and thought that by the end of the night, the problem would be solved.

But the next morning, my lips had gotten worse. When I got up for breakfast, Yo-El was sitting at her kitchen table, practicing her sutures on a piece of raw chicken, and still she looked at my mouth and said, “Gross.”

In addition, she began trying to diagnose me, telling me all of the things it “might” be – such as oral cancer. “That’s what it looks like,” she said apologetically. “Oh, I hope it’s not squamous cell carcinoma! Or worse …  what if it’s syphilis? If it is syphilis you’d better treat it – untreated syphilis can lead to blindness. Or you might have Steven-Johnson Syndrome. That wouldn’t be too bad – except that it’s untreatable.”

I still thought the problem was as simple as my needing more lip balm, so I went out and bought something stronger, with soothing herbs and lavender.

But this new lip balm didn’t work, either, and my face was getting worse; the cakey redness was spreading down toward my chin and up toward my nose. So I cut my trip short and went home that day. As I took the subway back to my apartment, I noticed tactless people – mostly children and very old people – staring at me. It was disconcerting.

That evening, I had had enough. I had two more weeks before my college health insurance ran out, so I gathered every lip balm I owned and frog-marched myself to University Health Services. I wasn’t sure which floor to go to – was this an Ear, Nose, and Throat Problem, or simply Dermatology? Should I go to Sexual Health, or the Cancer Center? It turned out that all of the different wings closed at 5pm, so any problems afterward were considered Emergency.

So I waited in the Emergency Room, sitting among people with broken arms and legs. And finally I got called back. The doctor looked exhausted, like those interns you see in movies who haven’t slept for 3 days. “Well?” he said. “What is the problem?”

I explained about my mouth.

“Did you try lip balm?” He asked.

“Yes!” I said. “About twenty different kinds!” And I opened my purse, and out spilled plain mint, gooey grape in a tub, Dr. Pepper-flavored, banana-coconut, lemon-lime, Montana huckleberry, and dozens of other kinds that I had tried and that had failed me.

The doctor wanted to know how long I had been using lip balm. I told him eleven years.

Then he asked: “How many times a day would you say you use it?”

I decided to give a conservative answer. “About thirty,” I said, casually. “Give or take.”

“Thirty!” He said. “Jesus.” It dawned on me then that this had to be serious, as the doctor probably wasn’t supposed to say “Jesus” in front of patients.

He put on gloves and examined my mouth. He took a culture. He left the room and returned a few minutes later, and said:

“The problem is that you are addicted to lip balm.”

He went on to say that my lips had stopped producing moisture, and that the only way to fix this was for me to go cold turkey.

I told him that that wasn’t an option. I asked, “Can’t you send me home with, like, a prescription or something? What is normally done in these cases?”

He gave me a scornful look. “We don’t see a lot of lip balm addicts in the emergency room.”

But he disappeared again and returned with a sample tube of steroid cream, the kind you use for athlete’s foot. “You may put the cream on your lips twice a day. No more. If you come back here in a week addicted to this cream, I will refuse to see you.” Then he left the room for good, leaving me in it, surrounded with colored lip balm tubes poking in all different directions.

It was a sad walk home that Saturday night, but I courageously stopped at a trash can in Harvard Square, surrounded by punk teenagers and homeless people, and I began to empty my purse. Down went plain mint, gooey grape in a tub; down went Dr. Pepper flavored, banana-coconut, lemon-lime. Down went all tubes, including Montana huckleberry.

There is an invisible line dividing before and after in most addictions, and even in such a ridiculous one, the line existed.

The things I couldn’t do until my lips healed included kissing (when I tried to kiss my boyfriend, he refused because he said I was “scaly”); eating spicy food; taking big bites of any food; and using lipstick. I learned this last rule a month after the initial flare-up, when I tried to test the doctor’s orders by using moisturizing lipstick – and I ended up, once again, with starchy clown-lips that took another month to heal.

But soon I learned that there were also things I could now do: for example, swimming. I used to have to stick near the sides of the pool or the lake, because even in the water I needed to have fast access to lip balm. But now when I went swimming with friends, I could swim out further. I could also travel more lightly, since I no longer needed to carry a purse to tote around all my lip balms. I could just stick money and keys in my pocket and go.

And it made me wonder: what other things did I think I needed that I could give up?

First on that list was the boyfriend. He was a place-holder, you know the kind of person you date while waiting for someone better to come along, and also I could not get him to stop using the word, “irregardless,” which is not actually a word.

I thought: I don’t need him.

Then I realized how many belongings I had that I didn’t need. That year after college, I started giving them away. It was sort of the beginning of my life as a generous person. If I wasn’t using something well, I felt that the thing should go to somebody who would love it.

I moved into a smaller apartment. I looked at my life and all its commitments – did I truly need to be a member of this club? Was that friend actually a good friend? Did I need this job, or was I just wasting my time and keeping it to feel safe? I reexamined every thing, every person, and every commitment that I had. And I consciously chose to either keep them or let them go. I began traveling lightly in a whole new way, choosing to focus my time and energy only on the things that mattered to me. And it was all because of lip balm.

And  that’s how lip balm became a divider between my teens and my twenties, an  addiction that I left behind in one decade to move, unaddicted, into the next.

Elisabeth Sharp McKettaElisabeth Sharp McKetta is a writer living in Boise, Idaho. Her poetry and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Monkey Puzzle, Anderbo, Luna Station Quarterly, and Talking River; her play “Zelda Speaks of Swans” was performed in two long-standing new works festivals, and she has been the featured storyteller at several events, including Story Story Night, where she first ’fessed up publicly to her chapstick addiction.

LOVE MADE VISIBLE by Jo-Anne McArthur

Jo-Anne McArthur Sea Shepherd

Click on each photograph below to see it in larger size.

It’s summer in the Antarctic and on sunny days I can venture out onto the bow of our Sea Shepherd vessel, the Bob Barker, to let the warmth penetrate my bones. Between chores, the bow is a great place to spend a bit of idle time outdoors reflecting on life and on our mission here in the southern oceans.

Keep a sharp eye and you’ll spy dolphins, penguins, albatross, and southern petrels. These moments of quiet reflection give me time to reflect on how the heck I got to be on this boat of environmental and animal rights activists, and on how a few defining life decisions led me to this moment.

A beautiful but wet day on the Antarctic Ocean.

A beautiful but wet day on the Antarctic Ocean.

Life won’t always be this idyllic aboard our boat, which the crew affectionately refers to as “The Bob.” We will have intensely dangerous confrontations with our rivals, the Japanese whaling fleet. Our boat is one of three on this 2009-2010 Antarctic Mission to stop the poaching of up to 935 Minke whales, which are hunted by the fleet and sold for meat in Japan.

Bob Barker captain, Chuck Swift, gives orders to crew in an intense moment while being surrounded by the Japanese whaling fleet.

Bob Barker captain, Chuck Swift, gives orders to crew in an intense moment while being surrounded by the Japanese whaling fleet.

The whalers hunt under the transparent guise of “research,” and though the countries who are members of the International Whaling Commission have imposed a ban on whaling in this southern sanctuary, no one is there to enforce the ban. Long time radical animal activist Paul Watson decided to take the matter into his own hands, sending ships down to the Antarctic to intercept the slaughter of these endangered animals. My title on board The Bob is “Sea Shepherd Crew Photographer.” It’s a role I almost turned down in lieu of a much-needed restful winter in Canada. When I think about a “fabulous” experience or moment in my life, he story of how I came to be on The Bob is one of those. I am a photojournalist and the work I do for animal rights is rewarding and exhausting. The year 2009 was undoubtedly the craziest of my 33 years. It began with a trip through Guatemala and Belize, followed by three months in Africa.

A volunteer shares a moment with a rescued chimpanzee.

A volunteer shares a moment with a rescued chimpanzee.

While shooting a photo story at a primate sanctuary in Cameroon, I contracted dengue fever, which left my body crippled with reactive arthritis. Refusing to return home for a rest, I moved on to Uganda to do photo work with the Jane Goodall Institute. There I asked a doctor to load me up with the meds necessary to allow me to continue my work. These meds were steroids, and I relied on them for close to four months. They helped me to walk and work, but slowed my overall healing significantly.

After a brief rest in Canada, I left for Spain and France to do factory farm investigations and a story about the brutal slaying of bulls during La Corrida. Night after night, with cameras in hand, I traipsed all over the country to document the extreme suffering of pigs, broiler chickens, egg laying hens, and bulls. From there I went onto Scandinavia where I documented mink farming. It was incredibly exhausting work, in both the emotional and physical sense. The traveling and all-night investigative escapades left me drained in a very profound way.

Thousands of bulls are needlessly killed each year in Spain’s Corrida.

Thousands of bulls are needlessly killed each year in Spain’s Corrida.

I do all of this investigative work so that I can help expose the use and abuse of animals worldwide. The images I take have become part of my umbrella project on the subject matter, called We Animals, and dozens of animal welfare organizations use the images to promote their work. We Animals is my passions combined: my love for story-telling through the lens and my love for helping animals, seamlessly entwined, epitomizing that famous quote by the writer Kahlil Gibran, “Work is love made visible.” I feel very strongly that my work for We Animals is what I was born to do in this lifetime. I took action to solidify this belief when I wrote to Sea Shepherd that November.

Free range chickens are collected, six at a time, by their legs, and put on the truck headed to slaughter.

Free range chickens are collected, six at a time, by their legs, and put on the truck headed to slaughter.

The Sea Shepherd mission came on the heels of my European investigative work so I put off replying to them as to whether I would join. The opportunity stood before me as a chance of a lifetime: saving whales, visiting the Antarctic, living on a boat, working alongside other dedicated activists … incredible! Yet I knew that I had to say no for the sake of my recovering health and my sanity. I wrote a carefully crafted e-mail, saying that I would love to join future campaigns, but would regretfully decline this upcoming mission. I sat there at my computer before hitting “send,” feeling responsible but hollow. As I navigated my mouse to the “send” button, however, something happened. I quickly deleted that email and, with a smile and a sigh, wrote the words “Sign me up!” I hit send. My fate was sealed.

The Ady Gil, moments after it has been rammed by the Shonan Maru No.2 The boat sunk less than 48 hours later. All crew members escaped.

The Ady Gil, moments after it has been rammed by the Shonan Maru No.2 The boat sunk less than 48 hours later. All crew members escaped.

My “yes” to Sea Shepherd was a door thrown open wide. I felt like I was also staring down a dark abyss of danger, seasickness, and sleep deprivation. It was all that and so much more. Not only did I have the adventure of a lifetime with inspiring activists and work that was meaningful to me, but my photos were also published by over two thousand news agencies worldwide. Though I was working for Sea Shepherd for free, it turned out to be a decent career move while helping to expose the poaching of whales in the southern oceans. I’m happy to report that my Sea Shepherd mission only somewhat slowed my recovery to full health. The dengue-induced arthritis lingers, but I have made a full recovery.

photo by Bohdan Warchomij

When I finally caught my breath after that whirlwind twelve months, I was sure that things would slow down and that there’d be calmer waters ahead. Actually, though, that whirlwind hasn’t really stopped. Since that year, I have travelled to dozens more countries and worked with many inspiring animal protection groups to document factory farms, wildlife sanctuaries, puppy mills, captive animals, fur farms, slaughterhouse vigils, animal fairs, and more. I have written two books and, with Dr. Keri Cronin, launched the Unbound Project to highlight the work of women on the front lines of animal advocacy. Little did I know that in 2009, I was just getting started.

In documenting our complex relationships with animals, I see the best and worst of humanity: the willingness of so many to look the other way in the face of atrocities, and the refusal of some to turn away.

Me and a rescued chicken at Farm Sanctuary. Photo by Karol Orzechowski

The work I do is can be difficult and devastating. I’ve shed more tears than I thought possible over the cruelty, hopelessness and apathy that I have witnessed. Not being able to save the tens of thousands of animals I’ve met causes me a lot of heartache too. Yet every moment of injustice and suffering that I have captured serves a purpose. My images have been presented to government committees examining industry practices. They have been mounted on billboards seen by millions of people. They have been featured in countless exposés highlighting practices that would otherwise remain in the dark. The work is hard, yes, but the suffering of those animals is not lessened by our not seeing it. Change will only come with visibility, so I continue my work to make sure these beings are seen.

On the other side of what I do are the rescued animals. And the activists who give––and risk––everything to make sure that those animals know that despite everything they have been through, they’re safe now. They’re loved. My work for animals is my love made visible.

Jo-Anne McArthurJo-Anne McArthur is an award-winning photojournalist, author, educator, and animal rights activist. Her documentary photo project We Animals explores our uses, abuses, and sharing of spaces with the animals of this planet. She is featured in the award-winning documentary film The Ghosts in Our Machine and has written two books, We Animals (2013) and Captive (2017).

VIEW FROM THE TOP by Nalini Nadkarni

Photo by Michael and Patricia Fogden for National Geographic

I have a great job; I climb trees to study the rainforest canopy. My journey to understand trees started early in my life, when I climbed the eight sturdy sugar maples in the front yard of my home in suburban Maryland. Most afternoons, I would drop my school books inside the front door, grab a snack and a book, and scramble up one of those trees, each with its own vertical pathway to a comfortable nest aloft. Those perches were refuges from the world of homework, parental directives, and the ground-bound humdrum of the everyday. I could look out across my home territory, check on the progress of squirrel nest constructions, and feel the strong limbs of those trees holding me up for as long as I wished. It was in those afternoons of arboreal repose that my sense of kinship to trees germinated.

Trees were not my only focus in those formative years. My parents provided me with modern dance lessons from Erika Thimey, a German-born dance teacher who offered the gift of creativity to her students. I learned the expressive ways the body can move and acquire the discipline that is needed to hone my muscles. From Miss Erika, as we called her, I learned that with mindfulness, the simple act of walking across a wooden floor or noting the graceful fall of a leaf can be an aesthetic action. It opened up a whole different way of seeing that has kept me aware of the multiple ways that one must look at nature to understand it fully, an approach I now bring to my scientific work.

In college, I first discovered the world of forest ecology through the lectures of an ecologist, Dr. Jon Waage. When he wasn’t teaching undergraduates, he carried out research on damselfly behavior. I was amazed to learn that he could make a living by sitting at stream edges to record the movements of these aquatic insects. From him, I learned about the world of academic science. He posed seemingly narrow questions that later turned out to relate to much broader issues about life and death, competition and mutualism, and the evolution of life on Earth. Wrestling through the labyrinth of the scientific literature, I learned to trace citations to their sources and recognize the key players in a scientific discussion. Science seemed the right approach to really understand the world.

But what of dance? With my deepening passion for science, I soon fund myself in something of a love triangle, having to choose between very different professions. Parallel with my enthusiastic forays in science, I delighted in the sparks of creativity that flew from each composition in the dance studio, the sense of feeling my body move with others, the messages about life and emotions conveyable on stage, which no scientific paper could communicate. Right after graduation from college, I decided to test out which would be the better profession for me – field biology, manifested in the scholarly persona of Dr. Waage, or modern dance, exemplified by the graceful spirit of Miss Erika.

I first tried on the life of a field biologist. By writing letters to 70 field stations all over the world, and offering my services as a volunteer field assistant, I found a temporary position to help a septuagenarian entomologist (insect biologist). He studied the taxonomy of tropical leaf-feeding beetles and directed a tiny field station in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, in the South Pacific. I accepted with joy. In January of 1978, I arrived at the entrance of the Wau Ecology Institute, in the foothills of the Morobe Province. The field station consisted of a few shabby wooden buildings, a small herbarium and insect collection, and a central table occupied by a chipped coffee pot around which staff gathered each morning to discuss progress on their research projects. I spent the next twelve months on expeditions around the country, thrilled by the stunning diversity of the rainforest. In that rainforest cloister, I felt at home with the people and work I encountered.

After the year in Papua New Guinea was over, it was time to investigate dance. I traveled to Paris, and made contact with a modern dance company, Danse Paris. I first took classes, and was then invited to practice with their troupe. The opportunity to dance for hours at a time and hang out with professional dancers was perfect to test out my potential future profession. After a year in the rainforest, it was a delight to gulp in the cultural offerings that only Paris provides. The art museums, city parks, urban architecture, and evening concerts filled my non-dancing times.

After six months, I had to make a choice. I knew that I could not do both professional science and professional dance. The former demanded years of academic preparation and wildland settings; the latter required years of physical and aesthetic training and an urban homespot. On a sunny morning in April, I sat down with my journals from both locales at a neighborhood café. Over numerous cups of tea, I read through them all and then sat back to decide which was to be my choice. The forest or the stage? As much as I loved the world of dance, the time I spent in the tropical rainforests seemed truer to my own spirit. I felt closer to my biologist colleagues, and more at peace in the forest environment.

I returned to the USA and entered graduate school in forest ecology at the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources. I spent a summer in Costa Rica on a field biology program, surrounded by fledgling graduate students and experienced faculty who opened the world of tropical ecology with enthusiasm and expertise. Each had his or her own specialty: hummingbird physiology; beetle distribution; songbird migration. Early on during that course, my eyes looked up to the complex world of the forest canopy – the plants and animals that lived their lives high above the forest floor and were among the most poorly known in the world.

I had the good fortune to encounter another graduate student who was studying canopy interactions. Don Perry had developed modified mountain climbing techniques, and he agreed to ‘show me the ropes’ in exchange for help with his field study. After a month, I was ready to climb on my own and to pursue my own set of canopy questions – activities that would enliven my life for the next three decades.

My canopy research colleagues, students and I have enumerated the rare and often unknown species that dwell on branches and twigs that never appear in ground surveys. I discovered that some trees put out “canopy roots” from their own branches and trunks, which gain access to the arboreal soil that accumulates beneath mats of canopy-dwelling (“epiphytes”). We learned that treetop versions of traditionally terrestrial insects and even earthworms – are found in this canopy-level soil, living out their entire life cycle high above the forest floor. We have measured the amounts of nutrients that the epiphytes intercept and retain from rain, mist, and dust, which can be considerable.

Over the last 30 years, new techniques of canopy access have evolved to include hot-air balloons, treetop walkways, hanging platforms, and 30-story construction cranes. The answers that canopy researchers report in scientific meetings confirm that trees are a critical part of ecosystems, landscapes, and the biosphere. Canopy researchers now quantify the amount of oxygen tree canopies produce, the amount of carbon dioxide they store, the volumes of soil they protect, the amount of water they retain, and the scores of wildlife species they support. Urban foresters have documented the “ecosystem services” provided by trees in urban settings: reduction in noise, temperature, and pollutants. Thus, the growing body of treetop research documents that loss of canopy diversity and function is a loss to the forest as a whole and to the landscapes beyond them.

Over the years, aware of the importance of the forest canopy and forest ecosystems in general to the health of the Earth, I have made deep forays into doing outreach and communication of what I have learned. I am especially interested in reaching “non-traditional” audiences, those who don’t automatically pick up a Natural History magazine, or watch a nature documentary film. Each of these projects involves connecting with other partners. One of my programs involves gathering scientist, urban youth, and scientists to spend time in the field and create rap songs about trees and insects. Another program brings science research projects involving endangered plants and animals into prisons so that incarcerated men and women can contribute to solving environmental problems, even though they are behind bars.

Another set of my partners to help communicate scientific messages are artists. One of my favorites is a wonderful collaboration with a modern dancer and choreographer. On an afternoon last year, I got a telephone call from Jodi Lomask, the Director of the San Francisco-based modern dance troupe. She wanted to make a modern dance about tropical rainforests, but wanted it to be based in science – could she come to my rainforest study sites with me to learn about them? Indeed she could, and did, and this year, we are performing the dance she choreographed while climbing my rainforest study trees to public audiences in Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. I feel happy that the two seemingly divergent forces in my life – studying trees and making modern dances – has come together for the sake of protecting rainforests.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is a Professor of Biology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and a leader in the scientific field of rainforest canopy research. Nalini created a unique method for rappelling to the top of the canopy using mountaineering equipment and has become known as “The Queen of the Forest Canopy.” She is featured in the Emmy award-winning National Geographic documentary “Heroes of the High Frontier.” She is also the author of three books and numerous scientific research articles. 

A BODY OF WORK by Kelly Dobbins

Kelly Dobbins photo by Juan Carlos Lopez

I was raised in a small farm town in Oregon in a very athletic family. My brother was a professional fighter and a Gold Medal Champion, traveling around the world to places like Romania and Russia. He started boxing when he was six years old, and he would quite literally train all day long, so I pretty much grew up around a gym. Despite this exposure, I didn’t feel personally drawn to it.

I went to college and majored in business, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in terms of a career. After graduation, I got a job at a construction company doing their accounting. I also started working out at a local gym. One day, the gym owner approached me and said, “You should get into bodybuilding.” I didn’t know anything about it, so he explained what it entailed. He added that he would be willing to train me for free, reasoning that it would be good publicity for his gym. He also told me that there was a show coming up in Portland, which was 60 miles from my hometown. I was naive at that time, not knowing what I was really getting into, so I said, “Cool, let’s do it!”

In the middle of my training, and before the Portland show, I found myself having to make a sudden move to California, which was a bummer. I was getting into bodybuilding and I didn’t want to stop. As soon as I got there, I immediately joined the local Gold’s Gym and became consumed with training — the bug had bitten me. I loved it so much that I even took a job there working at the front desk. I was 21 years old and I knew what I wanted to do.

Bodybuilding in California was big stuff compared to where I came from in Oregon. There were lots of competitors and bodybuilders around me. The support was strong and my body got even stronger. When I finally did my first amateur show, I won! And from there it went. I just kept going and learning more about the sport. I just loved it. My major goal was to “do the Sacramento,” because it was a big National qualifying show. To qualify for the Nationals, you have to place in the top three, so it’s not easy. I trained and competed and guess what? I won. I qualified for the Nationals!

After “the Sacramento,” I took a couple of years off from competing to train, because I was really small and the girls competing in the Nationals were relatively big. I just couldn’t compete with them at my size. I started training really hard and was always at the gym. That’s when I met my husband, Rick. He was also at Gold’s Gym, working out. You might say he was dedicated; he totally set his sights on winning me over. I was dating the manager at that time, who obviously didn’t much care for it, but Rick would sit on the steps and wait for me and wouldn’t leave. What can I say? It worked. He stole me away.

Rick became my personal trainer and that’s when I really took off. He’s been my trainer, my nutritionist, and my choreographer, which can make our relationship rough during pre-contest time. I’ve gotta say, it’s not that fun. Sometimes, I’m just exhausted and I want him to focus on being my husband, not my trainer.

To train for a contest, we start 16 weeks prior to the event. The diet is a huge part of it. At 16 weeks prior, I cut out dairy and fruit. The fructose in fruit is the main source of carbohydrates from sugar, and it goes straight to your liver, so if your liver is already full with glycogen, the sugar turns into fat. I also start limiting alcohol. Believe me, I like my daily glass of wine, but I start cutting it down to maybe four days a week, or three. At the 12-week mark, it gets tough; I start weighing and measuring everything down to the ounce. There are limited amounts of things I can eat: small amounts of protein, broccoli, yams, and brown rice. At 10 and 8 weeks out, I carb-deplete a lot. so I can go into ketosis. Fortunately, Rick monitors me on a daily basis.

A typical day during pre-contest means that I get up at 4:00AM. and do an hour of cardio. Then, I do some weight training. Then I head to work and train my own clients. At mid-day, I do another hour of cardio and more training. And finally, I do one more hour in the evening. The last week before the contest, I don’t train at all. That’s because the cuts won’t be there. You want your muscles to relax so your cuts will be visible when you pose.

Every contest is a challenge. I get four to six weeks out and I think to myself, “Why the hell am I doing this?” When you can’t eat and you’re carb-depleted, you’re really weak minded. Everyone around you is eating. You have to stay strong. It’s different when you’re one week out — you’re almost there.

My goal to compete at the National level happened last year. At the 2007 USA Championship in Las Vegas I took third, which is huge, because there are so many women competing at that level. Most women do those shows to turn pro, which is not a goal of mine. Honestly, if I turn pro, I’m toast. They’re huge women.

I have to work harder than most of the women in the amateur contests, because there’s no test for performance-enhancing substances, and many of the bodybuilders take advantage of that. I see what using them will do and I have no interest in doing that to my body. I have a life ahead of me, you know? Fortunately, they want us to compete smaller now,  so that’s to my advantage. I only came in 6th in the last championship, because they thought I was too hard, too shredded. The rumor was that they wanted us to come in 20 percent softer, but it’s really hard, because you can never really know what the judges are looking for.

For national competitions, you weigh in on Thursday night. On Saturday, they do the pre-judging. There’s a pump-up room in the back and there are bodybuilders there that oil you up. Then you go up to the stage and do quarter turns and a 60-second routine without music. They want you to look simple for the pre-judging. Nothing fancy. Your hair is usually up. When you come back and do your one-and-a-half minute routine to the music, you get dolled up. I can hear Rick to the side of the stage, coaching me as I pose. People in the audience are cheering. Friends have come from all over. It’s really exciting.

There is so much discipline involved. Everyone asks me why I love it and I can never give a definite answer. I love taking my body to the limit, but I also love to compete. I love the actual training and I love to see my body progress.

I should see a psychiatrist about this because I work my ass off, but I’m uncomfortable going out in public! I’m kind of a freak in public. I joke about this, but it’s true. I stay covered up. I’m getting a little more comfortable with it now, but even when it’s hot, I’ll probably cover up. If I’m with a guy or with Rick, I’ll go sleeveless, but otherwise, I won’t. I’ve been competing for 20 years, so it’s been a long time. I can’t think of any negative things that happen; I always get positive reactions, but I’m just uncomfortable with the attention. People always stare, even if I’m not in pre-contest shape. I have my own personal training gym now and when I’m out with clients, they will always comment on the way people stare at me. I don’t like it, even though I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. Go figure, right?

My mother and father are super supportive and proud of me. I’m different from my brother because of how I look, so it’s not really comparable that way, but they’ve always been proud. They love it. My mom is actually pissed off now because she hasn’t gotten the latest pictures from my last contest. I laughed and said, “Mom, I haven’t gotten any.”

I have two girls who are now 20 and 22 years old, respectively, and I enjoy being with them on my down time. We’re great friends and we laugh a lot. I’m proud of them, and they’ve always been proud of me. They’ve seen me train and compete since they were very little.

I’m proud of myself for being so disciplined. Doing this isn’t easy. I may or may not compete in the Nationals, coming up in November. I’m not sure yet. I’m already part way there from having trained for the last contest, but I don’t know if I’m up for the intense dieting. We’ll see. I started dieting a little this week . . . just in case.

Kelly DobbinsKelly Dobbins has been competing in amateur bodybuilding championships for over 30 years. She resides in Oakland, California, and owns her own personal training facility appropriately named Kelly’s Gym. She invites you to come for a complementary consultation! Just mention Dare To Be Fabulous when you call. (Tel: 510-601-5432.)  

PLAYING THE CANCER CARD by Simon Chaitowitz

Simon Chaitowitz

Some clouds have some surprisingly useful silver linings. Cancer, for example.

No, I’m not one of those cheery and “oh so brave” sick people who thinks that cancer made me a better person or helped me find my true self. I hate cancer. I’m pissed I got it the first time and even more mad I got it a second time (an unfortunate little side effect of treatment from the first one).

So no, I’m not into pretending that cancer isn’t horrible. But the Big C does have one little perk that doesn’t get publicized much. And I’d like to make sure that no cancer “survivors” guilt-trip themselves out of using it. (Like yours truly, until recently.)

What I’m talking about is taking advantage of any possible opportunity you have to do what you want and not do what you don’t want. For example, if you’re immune suppressed, the doctors tell you to quit cleaning litter boxes, changing diapers, taking out the garbage, or weeding gardens (yes, yes, yes, and yes!) but there are tons more Get Out of Jail Free Cards just waiting to be picked up.

In other words, don’t feel shy about using cancer to your own ends — whether that’s making your life better, furthering your cause, or just helping yourself get through the day. I call it Playing the Cancer Card. Kristin Boles, a cancer listserv mate, says she and herhusband call it the Fringe Benefits of Cancer.

Here are just a few examples. All are either based on my experiences or those of other cancer survivors:

* Get out of a parking ticket. Write a nice letter to the city explaining how you were rushing to your CANCER appointment when you noticed the meter you chose wasn’t working. Voila! Fee waived.

* Talk your way into meetings with secretaries of state and the prime minister. Adrian Sudbury, an advocate for bone marrow donation inEngland, says his disease regularly opens doors for him. Brilliant.

* Skip long, boring events. No need to feel obligated to attend that dreaded yearly family reunion if you don’t enjoy it. You need your rest, after all. But if you find yourself at the event, and just can’t take it anymore, no worries. No one will take your departure personally.

* Get discounts at nice hotels. No kidding. The last time I went out of town for a check-up, I found out that one of my favorite hotels offered a 20 percent discount to guests visiting the nearby clinics. Easier to justify luxury with that kind of savings.

* See your words in print. If there’s one phrase that virtually guarantees you’ll make it onto the Letters to the Editor page, it’s “As a cancer survivor, I feel … .” Nearly every letter I’ve started like that has been published. The Letters page is a great place to share your ideas about doctors, the pharmaceutical industry, or anything else related to cancer.  (Of course, if you’re already famous, you can probably use cancer to get yourself on Larry King.)

Those of us who are immune-suppressed have even more built-in excuses. One woman just told me she talked her way into the use of an indoor bathroom at a summer festival where everyone else had to use the portable toilets. Two points for creativity and boldness! (Disclosure: I’m still sometimes too chicken to ask to be the first on the buffet line.)

Those of us who are genetically disposed to guilt complexes may have an extra hard time following this advice. But trust me.

When life hands you cancer, this is your chance to eat dessert first, stop shaving your legs, switch to part-time work, or get out of jury duty. Whatever you want, whenever you want it. Go for it.

Simon ChaitowitzSimon Chaitowitz was a writer and two-time cancer survivor living and working in Washington, D.C. As much as she disliked the word “survivor,” she admitted it could be useful.  Simon passed away in 2009, less than one year after contributing this story to Dare to be Fabulous. She died from a blood disorder caused by the treatment she underwent for breast cancer.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE CLICK by Barbara Stitzer

All About the Click

When I was a little girl, every shooting star, every coin tossed into every fountain, every candle blow of the birthday cake candles resulted in the same wish: to be the same as everyone else. I used to make lists of how different I was from everyone else. I had dark, curly, frizzy hair, in the land of the blonde and blue. I was way, way taller than everyone else, 5’10” by the time I was twelve. My parents were 43 and 47 when I was born, so everyone told me that I was adopted or that I was abandoned by my “real” parents and living with my grandparents, and I kind of believed them.

The lists grew. I couldn’t draw a straight line, or even color within the lines. I was left-handed, which meant that I had to use those little snub nosed left handed scissors, as if by virtue of the fact that you’re left-handed, you are going to lose control of your left hand and start flailing around and stabbing yourself if you have a real scissor.

I had the highest IQ in the State of California at the time, which I desperately tried to hide. But every single month, a group of adults invaded my classroom with pads and pens and “studied” me, which of course made me immensely popular with the other kids. I skipped a grade, so that I, with my one of a kind holiday birthday, the Fourth of July, was almost two years younger and now even more uncoordinated and immature than all of the other kids in my class, which was really great when I was ten years old in sixth grade and looked on in horror from my Barbie Friendship as take two of the Summer of Love raged on five feet from me. Tod Fisher, bless his sweet little redheaded soul, would walk up and hold a softball on my bat for me to hit it. Even then, actual contact with the ball was iffy at best.

I joined a group of kids who put on musicals to raise my self confidence. When I sang, people actually, physically turned around and asked me to stop. So I mouthed. For four years.

Although I got into Stanford, Harvard, UCLA, and more, my mom made me go to the crappy loser school down the street, because when I started applying to college, I was only 14. After graduation, I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm to interview. Besides, my mom had a big dream for me: a job at the DMV. “It’s so safe”, she’d coo, her minty green eyes shining. “Once you get in, you’re in for the rest of your life, benefits, two whole weeks vacation,” she pleaded. So I did the only thing I could do: I became an actress. Big mistake for someone with no self-confidence. In one day of auditions, I was too tall, too short, too fat, too skinny, too pretty, AND not pretty enough.

When my mom came down with lung cancer, I went to stay with her while I decided what I wanted to do with my life. Well, things got really sad, and I bought a used Canon AE1 camera to keep my mind off it. There is a riverbed behind my parents home in Los Angeles, and when it rains, which isn’t very often, some bright guy gets the idea to take a boat down the riverbed and they usually drown, so about three days after I bought my little camera, the news crews were there filming a helicopter that was training with a dummy to rescue those guys, so I took my camera and ran down there.

I didn’t have a press pass, so they wouldn’t let me around the 8 foot chain link fence to get to where the action was, so I was trying to shoot through the fence, and this guy turned around and asked me what I was doing. “I’m taking pictures, duh” I said, and he’s like, “Well, you’re on the wrong side of the fence.” I said, “I know, I’m new at this, and they said that I couldn’t go over there.” He said, “Look, if you want the shot, if you really want this shot, just jump the fence.”

I’m still not sure why I decided to jump that fence. But something inside me welled up, and even though I was in high heels, a little short skirt, nylons, and was holding my purse, I did it. I jumped the fence. And he just thought it was so funny — there I was with my little manual pawn shop camera, and he had this super space age digital model. But I didn’t care. I shot for all I was worth. I bobbed and weaved, I laid down and shot up, I shot through a broken bottle top. I felt powerful, invincible.

After it was over, he asked me to “come to his ‘place’ and develop the film.” I wasn’t about to go to any guy’s “place” — I had, after all, just gotten OUT of that business s –but then he gave me his card, and it turned out that he was the head of a large Los Angeles area newspaper’s photo department, so I went back to the newspaper’s office with him, and lo and behold, my picture was better than his. “Whoa, that’s so cool!” he said. Where did you get an eye that let you see like that?” It was the first time that anyone had ever looked at my difference as a good thing. I was stunned. He published my shot and gave me a job.

Things just clicked after that. For the first time ever, everything I did was right. The Northridge earthquake came and our paper won a Pulitzer for coverage, and then everyone under the sun wanted to see my portfolio. I shot fashion, food, jewelry, editorials, magazine covers, everything. I got on an airplane to North Dakota for an assignment to shoot an RV show, switched seats with a guy, and wound up sitting next to the cutest, sweetest, funniest, most fascinating man who I married exactly a year later in a dream ceremony at the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel, followed by a dream honeymoon on a private island in Fiji.

I opened a studio in my new home state, and was booked a year out immediately. Why? Because I was different! I had my subjects wade in a waterfall, balance on train tracks, roll in mud. Nothing was too out there for me. Everything I touched turned to gold. I started winning awards. I got invited to a press trip in St. Kitts, in the Caribbean, got bored during the presentation and went out to feed the monkeys. An older gentleman came and sat down with me, and we started talking and laughing at how stupid the meeting was. It turned out that he was the Minister of Tourism, and that was his meeting! He invited me back to shoot a calendar, and again to shoot all of the tourism for the island. I insisted on bringing my own models from North Dakota. None of them had ever been on a plane before, much less seen the ocean. Watching their faces was awesome. People saw those shots, and we kept getting invited to different islands to shoot. My oldest daughter, Zoe, has been to 16 islands shooting with me, and my youngest, Tenley, nine.

I learned to digitally paint my photographs, and my work has taken a new turn. One of my paintings won grand prize in a contest and was sold at auction for $25,000 to a collector in Austria. When he flew me out to sign it in front of him, I asked him why he would pay so much for my painting, and he took my hand, looked me squarely in the eye, and replied, “Oh my dear, it’s going up. Way up.”

I’ve been busy photographing and painting people from around the world who fly to see me or fly me to their area of the world to work with them. I’ve built a reputation on having an individual sense of style, and people seem to really value my view of who they are behind the facade. Now if only people would quit asking me to stop when I sing.

Barbara Stitzer

Barbara Stitzer is the mother of two perfect, popular, and brilliant daughters, Zoe and Tenley, and her fabulous, handsome, athletic right-handed husband, Buzz, who, despite her utter lack of respect for keeping anything neat and clean, treats her like the princess she always hoped she was. She has won over 400 local, regional, and national awards, and is available for photographic commissions throughout the world.

OF MEN AND A MACHINE by Anne Singer

Caution Men Working sign

You live in a city like New York long enough and you learn to ignore things. The urban cacophony – sirens, horns, music, and that relentless commentary on you and the body you walk around in. You know, those verbal flares men send up that illuminate you in the crowd and alert everyone to the woman over here with the audacity to unbind her feet and venture out into the public spaces men think they own.

I have been asked by complete strangers, men passing on the street, Why are you wearing that baggy jacket that covers you up? Where are you hurrying that’s so important? Do you have a boyfriend? At newsstands and markets, men behind the counter have seized my hand, locked my eyes and smiled lasciviously while asking for my number. And I can’t even count the number of times male passersby, store clerks or strangers in restaurants have asked me why I won’t smile for them. Why are you so serious, baby? Smile!

Of course, the most celebrated hecklers, the men most likely to remind you most loudly that it’s their world and not yours, are construction workers. I think it’s the mob-like nature of their commentary that makes them notorious. Or maybe it’s their primitive vocalizations of grunts and hollers and that thing they do with their tongues. But when a crew of them sets their sites on you and send up their call, you begin to feel like the sickly caribou at the back of the herd and you put down your head and pick up your pace. At least, that’s what I always do.

Until the day I didn’t.

I was back in my Midwestern hometown, a college town where intellect is prized, and gender, though endemic, is well controlled by healthy doses of liberalism. It’s the kind of small city where a girl can grow up believing she is equal to men. I suppose there was a sensation of safety for me, being back in such a tolerant little place after fifteen years in New York where gender, ethnicity and wealth form a brittle template that defines all human interaction.

It was a balmy July evening, and I was strolling downtown with my old best friend from high school. Dating back to the ninth grade, I had walked like this with Wendy through shopping malls and high school halls and also these same downtown streets. And although I can remember both the drama and the joy of being teenaged best friends, what I remember most vividly is the reflections of our two selves in every window glass we passed: Wendy, the tiny, adorable and utterly feminine one with perfectly feathered hair; and me, the tallish, heavyish, lumbering one with her hair pulled back tight in a hair band or barrette. I saw myself as Big Bird and Wendy as the gorgeous guest host who makes Kermit swoon.

But now, in our 30’s, that mirror image was reversed, and I was learning to enjoy the way I looked in a pair of black jeans. And, apparently, on that July evening, so did a crew of workers resurfacing a downtown parking lot.

As we passed their worksite, their call went up and the flares went off and sounds began to issue from the men as they turned away from their work and towards we two women in our summer garb. But amidst the unintelligible chorus came a string of words in the form of a question: You wanna’ take a ride? One of the men was pointing at one of their machines. It was massive, easily 10 feet off the ground, with a shiny hot steel cylinder nearly as high that slowly rolled across the sticky black asphalt in a wake of tarry steam. He asked again, You wanna’ take a ride? and gestured at a driver’s seat high atop this mechanical monster.

And apparently, on that particular summer evening, I did want to take a ride.

I turned off the sidewalk and moved towards these hard-hatted men – to their utter delight, it seemed. They turned off their equipment, ceremoniously pulled back the sawhorse barricades, and cheered me on as I entered their hot, hard-working world. When I stepped onto the plywood planks that crossed the lot, I looked back and saw Wendy standing there, hands clasped just below her beaming, slack-jawed smile.

I don’t remember how I actually mounted the rolling machine, but somehow I found myself sitting up high, next to its driver as it rumbled and jolted and began to move. We took a few runs across the lot, back and forth in the kind of pattern you see combines travel at harvest time.

I have to tell you, it was exhilarating. The sheer scale and power of the machine beneath me gave me a glimpse into what makes men and boys stop and marvel at cranes, bulldozers and concrete mixers at building sites. I also have to tell you, it was a little bit scary, so I remained firmly seated rather than stand up, as a different woman might have done, and wave my arms in some gesture of liberated abandon.

As I’ve shared this story with friends, however, I’ve come to think that a different woman might not have accepted this invitation in the first place – let alone spread her arms like Kate Winslet in “Titanic.” And this surprises me.

It surprises me that I, of all people, the one with the baggy jacket and the Big Bird stride would seize this moment, defy expectations, and turn a sexual taunt into an invitation by saying ‘Yes.’ Did this fellow in the caution-yellow vest and work boots really want me to ride his roller?

Back in my New York days, I was once walking along with a girlfriend, beautiful Lydia. An old, disheveled man passing by muttered that she should stop and give him some time. So she stopped. And then she yelled, You want me stop, old man? You want to drop your pants so I can give you a blow job right here on the sidewalk? Is that what you want? Well c’mon then! The man, however, just kept walking.

Men don’t really mean it when they ask you, a total stranger, to stop and engage in whatever it is they’re asking for – your phone number, a smile, a ride on an asphalt roller. Men with the gumption to make such requests of women they don’t know are usually just singling you out for scrutiny and judgment, flagging you as a trespasser in the world they dominate. But it’s also true that you can stand your ground and claim your place in this world by proceeding with confidence, acting with joy, and, sometimes, by simply saying ‘Yes.’

Anne Singer

Anne Singer lives in Washington, D.C. where she works as a freelance writer and communications  consultant for political and public interest causes.

 

GOLD MEDAL MERMAID by Kelly Crowley

Gold Medal Mermaid

When you’re the odd kid out at a small Catholic grammar school, you’re destined to get picked last for every kickball game. In my tiny class of 17, the odd kid out was me. I suppose it was not only inevitable, but also a precursor for every success I’ve had. But at the time, it was traumatic, since, as middle-school popularity goes, I had several things going against me.

First, I kind of enjoyed learning, which was completely uncool. I did my homework, I tried to get the right answers, and I refused to let anyone copy off me. Except for the boy I had a crush on. I helped him out once … and then felt incredibly guilty for the rest of the week. I was, undeniably, a goody-two-shoes.

Second strike against me was totally out of my control: my family was not rich. We lived in “that” side of town, or as I like to joke, eight houses and one drug dealer from the freeway. The freeway separated my sleepy, boring town from the crime-ridden city, which would later be called the “homicide capital of the country.” However, there was this handy little footbridge that went up and over the freeway … right at the end of my street. Anyone running from police cars on the other side of the freeway could handily find escape in our neighborhood.

Okay, really, it wasn’t that exciting or dangerous. We neighborhood kids played tag on our front lawns, and careened up and down the block on our bikes. Still, I did not have everyone over for swimming birthday parties in my backyard. The only pool we had was plastic and about 18 inches deep.

Strike three was my arm. My early medical records call my condition “congenital microdactyly.” Yeah, exactly what the Latin says: I was born with a small hand. To be more specific, my right elbow is fused, the bones in my lower arm barely grew at all from when I was a baby, and I have this tiny hand with three little fingers. No one else in my tiny grammar school class had that, and although it made little difference in the early years, by the time we were in junior high, my friends had all abandoned me for the “cool” crowd, which was the rest of the class. And, at the time, I was utterly convinced the reason they all stopped wanting to hang out with me was because of my stupid, ugly, rotten arm. It was, in my young view, the cause of all bad things that happened to me. I would eventually discover that I was totally wrong, but that was my reality at the time.

High school couldn’t come fast enough, as junior high dragged to an end. The last big hurdle before high school was The Eighth Grade Play. This was an honor-laden tradition, at my elementary school. The most popular kids always ended up with the lead roles. It was, I thought, my last chance at redemption, my last chance to prove to all those jerks who picked me last for kickball that I was, too, cool, and perfectly capable of doing anything I wanted.

While most of the previous classes got do actual known theatrical works, we got the less-well-known “Magical Musicals,” which consisted of a seemingly random collection of songs chosen by the music teacher, who was drawing heavily on The Little Mermaid. There was a sprinkling of stuff from Little Shop of Horrors and Les Miserables, but most of it was by Disney.

As the solos got assigned, I sat patiently waiting for mine. I was in the church choir and was feeling confident. After all, I could hear when people around me were singing the wrong notes, when they were off pitch. I could pick out harmonies, and taught myself to read music more or less. Singing was something I could do. But at the end of class, when, as expected, the Queen of the Popular Crowd got the best songs, and the rest of the solos were handed out, I was without one. I was disappointed, but there was a ray of hope.

“That’s it for today,” our teacher said, “but we might add another solo or two. Probably Ariel’s solo from The Little Mermaid. We’ll talk about it next week.”

On our way back to homeroom, I planned. I would have a solo part in The Eighth Grade Play, and then they would have to respect me. I made a mental note to look for my Little Mermaid soundtrack. Of course, I didn’t have to look hard. The soundtrack was in my tape player, of course, since it was, secretly, my favorite movie. A little voice in the back of my head wondered if this really was my ticket to respect, since it was no longer cool to like The Little Mermaid. But I decided to ignore that little voice. If anyone asked how I knew all the words to the song, I could just say, “Oh, it USED to be my favorite movie.”

I dug out pen and notebook, and set the tape deck next to me on the bed. Painstakingly, I hit play, stop, rewind, play, stop, rewind, for what seemed like hours until I had transcribed every single lyric into my notebook. I then spent the next week listening to the song incessantly, memorizing every beat. The next week in music class, I knew I’d get the solo. No one else cares enough, I thought, no one else would work this hard to sing a stupid Little Mermaid song. At that point, it wasn’t about what song I would sing. Clearly, any song was good enough for me, so long as it was a solo.

The next week in music class we practiced and practiced the choral numbers. And we watched some of the soloists prefect their performances. We did that over and over for the next several weeks. I went in there every week, hoping that the teacher would ask for tryouts for the part, but she never asked. “She forgot,” I said to myself one week near the end. “Oh well. High school is almost here. It doesn’t matter.”

In fact, that day, I had other, grown-up things on my mind, like the fact that I had, for the first time, gotten my period. Really, I just wanted to go home. Music class, let alone standing up in front of everyone to sing a song, one I would probably get teased for knowing, was the last, last thing I wanted to do. But it was apparently my fate. I ended up sitting in the exact middle of my classmates when the music teacher asked if anyone knew the words to the Little Mermaid solo. I looked around at my silent classmates. Everyone was looking to see who would put their hand up. No one did, and I finally, sort-of, kind-of half-raised my hand.

“Kelly?” was the surprised response from the teacher. “Um, okay, stand up.”

Before I could think about it, she hit play and I was standing in the middle of my class singing along with Ariel. I finished, and the teacher hit stop. Our gymnasium was awfully silent. Either it was really good or really bad, because no one was even moving. And then it happened.

“That was really good, Kelly,” I heard her voice say. No, not the teacher. The Queen of the Popular Crowd. Relief washed over me, and I totally forgot about wanting to go home.

“Yeah, good job,” several of her minions chimed in.

I did it. See, they did think I was good at something—something other than school. I knew I was good at something, and now they did too, because I finally had the courage to just do what I wanted. I had been true to myself, and I had worked hard. The success of that moment was exhilarating.

That moment was over twenty years ago now, but it is still vividly real in my imagination, and its lesson enduring. In fact, I could have picked a hundred other moments in life when I dared to let Fabulous Me out of the box I tend to keep her in. Like many others, I sometimes hide, or disguise, or misplace the lady I discovered that day in eighth grade. It is a conscious decision to be fabulous, a decision I try to make on a daily basis.

Some days I’m more successful than others. On the really good days, the moments of daring, where I listened to my heart and followed my dreams and my desires, divorced from my inner critic and others’ expectations, my life has shot off like a rocket in exciting and new directions. The results of such forays have been stunning: Valedictorian of my college class and two gold medals in swimming at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games. Fabulous Kelly hasn’t failed me yet, and honestly, I don’t think she ever will.

Kelly CrowleyKelly Crowley, a sports fanatic who happened to be born with a “funny right arm,” is a two-time, two-sport Paralympian. In 2012, she raced as a professional cyclist with Primal/Map My Ride Women’s Team, and won two bronze medals in cycling at the London Paralympic Games. Previously, she won two gold medals in swimming at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games. Kelly was the valedictorian of her class at Santa Clara University, and has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. Today, she is a USA Swimming coach and a sought-after speaker.