Here I am at age six in front of our next house in Garden Grove which came with this wonderful xeriscape mound covered with boulders and cactus. In the 1960′s parenting was a little different than today. My parents said, “sure you and all the neighborhood kids can play on the cactus mound! You’ll figure it out.”
I still remember the plants at this house. In the back was a thorny pyracantha and a jacaranda tree with beautiful, soft mauve flowers. Against the house wall in the picture you can see a tree fern and the twisted spires of a Hollywood juniper. The shady, cool space underneath had baby tears moss, hairy tufts of blue fescu and papyrus that looked like green silky umbrellas.
By this age I had started running away from home. I would pack a paper shopping bag with a snack, picture books and a few stuffed animals. I would spread a blanket out on the grass under the shade of a big tree that was just to the right of the mound in the picture. There I would sit and read or color for as long as I could. One day my father came by and looked at the picture I was coloring in my coloring book with my brand new 64 crayon set of Crayola crayons all very sharp and hardly used. I remember showing him what I was working on and asking if he thought it was pretty. He said something that absolutely stunned me. He said, “you know, you can color outside the lines.” This was sixties talk for ‘think outside the box.’ “No thank you,” I said. (Probably really not that polite). “Go away,” I said. “I like coloring inside the lines.” Ironically I now make part of my living coloring inside the lines for landscape design. But I know what he meant, and I still think about it.
By this age I was already very obstinate. Although television had been around for a while, my parents finally broke down and bought a black and white set with a wire antenna that sat on the top. Such was the allure that my brother and I routinely got up at 5:00 a.m. to watch it. Of course there was no programming available at that hour, but we would sit and stare the grey bars of the test pattern expectantly anyway. For hours. Cartoons came on in the afternoon and we loved Popeye, Felix the Cat and Wile Coyote. With cartoons came commercials and soon my mother began to regret her decision because I became absolutely adamant that she needed to buy Sugar Frosted Flakes because Tony the Tiger said so. My mother had been raised during the depression, and she thought this was reprehensible subversive brainwashing on the part of advertiser. She just as adamantly refused; Wheaties were good enough.
The argument raged for months until finally she said, “Fine. Take your allowance (I probably earned a dime a week doing a few chores), walk down to the grocery store and buy yourself a box of Sugar Frosted Flakes if you want them so much.” Well I did want them desperately, but the store was blocks and blocks away and you had to cross a very busy four lane street with a stoplight to get to the huge parking lot of the store. You then had to cross that, enter the store, find the cereal box, go to the cash register, purchase it and walk home. I was six so this all seemed quite daunting. So I thought about it very carefully for a while, but then I went. Bolstered by sweet success I even went a number of other times. But soon I got tired of spending my entire allowance on this product and realized that by dumping two heaping spoonfuls of sugar on Wheaties you could get a similar effect with a lot less work.
If you have not written your first novel by the time you are in your early twenties, life events will conspire to delay your efforts. Being obstinate will help you return to the task.
Photograph by Paul or Priscilla McCoy, 1962.