PASSION PROJECT: The Finalists, In Their Own Words
Written by
Passion Project
August 2010
Written by
Passion Project
August 2010
Dear SheWriters, Here is the first taste of the excerpts from three of our fabulous finalists: Allison Landa, Allison Stevens, and Alyssa Brennan! Check back here often-- we'll be posting excerpts from three finalists each weekday, from now until the winner is announced on September 7th. All my best, Lea RUNNING INTO, BY ALLISON LANDA In her own words: Running Into is a memoir about living with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, an adrenal disorder whose symptoms include excessive hair growth as well as male-pattern balding, obesity, and infertility. It’s nothing you’d want for your own daughter and yet my parents failed to obtain medical treatment for me. Instead, I struggled for years to conceal the hair on my face and body before working to pinpoint and treat its exact cause. This is not a memoir of victimhood nor is it a treatise on women’s health. It’s the story of how a woman who looks like a man, who gets called Sir in the grocery store, who struggled to shave on the sly in her college dorm room, moves through life with dignity and even some sass. It’s a story for anyone who has wanted to come out of hiding and confront the truth. Excerpt: She opens a cabinet and retrieves a disposable razor, then takes a can of Barbasol shaving cream from the rim of the tub. It is three o’clock in the afternoon. Ronald Reagan is in the White House. I am ten years old. “You may have to take care of it every day, or maybe every other day,” she says. “Everyone’s different. You’ll figure out your own body. It takes time, but you will.” I can only hope. “First I’ll do it,” she says, “then you go on your own. It’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it.” Then her mouth crumples. She sits on the toilet and lights a cigarette. It hangs from her Revlon lips and smoke rises to frame her face. Eventually she puts it out in the yogurt cup she uses as an ashtray. “Sometimes it just occurs to me how much I hate your father,” she says. “It just occurs to me out of nowhere how much I despise that fuck.” It is my turn to put my hand on her shoulder. “Mom,” I say, “don’t cry.” She stands up, rips a piece of toilet paper from its roll and blows her nose. The sound is coarse, a call to action. “Okay,” she says. She turns a mint-colored tap and water cascades. Steam rises and spreads. “Now,” my mother says. She hands me a towel. It’s warm and wet. I press it to my face without having to be told to do so. “Perfect,” she says. “The water softens it.” I think about the other hair, not on my face but on my back and legs, my stomach and buttocks. Will the water soften that? How will I manage it? Am I normal? I picture my mother’s face folding, wilting like a clutch of dead roses. Easier to swallow the question than bombard her with my worries. Then she pops the plastic cover from a disposable razor. She runs it under the steaming waterfall, then snaps off the tap. “Come here,” she says. She starts with my sideburns. Bushy and generous, they run the length of my face from ears to jawbone. This is the first time I’ve noticed them. She shakes the can of Barbasol, presses a button, releases a cumulus cloud of foam. Then she turns to me: two women. “It’s okay,” she says. “You’re not an ape.” “Will it hurt?” “No.” So she does know. She uses the razor with an experienced hand. Her hair is lighter, more sparse. Mine is stubborn. This is just the beginning. She washes my face with a gentler than normal touch. She reaches for a CoverGirl foundation stick. “At first you can use makeup over the shadow,” she says. “But give it a few months. The sun will tan your face evenly. I bet you won’t even need to shave every other day. Just keep an eye on it.” My mother is ... relaxed. Jocular, almost. She’s invited me into a new club, an exclusive one. Hair care for women. It’s an adult ritual, a grown-up rite. It’s exciting and it almost makes me forget about the lab slip on the floor of the car. Almost. *** UNTITLED, BY ALLISON STEVENS In her own words: Low income families cannot rely on any help from the government to afford diapers. Government food programs bar recipients from using subsidies to purchase anything other than formula, food and drink. That’s right. Poor people can’t use food stamps to buy diapers or any other hygienic product, whether it’s toilet paper, trash bags, or tampons. It’s time to change this law and provide low-income people with a federal hygiene benefit. This call is the basis of a burgeoning “diaper rights” movement in the United States. And it is the core of my proposed book. Diaper rights, I believe, are human rights. The book will center around this policy argument, but will also draw on the fields of sociology, politics and history to tell the story of the diaper today and through time. Excerpt: The seeds of the burgeoning “diaper rights” movement were sown years ago by a woman who has since come to be known—at least in certain social service circles—as the “Diaper Lady.” It’s not the most flattering of monikers, but Joanne Goldblum, who has made a life’s work out of diapering needy bottoms, wears it with pride. In the late 1990s, Goldblum had settled into a comfortable life as a clinical faculty member of the Child Study Center at Yale University. She lived in a well-appointed home on a tree-lined street in an affluent neighborhood in New Haven with her husband, then a real-estate developer, and their three children. On weekday mornings, Goldblum, a social worker, would gather up her children and drop them off at their private school before heading to her job on the other side of town. Before long, she would arrive at one of the homes of her clients. She would knock on the door, take some tentative steps inside, and begin to chat. Occasionally, she would ask to use the bathroom. And occasionally, the toilet paper holder would be empty. The persistent lack of toilet paper in one particular home mystified her. As she grew more familiar with the woman who lived in the home, Goldblum mustered up the gumption to ask why she never seemed to have a product that seemed so inexpensive—and so necessary—that even poorest of the poor could find a way to obtain it. Why don’t you have any toilet paper, she asked. I can’t afford it, she was told. Why don’t you use your food stamps to buy it, she pressed. Because you can’t use food stamps to buy toilet paper, she was informed. You can’t use food stamps to buy toilet paper? You must be mistaken, Goldblum said. And then she instructed her client to take a closer look at her benefits, and then she left. Goldblum returned to the woman’s home for a follow-up visit, only to find once again that she had no toilet paper. But instead of pressing her client further, she bit her tongue and decided to look into the benefits of the federal food stamp program herself. What she discovered astounded her: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (informally known as the food-stamp program) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (often called WIC) bar beneficiaries from using subsidies to purchase anything other than food, drink and formula. It wasn’t just toilet paper that was off limits. No matter how much they or their children are in need of personal or household cleaning supplies, low-income people cannot use food stamps to buy soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, shaving cream, razors, shampoo, combs, brushes, trash bags, dish detergent, dish soap, laundry detergent, sunscreen, tampons, sanitary napkins, wipes, and yes, diapers. Millions of people in the richest country in the world cannot afford simple, readily available products to keep themselves, their families and their homes clean. And their representatives in Congress have offered them no help at all. The discovery stunned her. How could she—a veteran social worker with an advanced degree who had slogged through the trenches of federal food programs for years—not know that her clients could not use the very subsidies on which their lives depended to keep themselves and their families clean and healthy? And if she hadn’t mastered the basic tenets of federal food stamp laws, how would people who worked farther up from the ground floor of poverty have any idea about what it was like to survive on food stamps and WIC benefits? And how, precisely, could those in the corner office of society’s top floor—the lawmakers who determine who gets which portion of the American tax-dollar pie and the executives and policy-makers who implement those decisions—possibly know that antiquated food policies had left thousands—hundreds of thousands?—millions even?—without the ability to own something so simple and so essential as a few squares of one-ply toilet paper to use after going to the bathroom. Cleanliness may be next to godliness. But it’s also next to wealth. Basic hygiene is a luxury, plain and simple. Even in America, the richest country in the world, countless people can’t afford to be and stay clean. “It took a long time for me to understand that,” Goldblum says. “It was nothing more or less than that.” *** ALICE IN VODKALAND, BY ALYSSA BRENNAN In her own words: Alice in VodkaLand is a series of humorous personal essays about life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. From dating a CIA operative, to convincing students that the word “intercourse” doesn’t really mean “discussion” despite what their dictionaries say, to mistakenly adopting a feral kitten from a nearby village, this book will be a colorful read for anyone who loves a good laugh. Excerpt: For a week, Nicholas eyed me as one might eye an armed man at the post office. He hissed and bit me whenever reached out to pet him. He spent a great deal of time either climbing the walls, or digging at the place where the floor met the wall, hunting for an escape route. I stared hard at the bright side, reminding myself that Nicholas ate the cockroaches that liked to hang out in my bathroom, and wasn’t that a nice benefit of having him around? I imagined that transitioning from the village to the city must be psychologically difficult for him, since he was probably used to chasing butterflies in golden wheat fields before curling up under the stars with baby lambs in a bed of hay. I also imaged that with each passing day Nicholas was becoming more and more used to me, like some smaller, fuzzier Patty Hearst, his heart growing increasingly more empathic toward me, his one-woman Symbianese Liberation Army. I drew comfort from the fact that Nicholas occasionally came within seven feet of me when I put his food out, and I focused on narrowing that gap patiently, inch by inch, day by day. And then Nicholas went into heat, and suddenly I could not peel her off of my leg. Until Nicholas went into heat, I had (a) never seen a cat in heat, (b) never imagined that Nicholas might not be a boy cat and (c) never understood with such clarity the reason that Americans are so into spaying their cats. A cat in heat yowls constantly. It pees and sprays on everything, and it lifts its tail sky-high to rub its cat butt up against every object in its visual sphere, day and night, like the fifth Baldwin brother. I had to find a spay clinic. I went to Tanya and, with my limited Ukrainian, asked, “Where can I visit with my cat to have her baby-making inside-of-her-body place frozen”? Tanya furrowed her brow. To her continued consternation, I began to physically imitate some of Nicholas’s “in heat” behavior, but it was only when I rubbed my butt up and down against the wall, then a desk, that she finally understood. She then consulted several colleagues before informing me that someone’s friend named Vladymir would come to my apartment and help. I hoped that Vladymir would be clear ahead of time on who, exactly, was in heat. I opened the door to Vladymir, an approximately 60 year-old man with huge black glasses and lenses thick enough to ice skate on. He carried a dusty black doctor’s bag, which, combined with his age and his glasses, made him look not unlike a Slavic Mr. Magoo. Within minutes it was clear to me that we were not going to understand each other at all; he didn’t grasp the concept of slowing down his speech for non-native speakers. That might not have mattered in any case, because the only vaguely veterinary words that had been part of Peace Corps language training were “A stray dog has bitten me, but I have had my rabies shots. Have you a tourniquet?” Vladymir set his bag on the kitchen table and picked up the yowling Nicholas, who immediately began rubbing her butt against his arm. I admit to feeling a small pang of jealousy, seeing as I had worked so hard to have a relationship with Nicholas and here she was, passing her affection along to just anyone. Vladymir set Nicholas down, opened his bag and pulled out a large, 1950’s-style metal and glass syringe. I marveled that the syringe did not have a cap on the needle and that it was already filled with light yellow colored liquid, which meant, amazingly, that an open syringe had just been jostling around in his bag, ready to go, during his entire trip to my apartment. He’s going to perform animal surgery right here on my kitchen table, I thought, and it’s going to happen with no sterilization. Hellooooo, a small voice from deep inside me hollered up to my brain, you are in the Peace Corps, not Doctors Without Borders. In my crippled Ukrainian, I asked Vladymir, “What is that yellow water in that small sharp doctor stick?”, then nearly drowned in the wave of indecipherable Ukrainian with which he responded. At the end of his word deluge, I did what any one of you would have done and said “Umm-hmmm”, while nodding sagely. Vladymir might have said, “That’s anesthesia. I’m going to make her a little sleepy first, so that she’s comfortable.” Or he might have said, “It’s cat pee from a cat who is not in heat. It will neutralize the situation.” Or perhaps he said, “It’s vodka–and-mushroom extract from a magical gnome, and it will reverse the capitalist spell she is under.” It did not matter. I had solemnly consented to any and all courses of treatment on Nicholas’s behalf.

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  • Andrea Crain

    Wow, I want to read the rest of ALL OF THOSE!

  • Sally Kohn

    Can't wait to read all of these as full books. But have to just say, Alyssa, your excerpt made me fall of my chair (and then want to pee on something)!!

  • E Victoria Flynn

    Excellent reading. Pins and needles for more!

  • Mary Keating

    "Interesting, very interesting," she comments using her far from perfected Watson voice. "Zis competition is turning out to be filled with flavorful stories, remarkable twists, and talent.”

    Wishing each of you luck as the contest moves forward. I am excited to read, compare, and invest time in each piece. Thank you for sharing your heart and your excerpts.

  • Amy Campbell

    What a great variety of pieces, and all wonderful! This is why I love non-fiction -- because everyone has a story, and when I get a chance to read them they're always more unique and complex than I could have imagined. Thanks for sharing them, and best of luck!