A Book that Changed My Life
“The People’s Almanac,” published in 1975 lived on the shelf right above my father's failed attempt at a fish tank. It functioned as a bookend. What had once been a lively little eco-system of fish and algae was now dry. An odd collection of dehydrated sea horses, silver dollars, and a shellacked puffer fish dangled on fishing line in the waterless tank. I have no recollection of pulling down the book for the first time. But in the late 80’s, when I was probably 12, I regularly turned to this book of weird facts when I was bored.
“The People’s Almanac” logically begins with psychic predictions, the real story of Snoopy, the history of the Mafia and then takes a sharp turn to spend 300 odd pages detailing the significance of each year in America history from the founding to present day, 1975. I was taken in by the 50 pages of lists: “15 Renowned Redheads,” “The 9 Breeds of Dog that Bite the Most,” “20 Celebrities Who Have Been Psychoanalyzed…” the lists were filled with random curiosities that matched my limited attention span.
In 1989 I lived just outside of Richmond, Virginia at 13701 Winterberry Ridge. My childhood home was the third house built in a planned community on a manmade lake. Suburban Bliss with 6,000 other families. Each mailbox was the same. We didn’t have sidewalks but we had bike trails with golf cart lanes. The local McDonald’s was blue and brown because the community found the red and yellow color scheme too garish. This was a place that took Hands Across America very seriously.
At 12 I donned a permed mullet and had grown restlessness with leafy col de sacs. I was a scheduled only child with parents a decade older than most moms and dads back then. I was terrible at all the sporty offerings at the neighborhood country club and refused to try anymore. I was still forced to dance in white gloves at Cotillion most Saturday nights. But that would soon come to an end when I shared with my mother the NWA lyrics a dance partner whispered in my ear. Honestly, I was more interested in talking to my friends’ mothers about the bike trail flasher than doing anything else.
Reading the almanac I learned about Utopias and my favorite sub-heading “Failed Utopias.” I was pretty sure this suburb was a failed utopia, it just hadn’t fallen yet.
That summer, I found some happiness at sleepaway camp. I decorated my footlocker with puffy paint, outlining the states I had visited. My bunkmate used a whole years’ subscription of Hit Parader and Circus magazines to create an epic collage of hair metal bands. (I hope she still has it was very well done.) I learned a lot about CC Deville, from the band Poison, that summer.
But Camp started off a nightmare. Every activity involved upper body strength that I still don’t have. I wrote home nasty postcards, detailing bug bites and a tooth I had chipped trying to get back in a boat. But over time I found my calling at camp, grooming horses and mucking stalls. I could sing selections from the musical Chess without interruption.
Back at home, my love of animals led me again to the almanac. Unfortunately, this book is VERY lacking in its coverage of horses. There in no mention of their beautiful manes or best practices for picking hooves. In the “Animal Oddities” section there is a brief mention of a stable in 1880’s Germany that trained horses to do math but nothing more beyond that. I did find passages about respecting animals in the “Famous Vegetarians” section of the almanac. This Chapter was followed by an illustrated section on animal testing. I had never seen images like that before. Those pictures paired with a Sassy magazine interview with River Phoenix transformed me into a vegetarian. Twenty-Seven years later, I’m still a vegetarian.
That fall I started sixth grade with a new style fresh from my first EVER trip to New York City. I had bought a cool leather hat with a metal chain that I had no idea was a leather daddy cap. I wore makeup to school for the first time too. Blue or green mascara from the Avon catalog was coordinated with casual nm=-blazers; I always rolled up the sleeves. In my very first yearbook photo, I look like I’m ready to anchor the evening news. But I was just a weird kid looking for some sort of identity, equally influenced by Starlight Express and The Heidi Chronicles. Back then I was a mess of contradictions, the same is true today.
“The People’s Almanac,” helped me make sense of suburbia. Where my friends found solace in novels by Judy Bloom, being an only child, I couldn’t find a novel with a family like mine. So I looked to an almanac that was just as weird as me.