# of pages written: 12½
# of days left to write 1st draft: 102
This morning Nate and I took Zeus on a walk. Zeus is a rather high-maintenance dog, and since I’m going to be taking care of him on my own next weekend, when Nate and Nikki go out of town, Nate wanted to make sure that I was aware of his quirks.
“Zeus isn’t good with other dogs,” Nate told me as we sat on the front stoop. Zeus rolled happily in the grass, waiting for us. “He’s sent boxers and rottweilers to the vet. And he might take off after something and run straight into the road.”
I nodded. I’d heard all of this before. I knew that I was supposed to avoid other dogs and keep a pocketful of treats with which to bribe him into good behavior.
“Oh,” Nate said, “and poison ivy. Make sure he doesn’t roll in poison ivy.”
I don’t know why, but I cannot identify poison ivy. I was a Girl Scout. I went to camp. I’ve spent time hiking in the woods. My mother’s backyard is apparently full of the stuff. And yet, I cannot seem to figure out what it looks like.
We harnessed up Zeus and started walking down Main Street. “Is there any poison ivy in here?” I asked, motioning to the underbrush where Zeus was headed.
“Yeah, there is,” Nate said, and I yanked on Zeus’s leash. Nate pointed to some three-leafed green plants about the size of playing cards. “That’s poison ivy,” he said.
It looked so normal and innocent. I never would have noticed it. We turned down Owl Pond Road. “That’s not poison ivy, is it?” I asked, pointing.
“Yeah,” he said, “it is.”
“Oh.” These leaves were bigger and tinged orange. To me, they looked nothing like the other poison ivy. I decided anything with three leaves must be poison ivy, no matter the size or color.
We kept on going, and I saw some three-leafed plants up ahead. “So that’s poison ivy, too,” I said confidently. “Leaves of three.”
“No, that’s not.” I wondered if Nate was starting to think I was a complete idiot or possibly half-blind. “See how the edges aren’t smooth?”
“Oh,” I said. “Sorry. I don’t know why I can’t identify poison ivy.”
“Maybe it’s because you’ve never gotten it really badly,” he said.
“Oh no.” My chest puffed up with indignation. “I have.”
When I was seven, my family and I moved to Vinton, a white-trash town in southwestern Virginia. Our house was a crummy, little one-story ranch, but it sat on the edge of a big, beautiful woods with a creek and wild turkeys and a crazy old hermit man who lived somewhere among the trees.
A lot of the other kids in the neighborhood weren’t allowed to play in the woods because their mothers said there were copperheads in the creek and poison ivy all over the trees. Oh, and because of the crazy old hermit man. But my mother was of the whatever-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger mindset, so my brother and I spent a lot of time in those woods.
I don’t know if I rolled in poison ivy or picked up some leaves and rubbed them all over me, but one day towards the end of second grade I broke out with the worst case of poison ivy imaginable. It was all over my body, all over my face, down my throat, up my nose, on my eyelids. It was horrible. I lay in bed all day with a fever, oven mitts on my hands to keep from scratching. When I woke up each morning, my eyelids were so swollen I couldn’t open my eyes. I ate sharp things like chips to try and scratch at the poison ivy down my throat. It was so awful, and apparently looked so bad, that when my mom tried to send me back to school a few days later, my teacher shook her head and said no way, I needed to go back home immediately. I was scaring the other children.
I told Nate this.
Then I marveled at my own stupidity.
I know firsthand how truly, truly awful poison ivy can be. And yet, still, I cannot identify it in a line-up of plants. I’m really not a stupid person, so I don’t know why I have this mental block about recognizing something that has the potential to cause me serious harm.
The thing I’m realizing, though, is that I often don’t learn from experience in all sorts of ways. I move places, expecting that a change of scenery will solve all my problems. (It doesn’t.) I go out with people who have hurt me before, thinking it’ll be better this time. (It isn’t.) I decide that taking that third shot of tequila is a great idea, even though it never has been in the past. I have made the same mistakes again and again. It’s like I can’t recognize the warning signs, even though I’ve seen them before.
In fiction, characters are always learning from experience. They go through some terrible ordeal, or they make some sort of journey, and at the end they are changed. They’ve learned something. I’m the opposite. I have some sort of terrible experience, and then I have it again a year or two later, just to see what will happen this time. I’m not sure what’s wrong with me.
Right now I’m writing a young adult book, and I’ve got to make my character learn from her experiences. Maybe I need to first figure out how to do that for myself. And I’m going to start by learning how to recognize poison ivy.
In an attempt to do to this, I just took the following Poison Ivy Quiz, and these were my results:
Your Score: You got 12 right out of 20 questions, for a score of 60 percent.
You did poorly and may want to learn more about poison ivy.