10.15.2009

The Run

Week after week I love to watch the fat whiners on Biggest Loser prove over and over again that whining and crying doesn't make exercise easier. It's easy to watch this show and feel good about yourself, at least at the beginning. You look at them, look at yourself and you think, "I'm in great shape." Anyone you know looks great compared to them. This is why, at my house, Biggest Loser night is also Ben and Jerry's night.

By the end of the show, though, tables have turned. If you're not consistently exercising, eating Jennie-O chicken and sweating all over the place at every opportunity, you could start to feel flabby and lazy. It's hard to watch a whole season all the way through without feeling like your own biggest loser.

Maybe that's why I started running again. It isn't to lose weight, it's because I like knowing I can run. If I don't run first thing in the morning, though, I'm not sure I'll get to it, so I set myself a deadline. Okay, I tell myself. 4 pm. I'll run at 4 pm. It'll be foggy by then, and cooler. It's so hot and humid right now that I'm too lazy to get up and pee. When you think 70 degrees is hot, you know you have tremendous Biggest Loser-level whiner potential. Yes, this is definitely why I run.

4:13 pm, I've peed and I'm out the door. I would have gone at 4 pm, really I would have, but for the plumbers. I called Charlie this morning (2 1/2 months left until he retires and returns home, yay!) and left him a message, telling him to go Irish on the plumbers. Going Irish is our way of describing his gift for yelling in an out of control-sounding manner. It gets results. I sound shrill when I yell. He sounds Lifetime TV movie scary. The plumbers need to be scared.

Those crazy plumbers. I'd hoped to have them out of my life by now. They're done but they've left a little love. They haven't called to get the scaffolding removed. These plumbers have taken advantage of my dad, the owner of this apartment building, and his dad before him, for 40 years. They low-balled this bid, I know they did because they kept telling me so, knowing he legally had to get at least one competing bid, and they kept calling us both, begging him for the work. Funny how they don't low-ball any other job.

The first and only time I called them to snake a tenant's tub, six months ago when I first became manager, they charged me $400. One sloppy guy, so sloppy he didn't bother closing his mouth to form words, was here for maybe five minutes, max. I told my dad he might want to consider using another plumber. "I've used them for 40 years," he says and he quickly changes the subject, hoping I'll forget. He and the plumbers both, I notice, do this with me. I'm not saying they think females are stupid. I'm saying that's why I called Charlie.

They bid low and then they convinced my dad to pay for things not included in their bid but, oddly, included in the other plumber's bid. Scaffolding is one of these things. Dad said it cost him $80 a day for this scaffolding, and that amount was before the plumbers decided they needed more scaffolding around the other side of the building. Somehow the ladders they'd assumed they'd use, according to their bid, just weren't good enough. I never saw them bring out ladders, not even once.

The plumbing job is complete, the inspection is complete, and the scaffolding sits in the courtyard for no reason. Nobody has been on it since the inspector, over two weeks ago. Three stories of scaffolding, just on this one side, block the courtyard lights at night and block the daylight through our apartments' kitchen windows. The plumbers clearly moved onto another job and forgot. My dad's paying for it, so what do they care? Even after two calls from me reminding them it's still there, it's still there.

Charlie called me at 3 pm, telling me he went Irish, telling them they'd go to hell for taking advantage of an old man, my dad. As often happens when Charlie gets Celtic, I got three calls right away. First, the sloppy plumber said, or I think he said, "They still haven't picked up the scaffolding?" he said. "I wonder what happened."

I say nothing.

"I'll get on it."

He calls back. "They'll be there tomorrow. Can you let them in?"

"What time?"

"I don't know. They'll call me first, I think, if they're going to do it tomorrow. Maybe I should have them call you and you can take care of it."

"I don't think so."

"Okay."

The third time he calls and says, "They'll be there tomorrow morning and they'll call me first. I hope I can be there to open the door."

"I hope so, too. You still have a key to our building."

"Yeah. Uh, yeah. I'll call you when they call me, just in case I can't let them in."

I really want to go a little Irish on them myself, but I want the scaffolding gone even more, so I say the first thing I can think of to get him to say goodbye. He says goodbye and in my mind I'm thinking why I don't understand how anyone, even anyone as old and trusting as my 82 year-old dad could hire these guys more than once. I can't even understand what the guy says, and I don't want to read his lips because they never seem to entirely shut, except around his cigarette, which he leaves scattered around the foyer and everywhere else for me to pick up after.

There must be something, though, in the way he talks that convinces my dad to give him jobs, and too much money in payment of those jobs. Tenants have called me, many of them, many of them women, saying, "These plumbers are the worst. Whenever I have a problem and I see these guys come in to fix it, I know it will end up worse than before they came. I'll hire my own plumbers and pay for my own repairs before I'll let them in my apartment again. They're horrible."

In two and a half months, Charlie will be here full time and he can run interference. Now I'm just running. The good thing about running in Golden Gate park is that there are lots of runners. I feel like I'm on the Biggest Loser and we're all working toward being healthy, all together. Some people, though, run like it's a competition. They seem to get great joy from looking at their fancy watches and passing people. I'm just trying to talk myself into not stopping.

I make it up the hardest hill and as soon as I do, I wipe my face with my shirt. As I do, some guy passes me, also wiping his face with his shirt in the exact same way. It's like my doppelganger, my opposite, my biggest Biggest Loser competitor.

If you're going to pass me, you have to keep going faster than me or I'll try to keep pace with you. It's like I escape 2009 and return to sophomore year high school track practice. In track, you learn to push yourself to go harder than you want to go, for longer than you think you can. You never, ever let the gap widen between you and the runner in front of you. This face-wiper better hurry up.

I get closer to face-wiper guy and see that he's got at least four water bottles strapped around his waist in some sort of fancy, expensive-looking piece of equipment. He's got a nice shirt, although it's sweaty, and new, nice shorts. I'll bet I could buy four or five pairs of my shoes for the same price as his one pair. When I used to ski, the worst skiers had the best equipment. I can keep up.

The road turns and I lose him. He could have gone right, left, or straight. I continue even though it's up hill and this is where I usually say to myself, "You can walk if you want to." I don't, but if I tell myself I can, I won't. There is a lot going on in my head during such a simple activity as running.

The face-wiper comes up from behind me and passes me again. You bastard! Where'd he come from? Was he hiding? Maybe he was getting a drink of water at the fountain. I'm going faster than he is. I'm going to catch up to him, even though we're heading east and this is the sunniest part of the park. I could get hot. I hate hot.

Another turn and I lose face-wiper again. It's okay. I'm almost done. I'm heading back to the breakers, back home, back to the fog. It gets so thick so fast that I can't even see across the street. I'm trying not to trip on the cypress and eucalyptus debris, and the rocks all over the dirt path, so I'm slowing a little. A car stops to let me cross at the Chain of Lakes intersection and face-wiper comes up from behind and passes me again. Jerk!

I run as fast as I can over rocks and branches, downhill through mud and puddles. I run all the way to the ocean, or where the ocean should be. I can't see it, even though it's just across the street. I'm done. I look around for face-wiper after wiping my own face with my shirt for about the fiftieth time, coating my shirt with sticky sweat. It's such an ugly thing to do but with the way I smell, it's not the most ugliest thing about me right now.

All around me are middle-aged tourists, happy couples from far away, holding hands and walking slowly with wide-eyed looks on their faces. A big red sedan slows down in the middle of JFK and I know they're lost. I walk over to see if I can help, first looking around for my face-wiping competitor. I can't find him anywhere but there's a lot of fog. I just want to know which way he went so he doesn't pass me again. Even though I ran almost seven miles, I'll run another seven before I'll let him pass me again. I'm part Irish, too, and catching up to runners who don't know they're in a competition is a healthy way to let it out.

A really fat lady sitting in the passenger side of the big red sedan looks at me confused. "Do you know where the beach is?"

It's twenty feet down JFK to the intersection with Great Highway. On the other side of the Great Highway is the ocean. I guess that's what she means, but I'm confused. Is she looking for a beach like in Hawaii or the ocean, like across the street? It's such an easy question that anyone knows the answer. I know the answer! I can help.

"Take a left at this intersection and there's parking on the right. That's it. You're right there."

"Oh," she says, smiling. "Oh. Thank you." The driver, her husband probably, looks up from his map and smiles, thanking me, too.

I feel like a Biggest Loser competitor when they win an easy advantage, and I haven't even cried all day.

8.19.2009

Minutes

"I don't know what you're saying," Frank says to Stella, my granddaughter, almost two.

It's hard to understand other people's little kids but I know what she's saying. She's singing. She likes to sing. Frank has two two year-old twin boys. They can eat ice cream and get it on their foreheads, figure out how to turn off the Xbox or TV if you need that done, but so far I haven't heard them singing Lady GaGa yet.

"Po-po-po-poker-poker . . ." Stella sings to Frank, again.

"Where's the poker game?" Frank says. "I don't know. I don't know where the poker game is."

". . . face!" Stella says. "My my poker face!"

His boys don't sing to people they barely know and they don't care about taking off or putting on their shoes like Stella does, but they also don't seem to mind when Stella picks up a little ball and throws it right at one of the twins' heads. The twin is stunned but doesn't care at all. When you're a twin, sometimes you get a ball in the head. It just happens. The other twin is happily sitting at the couch, eating a piece of bread left on the table that an older kid didn't finish. I could watch these three all day.

Too soon, everybody leaves and it's just me and my own intense thoughts to fill the place. I start to think about how many minutes I've been alive and how many minutes I have left, how I spent previous minutes well and how many I wasted. I waste too many minutes thinking about what I should do with the minutes I have left that it's too late to do anything useful.

I miss my kids being little and I like it when I can be around other people's little kids, especially my little granddaughter, who makes me happy no matter what she does even if what she likes to do lately is sing a song about rough sex (that is what that song is about, right?). You don't think big thoughts around little kids. There's only little songs, little pieces of bread, little balls bouncing off your head.

The only way I can keep my thoughts little is by turning o
n the big TV. I fought with Charlie about getting this 48" monster but now I look at it like a tranquilizer, a great big horse tranquilizer with cable. Why mess with marijuana when you can go straight to TV meth?

I'd better flip it on and find something quick, even fat girls embarrassing themselves on More to Love, before some stupid idea pops into my head. Without anyone to stop me, I can easily convince myself walking to the La Playa Safeway at 9:30 pm, by myself, through the park, past the grungy beach people, just for a pint of Ben and Jerry's is a good, even great, idea. C'mon, it's Ben and Jerry's! No harm comes to you when you're thinking full-fat happy hippy thoughts, right?

All by myself with no one to tether me to reality, I've become that creepy relative I used to make fun of. I play solitaire on my laptop for hours and I like it, just like old people in rest homes who can't remember their own names but are damn happy when they get all the cards in the top four piles. My grandmother is the reason I like card games, so maybe it's a product of age to get super-excited about fifty-two replicant pieces of online cardboard decorated with royalty and little hearts.

My grandma, who taught me solitaire and gin rummy at her house on Geoffroy Drive overlooking the beach in Santa Cruz, was the opposite of creepy, though. She and my grandfather took me to the Bubble Bakery and everybody there was excited to see them. They were like rock stars for the breakfast crowd, and I was their granddaughter. We ate blueberry pancakes with whipped cream, made from white flour and white sugar, something my mom, the future nutritionist, would not do. My mom said she concerned with our physical health. She was doing us a favor.

My parents didn't often go to restaurants unless it was the Burger Pit after church, and only then, I'm convinced, under holy peer pressure. "The Chase's are going," we'd say, "and they have more kids." These Christians clearly had less money, and expense was my dad's excuse to evade anything fun. Their kids had stringy hair and gray, dirty clothes and yet every Sunday they got to go out for burgers, and they were going to heaven.

"Please?" we begged. "The Chases and the Schulteis's are going."

"No drinks," my dad said. "Only water. And nothing else." We knew we'd convinced him to take us out when we heard the "only water." At least we knew we weren't going to have to eat open-faced cheese sandwiches on heavy, dry, dark healthy bread at home, and then go work in the garden or work somewhere else or pretend to work and run off to our friends' houses next door. We'd have a hedonistic break for a little while.

When you never go out, it's so weird to order so you have to look around to see what other people do. It didn't escape my attention that the Chase kids were slurping up both fries and soda. No fries ever sat in the middle of our table while we sat and waited for our burgers. "Fried foods don't belong in our bodies," my mom said. "The catsup will make a big mess and get all over your church clothes," my dad said, unaware that "catsup" is the uncool way to say "ketchup."

Obviously Mr. and Mrs. Chase didn't say this or anything like this to their kids. Their kids looked like a before shot on a Tide commercial, but they were talkative and funny, especially for Christians. You could tell their kids were popular at school, probably something to do with knowing how to both order at the Burger Pit and how to drink a whole coke. Mr. Chase, skinny as he was, probably didn't say "catsup," either.

I didn't even know what coke tasted like until my rebellious junior year of high school, when I'd go to Taco Bell for lunch. I ordered a burrito supreme, since that's what my boyfriend ordered and that way he could eat most of mine when I got full (some things never change) and a coke. My not very popular boyfriend drank most of that, too. I could never figure out why you'd want to drink fizzy brown liquid when what your body really wanted, really needed, was clear unargumentative water. I'll have to thank my mom for winning that caloric battle for me. Imagine what I'd be like if I drank coke and ate Ben and Jerry's at 9:30 pm at night. There'd be more to love on me than any of these lumps on More to Love.

My grandma taught me by example about how to stay out of the deep end of my head. You can stay in the shallow part where nobody's calculating how much of your life you've wasted, I learned, by sitting in La-Z-Boy recliners, eating licorice (both kinds) and watching golf or Star Trek on TV. It was okay to play cards rather than run around yelling "Where's my drill?" in the garage while making a big construction mess on the workbench that never gets cleaned up, or chopping and trimming plants that don't need pruning and later getting into a recurring argument about which is better: getting the work done or not getting it done but at least it's done right. My parents seemed to be trying to outrun their deep thoughts with hyperactivity and arguments. My parents seemed to be judging the useful content of their life's minutes constantly. My grandparents, lounging on the La-Z-boys, weren't doing the math.

"Sit out on the deck with us," they'd say in the middle of the morning. "We're watching the waves." My grandpa would hand me the binoculars and I could look like I was watching the waves when I was actually watching the cute older surfer boys on the edge of East Cliff Drive.

I wasn't going to tell my grandparents what I'm looking at, nor am I going to remind them that the weeds don't stop growing just because you're not ready to pull them, like my parents would be saying to me if I were at home. My grandparents didn't tell me I was wasting my life doing nothing when I could be learning a musical instrument or taking Spanish lessons and improving myself, or sewing a button back on my shirt since I'm just sitting there, at least.

My grandparents were fine with everything I did, no matter what I did, even when we were all out to lunch and my sister and I tried to flirt with the cute busboys, but since we were twelve and thirteen, all we did was walk and talk like Jessica Rabbit and Marilyn Monroe. When you're twelve and thirteen, this does not come off well. I wish I could delete those minutes and all the minutes like them in my life where I was giving people I didn't know, at nearby tables, a lot to laugh at, at my expense.

My grandparents said nothing to my sister and me about our odd behavior. We returned to their house, played cards and painted our nails until my grandpa made us Shirley Temples which we drank out on the deck, watching the waves, using the minutes we all had then in the best possible way.

7.21.2009

As If You Have a Choice


People in my family, the older ones, believe to their very core they're living rich due to their efforts. It's fruitless to argue with them. They are convinced everyone lives like them on top of a hill with steak and ahi tuna and copper pipes delivering clear water to their many toilets. I don't think one of them ever considered what life would be like if they began it through a different birth canal, one very far from here.

I wrote a blog article for the Washington Post's "Eating Down the Fridge" section in which I explained how, when you're poor, eating down the fridge is a game you have no choice but to play. I sent my dad a copy and never heard anything. I never hear anything. I never know if most of my family even gets my emails. If it's important, I've learned to call.

My dad calls. "We had dinner with your aunt and uncle," he says. "They read your article and they didn't have any idea you were poor."

"They read my article?"

"Your uncle kept asking, 'how could this happen? I don't understand at all.' You know how they are: they think everyone lives like them."

My uncle drives an amazing red Ferrari, the kind that gets you lots of looks when he gives you a ride. It's breathtaking. I always wished my uncle was my dad, or that my dad had a car that'd get him lots of stares. I don't understand how my uncle has a Ferrari, my dad has a ten year-old Nissan truck and I share a Yaris with my husband. So as far as understanding goes, we're even.

"They've sent you checks, they've said, for your birthday."

"Dad, the checks my aunt sent were for $25. One check for birthdays and one for Christmas. She recently upped it to $30." She's been sending these my whole life. She never forgets. She deserves a Ferrari. She's very supportive.

"You should have written her thank you notes."

"I wrote thank you notes, Dad, every time." I did! I did! When I bring up a touchy issue, my dad's answer is always, "You must not have written a thank you note." I'd be stupid not to write a thank you note. I may be poor but I'm not stupid.

"Dad," I say, "a couple of $25 checks aren't going to lift you from food stamps."

I want to ask him what he said in response, what he told them about how I am such an embarrassment, again. But that would acknowledge I am an embarrassment and I don't feel like an embarrassment. I don't say anything and let him keep talking. Another thing about my family is that you don't have to worry about lulls in conversation. There was never a lull in my home growing up. Sure, it was hard to feel like anyone listened but on the good side: no lulls.

"I just talked to your kids upstairs," he says. He's referring to my grown son who lives two floors up with his daughter and new wife. They were married less than two weeks ago and I wish they could get married every two weeks. It was worth every food stamp I qualified for to see them so happy, and to have lots of talkative relatives all in one spot, talking on top of each other. "They were running off to Target to get things for their honeymoon trip," he says.

"Yeah, they said they're getting things for the baby, to keep her occupied on the flight."

My dad likes to tell me things to tell to my son, particularly about money. I don't understand why he bothers. If he's convinced I'm so bad with money and that's why I was on food stamps, then why would he want me to give advice to anyone?

He's relentless, though. Maybe if he hounds me twice as hard to hound my son twice as hard, things won't be half as bad for him. My dad used to say things like, "You need to show him how to do a budget. My wife says he doesn't know how to budget. She saw they were buying root beer. They shouldn't be buying coke and root beer while he's going to school."

If I say anything more it might call attention to the fact that my son is at Target, spending money. I have learned that, in this family, if you call attention to something and you try to justify it, you will convince everyone you're completely unjustified.

"My ear's getting sore," he says, so the call ends without getting a single piece of advice to relay to my son. This used to rarely happen but now it's happening all the time. In fact I'm not even hearing advice about my own money management skills anymore.

I think about money the whole time I'm exercising at the Y. I joined the Y because my dad said it's a better use of money than buying basic cable and exercising to FIT TV. I took this advice because I don't want to be poor. If I do what he says and I still end up poor, what can he say? I hated the Y at first because there are all these old people going almost backwards on the stationary bikes, they're so slow. Now I like it for that same reason. I'm an amazing athlete in comparison.

I'm not poor now but I still have some bad habits. I spend money when I shouldn't and I can't spend money when I should. I have this old Brita pitcher from seven or eight years ago when we were remodeling a nasty, rat-infested dump of a home. I hate that old Brita. It's full of old paint and scratches and I can never get the inside clean. I really need it though, as the cold water out of my kitchen sink comes out brown. The previous tenant had it tested for lead and it was at 20.7. The acceptable lead limit is 15.

I sometimes ride to Target with my son and his little family and I look longingly at those pretty Brita pitchers. They're available in colors now. When I go to other people's homes and use their pretty Brita pitchers, I think to myself, 'they must be rich.' I've been doing this for three or four years. Even my son upstairs has a pretty Brita. I've tried to buy one, even on sale, but I can't. I pick them up, look at them for a minute and think 'What would my dad say?'

I come home from the Y and notice the baby's toys out in my hallway, like my son's family was here. That's not unusual. They come by to drop off things I've left at their apartment or pick up things they've left here at mine. I don't think about it and go about my business, taking off my shoes and putting my sweatshirt away.

When I walk by my dining room, I see something there that I know wasn't there before. It's a brand-new Brita in my favorite color. There's a note in my daughter-in-law's handwriting. I never said a word to anyone about my Brita envy. Not a word, not even to my husband.

The note, the Brita, it's too much. I keep walking away and coming back to it like it's my first car. I have to wait to call and thank my son and daughter-in-law. Ferraris can't make you feel this rich, I think to myself. I'd better write a thank you note.

7.20.2009

Remodeling

My stepmother pushes herself past me like she's late for somewhere important. We're in my bathroom with my dad, talking to plumbers. They're here to give us a quote on how much it will cost to get water out of the pipes when you turn it on instead of rust.

My dad says we, my sisters and him and me, own the building but she does not. Since she was the one who explained my kitchen remodel plans to the plumbers, I don't think she knows this. She's so focused on impressing the plumbers with her questions and knowledge of my kitchen remodel that I had to leave the room. I've done nine kitchen remodels and I came up with the plans. When she pushed in front of me to explain my remodel, I sat in the living room, called my daughter-in-law who lives upstairs and said, "help." She came right down.

I tried to be part of the discussion when they moved onto the bathroom. I'd just asked the plumbers if these old gas station-type toilets have a shut-off valve, something good to know if you're planning to shut it off. "It's right in here," the plumbers said. "You just turn a screw and you can shut it off."

"Thanks," I said and that was the last thing I said before being bumped out of the way.

"Is it a big screw?" my stepmother says.

I don't need to know the answer and I don't think she needs to, either. I go back to my daughter-in-law in the living room and give up. Go ahead and be the project manager for this remodel. You seem to have an unhealthy interest in my bathroom.

"You coming?" my dad says when they're done in there. Mary holds the front door open, my front door, for the plumbers. She starts to close it when I come near but I slip through. "Thank you," I say. She looks away. Ha! Gotcha to be nice to me!

We go to the next apartment and the tenant is there, hanging out. The stepmother pushes me out from the bathroom again before I can do much plumber-listening so I go talk to the tenant about his fish. For some reason the stepmother decides this is the time she's going to introduce herself to the tenant, right in the middle of me talking. It's obviously disrespectful. I'm the apartment manager and she dissed me in front of a tenant. Even the tenant looked at her like What the hell?

When the plumbers, my dad and the stepmother finish up and turn out of the apartment to go down the stairs, I keep walking straight back to my apartment. If she wants my job, she can have it. She can do all the work and I'll hang out in my living room with my daughter-in-law.

The next time she came up to my apartment with my dad, she decided to ride her bike to the museum. That wasn't enough drama, apparently, so she called my dad to complain her seat was too high. My dad drove to the museum with a wrench and lowered it for her so she could ride back with a properly fitting seat. It took him 45 minutes to do this errand, right in the middle of talking with me.

She complained for the rest of the day about that seat. I would have said I was sorry I raised her seat when I borrowed her bike but she seemed to enjoy making my dad go to all this work. She had something to talk about and something to do so I gave her something. She should have thanked me.

I tried to tell my dad that, as a manager I can't do my job if she's going to diss me in front of tenants and take over the remodel. "These are woman issues," he says. "Just let it go."

I called him again and he didn't want to hear about again. I said, "You're my employer and there's someone hindering me from doing my job." He said it wouldn't happen again if he could help it. That's all I wanted. That's more than I wanted. He never did that much, ever.

Tonight he brought her with us to an apartment association meeting. "She doesn't have an apartment here," I said. "Does she have to come?"

"She's coming to take care of me," my dad said. "She's worried about me falling asleep driving home."

Is she being nice or wanting to make sure she's taking over and in charge? This is the way I think around her and I'm grateful nobody can hear my thoughts. Bad me.

As soon as I see her in my dad's office, she's nice. Not nice enough to ask about me but you can tell she's been told something. She's not so strict-looking, at least at this immediate moment.

"Is he using the facilities?"

"Oh yeah," she says. She's stuck with me in this tiny office until my dad gets out of the bathroom. "What's new?" she says.

She must have forgotten how much she hates me or she really got put in her place by my dad. Either way, I have to be nice or I'm going to look like the bitch. That'd really make her happy. It'd prove her right.

So I'm nice. I'm nice all the way to the meeting and I'm nice as much as I can be before the meeting starts. I'm nice to my dad and talking shop without being interrupted as she's nowhere to be seen.

The meeting starts and the seat next to my dad is empty. He keeps looking around for her but I don't think he sees her. She's standing at the opposite end of the row behind us. She has a bad knee. It's hard work for her to stand. It's nice for me. I can talk about work with my dad without being interrupted to hear stories about my stepmother's kids, stories that have nothing to do with anything and no point at all.

We're driving back to my apartment and she hasn't once mentioned her kids. I've never been around her for more than five minutes without hearing about her kids in stories that don't always make sense. You know when someone tells a story and it's quiet for a little bit? Nobody knows what to say? That happens a lot.

After being around her I usually call my husband and tell him the best choice crazy things she did. This time I felt almost good, like I didn't have to make fun of her to feel good about myself.

Is this what everybody else feels like?

7.17.2009

Proof of Life


The thing about weddings is that they're not just about the couple, otherwise people wouldn't be so pissed off when you talk about eloping. They're about all the family that comes together and gets to meet and talk with each other over croissant sandwiches and cake. You get to meet the new family and they get to meet you. Unfortunately, you get to eat cake with relatives at whom you'd rather forcefeed e. coli. Why is that illegal again?

Fortunately, you also get to eat cake with wonderful people with whom you share a few genes. You get to celebrate two people you love and enjoy and sometimes there's a sunset or two, pizza and alcohol. Now it's all over and I'm really missing all the relatives and friends. It wasn't even my wedding.

Celebrations are great, aren't they? More later, unless I can supress this urge to explain my relatives who are proof of alien life.

6.29.2009

White

It’s hotter than normal, sticky hot. It’s stickier than a normal summer day here, at my cousin’s two year-old daughter’s birthday party. Sticky hot, sticky cake fingers and sticky relatives. The stickiest one is my dad’s wife, my step-mother. She’s crossed paths with me three times since I’ve been outside, looking on the ground instead of at me, picking up napkins blowing in the hot wind instead of saying hi. My dad loves me, she loves my dad, she says things about me to my sister, my sister says, “stay above it.” I look at her from across the yard, at her white pants. If I keep looking, I could tell you the color of her underwear. I look away quickly.

Since I’ve returned home, not quite prodigal son-like since I came here to help my dad not the other way around, I’ve been reconnecting with family. When you leave you become a voice on the phone. You’re not real anymore. You’re like a movie character, summed up with a sentence. My dad’s doing it now about my sister who moved away to Connecticut. “She’s the one who does the finances,” he says, talking to a complete stranger in my cousin’s back yard. “She’s the one who realized they should sell their big expensive house.”

It’s harder to talk about people in this way, summing their lives up in a stereotype, when you see them all the time. They aren’t so easy to box up. People don’t want to hear talk about complicated people at a two year-old’s birthday party. It’s easier to talk in generalizations. Generally, my sister does the finances. Generally, my step-mother ignores me.

Generally it’s too freaking hot so I go inside to hide in the laundry room and call my husband. He’s at a different party, a barbeque at a park across the street from the house he shared with his ex. Living without me, he’ll go anywhere to get hot food. He’s a hot food whore, switching up his social life for something besides a sandwich. He went to this barbeque even though his ex will be here, someone he's ignored for a decade. “My mouth won’t know what to do,” he says. “It’s used to cold food: cold cereal, cold sandwiches, cold Ben and Jerry’s. I’m not leaving until I get hot food. I saw the ex, but we hadn’t eaten yet. I have to stay.”

“Your ex? What’s she saying?”

She’s talking about her fears. ‘If I could just overcome my fears. My fears are what’s keeping me back.’ That’s what she says.”

“What’s that mean?”

“That’s the way she talks.”

My husband’s ex has a name, of course, but he never says it. She was she. As in she wanted to sell the house and living in a trailer when money was tight. She had moods, as she called them, where she’d become quiet at dinner until she stopped talking, got in the car and drove home by herself on the first night of a spring break vacation. She left my husband with the kids and their friends to explain whatever the hell she was thinking, doing that.

She has reasons for everything,” my husband says.

“Her fears are holding her back?” I say. “From what? Would she be Shakespeare if it weren’t for her fears?”

“I think so,” my husband says.

We paid for the right to criticize only one person on the planet each: our ex’s. Since I was there writing the checks, I get to criticize his ex, too. I have only met her three times: once at her daughter Crystal’s vocal concert, once in court, and once at their son Josh’s wrestling match.

The last time, at the wrestling match, she walked in late, holding her bag tight against her chest like she was fending off potential rapists. She stomped her feet on the bleachers so hard while trying to find a seat that I could hear it from the other side of the gym where I was pretending not to look. Everybody was looking, though. She isn’t even five feet tall but she sure could stomp. “Is that mean-cat-face woman your ex?” I asked. She didn’t have such a scrunched up face in court. My husband grunted, yes, it was she. She was in the house.

“Who else is there at the barbeque?"

“Josh is here, his friends are here. And Crystal is here. She said to say hi.”

Crystal is the me of his previous family. Crystal is she’s daughter from somebody previous to my husband. Crystal was seventeen when she and my husband divorced, a bad age to deal with the disappearance of the only normal adult in her life. “I have a demon inside me,” Crystal told my husband, as if that would draw her nearer to him when he stopped by to see her. “Do you like my hair?”

We’d take her out to blend the family. Crystal stared at her reflection in the restaurant window, where she always insisted on sitting. She could talk hours about her hair, the color, the color it could be and the positive and negative points of each potential decision, the cut, the style, the color again. It could go on all night. If the subject changed, she was silent, staring at her reflection. I watched her, curious to see how a demon could fit inside such a tiny young woman with such big eyes, only currently interested in herself. Why would a demon be bothered?

Now she’s married to a guy, Aaron, with two tiny young kids. She didn’t like the way Aaron’s ex treated his kids so she insisted, maybe with the demon’s help, on getting full custody. Without the hair-damaging hormonal pregnancies, Crystal became a mom. A really good one. The first thing she did when we visited Crystal's new home was show me the book full of drawings the little boy, her new son, did. The little girl, her daughter, pointed out the place in the hallway where Crystal did gymnastics with her. Crystal’s mom, I don't think, ever did gymnastics with her.

Aaron, Crystal’s husband, could easily make jokes about the amount of shoes Crystal has in her closet and how OCD she is about keeping them organized. He doesn’t. He loves her, you can tell. He doesn’t say a bad word about anyone, no matter how they’re related. We love him, he loves her, we love her, and she doesn’t love herself too much anymore. She can talk about lots of other things besides hair.

“How’s your family treating you?” my husband asks me.

“First thing my cousin said was, ‘I’m so happy you’re back here. I told your dad thank you, thank you, for getting you back here.’”

This compliment goes over my head until now. I would have forgotten it if he didn’t ask.

“Doesn’t that make you feel good?” he says.

Seeing my cousins is like seeing a mirror. We saw each other every week, every weekend, every year of my life until I moved away. Looking at her, I’m looking at myself. She’s still exactly the same. “Your hair,” she says when I first walk in, “you look good. Your hair, your face, you are still so pretty.” She’s better than looking at myself in a mirror. I have the demon now. The demon comes with age and it doesn’t say nice things when I look in the mirror.

“I’m on Prednisone,” my cousin says. “My face is so puffy. Here. Here’s a picture of me normally.” She points to one of many, many photos of her and her family on the entry hallway wall. The one she’s pointing at, a picture of her and her two year-old daughter, looks like it was taken in Hawaii. My daughter, two years old when we moved away, lives in Hawaii now.

“People pay good money to get their faces to look that good,” is all I can think of to say. I’m mesmerized by all these photos of lives lived while I’ve lived elsewhere. When you leave family, they keep living and other people take your place. Your stepmother, for example. They love her.

I can’t look at my cousin’s childhood pictures without thinking of a hundred afternoons, hanging out in her bedroom and singing to the Beatles while our parents were far, far away by the pool drinking Coors beer. Nobody bothered us to see what we were doing or if we were getting into trouble. Her mom, my aunt, knew she was good so we were good girls, too.

Her family’s house was white everywhere. It was big, light, and white. On the way home in the car, my mom would say to my dad, “Your sister has to paint everything white,” like it was a bad thing. I already knew my aunt was different from my mom who liked bright colors. My aunt made a big deal of whatever you said. She’d ask you questions about what you were doing and she’d repeat your answers. “You’re writing a book?,” she’d say. “Oh honey, you’re writing a book!” She’d tell her husband, my uncle, “She’s writing a book! Oh honey, you are so talented.”

I’m still writing a book, the same book, and she’s still as excited. My family doesn’t ask what I'm doing but my aunt asks every time. “Oh honey,” my aunt says again and again, “you are so talented.”

“Tell Crystal I say hi, too,” I tell my husband. He won’t and even if he did, she won’t care much. She's lived this long without my approval. I wish I'd given it to her. Any family would be lucky to have her in it.

“I will,” my husband says. He’s as ADD as me. He’s already forgotten.

“Really. I like her now,” I say, wishing I could erase every negative thing I’ve said about her. Now that she doesn’t talk about herself all the time, she has much more to say. I miss the opportunity to listen. “She was just a kid then.”

“You sound like you forgot what she was really like.”

“She didn’t get any good genes and look how well she turned out,” I say. “The only reason she’s not crazy herself is because of you. You’re a good dad.”

“Maybe,” my husband says.

He won’t take a compliment. If I don’t say anything maybe it will sink in. I learned, living with him, that you don’t have to say anything. Sometimes, when somebody says something really rude, if you let it hang in the air without saying anything, the rudeness amplifies so that everyone notices. When somebody says something nice and you let it hang in the air, it also amplifies making everyone feel good. Silence intensifies everything.

She’s here,” my husband says. “She’s telling Crystal about her trip to New York.”

She went to New York?”

She had one of her moods. She sold everything, everything that wouldn’t fit into one suitcase, and drove all the way, all by herself, to New York.”

“What was she going to do there? Be discovered?” I’m thinking mean-cat-face thoughts about someone I barely know. Who sells everything she owns and drives to New York? Okay, Madonna. But she’s no Madonna, at least that wasn’t my impression the three times I saw her. She was more like just the first three letters of Madonna.

She lasted three months and then she drove back. ‘All by myself!’ she said. She was telling me about how beautiful the mountains were in South Dakota,” my husband says. “That’s when I started to feel sorry for her. She meant the Rockies.”

“There are hills in South Dakota,” I say. “My ex has a beautiful old photo we bought of the Black Hills. He still has it. It’s a beautiful antique photograph, taken in the thirties. Everything looked so clean and happy back then.”

She works at Walgreens now.”

“What happened to the house she bought with all the divorce money she got from you?”

“I don’t know.”

In my mind, I’d ask her if I were there. In my mind, I would have stomped right up to she's mean-cat-face expression and said something mean. In my mind, I'm a worse person than I probably am. I'm sure I was worse then, during the divorce, during the family blending. Everybody's worse then. With time, you forget either all the good you did or all the bad you did. You turn into your own movie character. With me, I forget all the good I did. I think my stepmother does, too. That’s probably why she isn’t talking to me.

“I’m so happy to be married to you, not her.” My husband isn’t like me. He forgets all the bad I did. This long-distance thing is working to my advantage.

“I’m happy to be married to you, too,” I say. He doesn’t do anything bad that I would have to forget.

“When you don’t see people for a long time and then you see them again,” my husband says, “you remember. I remembered how she would just disappear, probably like this New York thing. I forgot how hard it was to be married to someone who got in a mood and didn’t talk to you for two weeks. She’d get in a mood; sit in the bedroom with the lights out and candles lit all around her, listening to heavy metal music. She looked normal then. You should see her now.”

She didn’t look normal then. Even the people at the gym stared at her stomping up the bleachers wearing her bag-like armor, looking around for a seat through her mean-cat-face eyes.

If I said anything now, it would be unkind. My husband doesn’t think I’m like that.

I just remembered I was wearing white pants at that wrestling match. White pants I threw away right after that day, when my daughter told me it was too easy to see my underwear through them. I hope that's been forgotten by now.

6.21.2009

Eating Down the Fridge

Kim O'Donnel of the Washington Post invited me to blog about Eating Down the Fridge. Here's my entry:

Asking me to abstain from food shopping is like asking an anorexic to please cut back on the eating for a while. It’s not the shopping that keeps me from Safeway, although buying in bulk can seem like a part time job, but it’s that whole paying for it at the end that I despise. I’m cheap, no question. I was cheap before I had four kids and I’m cheap now when they’re all grown up and moved out. Not frugal, as frugal sounds respectable. Cheap.

Feeding four kids can wipe out even the most careful of penny-pinchers, but when mine were the hungriest, we were the poorest. Our food budget was $230 a month and food shopping was a game I couldn’t win. Going down the aisles with a running total in my head was like playing some evil video game. I couldn’t get to the finish with all my required items crossed off my list. Something I needed, something frivolous like soap, stayed behind. Even now I’ll go three weeks without stepping into a grocery store, just to avoid all that total-tallying mental math.

You learn a few things through a crisis like this, or at least I did. I got pretty good at finding the bottom of those 50# bags of Costco flour. I got so good that I started baking for catering companies and small downtown cafes, making not just cookies but poppy seed cakes and mashed potato cinnamon buns. I made more practical things at home, like Dutch pancakes and crepes for dinner.

My grown-up daughter called last week, asking me for those recipes. She has good food memories from the years when I wanted my kids to sleep late on the weekends, just so I could get away with feeding them two meals. Two meals are cheaper than three.

“What was in those crepes, anyway?” she asks. “I can never make them the way you do.”

Do I tell her my secret? My beautiful crepes were filled with leftovers, things she and her brothers refused to eat, chopped up fine. Wrap it up in a crepe, garnish with a little something pretty, and present it as if it’s New York sirloin. They fought over dinner those nights, eating what otherwise would have gone to waste. Attitude is everything.

Things are easier now, or they would be if my husband and I weren’t living a state apart. I moved to help with my dad’s business while my husband stayed behind, for now, in a job he loves.

Living alone isn’t heaven but I can eat popcorn and beaautiful salad for dinner if I choose and nobody knows. I can eat the same thing every day for a week and it’s my secret, until now.

Every few days I bake a new combination of carrot/zucchini/pumpkin/apple/banana muffins out of nasty produce only a baker would love. Sometimes the combinations are so good I write them down to recreate in the future. I learn best by trial and error and I learned I love my free time. If I can spend three weeks without shopping for food, eating an inordinate amount of carrot/banana/pumpkin muffins, I can spend that extra time at street fairs and free concerts within walking distance of my new home. So what if I run out of milk for my coffee and I’m forced to use Reddy Whip? I’ll enjoy the excuse.

It’s my husband I’m worried about. We sold our home near his office so he’s sleeping in a friend’s basement and eating at work. I don’t mean buying meals and bringing them to work, I mean he’s got a pantry in his desk. Open a drawer and you might find his stash of 10 for $10 tuna cans. Look in the common area mini-fridge and you’ll see his soy milk and pears. Even if there were a stove available, I don’t think it would help.

One time my daughter was sick and wanted mashed potatoes. We were, as usual, in the middle of a remodel. “I’ll do it,” he said. “How hard can it be?” He looked at me doing the painting and looked at the box of instant mashed potatoes in the pantry and decided potatoes would be easier.

He picked up the box and started cooking in our countertop-free kitchen.

“Do you need any help?” I said. I was down the hall, up a ladder.

“I’m good.”

“Can you find the measuring cups?”

“I’m good.”

He brought the finished product up to my sick teenage daughter’s room. “What the hell is this?” she said. She’s not usually picky. I climbed down the ladder to look at the outcome. It turned out to be a serving bowl filled with golden brown soup.

“How much butter did you use?” I asked.

“A cube,” he said. “The package said butter so I used butter. I didn’t think about quantities.”

Now he calls me long-distance from the grocery store when he’s ready for a meal and he’s staring at an empty mini-fridge.

“What do I want?” he says.

“How about a sandwich?”

“Good idea,” he says. “Um, do you think I can do that? I might do it wrong.”

“I’ll walk you through. You’re probably standing in the produce aisle so tell me when you get to the end and turn the corner. Are you in the bread aisle yet?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Pick out something that looks familiar.”

“What about these hamburger buns?” he says. “Everything tastes better on a bun. They’re on sale, too.”

This is a guy whose idea of meal planning is standing at the refrigerator with the door open. I’ve come home late and caught him sitting down to a dinner of cheese and olives, washed down with a beer.

I’ve trained him well. He’s eating down his fridge, but only because he’s even more afraid of shopping than I am.

“Everything I eat is cold: cold cereal, cold sandwiches, cold fruit,” he says. “I told my boss it was time to invite me over for dinner again, just so I could get a hot meal. My boss said, ‘Would you mind a repeat of the same dinner? It’s too late for my wife to go shopping.’”

“That’s great,” my husband told his boss. “Got any war movies?”

Now he’s working on eating down his boss’s fridge.


I’m a former features writer and editor, two-time award-winning screenwriter, currently writing my second unpublished non-fiction book. I’m on my tenth home remodel, all of which I’ve gutted and fixed up while living in them, almost all while living with kids. When you’re in charge of the remodel you have no one to blame so you improvise. You learn to cook eggs in a coffee pot and you learn to eat those eggs on the chop saw that doubles as a dining table. Cooking without plumbing is only a hardship if you don’t like doing dishes in the bathtub. You learn to appreciate what you have.

6.13.2009

Y Before Z

I'm talking to my dad about how my kids are doing in college. Next thing I know he says, "I guess I'm just more fiscally conservative than you."

"What?"

"We don't waste our money on all that cable stuff," he says. "You must spend a lot of money on all that TV watching."

"Basic cable isn't expensive," I say. Why am I trying to convince an 82 year-old guy about anything?

"It all adds up. I'm just saying."

"I don't go to a gym. I do FIT TV," I say. "That ought to justify . . ."

"We work out at the Y."

"But the Y costs as much as . . ."

"We work out at the Y," he says again. "We're there about every morning. My brother-in-law, when he lived here, he went there every day, too. Swimming, that's what he liked to do."

"I'm not a swimmer."

"I'm just saying," he says. "That's why you're not able to afford things."

So we move and I don't move the Comcast account. He makes the Y sound like the one true path to heaven. No matter what I do, if I'm not a Y member, I'm not worth listening to.

I worked at the Y a few years ago. I know how it goes. You join when you're young and before you know it, there's gray hair growing out your ears and nose. I started work at 4:30 a.m. when I had that job, checking the pool chemicals and security logs. By ten minutes to five, the lobby was filled with testosterone-filled old guys waiting for me to open the doors.

Seriously how did all these people get the idea to do this? They were all over sixty, maybe over seventy. Maybe ninety or one hundred, even. They were the early-bird special kind of seniors, the kind who weren't aging gracefully, weren't sitting in a rocking chair telling the grandchildren about the olden days. These were the vocal aged, the people you hear gousing across the restaurant when their food isn't right, even if it is. If I didn't open the doors at five minutes to five, they started pointing to their watches and giving me dirty looks when I ran by. That's not the way you want to start your morning, pissing off granddaddies. Starting it at 4:30 a.m. was hard enough. I quit after three months.

Now, instead of waking up to Bodies in Motion with Gilad filmed in Hawaii, on FIT TV, I got in the habit of running (or walking) as soon as I wake up. Golden Gate park is right across the street and it's free. The podcasts I listen to are free, too. It's too easy to be called exercise. Guilt gets the best of me and I join the Y.

If I do the Y first thing in the morning, I can't talk myself out of it. Once I'm there, it's an easy routine and it takes less time than the stroll in the park. At 9:30 a.m. the normal people work out, so I've avoided the angry grandpa crowd. They're probably at lunch already, pissing someone off because their food is too salty.

I can't make myself go to the Y every morning. I'm not superhuman. I'm not even my dad. It's not easy to talk myself into bicycling over there every freaking day. It's easier to wake up and walk, turn on a podcast and slide into the morning. It must be easier for other people, too, as there are plenty more people in the park than there are at the Y.

I almost miss the park people, the people I'd gotten used to walking (or sometimes running) by. There's the short woman who wears a white shirt without sleeves, showing a tattoo, red and black of a dragon and some fish, I think, up her whole right arm. Since she's over forty and otherwise looks like she took a wrong turn out of suburbia, I noticed her on my first walk. She's the first one to smile at me when I wake up and cross the street.

There's a ton of runners, always. Some of them look so hot but I know I run faster than a few of them. They look better, though. They say, "Good morning, beautiful!" when they run by. They say it to everyone but I'm shocked. Shocked! This is San Francisco. I thought there was a law about being so friendly.

If I stretch my walk/run all the way to the Rose garden, I pass by the homeless guy who rolls his own cigarettes. I used to cross the street to avoid him; he can be in a very lively discussion with that cigarette of his. I realized it isn't worth the extra three calories burned crossing the street to avoid him. He's only interested in his cigarette. What people think of him is clearly not a priority, otherwise he wouldn't have taken a swim in the ocean and then dried off his ripped black outfit(s) by rolling around in the dirt. Or so I suspect.

Since the Y is open all day, I decide I should go in the afternoon. Who works out in the afternoon? It should be easy to get in, get out and get home. I'll feel good and my dad will be proud.

There's a different feel to the place in the afternoon. There's a different smell, too. The stink from the morning seems to accumulate. Something to remember next time I get this bright idea. At least there's not many people here now, just a few older ladies on the stationary bikes, looking as if they're trying to conserve calories judging by the hesitancy of their pedaling. But there's a towel and water bottle on the rowing machine I want, the one nobody ever uses. I hesitate to move it. I look around to see whose it might be. Everybody in here is old. I'm old and I feel like a kid here. I decide to leave the towel and water bottle. Time to switch it up a little and try the Precor machine.

As soon as I get on, a couple of junior high-aged kids come in and get on the machines on either side of me, bookending me. They smell like mold, oddly, and they're pressing all the buttons and laughing. They stand on one foot, they go as fast as they can, they push the handles so fast they almost fly off.

"Watch this," one says. He turns around on the Precor, facing backwards, going as fast as his skinny legs will push.

"Woooooo-hoooo!" He laughs until he loses his balance and gets off.

They both screetch and laugh really loud but, since everyone here is old, they don't care. They slowly, slowly keep bicycling and read "People." The kids move onto most of the equipment, and leave after a maximum of five minutes. That's a short workout, even for me.

An old guy, surprise about that, picks up the towel and water bottle off the rowing machine. I can tell, even without directly looking, that he's staring at me. There are lots of women closer to his age and a few, I notice, glance over and watch him. Don't look at me, dude. Don't go all Y on me.

He gets on the leg press, not far from my Precor. He's making a big deal of this. You know how some people want you to notice they're working out? That they're putting a lot of effort into this? That they're someone special? He's someone like that only even more. He's adjusting the equipment while standing upright, very tall, like if we notice his good posture we would ignore his saggy Bassett Hound face. It's taking him a long time to adjust the equipment, due to his posture I'm guessing.

I have to walk by him to get to the pull-down machine, my next station. He smiles at me and watches me come closer to him, like I'm intentionally walking toward him. I'm listening to a Harvard Business podcast, probably not the best motivator for a good workout, particularly when it's discussing "zombieconomy."

The old guy says something to me but I can't hear. Instead I hear, ". . . corporations falling into unresponsive behavior, falling into profoundly self-defeating behaviors, like the auto industry, failing to respond to the changes that confront them."

I'm failing to respond, too, to the old guy as I start on the pull-down machine. I can't help but look over at him. I don't want to but I have to. Is he on the leg press yet? Is he still standing there, adjusting it? Is he looking at some other female in the room? They may be twenty or forty years older than me, but these bicycling babes seem to watch him the way he's watching me.

"They fail to make any meaningful decisions," my podcast continues. "Getting innovation wrong. Focusing on making improvements on an SUV which will last five years when they ought to be fundamentally reinventing and redesigning value chains."

What's a value chain? What's this other old guy doing coming over and sitting right next to me? The only equipment being used is the leg press and my pull-down machine. He has to sit right next to me? I'm being ridiculous. He's just here for a workout.

The new old guy puts his hands on the machine next to me and, as if rehearsed, turns his head slowly over to my direction and smiles. I am not that hot. Okay, in a room full of eighty year-old humpback little women bicycling at the speed of slugs, maybe. But still.

"The redefinition of value," my podcast says, "is what we're confronting. Not all kinds of growth are created equal."

It's then that I decide to wait another decade before my next Y workout.

6.12.2009

Not a Creep

After almost two weeks of solitary confinement, my self-exile must end. I'm doing none of the things on my to do list and eating crap, which is great, actually. I can't complain about that part. That part can continue indefinitely as far as I'm concerned. It's like cheating on tests in junior high and getting straight A's. The part that's hard is when my daughter calls randomly and she catches me crying.

"I don't know why I'm crying," I say. "I just haven't talked to anyone in person for a long time." I moved here to be near my son but he's been away for almost a month, visiting his girlfriend's family. Lucky bitches.

"Now you know what I felt like," she says, "as a military wife in a town where I knew no one except meth addicts. Do you see why I watched all the seasons of 'Friends' within a single week?"

I've been sitting in my drafty dining room in front of my laptop, endlessly interested in anything else. If I get an email, I fight myself not to answer it immediately. When people do that to me, it's a sure sign of extreme something. But my friend Neva gives a movie five out of five stars on her facebook page. I get a notification. What am I going to do, ignore it? I'm not getting a whole lot of invitiations lately and nobody will know if I jump right on that.

It's like an invitation to me, personally, this one. "The Bridge" is a movie documenting one year of jumpers off the Golden Gate Bridge. I can see the Golden Gate bridge right now if I wanted to, if I bothered to get up, step outside, turn the corner and look up the street. Instead of getting up, I go down the Google rabbit hole.

My ex kept up on everybody he ever worked with, sat next to in school, or walked by more than once. He called me a few years ago to tell me that this guy we once knew had just jumped.

You know how it is when you hear something and you don't confirm it? You question yourself. Did that really happen? The guy we knew was so much more successful than my ex. My ex bragged about knowing him whenever he could. Everybody in that little town did the same thing. He was popular around Los Gatos. He had an office downtown and people walked by, just like we did, all the time.

I imagine they looked in at his wildly fun office, full of his crazy eighties graphic design work and awards and wished they were him, just like my ex did. Anyone would have done anything to be as successful as this guy yet he drove his fancy car up to San Francisco, parked at the Presidio just north of me now, fought against the cold wind to leap.

My solitary confinement is better this week as I set my Pandora.com to The Shins. It's a little sixties in my apartment and it's good. It's good until The Shins becomes Radiohead. I never used to listen to Radiohead. Something about listening to "I'm a Creep" over and over again gets the synapses in your brain to form new and scary depressing thoughts. I find myself making coffee humming, "I'm a weirdo/ What the hell am I doing here?/ I don't belong here."

If my daughter told me she was doing this, I'd tell her to stop it now. I switch from The Shins to Lily Allen. It's much healthier getting in someone else's face and getting out of your own head, particularly when you've been in your own head for two weeks now.

I'm still thinking about the bridge, though. It's so freezing cold and windy going out there. Try riding a bike around one of the towers and you're doing all the life-affirming you can just to not pull a Dorothy and fly off. When you stop and look down at the water like you do, it doesn't look so far down there, like it does when you're on a high building. The water looks close and cold. Inviting is the last thing it looks like.

Back in the eighties I worked with this guy, Jim Gray, who also died in this water. Or that's how his story ends. He disappeared without a trace. It's the weirdest end to someone so intellectual, so technical, so calm and so on top of the world. He took his boat, complete with every kind of system available, out to scatter his mother's ashes and he simply disappeared. The smartest person I'd ever met, the first guy to get a PhD in computer science from Berkeley, the guy who was so brainy he answered in complicated puzzles whenever I asked him if he wanted filing or organizational help, gone just like that.

I know all this because, even though I had only heard about Jim's disappearance through friends, I finally Googled it. Turns out Jim Gray mentored Sergay Brin, co-creater of Google, while at Stanford. There's some kind of deep meaning here but I don't know what it is. All I can say is I'm grateful Jim was able to live long enough to help Sergay otherwise people like me would be feeling even more isolated.

My boss at Tandem, where Jim Gray and I worked at the time, was this guy named Keith Hospers. He and I carpooled since we both weren't richy-rich and both lived in Los Gatos. He was just a colleague when we carpooled but, like everyone at Tandem at the time, he was promoted and became successful. He kept in touch with me, even after I left Tandem and moved to Montana and all the other places I moved, trying to run from whatever it was I was running from.

Talking to Keith was similar to talking with Jim. They both had this intellectual serenity. They both had honest senses of humor but you often had to explain yourself in a way that made my face red. Details I didn't care about were so important to them.

Keith, I'd heard, died of a brain tumor right after remarrying and having a set of twins. I Googled him and confirmed it, unfortunately. I wondered why he stopped calling to catch up. I figured it was because nobody could catch up with me now, but that wasn't true. It's not about me.

I found so much on Keith regarding his technical accomplishments but none of his quietly endearing family stories he used to tell. He was great to carpool with. On our way to work, when I'd finally shut up, he'd talk of his life before work. He and his first wife were so poor they couldn't afford much in the way of a place to live, food, or cars. He told me broken-down car stories, things poor colleges students might deal with now; funny, quiet stories from a background different than most the rest of our middle-class colleagues.

Before I can continue Googling dead people I once knew, my son calls. "We're driving home," he says. "We'll be back up about five pm."

"Today?"

"Yeah."

I feel like the kid who stayed home while his parents went to Hawaii and now they call to say they're driving home from the airport. I'm sorry Keith and Jim are dead, but I'm alive and I really have to take a shower. I ought to take out the garbage, too, now that I look around. My exile is almost over but first I'd better tidy up the cell. In the back of my head, I'm humming, "Sun is in the sky/Oh why, oh why would I wanna be anywhere else?"

6.10.2009

Man Plans, God Laughs

I grew up with a mom who knew how to talk. If she got nervous or if there was a pause in the conversation, mom talked. She talked about anything, people only she knew, things only she was thinking about, stories without a point. Even her husband calls her, "Big Mouth." He says it's a term of endearment. I believe him. It's easier to be around her, trying to fill empty air, than around people who are nothing but empty air.

I've learned, though, that sometimes she is just filling air. Sometimes you accidentally tune out, when she's in the middle of a 44 minute sentence, and forget to pay attention. It's not intentional but it is hard to follow where she's going. Even she gets lost sometimes.

I haven't talked to a person face-to-face in about a week, unless you count the "hi" you say to people you see while walking or while working out at the Y. My mom and her husband came up to town to hang some drapes in her apartments and, after buying me BBQ and pie, that's what we did.

We'd planned to do this yesterday. I called her up, starving, waiting at 2 PM for her to show up at noon. She forgot. My mom can't plan her day any more than she can plan her sentences. This has lost her some good friends and pissed a lot of people off. I'm sure it would have bothered me before, but it didn't now. I don't like to plan because as soon as I do, I'm thinking about how I can get out of it.

"There weren't even any drapes here before," she says. "It was too bare in this hallway. I put these drapes up and they didn't look right. The new ones are longer and more neutral. See? I pulled the colors from the carpet. I didn't want to have to repaint the whole thing."

Her husband gets the ladder and begins the hanging curtains job. It isn't a difficult job but it's the reason they drove an hour each way. I could have done it for them but then they wouldn't have a reason to go out for BBQ and pie, and my time between talking to humans would have continued to lengthen. This way it works out well for everyone.

My mom's painter comes up the stairs while we're fitting the drapes on the rods. She's pulling painter's tape from the carpet edge, finishing up some touch-up work. The painter is six feet tall and very interesting.

My mom often talks about this painter and she's nothing like what I pictured. She's got her hair all in her face, no make-up and hasn't in any way modified in her appearance from what she looked like when she woke up yesterday, if she woke up yesterday wearing very dirty jeans and an icky t-shirt. She looks like what I usually look like when I'm not meeting my mom for lunch, except for her height.

She's got an interesting name but as soon as my mom introduces her, I forget it. As the she passes us on the stairs, going up, a dog passes us, too. The dog's walking so close to the painter it's as if she's on an invisible leash. The dog is so calm and so good I have to stare. I've lost all interest in what's going on around me. It's been months since I've been this close to a pettable dog.

"She's a red Heeler," the painter says. "I didn't like dogs much but one day, in our neighborhood, there was this red Heeler wandering around. We took him in and put up signs. Some toothless guy came by a few weeks later saying the dog's crazy and he's taking him to the pound righ tnow. I said I'd keep him. He was crazy. He could jump up on the kitchen countertops at night when we didn't notice, and he'd eat whatever we had out. He was always trying to open the cupboards. He could jump over a six foot fence without a running start."

I sat on the steps near where the painter was removing tape. I started to pet the dog and she looked straight at me and licked my face.

"You know what, though," the painter said, "I took that dog with me everywhere and after six months he was as calm as this one. This one's a rescue dog, too. She's the third Red Australian Heeler I've had."

The dog licks my face some more. She puts her paw on my hand when I stop petting her so I don't stop again.

My mom and her husband work together quielty, putting the drapes up. They're doing fine and I see why they'd drive an hour each way to do this. They like to feel useful, just like anyone, even if it's just putting up drapes. If it looks better after you've been there, you've made the world a better place. That feeling is better than pie.

"She can tell who's a dog lover," the painter says to me. "Then again, she thinks everyone's a dog lover."

The dog jumps in my lap and sits there like a little puppy. She snuggles up really tight then looks up at me. This seems like more fun than whatever else I could be doing so I keep petting her. My mom and the painter lady talk about paint. I don't join the conversation even though I have a lifelong obsession with paint. I've painted this hallway where we're sitting, where the painter is removing tape, when I was 12 and when again I was 22.

"There are only four paint manufacturers right now," the painter lady says. "They've all been bought out and the factories closed down. They keep the name and manufacture the paint in Great-Leap-Forward sweatshop facility in China."

My mom doesn't like to talk about politics like this, like my politics so she's quietly straightening the drapes. She was more interested in the conversation when it was about color. I'm more interested in the conversation now. I ask the painter some paint questions. I like paint, I like her and I really like her dog.

The dog's licking me again, right on the lips.

I never understood how service dogs worked. You're dealing with a tragedy and some dog in a vest comes in and you get to pet it for a while. So what? You're still dealing with the tragedy although now you're dealing with it along with some dog on a leash held by some guy just standing there. It doesn't seem like it would do anything a cup of tea wouldn't do better.

I could really use a cup of tea. Whenever I used to work on these apartments, they're always cold. There's no bathroom and the work takes so much longer than at your own house. Today, though, I don't want the painter to finish up and take her dog. I could use some petting time with a pet.

"We're done here," my mom says. "We can go."

I say goodbye to the little dog while my mom gets back to talking to the painter about the immediate business at hand. I've been service dogged, I can tell. I'm much more calm than I was right after the pie, like that's a surprise.

The ride back to my apartment, where they will drop me off, was calm, too. Instead of disagreeing about political philosophies or why rich people suck (that would be my end of the conversation, so can you see why there were disagreements?), we were talking about family. My family. I thought she'd forgotten I had one since it seems like she only talks about her husband's family anymore, since that's who lives the closest. She doesn't have to drive to see them. They come to see her.

It was so fulfilling to know she remembered my family's names and she seemed sincerely interested in them as people. I was happy. My mom's husband made a wrong turn and drove further away, giving us a chance to talk for longer. It was so peaceful to sit in the back of someone's car, something I haven't done for weeks, and go somewhere without being in charge. If I want to go anywhere anymore, it's my feet that have to take me and I have to direct them. Consequently, I go nowhere until I'm down to my last glob of sour half and half.

The car stops and we're back to my apartment. All I have to look forward to is work I will put off until the weekend. It's Tuesday. I have way too may days to fill with way too little challenges. Now I'm the one continuing the conversation.

If mom does one thing well, it's giving you an excuse to stay. She started to talk about a 92 year-old woman she knew from the Chamber music board. She might have known her from somewhere else, I'm not sure. I'm not sure why she even started talking about her. That part was where I wasn't all 100% on the attention-paying.

I was thinking about how I wasn't going to do any more work today. I wanted to but I just couldn't. I couldn't think of anything else but a cup of tea. That's what motivated me to get out of her car or I'd still be there. I was getting out of her car to say good-bye thinking about tea and forgetting to focus on what my mom was saying. We'd already hugged.

"She's just a face full of wrinkles," my mom says. "Really tanned and ear-to-ear wrinkles. She's 92. She looked it. But this woman, I'm telling you, she was very put together. Whenever we saw her, she was dressed to the nines. She wore clothes that you could tell were very elegant and very classic. I'd imagine she had these clothes for a while, they were very nicely made clothes. Always dressed to a T."

It's hard for me to pay attention to stories about people I don't know and who I will never know. She's done this her whole life so I know more about her friends than I do about my own friends. Or, I should say, I know about what she thinks about her friends than I know about my own friends.

If you asked me what my friends wore, ever, I wouldn't even know if they're wearing clothes, although they aren't like that. My friends probably wouldn't know what they're wearing, either. That's why they're my friends. We aren't the "notice what I'm wearing" types. What does dressed to the nines even mean? Isn't to the tens better?

"I hadn't seen her for a while and then when I did," my mom continues, "her face was smooth. Here she was, dressed to be tied, and now her face is smooth. Where did her wrinkles go? I thought, 'She must have had a facelift.' I couldn't imagine that. At 92?

"I got closer to her and looked for the tell-tale signs. I looked for the scars in front of her ears, the vertical marks everyone has when they've had that operation. Darn if I didn't see them. There they were, all righty. Proof she'd had a facelift. At 92! That says something, doesn't it? That she'd spend the $12,000 on a facelift?"

If I were feeling my usual self, I would have gone political. She's always had more than enough. She couldn't live one day of my life. When I try to make her understand my politics, it's like talking politics. I decided not to mention a better use of that 92 year-old's facelift money. I didn't even know her. For all I know, she's 91.

This woman, no matter what her age, has some kind of confidence. You've got to believe you're going to survive the operation. Elective surgery at that age doesn't seem like something you'd elect to do.

Every year she lives, she makes that facelift more worthwhile. I'm doing the math in my head as my mom talks. When she's 100, that's eight years of facelift. $12,000 divided by 8 means her facelift cost her $1,500 a year. If she lives to be 105, that's under $1,000 a year. From what my mom's noticed of her clothing, that's probably less than what it costs to dress to the nines.

You could make all the plans in the world and never end up being 92. You could live to be 92 with enough money for a facelift but who would plan that? You could plan your day around putting up drapes and end up sitting on the stairs, talking about paint, getting licked on the lips by a beautiful dog.

Man plans, God laughs.

6.07.2009

Cherries, Ben and Jerry's

There’s one little lump of overly iced Ben and Jerry’s left in my freezer. It’s not even a flavor I like, Chocolate Macadamia, which is why it’s still there. I don’t want to eat it because as soon as I do, I will have none left. As soon as I have nothing, I will think of nothing else.

For several days I didn’t eat that lump but I knew it was there. It was the only sugary and fatty thing in my kitchen, but I held out. Not because I’m so saintly, but because I don’t really like crystally rock-hard Chocolate Macadamia. And there’s not enough there to get excited about. As soon as I take a bite, I’ll be annoyed there’s only one bite left. If you need a diet trick, I guess this is it.

It’s gone now, of course, due to a late-night bad TV commercial moment. Even I can’t hold out forever. Now all I can think of is how quickly I can replace it. I’ve thought about it for two days. That’s like a year for someone as addicted to sugar as me. I don’t like being this good. I can’t keep it up and I’ll only compare myself now to myself later on and feel guilty for falling short. It’s not self-control when you don’t have a choice.

Being Ben and Jerry-less in a new town where you know no one is just pathetic. Time to walk the seventeen blocks to Safeway to get two more friends with the same names. For a minute I think about what it would be like to wait one more day.

Right then Charlie calls. “I miss you so I’m eating Ben and Jerry’s,” he says. “Make me stop.”

“Stop you?” I say. “I’m thinking about getting some myself. What kind are you eating?”

“Banana Split,” he said. “I only have half left. I ate too much last night but here I am, eating the rest of it. It’s better than ‘Chunky Monkey,’ don’t you think? They’re both amazing. Which one do you like better?”

Yeah, I’m not going to be waiting another day. I get on my shoes and get philosophical about banana-based ice cream flavors. “Any of them,” I said.

“There are brownie pieces in this. Did you know that?” Charlie says. “Or is it fudge? It’s a good complement to the banana ice cream. It really brings the flavors out.”

I must get some NOW. Charlie finishes his pint and, at the same time, finishes his food porn conversation. I can go get just as stuffed with sugar and fat as he is now. While I’m putting on my sweatshirt, Sean my son, calls.

“If you don’t like the bird guano smell in your apartment, Kyla and I will gladly move in there,” he says. “We don’t mind.”

This tells me I might have been whining a bit too much about the odors in this apartment. It’s just that they’re so . . . unusual. I’ve never smelled something so tangy and musty outside a zoo. It makes for interesting internal dialog when you first wake up.

It makes for interesting external dialog for the rest of the day, too. After painting most of the walls and ceilings and especially after painting the closets, I guess I’ve discussed how surprised I am the smell is still here. I don’t know what the previous tenants were thinking, but I know they weren’t thinking about which cleaning products would work best on their nasty bird debris. A cat lived here for a decade before the bird people. You can still smell the feline memories in the lower cupboards of the kitchen and bathroom. I like the smell of cleaning products much better. That’s all I’m leaving for the next tenants after me. I intend to leave a lot of that smell.

Now I'm thinking that my tenacious use of cleaning products might be what’s giving me a headache. Is it better to die by cleaning product odors or by cat and bird poo fumes? Since I have a daughter who opens the dishwasher mid-cycle, just to enjoy the smell of the detergent, you can guess my answer. My daughter and I call each other to talk about the latest “Clean House.” We can talk about pristine living for hours. Obviously, cleaning fumes will figure prominently in my obituary.

Sean, it seems, will die fume-free. I don’t think he’s too familiar with the smell of the cleaning products. I'm not sure he's even been around a dishwasher lately, come to think of it.

He tells me well thought-out ideas he has for his future. He has reasonable plans, based squarely in reality. He’s moving forward with school, his career options are viable, and he’s looking ahead to making the world a better place.

I’m thinking about when Safeway closes. 9 p.m? I can wait. Sean’s getting my mind off my bird guano headache.

Since I’m standing by the door, I straighten the shoes on the rack. There are five pair here. I put them in ascending order, big to little, and arrange them by color and size. I roll up their laces and put them inside the insole, all the same way, on all pairs of shoes. I listen better when I'm putting things perpendicular to the wall or arranging stuff from light to dark. I'm not really aware I'm doing it until I go pick out a shirt and notice that my closets are spectacular.

Sean is in a talkative mood. “I’m doing laundry so I have a few minutes,” he says. “I need to learn economics to pass the Praxis. What books would you recommend?”

Two of my favorite subjects are books and economics, so I may be here a while. I head to the kitchen to straighten the coffee cup handles in the cupboards. I have them all facing 2 o’clock and all the exact same distance apart before he starts to talk about geography.

While I’m arranging the towels in my kitchen drawer, I realize it’s already past 8:30 p.m. I can certainly continue this conversation while walking to Safeway, so I do. By the time Sean’s laundry is done and we’re done talking, it’s ten minutes to nine. I’m at the sliding front doors of fat and sugar heaven. I know exactly where Ben and Jerry reside. I walk straight to the freezer aisle.

What’s this? Twine wrapped around the handles of the freezer doors? I can’t comprehend what this might mean but I can see a beautiful pint of “Banana Split” just on the other side of the door. I’m inches away. There isn’t any frost on the pint, even. And next to it is “Chunky Monkey,” also frost-free and looking like love. What’s with the twine, though?

I look around to see if anybody’s looking, in case I can open this freezer door, grab the closest pint and run off. I’m going to buy it, of course, if I can get to it. I’m not a thief.

At that exact time a real San Francisco-y voice comes on the loudspeaker. “We are sorry, Safeway customers,” she says, “our freezer motor is broke and we are unable to sell frozen items at this particular time. We apologize and we hope to have our freezer working again real soon. Don’t ax me when. I don’t know at this time, okay?”

Is this God telling me to quit eating so much crap? No, God gave me taste buds and I'm going to enjoy His bounty, that is if I can pull this door open just a little more. I try but I couldn’t pull the door open far enough to stick my hand in and grab a pint, any pint. I tried it just a little bit more to make sure. Nobody saw me.

There is nothing else in this store I’m even slightly interested in. Maybe cookies. I look at some by the bakery and they’re $5.99. I can make cookies, so no, not for the price of almost two pints of Ben and Jerry’s. Chips? The aisle is packed with noisy people who look like they just came off the beach, taking a snack break in the middle of an amazing vacation. I don’t want to interrupt their fun by bringing down the tone of the aisle. Chips aren’t ice cream, no matter how much fat they have.

All that’s left is the fruit section and that’s where I find myself when they announce they’re closing. I grab a bag of red cherries and get in line behind more vacationers. They’re older and quieter and look like they’ve already had lots of alcohol-induced fun, judging by their glassy eyes and red faces. There will be more fun in their lives tonight, judging by the amount of alcohol in their cart. There's just fun everywhere in this Safeway.

Even here! I’ve got cherries. Party!!! My husband’s living in a trailer a state away, sick on Ben and Jerry’s and I’ve got a hot Saturday night full of the thrills of fruit. Being guiltless sucks.