Monday, September 22, 2008

To the woman who stopped me to ask how safe the neighborhood was as I was walking with the stroller to go pick up Isaac from preschool:

Thinking of buying a home here are you? Oh! Getting ready to start a family. Congratulations. Safe here in the daytime? Well, yes. Um, pardon me for saying so, but - duh. It's an odd question, lady, except, I guess I understand. I know our little section of town doesn't have the hottest reputation. It's haunted by something of a checkered past, founded as it was by the servicemen occupying the now-defunct military base just up the hill from where we are chatting now.

Back in the day, the main drag was lined with prostitutes. Funny, things seemed to clean up when the soldiers left. Well, a few are still here. Those are the old guys that wave to me from their porches, or don't. Some people get surly with age. Some people are just raised suspicious. I try to say hello to people when I walk. How's your Spanish? Doesn't matter. Just say good morning. Most people brighten right up and smile back. It's like magic. Some people don't. You'll have that. Anyway, no one is going to throw needles out their car windows at you and your baby. Probably. People work hard here. Did you see the crowd at the busstop? Dangerous? I doubt it. They're going to work, see. Some people still do that, even here in the land of the chokingly wealthy, land of the golf course.

I have a little secret to share with you though. When you have a newborn, you are crazy. Certifiable. Don't matter where you are it'll feel precarious and risky. When Isaac was born we lived in the most violently idyllic town you can imagine and I saw danger everywhere. Well, some was real – like the blind old bastards creeping into the crosswalks in their Mercedes, but nevermind. I couldn't get my precious bundle out of the bank fast enough – that bastion of filth and disease. I would cross the street to avoid car repair joints.

Let me give you a virtual tour of our 'hood. Nice view, eh? It really is if you look beyond the box stores. There's the bay. Stunning. They could've left us a few more trees though, don't you think?

Let's start with food, naturally. Did you try the wholesale Mexican bakery down the block? Right there. If they're out of conchinitos, try San Pablo's just a little further, they usually have them. And if you're feeling fancy there's the French bakery across the street. Now, promise me you won't go all Starbucks on us. If you're planning on getting on freaky with the corporates, we don't need your kind here. You know what they say – Friends Don't Let Friends Drink Starbucks – and I'm starting to think of you as a friend. And honest, you don't have to go downtown either. Larry at Acme Coffee makes the best lattes on the Peninsula. No lie.

I hope as you walk with your newborn past the corner of Fremont and Broadway that you aren't knocked flat by the smell of fast food grease. If that's unsafe, then, I guess it's a bit unsafe here. Forget what everyone says about the big tacqueria they all swear by. No, no, no. You want La Tortuga. They're open all day. Great food. If it wasn't for the Styrofoam for take out and the gargantuan TV screen showing novelas for those eating in, I'd be there all the time.

Over there we have the low income apartments. They were placed just right – only a few hundred yards from the fire station. Those old folks keep the firemen busy, let me tell you. The sirens get on my nerves. But unsafe, no, sweetheart, not that. Oh, wait, I spoke too soon. I should warn you; you gotta watch yourself some mornings. See that ugly old steeple up ahead? When the Baptists bury someone, whew! The parking can get tight. Cars every which way trying to find a place to land and if their drivers are teary-eyed, well, just look twice before you go walking all out in the street.

We have lots of problems. Can I ask you a few questions? Are you the kind of neighbor we want? Can you help? There's trash on the street here. Maybe you could organize a clean up? There's gang activity. Graffiti. The parks have glass in the sand. Any ideas? Aren't nearly enough trees for my taste. Maybe you could plant some? We might get something going with the neighborhood group here. I didn't get to tell you yet about them. They saved some of the parks from disappearing to developers and they helped buy new equipment for the kids. Oh, wait, I know. Can you talk to City Hall about the damn goose poop all over the lawn there? I mean, free summer concerts are great, but do we have to wear toxic clean up suits to enjoy it? And while you're there, put in a good word for the couple who run the Pakistani food store. They've been trying to get them to allow outdoor seating for about a year now. I mean, c'mon! And, well, there just isn't any accounting for taste. Some people have constructed some of the ugliest homesteads I can think of around here. You sure you are worried about safety? I wish that was all I cared about. Safety we got; aesthetics we're not so stocked up on.

You are interested in walking and believe me – I feel ya! You need somewhere to walk. I get it. I did it constantly. When we moved to this area originally, Isaac was almost a year old. No longer beholden to the “hometown” feel of that cutesy little hamlet 5 miles away that we tried in vein to fit into, I discovered that here in the scratchy part of town, people were kind in ordinary ways.

Like when I bought a portable crib from Jenny's Thrift Shop... Jenny, a Korean woman in her 50's with round cheeks and a heavy accent, questioned me sternly. “How you come here?” “Walked,” I told her. “How you get this home?” “Um, carry it?” I tried. “No! Too heavy!” she spat, pushing a pad of paper toward me. “You write down address. I deliver. Tonight!”

Then there was the bookcase we bought from the garage sale in the neighborhood. Mike was with me, Isaac was in the stroller. “He can put that in the truck and drive it over for you,” the woman said indicating her husband. It was a small bookcase. “I think we can carry it,” we both assured her. “And push the baby?!” Her inflection was sharp. She threw her wrist out letting her hand flop forward, her other hand on her hip. “Henry! Put that in the truck for her!” she commanded. And Henry did. I gave him our address just a few blocks down the hill. “I'll be along,” Henry told us. Half way home there was Henry and the truck and the bookcase beside us. I repeated the street number of our place into the window. Henry stared at me. I got in. When he delivered me and the bookcase to my door he instructed, “Now you just get yourself a break until those boys of yours get here.”

Well, that's our little neighborhood in a nutshell. There's a whole lot of shit that I'd change. We're just your average place, really. If you think you're up for it, maybe we can be neighbors.

Oh? What's that? Safe to walk at night? It's complicated, ma'am. Really. That's a whole other ball game and I have to go. I'm going to be late to pick up my guy and you've never seen him when I'm the last mama there – all hang-dog eyes, the word “abandoned” plastered across his forehead – it's terrible! I'm sorry that we didn't get a chance to really talk.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Little Monster at Work

Update on the What We're Reading sidebar.

For the record, my little monster tells me he wants to be a farmer. He won't have any crops on his farm, however, only animals. Every morning (and I do mean EVERY morning) when he wakes up, he announces that he's dreamed about a farm. Sometimes there are bunnies and horses and pigs on his farm. (Nevermind that the child won't go within 100 feet of the real versions of any of these animals.) Other times it's purple zebras and T-Rex.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Grace Paley

This is just one of the kinds of things I want to do more of that led me to quit my job... My review of Grace Paley's final book of poems, Fidelity.

out of the box

It's been two and a half years since my mother-in-law said to me, "Michael tells us you got yourself a little job."

This week I gave notice at my little job. I've been faithfully writing 2-4 articles a week (in about enough time to write one) about all kinds of events for the entertainment insert - from the interesting to the absurd. Most were theater openings or community festivals of one kind or another.

My editor told me he was sorry to lose me, that I'd really "grown into the job." Yes, I thought, now despite my best efforts to the contrary, I fit in the box, I have taught myself to color inside the lines. Many images came to my mind and I wished I had a cartoonist handy...Brig? Some of my struggles in newspaper writing have inspired such artists before.

I'm mostly getting out because my life is in a completely different place than it was two and a half years ago. I mean, check those photos if you don't believe me! And I'm leaving because there are so many projects and personal writings and possibilities that I want to pursue that have been shelved for a long time and are beginning to call to me - loudly.

Well, in another few weeks, the theater scene won't have this freelancer to push around any more, baby! (And I won't have free! Sob! Oh, why must I have such ambitions and morals? Why!?)

Monday, September 15, 2008

here we go...

First floor...Hosiery, ladies' handbags, electronics for geeks, one-way tickets to Geekdom...

Lately, every once in a while, Isaac likes to send an email to his dad or one of my friends. This exercise consists of me typing in their address and "from Isaac" in the subject line, then him punching long lines of nonsense letters in various colors and sizes.

I figure it's better than having my friends wait on the phone while he refuses to say hello and it's not like I bought him a Play Station. Plus, he gets to find the letters he wants and practice with lower case and capital letters, or, alternatively, just stay out of my hair for 30 seconds while I go to the bathroom.

So today in the midst of a composition to his father at work he announced, "Actually, I don't want to send a message to Daddy on the computer; I want to FIX the computer."

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Isaac woke up this morning and said, "Mama, tell me about some people who died."

Kids can be spooky.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


I face my new camping chair – the $5 clearance job with drink holder – at the grove of redwoods behind the tent and try to read.

Everywhere, someone to break the peace. One connected group has the next four or five campsites beside us – a total of about 200 people. Okay, 30, but still. They won't shut up. I mean, I talk alot, but there is a season (turn, turn, turn). What I'm dealing with is a cacophony of overlapping conversations that is truly non-stop.

The older I get, the more silence I need. When I was in college I lived on the 11th floor of a building that sucked up all the city street noise from the busy road below and when I wasn't doing my homework in the window seat to the serenade of sirens, I was buzzing around a suite populated by eight (count them) women. Not anymore. The thought of such an existence now makes me want to vomit.

On the way here, I announced in the car that no one was to speak to me. Mike ignored my request, asking if I'd brought the bug spray, commenting about the street signs. “Shut up,” I told him calmly. “Be quiet.” For a whole 30 minutes – oh kind karma! - Isaac was asleep, all his “Mama, looks!” hushed. Ever find yourself going on vacation with the exact people you need a vacation from?

When we arrived at our reserved site there was a tent already there. It was a large one that belongs, we'd come to discover, to our garrulous neighbors. There was also a gaggle of kids ages 6-13, I'd guess, sucking on blow pops and playing with fire. Mike got out to talk to them and got back in 60 seconds later with the report. “Their parents are 'somewhere over there',” he huffed fluttering his fingers in the vague direction of a clearing. “They don't know anything.”

As we headed around the small loop to go back to talk to the ranger at the kiosk, a woman called into our window, “Are you in 210? They just put the tent there to dry it out; I'll tell them to move it.” We circled back.

Slowly, ever so, the woman approached a crowd of seated adults engrossed in conversation. While we waited with a three-year-old bucking to get out of his carseat, four people began walking in what appeared to be the pokiest, most disinterested meander I've ever witnessed toward the drying tent.

We watched them coming. We watched; and watched. They became distracted by something off to the side, stopped for a moment; one drifted out of line; they walked on, still miles from their destination. It was like watching a rock video, the band lumbering in slow motion, dramatically cresting the hill, silhouetted on the horizon by the setting sun, headed for their instruments which, come the next scene, they would play in the suddenly pouring rain.

At this point, my husband, who gets angry approximately once every three or four years, leaped out of the car. “Can we help you hurry?” he said, addressing the band, “Because we need to camp!”It was typical of the sudden, unexpected nature of his outbursts, and of the charmingly moronic phrases he constructs in an attempt to show his true ire. Some people, like, oh, me, become verbose with anger, can't think of a word I don't like. Whereas Mike, on the other hand, loses even what few sentences he might have shared in better times.

Once, before we were married, we had booked a flight back to California from Boston that turned out to be delayed two hours – then five, six... nine. The airline staff did a hideous job of helping the tired, frustrated passengers cope. By hour seven, they returned our pleas for information with out and out rudeness. A pro at anger, both passive and active, I am content to mumble “Dickhead!” slightly louder than necessary after turning from the agent with attitude, but for Mike it proved too much.

“Look!” he said, red in the face and advancing to the counter. “You!...I'm!...THIS!...” He was wagging his finger, beside himself. “Not okay!...OKAY!?” he spat at top volume, clearly furious and made stupid by the adrenaline coursing through his gentle veins.

“Honey?” I said quietly, taking his arm and leading him back to our seats.

If I was looking forward to talking, conversation, it was at our next stop – two nights at a hostel on the water. When I recall the European hostels I've stayed at I think first of the kitchens, locatable by the low roar emanating from under the door, a happy crowd engaged in multi-lingual conversation, the table so covered in the brown necks of empty beer bottles no one could put down an elbow. The discussions centered around the local sights, the current political milieu, plans to meet up that next afternoon at the café around the corner or the following month in Turkey. Laughter. Songs.

I thought it well-timed then, that we were set to arrive at our hostel right around dinner time. The first sign I noticed was “Alcohol Strictly Prohibited.” Shit. We just hemorrhage boredom in this country. Everything is a warning. Nothing is allowed. In other parts of the world you can climb all the crumbling ruins you like and if you fall it's your own damn fault. Here, an entire panel of Isaac's beachball is dedicated to threats about misusing the apparent instrument of death.

I was further disappointed when I found the kitchen – empty. Everything was quiet. A solitary young woman smiled at us briefly from over the lid of her laptop in the living room before plunging on through cyberspace.

Later we would meet Martin. White-haired and dressed in red biking shirt and tan shorts, Martin would prove a constant during our stay as would his stories of Internet dating, his suspicions about the blondes from Nigeria, and other tales of ladies on line. On this first evening, after talking to us for twenty minutes about how he met Svetlana and consequently lived four winters in Siberia, he announced magnanimously, “I'll tell you my story...” I listened to the monologue for a while longer. It was just more talkie-talkie. I was beginning to crave silence again already. While Mike nodded on (off?), Isaac and I sneaked away to watch the sunset.

Saturday, September 06, 2008


We stare together at the x-ray of your two front teeth. One is pushed back just slightly, so slightly I almost can't tell until the dentist points it out. Above the pair of baby teeth, the two adult teeth waiting to replace them sit in the gum line, fully-formed.

Relief: no crack in the root.

I wasn't there when you fell, smacked your mouth on the cement. I was only there through the dried blood and swollen face, the popsicles and soup broth. And now this.

You are content in the big mechanical chair, your eye on the treasure box you'll soon get to pick from. And I am thinking about those teeth - the ones tucked away from view - imagining what other wonders of yours I still cannot see though they are already whole, complete, waiting their turn, like a second chance.

Friday, September 05, 2008


The fingers are itching at the keyboard, only outlet available at the moment.

Thank god they are over. Convention this, buddy.

Of all the nonsense on both sides, all the days and all the speeches, all the things I tried to catch, all the things I missed, what do you think was the one thing I got to hear live while driving – Rudy Guiliani. Spare me. The crowd devolving into grunts, aping “USA! USA!” like they were at a hockey game. Gross. I couldn't hear anything after he called McCain “a willing foot soldier in the Reagan revolution” because I was screaming too loudly at the radio.

If I hear those two words together one more time, I'm going to lose it: Sarah Palin. The Republicans are so hard up, it really doesn't take much to get them charged these days. As cold as my blood runs when I hear John McCain whistling through his dentures about his so-called experience, at least he's not stupid. WTF with everyone who is seemingly baffled about his choice of a VP from that far off land of ALASKA. Hmmm...what could he have been thinking?? Gee, no idea. Right.

Palin and her BS about how Obama's only penned two memoirs but no laws. A) Untrue, see below. B) Funny enough, reflection is something I value and that could potentially benefit this stubbornly amnesiatic country.

Since when do we believe that being imprisoned gives you the right to the presidency? This country could have A LOT of candidates if that's the criterion. Maybe I don't want someone versed in war to lead me. Maybe there are other kinds of “experience.” Just maybe.

“Country first” = another euphemism to license a unilateral outlaw in its xenophobic, self-serving (oh, I mean, “National Security”) wars that dismiss the only truth, that the globe is connected in economic, environmental, social, and political ways that cannot be undone. One world, baby.

So let's try this. That's all I have to say. Now I have to go write about a tomato festival.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


“What's a really special way a mountain can fall down, Mama?”

The yodeling mountain goat singing classics from the “Sound to Music” who eventually sends boulder after boulder to the ground doesn't quell Isaac's thirst for answers, any more than does the giant ladybug monster that flies to Earth from the Ice Cream Planet rattling the mountain and causing a landslide with its purple striped wings.

“What's another really special way a mountain can fall down?”

These kinds of questions take many forms. “What's a really special, special way a race car can break down?” “What's a really special way a raccoon can get hurt?” “What's something really special an excavator can drive through?”

“What's ANOTHER really special way a mountain can fall down?” he begs.

His world is infinite, endlessly sparkling with this special light. Does he believe, then, that there exist ordinary ways a mountain can fall? Does he believe me a fountain, with my fat lined thumb plugging the knowledge so that he is spared its beauty? He has everything and everything backwards. It is the mother that should beg for answers; it is the beauty of his small cheeks.

Monday, September 01, 2008

a relationship moment for the birds: explains a lot

The Stellar's jays at our campsite are brazen, fearless creatures who, along with their partners in crime, the squirrels, have so far eaten holes in a backpack, a cooler zipper and a pair of sunglasses.

At the campfire presentation one night, we learn the jays are related to crows, smart problem solvers who share information (which must go something like, “Now listen boys, if you can't get them to cough up the goods, fuck with their sunglasses...and don' eve' go against the family...”).

The whole evening is about birds as it turns out, with an ornithological specialist showing us slides of birds they've tagged. The yellow and black of a chickadee appears 1000 times its actual size on the screen, its colors faded in the mere dusk of early evening.

“Does anyone know what this bird is called?” our host asks.

“A woodpecker?” someone calls out.

“Noooooo,” she says, her voice raising higher as she stretches the word, generously allowing room for other possibilities.

“A sparrow?” a boy of about 12 tries.

“This bird is almost the same size as a sparrow,” she says by way of telling him he's wrong.

Her life's work against our little band of idiots, she's been passing out pencils made of recycled materials to anyone that gets a bird name right. Her left fist is still crowded with the implements and she pushes them back and forth in her hand.

“A mourning dove?” a woman pipes up.

Instead of throwing the pencils to the ground and stomping away, the woman says cheerily, “Wow! You all really know a lot of bird names!” Then she says, “Wellllll...” which clearly means “I'm going home to kill myself.”

I lean over and whisper to Mike. “Is it a chickadee?”

“No!” he scolds me returning my hushed tone.

“It's a chickadee,” the presenter announces a second later.

Mike and I exchange the glance, the one you would expect us to exchange. His says, “Oops!” Mine says, “You owe me, bastard! I wanted that pencil!”

But I've since forgiven him completely. You see, time away without the stresses and distractions of daily life, deepens a relationship. You learn about your partner things you may never have learned otherwise. And you learn that even in the still of the forest, the only way to be released from the pain is to move through it.

Since the bird incident, my husband has confessed to me that he was made to play the part of the gopher in his second grade theatre production. I blink, half-listening while he rattles on about it. And then, like a chunk of fool's gold, the nugget of truth shines. The play, it turns out, was “Winnie-the-Pooh.”

“Mike,” I say, being sure to speak especially slowly, “there is no gopher in 'Winnie-the-Pooh'.”

“I know,” he says.

“Oh, honey! You never told me!” I exclaim, moving to wrap my arms around him. “And anyway, it was just a pencil.”

role reversal

After all the camping adventures, they are starting to pile up. Our camping receipts marked with our site number and date of departure hang, taped to the inside of the windshield, driver's side. We are like those people with ski lift tags hanging from the zippers of their down vests (only slightly less pretentious).

We've crammed in a lot of camping in the last month. A good chunk in the last week. Life has been gloriously slow.

In our regular routine, it's me that plays primary care giver to Little Mr. Long Blonde Curls. I've got the day to day. I know what's caused the tantrums, how long the nap lasted, what deals have been brokered, how much broccoli was left on the plate. Mike plays relief pitcher – you know, the guy that comes in in the 8th and gets all the credit. His brief stint, consisting mainly of play time before bed, leaves the crowd cheering for more.

Out under the redwoods, however, things change. Mike assumes the greater responsibility for maintenance – chasing the small person with a toothbrush, say – and I, well, I take to the hammock with a book.

Apparently not everyone switches roles on holiday. From through the bushes one day we heard an angry woman's voice. “Sure!” it said rather violently, “Nobody thinks about MOM...” It roused me just slightly, but then I gave myself a push in the hammock and felt all better.

It was on the fifth straight day of our vacation that I sensed the shift in Mike. Day five seemed to herald in a tone of voice I don't remember hearing my husband speak in before, yet it was somehow familiar. “Maybe you should go to the potty NOW, because it's almost nap time,” he was saying. And then he approached me, swinging as I was under the redwoods.

“He asked if YOU would take him this time.”

“Okay,” I said, yawned and kept reading.

“It's getting to be nap time,” he tried again, tapping the face of his watch.

Reluctantly, I rolled out and into my shoes. If I didn't know better, I'd swear that was the tone of a harried housewife in his voice.

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