Going to the Well: The Beginning

The holidays bring up feelings of nostalgia, memory, the past. The experiences we didn’t know we’d ever think about again, the ones we thought had served their purpose, that were merely a piece of the puzzle adding to the picture of the present.

I find myself looking backwards, thinking of the first time I traveled to a tiny village in Siberia called Kolybelka, the car bouncing down the bumpy, unpaved road. We pass a string of ducklings trailing their mother, pass houses of green and blue – not shades but the conventional Crayola crayon colors, primary and strong – odd housing colors for American-trained eyes. The dirt road, wooden fences, horse drawn carts, the sense of quiet and calm – it is as if I’ve driven into the 1800s, and when my boyfriend bursts into a huge smile and says, “This is my village,” I laugh thinking he is joking.

While our lives were different – him a Soviet citizen, me American; him a resident of Moscow, me a Venice Beach dweller – until that moment, I don’t think I appreciated how different different was. I’d made room for our language barrier by devoting hours to study and conversations mediated by a Russian/English dictionary. I’d imagined what it must be like to live behind borders that didn’t let you leave. I’d understood the difference between abundance and not enough. But I hadn’t imagined this.

We round the corner and slow. Faces peer from a window of the house on the right. We’d ridden a train from Moscow for two and half days and then climbed into a car for a three and a half hour drive courtesy of my boyfriend’s brother-in-law who met us at the train station in Novosibirsk before the sun came up. At sunrise, we stopped in the middle of a cornfield, stood behind the open trunk, and toasted with a shot of Vodka. Thinking of the imprecision of our travel, I look towards the house and wonder how long the eyes in the window have been awaiting our arrival.

As I climb from the car, the rural quiet is interrupted with squeals of joy as my boyfriend bounces from one set of arms to the next, the urban university student returning to the nest. The eyes shift to me, the first American – and possibly foreigner, according to the local paper – to set foot in this village. Through the introductions, I repeatedly say, “Privyet!” in my expanding Russian. I opt for the familiar ‘hi’ over the more formal “Zdrastvutye” because I know that my tongue might get twisted on the polite greeting.

I am the first girl my boyfriend has ever brought to his village since leaving eight years earlier for his army service in East Germany, which was followed by his move to university in Moscow. At twenty-six, his family worries that he’s not yet married. At twenty-nine, my culture still allows my singleness but is definitely curious about my pursuit of a long distance relationship born two years earlier on a Soviet-American Peace Walk, a venture that created a traveling city of 500 Soviets and Americans that camped from Odessa to Kiev for one month, culminating with a celebration in Moscow. My boyfriend was the first person to approach me on the tarmac at 3:00 a.m. when we touched down in Odessa after 30 hours of travel, a trip expanded by lengthy flight delays endured by a circus of travelers that included a rollerskater who refused to remove his skates even as we traversed from one flight to the next across the polished floors of the Moscow airport.

When my to-be boyfriend approached bleary-eyed me, he offered a flower or a flag – the memory escapes me – and said, “Unfortunately, I don’t speak English,” and when I replied, “Your English is very good,” he repeated, “Unfortunately, I don’t speak English,” the one complete sentence he had learned. We took our language inventory, and despite the combined total of six, we didn’t have one in common.

But over the next thirty days our romance developed as we struggled through broken attempts at conversation and shared flowing exchanges via interpreters. When the time came for us to say good-bye – a good-bye that felt more final than any other I’ve experienced in my life – I could only pretend to believe we would ever see each other again.

to be continued



My dog operates like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, stashing his meds under his tongue and then depositing them elsewhere later. Half-tablets of Glucosamine Chondroitin show up in assorted locales – under the dining table, camouflaged by a multicolor area rug in the living room, discarded near the foot of my bed. One time, not to be bothered with movement, my dog simply removed the supplement from his food bowl and dropped it alongside the dish in an overt display of defiance, as if saying, “Don’t let this contaminate the good stuff.

It’s hard to explain to Speck that the medicine is for his own good, that his joints will thank him later, that due to his trick knees if he doesn’t chew and swallow, he may end up with arthritis. Of course, if I could explain it to him, he may request to see the research proving the effectiveness of the medication. He may pull up studies with contrary conclusions in order to challenge the benefit of ingesting a tablet whose taste he clearly finds disgusting, for this dog rejects nothing outside this medication. My dog eats dirt, for God’s sake, revealing that he does not have the most discriminating palate.

On the days that he can’t be bribed to take his medicine willingly, I pry Speck’s mouth open to shove the tablet inside, and I think of my father who always says he doesn’t have time to attend to his failing knees, who claims that work calls and there are countless demands on his time. I say that none of those things will matter if he’s unable to walk, that suddenly he will see that he has all the time he needs to attend to his health. I point out how much more he could do if he could walk more easily, how life would be richer.

I don’t say that it’s not fair to ask others to fetch things for him off the dining room table as he sits perched in the easy chair in the living room because he has a hard time standing up. I don’t point out that when he decides he doesn’t have time for physical therapy, he’s assuming we’ll have time to come to his rescue when the option for therapy has passed. I do say that if the roles were reversed and I were neglecting my health he’d be outraged and lecture me that nothing takes precedence over care for our own bodies, how if I argued he would call me stubborn and sigh with frustration. And in response he nods.

When a month goes by and he still hasn’t returned to physical therapy, I give up and let my thoughts drift to what kind of older person I will be. It’s hard to watch our parents age, to see their limitations grow, to see ourselves next in line. As if offering a warning, my body showed me the effects of neglect the other day. After some weeks off from an already scaled down exercise regime, too busy and too distracted to be bothered, I felt the neglect undeniably piling up. I called to my son, “Let’s do the stairs today.” He agreed. We donned our exercise clothes and hopped in the car.

Falling in line behind the other climbers, up, up, up we go. It starts easy and quickly gets difficult. Just steps from the top, my lungs are trying to leave my chest as if convinced they could get more air on the outside. I’m startled by how quickly I have declined, that even as a former competitive athlete I don’t have much in the bank. We complete our routine – up and down a few times – legs trembling before sweat can even appear. Despite the difficulty I feel proud that I am back on track.

The next morning I wake up and can barely stand from bed. I’ve done the stairs before, so I feel completely betrayed by my body’s reaction. By sheer coincidence, the elevator in our building is out – we live on the third floor – and we face the long Christmas weekend with no chance of repair for days.

Trying to walk down the stairs to my car, I feel a hundred and two years old, pain surging through every muscle I never knew I had, and suddenly I want to call every old person I’ve ever mocked and apologize. I swear that as soon as I recover, I’m back to a routine that includes the stairs regularly. Suddenly it’s simply about being able to function, about picturing myself traveling the world and facing Machu Picchu or some other equally demanding physical challenge. I’m unwilling to be the one who waits at the bottom for the others.

Days have passed and I’m still hobbling, the elevator is still broken, and Speck is still spitting out his medicine. Soon it will be the New Year. While part of me wonders if I will ever achieve prime form again, ‘Do stairs’ will be high on my list of resolutions. ‘Find flavored Glucosamine’ will be close behind. As far as prodding my father back to therapy, well, maybe I'll try to replace that goal with acceptance because some mountains are too high to climb.


Tis The Season

I never knew shopping at Borders during the holidays could be the new thrillseeking experience. Pulling into the parking lot, I see cars attempting to exit backed up deep into the underground structure, the occasional driver creeping over the center divide to face oncoming traffic, trying to peer ahead to figure out what is causing the departure holdup.

I am the face these daring drivers encounter under the ‘oncoming’ label, requiring me to demonstrate precise driving skills in order to avoid a holiday season, head-on collision. While a quick calculation informs me that such an accident would raise the interest in the ‘Guess what happened to us this year?’ greeting card enclosure (if I actually did one), I decide to opt for safety over drama. I move slowly and cautiously and snag a primo parking space thanks to my remarkable parking karma that materializes spots just like the onscreen movie-parking phenomenon.

Entering Borders, I can’t help but notice the lengthy line awaiting checkout. Holiday shopping in full swing. And I’m actually glad to be a part, having left my bah humbug home with my dog who has buried himself beneath covers seeking shelter from the recent chill that has arrived beachside, the kind of chill that will never make national news because no one much cares about the impact of fifty degree weather on thin-skinned Southern Californians.

I wander the store wrapped in wool coat and scarf fulfilling my consumer duty of impulse purchases from the bargain table. What thirteen-year-old boy doesn’t need to learn to juggle? Or a hardbound, black spiral notebook of staff paper for the budding composer? But of course. Ooh, I spy a book for mom, and the year’s running out so best pick up a new wall calendar. I arrived as chauffeur to a son in need of wheels and will leave as a sherpa.

But oddly, I am enjoying myself. I feel as if I’ve joined the club of revelers and celebrants. My cynicism is off hiding as I stand inoculated against its snarkiness by commercially packaged holiday cheer. In order to not be late for a dinner reservation, my eyes dart from the check out line to my watch. I’m cutting it close, so I slip behind the other eager purchasers in line. From where I stand, I can barely see the cash registers, but my anxiety over the time is quickly refocused because Borders is not run by fools. All along the check out line are tables of additional potential impulse purchases. Held hostage and in shopping glee, I pick up a book on how to combine Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations as if my family isn’t lifetime masters of the practice.

“We could get this for Grandma,” I say to my son. The book shows menorahs of candy cane candles and displays matzoh balls as snowmen. It’s kitschy enough to nearly mandate a purchase. But as I consider adding this book to my pile, the line picks up and starts moving. I toss the book back on the table, saved from a purchase I would definitely regret. A Christmas miracle…or is that Hanukkah?

And then I see the offering of all things optimistic, the perfect smile producer. Five feet ahead, a neat little sign affixed to a pole reads, ‘Average waiting time from this spot five minutes.

“Look, just like Disneyland,” I say to my son, but it is the woman in front of me who laughs.

Borders smartly plays us again. The sign works, for I instantly stop worrying about the length of the line. My body posture relaxes. I no longer feel rushed. ‘We’ll make dinner,’ I tell myself, believing the sign. Borders has sold me trust and optimism.

But I must question, did anyone really clock the wait time from that spot? Imagine a Borders’ employee, stopwatch in hand, calculating the exact place in line where five minutes would occur. How likely is that? But it doesn’t matter. I am so touched that Borders wants to calm us – and prevent bitching and moaning, not to mention a shoppers’ riot in its store – with this magical little sign, that I can’t stop smiling.

When the line speeds ahead, I celebrate Borders’ accuracy. It was definitely less than five minutes. In front of the cashier, I feel as if I’ve fully crossed over into holiday spirit. It may not be as exciting as climbing into a car for Space Mountain, but it’s not a bad place to be.


I am a Diamond

My iPod woke me during the night as if it needed to tell me something. At first I wasn’t willing to listen, disturbed by the call to wakefulness via a tune playing from speakers across the room.

Huh?” I thought.

I saw the glowing light of the iPod screen announcing its operational status. Still disoriented by sleep lingering in my body, I reached for the tiny remote sitting on my nightstand, fumbled over the buttons, and hit 'off.' I set down the remote and rolled over, eager to return to dream state. Within seconds, the music started up again, and once again I reached for the remote. I clicked 'off,' and before I could even place the remote back on my nightstand, the music started again. Like a comedic tug-o-war, I repeatedly hit 'off' and the iPod repeatedly rebounded to life. It was not to be silenced.

I stood in a huff and marched towards the device, pulled it from its speaker base, and laid it flat on my TV stand in a triumphant ‘Take that!’ I returned to bed and slept through the night till morning.

Had the evidence of the horizontal iPod not greeted me when I woke, I might have thought my memory of the incident a dream, but there it was, lying prone as if knocked out, unable to move. I kind of felt sorry for my dear iPod – it looked helpless and rejected – but it had disrupted my sleep, which I consider rude and insensitive.

Later, I started detailing the incident with amusement to my son when he asked, “What song was playing?

“‘I Am a Diamond’ by Antigone Rising,” I replied, and as the words floated towards my son, my eyes unexpectedly started to tear.

Which song is that?” he asked.

The disk sat in the CD player of my car, so I turned on the car stereo and found the right track.

I am a diamond and I cannot be broken…” sang the car speakers.

I spent the next five minutes trying not to cry in front of my son as I motored him to school. After dropping him curbside, I drove off and returned to the top of the track. I played it three times before pulling over for coffee. My iPod had been trying to speak to me, and I just didn’t want to listen. I exerted all my effort to keep the message away, a message that should become my mantra.

I am a diamond and I cannot be broken…

Lately I have felt very broken, inexplicably broken, the kind of broken that no one else can see or feel.

Music reached out to me in this way once before. The night of my stepfather’s funeral, I came home, crawled into bed, and thought, “How can I best help my mom?” She was feeling very broken, paralyzed by sudden loss. As the question completed in my mind, a tinny little piece of music started playing somewhere in my bedroom. I sat up, looked around, unable to identify the source. The sound drew me towards a chair against the wall, a chair used as my depository of stuff. The drop zone.

A few odd items lay on the chair, and the music seemed to be coming from beneath them. I burrowed through the pile and found a tiny, windup music box, a replica of a wrapped present adorned by images of butterflies that my mom had passed to me to play for my infant son. It housed her favorite song, Edelweiss from the movie The Sound of Music.

I hadn’t seen the music box since depositing it on that chair the previous year, evidence of the out of control state of my room. I didn’t even know it was there. For it to leap to life after being untouched for a year was quite startling. In order to get it to play, one must wind the little lever on the bottom a few times, and when it runs out of juice it stops. There is no on/off switch.

That night, without calculation I thought, “She should start taking piano lessons.” I can’t say why that came to me. My mom hasn’t played piano much since my childhood, but a baby grand occupies a big chunk of her living room, mostly as a stand for framed family photos. With the butterflies on the box – the symbol for transformation – it was all too neat and tidy for my rational brain, yet it felt so true that I didn’t question it.

I told my mom of the experience the next day. She nodded, listening, trying to hear. This incident took its place behind a long list of mystical things that had happened since my stepfather’s funeral.

Now, eleven years later, my iPod is talking to me. I can attribute it to chance or coincidence. Perhaps a neighbor with an extraordinarily powerful remote on the same frequency hit play. Perhaps the iPod was coincidentally parked on that song. Anything is possible, but it doesn’t really matter, because in my fully awakened state, I am finally listening.

I am a diamond and I cannot be broken…

And the next time my iPod leaps to life on its own, rather than seeking to silence it or figure out how it happened, I plan to lie back and take in the words.

* (the actual name of the song is Broken.)


Formerly Known As

Saturday night and I’m navigating through Los Angeles on my way to a concert in Hollywood. ‘The Avalon,’ I say to myself looking at my tickets. ‘I’ve never heard of the Avalon.’ I know the street location well, but the club name is a mystery to me. As I get closer, my radar clicks in and I say, ‘Oh, The Palace.’

I don’t know why The Avalon is presumed to be a more appealing name than The Palace. Apparently, new owners think renaming the nearly eighty-year-old venue whose marquee has displayed a series of names reflecting Hollywood history through the years – but has been called The Palace since the early 70s – is a smart move. Or maybe these owners just wanted a chance to stamp their own mark. In the least, I know that renaming is a trend. A disturbing trend.

The Universal Amphitheater is now the Gibson Amphitheater, though ticket broker websites post ‘formerly known as the Universal Amphitheater,’ which begs the question, if the venue was so well known that we’ll be lost without the prompt of the previous name, can’t you just leave the original name intact? Yes, the complainers will die off and the next generation will be born into the new name, but as the youngsters age, the name may change another six times. Then they, too, can join the fun of playing ‘Name That Venue.’

The Irvine Meadows is now the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater (doesn’t that just roll off your tongue?) Candlestick Park is now Monster Park.

When can I start screaming?

Could you imagine if people changed their names with the same regularity? ‘Who?? That’s ‘who’?? Ohhhh…

What’s the point of a name if not for identification? Oh, right. Publicity.

I understand as arenas pass from one owner to another, the company buying the locale wants its name on the marquee for advertising power. Great. We remember your name but have no idea where we’re going. The benefit of that is what exactly? Can’t you buy an arena, keep the name, and just plaster your banners everywhere inside? Oh wait, the plastering happens anyway. Do you not understand how we mock you as we watch musicians onstage and see wireless ads on every surface in the room? Do you not understand how this annoys us and may prompt us to switch to a less intrusive competitor (if only one existed)?

How’s that for a marketing campaign: We bought the arena, but left the name intact.

Talk about a new fan base.

Imagine if parents were as fickle with names. ‘Well, we tried Jack, but that didn’t really take, so we switched to Austin.’ Or, ‘We got a sponsor for our son, hence the name change.

That’s it. We could start auctioning off our kids as real estate, a new way to procure money for the college fund. Sure it would be confusing if three PacTel’s registered for kindergarten, only to register in second grade as Airtouch (a much better name, I might inject), followed by Verizon two years later (the name evolution of my cell provider due to mergers and acquisitions), but hey, if it’s to make a little money, what’s the big deal?

While I can tolerate the merger and acquisition name changes much like I make adjustments for marriages and resulting hyphenates and adoptions, I still can’t accept the disregard for the historic value of venue names and the lack of understanding of ‘a time and a place for everything.’ I’m happy to have a cellphone under the Verizon label, but I much prefer to visit a venue with a more romantic name. I need not be reminded during every journey of the corporate sponsorship of the world.

These name changes paint over the past and rob us of a connection to history, relegating it to the results of Google searches. If a small venue on the verge of disappearance changes its name in an attempt to secure survival, I can understand, but when a corporation imposes its name in an act of self-promotion – even if it paid for the right – I see the behavior as brazen and disrespectful.

Simple economics,’ you say.

I know,’ I respond. ‘But it makes me sad.

Call me a romantic.

The practical side of me wants a solution as to how to impact corporate behavior in this arena (pun intended.) If mockery alone could succeed, I’d lead that revolution, but these corporations have a very thick skin. And we can’t launch boycotts of the venues, for if ticket sales drop, the company will just sell off the arena prompting yet another name change (ouch).

As a romantic, I have wistful thoughts more than concrete solutions. The best I can come up with is self-serving acquiescence. I have a very talented musician as a son. He's lusting for a new electric bass for Christmas, and I see a baby grand piano in his future. In order to facilitate these dreams, I think I could get used to calling out ‘Ibanez!’ or ‘Steinway!’ when seeking help with the groceries. It's hardly a solution, but this way I can send my son to college, and maybe with the help of a fine education, he can come up with a solution of his own.


The Wedding Toast

(I have never before written about another blog, but sometimes we must break with protocol for a special occasion…)

There are three kinds of people in this world, those who see a problem and imagine a glorious solution and are energized by the vision; those who see a problem and feel despair and crawl into their cozy corner and hope it goes away; and thirdly, the ones who won’t even look at the problems, who won’t consider their existence, for the thought of such existence inconveniences their lives.

Jen and Mad fall into the first category. They take charge, plunge forward, elicit the aid of others, and look to stimulate change. They have the ability to start a movement, and results follow behind them like fans of the Pied Piper.

I teeter between group one and group two, often exhibiting the qualities of those who get overwhelmed by all the social injustice in the world. During certain sprints of action, I can reach out, speak, organize, and hope, but then I must go back to my corner and recharge. I feel the world’s pain so deeply that I ache, and I can’t always come forward and act.

So today I toast Jen and Mad for their relentless pursuit of justice, for their eternal strength in seeing the possibly that lurks behind the despair, for knowing that ‘enough’ is what most of us have, and ‘not enough’ is what most of us do. But rather than giving up on us, this lovely couple has called us to action to fire up the part of us that believes. And I propose that in honoring their union, we don’t leave the reception feeling that we’ve done enough, but go back to our lives remembering the call to duty, to look for the little ways during our daily routines where each of us can try to improve the world, to make it more just and more equitable, to take a moment to help someone suffering or to speak to the defense of others in need. We need not turn our lives upside down to accomplish this goal. We need not be full-time aid workers. We can simply be hopeful inhabitants of the planet, those who can imagine a better world.

To Jen and Mad…and a better world...


Angels in Odd Packages

The nicest man I’ve met in months – maybe years – came to my home to kill cockroaches. The irony is not lost on me.

It’s hard to admit that a few uninvited guests have found their way into my home. I stand in shame just like the fastidious parent who receives a call from school, “Please come pick up your children. They have lice.” We think that pests indicate improper grooming or cleaning. We have a hard time accepting ‘roaches happen.’

Only one roach at a time has appeared in my home, usually late at night when on a whim I return to my kitchen with a snack in mind and flip on the lights. Nothing kills a late night craving faster than seeing a little cockroach scurry across your kitchen floor.

At first I lived in denial, convincing myself that a single stray had found its way into my home. I killed it and felt relief. Then a friend and her husband came for dinner, and another roach got wind of my impromptu feeding and decided to make an appearance, a profoundly disturbing addition to any dinner gathering.

You know, if you see one, that indicates more are hiding in your walls,” my friend informs me in a calm voice. “They could have come home in food from the market. That happens all the time.

The look of horror that crosses my face and my, “I can’t handle this conversation,” quickly followed by an involuntary shudder that races through my body prompts my friend’s husband to intervene as his wife threatens to continue. “Hon, I don’t think she wants to hear any more about this.

I was just saying—”

Look, it’s like how you feel about mice. Would you like me to start talking about them?

I had a mouse here once,” I started.

Okay, enough of this,” my friend jumps in, the calm in her voice gone.

Cockroaches continued to visit about once a week – sole travelers out for an adventure – and I decide to take action, sending an email to all the other residents of my building inquiring as to whether anyone else had uninvited guests. Quick replies of, “No, not here,” fill my inbox making me feel depressingly singled out. After two days, the neighbors directly below me write, “Oh yeah, we’ve had them since last year, but not many. Suddenly they’re back.

Since last year?

Not only are the roaches back, they’ve decided to expand their sightseeing. While I certainly wish my neighbors had acted upon their infestation when it started and kept the little buggers from paying me a visit, complaining won’t help at this point. I call the pest control people and schedule an appointment.

Today Oscar arrived. I have never encountered a cheerier man, which only proves that the quality of your life is not based on the quality of your job. He kills bugs for a living – probably mice, too – and walks into the room as if he’s the most blessed person on the planet. He played with my dog and talked about growing up in this neighborhood, revealing that his brother had been shot and murdered twenty years ago about six blocks from my home, prompting his mother to sell their house. He shared this information with a neighborly casualness, not one to wallow in past pain.

So while Oscar arrived to kill the creepy crawlers in my kitchen, he waltzed in and killed my sour mood, the one that took root after an unpleasant family reunion for Thanksgiving, the day I was to honor all that is good in my life, but instead, having celebrated amongst the whiny and the depressed, only served to take me down to their level.

For two weeks I’ve been trying to bounce back. I’ve made mental lists of all I appreciate. I’ve read books to alleviate my mood and get me away from myself. I’ve strolled in the sunshine and cuddled with my loving dog, the dog that yesterday appeared to sense my sadness and crawled upon my lap and rested his head on my chest as if to say, “I know, I know. But I’m here for you and I love you.” He didn’t demand his usual midday walk that invariably interrupts my most productive moment. He didn’t cry for a cookie. He didn’t place his needs before mine. He just stayed close, maintaining body contact with me for hours as if trying to infuse me with good energy to push out the bad.

But despite all these efforts, my sadness remained. I thought of my mom’s question as to whether I would be hosting Christmas morning again this year, the question I sidestepped not wanting to sound snarly and cynical.

And when my father asked last night what we should do for the holidays, I had to ask, “What do you mean by ‘we’?” fearing the inclusion of those I cannot name. I capped my question with, “I’m still recovering from Thanksgiving.” He wanted to know more, but with my son in the backseat I said that we should carry the conversation over to a different time. I wanted to say, “No gathering, no way. I’m looking to be adopted by a new clan.

But when Oscar the roach man came today he began to exterminate the lingering gloom. He brought little traps that he hid in the backs of cupboards, out of sight, but there to serve. And as I recline comfortably with my dog still pressed to my side, I picture my residue sadness lured from my body, migrating towards those traps, getting stuck, unable to come back to nag me. I picture Oscar returning as promised in two months to remove the used traps, my home pest free, his carting away the captured pain and poison. I picture him rubbing my dog’s head and shaking my hand as he moves out my door.

And I picture myself Christmas morning wearing a smile, sitting with just my son and my dog, or maybe with an invited friend or two, fresh baked muffins cooling on the counter, a shining California morning streaming through our glass doors and our high windows with views of the ocean. I picture the presence of joy and the absence of sadness, and I picture Oscar surrounded by love. Thank you, Mr. Roach Man. You are my angel.



The fences have gone up, the annual act of man that signifies the approach of winter in my beachside town. The waif-life barriers magically block the migration of sand towards the boardwalk, leaving the beach intact and able to withstand the assault of high tides and aggressive waves.

Much is made over the nearly identical year-round weather of Southern California, but these fences attest to our climate changes. Every year when the fences arrive, I know the ocean is getting ready to roar. And every year when the fences are pulled up and tossed into the backs of trucks, I know our moderate winter is over.

How fitting that these fences actually look like markers stuck delicately in the sand, hardly seeming like a potent force against a storm. But they serve to protect us year after year. And they serve as a marker of time, an indication that another year is rolling by.

The skies often grow darker around the time the fences go in. We might still have an unseasonably warm day, the kind that makes Easterners move west after watching the Rose Bowl on TV where we’re all dressed in shorts while they must don snowshoes and winter coats to dig their cars out of the driveway. But despite this national advertising, we do have winter.

After the fences go up, Venice grows quieter. Only locals stroll the boardwalk walking dogs and staring out on our beloved view of the ocean. We live the shorter days and the grayer skies, the cooler weather that requests a sweater and maybe even a scarf. We even wear closed shoes. We move more slowly assuming a subdued mood.

Hopeful vendors still line the boardwalk, though they often let days go by where they stay away. As the season progresses, my dog’s walks grow shorter, his thin coat leaving him to shiver, his stubbornness refusing to wear a sweater. I most often walk on the sand in the winter. The solitude is meditative, the beach more personal in the cold, a place of reflection rather than a playground. Nature’s sounds dominate those of humans. The sky poses dramatically for photos, punctuated by clouds and colors that get washed away during the bright heat of summer.

But this year it’s different. Eighty-degree temperatures arrived after the fences went in. Fresh crowds arrived in skimpy clothes moving with playful strides. And the fences stand as if they have nothing to do, no purpose to serve. The skies stay bright and sunny. The sea stays calm.

The fences feel embarrassed. I know it. I know they’d rather be lying around than standing falsely at attention like military police sent in to quell an anticipated student uprising. Such cops stand tough and strong and secretly wish they were on their couches watching a game or playing with the latest video invention. Their opposition doesn’t warrant their arrival. Their opposition is just flexing. And while it’s possible that things could abruptly turn ugly, just like a storm could suddenly hit the Southern California coastline – the only way our storms seem to arrive, sudden and on the heels of hideously hot winter weather – to lurk around, to wait for such an occurrence, feels pathetic, an act of wishing for exactly what most hope doesn’t happen. Your presence feels as if it’s inviting disaster rather than protecting against it.

In the quiet, the fences turn their attention to each other. Where Venice meets Santa Monica, the fence styles change. Venice’s are metallic and tough reflecting the historic posture of the city, while Santa Monica’s are casual and wooden reflecting a lack of concern.

While Venice is growing in wealth, Santa Monica still has the upper hand. You’d expected the newness and the shine to live in the more affluent city rather than in the Venice of aged grit and decay, a decay that itself is decaying and being replaced by shiny and fresh and recently built, transitioning Venice from its place on the fringe to a desire for societal respect.

At the border, the two styles of fences look at each other deciding whether they can be friends or whether they must stand as foes boasting of the respective assets of the cities they guard. They can’t help but assume the competitive posture, for they’ve been bred as guardians, as protectors, not as friendly welcomers.

But after some time, the fences of Venice and Santa Monica realize that on the quiet days, they only have each other, that they can boast and strut, but the reality is that they share a common goal.

They both want to go home early, assume a cozy spot on the couch and share a few beers with friends. They don’t want to stand in wait.

And when the season ends, they may even decide to grab a meal with one another. After all, they have a lot in common, and it would be a nice way to spend the off-season.

Meanwhile, I'll wait for winter to arrive, my coat hanging by the door ready for duty.


It's Criminal

Corporations run our lives. Examples surround us. Cell service providers convince us to speak with more frequency to those within our network, secure that the accrued minutes go nowhere, not costing us a thing. We postpone calls until after 9 p.m. in order to drop into our nighttime minutes. My friendships with people on Verizon have soared while those with service on Cingular or Sprint have become casual and less significant. As I lobby my friends and acquaintances to switch to Verizon to form that cozy little network the cell companies promote, I figure I should be on payroll.

Willingly I fall for my cell provider's propaganda to stave off the price of a few more minutes. But we don’t always face the corporate assault with choice.

I’m a regular recipient of concert promotions via email. I find an event I desire, click, and leap to an opportunity to purchase. When an event is popular, a little stress kicks in as you request tickets and await availability. It’s part of the game and leads to fairy tales.

Once upon a time I sought tickets to a popular concert. Navigating to the Ticketmaster website, I’m greeted by the restriction: MAXIMUM PURCHASE – FOUR TICKETS. Four tickets. But I need five. While I know the limit is an attempt to fend off scalpers, can we finally admit that scalpers can’t be beaten? They will win. Always. If we want to round up all the scalpers, let’s get together and launch a sting operation. We go to Craigslist. We click on tickets, one stop shopping for illegal ticket resales. As the saying goes, ‘It’s not brain surgery.’

I call Ticketmaster’s 800 help number.

Hi,” I say. “I want to buy tickets for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but your website says you can only buy four tickets.

That’s right,” the Ticketmaster representative responds.

But, uh, it’s for my son’s birthday and I need a total of five. Is there any way I can do that? I mean, I’m not a scalper or anything.

Well, if you have two credit cards with two different billing addresses, you can buy eight tickets,” he explains.

I explain the complications of enlisting a friend to help in this process, that the tickets going on sale will be gone in a flash online, so I can’t wait and come into an in person Ticketmaster location, and if I do it as two transactions online, our seats won’t be together.

That’s our policy,” he reiterates.

I hang up and tell my son he has to cut a friend. And I flash on my friend with a family of five, imagining Little Jenny’s potential desire to attend a concert with a maximum ticket purchase of four and her mother turning to her and saying, “Which sibling would you like to leave at home?

I see my friend sitting down her three children, her husband hovering behind her, to explain that one must assume the role of Cinderella and stay behind and clean while the rest pile into a car dressed for an evening out. “Ticketmaster believes I should only have had two kids,” she says in closing.

Sarah’s the youngest, so she should stay home,” the middle child cries. “Besides, she was an accident.”

Who told you that?” my friend questions, eyes drifting over to curious Sarah.

You did,” replies the oldest, secure in her place in the pecking order.

Maya should stay home since she’s the oldest,” cries young Sarah. “She’s the only one allowed to be home alone.

Good point,” says John, the father who desperately wants to volunteer to stay home so that he doesn’t have to sit through a performance he has no desire to see, but he remains silent not wanting to provoke an evil stare from his wife.

I know scalping is a serious problem – well, maybe not in relation to global politics and escalating health care costs – but this four-ticket limit is ridiculously rigid. The limit of four tickets doesn’t stop scalpers. They have a network of a zillion all partying together and buying four tickets. When the company implemented its four-ticket policy for popular events, did it really not consider families of more than four members? Or friends who want to go out as a group? Is everything about dissuading crime?

And then I realize that it is. Many of our nation’s policies are defensive acts in anticipation of abuse of a system. And while there are plenty of abusers who have put these actions in motion, where are the escape clauses for the law abiders? When we give up our liberties to fend off an enemy, can’t we see that the enemy has won?

And no, I’m not getting political. I’m not talking about the Bush administration and how we’ve been scared into accepting previously unthinkable policies. I’m not saying the terrorists have won because Bush keeps trying to convince us to walk around in fear, handing over rights as the price of admission to this country. I’m not saying any of that.

All I’m saying is that Ticketmaster should let me buy more than four tickets for a popular concert. Really. That’s all I’m saying.


To Flow or Not to Flow

Day Two of National Novel Writing Month. Creativity breaks down and weeps. The pledge I’ve taken to write a 50,000 word novel in the thirty days of November is the same as binding my typing hands in metaphorical handcuffs, courtesy of NaNoWriMo, the perfectly condensed name to lure a graduate of Stanford, a university where all locales are shortened in similarly ridiculous ways: Hoover Tower – Hoo Tow; Memorial Auditorium – Mem Aud; Boat House – Bo Ho.

With NaNoWriMo, I feel right at home.

By Day Three, Creativity, accompanied by Shame and Fear, is curled up in the corner moaning and trying to sleep, determined to wait out the month-long sentence as if imprisoned in a cold concrete jail cell, clinging to fantasies of the day of liberation, eager to rebelliously bound back to life come December and parole.

It pains me to see Creativity suffering so, especially since I brought on the condition. To nudge Creativity out of its depression and worry, I write and write. I write anything. I write everything. I dance between two stories rather than sticking to one, combining the word count for posting at NaNoWriMo as if two stories could march towards one ending. My process focuses on numbers over content. I consider assembling and inserting shopping lists into the middle of the each tale, a definite ‘kill two birds with one stone’ approach. My writing is looking very odd.

On Day Five, Creativity comes to life, coaxed from its haze by coffee and a sugarcoated pastry. But as with any bout of energy brought on by such delicacies, Creativity plummets into low blood sugar after a short digestion period and returns to resentment over the pressure of my commitment. Stubbornly, it retreats to its corner until I offer to strike a deal.

I consider my options. Like a defendant on trial, I stand and raise my hand. Moving into the co-starring secondary role of judge as only a schizophrenic writer can, I call on myself.

Defendant blurts out in military formality, “Permission to not succeed, sir!

As judge, I nod in understated affirmation. Defendant sits down and allows a small, triumphant smile to take form. Relief. I’m released from my pledge. I can go back to life as normal.

Only the shaking off of responsibility in the way a wet dog dries its coat is new to me. Honoring my commitments, crossing the finish line, every incarnation of such behavior, is my norm. My obsession. Giving myself permission to not cross the finish line is unfamiliar.

For years I have practiced yoga intermittently. Vinyasa yoga. I didn’t choose this flowing form of yoga. It chose me. Serendipity. The proximity to my home of Sacred Movement, a friendly yoga studio, paired with my ignorance of the vast array of yoga options lands me in Brad’s class.

At first I struggle. I must absorb the classroom routine, the names of poses, learn the etiquette, face my limits. Over time Brad’s way becomes familiar. I no longer must remind myself to breathe rather than hanging onto the air inside my lungs as if I’m an inflated balloon that will shrivel and die if I exhale.

Take a vinyasa,” Brad instructs, referring to a series of flowing poses. “If you always take the vinyasa, don’t. Hold downward dog instead. If you never take a vinyasa, do.

Brad knows that breaking your routine offers new perspective. If you must always do more, try doing less. If you always do less, stretch and see what it’s like to do more.

When I consider NaNoWriMo, I examine what I gain by sitting down in the corner instead of sprinting for the finish. I see that I give myself choice. I see that the world does not end when I choose to renounce a pledge. I see what I have accomplished by simply trying.

My timid participation in NaNoWriMo has allowed me to move forward on a story that has been hovering above me for months. Some new characters introduced themselves. A story is taking shape. I am reconnecting to fiction.

I have never been a sprinter. I prefer distance running, for I embody endurance over speed. Just ask my high school cross-country coach. In November I’ve written a lot of words. Most do not count towards NaNoWriMo. But they count to me. And they count to Creativity and my someday novel. Both respect my decision to fail at NaNoWriMo. Both understand that my writing process requires some seasoning.

I'm glad that I gave NaNoMoWri a shot, but I'm mostly glad that I gave myself permission to extend the process. Maybe I can try for NaNoWriDecade. That’s more my speed.


When Our Past Appears

Last night I dreamt about my college boyfriend, not because I’m being wistful or nostalgic, and not because of anything metaphysical and spiritual. He arrived in my dreams because I ran into his unbeknownst-to-me ex-wife, and in response to my simple, “What are you doing here? I thought you lived up north,” she blurted out that she and my ex have been divorced for ten years, that they’d both remarried – him to the prison guard of his girlfriend (I must clarify that!) – and that he has lost his license to practice medicine.

Picture my jaw hitting my chest. Literally. Envision teeth and tongue, and my gaping mouth spewing shock and awe. It couldn’t have been pretty. Unable to mask my curiosity, I whipped out a pen and said, “We have to talk.”

“Oh, you had no idea?” she asked.

“Uh, no.”

I'd lost touch with them years back following their move and my misplacing their change of address card. By that point, our friendship had been reduced to an exchange of Christmas cards. It was natural to let it slide.

She gave me her number and trust me, I will call. This is the woman who immediately followed on my heels after my breakup with said boyfriend. He and I ended on good terms. We recognized we were heading in seriously different directions (I obviously had no idea to what extent! Prison guard of girlfriend? I must clarify that sentence.) Boyfriend and I cried through our breakup discussion, dissecting if we were really through, if his journey into medicine and mine into the arts were at the core of our growing lack of understanding of one another, if his need to rise at dawn and my need to roam clubs of music and film and performance and poetry had to be so at odds. The pain of saying good-bye drained the air from the room.

One year later, he invited me to his wedding. His wedding. ‘Gee, that was fast,’ I thought to myself. ‘Is the paint even dry on my new apartment?

But that was just figure of speech. He and I had never lived together. I did move months after our breakup – for reasons completely unrelated to my relationship status – yet not into an apartment but a group home. No, not that kind of group home. The kind that every neighborhood dreads – five previous strangers living under one roof where every room in the house becomes someone’s bedroom and three cars are parked in the driveway and two on the front lawn. In a good neighborhood. A really good neighborhood that should be immune to this kind of vermin moving in.

We weren’t exactly vermin. One of my roomies was a progressive canvasser for some nonprofit that eludes my memory. Another was a fulltime staffer at the Mondale campaign. And then there was the mystery couple upstairs – the mechanic and his girlfriend who only came out of their room to abandon dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, leaving them there long enough to invite real vermin to move in.

I lasted ten months in this communal living situation until the cat of my canvasser roomie left a giant dead rat outside my living room/bedroom door. Maybe I should have focused on the obvious affection of the cat in leaving me her prize, but all I can remember was my disgust and the refusal of that cat’s owner to leave work early in order to deal with the dead rodent.

“Get Greg to do it,” he said through the phone.

“Greg’s more freaked out than I am,” I replied. “He’s standing pressed against the hallway wall holding a broom in front of him as if the rat might spring back to life and attack.”

“Oh, geez,” our pot addicted roomie wailed through the phone. “Well, I can’t leave until eleven. I’ll deal with it then.”

My traditional ex-boyfriend would have come between me and the rat, but he was living the med student life in corporately developed Irvine, CA, the city so meticulously designed that it refused to house thrift shops. The previous year, when looking for Halloween costumes, boyfriend and I inquired where we might find a used clothing store, and a kind woman managing a local shop explained, “Oh, they don’t allow thrift shops in Irvine. You’ll have to try Costa Mesa.”

Ex-boyfriend was becoming a doctor in calculated perfection while I was receiving dead rats on my doorway. Our lives really had diverged.

Twenty years later, this man is divorced from the woman who sat me with the band at their wedding. He is apparently in with the prison crowd and no longer in possession of his license. This is clearly a time to launch Google into action.

I use his name, his profession, and 'lost license.' I omit the prison tidbit figuring that may just clutter the search results. And there he is. A bit heavier. A bit gray, and apparently walking quickly to avoid a TV camera. The accompanying article details how he’s had two DUIs and performed surgeries with alcohol on his breath leaving a trail of lawsuits and insurance payouts. Patients provide horrible details of misconduct by one of the greatest loves of my life.

And everything shifts for me.

My initial smug response when encountering his wife gives way to sadness. To memory. To traveling through Europe for two months with this guy straight out of college. To our successful division of labor. To the absence of fights and the times of shared laughter. To romantic gestures. To fumbling our way through language adventures of food shopping in Austria with minimal German skills, and to his insistence that I debrief the wine merchant in Bordeaux with my classroom French so that he can purchase countless bottles of wine to carry back to the U.S. My boyfriend accumulates so many bottles that he must remove all his possessions from the stereotypical backpack of the European train-hopper, only keeping T-shirts to serve as buffers to prevent breakage. Everything else gets abandoned in the small European hotel room, wine the most precious commodity.

And twenty years later, the DUIs bring him down. All I feel is sadness, and the healer in me believes I could reach out and save him, imagining he’s still the twenty-three-old who told me of the practical way he approached both of his parents’ deaths when he was a teen, imagining that he’s still the one who introduced me to the waterbed I kept for almost twenty years, imagining he’s still the one I once felt I couldn’t be without, until I no longer felt that way.

Last night he climbed into my dreams and graced me with compassion and remembrance. The voyeuristic amusement of his troubles vanishes. My mocking voice that spoke for the me that felt so easily replaced following our breakup quiets, the same me that scoffed at his perfect marriage to the perfect woman who sewed Denver Bronco table cloths for a Super Bowl party I attended at their home shortly after their marriage, table cloths that convinced me that he’d married the right woman because I would never do such a thing, would never care in that way, would not be the homemaker he craved in his traditional values, would not give him the six kids he later confessed to wanting. Six.

In looking at his cozy home, I believed he had found his life and would coast till he died. I never imagined any trouble. I gave him a pass on messiness. I revealed my naiveté.

I want to call his ex-wife for the details of his disintegration, but my questions will no longer be posed with the intent of gathering gossip. I’m grateful for the dream that silenced my insensitivity and brought me back to a place of humanity. I want to know what happened to someone I once so adored, how it could happen, to ask if she thinks he’ll ever find his way back.

It’s hard to see someone move on effortlessly and quickly from a relationship you deemed as one of the most significant of your life. My journey from smug to caring has reminded me how common it is to want a person who hurt us to hurt. My initial feeling of vindication in hearing of my ex’s failed marriage showed me I was holding onto feelings of unjust dismissal, even following a breakup that I initiated. Twenty years later I put those feelings to rest. Finally.

I hope my former love can heal and help those he’s harmed and find his way back to the life he always wanted. And I hope in the future I won’t want others to suffer so that I can feel better. I hope I’ve learned at least that much.


The Gold Star

One of the first things you learn in kindergarten is that if you do a good job you get a gold star. Now, many years later, as Pavlov predicted, I still look for that shiny piece of foil in its grown-up equivalent.

Growing up, I was fortunate to be offered enthusiastic praise for my achievements. Some children never know such encouragement. But as the praise circulated around my accomplishments, I grew to believe that you are loved for what you achieve, not for who you are. And sadly, even with such awareness, it’s difficult to break the bond with the programming.

Recently, a friend nodded with understanding as I confessed my ailment. She responded by telling me what one of her friends had told her: “You constantly act as if you have to earn your place on the planet. You don’t realize you get it just by virtue of being here.”

And then it was my turn to nod, for the words resonated deep within me. They made me smile. They took the edge off my concerns.

The next morning, while driving my son to school, I looked over and told him that I thought he was a really cool person, that I enjoy his humor and his sensitivity, his inquisitive mind, the way he treats his friends – assorted words of approval geared at focusing on his qualities and behavior rather than his accomplishments. And in the way that only a teenager can manage, he looked at me kind of pleased but also really perplexed, as if his eyes were saying, “Where the hell did this come from?

I didn’t want to tell my son that my conscious words of love were a backlash against my own sense of unworthiness between periods of clearly defined achievement. I didn’t want to confess my attachment to the belief that I must continuously find a way to add things to my resume to feel relevant to the world. I didn’t want to admit that my words came from my awareness of the potential damage of society’s specific view of success. I didn’t want to tell my son any of it. It could freak a kid out. Hell, it kind of freaks me out.

Instead of confessing my affliction, I am aiming to program my son to see himself as deserving of love for reasons beyond what he achieves, to break the cycle of this common belief that achievement leads to acceptance and love. I want to spare my son my fate, and in the process, to reprogram my way of looking at my own life, to feel better about where I am along the way to my goals, to maybe allow the goals to mean less, to maybe even find a way to revisit the goals.

At the same time, I recognize I’m only one part of the equation. Teachers praise student accomplishments. Society holds up benchmarks that make us try harder, press harder, feel behind the pack. It’s hard to shut it all out. It’s hard to silence the comparison ghost.

But lately I’m succeeding. A wondrous calm is washing over my life. I’m enjoying the uncertainty and the mystery. The attempts in new arenas outside my programmed comfort zone make me smile. I’m drunk on possibility.

However, I must confess that the possibility points to possible success. Oops. Well, I’m a newbie here. I’ve got years of learning to undo.

But still, I’m having fun. I’m spewing out the right words to my son to make him see that taking the risk is as much of an accomplishment as any outcome. Any. And when I say that, I can almost fully believe it. Almost. Pretty nice progress in the ‘Can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ department.

In the back of my mind, I’m prepared for the possibility that the subtle teaching may not fully work on my son. I may have to come clean and tell him how attached I grew through the years to my definition of success. I may have to issue some concrete warnings of danger signs to look for, such as constant quests for overachievement, to remind him of the courage it takes to try something risky and fail. To point out that failing isn’t always failure, that not winning can be winning.

Almosts can point us in new – and better – directions. I look back on all the things I’ve tried that didn’t quite go right, and even in typing those words I see I contradict my premise. ‘Go right.’ The things that didn’t go right made me adjust my way, and lead to my next step and my next step.

And as in all instances where I think I'm teaching my son, I'm really teaching myself. I guess contrary to what the book says, all I needed to know I didn’t learn in kindergarten.


Girly Girl

I’m on a date, kind of a first date, kind of a second date. When you meet someone in public, talk, grab a drink, is that date one? The first time you make plans officially, is that date two? The fine lines of dating semantics.

So I’m on date one/two. Conversation rolls around to my darling, aqua blue, VW convertible Beetle, which made yet another unexpected journey – a very precarious one at that – to the repair shop. I was eager to tell the tale of the precision driving I displayed getting my battery dead and electrically challenged car through the crowded morning LA traffic, forced to gun the engine on my five speed to keep the RPMs above 3000 so that the car wouldn’t die in the middle of the road blocking cars behind me, leaving me at the mercy of aggressive horn honks and hateful stares.

But before I can boast of my impressive driving skills, skills that lead my son, who was very late for school after our waiting for the tow truck to jump my car – only to have the car die 50 yards away from my home necessitating my son’s bolt from the vehicle to flag down the tow driver for another jump before he zipped off in that aggressive way that only tow trucks, city buses, and taxi drivers dare – to mention that my driving was like a video game, for when pedestrians dared try cross the street before me, I panicked and yelled, “No, not a pedestrian,” as I knew each time I slowed or stopped I ran greater risk of my car dying again.

So back to my date and my enthusiasm for sharing the story of my Bug, the car that behaves like an adoptee wanting regular visitation with its birth parents – the only explanation other than the belittling term ‘Lemon’ that I can bestow upon my car for its frequent and odd ailments that mandate I return to the Bug store and rehab. I’ve been to the dealership so many times in the three years of owning my car that I’ve worked my way through nearly all the service managers until I found my dear buddy, Jeff, who I now request without question. The other service managers are nice, but they won’t joke about how unreliable Beetles are or voice amazement that I’ve hung onto the car this long. Better yet, my dear joking Jeff ensures that everything is fixed the first time around as opposed to his colleagues who look at a petite woman as automotively inept and thus repeatedly dismiss my assertions about my car’s wacky behavior.

Jeff listens when I say that twice the passenger door mysteriously would not close until I was forced to slam the thing aggressively. He doesn’t pose the condescending question, “Are you sure the seat belt wasn’t in the way?” – the words I uttered to my son when he couldn’t get the door to close, so I know condescending when I hear it.

Instead, Jeff insists his mechanics research my door until they discover that the window is out of alignment and preventing the door from closing. (How does that suddenly happen??) Jeff adds, “You’re damn lucky you didn’t break the window when you slammed the door,” and smiles. I smile back and picture shattered glass flying through my garage and concur that I’m damn lucky. Starting the morning with a deader than dead battery and electrical problems signified by every available dashboard light flashing in random chaos mimicking a concert light show was plenty. Who needs the addition of a passenger window flung all over a garage floor?

Whenever my car and I are spoken of or seen together, I am greeted with, “That car is so you.” I get this comment from people gassing up beside me in the self-serve aisle who have never before seen me. I get this comment from friendly drivers as they pull alongside me in the LA traffic forced to slow. They motion for me to roll down my window, which interestingly will soon require a new hand gesture beyond mimicking cranking, for our young drivers have never been in a car with hand crank windows unless they were forced into the ultra cheap rental model offered to me the past few days while Beetle was home nesting. I don’t know the hand gesture for “push the little button to make the window go down.” But because I wasn’t born yesterday, I understand the hand crank gesture and roll down my window to hear, “That car is so you.” I say, “Thank you,” but I’m not sure why because it’s hard to be sure that’s a compliment except the drivers are smiling, and unless they’re engaging in an act of unprovoked cruel mockery, I think they’re saying something nice.

So back to my date. When the subject of my car comes up and my date says, “That car is so you,” I finally ask, “Why?” I explain that I have no idea how I appear to the outside world, how I appear to strangers, so this “so you” comment baffles me. My date goes on to explain, “Well, it’s cute and, you know, a girly car, and you seem like a girly girl.”

And I’m stunned. Girly girl? I’ve received the girly girl label? A dedicated childhood tomboy who spent nearly all her time with boys playing sports and other weirdly inventive games, a girl who grew into a teen whose focus was athletics and art and never read any magazines bestowing advice to teen girls on how to look hot and get the guy? (You get the guy by hanging with him on the sports field. Just don’t act like a guy and get all macho, and your shared interests pave the way to nice romance, thank you. And yes, I know there are other ways to get the guy. I’m not living under a rock.)

My teen self morphed into the college student who with injured shoulder left the athletic playing field as participant and began photographing sports instead, attracting the hottest intelligent jocks – no, not a contradiction – at her Ivy League-ish university to cozy up to her to see if they could coerce her to put their photo in the school paper because they learned that she’s Sports Photography Editor and she’s friendly on top of that, and if I’m to believe my date, maybe a little cute.

And that college student has become the woman who has never had a manicure, has only had two pedicures – one to honor her friend’s pre-wedding moment in some odd female bonding ritual and another to mark the passage of another year on a friend’s birthday. Both made me completely uncomfortable as if I had wandered into a secret society with odd rules of behavior I didn't understand where I had to fake my way through the experience with an artificial grin on my face feigning interest in the color my toenails were becoming. I should have enjoyed the calf massages, but I prefer the hands crawling over my legs to be of the male variety.

So when my date sees me as a girly girl, I’m curious. I’ve always felt decidedly unfeminine, though not in the butch way. My hair is now long after decades of shoulder length and shorter. My makeup wearing is minimal and mostly purchased at the drugstore. I can't discuss cosmetic preferences unless saying “the pink brand waterproof mascara for $4.50 at Savon doesn’t smear” counts, a tip I overheard from a makeup artist doing my friend’s eyes on the day of her wedding. “The cheap stuff is best,” he emphasized.

In general, I just don’t feel comfortable around all the, well, girly girl stuff. Women’s magazines and the things they emphasize offend me. I don’t gather with women to bitch about men because for the most part I like men, certain objections like the obsession over watching sports and the resulting mopey behavior following disappointing outcomes excluded. Both genders offer examples of stereotypes and I don’t mean to repeat them, but sometimes we default to generalities, and when generalities arise, I don’t easily slide into girl camp. I straddle the zone between the genders, so ‘girly girl’? – I just don’t get it.

But I’m intrigued by the suggestion because one of the interesting things about running amongst the living is that we never get to see ourselves as others do. If this date sees me as a girly girl and that’s whom he asked out, we may have a little problem and a very limited future. Sure, I was dressed in a short skirt and high boots on the night we met, but if that’s what he’s counting on as my regular attire, he’ll be disappointed most of the time. I’m more of a jeans and flip flops sort of woman. My nails are often broken from the labor and hobbies of my hands along with some lingering habitual nail biting that arises in times of intense focus and stress.

I’m not dainty and I’m not delicate, but I’m not a bruiser either. My strutting comes packaged in the female variety. At times I’m shy and demure, but girly girl? I just don’t think so, and if my date had seen my video game driving skills that my son so admired in my daring maneuvering of my ailing five speed, he may rethink his choice of words. But I could be wrong. Maybe my date is a feminist of the modern kind where all of the above constitutes a girly girl. If so, we may have an interesting future after all.


I’m Listening

The fiction voices have been talking to me, and they don’t want to be ignored. They don’t want to hear that they’re not practical, that they’re calling for a pie-in-the-sky life. They bristle with annoyance when assaulted with cliché.

I’ve decided to invite the voices to hang out, at least for a little while. They visited before and stuck around for roughly four years. We shared some good times and some doses of anguish. Our relationship proved fruitful. Eventually, they set off on their own.

They make good use of the legs I gave them, inhabiting pages atop strangers’ desks and in overstuffed file cabinets. They’ve gone through the shredder and have been recycled. While I did ask them to demand recognition when leaving home, they were fashioned in the image of their creator, and have thus been overly demure, unfortunately not receiving the attention I dreamed of for them. When I send another batch out into the world, I will be more forceful in my mandate to speak up.

But today I sense the voices will somehow find a home. Somewhere at sometime. They might even be reincarnated. They tend to do that. Morph. Evolve. Turn up in the least likely places. And when they do and we meet, it’s like encountering a long forgotten friend. Someone familiar, yet also different.

If you speak with your own fiction voices, I both pity and embrace you. Our life is not always easy. In a different incarnation, people like us could be bank tellers, content to look forward to happy hour at the end of each day accompanied by the living rather than the imagined. But let’s confess, that’s not who we are.

We dream imaginary strangers and travel foreign territories without ever standing out of our chairs. We close our eyes and see places that have never been. We seek meaning in the voices and desire to know them better. Seldom do we tell them to go away, and when we do, we eventually invite them back because friends like these are hard to come by. We write because we have to, not necessarily because we want to. But mostly, we want to.


Driving in Metaphor

I drive in what feels like premature darkness, clocks reset to standard time to allow us to awake in light and move early into evening. No matter how many years I live through this, the suddenness of the change startles me, leaves me commenting, “Look how dark it is already. And still so early. It feels so late.” My comments bore me, but I must say them as if the words spoken are an annual ritual to mark yet another passing year, much like those who count down and kiss on New Year’s Eve.

As I navigate to an unfamiliar location with the aid of printed Mapquest directions that I tilt to catch the shine of passing streetlights, I observe the accumulation of cars announcing rush hour. In the darkness, the traffic pattern seems behind schedule as if all the city’s workers put in overtime in a stunning act of coincidence.

I bypass the clogged, motionless freeway and push towards a canyon road to carry me over the hill to the valley, an area to which I seldom venture in the typical compartmentalization of Los Angeles life. Benedict Canyon Road leisurely bends and twists. Near the peak, the traffic abruptly slows as if the descent is more difficult than the climb, an odd rejection of gravity. My choice is either to accept the slow decline towards the flats of the valley, drive east, and then climb blocks up another canyon to my destination, or now to suddenly veer right onto the winding, hilltop Mulholland Drive, a road with a steep drop to one side. From there, I can eventually dip down to the valley via a less congested street.

On impulse I opt for Mulholland, more threatened by traffic than the winding road. But as soon as I do, I question my decision, noting the dark night and the relative unfamiliarity of the unlit street. 'Is this the best way to my destination?' I wonder. 'There are lots of bends. Will it take me even longer than the traffic-packed drive?'

As the thoughts escape my brain, I realize I’m driving in metaphor. The winding road. The unpredictable bends. Geography merging with self-reflection as I struggle with the question of whether any of my journeys are getting me closer to my desired life goals. I wonder if I’m on the right path, going the right way.

As the road banks and curves, the option of switching to easy freeway autopilot is unavailable. I must pay close attention. And I do. While direct forward movement welcomes habitual behavior, bends and detours require attention. The harsh drops to the left and the right are real threats. The unexpected turns demand a slower, more deliberate pace.

I glance at the expansive aerial of the lit city below and appreciate the view and the thoughtful journey this drive offers. My choice feels perfect, the drive unquestionably reflecting the structure my life. The life of repeated unknowns. The life of chances. The life of uncertainty. The life of the winding road.

And in that moment I recognize how I’ve grown from the risks, how the risks suit my personality and my quest. I can swallow a little of the fear. And I see the impact of the night coming early. The darkness made me focus better, made me concentrate. The same trip made a week earlier wouldn’t have been with the same trip. Timing is everything.

When I finally arrive at the address on my map, I set my parking brake and reflect. It may take longer to reach the destination on a windy road, it may be scarier and more intimidating, but it may be the only way to get to where you want to go.


The Space Between Words

When your thirteen-year-old says, “Thanks for helping me make it through yesterday,” you know you’re doing something right even if you can’t put it on your resume or boast of your accomplishment to others. Spouses can brag to each other of successful parenting, but such words spoken outside the privacy of home is bragging like any other kind.

But as I pulled out of our driveway and my son uttered his thank you, I internally smiled as I reached over and squeezed his leg. And I want to tell someone. I want to share how good it feels to navigate a touchy situation and know you handled it well. I’m calling up my bragging rights.

The previous day started simply, my son enthused about plans to meet up with a girl later for a movie. But it never happened. Her cellphone broken, he couldn’t reach her. Her not calling him made him feel rejected. He disappeared in sulking.

My son doesn’t see himself as dating yet, but the social navigations he powers through daily are the same thing. The encounters mostly take place via instant messaging online, but the conversations that go on for hours are the equivalent of dinner and a movie, and I suspect in many cases more intimate.

I know not to point this out to my son. The biggest skill I’m learning as the parent of a teenager is what not to say. I can know something, he can know I know something, and through an unspoken agreement of discretion, we communicate with our eyes and with phrases that mask the obvious.

I could ask my son, “Do you like that girl?” which would cause him to shut down and shut me out. Or I can see the obvious and offer to facilitate social plans as if he’s meeting up with a buddy from preschool. He knows by my effort and attention that I can see how important this girl is to him. He may not be certain of his feelings yet, but he’s interested and curious. So I allow him to explore without declaring anything to his mom. Why put him on the spot? Why make him risk the embarrassment?

And when disappointment comes, I can let him lead the conversation by reading his mood, by speaking when subtly invited rather than barging in with parental declarations of experience. I can be patient with his hurt without babying him. I can trust the process.

As a single parent, I may have an edge in relating to my son’s social struggles, struggles that are more emotional than concrete. I understand his interpersonal uncertainties, his letdowns, his occasional insecurity. I don’t have to reach back decades to connect with the mystery of finding your place in the dating world. I’m there right now.

The teen years are expected to be tough, for both child and parent. But somehow as I stand beside the son who will pass me in height in just months, I’m comfortable with this stage. At least for now. I look into his eyes, and I sense I understand. And I’m wise enough to know that this ease is unlikely to continue for long.

Many parents feel that when their teenager withdraws, it’s time to do battle, to be angry, frustrated, and hurt. But I’m hoping that when my son's retreat comes I can look at it differently. I’m hoping I can honor his need to experiment with greater independence, to allow him to see how he’ll answer his own questions without his mom. When he turns inward or seeks friends for guidance, I’ll try to hang back, to only nudge in for his own safety and to let him know I still care and want to know him.

It won’t be easy to step aside – or accept being shoved – but it also hasn’t been easy to see my son hurting and not hover over him with suggestions reflecting my need to fix his problem. Instead, in those times, I breathe deliberately, which prevents my own caring parental anxiety from exacerbating my son’s pain. I retreat into silence and envision his eventual peace in whatever challenges arise. I stay calm. I trust.

And if my son gets too entrenched in his own distress, I seek to break the ennui. I might suffer a small explosion from frustration because just like him, I am human, and I’m not afraid to point that out. And then I gently offer up diversions. I carefully share anecdotes without preaching a solution. And finally, I insist on our taking a walk with our dog whose bouncing joy pokes fun at most sorrow.

But mostly, I concentrate on what not to say, for as parents, we usually say too much.


A Little Bit of Magic

Answering an impulse to clean, I grab a broom and sweep the bathroom floor. Down on my hands and knees, I peer into the two-inch gap beneath the cabinet that holds my sink, anticipating mounds of dust and lint. Instead I see a decorative hair comb trying to slide under the washing machine. I navigate the broom to grab it and draw it towards me.

Seeing the comb takes me back to a barefoot day on the beach fifteen years ago. My wedding. The somewhat sparkly accessory draws the hair off my face. A time in my life before so much experience. A time before so much history. A time when I believed in the love I was pledging.

That love is long gone.

I look at the comb in my hand: it’s time to get this out of my house. I feel that the wedding ornament hiding in my bathroom has kept me stuck, bonding me to my past. I don’t normally believe in such things, but I don’t question the thought. And the message goes deeper: don’t simply put the comb in the trash. I don’t know why I know this, but I do, and as my intuition is often demure, when it speaks up, I try to listen. The disposal of the comb requires something ceremonial.

I picture burying it on the beach, but that instantly feels wrong as if I’m offering it a permanent spot in my life, as if it will live in my own backyard, in my soil, and be a part of my future. I want it gone, not living with me, so instead I imagine leaving it out in the open, someplace that someone will pick it up, desire it, give it a different life.

Later in the day, just before leaving home, I remember the comb and shove it in my purse. I drop my son at his friend’s and head towards a movie theater to attend a documentary film. But I’m early. Really early. I stop at one of those warehouse-type shoe stores. Look around. Try on boots. Sightsee. And suddenly I realize this is where I must leave the comb. An accessory amongst accessories. I’m abandoning it amidst its peers.

I pull the comb from my purse, wander down one aisle, looking left, looking right. I glance about like a shoplifter. And then I see the spot, an inviting gap between two welcoming shoes on display. I place the comb carefully and quickly. It feels right, and I scurry off with a smile.

At the theater, I buy my ticket and move into line. A passing man catches my eye. Slightly shaggy hair. Walking alone. And then he’s gone. The line starts walking towards the theater. I stop in the bathroom, delaying my entry to take a seat.

Eventually I enter the theater and walk to my preferred row, close but not too close. I duck in to the right. And there he is. The man from outside, two seats away from me. As the lights go down, he leans over and asks why I came to this film. I only choke out a brief response about my general interest in documentary film rather than my more specific answer, for the first trailer is playing and the crowd is already silent.

The powerful film transports me deep into thought. I no longer think of the man beside me. If he suddenly spoke to me, I wouldn’t manage small talk. Films do that to me, take me so far outside myself that I need some time for reentry. That’s why I often go to movies alone. I need post-film silent time to process and return to the living.

But when the lights come up, my neighbor starts talking to me. I say that I wanted to see the film after reading an article explaining how the story of Jonestown and the Peoples Temple was far more complex than the media lead us to believe in the late 70s when the mass suicide/murder occurred. We leave the theater in conversation and end up having a drink. We talk about seeing another film together. We exchange numbers.

A spontaneous encounter like this hasn’t happened to me in a long time. Driving home, I remember that I recently had an image of meeting a man at a movie theater. And I realize that it’s odd that I didn’t think of that all evening.

I’m not saying my movie encounter means anything. I’m not claiming this man and I will ever see each other again. But our drink felt like the capping moment on my comb disposal ceremony. For that alone, I am grateful and willing to believe in a little magic.


Dream Weaving

I’ve been dreaming of cell phones, really specific dreams about their features and their functionality, their form and how they serve my life. I could use the word obsession.

I don’t upgrade my cellular equipment as often as my plan allows, ignoring the every two years free phone with a renewed contract offer. Free doesn’t exist. Free-er, perhaps. Read the fine print. You pay tax. Full, retail price, tax. You pay for all the money-grabbing accessories that don’t migrate from phone to phone – the car charger with the unique fit, the headset with a unique personality, and any other add-ons your sales rep can convince you are must haves.

But at this point, I am long overdue for a new phone. I can only make one call before it needs recharging. While I could simply buy a new battery, the dangling carrot tells me it’s better to leap for the new phone. Purchasing a battery for an ancient phone falls into the category of ‘throwing good money after bad’. Don’t you love such expressions? Don’t you wish you could originate one that would follow you and others around for decades as you proudly say, “I made that up”? Naturally, no one would believe you, but you’d know the truth and could find joy in that alone.

But I digress.

While it’s more environmentally responsible to keep an old phone than to participate in our disposable society, my older model is rumored to emit far more radiation than newer models, so if it’s between me and the planet, I pick me. Call me selfish.

By now, diving in and selecting a new phone feels like a considerable decision. I see how long I hold onto a phone. If I buy the next device prematurely without proper investigation, I’m stuck with it for two years, unless I want to outlay a healthy chunk of money.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so concerned about my choice. Until recently, I hadn’t noticed that I’ll soon be celebrating my current phone’s fourth birthday, which in electronic terms is far beyond retirement age. However, I might not linger so comfortably with my next phone. With all the new properties phones possess, I could miss out on a key feature if I buy today instead of tomorrow. They already offer a cell phone that has a navigational system. They might soon come out with one that can locate my misplaced item du jour. Such things must not be passed up lightly.

For purchasing guidance, I reexamine my cell phone dreams, the dreams that would likely serve me far better if they revolved around hot sex that allowed me to wake up with a smile on my face. Instead I’m REM-ing through visions of a beautiful, sleek, minute, indestructible cell phone sliding into my pocket. It’s fantasy of the consumer kind. This phone doesn’t exist.

In an effort to understand my subconscious’ longings, I visit an online dream dictionary and jump to ‘C’.

Cell Phone
To see or use a cell phone in your dream indicates that you are being receptive to new information. It also represents your mobility.

Hmmm, this is very interesting. Only, I’m a bit skeptical. Well, really skeptical. Perhaps dreaming of a cell phone means I spent an hour at the Verizon store without any sales person ever becoming available to help me. Or maybe it means I then went online and tried to decipher all the different models without getting to hold them in my hand. Or maybe it reflects back on my conversation with a kind Verizon rep I phoned to ask if she knew when the next batch of new phones was slated for release. Maybe my phone dreams were about how many of my waking hours I wasted thinking about my new device.

Or maybe this dictionary is right and I am open to new information.

So I go back to the resource. I read through many listings, fascinated by how they cover all bases. For instance, dreaming of cake signifies: needing to learn to share, selfishness, your accomplishments, missed opportunities, and learning to be comfortable in the spotlight.

I’m condensing and paraphrasing.

The listing for accordion catches my attention:
To hear the music of an accordion signifies that some amusement and joy will take your mind off a saddening and depressing matter.
To dream that you play the accordion denotes intense emotions that are causing you some physical strain and body weariness.

I used to be married to an accordion player. I heard accordion music all the time. The fact that his playing drifted into my dreams seems natural, even dismissive if it didn’t. And if he dreamt about it, am I really to believe the negative implications this dictionary suggests? I feel a disclaimer for actual accordion players and their spouses is called for. Just a suggestion.

The more entries I read, the more I think I am wading through what a bunch of drunks scrawled on bar napkins after a drinking game. I’d like to write for one of these sites. It seems like a lot of fun. Talk about creative writing.

I don’t mean to fully malign dream analysis. I suspect there are recurring themes to our dreams, common sentiments that speak to us through symbols. But overall, I just don’t see all of us as reducible to such broad generalizations. Are we really to believe that our daily encounters and experiences don’t guest star in our dreams, that it’s only the deep psyche that speaks to us as we sleep? And most obviously, how do we verify any of the claims of dream dictionaries?

For now, I will return to the loudest message from my dreams: Go buy a cell phone and get over it. It is a phone, merely a phone. You have one month to commit, and then I don’t want to hear any more of this nonsense. Buyer’s remorse be damned.

And as far as my dreams, I’ll see if I can nudge them towards a sexier variety. Maybe I’ll shop in a different kind of store this afternoon.