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.