A Lot of Living to Do...

A few weeks ago I wrote about some of the veterans I've had the pleasure and privilege to meet at my new work location. I see them and others regularly now, and it's always a wonderful change of pace to have one of them come and sit at my desk for a while. They tell me the stories I'd be asking my grandpa to tell me, if he were still alive.

One of these men, a WWII vet who participated in the Berlin Airlift, has stopped by a few times recently. I've mentioned my stepson has been building WWII era model airplanes, and he drops by to give me old calendars depicting combat aircraft in large, color photos...meant, I believe, to be inspiration for the model-making. Pretty cool.

Anyway, a few days ago this customer came to order foreign currency in advance of a trip he was taking to Germany. For the second time, he has been asked to be present for ceremonial honors bestowed by none other than German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But he was buying currency in addition to the Euro he'd need for the Germany trip. I asked him about it. He became whatever happens at the intersection of shy and giddy and a little bit proud.

As it turns out, he'd been contacted a few years back by the grown daughter of a foreign-born woman he'd met abroad during his service. He and the woman had dated--she had even flown to the United States to visit him once--but she'd returned to her country, they'd gone their separate ways, married and raised families, and 60 years later both found themselves single again.

Now, on the heels of his trip to Germany, he was going back to visit her and meet her family.

Here's what strikes me about this: My customer is game. At 80-something, he is game. Not only that, he is lucid as can be, appears years younger than he is, is in great shape, has a full head of hair, is adventurous. At 80-something, he has a lot of living to do.

What an inspiration.

We have a family friend who was similarly located by the son of her old flame some 40 years after they'd parted ways. The two were reunited and enjoyed a few wonderful, loving years together before he passed away.

Yesterday I met a woman who'd just divorced her husband of 50 (yes, 50!) years, and she told me that while it was difficult at times, she was excited about the beginning of her second life.

At 35, I sometimes feel like I've already lived a dozen lifetimes. I tell people stories of things I've done, situations I've lived in/through  (human rights observer in Chiapas, Mexico at 19, adult ESL instructor at 25, married in Karachi, Pakistan at 27, co-restaurateur/K-12 substitute teacher at 30), and I feel like I'm talking about another person in another space and time. And this is what I love about the life I've lived so far. I love that it keeps moving forward into unpredictable realms (don't ALL our lives?). I, too, strive to be game and to welcome all those new twists and turns as they come.

Allow me to venture into the beyond-all-hope corniness level for a moment and quote the Andy Dufrense character from The Shawshank Redemption: "Get busy living or get busy dying," he says. And then let me go one step beyond that hopelessly corny level to quote Johnny Cade from The Outsiders when he tells Ponyboy Curtis (on his deathbed), that "sixteen years ain't gonna be long enough."

Whatever it is, I think, it ain't gonna be long enough.

I know I've heard people talking about reaching an age and a level of satisfaction with the lives they've led that leave them feeling ready to die. I can't picture it. I'm not sure I believe that a life lived fully and without regrets of the shoulda/coulda/woulda nature automatically leaves one in a state of acceptance about The End. It's possible, but I definitely don't want to imagine if I DON'T seize upon all that life has to offer and experience the alternative, which I imagine would be a state of panic.

If I'm 80-something and I receive that call, the one that says "Please come here," wherever "here" is, I want to answer it, with joy.

Up to the end, I want to remain open to the promise and possibility of new experiences, or to new versions of old ones. The answer to every invitation should be "Why not?" (And there are a lot of very, very good reasons to decline invitations. But in the absence of them...)

I think living like this is perhaps the best way I can think to honor those who would have loved to live longer. What more profound way is there to disrespect my life than to be gifted with 60 more years of it only to sit around and do nothing interesting, take no risks, refrain from adventure? To not embrace love and embarrass myself and to retell the embarrassing story if it means having the chance to make another person laugh. To not travel as far--physically, emotionally, intellectually--as I think I possibly can...and then to go beyond.

If you're reading this (or if I've yet to meet you!), no matter who you are, I'm happy and honored to be here on this journey with you. And I hope you'll say yes to adventures with me for many, many years to come (especially you, Kevin Wiseman :) ).

Kevin's Sketch

(A small portion of his ever-evolving Aliento del Diablo, growing richer in strange and haunting detail by the day)


Another Day, Another DMV Victim

Oh, the DMV.

Just those three letters put together like that are enough to elicit rolls of the eyes and groans and painful memories.

A DMV notice in the mail is a punch in the gut. Or maybe it's something slightly worse than that...it's like a receiving notification that you will be punched in the gut and you have 5 weeks of advanced notice to anticipate it--the grown-up, drawn-out version of "you're getting a spanking when we get home."

I don't fear the DMV anymore, though. I learned about the appointment system. And the appointment system is fucking genius.

When you make an appointment, you do what I did the other morning: you saunter in, bypass the 75-person deep line of preliminary check-ins and go straight to a counter where NOBODY is standing but you (at the Oakland Coliseum DMV anyway, where appointments are apparently not "a thing" yet). You are asked a single question and then issued a number. You won't even have time to locate a next-number-up indicator screen before your number is called and you will find yourself whisked to a far off window, much to the dismay/envy of the hapless 75 in line--not to mention the many dozens seated in plastic chairs in four separate waiting areas.

The appointment system works.

When I found myself at the window to renew my license at my appointment the other day, I felt pleased. I made more conversation than I normally would have because the employee assisting me was friendly and had a good sense of humor and she seemed she could use the break from the constant stream of inevitably frustrated customers.

Anyway that transaction went quickly and smoothly, and the only thing I had left to do was to get my new photo taken. I was a little nervous about that part. A recent peek at my Aunt's license photo made me aware of just how badly things *could* during that part of the process:

She doesn't look like that, by the way. Here she is, NOT under the guise of Deranged Wal-Mart Lady:

Beautiful, see?

I digress. But not too much. This blog is about what happened next, at the photo taking station.

But first, a time out: when I was at the first window, I asked the employee if women these days ever try to do the no-arm-fat pose--ever obnoxiously prevalent on Facebook and Instagram--for their driver license photos. I was *joking*.  She said it happens all the time.

I arrived at the photo line, which was relatively short: just 7 or so people before me. The employee at the camera's helm was an acerbic and wildly unpleasant woman who found it necessary to intermix forceful accusations of talking in the testing area, even though there are "signs clearly posted ALL OVER THE TESTING AREA!" in between every order barked at her own customers (and let's get this straight: visitors to the DMV are customers, even if the state treats us with a disregard that would put any legitimate business's stock holders in an early grave). What was this? The testing area wasn't even the photo lady's jurisdiction! There was another DMV employee right there administering tests. Not only that, there were TWO (likely highly ineffective, given their octogenarian-ness) uniformed security guards standing there, guarding the tests (?), the testers (?)...guarding the pencils (?).

Anyway, I could see this woman was no joke. I kept looking at the kindly, smiling test administrator, wishing she could be the photographer. But no switcheroos happening here. One away from the front, I prepared myself like George and Jerry and Elaine trying to buy soup from the Soup Nazi.

I bent down and looked right into the eyes of my 4-year-old son in tow, who'd begun to get squirrelly. "Listen to Mama," I said, my solemnity no doubt sobering. "When we get to the front, you are going to stand with your back against that counter right there and you are going to look at the people behind me in line, okay."

"Okay Mama," he promised. I knew by his tone that he knew I meant business.

Nothing to do but straighten up and fly right.

I didn't want to upset her by approaching the window before she called me, but instead I upset her by not moving quickly enough. She looked at me with Eyes of Death and made a grabby grabby motion at me with her hand, as if to say "hurry the fuck up and place your goddamned papers into my m'fuggin' HAND already!"

I gave them to her and smiled.

"Place your right thumb on the screen....I SAID NO TALKING IN THE TESTING AREA," she spewed. I looked over at the testing area. The only people talking were the poor, withered security guards. They shrugged guiltily at each other like children just humiliated in front of the class, and one of them shuffled away.

"Sign your name with the special pen and press OK with the special pen." (No time to find humor in the pointed, twice-employed use of the phrase "special pen" (what's so special about this pen?)...I was going to do this right, start to finish.)

While she silently clicked around with her mouse, I moved into position, toes behind the line like I'd heard her tell everyone else to do before me. I wanted her to see that I was an over-achiever. I was going to save her the headache!

"Move your hair out of your eyes! We need to see your eyes!"

I complied.

This time I waited for her direction. I'd heard her tell everyone else to look at the camera and smile, and I didn't want to do this move too early or else risk that frozen plastic smile like kids have in every photo from ages 3-6.

"SIR YOU NEED TO TURN THAT CELL PHONE OFF! IT SAYS SO ON ALL THE CLEARLY MARKED SIGNS." She was looking away at the offender. I looked at him too. I looked back.


Wha? Did I even turn back in time. Surely I wasn't smiling OR looking at the camera. Were my eyes even open?

She paused to look at the picture and then grabby grab-motioned for the next person in line.

I was helpless. I couldn't react but to laugh out loud. I wasn't going to ask her to do it again only to have her reject and censure me publicly like she had half the room. That evil woman!! That evil evil woman. I swear I saw a little smirk cross her face. I am certain she did it on purpose. I am certain that tripping people up in this way is the *one* little glimmer of joy she gets from a job she despises.

Or maybe it's not that at all. Maybe she loves her job. Maybe nothing in the world gives her greater joy than an otherwise happy face, FUBAR for the next five years on the owner's state-issued driver license.

I think the former and the latter may be true.

Listen, I'm not trying to say it's easy to work in customer service and that this woman should have been overjoyed at the sight of customer number 481 for the day. I have worked in customer service almost exclusively since I was 15 years old. I get that it's difficult and that you can't always be "on." I also get that it's not easy to get a job at all these days, so I already want to shoot down the part of me that says, "why BE in customer service if you are gonna be so angry about it?"

But there's this: Yes, it's difficult to get a job. It is *especially* difficult to get a government job. One doesn't accidentally happen into one. You have to take tests. You have to pass background checks. You have to wait for months. You have to fill out mounds of paperwork and go through many sessions of training. So why on earth do you go through all that unless you really really want to work with the hoards of motley folks down at the DMV? You know what it's gonna be like, working there. It's gonna be a shit fest, day after day after day. I think it may even read that in the job description.

And yet. And yet the two other employees I encountered, plus the smiling test administrator, plus the shrunken security guard whom I'd asked a question about the photo line...they were all good. They were courteous and appropriately responsive. They comported themselves like normal human beings in a job where there is an exchange: we give them information and payment in exchange for their services. It's not a damned oligarchy, people! And we are not asking for a favor, either.


To the DMV employee who "helped" me and others that day I say: you win. You wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin! I walked out of the DMV as annoyed as the next person, and so all is well in the world. We have maintained the equilibrium of the universe of government agencies and their victims.

Thank goodness this only happens every five years.

And I can't wait to see what this picture looks like. I owe my Aunt a good laugh.

Kevin's Sketch

Aliento Del Diablo. 
A work in progress in charcoal out of the same vein as A Death Rose For Eunice—the Spanish translation of ‘Breath of the Devil’, reminding me of a darker species of Baby’s Breath. (Blur effect intentional, for now)


OMG...We Have a TEENAGER in the House!

I didn't know my stepson when this happened.

First Birthday! Photo credit: Catfish Moore
We were years away from crossing paths.

I didn't know him when he had his first band concert or baseball practice or sleepover.

I was late to the game.

My hope, every day, is that I wasn't too late.

I heard a story on the radio about three years ago. It was some time before the subject would become relevant to my life, but as a divorced woman with a child, my ears perked up when I heard it. The story was about blended families, and some kind of expert on the subject was making the claim that children are only likely to welcome a new parental figure until about the age of 12. After that, he said, the battle was likely to be uphill.

I'm not sure about that as an across-the-board claim; I'm certain it depends a lot upon how hungry the child in question is for a parental figure, how mature he or she is, or how open he or she is to new people and new, shared experiences, in general. There are so many variables.

But the idea was not lost on me. I can see how it would be more difficult for a child to welcome a new parent at the age of 15 than the age of three. At three, you don't have much of a clue what's going on. And you don't know the difference between knowing and not knowing. At 15, you (think you) know everything. Imagine some new person coming on to the scene of a 15-year-old with dreams of smooth-sailing!

When I first started dating again after my divorce, I wanted nothing to do with fathers. I pictured one of two possible scenarios: weekend dads who didn't really know or want the experience of parenting close-up and would therefor not understand that my priority was my young son, or dads with substantial custody of young children who were just looking for a woman to come in and do all the dirty work of parenting because they couldn't/didn't want to handle it themselves (basically, men seeking replacement moms for their children). I had my own young child to care for; I didn't need to take on someone else's.

There was a third category I hadn't imagined and which my boyfriend Kevin falls into: a full-time, hands on father whose priority is his own son, who understands the priorities of other parents, and who was looking for an equal-footing companion, not a stand-in mother.

And with him came his then 10-year-old son, who was 5 days from his 11th birthday when Kevin and I first met.

A year later I attended his 12th birthday festivities--it was a bowling party that also served as a kind of last hurrah. At that point we'd just signed the lease on a place in a new town, where we'd be moving, the four of us, when the school year ended. He'd be leaving the friends he'd known since kindergarten, going to a new city with a new school and living with a new stepmom of sorts and a little steppy brother, to boot. We imagined the transition could be rough.

To my surprise, my stepson handled it like an absolute pro. He was surprised, but pleasantly so, to hear the news of the move. And though he was initially sad about the thought of leaving his friends, he was excited and happy when he saw the new place where we'd be moving (a short bike ride away from the beach).

The school transition hasn't always been smooth; we moved to a place with ridiculously good schools (that was the point), but that meant a learning curve for sure. Plus, there's just the whole Middle School thing.

Ugh. Middle school. Who can even think about school at that age?! I moved to a new state in the middle of my 7th grade year, and I think if it hadn't been for the fact that my brother was in the same grade--there to share the pain of the transition in that already horrible mess of affairs that is 7th grade--I might have just curled up into a ball and rolled away for a few years. My stepson, facing the (new) middle school beast all on his own, has found some semi-decent ground to stand on two-thirds of the way through the school year, found a happy-ish place (which is the most I think parents can hope for at this time).

On the home front, he's been amazing. He has shown a kind of patience and ability to humor a pre-schooler that is unrivaled for a child his age. He has been accepting of and open toward me and seems (mostly) happy to have me around. He has been (mostly) understanding of the ways his Dad and I have chosen to re-enforce good school performance and discipline in the less-than-stellar moments.

He has accepted this new version of his life with grace.

I think about my stepson more than he could probably ever imagine. I wonder how he processes the events of his life and how he envisions things going forward. I wonder which of the lessons we are trying to teach are sticking. I wonder what will pique his interest as he moves into high school and begins to think about college. I wonder all the time what he thinks about my parenting style, which is a lot like that of my parents--family discussions over groundings, questions asked daily that extend the dinnertime conversation well beyond the point where he's interested. I wonder if he'll understand at any point (before he becomes a parent, when it'll be all too apparent) why his Dad and I are so curious about him.

This week, as he turned 13(!), I hope with ever-increasing intensity that my stepson can read between the frustration I may feel with him sometimes, see around my nagging him to put dishes away. I hope he can somehow x-ray vision through to what's behind all that: my desire to help raise a thoughtful and considerate and responsible person who makes his own experience while also understanding how his actions affect others. My desire to help launch an adult who is self-motivated and takes pride in what he puts out into the world. My desire to ensure he is helpful and appreciative of other people. Way, way up there on the list: my desire to help him realize that his Dad does every last thing he does with my stepson in mind...that he might be aware of his Dad's tireless effort and love and, in turn, show him respect. Also, hidden in some semi-conscious place among all that...my desire to help give him the tools to do all these same things for his own children, one day.

Now that's not too much to ask, is it?!

I think, I *think* he knows I love him. I think he knows because I tell him and I try in various ways to show him...but still I feel helpless to know for sure whether he really knows or whether it'll be something that dawns on him one day, as he looks backward to the life that led to wherever he happens to be at the moment.

Whatever the case I hope he will truly feel it and know that I believe truly in my heart that we came into each other lives because we have a lot to learn from each other.

Happy Birthday to my favorite teenager.

And whoah...wish us luck!


The View from Down There: A Playground Role-Reversal Revelation

As a working Mama, I am always struggling with the feeling that I don't have enough time to spend with my son. I relish the days I have him all to myself. And even though those days are always kept busy with laundry or grocery shopping or cleaning or appointments or all the other things there isn't time for otherwise, I feel special on those days--like no matter what we do it will be memorable (for me, anyway).

When I was in the midst of making dinner on one such day off, my son asked me to come play Legos with him. I told him I couldn't because I was making dinner. He said, "Mama, why do you always have to work?" I told him I wasn't working, that it was my day off, and he said "No. Why do you always have to work in the kitchen when you're home?"

I was equal parts relieved that he didn't ask something like, "Mama why are you always sitting on your ass doing nothing?" and sad that his impression of me was one of somebody who is always working, especially because the alternative was playing with him, and it didn't seem I'd made time for that.

I wish at least once a day (as I'm sure all working parents do) that I had more time during which I had no other obligation in the world but to be by my child's side. (For the record: I am not, in fact, always working in the kitchen. I wouldn't give myself that much credit. Yes, I make dinner most nights, but a lot of times "make" is a stretch. "Warm" would be more accurate.)

I wish I could spend a week inside my little guy's brain. I wish I could see and process the world the way he does. I wonder all the time how he makes sense of things, especially his family/living situation(s). What does he think is normal and how does he feel about whatever variation on the concept of normal he is living out?

A parent can ruminate regularly about how he or she is perceived by his/her child. We worry about which of their life's events stick out most clearly in their minds. How do they see us? Which of our words are most salient? It's just like a four-year-old to take the very weirdest interpretation of something that was said to him and report it to total strangers. When that version of things comes out--or even when the most accurate and objective version comes out--what will it sound like?

Kevin pointed out that we can actually be seen in Kalil's eyes in this photo, taken by Catfish Moore last year.
A few weeks back I had a rare day off with nothing to do but take Kalil to preschool and then hang out with him the whole rest of the day--just us. We were both craving pizza, so we grabbed one and headed to a nearby park that we had to ourselves for the moment.

On the playground after lunch, my son said we should switch: he would be the Mama and I would be the son. For the next 10 minutes he went around the different playground structures and issued me instructions on what to do. "Climb up here, Sweetie," "Cross this bridge here, Sweetie," "Sweetie, follow me to the slide."

The "Sweetie" struck me; it was punctuating nearly every sentence. First I thought, 'dang, that's kind of annoying...is that really what I sound like?' (I hadn't realized how often the word came out of my mouth.) It was another kind of relief, though. One of the names my Dad reports having been called by his Father was scheisskopf, which is German for "shithead." Of course I'd rather him have a name like "Sweetie" come to his mind.

The other thing I noticed about our little role reversal was how Kalil kept saying encouraging things to me like "you're doing good," and "that's right." I was touched that this is how he saw his role, as the Mama (though I should have asked him a hundred thousand "why's" and made sure to be speaking and demanding attention at all times to give him the full experience of what it's like to be the Mom, eh?).

Struggling that day as I was with the usual guilt about having to work the rest of the week, it was meaningful to me to learn that he sees me as a nice Mama during the time we do have together. 

As parents, we have to pull off a good deal of fake-it-'til-we-make-it type confidence. I am more confident since becoming a mother, for sure. But there's a lot I'm constantly wondering about..a good many decisions I make and then question, especially when it comes to discipline (I think good parents do always think a lot about these things. If we are just skating along thinking we're the best parents on the block, we've probably got major blind spots going on.) So it is reassuring to me to know I'm at least getting this part ok for the time being: he knows I love him; he is absorbing the tenderness I feel toward him, and he is aware that I say positive things to him...things that make him feel good about who he is or how he's doing things.

He's four; his obligations to the world are few, for the time being. If he can know he is loved and supported (along with disciplined and taught lessons as well), we're good for now.

Maybe we should try this role-reversal thing once every couple of years just to check in on each other. I bet I'd learn a lot about how this whole parenting thing is going.

Kevin's Sketch

A Death Rose for Eunice. 

This being came out of the page today with charcoal while the A’s and Dodger’s played on the TV; I started off intending to draw a picture inspired by recurring dreams of great white sharks, then switched to doing a still life of a baseball, but then this emerged spontaneously. It reminds me of a mix of a flower and a bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois), a predatory marine worm that can reach lengths of up to ten feet.