Monday, November 29, 2010

If Only

The photos were taken when I was almost thirteen and wearing a two piece bathing suit for the first time. My usually pale skin looks tanned next to the light blue of my suit in the photos taken of my siblings and myself splashing in the waves of the Atlantic ocean off the Rhode Island coast in early summer. "A typical family on summer vacation" the photos say, two parents, five kids, having fun running around at the beach.

Except, we were anything but typical that summer. That was the summer my mother died of breast cancer. But you can't tell that from the photos.

One last holiday with the family, before she went into the hospital for the last time. Her cousin lent us their family beach house for a week. And then, she went away, and we children never saw her again.

My mother looks pretty normal in the photos, a mother of five kids in her mid thirties in a 1960s style bathing suit. But I could tell something was very wrong. In the evenings, at the beach house, after the younger children were in bed, she would take very strong pain medications, which made it seem to me like she was drunk. All I wanted was a normal family vacation. And so, I acted out. I got in trouble, and was punished for it. This I remember very clearly. But I didn't care. I wanted my parents to act like parents, normal parents of a normal family. And this woozy mother didn't fit in at all with my vision of the way things were supposed to be.

We human beings have a very strong tendency to ignore what we do not want to see, to pretend things are normal even when they are not. "If only" we didn't eventually have to face the harsh reality of life (and death). "If only".

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Big Brother

My wallet was stolen way back in....June. In Paris, as I was exiting the subway. Not only did they steal my wallet, but my brand new camera and my old cell phone. The camera I could easily replace but I liked my old cell phone, even if it didn't play movies. It was functional, plus it had all my friends and family's phone numbers stored it in.

But worst of all, of course, was losing the wallet. Cash - gone. Credit and bank card - gone. California driver's license - gone. Luckily I had stashed my passport someplace else, or I might still be in France trying to get out of the country.

As soon as I got back to my friend's flat, I canceled the credit and bank cards and cell phone account, and spent several hours on the phone the next day trying to get replacement cards, which was not quite so easy, not to mention that the effort it took wasted half a day of vacation time. But it all worked out, except for the hassle and my financial loss. I finished my trip through several European countries and arrived back in California without significant incident several weeks later.

But guess what detail I postponed indefinitely? Yep, the trip to the DMV. Past visits must have left me traumatized from having to wait indefinitely. Despite three traffic tickets in the past two years (not one of them really my fault, I swear), I continued to drive, without a license in my physical possession for...over three months. (I rationalized this as OK because I do have a valid license, I just didn't keep a copy of it on me for a short period of time.) I did sign up online for an appointment - the system gave me an appointment 30 days out! By the time the computer generated appointment week arrived, I had a conflict in my schedule, so I set up a second online appointment - again 30 days out. All I can say is that the appointment system didn't work for me.

But, alas, this is not a tale of woe. It actually has a happy ending. With Thanksgiving around the corner, and me planning to spend it on the East Coast, the thought occurred to me that I might need to rent a car...for which I would need that hard copy of my driver's license. So, yesterday I hopped on the computer to see which DMV office was closest to my house. And, much to my surprise, I found that the California DMV has actually incorporated some 21st century technology. Each office posted current wait times online, both for appointments and walk-ins! Stunned, I located an office with a low wait time not too far from my house, and 20 minutes after walking in the door, I had my temporary driver's license.

However, California drivers, be forewarned. As of early October, California began issuing a "new" type of driver's license, one with enhanced security features, to make hard copy licenses more difficult to counterfeit. Having had my own license stolen, I'm all for that. But, these new security features include one I'm not so sure that I am happy about - you now also need to get fingerprinted to get a California driver's license.

I'm in the system now. And I am sure Big Brother will be watching.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Fall comes late in northern California. Its the first week in November before the leaves turn colors, the temperature drops, and the sky clouds up with winter rain. Halloween has come and gone, and if you are not a retailer, you begin to think about Thanksgiving. Even our chorus director, in his way of getting us all to know one another, asked the chorus members about their Thanksgiving plans last Monday evening. (He is hosting a Macedonian thanksgiving dinner at his house this year.)

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. Its simple - eat, drink, give thanks, and be merry -- what could be better than that? Spending time with family and friends. Four days off work in a row (unless you are in the retail business.) Football and shopping for some. Deer hunting for others.

My son did not have a chance to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family in Connecticut. Sean and I always visited my family in the summer, when the weather was not both cold AND rainy, and there was usually someplace I could take a restless child for a few hours, like the beach or the park. But the year Sean turned 17, he wanted to go back east for Thanksgiving to spend it with "family". Unfortunately, Sean never got that chance. I went back east by myself that November, and silently cried during the entire five hour plane ride east.

Now this year, my youngest niece, not quite sixteen, would like to have Thanksgiving at a friend's house, rather than with our extended family. While I understand her desire to do something different occasionally, and her boredom spending the whole day with her aunts and uncles, I can't stop thinking that my son would have given anything to spend just one Thanksgiving with "family".

Sunday, November 7, 2010

In the Back Row

Last night I went to hear one of my favorite bluegrass bands, "Blue Highway", at our local bluegrass hot-spot. Blue Highway is highly professional band; they have been nominated for two Grammy awards in recent years, and their dobro player is a twelve time national champion. All of the five members of the band have been together for the past 16 years, a rarity in the musical world. And, they can sing. All five of them. Together. In harmony. Wondrous harmony.

Redwood Bluegrass Associates, a group of bluegrass lovin' volunteers, arranges for bluegrass (and newgrass-gospel-country and sometimes jazz) related music once a month at a church in Mountain View, CA. Sometimes local bands play; sometimes groups come from Nashville. (And West Virginia-Kentucky-Virgina-Tennessee-Arkansas...) Some bands are youngsters just getting started, and some bands are well-known old-hands, at least in the bluegrass world.

Me, I came by myself, hoping to run into a friend or two as I often do. But, no one I knew was there last night, so I sat by myself, about two-thirds back in the church hall. Blue Highway was as good as ever musically speaking. And their jokes actually a bit better than I recall. But I was having a harder time than I usually do understanding the words to the songs. This I found quite vexing, and it was not the first time.

A few weeks ago, encouraged by a friend, I went to a political rally to support the Democratic candidate for governor of our great state of California, Jerry Brown. After hours of standing and waiting, my arches gave out and I opted for a seat in the back of the cavernous gym, in the handicapped section. After a near riot by the masses over seating, my friends finally ended up in the bleacher seats about midway back. When the speakers finally arrived (Gavin Newsome, Bill Clinton, and Jerry Brown), I found I could only understand what they were saying if I also watched their lips...on the BIG screen monitors. (I was too far back to even SEE their lips, even with my bifocals on, without the help of the large screens.) At the time, I blamed it on the "muddy" sound in the cavernous gym and my placement in the very back of it. My friends heard everything just fine.

My dad, who just turned 85, cannot "hear" you unless he can also see your face. I fear I may not be far behind.