On This Road

When I was little I hated feeling trapped in the car.  My parents smoked and it seemed, when I was 5 and 7 and 10 and 13, there was nothing worse on this earth than being held hostage in the back seat of a Chevy or Dodge while my mom and stepdad, and then just my mom after the divorce, smoked one cigarette after another.  “Please let me stay with Grandma,” I begged.

I’ll turn 50 this year, and not much has changed.  My husband tells people I have a 4 hour limit.  Bless him.  He’s giving me way more credit than I deserve as I’m fairly certain I have about a one hour limit, if that, and that I also need to be the one driving and deciding which route to take and when and where to stop and eat and pee and stretch my legs.  And stop.  Just stop.

We recently drove 2,392 miles in 4 days.  With 3 big dogs in the back hatch.  We struggled about how best to take them, coming to agreement that 2 could be in the far back with 1 comfortably in the backseat but, as dogs do, they let us know that wasn’t happening.  200 lbs of 3 dogs huddled tight into the back hatch and were, I kid you not, the best travelers you’ve ever met.  We barely knew they were there.  They were so good.  So quiet.  So much better than, well, me. IMG_2017 And here’s what I learned:

1.  I can go for more than an hour, and even more than 4 hours, but I can’t do anything but look at the map and plan the next stop.  I brought 7 books and read nothing.

2.  People do not pick up dog poop at Rest Stop “pet areas.”  I stepped in a huge pile of shit the first day.  People!

3.  Wendy’s has the best chicken sandwich.  Burger King as the best French Fries.

4.  Unlike at home, I cannot take 3 dogs for a walk, at the same time, in a strange neighborhood, at 6 a.m., in the Motel 6 parking lot.

5.  If there are people with German Shepherds and aggressive Boxers in a dog park screaming obscenities, do not be lured in by the words “dog park.”

6.  Gas stations often have poop-free zones in which to walk your dogs!

7.  There is such a thing as being too tired to drive.  Or function.  Or speak.

8.  It seems our rescued 10+ yr old Golden used to belong to a truck driver.  He pulled desperately toward every tractor trailer he saw, and he literally hugged our SUV as if he thought we would abandon him at a truck stop.  We wish he could talk.

9.  Our favorite hotel chain, by far, was the La Quinta.  I requested a “dog friendly” room by an outside (not lobby) entrance, and it was perfectly lovely until the next morning when the carpet suddenly smelled like dog piss.  But it was roomy, and comfy, and convenient.  And as perfect as it could be.

10.  I met a 70+ yr old woman who travels every year from her apartment in New York to her house in Phoenix, with her big Golden Retriever and a cat.  She was a hoot.  Said it takes 5 days.  Loves the drive.  Loves her animals.  Was gone by 6 am the next morning.  And she’s a love, my hero, period.  I wish I’d gotten her name.  She’s got more than a one hour, or a 4 hour, limit.  And so do I, really.  Especially now that there are no cigarettes.  No smoke.  Even if some damage can occur when the dog pulls your entire shin into a tree stump while trying to get into the nearest truck.  But I digress. IMG_2056   ___________________

How do you travel by car?  And do you travel with pets? 

The Standalone Gift

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“No matter our age, it’s so hard to understand what our mothers need. Looking back, I wonder if I ever stopped staring into my own mirror—worrying about some weight I’d gained or a bad haircut or the wrong clothes—long enough to care. There would be time for that later, right?  Later, there would be time?”

Click here to read my story over at The Manifest-Station website today.

Madness

This week begins the NCAA basketball tournament.  When I worked in the travel business, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was one of my clients.  This is the time of year my phone blew up with emergency calls.  “Our credit card is frozen again. How fast can you fix it?”  While university sports teams travel year-round, there’s no travel like March Madness travel.  Imagine you normally spend $500 a month on your credit card and then try to book $50,000 in airline tickets on the same day?  Your credit card company, smartly suspecting fraud, balks.  I would call my service desk and often end up screaming, “It’s March Madness! Don’t you know what March means in college sports?!?!  Turn the card back on and let these people spend as much as they want!” ncaa-march-madness

If you haven’t yet, you have to see John Oliver’s rant about the NCAA.  March Madness brings in over a billion dollars in TV ad revenue.  35 universities pay their college basketball coach more than $1M a year.  I’m all for smart, hardworking, dedicated professionals who are at the top of their game getting paid accordingly, but how does the NCAA (and the general public) justify these salaries when the players, “the entertainment,” do not make a penny? You can argue (as a friend recently did with me) that college athletes ARE getting paid; they are getting a 4 year education at a respected institution, paid in full.  The head of the NCAA likes to say that student-athletes are, first, students.  And yet what happens if a student-athlete falls on the ice on their way to class and suffers an injury that keeps them from fulfilling the “athlete” part — where does that exceptional, paid in full, 4 year education go?

Not only do student athletes not get paid, there are the additional NCAA rules about not accepting gifts.  There’s a story in the Oliver video about an athlete who lost one of his parents, and before he heads home for the funeral his coach buys him lunch.  Lunch = A violation of NCAA rules.  And yet it’s funny, I’m fairly certain I bought lunch for my NCAA contact.  More than once.

I will be the first to admit I love college basketball, especially when March rolls around.  Unlike the pros, where players (along with their coaches) earn a salary, there’s a joy and an energy in college sports that’s missing in the pros.  Every game, every play, seems to mean something.  My son went to school in Kentucky, undefeated so far this year, so we are Kentucky fans in this house.  We love the madness.  We will all be watching.  We can’t wait to see if these incredibly talented, entertaining, hardworking student-athletes can go all the way.  Yet I can’t help wondering about these kids, about the education they are or are not really getting, and about what will happen to them when game is over, when the crowds are gone, when March Madness, as it eventually must, ends.  I’m conflicted.

The NCAA is now located in Indianapolis, but back when I looked after their seemingly unlimited travel dollars they were headquartered in Overland Park, Kansas.  I went to see them at least once a quarter.  Their offices were gorgeous and spacious and peaceful.  I remember lots of glass.  There was art on the walls.  And as far as I know, every employee working for the NCAA in that building got paid.  Imagine.

* comments are off *

Growing Up in California

I was in Kentucky last week and a woman asked, “Why do you love California?  Because I don’t really get it.”  And you know how you can feel rushed in small talk and you end up giving an answer that feels generic  — the ocean, the mountains, that it’s 70 and sunny everyday, I said right off — that’s not even remotely close to the truth, so it just hangs out there, in the air?

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I had 5 cousins who grew up in California.  2 girls, 3 boys.  The children of my mom’s oldest brother, these cousins were all older than me and I adored them, worshipped them really, and fell on the pictures enclosed in Christmas cards like I was looking for news from another, more forgiving, most interesting, planet.  My mother had 8 brothers and sisters, so back home in Missouri I was the oldest of so many little ones.  I hated being oldest — so many babies, 15 or so, to look after — and I often felt invisible.  I was the big kid everyone handed their babies to when they walked in the door, when they were tired from work and tired from life and tired of holding the weight of their newborns and their toddlers, but when the California cousins visited every other year or so I felt such a sense of wonder and relief.  And I had a huge crush on Arnie, the oldest boy.  So blonde and tan and relaxed.  Arnie embodied my dream-vision of California life.  Year-round sunshine.  Daily surfing.  Saltwater tans.  Sandy beaches for miles.  Hiking in the mountains in khaki shorts and roasting health-food on the campfire.  An open world.

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We moved to California when our kids were grown and gone.  I was 41.  We have been here 8 years.  To answer the “Why do you love California?” a little better, here’s a go.

I love that my native-born California neighbors treat us like we are part of their family.  We even have “family dinners” on Sunday nights  — usually on one of our patios — and we celebrate our birthdays and any and all holidays together.  I love that the smart gorgeous sassy wives, Bonnie and Cathy, have taught me how to slice an avocado, peel garlic, make lasagna with the sauce on the side, and make a good cheese/sausage plate.  And I love that their husbands are the first people I would call in any emergency.

Carmel Beach.  Gorgeous.  Peaceful.  Dogs off leash.  And that hidden unmarked beach on the drive through Big Sur.

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I love that, when I went to grad school for 3 years at San Jose State University, I saw diversity.  Every time I walked to class I thought, wow, how incredible that I’m a white woman and I feel so small, and yet so safe, and that nobody cares where I came from, what religion I do or do not practice, what my politics are, or what language I speak.

My plumber, Cosme, who always knows who I am — Hi!  How are you!! — when I call and is lovely and gracious and rarely charges me for a drop by.

I love that when my kids come for Christmas we can walk downtown with a light jacket and see the lights and have coffee or dinner or shop for last minute gifts, without ever getting into a car.  (well, except for that one year it poured rain!)

I love that a daily walk with my dogs turns up so much color and beauty I (sadly) don’t often even notice anymore.

I love Pizza My Heart, and their leash attachments outside their always-open door.  Pizza.  My.  Heart.

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The constant  over-abundance of fresh produce, which I credit to the undocumented worker and their willingness to come here to work hard and earn a living for their families.

All the neighbors who know and love my dogs even if they don’t know me.

I love the fact that no one has ever once, in a decade, asked my religious or political view.  And I love that when/if I get into a religious/political conversation, I feel respected.  Conservatives and liberals abound.

The crazy unexpected and taken-for-granted abundance of color.

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Good friends whom I would call in any emergency or just to have coffee:  Diane and Stacy and Megan and Sonja and Stacee and Jayne and Lindsey and Andrea and Cathy and Evy and Bonnie and Sharon and dear lord the list is so very,very, thankfully, long.

When I think about  California now, I see that it has become the place I finally, really, grew the fuck up.  The place I stopped worrying so much about what everyone expected and more about what I expect of myself.  I was in my early 40s when I arrived and had no idea what I would find  — what would they think of a little girl, much displaced, from Missouri?  And you know what?  I feel like, for the first time in my life, nobody cares where I came from.  I am not hindered.  I don’t feel judged.   I am about to turn 50, and I feel like I’ve grown up here, in California, in this last decade.  That I’ve figured out, and trusted, who I am.

“Why do you love California? Because I don’t really get it,” the person said.

I am, maybe for the first time in my life, not envying my California cousins.  I feel at home here, accepted for the real live me, a woman without a specific, augured in belief system.  I am a woman who believes in a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body; I believe in gun control and daily dog walks; I believe in not making fun of any religion or belief system or nationality; I believe in the fact that your extended family does not need blood to feel like a family.  I feel like, in my 40’s I am finally growing up.  And I’ve been lucky enough to grow up here.  I believe in California.

The Parents

Morning_sun_coffee_newspaper_table_590Today, my mother is dead 13 years. One of the last things I promised her was that I would look after her husband. “When I’m gone,” she said, “he will have nobody.”

A few years later I was sitting in my mother’s kitchen, in her vacant chair, having coffee with her husband. I remember it was about nine in the morning and he was telling me how he needed some help in the house. “I had me an old n***** woman once …” he began, and I set my coffee cup hard on the table. He dipped his head, laughed, and tapped me on the arm. “Oh kid, lighten up,” he said, “I don’t mean nothin’.” A few minutes later he offered me a Little Debbie snack cake and told a joke. “There was this n***** …” the joke began. I said, “Knock it off, or I’m leaving.” He kept on. I stood up, washed out my coffee cup, and left my mother’s house for the last time.

By now we’ve all seen the 9 second video. University of Oklahoma fraternity brothers on a bus singing their song. The first time I saw the video I thought about how joyful and strong they sound in the singing, it’s like they’re belting out the school fight song. As a parent, I’m now thinking about the parents of this evicted house of young men and the mad scramble they are probably in today to take care of their kids, to find their boys a place to live. I wonder about the conversations they are having at home. I wonder how many were shocked by the song and who thought it was no big deal. I wonder who the parents are most angry with: their boys’ behavior or the university president who booted them.

Last week I had a question about the first parent-teacher conference I attended. I had been a mom for about a month. I remember that I drove to the school on a Tuesday evening to meet my new son’s 5th grade teacher. I remember sitting outside the classroom in a line of aluminum chairs, feeling the “who is that woman?” stares from the other moms. I remember meeting Mr. Moynihan and not liking him and wondering if he liked me. I thought I remembered there being no parents of color, but was that right? I had to ask my now-28 year old son to fill in the blanks and, as he told me story after story, I was embarrassed to realize how little I knew about his life at that school.

This morning I’m alone with my cup of coffee. I’m thinking about the parents of those University of Oklahoma boys: who’s telling a bad joke and asking what’s the big deal, and who’s shocked to know what was going on at their son’s school. This morning I’m missing my mother and thinking about her elderly husband, my stepfather and his jokes, the empty decade between us, and the promise I did not keep.

The Lies We Tell

IMG_1873The first time I went to confession, I lied.

I wanted to show my much-adored 8th grade teacher, Sister Mary, I wasn’t scared so I skipped the screen and went face-to-face with Bishop Law. I wanted Sister Mary to be proud of me. But then the door closed and I was alone in a closet-sized room with a powerful man in red and gold robes and I was so scared I lost all cognitive thought. “I lied to my mother,” I finally said, though in the moment I could not think of a single lie I’d told. The Bishop raised his hand and blessed me. He wished me peace. But all I could think was that I’d just lied to the Bishop about lying. Sister Mary would be so disappointed.

Last night I was walking in the city with a childhood friend, in town for her birthday. As we inched our way down the steep hill of California Street she said, “Who would have thought two little girls from Cape Girardeau would be celebrating our 50th birthdays in San Francisco?” We laughed. Later I thought about the fact that this is what I tell strangers when they ask, “Where are you from?” and yet it feels like a little white lie. A half-truth. Can I claim to be from a town barely lived in?  How to meter out the constant moving in and out of Cape, in and out of its smaller surrounding towns, my unexplainable vagabond childhood?

I used to tell my kids that they might not get into trouble for something they’d done, but that they would always get into trouble for lying about it. “Always tell us the truth,” I would say. “Lying just makes it worse.” And then one Thanksgiving we decided to leave town early to visit family in another state. As all parents know, your children do not get an “excused” absence for this – if they miss a test or assignment, it cannot be made up – so I called the school and said my kids were sick and would not be there. My daughter stood there listening. When I hung up the phone, she rolled her eyes.

At an open house last week, a retired minister said, “If you don’t mind my asking, do you have a practicing faith?” Always uncomfortable when a stranger asks about religion, I said no and tried to change the subject. He told me about his church and pushed further. “Were you raised in a particular faith?” Catholic, I said, and felt instantly more panicked because like the Cape Girardeau answer above, the Catholic answer is a half-truth and fills me with anxiety. How to explain that my mother was excommunicated when my father left her with a one year-old baby (me) and that for years she sought and could never afford an annulment; that my grandfather, who horrifically abused my grandmother in secret, was so publicly respected and devout that the monsignor himself came weekly to our house to give him communion; that I decided on my own at age 12 to become Catholic because I needed a safe place to be, but that no one in my family ever went to church? And this is barely the beginning of the list.  The first time I went to the confession was also close to the last time I went to confession.

How to answer the “how were you raised” and “what do you believe” questions to a stranger when I can barely answer them to myself?

In four days, my mother will be dead 13 years. Today is the anniversary of the last lie I told her.

She’d been waiting for days for visitors who never arrived, and on this day the doctor increased her pain medication and explained that the increase could make it difficult, if not impossible, for her to wake up again. She dozed off. I went to the waiting room and called the would-be visitors. No answer. And no answer. And no answer. When she woke some hours later, I cheerfully told her the visitors had come and gone, that they’d arrived shortly after she fell asleep and had stayed for a quite bit but did not want to wake her, that she should get some rest, they would try and come tomorrow. A long string of lies cast like nylon line out onto the surface of still water.

She knew. I knew she knew. And she cried.

Off the Clock

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In a secondhand store I bought an old blue clock that does not keep time.  When I went to set it the first time, the big hand clicked its last minute and dropped limp to 6:00.  Forever 2:30 now.

For someone who loves routine, I’ve fallen far off the clock.  Last week I took a flight across country and, after many delays and de-icings and something O’Hare calls “the penalty box,” finally arrived at my small town destination at 2 a.m.  My gate-checked bag showed up last in the freezing cold jetway; and my big black bag that looks exactly like everyone else’s big black bag was the last one to tumble onto the carousel at baggage claim, which made me last man standing at the car rental counter.

Forget horror movies with their old houses and hotels and dark alleys.  The airport, normally so filled with people and noise and action, is the most disturbing place at 3 am.

By the time I crawled into bed I’d passed too many circadian markers to bother.

Today I’m back at the airport, a good 4 hours too early for my flight, and I’m thinking about my in-laws’ house and its symphony of clocks. The Grandfather that’s like a church organ with his one big boom, right on the  hour. The Cuckoo in the hallway that chirps so softly, so gently, it’s like he doesn’t want to bother anybody.  The tarnished brass wall unit in the living room with its four heavy, gong-like brass tubes, clanging with each hour and half hour, getting double the playtime of all the others. The lighthouse above the kitchen sink that blows a foghorn at least a minute or so later than all the others … the one that’s always off.

Off.  Like me.

If all goes well (hahaha) I’ll be home tonight around 9 pm.  Almost bedtime, right?  What could possibly go wrong…

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