Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Too Short for Stupid

I’ve experienced a lot of death lately. These deaths are not counting my own father, fathers of close friends, two of my uncles, one of my husband’s, and my husband’s grandmother. Since April, there have been four deaths, varying in how close to home they hit. However, they all had one thing in common, unfortunately. They were all untimely, and they all had tragic circumstances. I’ve attended two memorial services in 30 days for people who were my age, and “heart-wrenching” is putting it mildly.

It is hard to put this into words, because there are so many cliches associated with what I want to convey. “Life is short”, “Count your blessings”, “At least you have your health”, etc., are among them. However, I’ve chosen to express how I feel with “Too Short for Stupid” instead. I’ve learned a lot over the last months and weeks, and I’ve made a decision. Life is too precious of a gift to waste worrying about stupid crap. It’s time to let it go. It’s as though I’m just waking up from a very long sleep. As always, music seems to play a part and finds a way to weasel its way into my life lessons.

I’m not going to freak out about work anymore. It can be stressful, sure, and it probably always will be. However, somehow all the work always gets done, and for the most part, my reviews are positive. I am no longer going to obsess about fractured relationships and will resist the urge to “fix” it, as I have for most of my 41 years. I can love people deeply from a distance if their energy isn’t healthy for me right now. I’m letting go of bitter feelings about wrongs, perceived or accurate, from my childhood. People make mistakes all the time, and I am certainly not immune. The 1970’s Beatles were often played in my childhood home, but some lyrics I didn’t really pay attention to until lately. “When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” Ohhhhhhhh!!!!!! I’ve never been skilled at letting it be, but I’m now going to put it into practice as much as I can muster.

I’m finished worrying about money, because we’re going to be fine. Unexpected expenses and bumps in the road will always occur, but somehow it always works out. I am done nitpicking every tiny detail of my appearance that isn’t “perfect”. My Jell-O-like abdomen housed my beautiful children and brought them into our lives. My skin still breaks out from time to time, who cares?? If I ceased coloring my hair, it would be frighteningly white, something I don’t intend to unveil for many moons, but it really doesn’t matter. I am no longer going to feel guilty about not having a spotless home or having piles of laundry everywhere, or being a less than perfect mother. If I’d been counting, I’m probably somewhere in the vicinity of Parental Mistake #328. Does anyone know a perfect mother? If so, it’s an illusion, or they’re completely full of it. I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time feeling pressure from all sides of my life, from my family of origin, the family I created, friends, and from work. However, where did the true origin of the pressure lie? I did this to myself, and it’s time to put it permanently to rest. It may result in new elements of my personality and behavior that many may not look upon favorably.  That's okay too.

We’re swimming in blessings that I’ve been too distraught to recognize over the past couple of years, but I see them now. I appreciate things as simple as the fact that I don’t go to bed in pain every night and that I’m healthy overall. I’m in possession of my senses, at least most of the time. I adore my husband, I truly do. He is my best friend, and we’ve been enjoying each other’s company lately more than we have in years. He and I have now attended more weddings that have already ended in divorce than ones in which the couple are still together. We’re coming up on 16 years of being together, 16 years! He can still make me laugh instantly and hard, after all this time. Our children are happy and healthy, we have plenty of food, and we live in a safe neighborhood…all these things are not to be taken for granted. There are seasons, I understand that, and there will be trouble in days to come because that’s how life is. Pain and loss are inevitable, and it’s essential to feel these emotions. I’ve witnessed first hand what can happen when people don’t fully accept what they've lost and deal with their emotions. You can’t run and hide from sorrow, you can’t over-analyze things and forego emotion for logic, and these actions are unhealthy in my opinion. My mother said to me once that “You can’t experience true joy if you don’t experience pain.” Man, was she ever right on the money!

There is joy and beauty everywhere. Today while swimming with my children, I looked at my son’ perfect little sharp shoulder blades as he set his face into an expression of total determination before he jumped into the pool, doing a “trick”.  He looks so much like my father, and that’s a true gift that I treasure every day.  My daughter is growing up before my eyes and what I feel is a combination of fear and awe.  Aside from the wonder of watching her change from a child to a young lady, I am constantly amazed by her vocabulary, her intuition, and her creativity.  How did I get these little beings?  This tiny little snapshot in time will be gone in the blink of an eye, and I will miss it when it’s gone. How stupid would it be to miss this because I was too busy, too sad, or too distracted to notice? Again, cue the song lyrics! “It gains the more it gives, and then it rises with the fall. So hand me that remote, can't you see that all that stuff's a sideshow? Such boundless pleasure, we've no time for later. Now you can't await your own arrival, you've twenty seconds to comply. So, let go, so let go. Jump in. Oh well, what you waiting for? It's alright, 'cause there's beauty in the breakdown.”-credit to Frou Frou, off the Garden State soundtrack. Today I didn’t ease gingerly into our pool, I jumped in.  This isn’t a huge deal, but it’s something I don’t ordinarily do.  It felt great.

Over the past couple of weeks, I had been going about a hundred miles an hour. By the time it slowed down, my head continued to spin. The memorial I attended resulted in the most intense spectrum of emotions than I’ve probably ever experienced in my life in such a short period of time. I felt encompassing, incredible sadness and pain from seeing someone I love hurt so much over this loss. I also felt joy and amazement at hearing stories about this beautiful soul who left our world way too soon. In addition to laughing at some of the funny stories, I felt intense gratitude, not only for my life, but for my amazing friendship that has existed now for almost 30 years. This friendship manages to remain the same, despite time and miles and lifestyles. I cried and I laughed and I listened. Near the end of the evening, I noticed my jaw was feeling weird. How odd.

Upon arriving home, I faced my last few days of work for the school year, combined with what felt like tons of kid activities. I went with my daughter and a gaggle of 4th graders to Coloma, the site where gold was originally discovered. It was a beautiful day, and I wasn’t prepared for how cool it was! There was so much history, real artifacts, and actual collections from the prospectors. I think I was much more interested than the group of kids I was in charge of! There was a very old cemetery up the road that we didn’t make it to, but I vow to return, it must be incredible. The kids had the opportunity to pan for gold. My daughter managed to acquire a couple of tiny pieces of fool’s gold, while her classmates found some actual gold. She didn’t leave empty handed, however. She managed to find eleven small garnets, which were my father’s birthstone. My dad had tons of tacky garnet rings that I remember vividly from my childhood. This was the Wednesday before Father’s Day, and while a lot of the other kids also found garnets, I choose to believe that my dad sent down these little gifts for us.
This made me so happy, and I just breathed in the beautiful day by the American River, totally satisfied. When we returned home that day, hot and tired, my daughter decided to give her entire haul to me, and I couldn’t stop smiling. The next several days consisted of trying to finish up at work, while running back and forth to the kid’s school for a variety of activities. My son had his end of Kindergarten celebration, and between the songs they sang and the poem his teacher read, along with the realization that I wouldn’t have another child in her class, I dissolved. I was a teary, proud, grinning mess.
The next day, I witnessed another Kindergarten celebration at one of the schools where I work, as a friend’s child was also graduating from Kindergarten. When they began to play “Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole, I was done, and was smiling through tears again. From there, I went directly back to my own children’s school for an award’s assembly because my daughter made the honor roll again, and then back to work. On their last day of school, I was there nearly the whole day. On the Kindergarten playground, I laughed and took pictures as the kids slathered themselves with shaving cream whilst flipping about on a slip and slide, playing in inflatable pools, blowing bubbles, and eating Popsicles. All of the activities the kids participated in pretty much encapsulated the beauty and joy of childhood, at least to me. I volunteered for one of the activities, in which I was to place a water balloon on a chair and the kids were to run and SIT on them as hard as they could in order to pop it. I got drenched, and had an absolute blast. Their teacher read them one more story near the end of their day, which made me cry. Again. From there, my son and I went and met my daughter’s 4th grade class who were already celebrating the last day of school with a picnic in the park. It was a busy, exhausting, and HOT day, and I wouldn’t change a single moment of it.

Amongst the things I’ve learned is to laugh every single day, and it really isn’t hard. Jon Stewart alone usually makes that possible for me. However, others include my husband, my darling one year old great nephew who dances to anything, and watching my son at Taekwando yell “yes sir!!”  Due to his lack of articulation of the letter R, it sounds like, “Yes so!!” but he yells it with ferocious conviction. My children’s theological discussions are priceless. A few months back, my son told me he wanted to give up bothering his sister, and I said, “Oh, you mean for Lent?” He confirmed this to be the case, then immediately began teasing his sister. When I asked him about what he’d just shared with me, he said, “Mom, it doesn’t start until Wednesday.” The whole idea of Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras will not be lost on this child. Another time we were all discussing what God looked like. I said I didn’t know, but my son maintained that he has to be a boy because girls don’t have beards. My daughter replied knowingly, “They do in Poland.” I have no explanation for this response, but it sure as hell made me laugh. Life is funny, and laughter truly does make you feel better.

It was days before I finally figured it out. My jaw and face had been hurting from smiling. What in the world? Smiling. “Happiness hit her like a train on a track, coming towards her, stuck, still no turning back The dog days are over. The dog days are done.” Thank you, Florence and the Machine. “Not running from something, I'm running towards the day, wide awake. A whisper once quiet, now rising to a scream right in me. I'm falling, free falling, words calling me up off my knees. Our future's paved with better days.” I love you something terrible, Eddie Vedder.

It’s time to let go. It’s time to enjoy my days here. The future IS paved with better days. Life is TOO SHORT FOR STUPID. 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

You can take the girl out of LA, but you can't take LA....well, actually you can.

I feel like a bit of a traitor, writing this piece, because a number of people I love deeply still live in the LA area. There are some truly wonderful and exceptional people who live there, and who will always hold a special place in my heart. I have friends and family in both LA and Orange County. Honestly though, truth be told? I loathe Los Angeles. There, I said it.

I was born and raised in Pasadena and Altadena for 18 years. It was an awesome place to grow up, minus the smog. In the 70’s and 80’s, there were days that the smog was so bad, we’d actually have “smog alerts”, days in which we would have to stay inside at recess and lunchtime, days when you literally could not see the sun through all the smog. People who didn’t experience this sometimes don’t believe me, but “smog days” were like “rainy days”. We had to limit our outdoor activity during these times, it was mandated. Now, in the summer, when the smog was often at its worst, it was up to our parents to limit our activity. I clearly remember going swimming in the summers and then not being able to take a deep breath afterwards without coughing like an avid smoker at the age of 8. My lungs burned. It was normal to us, we didn’t know any differently. Years later at age 20, I moved to San Francisco to attend college at SFSU, which is in one of the foggier sides of town. When the fog would roll in every day and I could see it from my dorm room window, I initially thought it was smoke. In addition, for probably the first month or so, I actually had a difficult time breathing, and I finally figured out my lungs were not accustomed to breathing CLEAN air. That was truly a shock…my body was struggling to accept air that was devoid of smog.

Despite the smog, I am very grateful I grew up where I did. Pasadena is a beautiful city, and we grew up in lovely homes (mom’s and dad’s) and I had a wonderfully diverse group of friends, many of whom I am still friends with. Pasadena was progressive, open-minded, and comfortable. I wouldn’t change any of that. The public school system was great during those years and I feel they served me well, depending of course on how much effort I was willing to put in. When it’s clear in Pasadena and Altadena, the views of the San Gabriel Mountains are breathtaking, and there are days you can see all the way to the ocean. Summer nights in Pasadena still have a certain smell and the air has a certain feel that make me nostalgic for my teenage years. The neighborhoods have wonderful and amazing history, including the Greene and Greene bungalows, and the charming cottages built in the 1920’s. Michigan Avenue, the street on which we lived, had oak trees so large and so old, they made a canopy over the entire street, a “tunnel of trees” like they have in Kauai.

There are beautiful landmarks like City Hall and All Saints’ Church, where I attended preschool and where my father’s ashes are kept. There are true treasures in Pasadena, but I fear they're being swallowed.

The revitalization of “Old Towne” Pasadena didn’t really begin until I moved away. Before then, that section of Colorado Blvd. was devoid of any real business, there were a lot of abandoned old buildings, one movie theatre, and Ernie Jr’s, an awesome Mexican restaurant that’s now gone. When I’d return over the next decade or so to visit, the area had exploded. At first it was cool, a place to play pool and drink, and some great new restaurants. Then it just appears to have gotten completely out of hand…the area exploded. How many shops can you cram into one area? It’s like the city planners were on methamphetamines…let’s put a Tiffany’s on the corner! But wait, there’s a Hooters on the same block, that doesn’t really fit…ahhh to hell with it!! Money is money! There’s every store imaginable there, from Target to Saks Fifth Avenue, although I’ve heard that Saks closed down. I believe Hooters may have as well. I’d imagine that this exploding Mecca of commerce has suffered with the rest of the country and its economic woes, but it still appeared to me that the developers were manic and loopy. In addition to the stores and nightclubs and galleries, horrific, ugly, expensive townhouses were built down there as well, obscuring any views of the mountains that were there when I was young. Old Pasadena standards like Pooh-Bah records vanished. On a visit about three years ago, friends took me out to a place that had Tapas…it was great, but vastly overpriced, as well as their clientele being vastly underdressed. Not underdressed as in too casual, they were not wearing an adequate amount of clothing to cover their bodies. In other words, they were damn near naked, and these were young girls, probably in their late teens, early 20’s. If they dared sit down or even move, their bits were in danger of popping out. They literally looked like hookers. We were out early too, probably about 6pm and one of my girlfriends was pregnant at the time. I remember asking her, “Why are they dressed like that at 6pm?” “Welcome to the new Pasadena!” was the reply. I liked the old Pasadena. At the same restaurant for dessert, I ordered an item called, I shit you not, “The Caramel Apple Experience”. It’s not a dessert, it’s an experience. Was the ghost of Jimi Hendrix going to appear as I ate it? It was tiny, of course, but delicious. I’m grateful I got to engage in the experience of my dessert.

As with a great portion of the rest of the state, huge scars were gouged out of the mountains to built gated, exclusive communities. They’re hideous. This isn’t unique to Pasadena, or even Los Angeles, but it was still sad to see. Every time I would come down to visit, the place looked different. My perspective was also different, of course, but it also was literally different. It’s completely disorienting. It also appears that many in the entertainment industry have swarmed into Pasadena in droves, making it somewhat of a Hollywood East. When I was younger, we’d go down and party in Hollywood all the time, and it was amazingly, drunkenly entertaining. Through my eyes today, of course, I’d see Hollywood for what it is, a pretty depressing dump of a place that chews people up and spits them out. I’d hate to see that happen to my beloved home town also. However, it does appear to have gotten extremely uppity, too much for my taste. It doesn’t even resemble “home” to me anymore.  During one visit, it was pointed out to me that I was looking around LA as though I was on a different planet. Well, that's how it appears to me now.

My grandparents also lived in Pasadena, but also had a mobile home in Laguna Beach, so I spent numerous summers there. Their mobile home park, El Morro, had a private beach at the time. The homes were all built high up on a cliff, and there was a tram that would travel up the hill and up and down each little street of the community, picking people up that wanted to go to the beach. It would then travel back down the steep road to the bottom. At that point we would get off and walk through a tunnel that went under the Pacific Coast Highway and emerge at our beautiful, private beach. The tunnel itself was painted on the inside, somewhat of a combination of art and graffiti. When the tides were too high, the tunnel would flood and we wouldn’t be able to get down there. I remember evenings there, watching the waves glow blue in the dark with the phosphorus that was in the water, and roasting marshmallows on the sand. Downtown Laguna Beach is simply gorgeous, I’ve been told it resembles a lot of the beaches in Australia.

I have wonderful memories of seeing movies at the single theatre in town, going to the candy shop or the ice cream shop afterwards and walking across the street to the main beach to watch the guys play basketball or watch the sunset. It was a kid’s paradise, and I will always have awesome memories of that time. Since then, however, multi-million dollar McMansions in gated communities have been built up in the hillsides and my grandparent’s mobile home community was sold to the state. It also feels as though as a woman in Laguna, or Newport, or Dana Point, you have to show proof of some sort of plastic surgery before you will be permitted to enter, preferably breast augmentation. I haven’t been there for years and years, but the last time I was there, at least 8 out of every 10 women who passed by on the street were not displaying the breasts God had given them, and believe me, they were on display. I will never understand this. Had I grown up elsewhere, it’s possible that my self esteem would have been just as low in those early years. However, growing up in LA and Orange County in the 70’s and 80’s, with my fair skin (read “white that’s nearly bluish/transparent”), dark hair, and shall we say, non-voluptuous build, I was the antithesis of what people considered beautiful at the time. In fact, I think I still am, at least in that part of California.

I moved to San Francisco in 1990 to complete my undergrad degree. It’s difficult for me to explain how differently I felt once I arrived there. Everything was green!!! There was no smog, at least none I could see or feel in my lungs. People did not care what you looked like, in fact, differences were welcomed. I lived there for a week, and knew I was home. My dad knew it too…he called me to see how I was settling in, and said, “You’re never coming home, are you?” To this day, I have no idea how he knew this to be true so quickly, the only explanation I have is that he knew me so well. I was so comfortable there, I loved it. Quite a few of my friends from high school went to Cal or SFSU, or other Nor Cal schools. I remember seeing one friend from Cal who said, “You look so San Francisco! You look like you grew up here.” At that point, nothing could have made me happier.

There are money-grubbing, uppity people in San Francisco too, I was a nanny for quite a few of them. All urban areas have their good and bad points. However, the good outweighed the bad for me there, and I never, ever considered moving back to Los Angeles once I’d left. This displeased some friends and family, but I have never regretted it. Griffith Park can’t compare with Golden Gate Park. I will have to give LA the crown for the Hollywood Bowl though, nothing compares with that, another of LA’s legendary jewels. Santa Monica Beach with its cigarette butts in the sand can’t compare with the charm of tiny Bean Hollow State Beach, about 30 minutes south of SF. It’s serene and quiet, usually completely empty, and has perfect little tide pools and amazing sunsets. I used to go there frequently by myself, mostly to escape dorm living for awhile and to write.

The little restaurants outside of Malibu on the beach can’t compare to the Moss Beach Distillery, where they’ll bring blankets out to your lounge chair while you watch the sunset over the ocean while waiting for your table. It even has its own resident ghost. To me, The Castro is more fun than West Hollywood, where I felt looked down upon as not good enough or well dressed enough. Traffic in San Francisco and the surrounding areas sucks, but nothing compares to LA traffic. It’s mind-numbingly horrible. Not only that, but it’s nearly impossible to time or predict. The 405, for example, can be packed any day of the week at any time, there’s no rhyme or reason. Arguably, the weather in LA is probably better than SF, although I really enjoyed actual seasons, even if they happened in the wrong months (summer is winter in the SF neighborhood I lived in). However, nothing compares to the months of October and April in San Francisco, when the warm weather makes its rare appearance and the entire city, in a collective wonderful mood, comes outside and heads to the park, the Marina, and the beaches to sail, fly kites, and watch their children play.

Following my 3 years in SF, I spent one miserable year in Burlingame. Burlingame itself is an adorable little town, and I loved it. The misery stemmed from having graduated college with no idea what to do with my life, living with a roommate I hated, dating someone I didn’t love, and using my college degree to answer phones and wash coffee cups at a software company. When I was accepted to graduate school, I moved to Stockton to attend UOP. UOP is a surprisingly beautiful campus, and often movies are shot there because it looks ivy-league like. Outside of that, I don’t have a lot of great things to say about Stockton, other than I got my education there, started my career there, and met my husband there. I still have wonderful friends there as well, but as a destination, a place to settle down, it wasn’t for me.

For the past 11 years, I’ve been living in Elk Grove, a suburb of Sacramento. Is it exceedingly interesting and stimulating? No, not really. I adore our home and neighborhood, but it’s not unique, it’s a tract home in a development. However, here’s what I love about where I live: It’s homey, all our neighbors know each other, the school district is fabulous, our kids can walk to school and walk to friends’ houses, and anything and everything we might need is close by. Sacramento is ten minutes away, and believe it or not, has some great museums and shows and restaurants. San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, and Yosemite are all within a 2-3 hour drive. Elk Grove itself has actually grown quite a bit, but has still maintained a small town feel. The people here, for the most part, are very friendly and open. It’s not as liberal as other places I’ve lived, but I can live with that. This is where we’ve settled, and this is home. I can breathe here. I can be myself here. I don’t have to pretend I’m something I’m not.

Los Angeles, and Pasadena in particular, I do hold you in high esteem for the experiences you gave me. I also realize that there was always a part of me that didn’t belong there, that was longing to escape. It’s sad, but that’s how I truly feel about it, I didn’t move, I escaped. Choosing to move to Northern California was the single best decision I have ever made in my life, and I have never regretted it. My condolences, Southern California, we just weren’t meant to be.