Getting High and Gay Walking in San Francisco

Today I realized that, even after all our adventures, my daughter is a Country Mouse. You know the old story of the City Mouse and the Country Mouse?

Up and up then up some more!

Up and up then up some more!

Vivi doesn’t know much about navigating a city. She thunders down the sidewalk and manages to slam into the only other pedistrian on the block. She doesn’t know which way to face when we stand on a curb waiting for a light. And the light? Good grief. Two years ago when we went to DC, I tried to explain to her that the red hand means stop and the white man means walk. That turned into “White man! Walking!” Which she proceeded to SHOUT every time we crossed a street. That’s now become an inside joke with us.

My sister lives in a busy city, so this stuff is second nature to her. She knows which direction of traffic has the right of way, even without the White Man Walking. She glides across streets whenever the notion takes her (or she smells coffee). Today, she stepped out into the road so many times I decided we would start calling it Gay Walking instead of jay walking.

And by the way? San Francisco is a funny town when your name is “Gay.” I learned that last time we were here after I was trying to get her attention in a crowd and yelled, “GAY!” Half the place turned around.

Call a damn cab!

Call a damn cab!

It takes me a while to adjust to a city, too. Vivi comes by her Country Mouseness honestly. There are so many sounds and I lack some filter that blocks out the unimportant ones. Everyone walks so fast and no one is lost. There are people here who actually know how to ride BUSES. I can’t even.

New York is easy–when I’m lost, I just hail a cab. Here…no cabs. I’m sure there are some, but I can’t find them. Because lost. And we’re staying in an apartment instead of a hotel, so no taxi stand or doorman to help. Good Lord…did I just say that?

Traveling with my sister has spoiled Vivi and me rotten. She got tired today and whined, “Can’t we just get a taxiiiiii?” I pretended that wasn’t a fantastic idea. Thanks to Aunt Gay and the Uber private car app, Vivi now thinks that large black SUVs with very clean interiors just magically appear for us when we wait by a curb. Last year when we took her ice skating at Rockefeller Center, I got a deep sense of foreboding after Vivi stood on the crowded curb and said, “Is our car here yet?” Girl, please. I’m going to have to teach her how to ride the bus. Or find someone who can.

I have a pretty good sense of direction, but San Francisco discombobulates me. I think it’s because the water is east even though the Pacific Ocean is west. And the hills upon hills upon hill10714357_10204112596008187_7555641961668401898_os–can’t see anything! With all this newness to navigate, only one solution came to mind: we needed to get high.

We climbed allllll the way up Telegraph Hill (seriously, it’s like a 60 degree slant) to the fresh breezes and blue sky around Coit Tower. From the pinnacle, we showed Vivi Alcatraz, the piers, the Golden Gate. Gay traced back through the maze of streets and pointed out the house we’re renting.

Vivi wanted to see the house for herself. I pointed off into the distance. “See that gray house there? Find the diagonal street then go up a couple of blocks and that’s it, past the tennis courts at that playground we walked by.” She grew frustrated when she still couldn’t find it.

Then I realized–Vivi has no idea what a tennis court looks like from a quarter mile away. She doesn’t know how to measure a block. It’s all so much, so new. And she’s still learning. The only way to learn about the great wide world is to get out in it and explore.

We came back down to earth from the tower height. We did a little more Gay Walking and managed to get back home. Here we sit, back at the apartment in the room we are sharing. Vivi’s already asleep. I can’t shut out the noise from Lombard Street.

All of it–all of it–is turning into stories that we will share together.



Happy Birfday, Mommy

balloon-406208_1280Today was my birthday. It was happy.


The alarm went off. The kids had to be fed. The socks are never where they’re supposed to be. The dog wants out. The dog wants in. I wasn’t expecting much, but dang. G was the only one who had acknowledged my birthday in any way.

Finally, from the kitchen, he asked the kids if they had wished me a happy birthday. From the dining room, Victoria spoke in that perfectly flat teenage voice, “happy. birthday.” Vivi didn’t even look over from the couch as she echoed the sentiment with the same enthusiasm.

OK, it’s early. But dang.

Then Carlos, sitting beside me on the couch, looked me straight in the eye. “Hap-py Birfday, Mommy!” The kid who gets speech therapy. The kid who wasn’t connecting with people.

What color pony do you want, little boy? Because right now? Mommy wants to give you anything you want. I made such a fuss over him and he giggled and wiggled.

Three little words. The gift of those three tiny words carried me on through the business of the morning.

A while later, I met a man who looked familiar on the sidewalk outside my office. His son and Carlos are in class together. We introduced ourselves and started talking about our kids. We got deeper into the Spectrum Talk, about how our ideas of who our kids will be have to shift as we learn more about how they live in this world. This dad said, “I used to hope for throwing the football with my son. That’s OK if that doesn’t happen. But I would like to hear him call me ‘Dad,’ just once.” This beautiful son, who holds his father’s hand as they walk into school, has never called either of his parents “Mom” or “Dad.” Those words aren’t gifts that he can give just yet.

My boy’s birthday gift to me grew even more precious after that chance meeting on the sidewalk.

It was a lovely day, filled with kind messages, lunch with friends, sweet gifts and so much laughter. G had offered to fetch all three kids after school so I could take my time. I drove home with the windows down and the sun patting the top of my head. Simply happy and feeling loved.

Then the strangest thing happened.

I turned onto a little street where Richard and I once looked at a house that was for sale. It belonged to an older couple who were eager to sell so they could move closer to their daughter. The father had become ill and the mother needed her daughter’s help. The small, tired woman had told us this as we stood under a kiwi vine in the backyard. I remember it so vividly because I knew already that we didn’t want this house, but neither Richard or I was going to leave while she still had things to show us. She was enjoying having someone to talk to. We admired her yard and promised that we would call the realtor for more information. Then we left and went on with our lives.

So today, as I was driving past that same house, I caught a glimpse into that yard through the patchy hedge. Tables and folding chairs sat scattered across the grass. Pink tablecloths and bunches of balloons shifted in the breeze. Paper plates and ketchup bottles, bright bags and wrapped boxes. A birthday party.

I got this odd feeling, it being my birthday and all, and me having once thought of living in that house with the person I loved then–I got the strange idea in my head that it WAS a birthday party for me, for the me in a parallel life who bought that house and made a life there.

I drove right by that other me, having a party, and it was strange but OK. Maybe I don’t know how to explain this, but my life has taken such drastic turns that I sometimes cross paths with a ghost or a memory or a maybe of what might have been my life. Like that time I got the letter from the retirement company that listed Richard’s age as 46. He died when he was 38. But for a second, looking at that letter, I had the feeling that he was off somewhere on one of those parallel tracks. Maybe throwing a football with his son. Even that was strange but OK.

Every one of us who has made any choice or survived any kind of change or gotten any surprises along the way has felt that shadow of the other life that might have been. We’re going about our day, but out of the corner of the eye, just a glimpse through a gap in the hedge.

My car kept going and it wound up at home, in this life with the three kids and G and the house that Richard gave to us.

When I walked in the door, Carlos pointed to the fruit snacks G had given him and said, “I ate red AND blue!” (Mean old Mommy makes him choose one or the other, but Daddy…Daddy has his own ways.)

Then that son–the one I got and not the ones that I imagined–my son looked at me and said, “Happy Birfday, Mommy.” Unprompted.

What a gift. May I always treasure it.


Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

alice0042dspng“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I was in a funk this morning, so I started looking for Six Impossible Things to Believe Before Breakfast. It wasn’t difficult. It only took me about a half an hour:

  1.  Sunday night, I woke up and glanced at the clock. It was 2:22. I remember laughing and rolling over to go back to sleep. Monday night, I woke up and looked at the clock. It was 3:33! I thought, “Oh, mysteries of life” and fell back to sleep. I woke up again and immediately looked at the clock. It was 4:40 and all I could think was, “Dangit! Four more minutes and I would have nailed it!”

deer-212737_12802.  As we backed out of the driveway and turned up the hill, I stopped the car and said, “Carlos, look! Two deer!” Two small does stopped at the corner of Miss Sarah’s yard to look at us with their ears perked up. We didn’t appear too threatening–just another clunky metal purring thing with heavy round feet. They tiptoed across the road and into Mrs. Hodgson’s azaleas. Carlos whispered, “deer!”

10658710_10204082009963555_7281379235282340952_o3.  When I got back home after dropping him off at school, I stepped out on the deck. There’s a sourwood tree out there that I tried to cut down many years ago. My saw was too small and my arms too weak, so I gave up on it. Now, the sourwood tree grows up and over the deck, giving us shade from the heat, a perch for chickadees, and brilliant red leaves in the fall. As I admired the leaves, I remembered–leaves don’t “turn” colors in the fall. The colors that we see now have always been there, but the green chlorophyll that the plants need to make fuel overpowers the color during the spring and summer. When the year turns to the months of rest, the chlorophyll dies away and we can see the colors that have been there all along.

10679498_10204082009723549_2392038021595593732_o4.  Then my eye fell down to a row of shells that we found on our vacation this year. Oysters, whelks, conchs. As they bleach in the sun, all those plain grayish shells start to show their colors too. Pink and brown, orange and cream. From the bottom of the sea to right here on my deck. Then I remembered that half of my state used to be at the bottom of the ocean a long time ago. And the water in that river that runs through the backyard is the same water, recycled from the ancient ocean, the Mississippi, the Ganges, the Jordan, the Nile. Nothing is so far away after all.

10733867_10204082009443542_5464091185153558402_o5.  I went back inside to load the dishwasher. And who do I spy outside the kitchen window? It’s another writing spider. This one is much smaller and browner–the male of the species. If all the pretty yellow girls are “Charlotte,” I decide he will be named “Charlemagne.” Welcome, spinner, to our space. When I stepped back outside to get a better look at him, the dewdrops made his web sparkle in the gray morning haze.

10661655_10203813515051350_6537100019182294571_o6.  Time to make breakfast. I stirred together some oatmeal and milk, then added a dash of salt. I diced up a Honeycrisp apple to throw in before cooking it. I put a sliver of that apple in mouth and the flavor was so perfectly what I wanted at that moment, that my first thought was, “I don’t care if they cost $5 a pound. I’m going to buy these every week until they’re gone. This is why I went to graduate school–to afford these apples.”

Six impossible things before breakfast. Impossibly sweet, impossibly strange, impossibly magical.

I sat down on the couch and booted up my notebook computer while my oatmeal cooled. In a house built of bricks in 1961, on a hill that was carved by that river over a few million years, under an impossibly blue October sky from which leaves of red and orange fall with a whisper, I tapped my finger to a glass screen and connected myself to every other part of the world. I saw Catie standing in a field of orange marigolds in Bhutan, the cinnamon rolls that Beth’s daughter had made in France, and Lucy’s brand new baby down in Dublin.

It’s ALL impossible yet so precious and close. And here we are, right in the middle of it.

940 Saturdays

9780804185424Between your child’s birth and his or her 18th birthday, you’ll have 940 Saturdays to share together. That’s the premise behind a new family activities guide and keepsake journal by Dr. Harley Rotbart.

I’m a big fan of keeping a journal for my children. My friend, Andrea, gave me a pink suede journal with a flower clasp before I even knew whether my first child was a boy or girl. I started writing letters to Vivi when we still called her/him “Pollywog.” One day, she’ll get the journal and read all those letters G and I wrote to her along the journey. Carlos has one too. I’m realistic that I won’t do scrapbooks and such for my kids, but journals? Right up my alley.

That’s why I got a copy of this book for review. Great concept! Making journaling easy for busy families. I’m sorry to report that the difference between concept and execution in “940 Saturdays” is much like the difference between what we dream parenting will be like and what it’s actually like. Great plan in theory, but NOT going to happen in real life.

I was expecting a thick book of family activity suggestions, with a small keepsake journal in the souvenir pocket in the back. The actual book is the opposite–300 pages of empty journal and a slim book of family activity suggestions included in the pocket.

What bugs me about the design of the journal is that it’s arranged numerically, with a heading for “Saturday #249″ or “Saturday #632″ next to a place for you to enter the date and a brief description of what your family did on that day. Honestly, I can see a new parent keeping up for the first few weeks, then getting off track for a few weeks and not bothering with the math to figure out where they are in the journal. A free-form journal with a simple space for the date would be more forgiving.

This past Saturday, G and I took the littles to a pumpkin patch for all kinds of photogenic autumnal activities. We played hide and seek in a sunflower field. Carlos picked out a pumpkin so big that he couldn’t lift it, so he rolled it to G and declared, “Pick if up, Daddy.” We went on a hay ride and named the tractor “Otis” just like in the books. Vivi buried herself in dried corn. Carlos patted a rabbit.

That’s the kind of Saturday I want to write down in their journals, but I don’t want to have to calculate that it was the 322nd Saturday of our life together!

The Saturday before that? It was just as magical. We cleaned out the garage…as a family.

The one before that? I’ve already forgotten.

So yes, these memories should be captured, but most families are going to need a little more wiggle room. If you’ve got a baby shower coming up for a super-organized, left brain type of parent, “940 Saturdays” might be the right gift. For everyone else, buy a pretty journal and wish them well!

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

The Writing Spider

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve used my “room of her own” down in the basement. G got me a sweet notebook computer before BlogHer so I’ve been writing in bed, on the couch, outside, wherever.

This weekend, though, I retreated to my lair to write while the kids played quietly with collaborative educational games made from all natural materials (or watched Max and Ruby while sniping at each other–it’s all a blur). When I settled down at my writing table and looked out the window, to my delight, I discovered a new neighbor had moved in:

writing spider

Meet Charlotte. Please don’t EEK. She hates that.

“Hello, Charlotte!” I cooed to her. Is there any better name for a giant spider? Nope.

Her web stretches across the window that’s right at ground level. Good eating there. When I first stepped closer to the window, she scuttled a few inches higher into her web until she decided I wasn’t anything to worry about. Her wide spiral web bounced gently from her sudden motion. As it stilled, I watched her pluck the web with her front legs to set it swaying again. Her large yellow and black body perched on the white zig zag line that runs down the middle of a Charlotte web. That white line is usually the first thing I see when these spiders set up house in the fall.

And because I was supposed to be writing, and there are 1000 ways to avoid writing, I did some research on my new friend instead. Most call her the “Common Black and Yellow Garden Spider” but that hardly seems flattering. I like the sound of her Latin name: Argiope aurantia.

So much for getting away from writing–I giggled when I discovered that she is also nicknamed “The Writing Spider” for that zig zaggy line that stabilizes her web. Oh, we are going to get along just fine!

Did you ever hear the legend of the writing spiders? If you find your name spelled in her web, death will visit you soon. Makes me grateful that I have a few wiggly and curvy letters in my name, but now I worry about Vivi. That’s a whole lot of straight lines.

CharlotteWebI can’t think of a writing spider without thinking of Wilbur the pig, Fern and Charlotte and Templeton the rat. That story turned the legend of the writing spider upside down. The clever spider in “Charlotte’s Web” spelled encouraging messages like “Some Pig” and “Terrific” into her web to keep Wilbur from being turned into bacon. In turn, Wilbur watches over Charlotte’s egg sac so that her babies will be born back at the farm after she is gone. So she can pass something along to the world that lives on without her.


I was talking to an author a few weeks ago (Anne Nahm) about how she found the courage to convince herself she could write a book. “If you don’t do it, you could die never having written that book.” Well, shit, Anne. Way to cut to the chase. It’s hard to dilly dally around that one.

This Charlotte outside my window will build a papery sac for her eggs this fall then she will die before the winter. The babies will be born and they will continue to live in the sac over the cold months.  Next spring, they’ll emerge and wander off into my garden. I hope to have something to show them by then. Something written in my web.

My story also features a pig and a kind girl, and a sweet soul who left before the story was done.


Bye, Felicia–I Got Things To DO.

oh noBefore I tell the story of how I was a totally unrepentant jerk this evening, let me preface it with a couple of facts:

  1. Kroger at 6 p.m. on a Monday in a college town is a lot like the Hunger Games right after the cannon goes off. Don’t be wandering in between me and the Cornucopia. The odds will never be in your favor.
  2. I’m older and have more insurance. If you don’t recognize that reference, go read “Fried Green Tomatoes.” TOWANDA!!!!
  3. If you haven’t heard “Bye, Felicia!” it’s time to rent the movie “Friday.” Or ask a teenage girl.
  4. I went to therapy today so fools, whiners, jokers, and malcontents are forewarned.

OK, so there I was in the Kroger parking lot at 6 p.m. on a Monday night. Three hungry kids at home and not a can of soup in the cupboard. I was crack-a-lackin’ because we were lackin’ crackers. I had made three circuits of the parking lot in search of a spot–no luck.

towandaI turn right up an aisle and spy an empty spot on the left side. At the same time, a little red car turns down the aisle from the other end. We both stop at the open spot then she drives on past. I figured I had won the showdown at the KRO Corral.

Just as I start turning left into the parking space, I see the red car backing up straight at me.

I honk.

She hits the brakes then honks.

I’m halfway into the parking space but stop because I don’t want to clip her. Both of us have our windows down.

She sticks her head out the window and wails, “I was BACKING IN!”

I stick my head out my window and say, “Honey, it looks to me like you drove past an empty space and I took it.”

“But I’m BACKING IN!”ice cube

“You weren’t signaling.”


I inched my car a little farther into the spot, thinking about Kathy Bates in “Fried Green Tomatoes” when she crushes a teeny car belonging to a couple of smart-mouthed young girls.

She huffed, “That is so RUDE!”

Rude? Maybe. I call it more of a difference of opinion.

I flapped my hand in her general direction and said, “I’ve got things to DO. Bye, Felicia!”

Sometimes? On a Monday? When I’ve spent most of my day (week, month, life) making sure everyone else gets everything they need? When it’s 6 p.m. and I’m burning daylight and gas trolling the Kroger lot instead of being at home with my kids?

Times like that, I don’t mind being a jerk.


I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…

Back in the days when I was in grad school, I spent a lot of time studying Alice Walker. In my research, I discovered that Alice Walker had spent a lot of time studying Zora Neale Hurston. For the title of the collection of Hurston’s work that she edited, Walker selected a Hurston quote that has stayed with me all these years:

Zora Neale Hurston, Class of 1928, Chicago, Ill., November 9, 1934


These days, I feel so disconnected inside that I’m not sure what will come out if I open my mouth–a laugh, something mean, something impressive. I’m trying to love all of that. Make space for all of it.


Today I wanted to scream when Carlos pooped half in the toilet and half on the floor. I resisted yelling, but I gave him a talking to that was certainly mean and impressive. Then 5 minutes later he walked by himself to the car and he looked so grown up, moving so easily away from me, that I reached out silently to let my fingers brush against his hair. He walked into school by himself instead of asking me to carry him and I thought I would have to curl up in a ball in the corner for a while.

He’s growing up–that’s a good thing–but he can’t stay my baby and I love that baby so much.

Loving tiny people this much–it’s mean and impressive.