Conversation With a Preteen

Earlier tonight, I had the following conversation with my 9-year-old:

Me: I’m going to start teaching you about cleaning your skin in a few years. Teenagers get these things called pimples; they’re boo-boos that you get on your face.

Him: Well, Nonna has a boo-boo on her foot!

Me: Really? What’d she do to it?

Him: it’s black.

Me: Her foot is black?!?

Him: No.

Me: Then what’s black??

Him: I don’t know.

I’ll have to try some other time.

Adventure Time

It’s a very rare person whose life is truly uneventful, but it seems that going out of town opens one up to even more adventure than usual, even if just leaving home for a long weekend.

I’m a passenger in my own car, as my husband is driving us to Ashland, Oregon. We’ve been far from our home in the Bay Area all weekend, and yesterday was my father in law’s funeral, in Redmond.

Things began to get interesting when my son, who is 9 and has ADHD, ran out of meds. I am supposed to call three days in advance for a refill (which I did) but occasionally his doctor will be out of town and the refill will take much longer. That was the case last week. C went to school medicated on Tuesday, but unmedicated on Wednesday (he did just fine). By Thursday, I was trying to wrap things up at work for the week, the RX still hadn’t come in, and my husband, off for the summer, informed me that he wouldn’t have time to call Kaiser before we left that night. I prayed silently that C would make it through the 90 minute funeral on Saturday without going insane.

We spent Thursday night and much of Friday traveling. On Friday morning, we stopped for breakfast near Mt Shasta. C began to cry after biting into his pancake, telling us he had a loose tooth. I comforted him and had him keep eating. A few minutes later, the tooth fell out and I stuffed it in my purse for when we arrived at our hotel room later.

We met up with S’ family at his stepmom’s house. S and I have been married 11 years, and I never knew his family was so large – one uncle, two aunts, four cousins, his stepmom’s sister and her husband, his brother, sister in law and their two sons greeted us. All 16 of us had dinner at the Red Rooster, pushing together 3 tables to make it work. C happily played Star Wars Legos with D, my mother in law, and with K, her sister, during dinner.

Yesterday was the funeral. As S is immediate family, we sat in the front pew next to D. I felt all eyes on us, and my pulse began to race as the minister read our names aloud. C began to yawn and laid his head on my shoulder but, aside from getting up to use the bathroom a number of times, barely made a peep.

Several of us gave impromptu eulogies, including me. I thank God I have over a year of Toastmasters training under my belt. My hands shook (a Red Bull on an empty stomach will do that to you), but my voice was clear and unwavering as I told the story of finding my father in law’s name on a plaque on the USS Hornet while S and I were at a swing dancing event there when we were first dating. S and his brother both spoke of their dad as a strong man with enduring opinions and convictions, who challenged them and taught them and who urged them to the very end to embrace Christianity. At the end, D’s sister, K, came over to C to congratulate him on doing so well during the service.

After the ceremony, at D’s house, C found another little boy to play with and was busy pretending to be a cat in the backyard while the adults talked inside. My nephew ran to find us when he noticed him, standing by the slider, just covered in blood and rubbing his nose. The combination of the dry Oregon air and the day’s excitement had gotten to him.

S and I said “No problem!” and set about cleaning him up, to discover that S had forgotten to bring him a change of clothes. As our hotel room was a half hour away, my nephew drove me to Fred Meyer to get him some fresh duds.

Everyone fed and C cleaned up, we took a ton of family photos. Then, S and C and the two nephews and I went to a local state park for a quick hike. I had never seen rock formations like the ones found at Smith Rock except in Utah. Even C, who’s earned a Cub Scout award for video game playing, oohed over the view. Truly majestic – and free, as it happened to be State Park Day.

Today, we’re back on the road, and have already learned a valuable lesson: when in Oregon, don’t speed… particularly if you’re from California. I had no idea we were going that fast, and the ticket? Ouch! As we started back on the road, the radio began to play “Float On” by Modest Mouse:

I backed my car into a cop car the other day,
Well, he just drove off; sometimes life’s OK!

Yeah, whatever. I’m grateful for the opportunity to hit the pause button for a few days and curious what the next adventure will be.


Dysfunctional Family Values (During the Holidays)

photo by ChrisGoldNY via PhotoRee

I grew up as part of a family that could be described as dysfunctional. And so, for that reason (and because the holidays always seem to bring bad familial memories to the fore), a couple of weeks ago I began searching for information. I wanted to learn more about how a person could go about surviving and thriving during this time of year even though he or she might as well be related to Joan Crawford, Archie Bunker and the Bundys.

I didn’t find much, aside from an article on Oprah’s website. Therefore, I figured I’d draft my own. In the spirit of giving, here are my tips on  making it through the end of December in one piece, emotionally and spiritually.

Take Time to Reflect

You may not have had the ideal upbringing. You may have grown up in a haunted house, or  even had no home for a period of time. You might have suffered from abuse at the hands of a family member. Or you were abandoned. Or neglected. Or you simply have relatives who, for lack of a better term, are complete buttheads.

In my own family, I’ve seen a little of everything. Yet when I consider what my life actually looks like now – I’m a mom, a businesswoman and a member of the community – I am amazed at how far I’ve made it from my inauspicious beginnings.

I would recommend you do the same. Focus on what you have achieved on your own. Did you finish your degree? Do you love your job? Are your kids awesome, wonderful people? Look at your life through the lens of gratitude and realize how much you’ve grown. Once you realize how significant your accomplishments are, your unhappy past will seem that much more insignificant by comparison.

Broaden Your Definition of “Family”

Trite as it may sound, friends are the family you’ve chosen for yourself. Realizing this, I think, is key to appreciating not only how meaningful your relationship is with your friends but also how important you are to them.

My personal belief about soulmates goes something like this: each and every one of us has multiple soulmates in this life. These people are the other members of our “tribe” and when you meet one, you quickly recognize him or her as your soul brother or sister.

I have a list I keep on Facebook of my “Close Friends”. This is a relatively small group (currently only eighteen people out of more than 420 total “friends”) of those individuals with whom I feel the closest – and yes, these are folks I actually know in person. My criterion for including people on the list was whether or not I thought the person had ever met the “real” me, but in retrospect, these folks are my soulmates and, by that token, my extended family.

Get Busy

Create your own traditions and means of celebrating the season. No one ever said you had to have turkey and stuffing for Christmas dinner, especially if that dinner brings back bad juju from your childhood. In fact, the farther you get from your family of origin’s traditions, most likely the better.

You have a lot of room for creativity here. If your mom always put up a 7 foot blue spruce the day after Thanksgiving, you can keep a small tree on your tabletop – or eschew a tree altogether. I decided a few years ago to begin celebrating St. Nicholas Day because I loved the idea of celebrating the life of the man after whom Santa Claus was styled. We managed to skip this year (work, *sigh*) but I may try to get my 8-year-old some activities to do before Christmas. He loves the chocolate coins in the shoes.

Reach Out

My final tip is, I think, the most powerful. Helping others allows you to experience something beyond yourself and the pain you’ve lived through. No matter how poorly you were treated or how much sorrow you’ve experienced, there is always someone else out there who has suffered more, or more deeply, whether that someone happens to be an adult, a child, a cat or an organization in need. Volunteer work has long been named a panacea for depression, and was recently named one of the top activities Americans enjoy during the holidays.

When you’re looking outward, there is less time to reflect inward on past hurts and disappointments. You’re also celebrating your position as a member of the largest family of all.

Listen to Your Heart

A couple of weeks ago, I had a bit of a health scare. At just 37 years old, with perfect numbers and no family history of hearth disease, I was experiencing brief, yet sharp pains on the left side of my breastbone regularly.

I’d felt them before occasionally, starting last Fall, but they’d been increasing in frequency and were becoming more worrisome. After noticing them one day for well over a minute, I finally called Kaiser, who wanted me to come in ASAP to be seen.

I still don’t know what’s up – could be GERD, could be an inflammation of the ribcage; neither the doctor nor I have ruled either out – but the experience made me stop and ponder. What do I really want out of life, and how am I going to get there?

An even bigger question is where do I want my focus to be? My eight-year-old recently joined Boy Scouts and has finally been assigned a one-on-one aide to help him though the school day. My career is moving along, albeit maybe not to the full extent that I’d like. I’ve become a Competent Communicator at Toastmasters and am also a club officer. Finally, I made some headway towards my physical fitness goals a while ago, but had to pull back due to sheer lack of time to exercise (which I still manage to squeeze in once or twice a week).

Ultimately, I think our time on earth is best spent with those we care about and who love us back. For most people, this means family, although some have such dysfunctional relatives that this is not necessary or advised.

Nor must you include your entire family in your trusted circle. Over the past year, I’ve absolutely lost faith in several people and will have to decide how to proceed. This happened again just last week and I won’t give details here, but I’ve been composing a response, in my head, to this person for a couple of days and am about to give it to them straight.

One of my new favorite shows lately is The Big C. I like it because it’s both funny and heartwarming, and touches on this very topic. Cathy’s family is far from perfect, but beneath the layers of dysfunction lie a group of individuals who would do just about anything for each other.

When you’re facing the ultimate big question of What does my life mean, how do you go about finding the answer?

Off on a Tangent

A typical conversation in my house happening tonight:

Husband: There’s been a lot of cuts in the school district [that he works in].

Me: Yeah, the economy really has been doing a number lately. It’s doing a number two!

7-year-old Son, overhearing: Mama, what does number one mean in going potty?

Me: It means to pee.

Son: Then number two means to poop… In the movie Rango, the other animals thought he was doing a number two. [pause] I don’t know what his real name was.

Me: Maybe his real name is Rango.

Son: I don’t know…

Me: Maybe his real name is Richard Starkey.

Son: Maybe his real name is Chamelon-Face!

Me: Maybe his real name is “Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma Chamelon…”!

Son: [giggles]

A Modern American Fairytale

The other night, I gave my second Toastmasters speech, to count toward completion of my Competent Communicator manual. For those who don’t know, the first ten speeches a member gives in Toastmasters follow certain guidelines. The second speech focuses on the organization of your speech, be it chronological or otherwise. I chose chronological.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I adore my grandma. She is the reason I became an artist, and she’s inspired me to do other things in my life as well.

I got a little – OK, very – nervous during my speech (I had two surprise visitors), and I forgot some parts and ad-libbed others. But it all worked out well: I won Best Speech of the night!

Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Alessandra. She lived off the Via Clelia just outside Rome with her aunt, uncle and cousins. Alessandra’s mother, who was young and unmarried, had given her up for adoption to the relatives. It was no matter, though; Alessandra was happy and did well in school, even when the teacher would call on her to stop daydreaming and doodling in class. “Pay attention!”

When Alessandra was eight years old, she became severely ill. Lying in bed one night, she looked toward the foot of her bed and, whether real or caused by the fever she was running, she saw an apparition there! He said to her “Your time is not up… you will do many things in your life”. From then, Alessandra knew she would recover and would live a long, full life.

GrandmaShe grew into a beautiful young woman, sought after by the men in the town where she lived. It was the 1940s and she was independent and popular. She had many suitors and there were many others who would have loved to take her dancing on the piazza. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the big bad villain Benito Mussolini, life would have been charmed indeed.

One day, arriving on a steel steed in the sky was a handsome young American named Ralph. He and Alessandra immediately fell in love and, despite their cultural and language differences, they married and he brought her to the United States. When they got to New York, the story goes, Ralph couldn’t spell his wife’s name, so he shortened it to Sandra. She loved the U.S. and had many exciting experiences right away – she saw the Statue of Liberty and lived near the snow-capped mountains of Colorado. When she saw the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time, her only disappointment was that it was… orange, not gold.

Grandma & GrandpaRalph and Sandra had four children together – Howard, Carolyn, Ralph and Cindy – and the family moved all over the world. For a few years, they stayed in Denver. Then Pennsylvania, Casablanca, Okinawa and, finally, New Mexico. Sandra never held a job outside the home, but no one could underestimate her; she was very bright. On her own, often while her husband was deployed, she learned English, earned her drivers license and became an American citizen.

Sandra was a spitfire who ruled the roost and never held back what she was really thinking. When someone upset her, they’d know it immediately. One day, her neighbors on Okinawa annoyed her so much, she put on a record of a song called They’re Coming to Take me Away, Ha Ha! and blared it out the living room window. Many years later, while living in a rather shady part of Tucson, she noticed that law enforcement agents had blocked her driveway while they were coming to arrest a neighbor. She marched out of her house and yelled at them, “You get your ^%$#@! van outta my driveway!!” They reparked.

She was also a very talented, self-taught artist, and she produced beautiful oil paintings, needlepoint crafts, porcelain dolls and pencil drawings. She loved to watch Bob Ross on PBS and she would try to imitate his style. The family didn’t have much money so she sewed many of her children’s clothes. During the 1960s and she would try to imitate the short skirts and bellbottoms of the day and, when the kids were grown, she moved on to making clothes for the dolls she created.

One by one, her children grew up and moved on with their own lives. Only her youngest daughter, Cindy, stayed home.

In 1991 the fairytale abruptly ended when Ralph succumbed to cancer in June of that year. The family gathered together later that summer to say goodbye and the night before, many of them dreamt about him. He was young and was in his Army Air Corps uniform He said, “So you’re coming tomorrow, right?”

On her own with her daughter by her side, Sandra decided to find something to do with her time. At age 77, she enrolled in college, taking art classes for the first time. She was very competitive, and she’d be upset if she got an A-, much less a B. A few years later, she moved to Phoenix to be closer to her younger son, and she and her younger daughter live there to this day, happily ever after and surrounded by the love and respect of her four children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. [ETA: I don’t know how I managed to forget my cousin’s two little girls, but anyway, Grandma has FIVE great-grandchildren]

Fellow Toastmasters and honored guests, my grandmother is 89 years old, and this is her story.