It’s Just A Life 19-20

19. No Means No

When William was 6 years old he and his mother moved to Indiana so Laurie could complete her first masters degree at Purdue. It was a great situation for the two of them because they could live with her parents, a lovely couple whom I trusted unreservedly with helping her care for William. Laurie’s parents had moved there just a few years prior when her father was transferred just a few years shy of retirement.

They built a two story house with a finished basement on 12 acres of land that had snow in the winter, and fireflies in the summer. William could build snowmen, sled, cross country ski out the back door, run wild in the greener months, and help his grandfather grow sunflowers three times as tall as he was. How could I say no? The catch was Laurie had to promise to move back within two years. It worked pretty well. William would visit Pete and me in California for any holiday that lasted for at least a week, and the whole of the summer. We even managed to visit them for a number of days around William’s first grade back-to-school night.

Of course when the two years were up, as Pete and I suspected, Laurie had a new degree, but no job, and no way financially to move back to California. Since I spend a good chunk of mental capacity obsessively worrying about almost any possibility of any situation, we’d been planning ahead. We converted a ramshackle, and totally useless single car garage into a charming, and practical studio. We’d even designed it to be “Laurie proof”, meaning 100% stain proof, animal proof. Really just pretty much indestructible…not to mention rent free. In fact it turned out that we loved this studio so much that during Laurie’s two year stay we attached it to the house with a custom built patio room so that after she moved out it could become our master bedroom suite. Win win!

William moved back to California during the summer after his second year of school let out, and helped us finish the studio. Laurie moved back just before fall and finished up her master’s thesis living with us in California. The grand experiment in co-habitation started. In the beginning Pete and I figured it would be for a number of months while Laurie looked for a job, but somewhere in her second year of grad school she decided that she wanted to work towards an MBA. So a few months turned into a couple of years. Some people might think this would create a tough situation, and although it wasn’t always sunshine and puppy dogs (actually more like puppy dogs, cats, rodents, and aquariums), the two years, quite frankly, were some of the best times we’ve ever had as a family. We got to have William with us full time, and William got to have all of his parents with him without the pesky back and forth of split household parenting.

We had among the four of us: two large dogs, two cats, a parrot (at some point) and two aquariums; so when William asked me one day if he could have a pet, I laughed and said no, just chose one and it’s yours! Of course he meant one of his very own he replied, but again I said no. When your mother has a place of her own we’ll discuss it I said, but for the moment 7+ beings in this house is plenty.

Life went pretty smoothly for the first few days as we all got used to new routines, and cohabitants. Until one Saturday afternoon…

I arrived home from work, most likely around four or five PM, to an empty house, and an odd gurgling noise. At first I was panicking at the thought of a plumbing leak, or possibly a toilet overflowing, but the noise was too regular, and strangely familiar.

I prowled room to room starting in the kitchen, then the bathroom, and as I reached William’s bedroom door it hit me! Aquarium pump. Oh no he didn’t, I thought. As I entered his room I saw it. A terrarium sitting on his dresser. Oh. My. God. I don’t think I have ever been more angry at him in his entire life.

I spent the next fifteen minutes pacing through the house cursing, slamming doors and generally blowing off some steam, and soon I heard a car door shut. As William and Laurie entered the front door I said calmly to Laurie, “I think you had nothing to do with this, so keep in mind that nothing I’m about to say is directed at you.” “Okaaaay,” she said with a little trepidation. And so I started. “William, what did I say about pets?” “You said I couldn’t have any until mom moved out,” he slowly replied. “William!” Laurie gasped. “Right,” I said. “So you are going into your room, packing everything up, and taking it all back to the pet store.” “Exactly,” Laurie agreed. Pete walked in the front door sometime around here, and with a quizzical look asked what was going on. As I explained I could see Laurie getting a little more peeved at William, and William starting to get the impact of what he’d done. “You will not use us against each other,” I told William, with firm agreement all around. Then began the 60 hardest minutes of our parenting experience.

Laurie, Pete, and I headed outside to the patio to allow William to grieve and pack up in solitude. It was pure hell. We sat in a small circle, looking at each other with silent tears in our eyes, desperately trying not to break under the constant barrage of William’s sobbing and mantra of, “I just thought once you saw them you would think they were so cute you’d let me keep them,” over and over coming from his bedroom. He and Laurie had spent the afternoon setting up an absolutely adorable terrarium of fish and salamanders, and naming each one. Under different circumstances I would have been happy to let William have the joy, and misery of taking care of such an elaborate set up. But as we all sat and desperately tried not to break under the pressure of doing the right thing, we new what this battle actually meant.

Poor Laurie had the sad task of taking William back to the pet store to return it all. She had paid for it on her credit card, and there was no way I was taking on that task, that’s for sure.

From what Laurie told me later, the pet shop clerk was horrified at what mean parents we were, and as I write this with a little of Pete’s input he made a very telling comment, “I keep telling that story to process it, I’m still scarred.”

 

20. Mother Of The Year

When my husband, Pete, and I moved into the Sacramento house we’ve occupied for the past 22 years, the back yard was mostly a dog run made of gravel a foot deep, and some rather sad looking trees. This seemingly vast wasteland continued with a concrete patio, and a wood deck trimmed with a 3-foot-high, once-cute fence. Who needs two-thirds of their yard fenced off as a dog run?

I couldn’t stand wasting half of the yard, so not long after we arrived, we hired a crew to remove half of the gravel. After that, Pete and I, with a neighborhood junkie we often hired back then, moved 5 cubic yards of topsoil into the back yard to replace the gravel. It remains the hardest work I will ever do – on one of the hottest Fourth of Julys I can recall.

 

We followed plans I sketched out, which included a nice courtyard, a pond, and a new half fence to mark off the now much smaller dog run. When we started, there was a forest of wild privet trees, a persimmon, and a sad-looking peach. We ripped out the privets immediately. The peach consisted of one sickly branch on a split trunk, so we chose euthanasia for the poor thing. The persimmon tree was a little better, and since it was precisely center, it was a focal point. I decided to give it a few years to heal, which seemed faster than removing it and planting a sapling.

In time, a lovely English garden wrapped around the patio, bordered with broken concrete chunks that Pete and I salvaged from a demolition site. We even added a garish statue for a bit of whimsy – a half naked god proudly standing guard at the back corner overlooking the pond.

Twenty years later, I look back and marvel at the lessons I’ve learned from my back yard. There were the mistaken plantings where we tried for years to grow dream plants that were inappropriate for our climate zone. We made many rookie errors, such as disregarding recommendations, overwatering, under-watering and under weeding. We battled snails, rats, blue jays, raccoons, mice, cats, sparrows, and – worst of all – the pesky squirrels.

I’ve learned when scorched earth policy is your final course for eradicating a “vigorous” ground cover. I’ve learned that when a garden website lists a plant as “robust,” you’d better keep it in a pot or you will soon have it growing through the cracks in the sidewalk across the street. I know that “freely seeds” translates to “Oh, Lord, what have I unleashed?” I’ve learned weed block fabric is a waste of time. I’ve learned how to compost. And, I’ve learned – almost – that patience and a calm demeanor are powerful gardening tools.

But the best lesson I ever learned is never trust your ex-wife.

I remember the day very well. Pete, my ex-wife Laurie, our son William, my mother Betty, and I were socializing in the living room. I don’t remember why; I’m sure it was during the time that Laurie and William were living with us full time. William and I went out back to feed the goldfish. It seems weird now; It’s not like the two of us ritually checked out the goldfish. I doubt the fish ever got fed by us more than once or twice afterwards. They were mostly there to eat mosquito larva and keep the plants in check (plus they add fertilizer, a pond is a delicate dance) so we wanted them hungry.

Unfortunately, by feeding the fish by hand, we were training them to come to the surface whenever they saw a figure coming toward the pond. That’s pretty much dinner on the table for many backyard fauna like raccoons, opossums, hawks, heron (yes, heron), skunks and cats. It’s cute while it lasts, but it always ends badly for the fish.

Our fish were always simple “feeder” fish. You can buy them for $1 at any pet store. Mainly they’re called feeders because they’re given to snakes, lizards and other live feed predators, in place of baby mice or rats. Because of this, I always felt like I was giving them a second chance at life. Sadly, after 25 years, the longest one has lived is five years. Anyway…we were feeding the fish, when we noticed one swimming on its side. I gave it a gentle nudge with a small stick and it fluttered quickly and dove to the inky bottom of the pond to hide. Within a few moments the plucky little critter floated back up. We realized there was something wrong, but we weren’t sure what to do.

After a few minutes of observation, I remembered my ex-wife – the mother of my child, and one of my most trusted friends – was a fish biologist. She was sitting in the living room. Duh, she’d know what to do.

We caught the slippery sucker in a net, and William, age 7 or 8, gently cradling it in the palm of his hand, carried it in to discuss its condition with the expert. He handed it to his mom, and we explained how we found it. We were afraid it might have some kind of infection or disease. Did we need to treat the water? Should we just let them all die?

I remember Laurie didn’t say anything as she gently picked it up by its tail to take a closer look. Laurie’s not the type to ooh and ahh. She’s rather proper and level-headed. She is also one of the most ardent animal lovers I know. Most of what I’ve learned about dog training, horses, birds and animals in general, I got from her.

She held up the fish, turning and examining it in the afternoon light. Its deep gold scales, still wet, twinkled as she slowly took a finger, gently prodding the poor little thing before administering a fast, hard finger flick to its head, killing it instantly.

The room silenced. After a brief hesitation, I turned to William, his mouth and eyes gaping like the fish, and said, “That’s why you never go to your mother when you’re sick.”

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It’s Just A Life.16

Being Alone Isn’t Lonely

In the late summer of 1992, I took up jogging. I fell in love with it quickly: the ritual of dressing for a run, getting your playlist (tape/CD) ready. I was motivated to enjoy it. I would jog in the evening, after work. Laurie and I had recently decided that it would be best if we divorced. Jogging got me out of the house, when the house seemed a little too small.

Laurie is my best friend. I’m much closer to her than I am to any of my siblings, and I’ve known her longer than anyone except my mother. I know that no matter who comes and goes in my life, Laurie will always be there. Calling her “sister” doesn’t seem right; we don’t choose our family. “Lifelong best friend” seems to work. 

We decided that, financially, it didn’t work for me to move out. There was no way either of us could survive on our meager salaries. I was making slightly more than minimum wage, and Laurie was at starting salary at a consulting firm, so we continued to share the duplex we were renting from my father and step-mother. In fact, for a while, we still shared a bed. We got along fine, like very close roommates. We’d been together so long, sleeping in the same bed was natural. Heck, many marriages that survive 50 years end up that way, right? But you can only spend so much time avoiding like this before things get tense. Gradually, I moved to the living room couch, and went for a jog when our down time made things “awkward.”

I jogged daily, for two weeks. It didn’t seem to take me long to get into it. Hairstylists usually have pretty good stamina (we need it). For some reason, I loved running in the evening heat, just after sundown. I’ve always been a night owl. Once, when I was around 13 or 14, I took a walk around town at 2 in the morning. I couldn’t sleep, so what else was there to do? 

Evening was when I had the most energy, and the right attitude. By the end of the first week, I was hooked. By the end of the second week, I had sciatica, and spent all of my free time on the couch. I think losing the jogging, along with meeting my first real boyfriend, Lee, was what finally pushed me to move out. 

I mean really, there was no way I could stay living with Laurie while dating Lee. It felt like I was having an affair, which is just not me. Laurie and I figured out the financial and child custody details, and I began the divorce paperwork. I had already filed the legal separation papers, so the divorce was no big deal. We had no assets and surprisingly little debt, so doing the legal work myself wasn’t a hardship. Saving lawyer fees was a huge win, and quite frankly, keeping lawyers out of it most likely saved our friendship, and years of therapy for William.

 I found an apartment that was nice enough to satisfy my desire for “elegant,” and cheap enough to accommodate my reality of “poor.” I was living single for the first time in my life, and for a few weeks, it was sublime. 

I think I was in some strange manic-depressive phase. I would think about being single and coming out, and be ecstatic. I hoped to meet the perfect man, all while  trying to figure out the dating scene. The next moment, I would think of breaking up my family, and I would grieve. 

This was the early 1990s, and the idea of creating a new marriage and family seemed all but impossible. The idea of same-sex marriage was absurd; I never expected it to happen in my lifetime. Many gays weren’t really sold on the concept of marriage anyhow, but the romantic in me was. But even if I did settle down with a “partner,” I knew I would do it without the support of most of my family. Though my mother, and my ex-wife were both wonderfully accepting, my father and two sisters were most definitely not.

And then, after moving into my own apartment, and decorating a place just for me, I made a tactical error. Lee was in a rough stretch. He had just lost his job and his residence. But he was really cute, and had the most amazing, shy smile. I was 27; he was 35 but looked 25. One night after dinner out, I realized he was sleeping in his car. When I asked why, he said his roommates had asked him to move out so one of their mothers could use the room for an extended visit. Somehow that phrase didn’t translate to “run like hell.” 

I told Lee he could sleep on the couch for a week or so, if needed. As it turned out, he was an agreeable roommate. He was tidy, and was home a lot, so he cleaned and cooked dinner. Apparently he lived off his mother’s goodwill most of the time, because he hadn’t found a long term job yet. (Again, no alarm bells, it’s shocking how naïve I was). Three months later, after many requests for him to leave, I ended up telling him if he hadn’t left by the time I got back, I’d call the cops. And if anything was damaged, I’d be making a report. 

I went to seek fortitude with Laurie and her brother Phil, who were rooming together at the duplex. I felt bad, Lee was a super nice person, but I needed my space, and he was sticking to me like glue. Rebound relationships never work, but I just couldn’t seem to get him to understand. Far be it for me to cast stones, I remember being dumped. Why do we always default to clingy and desperate when we’re dumped? 

After Lee left, I finally I had my free space! I didn’t have a TV, which was awesome. I hate random background noise for some reason. I’m not a fan of television generally (11-year-old me would be horrified). As an adult, I can watch TV virtually any time I please, and I don’t want to! So many things these days would amaze and anger 11-year-old me: Yes, I have the communicator Star Trek promised me (cell phone), but where are the flying cars? It’s the twenty-first century! Anyway, I had the only piece of equipment I cared about in my thriftily, fabulously decorated apartment: the stereo. I had tons of free time, a book and a stereo. Pure heaven. 

I don’t apologize about the fact that I like being alone. Why should I? I’m comfortable by myself. I am a classic introvert. Though I enjoy being around other people, they exhaust me. 

I think I met my husband Pete two or three weeks after Lee left. And I’m not embarrassed to admit that I had a vision a week before we met. I knew I was going to meet the man with whom I would spend the rest of my life. I’ve never doubted it in more than 20 years. I don’t think we’ve been apart for more than a week or two since. 

We moved in together pretty quickly. We were wasting money on two spaces, and I knew within hours of meeting him that he was practically my ideal man. He was cute, interesting, well-educated, incredibly upbeat, and the nicest person I’ve ever met. He understands, yet accepts me. He’s neat enough not to drive me crazy, and thoughtful enough to make dinner, clean house when necessary, and do practically any project I request. Yes, any. We built a garden room with our bare hands. 

But even Pete bugs me if I don’t get my space. Luckily, he will let me be alone, even when he’s sitting right next to me. The grass could never be greener. So while there are times when I can still be alone, I’ll never be lonely.

It’s Just A Life.15

Hurry Up And Wait

The last few weeks of having a baby is like the worst Christmas ever. Every morning you wake up and expect the presents, and oops! Sorry, Christmas isn’t today, we were wrong, maybe tomorrow. That can go on for two weeks, or more. It’s exhausting. But when that long, long day ends you have the most amazing present you will ever receive.

William was exactly two weeks late. Laurie and I had an appointment with the doctor a few days after the due date, and while we were there we expressed our concern about his being past due. Laurie had been having Braxton Hicks contractions for days, and our nerves were getting raw. Braxton Hicks contractions are just a disconcerting, but harmless part of pre-term labour. It’s one of the body’s ways of getting the mother ready for the true delivery, but they can be painful and hard to distinguish from real labor at times. We also worried, ironically, that Laurie wouldn’t go into real labor at all. Her mother had to be induced with both of her pregnancies. We were worried it could be hereditary. Nervous parents-to-be that we were, our doctor, to humor us I’m sure, scheduled an appointment to induce exactly two weeks after the due date. He said as we were leaving that in his experience his patients often went into labor the day before, or of, the appointment. For us it was the day of.

Laurie started labor sometime in the late evening on March 31, 1989, exactly one day short of two weeks. She was awake off and on the whole night. She didn’t wake me much. Afterwards all, what could I do? She can’t have slept more than a few hours. The next morning, since we were scheduled to induce, we figured we might as well just go to the 8 AM appointment at the delivery ward.

The drive to the hospital was like something out of a sitcom. To me, mind you, not Laurie. She was very uncomfortable with the contractions coming a bit sooner and harder. She swore I was hitting the cracks in the road harder than I normally did and I should please f-ing knock it off. I may have snapped something back, but quite honestly, since I didn’t have to be in labor, I hope I wisely kept my mouth shut.

When we arrived at the hospital we were greeted by a nice nurse. Laurie wasn’t in really active labor yet so they didn’t rush with admitting us. Luckily, since we were at a Kaiser hospital, there wasn’t really any paperwork, so we were escorted to a room reasonably quickly, and pretty much left on our own just as we would have been at home. And so we waited.

Occasionally, but with increasing intensity, she’d have a contraction. I could see them coming on a monitor, so I would have a chance to start preparing Laurie with relaxation and breathing techniques. She’s the type who shuts down and stiffens to fight pain, and the one thing I learned in those disturbingly frank Lamaze classes, was relaxation was the only thing I had to bring to the party. And so it went for a little over 9 hours.

I didn’t force her to get out of bed and move around as much as I should have. Things might have gone quicker if I had. At one point Laurie agreed to a drug to ease her discomfort, but it slowed the contractions down. With her mother’s help I persuaded her to go without. She’s strong, and has endured a lot of physical and mental pain in her life, so I know what she can handle. She didn’t need drugs at that time. There are plenty of things I wish I had done better, but overall, I like to think Laurie and I made a spectacular team from the moment we discovered we were expecting, to the moment we left him at college. This was one of our best moments.

William was born around 5 in the evening April 1, 1989. Healthy, 8 lb., 21 inches, and perfect. The best April fools joke ever. We both agreed he looked like an alien when we first held him, and we actually got scolded for calling him “it” several times. We found it funny because to us, since we didn’t want to know the babies sex, he was “it”. We loved him as it, but how could she know?

He was the first of his generation in both of our families. My middle sister had been trying for a few years, and I didn’t know it at the time, but my older sister was pregnant as well, but it was weird being the youngest and first. Every member of both our families showed up around 9 or 10 AM and waited. They waited the whole day to be there when he was born. What child could have a better welcome. My brother-in-law Tim took his very first baby picture. Laurie is radiant holding him as only a beaten and exhausted proud new mother can be. I don’t think she was awake too long after greeting everybody in the receiving room, but she and I both remember my mother saying how William was the best birthday present she ever got. Laurie and I were so self-involved with the pregnancy that neither of us had even realized that it was her birthday. I thought it was an awesome bonus, a special bond the two would, and actually do have. My father (divorced from my mother since I was 5), turned to Laurie and me and said, very distinctly, “You couldn’t wait one more day?”

It’s Just A Life.14

14. One Amazing Thing

My good friend Deborah (Pittman), and my husband Pete’s freshman class wrote, and performed, an opera based on the book One Amazing Thing by Chitra Divakaruni. They do this every year using the CSUS One Book. The opera has become very popular on campus. After this particular show Pete asked people to share their own “one amazing thing”, I didn’t. It wasn’t precisely that I couldn’t think of one, it was more the opposite; I could think of so many that I couldn’t decide which was the one. It actually took me several weeks to ferret it out, and interestingly, it wasn’t the story about smuggling my pet ferret to CA.

The story starts best the day my ex-wife Laurie found my gay porn magazines between the mattress and box spring. The excruciating irony of my ex discovering them while changing the sheets one weekend while I was out of town was beyond absurd. Anybody that knows Laurie will back me up here; Laurie does not clean. Especially if she was alone. I had a better chance of winning the lottery…and I NEVER buy lottery tickets. Believe it or not, that’s not my “one amazing thing”. That was merely the setup for the drama to follow.

When Laurie called me at her parents house where I William and I were staying for the weekend I could have lied. I’m an amazing liar, closeted gay men and women have to be. Laurie was understandably shaken. So part of me even thought it would be kinder to lie. I don’t believe I could actually have convinced her that the magazines weren’t mine. No, but I could have come up with a convincing enough story that we could have both “chosen” to ignore it, but I just couldn’t. It was stupid, and I just couldn’t do it anymore. Besides, Laurie deserved the truth. So I told her it wasn’t what she thought…well, it was what she thought, but not exactly what she thought. Obviously no “one amazing thing” yet…

When William and I got home from her parents house the next day Laurie and I had a chance to talk. I told her I was “bi”, which really isn’t a lie, but for me, it’s not completely the truth. Though I can enjoy being with a woman, it just isn’t what brings me passion, but she and I chose to pretend it was, for a while. The irony is, the fact that Laurie accepted it so calmly was what made it easier for me to start coming to terms with my sexuality.

William was about two, maybe two and a half, and as the days and weeks went by I kept asking myself the same question, “How can I raise William in a family that is a lie?” I dreamed of William growing up with happy parents who showed him loving role models. We wouldn’t be able to do this for 18 years, and then we would simply be buying his childhood by destroying his family identity as an adult. I didn’t see that as a good path, but how could I destroy the only family he’d ever known? Then my one amazing thing comes clear…

I remember the precise moment very well. I was getting ready for work. My usual black cloud followed me into the shower where I struggle every day not to let myself crawl back into bed. And it literally struck me like the voice of god, which I do not believe it was. No, my sub-conscious had simply put up with all it could, and said enough is enough. “You’re gay.” I very clearly heard the voice say it, and my world changed in that instant. Boom. That’s all there is, I’m gay, and after 27 years of living the wrong life, I had to fix it. I could get a divorce, and I could unravel my life, and unfortunately Laurie and William’s lives, and knit them back together in a form that would show William what a truly loving family is.

I went to work that day euphoric. A weight that had followed me my entire life was gone. In those first hours I wanted to tell everybody I talked to. I wanted to be honest for the first time in my life. I came out that day for the first time ever. To a coworker who didn’t turn out to deserve the honor in the end, but that’s another story. Of course my jubilation couldn’t last, I hadn’t discussed it with Laurie yet. That occurred in the sometimes lonely, but brutally honest hours between bedtime and sleep.

Out of the silence of the dark room I heard Laurie say very clearly, “What do you want to do?” It was one of the top 10 eeriest moments in my life. Why she thought to ask on this particular night I wondered, but never asked.

Things had gotten less intimate, a little more “sibling-y” between the two of us, but nothing dreadful had occurred that I could remember. The only things we had ever fought over were Laurie’s housekeeping skills, and that was never really personal. It had gotten to be almost a joke between us by the end. Laurie knows she’s a slob, but she truly doesn’t seem to notice or care 90% of the time. The fact that it bothered me was what we were actually fighting about. Laurie was so bad that even her own mother sided with me. Now I consider it just one of her amusing quirks. So I was sure the question wasn’t coming from a hostile place. At the time all I said was, “I think we should get a divorce.” She said okay, and we went to sleep, or at least pretended to. The two of us never indulged in drama, but also had no true passion. One of them is a useless nuisance, the other you can’t live without.

Luckily the two of us understood that the commitment we had started the day William was conceived would last not just for the 18 years he was our legal responsibility. No, that commitment lasts until the day you die. We knew that Christmases, birthdays, weddings, graduations, and every single little milestone from learning to skateboard, to his wedding day and beyond, would be a shared commitment that we would experience together wether we liked it or not. We knew as well that no matter what we felt for each other, he was the one who would suffer the consequences. So together, silently, and with no real conscious thought, we vowed that from that day forward we would work toward only one shared goal: giving William the family he deserved.

I like to think that’s what we did. Which brings me to the point, in case you were still wondering, William, is my One Amazing Thing.

It’s Just A Life.13

13. The Honeymoon’s Over

Sometime throughout the evening, people started stuffing money in my pockets. 20’s, 50’s, hundred dollars bills. It was quite a shock to say the least. Laurie and I had been married for about 5 or 6 hours at this point; I’m sure it must have started towards the end of our wedding reception. I suppose my mother, or possibly my father, must have told everyone about our honeymoon plans. They weren’t very grand. I had gotten two weeks off from work, as had Laurie, and we were borrowing my father’s motorhome to drive up highway 5 as far as we could. Since we were dirt poor at the time, we didn’t expect that to be very far at all.

We had a few hundred dollars saved, and I think our plan was basically to get to the border of California and Oregon, and then turn around and head back when we were low enough on cash that we had to worry about gas. Instead, our family and friends managed to shower us with somewhere around $1000 I believe.

Incidentally, I think money dances are actually pretty tacky. Not that we weren’t extremely grateful, but check your wedding etiquette books and you’ll see, it’s just considered one of those things that shouldn’t happen. Whatever, we figured we had enough money to make it to Vancouver Island and back now! $1000 was a small fortune to us. Sure, we had a nice sized formal wedding, but the only reason that happened was because when Laurie and I started outlining our plans for the small wedding in the backyard of our rented house in Woodland, her mother said no. “No. I’ve been planning her wedding since practically the day she was born.” So we let her go to town.

I literally have no idea how much the wedding cost. Whereas Laurie planned to make her wedding dress, her mother paid for a formal gown. I was going to make the wedding cake and buy a decent suit. Laurie’s mother hired a caterer, and we rented tuxes for myself and the “best man of honor” (Laurie’s brother filled both rolls), and whereas we planned to have about 20 or 30 people, we had around a hundred, including many of Laurie’s relatives from England and Canada. We did have veto power. There was no way we were riding in a horse drawn carriage down main street in Benicia for instance, and we did decide on cake flavor, venue, wedding colors, and a few other details. But overall when she volunteered, we were quite happy to let her take over.

The wedding was nice, though certainly not lavish. As I said, around a hundred people in my sister’s front yard, and a formal sit down reception at a local community center set in a very nice park. The honeymoon, however, was supposedly up to us.

Since we ended up with a good amount of money in the end, we decided on a meandering path through backroads instead of just shooting up 5 and back down in a day or two. The wedding was August 31, which meant that heading north we had some pretty decent weather, and even though it happened to be Memorial Day weekend, since we were leaving Monday morning, the campgrounds were not incredibly crowded.

We headed out bright and early in the morning the day after the wedding, and decided to stop for provisions on the way out of town. Our first planned stop was Lake Almanor where we spent our first night. I don’t remember anything very interesting there, though it’s a beautiful place to camp, but unfortunately I do remember that there was a problem with the radiator that we discovered the next morning. A leak, shit, we were practically in the middle of nowhere, and we were going to have to head back into Quincy to find a mechanic to fix, and later we discovered actually replace, the radiator.

Talk about nerve wracking. The drive back down to Quincy was pretty stressful. We had to keep a close watch on the temp gauge, and stop as often as possible to fill the leaking radiator. My father had given us his credit card for just such an emergency, but blowing a head gasket would have ended the trip no matter what we could afford. We made it into Quincy just as the engine was reaching a critical point, but we did make it. Yay, we got to spend most of our first day in a mechanics yard, surrounded by absolutely nothing, in 90 degree heat, waiting for the radiator to arrive. Luckily the part didn’t have far to come, and we were back on the road by mid-afternoon.

We headed towards Westwood (the lumber town above Almanor, not the Southern California town), and stopped for a bit to visit my grandmother’s grave in a beautiful old pioneer graveyard in a lightly forested patch of road in between the small hamlet of Chester and Westwood. Then we headed on up towards Burney Falls, and on to Lava Beds National Monument. I have to admit we were a bit overly confident in our time, and gas milage. I don’t know why we didn’t stop sooner, or at least at a gas station. However, we arrived at Lava Beds just after sundown, which considering the time of year means we arrived pretty darn late, and not only were we not sure where we were going to camp for the night, we weren’t even sure we would make it before reaching empty.

Lava Beds is a fascinating place. Barren as a moonscape, with vast empty planes, dozens of fascinating caves, and lots and lots of lava rock of various sorts. It is also very, very dark at night. And contrary to what we were hoping, there are absolutely no services of any kind inside the park other than ranger stations and some basic campgrounds. At least there weren’t 26 years ago. So we were becoming desperate to at least find someplace to park for the night. Laurie was driving, and the two of us were watching the road very carefully for the campground we were supposedly nearing. While my attention was on both the map, and the dark edges of the road looking for the turnoff that we were sure we should be seeing any second, Laurie let out a high pitched yelp and slammed on the brakes! My first indication that we were suddenly coming to a complete stop was the cooking pot that was in the sink directly behind me SLAMMING into the back of my chair. Right. Behind. My head. We both sat stunned for about 10 seconds, and after the shock wore off we laughed, and I said, ” You know it doesn’t do any good to kill me after 2 days of marriage, we don’t even have any life insurance.” The trip went on, but I guess the honeymoon was over.

It’s Just A Life. 12

12. Why For Art Thou

I found my calling at J. Cunningham & Co. in the late 80’s…well, one of them. Working with Bunny Jean Cunningham was probably one of the luckier things to happen to me in my life. When she was my mentor, I could never actually call her Bunny Jean like all of her friends and co-workers do, it would have felt impertinent. I was too much in awe of her to be so informal, and, amusingly, I wasn’t aware that Bunny was her first name anyhow. Bunny is not a name I would have pinned on this funny, irritating, sometimes scary, force of nature that is Bunny Jean Cunningham. I still think of her as just “Jean”, which I hope doesn’t insult her, but to this day the old habit clings.

I worked at Jean’s shop for 4 years, 4 years in the late 80’s. 4 years of perms…3 to 4 perms a day. God, the humanity. For some reason, though I loved where I worked, and I was learning and growing professionally, my friend Alison and I had the wacky idea to open our own salon. We got pretty close. We were trying to secure funding, and were about to tour storefronts; we even had some drawings in process, when for some reason we stopped. We both seemed to reach the conclusion that maybe this was more than we bargained for. After the idea of a salon dropped Alison somehow convinced me that I should work with her at a JCPenny hair salon, very near where my wife Laurie, new son William, and I lived. The thought of having a regular income, health benefits, and literally a 5 minute walk to work, was too good to pass up. As we often learn in life, something that’s too good to pass up, should often be passed up. I managed to convince myself that this wasn’t a major downgrade in my workplace and reputation, and that I would be busy enough to make a good commission on top of the minimum wage I was being paid.

I learned a tough lesson on considering all of the angles working at JCPenney. Overbearing bosses, unpleasant clients, and absolutely shit wages, those were the angles I hadn’t wanted to see. I’ll admit I’m still learning the finer points of “watch your ass“, the exciting life skills game for all ages.

The thing that makes JCPenneys popular is their affordability. That means that most things there are cheap. That means no matter how hard you try, you can’t make enough money to earn commission and raise your pay above minimum wage. At least that was my experience. Well…at least I had the benefits, right? Sorta. If I earned enough money to justify full time sure. Ya, that wasn’t gonna happen. Why would they want to book you full time if you would then get benefits? It was a no-win game, and I wasn’t willing to play it for long. So I took the last $500.00 left on my only credit card out in cash to pay the first month of rent at a Davis salon that I would work at, and at times own, for the next 15 (on and off) years.

I stayed there the first time for about 5 years. I was pretty happy, but that commute seemed wasteful, and my Sacramento clients were really whiny about driving all the way to Davis, never mind that I did it every single day. So when a friend of mine opened her new salon in Sacramento, I jumped at the chance. There you go again not checking all the angles. I didn’t consider the fact that my Davis clients wouldn’t drive to Sacramento. I was shocked, I learned a lot about business, and the difference between work/friend relationships. I lost almost half of my clientele.

I should have expected it. After 10 years working there I had heard hundreds of times, “Oh no, I never drive into Sacramento. I hate driving over the causeway.”

So, finding myself with a bit of free time on my hands, I decided maybe I was ready for a change of career.

I had enjoyed spending the last few years landscaping our cottage in East Sacramento. As it turns out, I loath grass, and I won’t take care of it. Reminds me too much of mowing the lawn at 6 o”clock in the morning in the summers at our Mesa, AZ house when I was growing up. So the small putting green Pete and I acquired in the side yard of our new house became a rose garden, the back dog-run was completely redone three or four times over the last 20 years with nothing but perennials (ok a few ornamental grasses, but I don’t have to mow them), we eventually replaced the rose (and daylily by that time) garden with french doors and a patio of my design off the dining room, and so on. I had some failures, but felt I had actually become a gardener.

Well maybe, I thought, if I enjoyed it so much I should become a professional. Do what you love, right? So I went back to school to study landscape design, and I really liked it. I loved learning about horticulture, I really enjoyed the people in the classes. I took drafting. I thought, “This might work“. Right up until I had a friend use one of my designs for her back yard, but completely mess up the installation.

I still have the original drawings. They felt like art to me, and they had been distorted to the point that I didn’t even recognize it. In that moment I knew that I would have to be in charge of the whole enterprise, a contractor, but that wasn’t really what I had in mind.

I had decided somewhere along the way that it would be a good idea to learn some basics of drawing. Since I couldn’t even draw a very interesting line drawing I thought it would be nice at least to learn how to produce a rough sketch to sell my ideas. As it happens, I hated the teacher, but I loved the class. It gave me an excuse to draw, fail, learn from it, and draw some more. The true benefit of an art class, of any kind, is that it forces you to produce work that you might give up on in other circumstances. It allows you the permission to work on something that you know you might likely throw away. It helps you push yourself where you would not normally go. Despite what that inept art “teacher” thought, it turns out I’m not bad.

I had flirted, briefly, with the idea of a life of art as a child. I remember the time I spent living with my Nana. It was for about 6 months when I was 13. She was a painter. I came across her paints and easel at some point and asked her to teach me to paint.

There had always been something magical about exploring Nana’s houses; it always brought back the memories of spending summers and Christmases with my sisters and cousins at her two story house in Westwood (Northern CA, not Southern). That house had a truly magical, to a 7 year old, closet that continued, unfettered, from one end of the house to the other – like a storybook secret passage – on the second story. There was an identical one on the opposite wall if I’m not mistaken. Those dark, musky closets scared the hell out of me, and to walk from one room to the other in one of these closets was something I don’t think I ever managed. There was an inky dark space from door to door, cluttered with unidentified flotsam, and who knows what nasty creatures, both possible, and mythical. I don’t believe there were lights in the closet, but that could have been my sisters and cousins tormenting me as usual.

In later years I would ask my Nana to teach me how to use things I found in the hidden corners of whatever house or cottage in which she was currently residing. It’s the reason I asked her to teach me to sew. I couldn’t resist the antique sewing machine in the corner of the room I lived in for those brief six months. Well, though she seemed to do a good job teaching me to become a seamstress, when I asked about the painting supplies, she would prove to be a terrible art teacher.

She set me up with the paints and easel (I couldn’t tell you if they were oil, acrylic, or water) in the back yard, and said, “Paint what you see”, and walked back into the house. I stared at the blank canvas experiencing the overwhelming dread of infinite possibility, tried a few half-hearted strokes on the canvas, realized I knew zero about what I was doing, decided I was not a prodigy, and never tried another art project again until the day I had no choice in a classroom full of amateurs and another dreadful art teacher.

After a few figure drawing (the best class in the universe, I could easily sit in a figure drawing class for an 8 hour day), and painting classes (very close second, but I can paint at home, so…)  my painting hobby began. Unfortunately, I tend to be a little light on the manic and heavy on the depressive, so I don’t produce much. Shame on me, no talent should be wasted. But I have to be creative all day being a hair-color and cutting specialist, so get off my back.