Not All That

25. Not All That

I remember, perfectly, the day I first walked into All That Jaz hair salon. (No, it’s not a typo; it had one z.) I met with one of the two women named Patty who owned the salon. The place was a nice, clean, kind of boring salon. It had a sterile, gray-on-white theme, but the stylists were so friendly, I felt at home immediately. This was great, because with the dull gray cabinetry, the weird checkered floor, and the blah drop ceiling, it was obviously built on reputation, not ambiance.

After working at a JCPenney salon for a few months I was pretty low on cash. A mostly full-time job a JCP paid little more than minimum wage. Really, I loathed JCPenney. I don’t even shop there. It is most definitely not my image, nor my demographic, and the pay sucked. I had to get away.

I was so demoralized by the crappy wages, laughable management, and depressing ambiance and clientele, I took out the biggest advance on my only credit card I could — $500. It was just enough to pay the $400 rent for the salon space, and $100 for salon supplies, so I was golden for one month. I moved in and started working as quickly as possible. If I didn’t make enough over the next month, I wouldn’t be able to pay bills. Self-employed. Yay.

By this time, I had built a moderate client base. I remember I still had a lot of free time at the salon, but somehow my wife, Laurie, and I always seemed to make ends meet. The two of us learned to be very frugal. I had been on a tight budget with my mother for as long as I can remember. I learned ways to make a chicken feed a household of three for a week. At this point, we were doing OK. Laurie was making decent money, our son William was young enough that daycare was cheap, and we had my mother, stepmother, and Laurie’s parents if we needed help.

I had moved to JCPenney just a few months before J. Cunningham & Co. — the salon I worked in immediately after I finished school — closed. I have pretty canny instincts sometimes; I’ve managed to leave several salons before their final death on numerous occasions. The real reason I allowed my friend Alison to lure me JCPenny, other than the promise of benefits, was how much fun the two of us had working together. She stopped talking to me after I left, I don’t even know if the two events are linked. I keep learning a lesson over and over; I haven’t managed to figure out what it is yet. 

At that time, the owners of All That Jaz were “the two Pattys.” The other stylists  working there were Wendy, Rosie, Mary, Tina, Lucinda, an older woman who retired a few months later, and a manicurist whose name escapes me. I had worked with Rosie and Mary at J. Cunningham’s for the four previous years, and they moved to All That Jaz a month or so before me. This made the transition easy. And though the lineup would change over the years, this core would become as close, well honestly, closer, than I am to most of my family. These were funny, warm, sensible and caring women who I loved working with for some 15 to 20 years.

We had a tradition that I carried on after I purchased the place at the turn of the millennium. We always had wonderful holiday parties — sometimes quite elaborate ones. We’d taken limousine rides to Napa wineries, simple dinner parties at fancy restaurants, fancy progressive dinner parties, San Francisco harbor dinner cruises, a Princess Cruise to Mexico, and numerous trips to Tahoe, Las Vegas, and Disneyland, but the best party of all was a mystery dinner party at Pete and my home.  It was a hoot. Yes, a hoot. I can’t really think of a better term for something as hokey, and absolutely hilarious as a mystery party with drunken friends. 

We dressed for the 1940s, and each had scripts to read. Pete and I set up a restaurant (catered, of course) in the front of our house in East Sacramento. We had cocktails in a bar in our patio room, and desert and sherry was served in the living room. Cocktails were served at every course. You learn so much more about people when you socialize at home, and we could be as loud and silly as we wanted. I can’t remember a better party I’ve ever attended or hosted. We got drunk and recited silly clues on cue while dressed in a hokey costume meant to represent our “character” from the script. Who knows who the murderer was? It made no difference.

We were a group that could have fun in almost any situation. Work was a constant patter of jokes and stories. If you wanted a quiet, relaxing chat with your stylist, you might not have been in the best place. But for fun and style, there was no better place in town. It was close quarters, with people who knew each other so well, they could finish each others’ sentences. On one “business trip,” we were so boisterous after a night at a club near Lake Tahoe, security guards came to quiet us down. Too loud — in a casino! 

These were people who I would always describe as “closer than family” when I talked about where I worked.

When I bought All That Jaz in 2000, I promised the stylists (because I had promised myself) that most of the profit in the first two years would go back into the salon. It really needed it. The Pattys remodeled it a few years earlier, but the floor was bad — that nauseating black and white checkerboard. The story goes that they had the floor redone after they purchased it, requesting white tiles, with a few random black ones. They came back to find checkerboard, and no time for it to be redone. The furniture, and the general layout were fine, but I had some ideas for adding more stations (to keep the costs down and the profits up, and to cover the improvements).

A designer and I worked on plans for the new layout, but in the end he was just a draftsman. His ideas were OK, and he gave me guidelines on space and flow patterns, but I determined the layout. I designed the custom cabinetry built to match the existing furniture; we updated the paint, and rebranded ourselves as an upscale salon and art gallery. First it was All That Jazz, the extra z added to make the name a little less confusing, and take us into a new era. Later, it evolved to All That/Hair Artistry, when we transformed to an art gallery-themed salon. I got some flak for the new name, but it was a compromise. I decided early on to keep the name somewhat intact, yet update our image. It ruffled some feathers; the first of many. 

I thought I could take over the salon, fix it up for my work family and myself to grow our business, and remain friends with those same co-workers. I was so very sadly mistaken. I broke not one, but two cardinal rules of business: never do business with friends or family — and definitely, not both. 

A little at a time, the cracks began to appear. For three years, Pete and I worked to expand the business model to improve profits. We offered incentives — had contests, raffles, anything we could do to increase revenue. Unfortunately, the others never embraced these approaches. Expenses rose, but I didn’t raise the rent. In fact, we increased our expenses by adding a receptionist. She was an absolutely amazing woman, who became nearly a full-time manager of the salon. Unfortunately for me, we had come up with her pay plan based on part-time, with half being paid by the other stylists. As her hours increased, the charge to the stylists didn’t. I was cheating myself. The stylists refused to see the problem, or if they did, they didn’t seem to appreciate it.

I was flabbergasted when stylists started complaining that the salon was too busy. It was too noisy, and they missed how calm it used to be. I was always a little shocked to hear this. These complaints came alongside others, especially that a particular stylist wasn’t getting enough new business because the salon manager wasn’t directing clients her way. It was enough to drive you mad, and it very nearly did. For many years after, I dealt with a fair bit of depression — a very well-deserved post-traumatic stress condition, I’d say.

Toward the end of my tenure as owner, the salon was burglarized three times. Three times by the same person! When I write it, my blood boils as much as ever. The first time was a mystery to be solved, but fairly innocuous. I came to work one Monday morning and checked the cash drawer as usual. You never know, and we had had cash “disappear” over the years. But this time there was none there. I immediately asked Tenaya, typically the first to arrive that day, if she had moved the cash. She said no, and thought it was strange that there wasn’t any. She assumed I had taken it to the bank for smaller bills. I called the police, and after a bit of sleuthing, I put together my theory of what transpired that Sunday afternoon. 

We had a cleaning lady come every Sunday, one of the expenses I decided made life easier for all of us. She worked at the Mexican restaurant next door, so I never suspected her. There was no way she was going to risk both of her jobs, especially since she barely spoke English. After some gentle questioning, I came up with this: the cleaning lady usually arrives and immediately opens both front and back doors for fresh air. I know this is true because there were often hundreds of flies when we arrived on Mondays during tomato season. A “friend” of hers, who had recently been fired at the restaurant next door, stopped in to talk. When she went in back to clean, the doors were most likely open, and he knew where the cash was. The cops knew who he was, but since he stole cash, there wasn’t much they could do. The police report got us the insurance payment, but no justice. 

The second theft was more daring. Breaking and entering, theft, all the cash, some artwork, the computer, but thank God not the computer backup drive. I had to cancel my day and lose a full days pay to get the salon up and running, but as one of my stylists said, “That’s what you get for owning a salon, right?” Yah right. I discovered an owner doesn’t deserve thanks. I realized we had passed the zone where I sacrificed income for friends. I had been pouring money into the salon for more than four years. Enough was enough. 

Pete and I calculated a reasonable increase based on a percentage of inflation, and presented it at the lease renewal: 4 percent. The reception can only be described as icy. C’est la vie. I had learned it was a business, and now they were learning it as well.

We were burglarized again. My life hadn’t recovered completely from the first. My salon coordinator was freaked out because some of her (and another artist’s) work was stolen. The striking oil paintings I had decided to purchase by Kazuo Ooka were never recovered. I bought them anyway. Hers were found. Slightly damaged, but fixable. This time there was a twist. They caught the guy!

The police had been called because a business down the hall was moving out and noticed him breaking in. The police surprised him and he ran out the back, dropping most of our stuff on the way out. And they caught him!

I was on the edge of a breakdown. On the way from Sacramento to Davis at 2 a.m. to meet the police, I told Pete I couldn’t do it anymore. He encouraged me to hang in there. After all, we had a good amount of debt tied up in this business.

As we were cleaning up broken glass and boarding the window and door, one of the officers came in carrying a bag. Setting it in one of the stylist’s chairs, he warned the officer who was talking with me to be careful of the taser barbs in the bag. 

The word “taser” made me jump. The officer rushed to reassure me that the perpetrator was fine, and that he brandished a pair of shears, so they really had to taser him. It was policy. I started chuckling. I was ecstatic that they had taser-ed the bastard! He really fucked up my life, and I have no sympathy for criminals. He was a drug addict, but even that didn’t excuse his actions. One can only be a good progressive for so long.

The salon was back up and running by opening time. Then the salon coordinator started freaking out. She started asking about her six-month review. She was expecting a raise, but the way the finances were, it wasn’t happening. I had loaned the salon money from my personal income several times to meet payroll. She would be lucky to have a job if the stylists kept bitching about the rent increase. It hadn’t happened in four years; I have to assume they never expected it to. Still somewhat optimistic, I was sure the salon meeting we had arranged would settle everything. We were a team, practically family, after all.

And did it ever. This meeting contained drama, tears, shouting, more tears, and a giant dose of anger and frustration. I couldn’t get them to understand that we had no choice financially, it was a business not a charity and I could no longer afford to ignore that fact. The increase was very reasonable in my and Pete’s mind, the cost of about two haircuts a month. I had tried to explain to them for weeks why it was necessary, and generous. It wasn’t even enough to solve the problem. They didn’t believe me. This was the moment when I started to lose faith in humanity. I don’t lie — not to co-workers, not to clients, not to friends, not even to strangers or enemies. I most certainly do not lie to family, which was when my eyes finally opened. We were at an impasse, and I didn’t care any more. After the meeting was cut short, I turned to Valerie and told her the salon was hers if she wanted it. She did. Go figure.

I gave her a ridiculous price, with a large “friend” discount. The deal left Pete and me with a shitload of debt. I don’t know what gets into me; I just wanted to be done and go back to being friends. Maybe if I wasn’t the boss, they would remember who I really was. 

The transition was smooth, the deal was easy to finish, and I was happy to move on. During the transition, I was perfectly happy to hold the reins for Valerie, and I made sure to clear all decisions with her.

I started to get comfortable in my new role. I had pointed out to Valerie that it would make the most sense for me to move to another salon. Traditionally, it’s expected that a prior owner will leave. It’s hard to let go of ownership, and the employees will naturally run to the old owner for that leadership. Inevitably, the new owner will feel judged. So I never expected to stay. Valerie very quickly informed me that she had no intention of buying the salon if it meant I would have to leave. Flattery makes your brain stupid. So I became a renter and did my best to support her, and astonishingly, I was really happy.

It was nice to reconnect with the other stylists. I didn’t have to worry about Valerie thinking that the coordinator gave clients to the stylists she liked better. I didn’t have to worry about firing her due to budget issues. I didn’t have to listen to people bitch about how the salon was too busy, the rent was too high, it was too hot, aargh!

So I was happy and nobody was angry with me for the first time in months. I felt like one of the gang again. Then, 45 days after Valerie took possession of the salon, I walked in to work as usual on an average Tuesday. I remember I was one of the last stylists in that day. I said hi to Wendy, who worked next to me, Mary, Rosie, everybody was busy with clients, which was common. As I walked up to my station (probably about 15 minutes before my first client), I saw the piece of paper taped to my mirror. It read, “David, I told you not to bring your dog to work. Consider this your two weeks’ notice to vacate, Valerie.”

I don’t generally react to mishaps the way the average person does. I once had a client almost hemorrhage to death in my chair. She was having a miscarriage; she didn’t even know she was pregnant. Another time, a stylist almost choked on a lettuce wrap in the break room. The Heimlich is hard but the alternative is harder. My motto is, “Act, don’t react.” There is absolutely no situation where panic, anger or arguing, either with a person or fate, will help. 

I knew there was no way I could cancel my day and leave. I’ve spent too many years dealing with humiliation by ignoring it, so I didn’t react. But I had to let Pete know. He would be righteously indignant. It would help me shore up my defenses for the day. I was starting to think maybe I was a little crazy. I was starting to go over the last month and a half in my head to figure out what I had done. 

Surely it wasn’t really about bringing Buddha, my pug puppy, to work the day before. I knew she didn’t really like dogs, though she wouldn’t admit it. We had heated discussions about the role of dogs and humans over the years. I truthfully could never remember a conversation with Valerie where she had asked me not to bring him to work. I have no doubt she thinks she did, but surely you don’t evict your friend of 10 years over a one-time incident. I couldn’t process it well. I went outside to talk with Pete. Of course, he was out of town for the entire week.

He didn’t have phone service where he was, but he is never far from his computer, and email. Not the fastest process, but I could text his email account, and he could respond, and that’s how I informed him of what was happening. It was frustrating, but at least I had a way to talk with somebody. I was calm on the outside, but I was battling a panic attack the rest of the day.

As I was walking out, I caught Wendy’s eye, and she asked if I was OK. I told her Valerie evicted me. Her response confused me, but I wasn’t focused enough to wonder why. As I passed Mary, I told her the same. She didn’t react either, and it all fell into place. Wendy had asked simply, “Just now?” Mary hadn’t reacted much at all, and everybody seemed calm, unusually so. It was as if it was all happening in a vacuum around me. 

It was strangely quiet, and I realized that they all knew. It wasn’t a spontaneous pique of anger, or at least the idea had been discussed with the others at some point. I was so focused that I realized in that second that all of the friends I thought I had had were dead. They were gone from my life in that second as surely as if they had died in a salon fire that morning. Valerie humiliated me to the point that I knew I would never be able to set foot in the salon comfortably again. She ended relationships I had with Rosie and Mary for more than 20 years, with Wendy for almost 15, and even with newer stylists with whom I had mentored for five years or so. I knew that when I walked out the door, I would never be able to enjoy their company, even if I could forgive them. 

Valerie was not busy that day; in truth, she rarely was. She left within an hour of my arrival, so I didn’t have to worry about working next to her. I honestly don’t know if I would have ripped her to shreds. In truth, logic and reason aren’t her strong suits; I’m sure I would have spent the day embarrassing her, and that wouldn’t have helped the situation at all.

I immediately asked the receptionist to clear my schedule for the following day (Mary Rose was gone by then, but the new receptionist I had trained [since nobody else could]i, worked hard to make sure my clients understood the gravity of the situation). I finished my day — professionally, I feel obliged to add — and went home to get drunk. When I arrived home, I realized I couldn’t be alone. Pete was gone and my son William was at college in Chico, so I called my friend D. She kept me sane for a few hours until I could get myself to go home to bed. 

I was now off for the following two days, so I spent the morning mourning a bit more, then visited two or three salons in downtown Davis before deciding on one that would be good for a few months. I couldn’t have been in a better situation in many ways. At this point, I had built a rock-solid client base. I was not worried about losing more than a handful of them, and those would mostly be newer ones who probably would be willing to try another stylist at All That Jazz.

Early the next day, I arrived at the salon. I had boxes, and my plan was simple: Pack my stuff. Talk to no one. Leave. I built up a pretty strong store of resentment at this point, and I knew that if I tried to talk to any of the stylists, it would go badly. I didn’t know how, but I knew.

I packed stuff from the back room first. Nobody said a word. I moved to my station, and though Wendy tried to say “Hi” and be nice, I had no interest. I wasn’t sure if I could ever forgive her. She didn’t even have the compassion to call me to see how I was doing, to try to explain why she couldn’t warn me about Valerie’s intentions. She couldn’t even offer word that I should be prepared for some changes. My anger was building, and though it hadn’t reached a boiling point, I knew it was only a matter of time. As I walked to my car with a box, Wendy tried to engage me out back. She wanted to talk, I didn’t. To this day, what she said stands out as one of the most inappropriate things ever said to me in a time of crisis. She said she didn’t understand why I was so angry, and why couldn’t I at least talk. I didn’t respond.

The wonderful thing about selling your salon to somebody who’s not incredibly bright is what they don’t know what they should protect. When I sold Valerie the salon, I offered her the license to the booking software. She didn’t want to spend the money, so I agreed to keep ownership, and maintain it. It was in my best interest, since I didn’t really believe she had the skills to do the IT work it needed, and I expected to be using it for years to come. 

So one of my last acts was to download the backup file for the entire salon: salon client list, schedule, marketing and all. Oh, I had no intention of stealing clients, though, lord knows, I thought about it. My integrity was not going down for pointless revenge, but the thought that I could was a shield. I knew I could delete the entire salon schedule, but I was a big enough person that I wouldn’t. I could have destroyed the computer, but didn’t. In fact, when the salon coordinator (roughly two weeks into the job I was training her for) asked my help in fixing the printer, I actually looked into it. I couldn’t help, but only, I told her, because I didn’t have the time. 

The only problem I faced was the transfer of the software. I had a new laptop, but the software was licensed to one computer. I needed to find out how much it would cost to buy one for my new laptop. When I called, the support person asked why I was in this situation, and when I told her, she was appalled. She informed me that since Valerie had not purchased the license from me, I wouldn’t be charged for the transfer to my computer, but that Valerie would have to buy her own. 

The software rep also asked me if I wanted her to disable the salon’s software. She said that she could do it right away, or that I could just wait to the renewal time (a few months away), and she would have to buy it at full price … several hundred dollars more than I would have charged her. She was surprised that I said no; I couldn’t bring myself to do that to people I had thought of as family. I’m not sure how well that worked out for Valerie; I never asked. From what I’ve heard through the grapevine, (25 years working in a small town builds lots of contacts), the salon coordinators who followed my departure never got full training, and were never quite sure what the program could do. I’m not a big enough person not to enjoy the idea.

Surprisingly, I was able to forgive Valerie long before I could exonerate the other stylists. I realized that what she had done was probably in haste, without any view for long-term consequences. And, since I had always thought of her as a bit less than bright, and the littlest bit two-faced (we always think these things don’t apply to us), I shouldn’t have been surprised. However, the other stylists, most especially Wendy and Rosie, I may never fully forgive. 

I had left a salon under similar circumstances when a friend of mine had been evicted for arguing with the owner of a salon I worked at for a short time in Sacramento. When faced with her unjust termination, I found I could no longer respect, nor work with the owner. I was shocked to discover none of my friends at All That Jazz felt as strongly. I’ve come to believe that that says more about them than it does about me. That’s a much harder lesson to learn than it should be.

None of them responded to the emails I sent hoping to get some kind of closure and, after a few weeks, I realized they never would. I suppose they were too embarrassed. At least I hope they were. As I said early, I’m sure there’s a lesson here but for the life of me, I haven’t figured out what it is

Stories In Which My Son DOESN’T Die

23. The Iceman Goeth

My idea of camping generally consists of a camper, with a bathroom, comfortable bed, and a fairly decent kitchen, or better yet a motorhome with similar necessities but with a decent amount if space. Necessities you’ll notice I said, not comforts. I adore driving to the middle of nowhere, finding a rustic campground, and sitting around a fire roasting marshmallows with as few people I don’t know around as possible. But I’m not a savage. I live in the twenty-first century. We’ve developed a certain level of civilized behavior of which I see no point in depriving myself. So while my ex-wife Laurie is satisfied to rough it in a sleeping bag and tent, and my son William is young enough to see the adventure in sleeping on the hard ground under the stars as a camp counselor keeping track of a gaggle of unruly pre or post adolescence, I on the other hand find it impossible to sleep with a single mosquito buzzing my ear, or dirt lodged in places that my ancestors expected to only clean once or twice a year. Pete agrees with me luckily. That’s  one of the many reasons we’ve stayed together for over 20 years.

So though one of my very favorite trips ever was a camping trip to Medicine Lake, not too far from the Oregon border in Northern California, it was only camping in the sense that we were at a campground. Pete and I had recently purchased a rather old motorhome that had, at least, all the required accouterment. True it smelled like decades of cooked bacon, the fabrics and walls felt strangely greasy, and somehow it felt like an outdoorsman’s abused hunting cabin. However, it had a bed, a bathroom, and a fully operational kitchen. 

We were accompanied by William, around 10 years old, and his mother Laurie. They were roughing it. In a tent that is.

We had planned a weekend at the lake, complete with kayaks, campfire side dining, and marshmallow roasting. We had not counted on a wind so strong we couldn’t row away from the shore or light a fire, but oh well.

We spent time walking trails with our two dogs-a giant mutant Dalmatian Laurie and I had adopted the year before we separated and she had kept, and a husky mix Pete and I got around the time we purchased our house. We toured the volcanic features, and went spelunking. Spelunking is the art of cave exploration if you are not in the know. 

Medicine Lake is part of the Lava Beds National Monument area. A vast warren of caves, obsidian mounds, cinder cones, and other miscellany. We had a blast even with the less than perfect weather. But the highlight was our trip to an ice cave. The map didn’t have a lot of details, just directions and a name, but we were game for anything. 

We headed out around mid-afternoon, since there wasn’t very much information we weren’t expecting anything too exciting, and when we arrived at the barren field with a hole in the ground that looked vaguely like a meteor crater on a small scale, we were even afraid that it may not exist at all. After all, an ice cave in Northern California, slightly off a dusty forest road seemed a little implausible. Like so many hikes leading to a “forest lake” that was long gone, or a “meadow” that was simply a weedy clearing in a scrubby forest (you can probably tell what kind of hikes I’ve been exposed to), I was expecting a simple “historic”, i.e.. “long-gone” cave.

We made our way down into the crater, looking for what was described as a small cave entrance. It was actually a hole in the crater wall no larger than one good sized adult could crawl through. With not a little trepidation we squirmed through one by one. Wow. We were not disappointed one bit. 

The temperature dropped by many degrees, and thank goodness we had heeded the warnings to wear warm clothing, hats, and to carry flashlights! As soon as we entered we were all enthralled; it really was an ice cave. Actually, to be precise, it was a cave with an underground glacier running alongside it. We found out later that an ice cave is literally a cave IN ice, not a cave WITH ice. But who cares, right?

We gingerly made our way deeper into the cave, noticing that the rocks strewn throughout the bottom of the cave were coated with a thick layer of ice that appeared to about an inch thick. Of course it was pitch dark. You could only see exactly where you aimed your flashlight, making the entire operation extremely dangerous and that much more of an adventure. As we inched deeper into the cave, luckily being able to stand upright thanks to the higher ceiling we found inside, we saw a wall of ice to the far side. We headed towards it when William let out a blood curdling scream and immediately dropped out of sight, as if a trap door had opened under him!

I thought he was dead for sure. In seconds several thoughts ran through my mind. He had fallen to his death at the bottom of a hundred foot cavern, or he was impaled on an ice stalagmite, or trapped on a ledge and would bleed to death while we waited in vain for a forest ranger to rappel down and bring his broken body up to us. Or god knows what other horrible lingering fates.

About 10 seconds later we heard a weak and trembling, “I’m okay…” As we quickly, but cautiously made our way to the hole in the ground and peered over the lip of the gaping maw set almost precisely in the middle of the cave, our lights settled on William who was carefully perched on a gentle slope of glistening ice covered rocks leading down about 10 or so feet into a lower cavern. 

He gingerly stood up, noticed that he didn’t even have a scratch on him, and one by one we lowered ourselves down to join him. Get back up on the horse was what his three parents seemed to think.

We spent another 15 or 20 minutes exploring the fascinating crystal walls of ice that were so pure you could see about a foot into them. Then, when it started to get a little too cold for us to take any longer, we headed out. 

While leaving the cave we met a new group of about 5 or 6 adults, none of which spoke much english, dressed in shorts and t-shirts, without flashlights, jackets or hats, transferring a one year old child through the hole with them. We tried to warn them what was ahead, but they either couldn’t, or didn’t want to understand us. I’ve often wondered over the years if they were ever heard from again…

24. Still Not A Fight

The only thing she told me was that William was on his way to the hospital in an ambulance. It was my ex-wife Laurie calling me at work, which everybody knows you only do in an absolute emergency. She said she didn’t have any more info than that. The lady who called from the high school said he’d been in a fight, but as I was frantically canceling my last few clients I just kept saying, “Well, they said he was in a fight, but there’s no way William got in a fight.” I told Laurie I was leaving for the high school office to talk to somebody and find out what actually happened, and then I would her and Pete at the hospital emergency center. 

When I got to the office I was immediately met by three of William’s friends who wanted me to know as soon as I walked in that he had in fact NOT been in a fight. Apparently he was punched in the nose with no provocation. It was a good thing the kids knew because the office staff was useless. All the woman behind the counter could tell me was that he’d been in a fight and that was all she knew. I gave up and went to the hospital where I wished on gone in the first place.

I arrived to find William with blood staining his t-shirt, neck, and face, and an icepack attached to his nose. I was told his nose was broken. William looked miserable, which if you know anything about my son, is terrifying. William doesn’t feel pain like a normal person. We actually had a pediatrician warn us to watch him and if we were at all concerned to have him tested for a rare disorder called congenital analgesia, a fancy term for a child who doesn’t feel pain like a normal person. We know he does feel it, he just doesn’t seem to care. To see him so shaken and miserable was unnerving to say the least.

As the story goes, William was in his PE class on the field. The kids, not having lockers yet, had all of their possessions with them on the field. An older boy, who was apparently cutting class, was stealing skateboards from several of the other lower class-men. He would ride it until a teacher came out to confiscate it. He then went for William’s, and William resisted. My son is not easily intimidated, though at times he probably should be. As soon as the boy took his skateboard William followed after him and while bending down to pick it up said, “Hey asshole, give me my board back.” He came up to face the boy who turned around and punched him squarely in the face.

He doesn’t, or at least didn’t the last we talked about it, remember the punch, or even how he ended up on the ground. He didn’t even remember going for his skateboard, or what he said. It was all told to me (and him I assume) by his friends that were present. This is why I always stress to people that he wasn’t fighting, and he wasn’t (thank goodness) being bullied, he was a victim of felony assault. 

He recovered at warp speed like most young men. The doctors at the ER couldn’t do much since he had what they called a green stick fracture where the bone doesn’t break cleanly, it splinters like a sapling because the cartilage hasn’t hardened completely. Surgery would be required later. So he was sent home with a Neti Pot, an ice pack, and some meds. He hated the Neti pot, had the bandage off before we got to the car, and really didn’t care one way or the other about the Vicodin they just casually handed him on the way out of the emergency room.

This all occurred on a Friday afternoon, and like any concerned parents we expected to have a message from the school on the answering machine when we got home, but nope, nothing. Well, surely somebody would contact us to decide what we should do before Monday. William wouldn’t be back in school for a bit after all. They hadn’t actually caught the kid after he fled, and he needed some rest anyway.

Monday morning Pete and I got dressed for work and waited expectantly to see if somebody would call before the school day started…again, nope. Laurie walked the block from her duplex to our house and we waited a bit longer. Finally we decided to walk to the school, Laurie, Pete, and me, leaving William at home “recuperating”. It was only a couple of blocks, and a cool late summer morning, but we were definitely “warmed” up at this point. We figured maybe they didn’t know what had happened and they were waiting for us to make the first move. So we arrived at the front office, and asked the secretary if we could speak to the principle. She asked how William was doing, and said she was surprised that William would get in a fight, it wasn’t like him. To which we all scrambled to answer first with, “It wan’t a fight! It was assault.” She visibly recoiled and meekly asked if we knew which principle we wanted to see. They had 4 or 5, I don’t remember, it seemed like such a foolish concept to me, and I would be proven correct. We said we didn’t know, and she thought maybe the principle in charge of discipline. Whatever, we didn’t care who we talked to any longer.

We only waited about 5 minutes when we were ushered into a good sized conference room. After we sat down the principle, and what we assume was an aide, or even a lawyer, entered and had a seat. It felt a bit like a hearing with a judge. After introductions he asked what we were meeting about! We actually exchanged shocked expressions and reluctantly started describing what we had been told. Well, he hadn’t heard anything of it, so he asked the officer who had been sitting quietly in the corner since we arrived, if he knew the situation. He was busily paging through his notebook and distractedly asking questions such as, “What day?” and “What’s his name?”

Finally the officer looked up from his spiral notebook and simply said, “I’m not sure which case we’re discussing. I have a lot I’m dealing with right now.” We got up and walked out. Honest to god, we literally walked home, got in the car, and drove to the Catholic School that William’s best friend Collin went to, and enrolled him for the winter quarter. I’ll tell you what; those Catholics don’t mess around when it comes to education, or criminal assault.

It’s Been Too Long

21. The Award You Don’t Want

After Pete and I helped convert our disgusting – and quite useless – one-car, detached garage, into a lovely high-end studio, we kind of got hooked on do-it-yourself renovation. A few of our jobs (not including work at the salon we owned for five years) include: redwood playground equipment, multiple fences and gates, pergolas, deck/pathways, a kitchen remodel, and multiple garden installations. Perhaps the most notorious is the patio room we built to connect the lovely studio to our house to create a master bedroom suite. We pulled it off beautifully – meaning nobody died.

We hired a contractor for the foundation and main supports for the structure, which meant we had to take down the massive and tired wooden patio roof. I say “roof” because it was shingled, and completely weatherproof. In fact, I don’t believe a hurricane would have done much damage. It was bolstered with 4 by 4 inch posts, substantial 2 by 6 inch beams, plywood, and composite sheet roofing. It had most likely stood for at least 30 years, and probably would have lasted another 30, but it was so massive that it shadowed the entire porch, making the area cold, dark and depressing, so that we didn’t use it much. It had to go, but we didn’t want to waste money on a demolition crew.

My ex-wife Laurie was living in the studio at the time, and our son, William, was with us as well. They both enjoyed helping us with our projects. We were a fun crew. Laurie was particularly looking forward to helping us remove the patio roof; she’s always loved a good demolition. William was dying to help us, but at 9, we were afraid he would die helping. He would stay safely inside, watching through the French doors.

We were careful, and planned it out. The patio cover was a heavily constructed, with thick, old wood beams, and two layers of solid roofing. There were also layers of what was most likely toxic lead paint, cracking and flaking like the earth’s crust, offering glimpses of different color paints, hinting of bygone epochs. Our main concern in this project was bringing this roof down in a controlled manner. 

Pete planned what section had to be taken down first, then which sections would come next, and so forth. Every section needed to come out without causing the rest of the structure to collapse before we were ready. We didn’t want to damage the section attached to the wall of the house, for instance. Above all, we didn’t want it falling on us during demolition.

Laurie and I carefully grasped the front top beam on the left hand side of one solid 4 by 4 post which held up one side of the whole canopy. We gripped firmly with our thickly gloved hands to the main outside cross beam. We had safety goggles to protect from dust and flying debris, and helmets and thick shoes to protect us from falling chunks of roofing material. We couldn’t be safe enough when it came to taking out a few hundred pounds of roofing and solid wood beams we figured. Pete was ready with an electric chain saw, so besides his careful cutting, his most important task was to watch the electric cord. He really didn’t want to slice through an electric cord; that tends to end badly. 

We were set. Adrenalin pumping, Laurie and I braced. Pete started the saw and carefully started chewing away at the supporting beam in the ceiling while William watched excitedly from inside. Pete sliced cleanly though the old, dry heartwood, and within a minute, the roof came crashing down – the section that Laurie and I weren’t holding. 

We stood stunned for 20 seconds, then burst out with hysterical laughter, the laughter of the idiotically lucky. It was the laughter of the stupid souls who escaped a Darwin Award. Our only regret was that there’s no video. These are the kind of stupid acts that win on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Oh well, somehow I’m sure we’ll be that lucky again.

22. No Virginia, There Is No Easter Bunny

We were sitting at dinner, it must have been very early spring. I’m pretty sure it was just a family dinner. Most likely the company consisted of my mother, William, Laurie, Pete, and me. I doubt it was anything special; we usually went out to a nice restaurant for birthdays, so it couldn’t have been my birthday in February, for all I know it was my mother’s and William’s April 1st birthday dinner, though again, we usually went out. Regardless, it was definitely spring. I know this much at least, because we were discussing William going to his grandmother Betty’s house to decorate eggs. William was probably around 8 or 9. In any case, I don’t do egg decorating. It’s messy, it’s boring, and I feel too much pressure to “perform”. For some reason when you become a hairstylist everybody assumes you are an “artiste”.

Other than the egg decorating, I have always adored Easter. I love the plastic grass, the colored eggs used for deviled eggs at lunch (just because I’m too lazy to color them doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them), hollow chocolate Easter bunnies, jellybeans, peeps, all of it. I remember one year, I was probably around 8 or 9, I got a doll. It was obviously made for a boy, but it was definitely a doll. My father hated it, but I was a very lonely boy and I loved it. My step-brother destroyed it somehow. I’ve blocked the memory. But I still remember digging into that basket Easter morning; Easter is like Christmas without the pressure.

Decorate eggs though? Ick. So my mother took over the duty when William was old enough. I’m not sure why William’s mother Laurie didn’t do it with him, she’s very crafty, I have always assumed she didn’t really care that much either. But there you go, I’m sure she’ll correct me.

Dinner discussion most likely followed the same style as all of our family dinners did in those days, lots of laughing (Laurie can be amazingly funny), William and Pete both being utterly charming in their ways, my mother talking non-stop, and me going crazy in the middle of the chaos. Yup, that’s me, life of the party at work, wallflower everywhere else. But in the end the discussion would focus on getting William to my mother’s for the weekend to dye easter eggs.

I think maybe we were discussing the fact that we couldn’t do an Easter egg hunt on Sunday. I think it was going to rain. All I know for sure, is that when Laurie became a little exasperated and blurted out, “Well it’s not as if he actually believes in the Easter bunny,” the room went absolutely quiet. I remember somebody, maybe me, saying uuuum…and then everybody slowly turning to see William’s reaction. A sharp gasp, and a faint, “Oh shit,” escaped Laurie.

William said very clearly, “Well I don’t now!”

Again the room got deathly quite as the meal resumed. A minute or two ticked by until William spoke again, “But I do believe in Santa Clause, because I’ve seen videos of him,” he stated emphatically.

A general, “Well obviously” reaction went around the room, a few nodding heads and mumbled, “of courses”, and then…not another word was spoken about Santa Clause for the next 16 years. In our house, as long as you believe in Santa, he will gift you, but if you doubt, too bad. After all, would you deliver gifts to somebody who didn’t even believe you existed?

Apparently the Easter Bunny is more generous; Easter continued unchanged for many years.

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.”

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.