It’s Just A Life.11

11. She Died Too Young

She died much too young. I remember Laurie taking me to meet her for the first time when we were juniors or seniors in high school. To get to where she lived we had to drive into Martinez – about a fifteen to twenty minute drive from the town in which Laurie and I lived. Martinez was a solidly middle to lower income town then. It hadn’t been hit by the sky rocketing cost of living in those days, and those of us who lived in Benicia looked down our noses at the slightly seedier sections of town. She lived outside of town, however.

Laurie drove me to the far side of town, and up a rather steep “hill” who’s road became less and less well maintained the higher we drove until her mustard yellow Toyota Corolla just couldn’t take us any farther. We then got out and walked. I remember thinking, for the first time that day, that I had not worn appropriate footwear. As we reached the end of what was now a fairly well maintained gravel road, we reached the gate. Laurie had a key that got us past the sturdy metal chain link fence, and we continued for a few dozen or so more yards to the private estate where she waited for us.

She was tall, and rather fragile looking, not unusual considering her age. Spindly, somewhat klutzy legs, beautiful silky grayish hair, and a flighty nature that made her seem awkward at times, but for a two year old Anglo-Arabian mare, she was rather pretty.

Laurie loved her more than any creature on earth. You could tell by the way she treated her. I’ve written before about my great friend Laurie, and anybody who knows her will back me up here…she’s a slob. She is a true life Oscar Madison, matched in our married life to my Felix Unger. She DOES NOT clean. Yes, when I lived with her you could find a sandwich in amongst the bedclothes. Dirty laundry? clean laundry? Who can say, as long as it’s not too wrinkled? Vacuum? Make the bed? Why? You just need to do it again tomorrow…Wait! I can hear you all saying. What the hell does this have to do with a lanky gray horse? Well, the thing is, Laurie would no more let that horse stand in a dirty stall overnight than she would have allowed her only son to wear a dirty diaper. No, in fact she will not do the dishes in the sink, thank you very much, but she will, in fact, go clean a horse stall before class on a freezing January morning.

Desert Sandpiper was her name. Laurie had trained her, and I was very impressed. My father loves horses, so I had learned to ride years before, so I knew the basics, but horses aren’t really my thing. They seem more sport/hobby than pet to me. I don’t do sports. Especially one that requires a shovel, but Sandpiper was easy to like.

Laurie and I would go on trail rides with me riding pillion. She gave me riding lessons; I had learned western, which Laurie looked down her British nose at. I would have to learn some English style if I was to ride Sandpiper. I even horse-sat when Laurie had to go out of town.

You’d think visiting a horse and taking her out for the occasional ride when their mistress was indisposed would garner you some loyalty, but she wasn’t that type of filly. She was more Mr. Ed than My Friend Flicka. One afternoon in the late eighties – Laurie was out of town for at least a week for some reason – I drove North, out of Davis on road 104 to the old farm where Laurie was boarding Sandpiper. I was nice enough to get her out of her stall, saddled up, and out on the trail to burn off some energy, when suddenly we were running all out towards the acres of newly planted fields that surrounded the old barn! There was absolutely no indication that the crazed horse had any intention of slowing until she was exhausted, or one or the other of us was lying dead of a broken neck in the bottom of a drainage ditch. She appeared to be fine with either outcome as she, true to her inelegant nature, tumbled head first straight into a drainage ditch. I, of course, went ass over tea kettle over her head, and manage to fall without breaking my neck!

I hopped up grateful to be alive, and furious with a stupid horse that hadn’t the sense to watch where she was going, or the grace to avoid what was there, to see a dark gray rump trotting back home to the barn. Ten minutes later, with me jogging ten feet behind, and masterfully controlling my temper so as not to startle her into running the wrong way, we arrived back at the barn. I will admit to hitting her once I had hold of the reigns, but I’m sure the whack on her butt hurt my hand way more than it did her. I think I remember feeding her before I left (after the required rub down, of course). I’ve never believed she didn’t throw me on purpose.

She would prove, however, to be rather dumb over the years. She was always terrified of bicycles, tree limbs, butterflies, and any number of inanimate objects that might jump out of thin air to taunt her. Her feet knocked together in a way that Laurie almost managed to train her out of, and I’m not sure she ever would have turned the almost white gray that Laurie always hoped for, but she was actually rather charming.

She was only moved a few times. It wasn’t something you wanted to take part in more than once, and I was glad I wasn’t there the day they moved her to the stable in Woodland. She never liked horse trailers, and this time no manner of coaxing would make her willingly go inside. In fact, on the last try, just as they managed to wedge her inside, she reared up, slamming her head into the ceiling, and biting cleanly through her wildly protruding tongue. Laurie told me later, in a fascinated way, that she ad to sit on Sandpiper’s head as the vet sewed the dangling tongue back together.

The next few months were a regimen of antibiotic injections and grain mush feedings with a syringe, but, magically in my opinion, the tongue healed. No infection, and she didn’t even seem to be that bothered by it! I remember the day she got her first solid feeding. The vet was happy with how everything looked, and a little bit of solid grain was given. She seemed to do fine, and we hoped that that was the end of the vet bills that we couldn’t pay. We went home happy.

We woke up to a phone call at two in the morning that put an end to the happy. Sandpiper was down. Most likely colic, said the nice couple who owned the stable we had rented for her. They couldn’t keep her from rolling on the ground. I had been around Laurie long enough at this point to know what that meant. If she managed to twist her intestines, there was no surgery in her future. The vet met us at the stable, and we managed to keep Sandpiper on her feet. The only advice the vet had was a common one that Laurie already knew- keep her walking. And so we walked. We walked her around and around. We walked for at least an hour, maybe more, and occasionally she would try to fall to the ground and roll. Her stomach was gassy, we hoped. Anything more wouldn’t have a happy ending.

Somewhere around hour two we began to lose hope. The only solution we could see now, was to put her down humanely. If she had a twisted gut, a portion of her intestines were likely to be starved of oxygen and lead to necrosis. Parts of the intestines dying in a very painful manner. We had the stable owners call for us, but for a moment we had hope! We were sure for a brief 30 seconds that she was having a bowel movement. If her intestines were working, she’d most likely be fine. Then down she went, strangling and convulsing for a brief moment as she died. The vet would arrive much too late.

Desert Sandpiper was 8, and indeed, this beautiful creature died much too young.


It’s Just A Life.10

10. The Green Ones

Laurie and I were never what you might call “partiers”. As a matter of fact, I think she and I probably attended 4 or 5 parties in the entire time we were a couple. We did throw a Halloween party one year, including Laurie’s parents and my mother we had exactly seven people. However, we did attend one particular party that one of my college friends threw. It wasn’t quite your typical college kegger. It was hosted by one of my culinary school friends, but it did have the prerequisite byob feel, complete with seven layer dip, red plastic cups, and extremely “green” chocolate chip cookies.

I had two older sisters that were teenagers in the seventies. So I was no marijuana virgin. In fact, since I had two older sisters that grew up in the seventies, I really didn’t have much interest in the demon weed during my formative years. Yes, I had tried it with my older sister when I was around 13. She had been trying to get me to try it since I was around 10 or 11, even teaching me how to clean out the seeds from the most likely dirt cheap junk she could afford. As it goes with all such experiments, it was a very bad trip. It started out pretty much as you’d expect. Lots of giggling that morphs into outright hysterics until my sister was afraid I would wake my mother up who was sleeping across the hall. Of course, it went from hysterical laughter to hysterical paranoia in a heartbeat. We were watching a late night movie in my room on an old portable TV I had. I really can’t remember what movie it was, but of course it became super funny in our minds. The next thing you know I was sobbing uncontrollably. I was positive that it wasn’t just marijuana. I couldn’t remember what was happening from one moment to the next. It must have been laced with acid or PCP!

I don’t remember how long it took her to get me to settle down. I think I must have scared the crap out of her because I wanted to go wake my mother up to take me to the hospital. Of course she had been down this road herself, so she just insisted I lay down and go to sleep, and of course I was asleep or passed out within a few minutes. I don’t remember trying it again while I lived with my sister. It just really wasn’t my thing. It wasn’t that I was a “goody-two-shoes”, as my sisters both thought, I just didn’t feel the need to rebel in the ways they did. I was fine getting decent grades, reading science fiction and comic books, and hanging out with my mother and her friends…actually, I guess I was pretty much the definition of a goody-two-shoes. But hey, it worked for me.

So fast-forward a few years, and there I was with Laurie at a college party, surrounded by college age kids, most likely very much like my two older sisters had been at that age, and there were the “green” cookies. And believe me, they were extremely green. They were so green that even my very naive “goody-two-shoes” girlfriend instantly recognized them for what they were. And boy was she intrigued.

She wanted to try them right on the spot. “Can we?”, she asked. In the innocent way that only a pure novice can. “No,” I said, “at least not here. But I’ll tell you what, we’ll take some home with us and try them someplace a little safer.” I had seen my sisters and their friends getting high often enough to realize what a problem it could create at this sort of party. We were having a good enough time, but it just didn’t feel like the sort of place to have her experiment. So we wrapped a few of the clay pigeon sized herbal delights up in a napkin, and stuffed them in her purse. We then went back to the party and hung out for a few more hours. We would have been among the first people to leave; as I said, we really weren’t the party type.

So there we were a few hours later, sitting in the apartment I shared with my mother (who just happened to be gone on a business trip for the weekend), breaking out the cookies. They were so dense and herbal-y that you had to choke them down as fast as you could with a large gulp of milk. I mean, after all, chocolate chip cookies have to be eaten with milk, right?

She wanted to eat a whole cookie, again in the naive way that only a pure pot virgin would try. I told her to slow down a bit. After all, if you’ve never tried it before, it’s gonna hit you like a Mac truck I warned her. So we started with just a few bites, and sat down to watch a movie. After about 5 minutes she was positive that there was something wrong with them. Nothing was happening, she claimed, and so she took a few more bites. Before I knew it she had eaten a whole cookie. Predictably, after a few more minutes, it started to have the desired effect. It happened slowly, but I could tell she was starting to get a little silly and giddy.

Interestingly, I don’t remember her getting to the hysterically funny stage I remember so well from my first time. I remember her going straight from giggly, laughing at the movie, the dig, whatever, to paranoid with no stop in between, and when she went paranoid it was all out “Oh My God I’m Dying!”

Before I knew it she was crying hysterically and babbling that there HAD to be LSD in the cookies! After all she reasoned, we had no idea who made them. We had never even asked. No matter how I assured her that it was perfectly normal to become a little freaked out, she just couldn’t calm down.

Of course I did what every cohort of the first time freak out does, I put her to bed, and luckily she fell asleep pretty fast. But that wasn’t the end by a long shot! Oh no, because she hadn’t just smoked a little, she had eaten a lot!

Every hour for the next 7 or 8 hours of the night she would wake up and begin wailing. “We need to go to the hospital!” she would demand, and I would have to talk her down and coax her back to sleep. Since it wouldn’t leave her system nearly as quickly as merely smoking it, it went on interminably. She almost had me convinced that we should call 911 at one point. Thank goodness eventually the night ended.

With the morning came a little bit of piece. Laurie had calmed quite a bit, and sheepishly admitted that she had overreacted, but unfortunately, she had to head back to school, with her college friend who had carpooled with her. I had to head to school myself, so we didn’t have much time to talk, but from what she told me I gather she didn’t feel quite right for most of the day. She had to have her friend drive her home. We never tried the green stuff again.

It’s Just A Life.9

9. Sweet Potato, Cilantro, and Cherry Pie

When I was 14 I started cooking. Mostly because I was bored after school. Being a latchkey kid with very few friends can have a bright side occasionally, creativity and a love for books are just a few. I’d open the cook book (probably on a day when I had nothing else around to read, better than a cereal box), a Betty Crocker cookbook my mother had, and find a recipe in the cookie or candy section and see what we had the ingredients for. I learned to make divinity because all you really need are eggs, sugar, water, and Karo Syrup. Those are ingredients that tend to hang around. I’d cook bacon and egg sandwiches for lunch during the summer, or if we had lemon juice around maybe lemon bars.

The book didn’t look like it had ever been opened; now it’s disintegrating. Eventually I started dabbling in poached salmon, or stuffed peppers. I remember trying to impress my future wife’s family by inviting them to dinner and making rack of lamb, carottes glacées (sugar and butter glazed carrots), twice baked potato, and most likely cherry pie. How did nobody just tell me to come out and get it over with?

Cherry pie turned out to be my signature dish. Over the years I would perfect my chicken pot pie, poulet à la crème (chicken in cream sauce), chicken crepes with apple and onions, chicken curry, David’s green chicken. Wow, I had a thing for chicken.

So I guess when it came time to figure out my life after high school, culinary arts seemed the perfect fit, and luckily, the local “junior college”, as we called them in those days, had a highly regarded program. When I started, it was free. The only thing you had to pay for were books, and a fifty dollar application fee. My AA degree was going to cost me around a thousand dollars. The book that we would use for the entire two years was around $150, if I recall correctly, I still use it. Our biggest expense was our tools. They had a recommended list of knives, of a very good quality, I still have and use them, as well. All in all, pretty cheap.

It started out well enough. The first semester was mostly learning the service aspects of the profession. Running the front of the house, as it were. Waiting and bussing, table setting, proper stocking techniques, working various cafe’s and industrial food settings, a little bit of bakery work, even a week of managing the campus restaurant. I was working as a savings and loan teller, so I found the service aspect interesting as a change of pace.

The second semester was more along the lines of food prep. Garde manger, stock and sauce preparation, soups, proper cutting techniques, catering, most of the things that are made ahead of time. By this time I was cater waiter-ing, waiting tables in a French restaurant, and working as a short order cook in the school cafeteria in the evenings. The bloom was definitely off the rose. Restaurants are a lot of work and surprisingly high stress.

Third semester was all about running the kitchen. I thrived in the bakery section. There’s nothing so fun as spending your day coming up with desserts. Chocolate mousse, cookies, cakes, butter cream frosting, ice cream, candies, yum! The program final each semester was a multi course banquet planned and executed by the third semester “seniors”, and prepared and staffed by the “freshmen and juniors” as it were. But the biggest test for each student was one of the “senior projects”; for one week you played head chef, coming up with the entire menu (except dessert). Salads, soups, sides, and main courses, conceived, planned, and disseminated to the “staff”.

Now, for the most part there are a lot of standard dishes one can use, Filet of beef, coq au vin, breaded chicken with a sauce of some sort, shrimp scampi, almost anything deep fried, but everybody would also try for a signature dish. I was not good with the creativity when it came to coming up with a signature dish, however. I had a complete block. My sister, luckily, happened to wait tables at a small, highly respected, restaurant in San Rafael, CA. My mother and I had dinner there just weeks before my stint as head chef, and there we had a fabulous special: chicken breast stuffed with sweet potato and cilantro purée. It was the first time I could remember ever having cilantro, and it was a revelation. The chef was happy to give my sister the recipe when she asked him. He came out to talk to me, and had it written on a piece of scrap paper. It was very easy he said. Flatten boneless chicken breasts, fill with mashed sweet potato, and season to taste with cinnamon, salt, pepper, and cilantro. Easy!

Well, if I’m not mistaken, it was one of the few specials actually sent back as inedible in the time I was in the program. A little cilantro is tasty, a lot of cilantro tastes like a bar of soap. I’m sure that was the moment that ended my culinary dreams.

Oh, it’s not like I was a quitter. I had worked in restaurants enough at this point to realize that they are hot, stinky, greasy, high pressure, low paid jobs imported directly from hell itself. Bakers and pastry chefs (the only department I truly loved) get up at stupid o’clock in the morning…I feel cheated if I have to get up before eight. Chefs and line cooks spend the best hours of the day working in a giant steam bath, and managers die in their thirties from stress (not statistically supported by any studies I know of, but something I believe in my heart nonetheless). They all die poor, for the most part. I had no passion that was going to sustain me. I finished out the semester, got straight A’s, as usual, even with the single worst dish ever served in the Viking Restaurant, and though I was known for making over five hundred crepes for the final banquet, and getting the highest grade in my baking class with my cherry pie final project, I knew that cooking had been forever tarnished for me. They say, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life”. I say that’s utter shite. “Do what you love”, and you’ll soon hate it.

Just a few months later I discovered The Career College of Cosmetology near where my fiancé and I relocated to in Woodland, CA. I had never once dreamed of being a hairstylist. I had never practiced braiding on my sisters, I hadn’t secretly colored my step-mother’s hair in my dreams. It was perfect!

Twenty-seven years later, I guess I made the right choice.

It’s Just A Life.8

8. Call Me Barbra

In high school I had a perm. It was the ’80s, what can I say? It looked good on me, my hair takes a perm well, and it doesn’t relax much. It always felt natural. In fact, when a free haircut went bad and the novice haircutter snipped all my curls away my senior year, many people commented that they always thought it was natural.

The perm had been part of my plan to reinvent myself. I started a new high school in my sophomore year, a lucky break because of my middle school’s longer schedule. Transferring to a new school district let me bypass the dreaded freshman year. I was determined that I would not be the shy, nerdy outcast I had always been. While it was nice to miss the freshman hazing, it wasn’t so nice trying to join an already established tribe of teenagers. I was friendless, and surrounded by people who weren’t. Still, a fresh start is a fresh start.

To that end, one of my more daring moments was on my first day at the new school, in PE of all things. We didn’t have uniforms yet, and could do whatever we wanted to pass the time. So when a few upper class students asked me to play touch football, I steeled myself for humiliation, took a deep breath, and said OK. The bravest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Okay, maybe not, but at 15 it sure felt like it.

Teenage boys are not known for their common sense. So it will amuse — but likely not shock — most people when I point out that we decided to play on the basketball court. (I assume the grass was wet.) It was an asphalt basketball court.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized I’m actually quite well coordinated, but since I detest almost all sports, I had convinced myself that I sucked at them all. So when the first play commenced, I ran for all I was worth, turned to see the ball headed straight for me, assumed I was about to prove to everybody involved what a complete nerd I was, and jumped to catch it! Unfortunately, instead of the awesome catch and touchdown I silently begged for, I stumbled, fell, and slid forward on my knees, shredding my pants, and the knees inside.

I was a bloody mess, but despite the pain, I was mostly amused and embarrassed. I was also – surprisingly – a hero. The other players were in awe that I was so dedicated to the game! Blood was pretty much the coolest thing to adolescent boys of my generation (probably all generations). What a great start for the new me!

That hero cape was quickly ripped away after lunch. I looked forward to band, in years past it helped me get through the day. That was then.

This band class, however, came with a bully. The girl’s name escapes me, but though she was pretty, she was not nice. A fairly cliché, bitchy teen who probably had deeper issues. For whatever reason, she decided I was her target, and, believe it or not, this is not the first time I’d been bullied by a girl, so I wasn’t surprised.

I think these things are usually triggered by jealousy, but I can’t imagine what it was she coveted. Nevertheless, the one downside of my perm was my undeniable resemblance to one of my lifelong idols: Barbra Streisand. This teenage ball-breaker noticed that with my curly hair and rather pronounced nose, I looked like the über-fabulous Barbra. And so Bully Girl nicknamed me Barbra, with no thought to the consequences of a teenage boy’s high school image. In a fateful second, she changed my life forever. Of course, the only thing you can do to combat a bully, they tell us, is to ignore them.

Now I have to take a timeout here to discuss this option. IT BLOWS. Nobody should ever ignore a bully. If nobody will help you, talk. Try to befriend them; don’t run away. If they won’t talk, jump their ass and try your best to beat the hell out of them. I don’t give a crap what anybody tells you, your self-esteem is more important than your physical health. If you get nocked down, get up until you can’t. They will never bother you again, and you will respect yourself. (If they have a knife or a gun, you live in a shitty neighborhood and should talk to your parents or guardian about home schooling.)

So I ignored Bully Girl, and the others who laughed with her, but the damage was done. From that day on, some random jock, or group of popular kids would smile and say, “Hi Barbra,” when passing me in the halls. I would act as if I heard nothing; You always ignore a bully.

High school passes quicker than you expect – or in some cases fear – it will. The magic of college is once again the promise of re-creating yourself. Hopefully by this time, you’ve learned the lessons that adolescence burns like scars into our soul.

Or at least you’ve learned it never pays to be a weeny.

So, on my first day of class, who should walk in, sit down beside me, and say, “Hi Barbra” as if he was relieved to see me and we would surely be the best of friends? One of the popular people I hated in high school. One of the most persistent of the “Hi Barbra”, one of the very boys from that very first day of touch football. One of the “popular” kids whom I had come to hate.

Well, it was more of a love/hate. He was handsome — voted best dressed (an honor I coveted but was too monetarily challenged to attain) — and I had had a crush on him for the past three years.

Recapturing that New Me bravery from PE class, I decided this Barbra was not going to continue “The Way We Were.” This was my very first college class, my “new” new beginning. Crush or no crush, Mr. Best Dressed was not going to ruin my college experience too!

In a rare moment of chutzpah, I looked straight at him, and said, “Don’t call me that.”

“What?” He asked.

“Don’t call me Barbra,” I said.

“Why not?” he responded, puzzled. He sincerely could not seem to fathom what I could be upset about.

“Because it’s not funny. Why would I think being called Barbra was funny?”

“Isn’t Barbara your last name?” he asked.

It’s Just A Life.7

7. Rule Of Thumb

I remember the shock of the glass breaking, an instant sting, and the adrenal rush that feels like your heart will explode from your chest. I hadn’t done anything to cause it; it was just the case of a cheap fast-food restaurant glass giving up the ghost. For some reason I think it was a Wiley Coyote glass, but after 35 years, all I know is Burger King owes me one.

It was summer, and I was alone at home. It was one of the first times since our move to Novato, CA, that I’d been alone. At 13, that was OK with me. My mother was at the beach with friends, and my sister was at work. The only thing on my calendar was breakfast, lunch – and lots of TV.

I thought it was bizarre that a feather-light tap against the cabinet could cause this silly glass to crumple in my hand. The flash of red as I snatched my hand away and instinctively closed it against my chest made it clear what I’d done. I was surprised it didn’t hurt much, but shock will do that I suppose.

I’ve never been one to panic, so I didn’t then. Ask anybody who knows me well, I’m the person you want around in an emergency. I assumed since it didn’t hurt, it was probably pretty minor. I grabbed a towel to stop the blood, applied pressure and, as I’d learned, went in search of antiseptic and bandages. I don’t think I ever found either, and I realized quickly that those wouldn’t be enough. There was more blood than there should be for a simple cut. It had started to soak through the towel in my hand and was dripping to the floor with dark red splashes. Now I started to panic – a little. Panic enough that the next-door neighbors were the only solution I could think of. Find adults – even adults who hate you.

The back patios of our condominium complex had minor fencing separating them. The condos were built with a kind of communal feel, and all of our back patios faced a public open space. Being situated on a hillside in Marin County, there was no better view to be had in this 13 year olds head, so the fact that the view wasn’t blocked only seemed natural. As an adult 40-something-ish man, I’m shocked they weren’t fenced in with 6 foot stone walls. So all I had to do was go out the back door, turn left, and knock. I can only imagine what they thought when they saw the wild-eyed half-naked neighbor boy in cutoffs looking through their slider. They didn’t say a thing other than a few comforting words. The husband just dialed 911 and they waited with me until the ambulance and crew appeared. I don’t remember what they did after the EMTs trundled me away. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing them again.

Knowing what they thought of my mother and sister, I was hardly happy seeking their help, but I also remember thinking how nice they seemed after they let me in their back patio door. It took me years to realize that there are two sides to every story, and my sisters loud stereo and somewhat volcanic attitude probably played the major part of the “villainy” in this tale.

The ambulance arrived pretty quickly. At least I don’t remember spending much time waiting in awkward silence. I also don’t remember the trip to the hospital, which I find strange, considering how exciting I must have thought it was. I was going to the hospital for stitches! The idea of stitches at the hospital was pretty cool to a 13-year-old boy. And besides, though I wasn’t going to spend the day alone in front of the TV, I was having way more fun than I had expected!

As an adult, it’s funny to me now to think that I wasn’t too worried about being alone in the emergency room. They had no trouble contacting my sister Yvonne, who was working as a waitress at a Peppermill Coffee Shop. Unfortunately, she couldn’t help much, since she wasn’t my legal guardian. My mother was at the beach, before cell phones existed. My father was a traveling salesman at the time (a three-month stint). They reached my step-mother quickly, but since she wasn’t a legal guardian either, there wasn’t anything she could do. So, I waited.

I lay on the gurney, alone and cold. Occasionally a nurse wandered by. It took a while for somebody to realize I was only wearing cut-off shorts. Regardless of what your mother says, it doesn’t matter if your underwear is clean at the hospital if you’re not wearing any. At some point, I acquired a hospital sheet, but no blanket. I’m 99 percent sure the staff assumed I had a guardian or parent nearby.

After two or three hours, they finally got my father on the phone. I never found out how. I assume his boss knew where he was going to be and left a message for him. It seems so inefficient now. If this had happened to my son, now 24, I would have known about it within minutes!

Even after they connected with my dad, there were hurdles. Nurses had to read him the legalese, get his consent for my treatment, and record the phone call. I was relieved that they’d now be able to clean me off, stitch me up, and send me on my way. So when they started rolling my gurney down the hall, I asked, “What’s the procedure for stitches?”

I wish I could remember the look on the nurse’s face as she rolled me down the hall, but I know she stopped in her tracks.

“Didn’t anybody talk to you about what’s happening?” she asked.

“No,” I replied.

“Oh sweetie, you’re having surgery. You cut the tendon and nerves in your hand, and the surgeon is going to have to stitch it all back together.”

I’ve always been on the strange side, it’s true, but you would think this would have at least thrown me a little off balance. Not me, I was excited! I had always dreamed of having surgery. From the first time I saw the early ‘70s hospital dramas, I wanted to be served ice cream and watch TV in an adjustable hospital bed while the lovely nurse came in to check that everything was okay. A hunky doctor was a given!

I tried to remember everything: the smell of the operating room, the look of the instruments, what the doctors and nurses were wearing, but as soon as they wheeled me through the door and the nurse told me to count backward from 100, I was out. I remember 99.

The next thing I knew, I was waking up to my mother’s face. She looked a little worried; She told me it was because I had had a bit of trouble coming out of the anesthesia and that they had me in the Intensive Care Unit. It doesn’t surprise me; I’ve never liked mornings.

I’ve always wondered what it was like for my mother when she came upon the scene of the crime. While I was in surgery, my mother returned from her outing, completely unaware. From what I was told, she walked in on a bloody trail of red drops, leading from the kitchen and out the back sliding door (left open when I left, as I recall). I’m surprised her reaction didn’t induce a 911 call. She called my sister who was prepared for the talk-down.

The next thing I remember is waking up in a regular hospital room. Soon after, I got a roommate — my mother. She developed a blood clot in the ankle. I initially assumed she was there to stay with me – or it was a joke. But no, she was checking in!

There are so many things wrong with this scenario, according to today’s medicine. It’s a miracle either of us survived. I stayed in the hospital for almost a week. I’m pretty sure this would be outpatient surgery today. And my mother? They never hospitalize for blood clots below the heart anymore. They give you syringes and you inject the medicine yourself. She was hospitalized for more than a week as well.

It was funny watching the nurses every time there was a shift change. It never failed, as soon as a new one walked in, she would do a double take, nonchalantly sidle over to my mother, and prepare to ask why a 30-something woman was rooming with a 13-year-old boy. She usually stopped them before they got far and explained the relationship and convenience factors.

We were treated and released without extraordinary complications. I had a cast for seven weeks. Again, no way this would happen today, I’m pretty sure I would be wearing a removable cast and seeing a physical therapist to reduce scar tissue. But in the ’70s, there was no muss, no fuss – and not the best of results.

Thirty-five years later, my thumb is stiff, and sometimes aches, but is not too noticeable on most days. And, in the final analysis, a stiff opposable thumb is better than none.

It’s Just A Life.6

6. Children Will Listen

I’ve been to eleven different schools. Eleven. When I first counted it I figured I must have counted wrong. Eleven. Who goes to eleven different schools? And of course the first thing everyone thinks of when they first hear this? No, nobody in my family has ever been in the military, unless you consider my step-brother Clark’s membership in the christian army of god. It’s no wonder I’m a social basket case. After the fourth school, I’d pretty much given up on making friends.

I was hardly a social butterfly as my mother might say, well, knowing my mother she HAS said it. I had few friends, and lived in fear of losing them should they discover the real me. By the time I got to the fourth school it wasn’t worth the effort, I was convinced I couldn’t make friends. I was bruised enough that I felt I shouldn’t make friends, and I was scared enough that I didn’t make friends. Damaged people make damaged decisions. This is why I vowed Pete, William, and I wouldn’t leave the house we bought when William was 4, until he graduated from high school. William would have stable, long-term relationships until he went to college, from then on it was all on him.

To be fair, eleven schools includes preschool and cosmetology school.

I barely remember kindergarten. I remember I really liked my teacher, but when she embarrassed me in front of other students I would be so angry that I literally couldn’t see straight! My father took me to the eye doctor because my teacher told him I had a lazy eye. I think I had anger issues. I’m not sure when I got over them; most likely some time after I moved in with my mother. She was never as strict as she should have been, but she was never stricter than she needed to be.

I don’t seem to remember as much of my early years as others do. Things changed too quickly for me to reinforce the memories. There are a few things that seem to drift to the surface occasionally. I remember my father coming to get me when I fell out of a tree onto a sprinkler. I fell on my back, and I remember I couldn’t breath well enough to cry, until just about the time my father arrived and of course I was crying by then. My father could never stand a “crybaby”.

He took me to the doctor, no permanent damage. And all I can remember is how bad I felt for hurting myself. I can’t be sure it’s true, I was pretty young. I can only remember how angry he was that he had taken me to the doctor even though I was fine. It wasn’t until I started writing that I realized how weird that kind of story sounds. If my son had done that he would have had no trouble knowing how ecstatic I was that he wasn’t hurt, and why I needed him to be more careful in the future. As Stephen Sondheim famously said, children will listen.

In kindergarten, I remember, I lived for snack time. I would volunteer as often as possible to go get the snack. Oh what a magical trip! You got special permission to go to the cafeteria, you got out of class, and you got to bring the wagon of milk back from the wonderland that is a kitchen!

I flash to those days any time I smell slightly sour milk, or eat graham crackers.

And my strongest of all school memories: in kindergarten, we were told by the teachers never to go into the park next to the school without having an adult present. There were bad men there that would “do bad things to us”. It hurts to think that I knew at age 5 what they meant. I knew enough about the world and my place in it very early. I thought they were talking about people like me, and I didn’t really understand the difference for many years to come. Children will listen.

We moved at the end of that school year. I remember where we lived like it was yesterday; an apartment complex in Carmichael. It’s still there, but now it’s condos. It wasn’t a great area, but my friends and I terrorized the apartment grounds, wild and unattended, and always felt safe. We were bad children when left to our own devices, which I firmly believe is every child’s natural state.

My mother tells me my sisters and I lived with her for the last few weeks of that school year and then we flew to Arizona to live with my father who had moved for a job promotion. There’s a hole where the memories of staying with my mother should be. I find that odd, but no more odd than half the other crap that life threw at me as a child.

I don’t remember how I felt about the move to Arizona, either. The new school didn’t seem too bad I guess; I started in the first grade, so it wasn’t like I was the new kid in school that time. For the most part Webster Elementary was a typical 70’s era primary school. I think I got a pretty good education, but I probably would have almost anywhere in those days. I spent most of my time in the library during free times at school as I grew older. Over time they made up rules specifically for me, banning students from the library until a certain number of minutes after lunch started, no students in the library during the shorter late morning recess, and simply even resorted to telling me I had to go outside and play.

Libraries have always been my refuge. The books, my god, who can pass up all those books? And in elementary school, you’re not going to find anything too disturbing, violent, or overtly sexual, so you can enjoy everything without risk! I could have read through the entire library if they had let me. At times I would get burnt out on certain types of books, or feel like I had read everything I could in the library, so I would read the encyclopedia! The encyclopedia (and now Wikipedia) are, in my opinion, the god’s gift to humanity. Education is what makes us human, and even the laziest person on earth can browse wikipedia. I lose hours there. The library was my escape from the growing realization that kids were figuring out what I was.

Faggot is a horrible word to throw at a scared young boy, and you don’t ever really recover. So I hid, and I coped. This is where I discovered Judy Bloom,  E. L. Konigsburg, and Madeleine L’Engle. Equally lucky for me, at around 4th grade I met Chris. He was the best friend I could ever have hoped for. I persuaded him to join the band when I learned he played trumpet just like me, and after a few weeks we were inseparable. I have to admit to a very large crush on Chris, but I never found out if it would have meant anything, and I had no intention of hurting our friendship by trying anything, and besides, we were only children. I still search for him on Facebook, but so far no luck.

When I found out half way through sixth grade that we were moving back to California, again I wasn’t sure how I felt. I was secretly thrilled that I would be moving in with my Nana. My father and step-mother were moving to Las Angeles, and according to them they weren’t sure what area would have decent schools. I didn’t mind that situation in the least! There was no one as loving and accepting of me as my Nana. I’m pretty sure I was her favorite. It didn’t hurt that I’m the youngest, I’m sure. But moving meant leaving Chris. He was quite literally the only friend I had had for the past three years. From my perspective at the time, the only person in my life who cared. He would let me cry when I had some perceived grievance against my father or step-mother. Childish stuff, but important to a lonely boy. And on some level I knew we would lose touch. I called him once, I don’t think he was allowed to call me because of long distance charges. Eventually I lost his phone number, and we haven’t spoken in 36 years, but I haven’t lost hope.

Antioch, where my Nana lived, was a completely foreign experience for me. It was a revelation! For some reason, all of the kids at the school I transferred into thought I was amazing. I was instantly popular. I assume in some way I was exotic. Antioch’s a pretty small town, interesting was good. I was in the band, I was in a dance group that was trying out for a talent competition (swear to god), and I had the most supportive home life of my entire 11 years. Until it all fell apart.

I don’t clearly remember the chain of events. I think I was staying with my mother over the easter break. She was taking me to the train station to go back to school from what I can piece together. But somehow we got a message that my Nana was sick. She was in the hospital, and there was no way she could take care of me any longer. She didn’t die, but she was not healthy for much longer. I don’t think I got to say goodbye to her, but in my heart I know we were good.

I ended up staying with my mother. I was awful to her those first few hours and days. I didn’t mean to be, but I was so sad that I wasn’t living with my Nana that I was practically inconsolable, I only very slowly realized how amazing it was going to be to be with my mother. It had just never occurred to me. Since I hadn’t been living with her up to this point, I figured she didn’t want me. Also, it didn’t help that my mother was used as a threat all through grade school: i.e. “If you’re not happy here I can always pack you up and send you to your mother’s. Is that what you want?” Actually, I couldn’t decide, yes/no? I decided that I probably didn’t if it was such a bad idea. Which led me to believe that that wasn’t what I wanted. In fact, however, when it happened, it was the best thing ever. My mother is an amazingly loving and supportive person, a little too much at times, but nobody can deny her obvious devotion to her family and friends. She helped a damaged little gay boy find himself, and though I didn’t do it very well, I like to think I succeeded eventually. Children will listen.

The school in Sacramento was odd. I don’t remember any school work. I think there were only a few weeks of school left, and the teacher didn’t see the point. I was always a straight A student, so it didn’t really matter in the long run. The kids were nice, but with less than two months of school left, we all figured why bother. I made a few friends, but I never saw them after those few months, so whatever. I decided friendships were too hard, so again, why bother.

Junior high school was so much different from anything I had known (and yes we moved, so I didn’t know anybody in the new school), that it wasn’t really bad that I didn’t know anyone. I made friends, I was in the band, I was starting to notice how cute the upper clansmen were. Gym was becoming torture, who’s idea was it to have naked young men parade around during adolescence in the locker room. Does nobody see how naturally erotic that is? Even straight boys are affected by it. Shit. I spent the first half of my day dreading gym, and the last half dreading the next day. I was obsessed with it. We only had communal showers for god’s sake! And then, to add insult to injury, the very hot, strangely older boy (you know the one, the one who started shaving in grade school, and now appeared to be in his twenties even though you’re in middle school), and the rather hot gym coach were extremely chummy! Nothing out of the ordinary, but he was obviously coaches favorite, and coach showered after our gym class! Thank god he had his own private shower, I don’t think it would have ended well for me.

I stayed at Howe Avenue Junior High School for the whole year, and half the next. Yes, half. Halfway through the year we moved to Novato. I have to admit I fell in love with the little town of Novato, but it didn’t quite fall in love with me. My mother and my oldest sister rented a condo together on the newest, and most expensive side of town. The condo WE lived in wasn’t expensive, that word could never have been used in conjunction with the much too stereotypically cheap landlord. Nevertheless, we were the poor people, on the rich side of town. The junior high school on that side of town, honest to god, they had a rich side of town junior high (Novato Junior High), and a poor(er) side of town junior high (Hill Junior High). Let me paint the picture. You arrive at Novato Junior High School (long since closed, it is now a youth activity center), and the first thing you notice is the beautiful redwood buildings. They are sighted perfectly, with the rolling Marin County hills set behind. A creek bisects the campus, with two picturesque bridges to either side of campus. It was the prettiest school I’d ever attended, unfortunately, the kids were all much better off than my family, and once again, there was only a month or two left of the school year. Nobody needed to go out of there way to befriend me, and I just didn’t have the energy to try. I remember at one point I stayed home sick for over two weeks. You would think this would be a problem, but there just wasn’t that much to do for my classes anyhow, as I said, I was already a straight A student, and they just didn’t seem to be too worried about my work, so everybody seemed to figure, meh.

It seems crazy that my mother would let me stay home for so long. Every morning she’d ask how I was feeling, I’d say my throat still hurt, and I would stay home. Maybe somebody brought my school work to me, but I don’t remember it.

When I was at school the library at Novato Junior High School is were I fell in love with Ray Bradbury, Heinlein, and a host of other science fiction authors. There were no rules barring me from the library, if I had a break, and the library was open, that’s where I would be. I haven’t been to a library in years, but I know if I stepped inside one, I would feel instantly at home. The slightly moldering pages, the dusty books on row after row of shelving, the Dewey decimal system, the card files for checked out books, it all is so fresh in my brain. Oh wow. That made me sound so old. Do they still have file cards at the library? Are there books?

Once again I had come to this school so late in the year that they didn’t even try to teach me anything. A few perfunctory projects, some worksheets, but really, since I had come with a completely different curriculum, there wasn’t much hope of integrating me. I think I made one or two friends here, but nobody I can even remember.

Over the summer we moved to an apartment in the middle of town. I liked it better there. The school that I transferred to, Hill Junior High School (closed in 2011), was a pretty average school. Academically it was in the middle of the spectrum, but I got to start fresh with the rest of the classes. The kids were nice enough, not snobby like other parts of town and I managed to make a few friends. At this point I didn’t try for good friends, just kids I could hang out with at lunch. I spent my after school time with comic books. That fantasy world was much easier to navigate. Of course we moved half way through the year from Novato to Vallejo. At this point I put my foot down. I refused to change school. I told my mother that if I had to go to school in Vallejo I would get on the bus in the morning, ride it to campus, and walk home. We worked something out.

I commuted with my mother’s boyfriend from Vallejo to Novato, and then I would hang out in the library (where else) until it closed, and then out in front until my mother picked me up around 5 or 5:30. I learned a lot of patience during that time. Somewhere around the last six weeks of school we moved again. Away from the boyfriend, quite a little story in itself.

I moved in with my sister so I could finish out the year. She lived in San Rafael so theoretically I could ride the bus. But in fact, the librarian at the school would pick me up in the morning to take me to school, and I would only ride the bus home. What would I have done without the library?

At the end of that year I moved to Benicia with my mother. I actually stayed in the same school all the way through the end of high school. I don’t think I would have gone to another school. Knowing me, I would have just taken the GED test and called it quits.

It’s Just A Life.5

This is a repost, but only because it happens to be chapter 5. Well, it also happens to be one of my personal favorites.


5. She Became A Nun

I met Delphine the summer before I started at Hill Junior High School, the second middle school I attended in Novato. I fell in love with Delphine instantly. Now don’t get all worked up that a gay boy (which I very much was) could fall in love with a girl, it certainly wasn’t the last time.

This was in a phase in our lives that was almost pre-sexual, if such a thing exists. I know children are sexual beings, but that doesn’t mean they have the urges to explore it constantly. I just didn’t think in those terms with Delphine. I knew what I was, but really didn’t quite know what I was going to do. Delphine was like a young elf princess. But not the shrinking violet kind, the don’t cross me or your life will suck for a very long while kind, and besides, I genuinely liked girls. I don’t think puppy love is right for how I felt, and still feel to some extent to this day. I’d say love at first sight, in a chaste sort of way.

I wish I could remember how we met. She lived with her grandparents in the same apartment complex that my mother and I lived in. Delphine’s mother was absent, and strange. I only met her once, and the only thing I recall from meeting her was how alike she and Delphine looked, as if she were a clone, and the father she never talked about, literally didn’t exist. I don’t remember a single word spoken about her father. Delphine and I became friends very quickly. Unfortunately, her grandparents hated me, well more accurately, they seemed to hate everybody.

She and I often played word games or practiced dancing. This was the peak of the disco era, which may just be one of the gayest eras, I couldn’t miss out on that! Mostly we just hung out and played stupid teenage flirty games. Her grandparents wouldn’t allow her to see me, and she could never let them know we hung out together. It was like forbidden love. High drama!

When school started we were practically inseparable. And then one day, I honestly can’t remember when it happened, she stopped talking to me. No explanation, just done. I think our relationship scared her; she was scared by what she thought I wanted, something I believe she couldn’t reciprocate. It still makes me sad to remember those first days.

It seemed that she changed overnight. She dressed like a completely different person, the catholic school girl was gone (yes she had been), and the tom boy rock chick emerged! She went from playing bass clarinet, and Cello, to playing base guitar, and not only would she not hang out with me any longer, she shunned me completely. I remember being desolate for days. My mother, in desperation I assume, gave me a small dish garden of hers to give to Delphine as a peace offering. I honestly just wanted to be her friend. I had no desire for more, and I had sensed for some time that she didn’t either. Not because she wasn’t attracted to me, but because she wasn’t attracted to men. But I think I scared her away. Trying to get her to talk didn’t help. I took the planter to her apartment, and, afraid to be seen by her grandparents, I knocked, and hurried around the corner to listen.

They answered, I heard somebody swear, and shut the door. Damn it all, they hadn’t seen it. I knocked again, and scurried again. Ditto. They completely missed the damn planter sitting right in front of the freakin’ door! I was terrified. Somehow I had ended up playing a stupid game of Knock And Run, and I didn’t even realize it yet. In desperation I went to the door, picked up the dish, and knocked. I stood stalk still. A split second later the door was flung open! As I jumped back a little old man jumped out and yelled “What do you want!?!”

Scared the living shit out of me! It wasn’t until this very moment that I actually clued in to the fact that I was in fact playing Knock And Run. And with the grandparents who hated me for Christ’s sake.

I quickly told him who I was, who the gift was for, and no, I hadn’t seen anyone running away when I arrived. No lie involved! An audience with Delphine was denied in the strongest possible terms, and I was too scared to do anything but scurry away. I barely had a chance to speak to her ever again.

She changed dramatically in almost every way, going from straight A’s, to practically failing. She had confided to me early in our friendship that she wouldn’t answer in class anymore because people thought she was weirdly smart, which of course she was. It was obvious to me that drugs were involved in her transformation, but she never seemed so bad that it was obvious to anybody else. We hung out for part of a day right after school ended. She obviously didn’t really want to be there. It was so uncomfortable.

I spent years searching for her online. I wanted to come out to her, and hoped it would allow me back into her life. I tried early social media sites like I often googled her late at night. I even contemplated joining a “people search” site to see if I could find a number for her. Nothing. When Facebook came into heavy use I knew eventually she would join. Delphine is a rare enough name that I was certain eventually I’d find her. And eventually I did! She was listed (cryptically) as the base-guitar player for a band named The Nuns, under a pseudonym, Delphine Volino (Neid). It didn’t list very much info, but on later research I’ve learned that The Nuns were one of the very first punk bands, originating in San Francisco and Marin. They were extremely important in introducing the punk music scene, and were highly regarded, though not immensely successful. Delphine replaced their former guitarist in 1986, and was described as young and gifted. Delphine would have been 21 at that time, and she was most assuredly gifted. She made me love classical music after I heard her play the cello. Unfortunately, as I learned as I read more, she died of a drug overdose shortly after The Nuns finished recording their album Desperate Children, in 1990. I was shocked, but thought that, though extremely unlikely (young base player, drugs, named Delphine, in Marin County) maybe it wasn’t her. The odds were ridiculous, and it seemed it must be her, but still, there’s always hope. I contacted the only person I could find info on, the lead singer Jennifer Miro. I sent an email asking if she remembered Delphine? Did she know of her history? Was this Delphine the same girl who went to middle school in Novato?

After sending the message I forgot about it. Moved on, wondered occasionally, but only briefly. So months later, when I got a reply, I was dumbfounded. Jennifer’s answer didn’t settle my nerves. Yes, she was sure it was her. She knew her very well, in fact she was looking at a picture of her as she wrote the email, and how she and the whole band missed her every day. I have no proof, but I think she confirmed not only Delphine’s identity, but other questions I had as well. But I still wasn’t really convinced. You can’t think of a friend as dead on circumstantial evidence. Denial and hope are too strong.

And then while researching The Nuns again, I found a video! The only scrap of video ever taped showing Delphine Volino (Neid) performing with The Nuns apparently. After all those years and months, I was now positive it was her. Though the video was black and white and very blurry and grainy, I recognized her body language instantly. Even after all these years I recognized her signature slouch and bounce, a strange bobbing of her head when she played, and a singular focus that seemed to block out the rest of the world at times and playfully laugh at it the next. I cried, finally. In all the years I searched, I always knew I would connect with her again. I grieved for her life and tragic ending, and for the lost chance to tell her how much she meant to me.

It turns out Jennifer Miro’s email would reach me just 7 months before she too would pass away. She died quietly of liver and breast cancer in January of 2012. I don’t know anyone else that would have known Delphine. Our story is finished.

It’s Just A Life.4

4. Mendocino, My Own Private Oz

Mendocino, my own private Oz, is the place I go to feel like I’m “not in Kansas anymore”.

Yes, you are likely to hear me tell you that Hawaii, specifically Kauai, is my happy place. And that is absolutely true. It’s the place I go – figuratively and literally – that is immediately relaxing. It’s a place my husband Pete and I discovered, that’s totally free from childhood memories, or any of the daily stress of modern life. Honestly, I can walk off the plane at the Honolulu airport and feel instant rejuvenation. I’m relaxed, and ready for adventure.

But Mendocino? Mendocino is particularly special to me because it’s where I met the men I consider to be my gay role models. They owned a house in the hills above Mendocino. It was a beautiful redwood coastal house, with modern lines and a totally fabulous kitschy and laid back vibe, and they were fabulous, and seemed to be genuinely happy with each other. I had never (knowingly) even seen a gay couple before, and to be staying with one, at their house, near the beach?! They were who I wanted to be, but was absolutely terrified to allow myself to become.

It was the summer, and I was there with my mother and two of her friends. I’m amazed I was allowed to tag along, but I was always precocious for my age, and my mother didn’t have a lot of options for babysitting. At 14, I was too young to stay home alone, but too old for a “babysitter”. It became one of the most important trips of my life.

It was a revelation to me, seeing this happily adjusted – and apparently well-off – couple. Before this time, I assumed that if I followed my heart, and admitted I was gay, I would end up a lonely old man with no family or friends. Little did I know, what true love brings into your life can’t ever be taken away. These men showed me that. They were happy in their skin, and totally honest and comfortable with who they were.

It’s been too many years now for me to remember them very clearly. They seemed to be a much older couple, which of course to a 14 year old must mean they were in their late 40s. They were funny, accomplished cooks, their house was beautifully decorated in a California coastal style of the early 80s, and most of all they just seemed to enjoy being together.

My favorite evening of our visit was the night we all settled in front of the television and watched “The Wizard Of Oz” on VHS. Honest. To. God. It was already the favorite movie of my 14 years of life, and this made it even more amazing because they didn’t think it was stupid to watch it! They loved it as much as I did. And that was the seed that gave me the courage to admit to myself what I was.

Oh it’s not like I had a major epiphany and came screaming out of the closet that weekend. No, I would go on to make the mistakes that all young people make. Believing I could make something obviously wrong for me become the right fit. Hoping to make my parents and friends happy in the life I thought they wanted me to live. But they lit a spark that would take hold around 10 years later and remind me that I could be happy with the hand life dealt me if I truly chose to.

I love to go to Mendocino with Pete. He doesn’t like the drive, but I would happily drive there myself. That’s really saying something, because I hate driving. Pete and I wanted to be married there, but in the end we didn’t want to spend a fortune on a ceremony that would be just as meaningful in our own home. Maybe we’ll renew our vows there in 20 years.

I love the streets of downtown Mendocino. Pete and I have spent Christmas Day strolling, window shopping, and looking for the one restaurant that’s open (Mendocino has a charming tradition of rotating which restaurant’s open on holidays). I love the cool winter evenings, sitting in the window of the Mendocino Hotel & Garden Suites in town, having a drink, and staring at the sea illuminated by the moonlight, or even just staring out into a moonless night. We like to travel to the botanical gardens in Fort Brag, Glass Beach – or really any beach – to lie on a blanket in the sand, reading a book or taking a nap.

I love the art shops. These are the few times I wish I was a millionaire, just to be able to buy some of the fabulous art found in the dozens of art galleries. I love walking the dogs through town, stopping at a coffee shop on the corner, climbing the staircase in whatever business currently resides in the water tower on Albion Street. It was a garden shop the first time we visited, then an art gallery, or maybe a gift shop. But it will always be a garden shop in my mind. Our china was purchased in an antique shop down the street. And though I rarely do, I am always tempted to splurge on some designer clothing at one of the ridiculously expensive clothing shops in town.

None of these memories can compete, however, with sitting on an amazing deck overlooking a lush Northern California coastal valley, eating a homemade trifle. It was prepared for us by the perfect couple that welcomed (an obviously gay) boy into their home, and hearts. The grand finale? I took home a kitten. You really couldn’t top that trip if you tried.

In my many returns, I’ve tried several times to find their house, wandering the streets above Mendocino with my ever-accommodating husband, but no luck. It’s almost like my fairy godfathers didn’t leave a trace. They came into the life of a scared little 14 year old, and then disappeared without a trace. The hard part of that trip, and those following and yet to come, is returning home, over the rainbow, to everyday life.

It’s Just A Life.3

3. Yard Work, Gardening, Slavery, Hobby

The first plant I ever remember purposely cultivating was a simple annual called Celosia. It’s a plant I consider garish and unrefined today. It’s an annual, so it has to be replanted every year. It’s got a large “cockscomb” flower at the top of its single stem. You usually see them planted en masse in flower bed, or maybe lining a path. In twenty years of committed gardening, I have never planted it again. But this little plant was special to me for some reason. It was given to me at the mall where my step-brothers and I would hang out on weekends or summer break. We would often get free samples at the candy store (until they kicked us out), find treasures in the dumpsters outside J.C.Penny, Walgreens, or Diamond’s (Mesa’s version of Macy’s, now owned by Dillard’s), or once a year, free seedlings from the garden center. 

At the time I would have told you that I hated “yard work”. I wouldn’t have known what gardening meant, I’m sure. Yard work I knew. It meant cutting the grass at 6 am in the middle of the summer because by 10 am, when any self respecting summer vacationing 10 year old wanted to get up, it would be 100 degrees in the shade. It meant pulling weeds by hand as soon as there was any shade in the rosebuds, and it meant cleaning up dog poop around the pool before being allowed to swim in said pool.

My step-brother Clark and I would take turns mowing the boring square patch of lawn in the front yard. Back and forth lengthwise we would push the two-stroke gas mower as it screamed and belched toxic fumes that were hotter than the morning air. After a certain number of passes, trying to clip as wide a path as possible without missing a strip between passes, we would trade. Of course we did always leave a strip, which just meant more work going back over it. The problem with getting up early in the suburbs of Phoenix in mid June? It’s already miserable by 6 am. We detested it. I don’t remember the consequences of doing bad work, but I do remember that it always was bad work. I don’t remember ever being praised by my father. He was a product of his generation. It was a job that needed to get done, not a moment for praise.

We were responsible for clearing out the cuttings when my father would prune the Pyracantha bushes, and though I’m sure it’s because he was too self-centered to even think of buying his kids gloves for gardening, the reason I remember being given for us working gloveless while he, of course, did not, was because our hands were smaller and we could grab between the thorns, and while I’m sure that it’s true we could have grabbed between the thorns with our smaller hands, you don’t cary shrub clippings one at a time and hope to spend less than an entire day moving them all.  The best advice coming from my father? Stop whining and toughen up. As I said before, he was a product of his generation.

Pruning the ivy growing on the back porch was neck and neck with the pyro bushes for most hated summer job. While it’s true that ivy has no thorns, it is also true that I am extremely allergic to ivy (and grasses and a number of trees, just like my father). Piles of acrid smelling vines would pile up under my fathers ruthless hacking. Dust, and most likely spiders, danced in the hot, dry, and mercilessly still air. We would gather up as much as we could carry at a time, sneezing and hacking out the back gate and dumping them in the alley. Return and pick up another armful. Rinse (preferably the garden hose, but the pool was right there in a pinch), repeat.

Weed pulling was grueling, and we never did a good enough job according to my father. Which I have to admit is probably true. By my standards today I would consider our work mostly half-assed. But we were ten, and ten year olds suck at everything. That’s what it means to be ten. 

Yet even though I was convinced that I HATED yard work. I still took this little Celosia plant home and planted it in the only bare dirt on our lot that would receive full sun. A tiny corner where the carport met the path to the front door. Bare dirt, and direct, blazing, scorching sun from noon until around 6. Now, when I planted I was careful to crack the soil into as many smallish clumps as I could so that there was a decent chance some of the water would pause on it’s way by. Of course you had to be careful when packing the dirt clods back around the base of the plant not to crush, well, everything. Then water thoroughly, make sure drainage is good (I always assumed that the dirt in my little garden being bone dry within minutes to be a good sign where drainage was concerned). All I had to do now was sit back and prepare to be blown away with the lush and vibrant little plant shown on the little black plastic pot the little sprout was packaged in!

For several years I planted one of these perky little seedlings. Every year it lasted about three or four hours in the relentless Phoenix sun. The fact that years later I took a barren patch of dirt in the courtyard of the duplex Laurie, William, and I shared in Woodland and planted a garden (never to see fruition as this was the summer Laurie and I separated), proves to me that I have the soul of a gardener. So when I moved in with Pete in his middle-class duplex on the fringes of East Sac, it just seemed natural that I would help him renovate the front and back yards. He had made a start in the back with a little sprucing, but the front was a complete tear-down. The shrubs were dreadful. Every person that lived there or visited seemed to be allergic to them, they smelled funny, and they were completely out of control. The lawn was pure weeds, and the yard had no character. So I took charge. Pete put his energy into preparing the soil for seeding a new lawn, we replaced the shrubs with better behaved varieties, planted roses, lined the walkway, and added a perennial bed at the corner. In the fall Pete seeded, and before we new it we had a half way decent front yard.

As it happens, we only lived there a few months longer. A house we had passed daily on our way to the coffee shop a few blocks away suddenly dropped it’s asking price by a few thousand dollars, and we realized we could actually afford it with a little cash flow management. 

It was my dream house. It was a cute little bungalow with casement windows, beautiful hardwood floors, and 1927 charm coming out the wazoo. When we moved in we were ecstatic, but of course like any good home owner I saw all the flaws that needed fixing right away.

The first thing I did the very first weekend after we took possession was to kill off the side yard. It was a waste of space. I wasn’t about to maintain a silly little 6 by 10 patch of lawn. It became a rose garden over the next winter. I then started planting the front, and by the middle of the next summer Pete and I were redoing the back yard. Suddenly I was gardening, not doing yard work! Pete had to promise to prune the bushes and help with the weeding though. You only get so much out of me.

It’s Just A Life.2

2. Three Strikes And You’re Out

It wasn’t that I couldn’t play sports. It’s that I despised them so much, I wouldn’t let myself be good at them. Of course I didn’t understand that when I was young. It took me decades to realize where the problem started. Quite simply, my father is a sports nut. Not your Sunday armchair quarterback, or your team fanatic, no, my father is more dedicated than that.

We had one of the first VCRs in our neighborhood, possibly our whole town for that matter. My father won it for some sort of office competition. Who repossessed the most cars or double-wides, or something similar. It was only capable of recording one show at a time, and programming the thing was a bear, but now my father could watch sporting events in one room, while recording one to watch later in another!

Saturdays and Sundays were a marathon of sporting events. Weekends were an endless parade of Wild World of Sports, Monday Night Football, The Summer Olympics, The Indianapolis 500, summer baseball, Wrestlemania, My god, if it was a sport he’d watch it! And for some reason he always expected my step-brothers Clark and Kirk and Me to want to watch with him…eery single time! It was like he’d never met us before.

He’d all but order us to sit and watch with him. I’m sure the sitcom-perfect sports loving family is what he pictured, but as we got more and more bored and fidgety, he’d get more and more disappointed and irritated. It would always end with him sending us outside to play, or to our rooms to do something quiet if we couldn’t sit still and pay attention.

One summer day he drug us to the races. Motocross to be exact. At first it sounded great! Going to the fair grounds, motorcycles, hotdogs, sodas, what’s not to like, right? Yeah, well, that’s not quite the way it went. You see, we lived just outside Phoenix, Arizona. If I remember correctly, we were rather lucky, it was only in the low 90s that afternoon. Of course there was no shade and a horrific amount of dust and hay, but at least it wasn’t in the hundreds. I remember we had a great view of the races. Unfortunately, I discovered that day how agonizingly boring a race truly is. The races are loud, and pointless in my 12 year old brain, and it turns out, I don’t even care about the stupid bikes themselves. It was that day that I realized that a great portion of the people watching a race are actually just waiting for the inevitable crashes. No thanks.

Theoretically, a couple of young boys should at least enjoy the freedom to roam the race track area, right? Concession stand, mechanics area, play under the bleachers. Yeah, again, that’s not how it went down. One glaring problem in all of this? My father and indulgence are literal polar opposites. We didn’t need to waste money on hotdogs, we could eat when we got home. No, we didn’t need to get sodas, there were water fountains, right? And we knew there was no point in asking for ice cream. Yay, having such fun. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just watching sports that intrigued my father, oh no. No, he was also sure that if he could just get us involved in a sport, we’d surely thank him later.

It’s clear to me now that my father never actually saw me. He only ever saw what he wanted, and what he disliked. Of course, I was never anything but what I was – a quiet little gay boy who loved chorus and band, who played with dolls, and wanted nothing more than to hide somewhere by himself with a book. What my father saw, I have never been sure.

Another summer, my father, ever hopeful, took Clark and me to the park. He must not have told us why, because when we ended up at the baseball diamonds for little league tryouts, my step-brother and I were both caught completely unaware. He actually expected us to try out for one of the teams! It was one of the few times in my entire life that I put my foot down to my father. It was crazy to put us through tryouts. He knew as well as we did that it was a total waste of time. I don’t think I had ever picked up a baseball, or a bat, in my entire life. I certainly had no illusions of what was going to happen when somebody threw a baseball at me, and it would not be good. I should have realized it wasn’t going to be as easy as saying no to my father. With a disappointed, or perhaps more accurately, disgusted frown, he said fine. No tryouts.

Yay, we thought! My step-brother and I were uncharacteristically unified in our joy. Usually our good spirits came at the expense of one another, but this was a small miracle. My father never gave in to our opinions. But, of course, we should have realized this would be no different. As we followed my father away from the tryouts, we noticed a number of mingling boys who had gathered in a diamond on an adjacent corner of the park. Our hearts sank as we saw the sign hanging on the backstop. “‘No tryout’ team sign-up here”. Yup, as far as my father was concerned we were going to enjoy our summer wether we wanted to or not.

I was lucky, I only had to suffer through pre-season practice and a couple of games before I was unexpectedly whisked off to my mother in California. I only had to put up with watching the outfield players move in closer when I came up to bat, and being struck out on every pitch, a few times. I was in California long enough that by the time I returned the season was over. It may have been the only time in my life that I’ve felt sorry for my step-brother. He had to play the entire season, and he was no better equipped for it than I was.

I discovered years later that I am actually pretty good at sports; you have to want to. I also discovered how much people can whitewash their memories. My father and I were discussing something forgettable, as we usually do, at some family gathering, when unexpectedly my father remembered the baseball season. “You guys begged me to take you to those tryouts,” he insisted. At which point I put my foot down for the second time. “Who exactly do you think I am?” I asked incredulously. To his credit he didn’t argue.3