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.

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.