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Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Delta Inside of Me

Even as a hunched and bug-eyed septuagenarian, my grandmother was a true matriarch. She could still summon a raspy smoker's boom of a voice. She was the only one that could rally my entire extended family for a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner. I believe this was because she actually loved every one of us. It was a shame there was no proper eulogy at her funeral; just awkward silences and the useless words of a minister that no one knew, and who certainly didn't know her.

My Nana carried an out-of-place nobility about her. No matter what pains life had thrown at her, and they were more than I or anyone else in the family had suffered, her chin was up and her eyes burned with curiosity and passion. She told every one of us to be proud... that ours was a great heritage... that we were descendants of statesmen like Henry Clay... that she was pals with important people like her former Navy Admiral crush... and that we, an important family, would establish ourselves as power brokers in this nation once again.

Her husband beat her and his own daughters. He died when I was young, but I do not recall anyone shedding any tears. She never remarried, living the last 20 years of her life a widow. Her own father almost certainly molested her. She alone tended to him through his 90's after he was unable to care for himself.

Her own daughters struggled... Marrying abusive men themselves. My mother ran away from home at 16. My aunt wrestled with addiction issues. Her brothers, my great uncles, were leathery men with profound darkness in them. The likable of the two was best known as a gambler and a drinker. The other was just known as a bastard. The only time I remember talking to him, he was telling antisemitic stories because he found out I worked for a Jewish agency.

Her grandchildren and her nieces and nephews were broken and angry like scattered shards of glass. My siblings left home when they could, used too much cocaine, and stopped being the people that I cared about. People were genuinely afraid of cousin Tommy. It was easier to just let him steal things to pay for his drug habit than to risk injury by confronting him. My sister's wedding was punctuated by cousin Lynnette's ex-boyfriend showing up high and crashing his car into another vehicle when he tried to speed off. And on my half-siblings' side of the family, the litany of affairs, betrayals and vendettas put soap operas to shame.

There were no brokers of power here. There was corruption, infidelity, addiction and failure. With the exception of my cousin Lynn, there were no college graduates. There was nothing that I could find to be proud of. My grandmother, my Nana, a beloved beacon to us all, was delusional.


But things conspired to give me a better chance. I knew my parents, and I knew they loved me. Shortly after I was born, they got me away from the wasteland that is southern California. They raised me with animals and farmland and guitar music and deep woods were I could build forts and pick huckleberries and walk with my dogs for entire summers. My father believed in accountability, never missing a day at work. He taught me the value of never losing your wallet. He wore a taped together pair of glasses for five years rather than replace them. And he would take apart anything that was broken and fix it, whether it was a washing machine or a VCR.

My mother was a creative genius. I still remember (I was about 14 years old) when I painfully realized she wasn't actually the best artist in the world. Until then, I had maintained an absolute faith that she was. Her drawings were magic... unfathomable in their creation. She taught me about quality, and about the staggering difference between Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. And when I was barely old enough to grasp their significance she introduced me to Harold and Maude, Odetta, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

I did not understand these strengths at the time. Mostly, I just knew that I didn't relate well to my peers. I was competitive and insecure. I thought we were poor. I thought I had little to offer when I compared myself to the other AP kids who were building circuit boards or zeroing in on a basketball scholarship. I thought there was something deeply wrong with me... and that it was probably in my blood. My heritage was a curse that I would never escape.

And yet, my life feels a blessing. My career has blossomed, my relationships feel healthy and supportive, and I have learned to be unafraid when change is in the air. This is a fate that I could not have imagined for myself. I am grateful for all the gifts of my parents, the education I received and the travels that have shaped me. I also wonder if my grandmother was right all along. I should remember the silent contribution of those statesmen and power brokers. Perhaps their ghosts live inside me: the Russian nesting dolls of DNA.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Magic Ring Part 2

"Ice on my fingers and my toes and I'm a Taurus"

On a bright wintery afternoon a few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to take some photographs of Dizzy. Inspired by Madmen, I posed her serving cocktails and dressed like a housewife from the 1950s. I was looking for a creative way to tell her that I thought she was beautiful. And also for an excuse to boss her around for an hour. To complete her costume, I figured she needed a rock on her finger. And since I was serving as temporary custodian of a family heirloom, I slipped the owl-cut diamond ring onto her finger. I made it very clear that this was a game. I was not being a bastard about it. Putting a diamond ring onto someone's finger without clear rules and expectations is not okay in my book.

Innocent fun was had... which led to less innocent fun. But first, Dizzy slid the ring off of her finger and handed it to me. I remember setting it on the low shelf opposite my bed, thinking "I'll put it back in its box in an hour or two."

Two days later I remembered the ring. In an "Oh crap, I forgot to remember" moment, I rushed to the shelf to retrieve it and put it safely back where it belonged. I also resolved that I would make it a priority to get that thing over to Amy so I don't have to be responsible for it anymore. The ring, however, was gone. An immediate sense of confusion and concern set in. I retraced steps. I laid on my bed and tried to recreate exactly where I had set the ring down. As I had trouble remembering the exact chain of events, I resolved to just search my entire bedroom. I pulled the shelf away from the wall. I got a flashlight and scanned every inch beneath my bed. I examined every surface of shelving. I pulled back the blankets and sheets and shook them out. Nothing.

Now I was starting to feel a little panic, so I called Diz and asked her if maybe she had moved it somewhere without telling me... or if she had a clearer recollection of exactly where I put it. She didn't have any new information, but she agreed to come help me look later that afternoon. For the rest of the morning I searched. I pulled out my laundry basket and rooted through every pocket. I went through every drawer in Dizzy's side table/dresser. I started having crazy thoughts, so I went and looked in the freezer. I looked in the bathroom medicine cabinet. I looked in the water tank on the back of my toilet.

When help arrived I was already starting to lose faith. We worked for a couple of hours cleaning my whole house. Diz kept reassuring me that it would turn up. The reassurances seemed like tired platitudes however. As I finished the dishes, vacuumed the carpets (and searched through the vacuum bag), and tidied up every area of the apartment... I knew it was hopeless. There was just no reason for the ring to be gone. The sheer absurdity of its disappearance convinced me that it would never show up. I thought about my mother putting her faith in me to deliver this ring. I thought about the sadness I would be causing my sister. I tried to put a cash value on the whole thing... imagining that maybe $5,000 would make my sister forget my stupidity. All these thoughts plagued me as I crawled around on my hands and knees looking for that tell-tale sparkle of a diamond in my peripheral vision. I cursed my stupidity in waiting so long to deliver it to my sister. I cursed my temptation of fate by having Dizzy wear the ring for our photo shoot. I held my head in my hands and felt a growing despair and nausea creep in. Losing this ring was going to cause so much unhappiness in the world. It was gone and I had no one to blame but myself. I felt like a useless, worthless turd. I imagined never speaking to my sister or my mother again out of shame.

As I was concluding the search, I needed to take out the trash. I knew that I couldn't throw anything away without a thorough search. Otherwise, I would always wonder if I accidentally threw it out with the garbage. I sat at my computer going through the dustbin I keep nearby. I was transferring everything to a paper bag, going through wadded up packing supplies, floor sweepings, candy wrappers and disgusting old food containers. Halfway down the trashcan, perched on a Twix bar wrapper I remember buying three weeks prior while meeting my old friend Chris Holland for dinner, I saw the ring. It sat there. Nonchalant.

The ring refused to tell me how the hell it got there. It refused to make any excuses for its behavior at all. I stared at it, my jaw slightly agape. It stared back at me, equally dumb. In disbelief, I plucked it from its strange moorings, saw the little crack in the lower shank where the gold band had been bent and rebent too many times. It was real. I had found it... after completely losing all hope! I laughed. I ran to kiss Diz and tell her I was redeemed!

After this, I held the ring with a strange mistrust. I knew it was a fickle thing. I placed it gingerly into its box. I placed the box in a well-lit shelf in my living room where I could spy it easily. I made arrangements to go visit my sister immediately, and I invited no one into my apartment before going to see her. On the day I drove up to the Kingston/Edmonds ferry I put the jewelry box into a zip-up breast pocket on my coat ensuring that I could feel it at all times.

My sister and my nephew and I sat at a table in the Drifter's Tavern each with a pint of beer. After all the appropriate small talk, I told her I had something for her... something entrusted to me by our mother. I pulled the small box out of my pocket and saw Amy's hands tremble. She set down her Budweiser. I looked sideways at the box and told her the story related to me about the ring and about our aunt's decision that it should belong to her. I laughed about how it made me nervous to go through US Customs with it... and I told her the story of how I thought I had lost it. I joked that this would just "increase the history and curiosity of the heirloom." Finally, I opened the box and reached it out to her.

Amy could not speak for some time. Her eyes filled with tears. She told me about the significance of the ring and how it was a powerful memory of her love for our grandmother. She put the ring on her finger for a second and immediately took it off as if she couldn't bear to actually wear it. We sat for another hour at the bar and drank two more pints before I returned to the ferry dock. I was filled with a sense that our family, however fragmented, still had bonds. I thought about how much I loved my nephew as he sat with us, unwittingly representing a whole new generation with their own history to make. And oddly, I felt proud. Proud that I had played some small little role in the destiny of this ring and in the powerful emotions between my beloved sister and our long-dead family matriarch.

When I related this story in detail to my friend Walter, he had a surprisingly mystical take on it. He told me that perhaps my ordeal of losing the ring was the Universe's way of making me empathize with how my sister had felt for years. I had never considered this, but it immediately struck me as profoundly accurate. I don't know if the ring will give my sister the sense of relief that I felt... if it will bolster her sense of being loved and connected to a family... if it will make her feel like laughing and kissing the loved ones around her... but I hope it will. I hope that my grandmother's unquestionable love for her and for all of us is so strongly imbued into that ring that it feels like the best hug imaginable.


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Playing Guitar

Every time Liz goes to a bass lesson, I feel guilty for not playing around with my guitar more often. So yesterday I played around. The result was this song fragment. I doubt it will make any sense, because I edited out all the lyrics that give it meaning and just left the backing vocals. Trust me when I say it was epic and full of bittersweet sentiment about how hard it is to be a divorced single father and see your child breakdown emotionally each time she has to go back to her mother. I have zero reason to write such a song... which is probably why I deleted all the lyrics. Also, I'm still apparently unable to muster up the effort to create a "real" song with verses and a chorus and a bridge and stuff.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Magic Ring Part 1

The day I left Mexico, about to fly back to Seattle, my mother pulled me aside. Pressing a small wine-colored box into my hands, she said she had an important mission for me. Inside the box was a diamond ring, a family heirloom. Known as an owl-cut diamond, the gemstone was somewhat rare now. This shape, designed to evoke an owl's eye, had fallen out of style. A simple and elegant gold band showcased the stone's luster. I understood the faith she was putting in me and tucked the jewelry box into my carry-on.

The ring needed to belong to my older sister. Amy grew up with a powerful attachment to that ring and to our grandmother. My matriarchal grandmother Patricia (or Nana as we knew her) had slipped the ring onto Amy's fingers dozens of times and beamed her impossible smile and sparkled her impossible eyes. Nana told her the ring would be hers someday and that no other girl would ever have it. My grandmother felt the need to make all of us grandchildren feel special. She took each of us aside at various times and told us that we were destined for special things, that we came from special stock, and that she loved us best of all. Her words had a tendency to pit us all against each other at times, but it was her way.

When my grandmother died about ten years ago her estate was left to my mother and my aunt. The pair had a mixed relationship... and unsurprisingly, they weren't very amicable about this. Perhaps my grandmother's words had sewn some discontent between the two of them as well. Since my aunt lived in the same house as my grandmother, most of the heirlooms remained with her. Some of the jewelry, reportedly, had trickled down to my aunt's oldest daughter. But my sister heard nothing about the ring. And my mother had given up advocating for her.

Many years passed and my sister lost hope that she would ever wear the ring again or remember that feeling of being Nana's oldest and most treasured grandchild. The family seemed so fractured since Nana's passing... There was no talk of reunions and it seemed there never would be. The settling of the estate played a small but palpable role in that schism.

Things evolved however. I knew nothing of this, but apparently my aunt decided to give a number of treasures to my mother... with an understanding that the ring be given to Amy. So when I visited my folks last January my mother entrusted me with the job of putting this ring into my dear sister's hands. I knew little of this history at the time. I did not know about my aunt's change of heart, or of my grandmother's tender promises so many years hence.

When I arrived in Seattle I left the ring, safe in its box, on my bookshelf. I knew I would have occasion to deliver it before long. I was in no great hurry.


Friday, January 13, 2012

Mexico 2012

When I go to Mexico, I apparently like to take photographs. Here are the latest. This is my attempt at art, so please be awed and send me flattering emails.

The Laughing Door is Always Locked.

Bell Weather Fan


The Downfall of Dog.

The Bleeding Armadillos of Christ.

Red Wires #7