Friday, February 21, 2020

That time Asher and I met Mayor Bloomberg

This isn't a political story. But it does feature a prominent politician. And it really isn't a story about an overwhelmed young mom, although I did play that role exceptionally well.
It's more a story you'd put in the category of "only in New York...."
We were living in a second floor walkup in Astoria, Queens. Man, I loved that apartment --- and the neighborhood --- with its authentic Greek food, cranky Italian laundromat owner, and, of course, The Park. Our apartment was just a couple blocks from Astoria Park, with its supersized pool, green spaces to stretch your legs, and magnificent views of Manhattan.
It was early afternoon of early fall, 2005. My internal clock was ticking because soon Ed had to leave for his late shift at the New York Times, leaving me alone to wrestle Baby Asher and Toddler Noe. I raced out the door with Asher in the jogging stroller and pointed it in the direction of The Park.
Astoria Park was crazy packed for a weekday afternoon. I soon heard rumblings about "the mayor" filming a "campaign ad" somewhere inside the park. I was all about the business of getting my run in and avoiding human contact. After assessing the crowds and cameras on the outer edge of the park, I started to run along the empty waterfront, and straight into.....Mayor Bloomberg waiting for his small camera crew to set up.
I stopped running, terrified of being tackled by the NYC mayorial equivalent of the Secret Service, but Bloomberg called out a friendly hello, noted my Brazilian soccer jersey and asked, "voce falâ portugues?" I knew just enough Portuguese to know that I did NOT, in fact, speak Portuguese and shook my head. A true politician, he went straight for the baby, shaking Asher's little hand with his finger. "Cute baby," he commented (now I wonder, should I have believed him?) The next few moments I stood there awkwardly while he played with Asher, wishing I had at least bothered to shower before meeting the mayor of New York City, before we went our separate ways.
And that was the time Asher and I met Mayor Bloomberg.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

It's an L.A. Thing

I was born and raised in East L.A., and my parents still live in the same house I grew up in, but I haven't lived in Los Angeles for any great length of time since I was 14. It was always home, though, and the Lakers were one reason why I proudly identified as an Angeleno through all the many places I've lived, both by myself and with a family that eventually came to include two sons.

As a result, today's absolutely devastating news about Kobe Bryant and his daughter felt a little bit like a loss in the family, because the connection to Los Angeles and the Lakers that he represented to so many of us was profound, deep, and omnipresent.

I grew up in an absolutely crazed Laker household. I was a kid for the Showtime Era and as a result, Magic Johnson has always been my all-time favorite player. (We'll save the "greatest Laker" debate for another time; today's not the day, in my opinion.) I have lots of memories of watching him on TV on what was then KHJ Channel 9, with this intro music pouring into our living room:
As I mentioned, the Lakers were always an easy way for me to stay connected to home, in ways big and small. I remember sitting in the dining hall of my prep school as a ninth-grader on November 7, 1991, when my friend Sid Saraf ran up to me to tell me that Magic Johnson was diagnosed as HIV-positive and was retiring from the Lakers. I never thought I would ever match the shock of that as a Lakers fan, but today matched it.

By the time Kobe entered the league in 1996, I was a sophomore in college, but he quickly took over as that Laker-esque connection to home. I remember watching in agony his air-ball game against the Jazz in the 1997 playoffs at the Stanford Daily offices. The following season, over winter break, a bunch of friends from college who lived in L.A. and I got together and went to a Lakers-Celtics game at the Forum and I got to see Kobe in person for the first time. He was not yet a starter, but he scored 17 points and had 1 assist off the bench that night in a 108-102 loss to Boston. Definitely a sign of things to come. 

When Kobe, Shaq and the Lakers were championship contenders in the spring of 2000, I was a rookie reporter at the Oregonian. It just so happened the Lakers were in the conference finals against... the Portland Trail Blazers. It was all hands on deck for our sports department, and I got to be on hand for Game 7, when the Lakers rallied from 15 points down in the fourth quarter. I was behind the basket and up a few rows in the auxiliary press area when Kobe lofted the ball to Shaq for an iconic dunk that sparked a new run of titles for the Lakers (and as a bonus led to one of my all-time favorite Chick Hearn calls; sorry, Portland friends!)

I could go on and on with my memories of Kobe, but it was always about so much more than that. Kobe was an authentic and consistent touchstone for what my dear hometown was all about. He was a relentless worker. He was married to a woman of Mexican descent and spoke Spanish. He had achieved fame and celebrity. He absolutely got L.A., all of it, and fans of every stripe adored him for it. If he's not the most important figure in L.A. sports history of the last 30 years, he is absolutely on the short list.

(And I'll be the first to admit Kobe was difficult to root for at times during his career. This is definitely not an apologist's tribute.) 

As I continue to process whatever grief I feel, and read the tributes pouring in, it finally hit me this afternoon during a long walk: this must have been what it was like for my parents when John Lennon died in 1980. (My folks are also Beatles fanatics, something they've passed on to me, and I to my sons.) The parallels are strangely eerie: both driven icons in their respective professions. Both suddenly and tragically dead in their early 40s. Both seemingly on the cusp of a wonderful second act in their lives, but gone before it was fully realized. 

Paul McCartney once said of Lennon: "John Lennon was a great man. But part of his greatness was that he wasn't a saint." 

I think you could say the same for Kobe Bryant. And much like with Lennon, we'll always have the memories. But that doesn't make their losses any easier, because of what they represented to their fans.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Noé, at age 17

Noé, at age 17, has finally mastered the art of blowing. This sounds ridiculous unless you understand that he has severe apraxia, which makes him unable to coordinate and initiate movements of his mouth and jaw on command. This is also the primary reason why he is nonverbal. For years, he ignored his birthday candles. We would "practice" blowing them out ahead of his birthday, but he just could never do it. Then, more recently, he "sniffed" out his candles. But this year, he shocked us all and blew out his candles on the cake he shared with his brother earlier this month at their family birthday party. Today, on his actual birthday, he was blowing out candles left and right, including the ones I put on his favorite meal: lasagna.
It's amazing how good these seemingly small victories feel when they come - especially when you've worked on these skills for years and you begin to wonder if they'll ever show up. You take your kid where they're at, love them, and hope for the best.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

12,842 words

That was my version of last month's NaNoWriMo.

Very short of the 50,000 words you are supposed to write (who picked November, a month of holiday prep and school activities for NaNoWriMo, anyways?) but I'm finally on my way to writing my first book!

And, guess what?  My book sucks!

(But that's okay, I've done enough reading about the writing process to understand that first drafts are never good).

I do see small glimpses of potential within the graphs. Sometimes I have to look hard, but it's there.

It's the greatest feeling to come up with an idea for a character and then get it into the draft.

I'm looking forward to piecing it all together into a book, learning a ton in the process, and keeping expectations grounded for this very first try.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

It's been almost twenty years since you died. I'm only four years younger than you were when you fell. That seems impossible.

Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. But mostly, everything has changed.

I married a Stanford graduate, for reals. But most importantly I married a kind and loving man. A man who is honest and doesn't cheat on me or in life. A man who loves his family fiercely. Luckily, he is my best friend, too. And my greatest blessing amidst the ashes of May 2000. You missed meeting him by just a couple of months, in fact. The only silver lining of you not being around anymore is that you two would be best sports and music buddies and that would be very annoying at times for me.

We have two boys! Teenage boys! Almost men, really. Asher is fourteen. I see Asher's playful nature in you. He is the kid that everyone likes and wants to be around, just like you. He loves all kinds of music, just like you. Sorry, he doesn't love sports. But he does run cross country, like you did in high school.

Noé is sixteen. We found out that Noé had autism when he was two years old. I missed you so much through his diagnosis. I always felt like you would know what to do. You would find a way to make it better. You would have helped us carry the burden.

Noé is his own person. I can't really say how he is like you, but I can say you would love him. We sure do. He's the center of the family. He always wants us to be together and happy (and eating). Wait, that is how he is like you.

You also have seven other grandkids. They are all healthy and happy and bright and reflect you in all kinds of wonderful ways. The cousins are mostly close in age and fiercely protective of one another. There was a legendary brawl at a pizza joint when one of the cousins was getting picked on by a random kid. This was back in their preschool days. Now they are teens and tweens and still love being together.

Dave, Jeff, Katie and Kelli? All of your kids have careers and significant others and are putting good things into the world. No one has spent a single night in jail.

Mom. I shouldn't speak for her, but I know she misses you. I also know she is content. She is a machine -- doing family history and learning new languages and serving at church and fixing up her house. She is a gentle light. She is unconditional love.

Speaking of fixing up houses, you will never guess where she lives. Not the Big House. Nope, Mom sold that sucker and it has officially been declared cursed (that's a whole other letter). She went back to Cherry Park, to the Red House on 104th. The Red House still has the cedar paneling you nailed to the ceiling in 1985 and the red shed you built out back. But it doesn't feel frozen in time. We congregate for birthdays and holidays and to just hang out and play basketball out back on warm summer evenings. Mom talks about selling it now and then, but let's face it, that house is in our DNA.

You will never guess who the president is: Donald Trump! Yes, he's the President of the United States and it has been the absolute worst.

Also, a year after you died some terrorists hijacked American planes and ran them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Three thousand people died that day and we call it 9/11.

But good things have happened too: We elected our first black president! Gays can legally marry now! And after experiencing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the stock market has marched straight upward for the last ten years. Today the Dow closed at over 27,000 (I'm not lying!) and the S/P is over 3,000. I remember riding in your Acura in high school and the newscaster announced excitedly that the Dow had finally broken 3000. A share of Amazon stock is worth over $1700 alone. Yeah, that is the little online bookstore. Now we buy everything from them.

I think you're pretty much caught up now. Oh, we're still waiting on the Blazers to win another championship. Sometimes I think that '77 banner will sit lonely in the Moda Center (no more Rose Garden....) forever.

Miss you everyday.


Jenni (but nobody calls me that anymore except for mom)

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

9th Grade English: 1989 versus 2019

"Mom," Asher asked me a little sheepishly. "I want to show you my narrative essay, but I have to tell you something first."

"What's that?" I asked.

"Our teacher lets us use swear words." Awkward pause. "Is that ok with you?"

I stop to consider this revelation and then quickly shift into writer's mode. "Well, I think that depends on how you use the words. Does it add emotion to your story? Does it make your characters more authentic? Or do you just use it crassly or for attention?"

"Uh....oh yeah....that makes sense. Well, I think I use it ok."

I glance at his title, "My F*cking Worst Day of Middle School."



Mrs. Durrell certainly did not let us use swear words in our essays. How I dreaded ninth-grade English class with Mrs. Durrell and her frosted perm and razor-thin eyebrows and outdated pussy bow-tie blouses. In Mrs. Durrell's class we read Great Expectations. But instead of discussing and dissecting Pip's coming of age saga and why Miss Havisham never took off that damn wedding dress and parallels between Victorian era social class norms and our modern day social class structure, we answered flat affective questions typed (literally....with a typewriter) in stapled packets about plot and setting and point-of-view and tone. The only true-world connection I've ever made to that book is when I go visit my favorite Portland donut shop - Pip's Donuts.

In Mrs. Durrell's classroom, Great Expectations, and the many other classics that followed, were taught in their time and place. A time and place which was foreign and disconnected to my own early 1990s American teenage middle class life. It wasn't until a few years later, in AP English class, that I realized the classics can transcend their borders and their timescape and should connect to every generation that reads them.

Sitting stone-cold bored in freshman English, diagramming sentences and filling out those packets, I never would have guessed that in adulthood, I would have an unsatiated desire to read and write my days away. Books didn't hold magic until that AP English class came along. And I didn't start writing until even later.

I / hated  /English


Curriculum Night, Grant High, September 2019

I sit in Ms. D'Cruz's classroom and listen to her ten minute overview of her ninth grade English class.

In English, we will read a mix of classic and contemporary works – from Homer and Shakespeare to contemporary writers like Angie Thomas and Samira Ahmed, connecting literary texts to real world issues. Together, we will be psychologists and philosophers, asking questions about the human condition. This year, I am hoping to create a dystopian fiction unit, offering students a selection of books  around different themes.  

As writing instructors at Grant, , we work together closely to align our curriculum and ensure student growth. Our instructional philosophy in ninth grade English  is deeply rooted in The National Writing Project - we believe writing should be taught, not just assigned and sent home. Each skill is modeled for students, so they have a clear picture of what is expected. Each major writing piece is taken through multiple drafts and revisions before it is assessed. We believe in using not only professional models in our writing, but also teacher and student models, so we share much of what we write out loud.  In this we become a community of readers and writers, growing and (often) laughing together – and we have had lots of fun storytelling already this year as they are just starting to get to know each other as Hawthorne Community classmates.

After her presentation, I have to stop myself from begging Ms. D'Cruz to please let me join her class. I'm sure Asher would be cool with it.


I finish Asher's narrative essay and think it is quite brilliant, at least after we tone down the profanity. He is a natural storyteller and his writing voice is strong and authentic. In his essay, he uses dialogue well and even makes a couple of clever allusions back to his current English class. Ding, ding, ding....I think we have a writer!

We will work on perfecting cursing.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Familia Guzman by the Numbers

Ed and I just celebrated another wedding anniversary, so I thought I should update our family numbers:

18: Years of Marriage
2: Kids
2: Languages Spoken in our home
4: Cities We've Lived in (Portland twice, NYC, DC, Seattle)
7: Homes we have lived in
5: Full-time Jobs (Ed)
2: Full-time Jobs (Jen)
8: Part-time Jobs (we're all about the side hustle)
2: Cars we've owned
9: K-12 schools the kids have attended in total (I am so not proud of that number)
3: K-12 schools the kids have attended together
5: Sports kids have participated in
3: Instruments played
27: States we have traveled together as a family
9: National parks we have traveled together as a family
2: Foreign countries we have visited 
3: Times my kids have thrown up since they were babies (two this month alone!)
3: Hospital Visits (lucky)
1: Life-threatening allergy
Infinity: Number of autism-related therapy visits
200%: The amount our monthly grocery bill has gone up over the last four years (no joke).
4: Years until college (not enough)