Monday, May 18, 2015

Remembering the Eruption of Mt St Helens

When we lived on the East Coast, my best "cocktail story" was always my personal account of watching Mt St Helens blow its top as a young child.  East Coasters, most of whom have never had active volcanos in their backyard, were fascinated by the details and aftermath of the eruption.

My mom, my dad, my younger siblings and I watched the mountain erupt from the field at Cherry Park Elementary, just a block from our home.  I was four years old at the time.  And while I had no idea how very rare it was to personally witness the self-destruction of a mountain, I could feel the significance and intensity of the day in my little bones.

We swam in gray, dirty ash for days….weeks maybe.   We had to wear surgeon's masks when we went outside.  It was dark, gloomy, end-of-world-like outside. There were huge piles of ash in our backyard for years following the eruption.   I buried my first pet, Beaver the Hamster, in a tomb of aluminum foil and volcanic ash.  My dad raked the ash into our backyard garden and the vegetables seemed to super-size themselves.  My mom scolded us for tracking it into the house.

It was a defining event in an otherwise typical childhood.

Throughout the reminder of my childhood, St Helens loomed in our periphery to the north.  The mountain, once a perfectly swirled soft-serve top, was now flat.  As if Mother Nature herself had taken a hearty lick off of that ice cream cone.  I worried constantly about the mountain that stood proud and majestic and so so very large just east of us.  It took less than an hour to reach the timberline of Mt Hood from our house.  What would happen if Hood blew?  Would our backyard be full of hot lava instead of ash?

The summer after my freshman year in college, I climbed Mt St Helens with my dad, my best friend Angie, and a few of my dad's coworkers.  It was a full day's climb.  When we reached the top, we sat and ate a sack lunch at the rim of the crater and then peered into the deep abyss of steam and doom a few times before heading back down the mountain.  Terrifying.  And wonderful.

This past Spring Break, I headed back to explore the mountain with my kids.  I had not been in the area since that climb.  Thirty-five years of post-eruption regrowth and renewal had made the mountainside glorious to behold.  We explored Ape Caves.  We hiked Lava Canyon with good friends while a feather-light snow fell.  At night, in our cozy little yurt at Seaquest State Park, I tried to explain the impact of the eruption on my young life to my kids.  And I suddenly had a vision of myself at a very advanced age.  My great grandchildren coming to my nursing home to interview me for their school reports, unable to comprehend that their great grandmother could have possibly witnessed an event from so long ago, the eruption of Mt St Helens in May of 1980.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Saying No To The Abuelos

(Originally published January 4, 2006 on Tales from the Crib blog)

Our family is finishing up our “West Coast Holiday Tour.” With my husband Ed’s family living in LA and mine in Portland, we try to divide our vacation time as evenly as possible.

On Christmas Day, we traded balmy LA for a little Portland rain, but not before a silent showdown with Ed’s parents, aka The Abuelos.

The Abuelos immigrated from Mexico to East LA in the early 1970’s. Ed’s father works as a garbage man in the vast suburbs of LA and Ed’s mom spends most of her day cooking as well as nagging Ed on the telephone. They have achieved the American Dream, which in their minds includes owning a modest home and oversized American automobiles, and keeping their grandsons outfitted in overpriced designer clothing, typically at least two sizes too large for their little bodies.

My relationship with the Abuelos has been difficult at times. Cultural differences abound with my husband always caught in the middle. To keep peace, I have tried extra hard lately to please them. 

Christmas Eve had been a day of complete overindulgence and excess. It began soon after the roosters in East LA started cock-a-doodling, when a truck pulled into the Abuelos driveway and a group of men proceeded to blow up a giant balloon castle. Our boys just turned 3 and 1 years old. They seemed pretty young to have their own castle, but I tried to be excited. These kids also received constant presents throughout that day as well. I was gracious, and saved my worries about how much money the Abuelos had spent on my kids, what spoiled brats they might become, and how we were going to haul the gifts back to New York, for later. 

And the boys really did have a wonderful day. They jumped on that stupid castle for most of the day, stopping only for food and juice breaks.

Christmas morning, everyone seemed a little hung over from the previous day’s holiday food and castle hopping. The Abuelos insisted, however, that I put the boys in their new Ralph Lauren suits for the plane trip. They also acted offended when we suggested that we ship the Christmas toys out to New York at a later date. They insisted we take food with us for our trip. Because, after all, how will we survive a three hour plane ride without tamales and chorizo (smelly Mexican sausage)? After some discussion, Ed and I decided to honor our Christmas peace agreement. We silently packed up the food and toys in shopping bags and were off to the airport with our seriously overdressed toddlers.

I knew it would all end badly.

On our crowded Southwest flight, we quickly regretted our silence. Ed and I were exhausted and grouchy from trying to carry two toddlers and multiple bags of toys and food through security and onto the plane. One-year old Asher threw up twice on his new RL suit before we had even reached Oakland. We couldn’t contain the smell of our Mexican food storage and any plane turbulence would send off a hundred cheap plastic toys singing ‘Old McDonald’ and every other annoying nursery rhyme known to man. Passengers began to comment on the smell drifting down from the overhead compartment. Poor 3-year old Noe was walking off the plane behind me, when I looked back to discover that his too-large RL suit pants were around his ankles. The poor child had a full audience of Southwest passengers laughing as he tried frantically to keep up with his exhausted grumpy parents sans drawers. 

I am already preparing my “No Suits, No Toys, No Food” speech (in espanol) for next year’s visit. And if I lose my nerve, next time I’ll at least have the good sense to chuck the food and toys into the nearest airport garbage can and bring a change of clothes for my kids!

Friday, April 17, 2015

May 16, 2000

(Originally published May 17, 2008 on Tales from the Crib blog).

That was the day I lost my dad and found my life. 

I had a great dad. He was the dad who nailed a wooden basketball hoop to our backyard shed for my eighth birthday and didn't worry that I was the only girl on our block whose birthday wish list did not include Strawberry Shortcake or a My Little Pony. Dad would sneak me out of the house to run errands or go to ball games with him before my other brothers and sisters could be jealous, because he knew I needed a break from being the oldest. One year, he stayed up past midnight helping me finish the Christmas presents I was making for my friends.

He did the funniest impression of my junior year English teacher, Ms. Kullbom, where he slid his glasses down his nose, squinted his eyes really tight and scowled like an old bird. One year, for Halloween, he dressed up as a nerd and went into his office wearing broken glasses, a pocket protector and taped toilet paper to the bottom of his shoes. He was the owner and president of the company.

Aloe-scented after shave, warm wool sweaters, Simon and Garfunkel, eggnog french toast, NBA games on lazy Sunday afternoons, magical summers on the beaches of Maui....these things will forever represent the life I had with my dad.

A tragic fall from a roof, sleepless nights and jigsaw puzzles in the ICU waiting room, my brother's tearful goodbye...his fingers caressing my father's cheek, my mother's house bathed in flowers and casseroles, and a very large and public funeral with no time or space for mourning....these things will always represent his death.

My sophomore year at BYU, Dad surprised me with a trip to Washington, D.C. for my birthday. He had a conference to attend, but we managed to do a fair amount of sightseeing together. While we were walking near the US Capitol, we watched a fleet of limousines pull up to the Capitol building. I remember him saying we should wait and see if anyone important comes out....and I replied, "I am already looking at someone important." Such a cheesy line, for sure, but I really meant it. 

Dad had always loomed large in my eyes. And understandably so, he had accomplished a great deal in his career, in his public life, in his home. I spent a lot of time during high school and college trying to live up to what I perceived to be his impossibly high standards. No GPA was high enough, no career choice perfect enough, no boyfriend good enough to bring home to him. These weren't things he ever said to me, but expectations I placed on myself. The year before his death I felt particularly lost. I was finished with my undergraduate degree but felt adrift. I felt beaten down by my college boyfriends and wondered if I would ever find true love (ridiculous to think about now considering I was 23 at the time).

And then one day I went to work and got the call that changed everything forever, my dad was in a coma and he wasn't coming back.

The days following his death are still a haze of grief and shock and anger and exhaustion. Walking down the street left me winded, catching a ball felt shaky...even though a week before I had been in nearly the best shape of my life. I never realized how physical grief could feel. Have someone kick you square in the stomach and live that feeling for an entire year...that was my grief.

And then eventually, between the waves of grief, a new, unexpected emotion emerged....Relief.  Not relief in the variety of "thank goodness he is dead." Even eight years later, I crave him. I want so badly to share the life I have built with him. I want him to play with his grandsons and to sleep in our guest bed and talk sports with Ed. Instead, the relief I felt was a kind of freedom. Freedom of expectations removed. Freedom to start living the life I wanted for myself.

And that I did. Over the next two and a half years, I got married, graduated from MBA school, moved across the country and had a baby. Talk about putting your life on fast forward.  Initially, a lot of guilt accompanied these feelings of freedom. Since then, I have read that this is actually a pretty common reaction to losing a parent. I've read stories about adult children making huge life changes soon after a parent dies, everything from quitting a smoking habit, to changing careers, to moving abroad, all resulting from the relief of expectations removed.

I fully anticipate I will feel free of another set of expectations when my mother passes away. And I will also miss her terribly.

And I hope that when I am dead, my own children derive some peace and happiness from their own newly found freedom.

But not too much.

Neighborhood Swimming Pool

(Originally published on Tales of the Crib blog, August 8, 2008)

Our summer routine has gone something like this: I get home from work, we eat a quick dinner, and we spend the rest of the evening at the pool. Ed joins us at some point in the evening, depending on his work schedule.

Yesterday, our neighborhood pool was closed, so we tried another one. This was our first time at the pool, and apparently it is not very popular because it was completely empty, save two teenaged lifeguards. They were less than pleased to see us as our presence meant they had to turn off their ipods and cell phones and actually do their jobs.

And let’s just say that my boys weren’t winning any awards for good behavior. I spent most of our pool time putting one of them in “time out” for running, or getting another out of the filtration ducts that keep them strangely fascinated. When I had finally settled down with my book, five-year-old Noe plopped down on top of me with his wet little body, completely drenching my clothes and my book. Meanwhile, three-year old Asher had to go potty, and insisted on using the urinal in the men’s bathroom. I obviously couldn’t go in there, so I shouted directions to him from outside the bathroom. He couldn’t reach it, gave up and came running out of the bathroom with his swim trunks around his ankles. I scooped him up like a wet, noisy fish and forced him to sit on a toilet in the women’s bathroom before he had an accident.

I’d like to say that this was unusual behavior for them, but unfortunately it’s pretty typical for those last hours just before bedtime.

The two lifeguards looked on with horrified amusement. They whispered back and forth. I could almost hear what they were saying, “What little brats. Why can’t she control her own kids?” I could almost hear them, because those had been my own words when I was their age. 

We stayed until the pool closed, and all walked out together: teenaged lifeguards and mother with the bratty little kids. The teenagers got into their sporty SUVs and cranked up the radio. I loaded the boys into their car seats, and cranked up NPR. As the teenaged lifeguards looked at me in my nine-year-old sedan one last time, I knew their thoughts, “I never want her life.”

And as I watched the teenaged lifeguards speed out of the swimming pool parking lot, their lives so full of angst and unnecessary complication, I whispered with amusement, "I'll gladly keep my own life, thank you."

Rite Aid Haiku

(Originally posted on Tales from the Crib blog, March 12, 2008)

in the checkout line
gripping my Vics and Nyquil
hazy with the flu

two girls curse and slur
punching and slapping ensue is pregnant

white suburbanites
observe with looks of horror
I only want sleep

now walking outside
expecting the stale Queens air
wait....I'm in Reston

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Happiness is Working with Brad Pitt

(Originally posted on Tales From the Crib blog on October 30, 2007)

My 2-year old Asher's favorite question these days is, "Baba (aka me), you happy?" Ok, maybe this is more like his third favorite question after, "I silly, Baba?"and "Are we going to play CARS or WHAT?" 

The first time Asher asked me if I was happy it really caught me off guard. Such a simple question and such a complicated answer. Asher, if you only knew....

Well, as for the big, important stuff....I couldn't be happier. I love my husband, I love my kids. I couldn't have chosen a better husband for me and father for them. I have great relationships with my mom and all of my siblings. I talk to each of them at least once a week. With a lot of work, I've even developed a good relationship with the in-laws. I am pretty happy with the person I have become, the beliefs I hold dear and most of the decisions I have made along the way.

Most days, I do enjoy staying at home with my kids. I like having control over their earliest influences and just simply having some fun with them everyday. Although I have yet to find the perfect outside work versus home balance, I feel fortunate to be able to control how much time away from home I am willing to work during their earliest years.

However, I have little voices in my head going on all day....voices that eat away little by little at this Happiness. Voices that ask me, "Am I doing this whole stay-at-home mom thing well enough? Is having me at home REALLY going to make a difference in the lives of my children...or am I just driving myself insane for no reason?" Or "Why exactly did I spend all of those years pursuing higher education in order to spend half my day scrapping kiddy crud off the kitchen floor?" Or, "Is this (insert playgroup/storytime/playdough/singing "Popcorn Popping" 1,000 consecutive times) supposed to be fun...or am I seriously missing something?" Occasionally, I find myself asking, "Is my life exciting enough?"

One day when the voices were winning, Ed called home to tell me what time he would be home and, oh, by the way, Brad Pitt was hanging out at his office and he had just returned from a meeting that he attended. WHAT??? I'm not usually star struck but BRAD PITT!?! What was he doing there? Is he even better looking in person? Was Angelina there too? All of these questions while I was on my hands and knees scrubbing pee from the carpet after another not-so-successful potty training session with Asher. It felt like a low point. Maybe if I hadn't quit my career I would be having lunch with Lisa Lang or Meg Whitman instead of this.

Hardly. That was my conclusion after shutting the door to my room and taking a few deep breaths. If I hadn't quit my career I would probably be working through my lunches, or dining alone at some cheap deli, in order to get home as fast as I could to my kids in order to squeeze a few minutes of quality time before we all self-destructed and drug ourselves to bed. I've seen it over and over, and while some moms can make it work, I know myself well enough to admit my life would be a juggling act where I would be dropping balls right and left.
I also reminded myself that Ed's job isn't really all that glamorous unless you dig selfish, overpaid professional athletes or you are fascinated by Watergate. People like Brad Pitt don't walk into his office everyday. In fact, he was there doing research for an upcoming role and my husband's contact with him was very brief. A much different reality than the image I had in my head a few minutes earlier…..Easy Ed shooting the breeze over vodka tonics and cigars Oceans 11 style while a few miles away in a Northern Virginia townhouse I chased around half-naked, snot-nosed boys in my own suburban housewife hell.  
Luckily, most days these voices do not win. And, at least according to my apparently very secure husband, Brad Pitt is even hotter in real life.

Spelling Bee

(Originally posted on Tales From the Crib blog, April 21, 2007.  Asher was 3 yo).

My Asher is quite the little speller and counter (thanks mostly to HIS heroes and MY weekday 9-10am PBS babysitters Cookie Monster and Count Von Count). He will count his peas before he eats them, count how many steps it takes up to the slide at the playground and he will even count the buttons on the shirt of the lady behind us in the grocery line. He loved learning his ABC's and now spells out the words he encounters in his everyday two-year-old living. He won't be reading Moby Dick any time soon or anything crazy like that, but there is such a pure joy for me in watching him develop a love of learning.

As for street smarts, Asher isn't quite there yet. For example, his loud, very deliberate spelling often gets him into trouble. Even if he doesn't tell me directly, I always know exactly what he is doing, even from a room or two away:

Asher: "T-M-O-B-I..."
Me: "Asher, please don't play with my cell phone!"

Asher: "O-R-E-O"
Me: "Sorry Bugs, no cookies until after lunch."

Asher: "K-Y-J-E-L-L.."
Me: "Asher, get out of that drawer right now!"

His usual response, "Otay, Mommy..." and we find something else to do together.

If only he would continue to spell out his activities to me loud and clear right through his teenage years....and if only playing trains or reading a book together would continue to work as a quick diversion....

I have a sneaking suspicion that things aren't going to stay this easy forever