Sunday, April 24, 2016

Checking his race

Asher came home from school and mentioned he had taken a standardized test that day.  And before he began filling in rows of scantron bubbles with his ever-reliable Number 2 pencil, he told me he was asked to check his race and ethnicity in a box.  Slightly startled, I asked him which box he chose.  He admitted he was really confused because he knew I was white and his "papi" was Latino.  He felt badly filling in either one because he was afraid he would hurt one of us.  I asked him what he ultimately decided to do.  He said he looked down at the back of his hand and filled in white because his skin looked more "peach" that day (It was winter in Seattle.  His "Mexican" comes out more in the sun).  He cringed when he told me this, fearful he had offended his father and a long line of anonymous Mexican ancestors.

It is easy to forget that Asher hasn't been here from the beginning days of Familia Guzman.  When Ed and I started dating and we would hold each other close, the contrast between our skin tones was striking to me, my skin being on the fair side of fair and his complexion being on the darker side of Mexican American. When we were out together, I often wondered how other people perceived our difference in skin color.  It was upsetting when we would go to a restaurant and the host or hostess would assume we were not together, even as we stood together.  

However, after fifteen years of marriage, what was once glaring has become familiar. You forget the very first thing that others see when they initially meet your family is your cross section of skin color, laid out like paint chips at a hardware store. You forget that your children might have questions or confusions.

Asher has never heard his father speak in accented English.  Ed lost his accent while attending his East Coast boarding school, an attempt to duck the constant ethnic jabs from his majority white upper class peers. Today, his speech seamlessly flows between English and Spanish.  (My Spanish, unfortunately, also sounds too much like my English.)

For better or for worse, our family has blended into middle-class America. We spend Saturday mornings at soccer and swimming lessons, pay our mortgage every month, take a vacation or two every year. Asher doesn't know any other life.  But our different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds initially took a lot of working out.  Ed did not understand why I never discussed money, why I strived so hard to be thin, how my family could argue without yelling.

I didn't understand Ed's paralyzing fear of cops, the general lack of trust he had of strangers, why his eyes were always drawn down, while mine were drawn up, when we were out and something was happening on the street.

And let's just say, nothing makes you feel your full WASP-iness more than joining a clan of noisy, rambunctious, and acutely affectionate Mexicans.

And after fifteen years of living in pleasant neighborhoods in large and diverse American cities, we don't deal with ugly people on a daily basis. But we do have stories.  Maybe, someday, when the time is right, we will share these stories with Asher…..

We had recently moved to New York City and while getting to know a coworker, she asks me why someone "like me" would marry a "dirty Mexican."

It was horrifying to move to New York City, the cauldron of all melting pots, and hear 'dirty' and 'Mexican' used together as if they constituted a single word.   

We even had our moments in our multi-cultural Northern Virginia Shangri-La ….

Ed is loading groceries into our Honda CRV at our neighborhood Safeway. An older lady, feeling entitled to his parking space, yells into his face, "Do you even speak English?"    

We are headed for a rare …  our first ever…. anniversary weekend away, waiting to board a bus into the District.  Ed coughs into his elbow.  A woman turns around and shouts at Ed to "go back to where (he) came from" and spits towards him.

Sometimes we laugh these and other experiences off.  They become inside joke fodder.  We hold up our noses, knowing that we have more education, more resources, we are BETTER than these ignorant people.  Coping strategies to dull the pain.

There will always be people who will reduce you to an ugly stereotype, no matter the contrary evidence. This we have learned.

At the end of the day, and before his next standardized test, this is what I want Asher to know….


Your Mormon/Mexican/Oregon Trail pioneer heritage is rich and dense and vastly beautiful. Your abuelo, the same man who rolls tortillas for you like magic, calls you 'Achercito' because there is no "sh" sound in Spanish. Your abuelito. He was plucked off the fields of the Central Valley and deported twice before receiving his green card and with it, a tiny slice of security and hope.  Your abuela and tias labored in downtown Los Angeles garment factories, shoulders haunched over sewing machines in dark rooms choking with heat.   

That Mormon handcart company, those early Oregon settlers, and your abuelos in Mexico all forged separate trails of opportunity. They walked poised and penniless across great plains and across country borders, aided by coyótes and handcarts and companions making similar journeys. With faith and resolution and endless sweat they built new lives of integrity and modest means. All of these trails have intersected at this very point in time for you, Ashercito. They constitute your present life filled with joy, choice and privilege.   

Keep your family close to your heart always.  But then check the box or boxes that feel right to you, or check none at all, and don't think another thing about it.

And even as you are asked to fit yourself into tidy boxes, avoid putting other people in them.  Listen to others and give value to their experiences, especially those coming from different backgrounds than your own.   And most especially those who have been traditionally put into narrow boxes of hate rather than given voice or true opportunity.  Never forget there are many who don't have the luxury of deciding how to label their shade of skin on any given day.

 If you do these things, you will never let down your family or yourself.

We love you always,

Your Mom and Papi

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The holiday letter I never wrote

A quick update on all four of us:

Ed….still works for the Seattle Times. Will this be his final year in the newspaper business? We shall see.  Earning a batch of APSE awards has renewed his energy for things like waking up at 4am every Monday to write a Seahawks column (even in the offseason!) and returning phone calls to elderly readers who want to know what channel the Huskies game will be broadcasted. The very best thing is when he returns their call and they don't remember calling him in the first place. Ed is very into podcasts these days and we are officially the old married couple barking at each other over his earbuds. He is also the token dad at hiking club (a group of mom friends and kids who hike a local spot every Monday afternoon).

Noé…is finally accepting his fate as a middle school student. The transition last fall to a new school with older kids and new expectations was pretty rough. He continues to love his Adele and Amy Winehouse and spends a lot of time after school playing their records on his record player. In his 'History of Rock and Roll' elective class at school, he introduced the class to Miles Davis after he requested Miles Davis on his iPad when the class was listening to music. His teacher found an album to play for the class and was pretty amazed that a 13 year old with severe autism knew 'Kind of Blue'. After a period of boredom and non-participation in his Keyboarding class (his other inclusion class), I emailed his teacher lyrics to all of his favorite Adele songs for him to practice typing out and Noé has eagerly attended class ever since. I just signed him up for three weeks at his favorite outdoor day camp this summer, which I tell myself is all for him, but it really is all about my own summer break sanity.

Asher…discovered a hidden passion for Star Wars when the last movie came out, after previously claiming to be "the type of kid who just isn't into Star Wars." When Asher likes something, he likes it ALL the way. We have known this since he was two years old and fell in love with trains and our lives were hijacked by Thomas the Tank Engine. He watched all the Star Wars movies in short succession, read the books, including the Origami Yoda series. His bedroom has now been transformed into a Star Wars origami production factory. He also just started another season of Ultimate Frisbee, the official spring sport in Seattle, and will start spring soccer soon as well.  At his piano recital last month, he played his song beautifully, but after he finished the song, his piano teacher, who was sitting next to me, looked over with a look of bemused shock and said, "that's not the one we practiced for tonight!"I guess you could say he's the type of kid who isn't afraid to go off script a little….

Me (Jen)… is still working at the same job I tried to quit three years ago when we moved to Seattle.  Every time I think about finding something else, I remember what I love most about it…zero commute time, the scaled-back summer hours, and the East Coast schedule which means I'm done early and can justify working in my pajamas. So basically I'm lazy. I've even figured out how to adjust the camera on my laptop so that I can video conference and no one has any idea I am wearing pajamas, as long as I remember to brush my hair. I am still also a small business owner as well, peddling LEGO robots to 2nd graders like crack cocaine. I meant to have reached a decision at this point - whether or not to grow the business into something full time and legitimate, keep it as a side gig, or let it die, but I really haven't decided its fate. The economics say go full-on, but I am tired of being up to my eyeballs in LEGOs. Plus, my heart tells me that I was truly meant to be a poor, unknown writer, and I have officially written four paragraphs of my very first book to prove it.

I think I speak for all of us when I say we continue to love the Seattle life. The city sustains us all in different ways. Noé loves hiking through the streets of the city and in its forest corridors, along with the ubiquitous water. Asher loves studying the city and figuring out ways to make it run better. Ed loves his return to urban living, and the role he has been able to play in building up a very fine sports team at the Times. For me, I love everything about PNW life and there isn't much that could tear me away from it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Sunday afternoon in January

We were all recovering from viruses, had been stuck in the house all day. Ed was in the office, sorting through the rubble of the Seahawks playoff loss.

Tired of being inside, I lifted our house arrest. I fumbled through a drawer to find a Starbucks gift card left over from the holidays. We climbed into our rain gear.

The outside air felt heavy. We trudged out the door through the layer of gray and gloom. It was three o'clock in the afternoon, which meant dusk on a rainy, winter PNW day. We headed down to the lake and then walked the familiar and calming half mile along the shore to the Starbucks. Noé avoided dogs as usual. When two giant huskies came toward him on the trail he backed himself up to the edge of the lake to avoid them, almost falling in.

Entering the Starbucks, we let ourselves absorb the warmth and coffee goodness. I quickly found a corner table. Asher instinctively let Noé sit down ahead of him so he was trapped between the table and his chair, and thus unable to wander the restaurant or sample food and drinks off other people's tables. I got up to order our hot chocolates and baked goods, keeping half an eye on our table. I noticed the guy seated across from the boys, giving Noé a one up and then looking at me. I gave him my involuntary, don't-mess-with-us side glance. I couldn't decide if it was warranted….if he was just figuring out Noé and his constant rocking and his hand full of ribbon, or if he was annoyed we had sat next to him and messed up his laptop-on-the-table-and-iPod-in-the-ears zen.

I set the food and drinks down on the table and immediately noticed Noe's hands, which had turned black somewhere between home and Starbucks. I smuggled him into the women's restroom to clean up and we sat back down.  Two sips of hot chocolate later, half of Noé's hot chocolate was on his vest. Feeling thankful we went with the waterproof outerwear, I ran over to grab napkins. All wiped up, we settled back down into our snack, and I then noticed the photo above us.

It was an oversized black and white photo of the swimming area at Green Lake, located right across the street from where we sat. The photo was dated 1936. The focal point of the photo was a wooden diving platform. Teenagers swarmed it like honeybees, a few frozen mid-dive off the highest platform. The boys wore European-style swim bottoms and the girls were in modest one-pieces and frilly swim caps. All looked really thin, perhaps the Depression showing on their bones.

I pointed out the photo to Asher and told him that when it was taken, his great-grandpa (aka grandpa-by-the-train) was also a teenager, living in Portland, skiing Mt Hood and taking day trips to Seaside. The photo felt full of youth and energy. I tried to picture my own grandparents in that photo. Eighty years later, my grandparents are well into their nineties, feeling their age, and writing the final paragraphs of their well-lived lives. Most likely, many of the teenagers in that photo have already passed away.

We finished our treats and headed back toward the lake for our walk home. I pictured the teenagers in that photo swimming on the lake, just as we do each summer. We've only lived in this neighborhood for three years, but the boys have grown considerably under the watchful eye of the lake and the protective canopy of the trees surrounding it. I feel so blessed to have this beautiful place as the static and dependable background of their formidable years.

(Click here for the 1936 Green Lake photo we saw at our neighborhood Starbucks)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Monday evening

It was the end of a long Monday for both Ed and I. Noé had just done something that had created a huge mess. Something he definitely knew better than to do. Ed and I let our anger get the best of us. We both raised our voices at him and then sent him straight to bed so we could begin to deal with the cleanup.

Ed happened to walk by the boys' darkened bedroom and noticed a shadow climbing down from the top bunk. He peered into the room just in time to see Asher sit himself down on the lower bunk, next to a sad-faced Noé. Asher put his arms around his brother, an offering of comfort and love. Noé accepted the hug and they held each other for a few moments. Ed and I were both humbled to tears.

We continually learn how to love from this kid.

Saturday, January 2, 2016


My first baby is 13 now. All sharp edges, unruly thick dark hair, an ever-deepening voice. There is no hiding his autism from the world, not that I feel the need to do so. Even the regulars on our bus line, disheveled addicts and the mentally unstable who regularly pick fights with invisible bus passengers, take note of Noé and ask me if he has autism.

Between the autism and the teenagerism, he can be stubborn and difficult. He communicates well with his iPad, but on his own terms. It still takes a lot of energy and reinforcement (think skittles) for him to be cajoled into learning new things. We have to set a timer on his music, otherwise he will listen all-day and non-stop to his record and iPad music collections.  His OCD tendencies have increased in the past year. He spends his free time shutting or opening doors, and obsessively touching the points of objects and surfaces.

But we have these moments.  His eyes will catch mine. Often it is a quick flicker of happiness or engagement, a flame that I have to reach out and hold before it disappears. I try to be on the constant lookout for these moments, lest I miss an opportunity to be with him.  In these moments he is engaged and eager for interaction. We will talk and I know he is listening. We play simple games, we tickle, we dance together to his music.  He will let me hug him without pushing away.

Blessed moments with my first baby.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Favorite Facebook Posts - 2015

Feb 26
Easy Ed just informed me that my habit of double-spacing-between-sentences "dates" me. This is hard to ignore, with his job history of employment at certain highly pretentious newspapers. But. I. Can't. Stop! So thank you, Mrs. Carlson, freshman typing teacher, with your outdated electric typewriters and smart secretary suits and frosty permed hair and tragic blue eyeshadow.

May 7
Getting a quote for some home repair work this morning. I have this conversation every time we hire out work.
Spanish-speaking contractor: Where is your husband from?
Me: He's from LA, his family is from Mexico
Contractor: (Blank stare)
Me: He didn't get the home repair genes, ok?

July 26
So we've had an uptick in crime in our neighborhood so our neighbors banded together to create a FB page as a sort of neighborhood watch. Someone posted that there was a Hispanic male, 5'8 and wearing an LA Dodger's baseball cap, in his late 20s or 30s, casing our block yesterday.
I think I found him.

Aug 24
Noe has been playing Christmas music full blast in the house while I frantically get us ready for camping in the San Juans and slather sunscreen on everyone and everything. ‪#‎autism‬

Aug 27
Whenever we go to 7-11 for slurpees, my kids always insist on measuring their height on the front entrance door with the giant ruler they use to ID robbers. It's so embarrassing!

Sept 2
"I love waking up to the sound of traffic and looking out my window as the cars and bikes whiz by." -Asher ‪#‎truecitykid‬ ‪#‎futureurbanplanner‬

Sept 22
What's it like to be married to the son of Mexican immigrants you might wonder? Well, here is a small peek: Today we had lunch together at a neighborhood Greek restaurant. We spent the first half of the lunch waxing sentimental about our early years of marriage and the kids, and the second half predicting how and when we will die. Mexican sentimentality and fatalism apparently cross the border as well.

Sept 29
Poor Noé fell asleep on the toilet this morning. This early middle school schedule is hard on his little preteen body.

Oct 15
Poor Noé fell asleep (Part 2)….drinking his morning mug of chocolate milk. Standing up. Chocolate milk everywhere. The morning struggle is real for this kid.

Nov 2
Asher hid his Halloween candy from Noé the nightstand next to our bed. He obviously has a thing or two still to learn about his parents.

Nov 22
There has been a lot of excitement at Casa Guzman over the new Adele album. Wait, I don't think you quite understand. For the last four years, we have listened to Noé play '21' on his iPad daily… usually for several hours at a time. I think even Adele herself would agree it was a little much. I've been driven to the edge of Adele-induced hysteria for the past few weeks anticipating the new album and whether or not '25' would meet Noé's impossibly high (and extremely narrow) standards of acceptable iPad music.‪#‎Hello‬, I'm proud to report…it's been all '25' all weekend long. ‪#‎autism‬

Nov 27
Our foreign exchange student caught us eating pumpkin pie for breakfast this morning and it instantly confirmed all of her suspicions about Americans. I could see it in her eyes.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


When he is a grown up, he will have a wife and two, maybe three kids ("I'll have to discuss that with my wife, " he says). He will live in the little orange and yellow house three blocks from our current home that he has eyed since we moved into the neighborhood ("so me and my two or three kids can see you every day!"). He will be an urban planner, the job he has wanted since he discovered there was an actual title to the thing that has drawn him in since age 2, when he started mapping out mini-cities and transportation systems with his Thomas the train sets.

When I was 11, I wanted to be an attorney and wear high-powered suits to work each day (it was the 1980's…picture giant shoulder pads). No kids and no husband ("that would ruin everything!") a big house and a really nice red sports car and a pool….all for myself.  Wow, my 11 year old self would be so disappointed with me!

Whatever Asher decides to do over the coming years, I know it will be done with the tenacity and compassion which has already become his trademark. And his father and I will continue to be so immensely proud of him.

Happy 11th Birthday, kiddo.