Posted in Storytelling

Waiting and Hoping For Jeannie Stein

childhood in countryside

Friends nourish us by seeing our goodness when our own eyes are clouded.

I’ll never forget my 5th grade friend. It was Steck Elementary, a new school in a new neighborhood and I didn’t know anyone. The very first lunch break of the very first day found me sitting by myself in the lunchroom eating a sandwich my mom had packed for me. There was hardly anyone there. That’s because the kids at Steck all went home for lunch. It was uncool to eat in the lunchroom.

I didn’t finish my sandwich. I walked around the playground and watched the kids come back from their “at-home” lunches and gather in groups. Boys congregated by the fence and the monkey bars. Girls played a game called Four Square. A ball came flying at me from the Four Square games, and I dodged it just in time. The girls playing the game were staring at me. “Throw it back,” one of them yelled. I picked up the ball, but when I threw it, it went off to the side, bounced and hit a piece of playground equipment, then rolled several feet away from the Four Square game. The girls laughed at me, shook their heads, and I heard one of them say “a real knucklehead,” which made them all laugh more.

That was an all is lost moment. I fought back tears. I hated this school. Why did my mom always have to move us when she got a new job? I turned away from the laughing, balled up my fists and jammed them into my jacket pockets.

I felt her standing there before I turned around and saw her. With confidence and comfort, a little girl with thick glasses and a big smile eyes looped her arm with mine and pull me away from the side of the building. “Four Square is so stupid,” she said. “I’m Jeannie Stein. Have you ever been a Girl Scout?” And thus began a friendship that assuaged the pain of being the new kid.

What I didn’t know then, was that welcoming the stranger is a core principal of Judaism and Jeannie Stein was a Jew, but I found that out when the Girl Scout question led me to a meeting room at her temple. When I finally learned the piece about welcoming the stranger, I was in my 40’s. Memory transported me back to 10-year old Jeannie Stein, the kind little girl who had welcomed me when I was a stranger.

I didn’t get to know her for more than a year, because my mom got another job, and we moved again. But for a year, being friends with Jeannie Stein was like having another home. We played Barbies together when I was starting to feel like maybe I was too old to still be playing with dolls. She was the last little girl that I ever played dolls with. When she looped her arm through mine that day, I didn’t know that we’d be crossing a bridge together, one that led from childhood to something else.

I’ve been the new kid quite a few times since that day in the 5th grade, most recently, since my husband and I moved to Austin. It was a courageous thing that we did, uprooting and transplanting ourselves in a matter of months.
A big move is filled with risk, unknowns and excitement. Eventually, I’d adapt. I’d discover the best grocery store, the favorite restaurant, the closest bookstore. But just like it was in 5th grade, my biggest concern was whether I could make new friends. The feeling of being the new kid, standing alone on the playground comes back. My eyes are searching the horizon for a Jeannie Stein. Under the big Texas sky, my current and closest relationships currently amount to repairmen and contractors.

Women are social creatures. We need each other’s company in order to thrive. In this new place I’ve been taunted by thoughts that all the friendships have already been made, that women are already coupled and in groups and there wouldn’t be room for me. That proved not true, of course, but I had to muster the courage to reach out.

On a website called Next Door, a resource for individual neighborhoods, I posted that I’d like to find a writing group or a book group. In less than 24 hours I had 5 responses from people who shared my interests. The response that touched me the most was from a young woman who wrote that she’d moved here in April and hadn’t made any friends yet. Then added, “How do you make friends when you’re a grown up?” I reached back to her with an invitation for coffee, but she never responded. It made me think that perhaps she didn’t really want new friends, that she was closed off to them.

My new Jeannie Stein showed up in the form of a woman named Melinda who’d asked for a phone conversation. I learned that she was a 7th generation Texan who had horses and a book group, a perfect combination for a Texan in my eyes. In her gentle drawl that was as sweet as dripping honey, she extended an invitation to join her group. Metaphorically, she looped her arm through mine and I knew that everything was going to be okay.

What we learned as children continues to inform us, regardless of how grown up, sophisticated, or world wise we think we are.

Melinda told me that the book we’d discuss at the book group is Educated, by Tara Westover. Westover’s book is now a part of my extended Jeannie Stein story. The book is a memoir about self-invention and becoming the best kind of human being that you can be. I’m hoping that I will be a good friend and remember to reach out to the stranger in the same way that the Jeannie Stein’s of the world have reached out to me.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

A Story About the Awkward Dance of Halloween Guilt and Fitting In

 

My new neighborhood reminds me of the opening credits in Desperate Housewives.  Behind the beautiful front doors, the manicured lawns, and the gentle southern curb appeal, most certainly lurk all kinds of stories with a sharper edge. Or at least that’s what I’m hoping.

Recently transplanted to southern Texas, by way of Ashland, Oregon, we don’t really know anyone yet. Aside from walking our dog, our days consist of digging through unending boxes and looking for a place to put things. Consequently there is no television hooked up yet to numb our brains at the end of the day. So Dean and I spend our evenings sitting on the front porch, talking in whispers and wonderings about this new place we’ve moved to.

Directly across the street from us is Richard. (All names have been changed in order to cover my ass and protect the innocent.) Richard walks Domino, a black Portuguese water dog.  On the day that we first said “hi” to one another, I commented about the plethora of inflatable ghosts and goblins, dozens of pumpkins and skeletons that seemed to be reproducing themselves on his front lawn. It’s a veritable blow up doll convention out there.

“My wife,” he said. And then followed it with “Wait until Christmas,” a comment that left me with a little shudder.

The man has three daughters and a wife who is obviously determined to give her kids happy childhood memories.  But as the object of my fascination, Kinky Friedman, once said “A happy childhood is the worst preparation for life.”

The neighbor next door to them have two boys.  They throw the football in the evening causing Dean to recount his childhood: always in a relationship with a ball game with other boys — football, baseball, basketball, come over for a catch, kind of days. I never tire of those stories, imagining my 67-year-old husband as an 11-year-old with fresh eyes, a dimpled grin and a fair amount of mischief that he never lost.

Stella is the mother to those boys. I met her when she was walking Lennon, named after John. If not for my dog Jeter, it might take me months to meet and greet the neighbors, but a goofy Labrador retriever is a ticket to an introduction. A few minutes of canine sniffing gives time for an exchange of names and a sincere welcome to the neighborhood. Stella’s yard is decorated for Halloween too, but not crazy over the top, over compensating for something decorated, like Richard’s yard.

Dean and I speculate about the lives here, the intersection of old and young, reckless and measured, all of it with a Texan texture and the smell of barbecue in the air. Welcome to Austin, a fun and foreign land.

“Do you think that we’ve bought enough Halloween trick or treat stuff to give out” I ask him.

“It doesn’t matter. The neighborhood kids are going to hate you anyway because you’re giving out little bags of pretzels and popcorn. You know the holiday is all about the candy, right?”

“What about healthy treats?” He rolls his eyes. “Am I going to be that old woman whose trees the kids in the neighborhood wrap in toilet paper because she doesn’t give out Snickers at Halloween?”

He shrugs. “Maybe.”

I’d hate to wake up to that the morning after. Especially since we just gave our yard got some autumn love this past week, a toned down version of Halloween blow up dolls. We planted winter-hardy pansies and mini snapdragon.  I placed three baskets of mums on our porch and an autumn wreath on the front door. I put out a couple of pumpkins. I confess to putting out fake ones, having dealt with the carnage wrought by aggressive squirrels over the years. It all looks very tasteful and welcoming. Then again, maybe my decor is screaming that I’m giving out stupid bags of popcorn for Halloween.

A car pulls into a driveway a few doors down from us and I wave. The driver waves back. “Have you met her?” Dean asks me.

“No, I just want to be friendly in case all the neighborhood kids wind up hating me for giving them pretzels and popcorn for Halloween.”

“Or if you write about this on your blog.”

“That will take longer to discover than the fact that I’m not giving out candy,” I say.

We sit in silence, lost in our thoughts about the lives of polite people in a polite neighborhood that is showing signs of straining at the seams from too many blow-up dolls. Not giving out candy could potentially add to the strain. I’m pissed off that fitting in means so much to me. I hate blow-up dolls and I hate the idea of loading up kids with sugar. But my stomach lurches and before the evening is over, I know I will succumb. I’ll  run to Costco tomorrow and buy a bunch of candy to mix in with the healthy treats. That and a glass of hard cider should assuage the Halloween guilt and discomfort.

Happy Halloween!

Posted in A Day In the Life

Looking for Kinky Friedman

top of wood table and party light of bokeh in bar at night backgroundMy decision was really a whim. I didn’t think it through — I just knew that I wanted it. “I’m on a quest,” I told my husband and my friends, “to meet Kinky Friedman.”

It seemed like a good goal, given that we were moving to Austin, Texas. This was the place where Kinky had once made his stand. As I started to put things into boxes, Kinky bumped against something in my brain and I became obsessed with him. This was more than just a quest, it was an invitation from my psyche.

When we decided to make the move, it was because of the smoke that clogged our little valley in the summer months. For the past weeks, I couldn’t see, couldn’t breath for all that smoke. I became sick and sluggish. I felt trapped and stuck, but not just physically. I felt that way about my writing. And I felt that way about the unrelenting scandal, corruption and wreckage that filled the national news. I think the whole country was experiencing idiot fatigue, the kind of weariness that comes from so many grown-up men giving away their nuts. The result was a sickening lack of courage to stand up for anything, let alone the “right thing.” The move to Austin was a yet unformed promise of liberation from all thing blocking my view. It gave me hope, and a reason to unplug from the news. I’d pack up the television and lose myself in the whimsy of finding Kinky Friedman.

People asked me over and over again, “Why Austin?” I didn’t have much of an answer. I said things like, “They have a great music scene. I like the rolling hills. Warm weather is appealing to these old bones.” But I didn’t really know why Austin. Was it because I might possibly find Kinky Friedman? Could I be drawn to Austin because of a greater rising that was beginning to happen in the Lone Star state — a new nation being birthed, while I again, was experiencing a rebirth, too?

Once, a long time ago, when I was a 20-something, I’d met Kinky. He brushed by me in the hallway at NBC studios. I worked for a television show called The Midnight Special. It was on at 11:30 on Friday nights, hosted by Wolfman Jack, who started out each show with a deep, booming declaration: “Let the midnight special shine its ever lovin’ light on you.”

Armed with a hit record, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jew Boys were guests on The Midnight Special. They sang irreverent songs with political overtones. All messages are made more palatable through the activism of laughter. His popular anthem, They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore, was a memorable sing-along ode to anti-racism. That was long before any of us could imagine MTV, cable television or the likes of a Stephen Colbert. I’d thought that Kinky was hysterically funny. But he was also brilliant, a Mark Twain of the times, dressed up in the 1970’s. He said and sang what was on his mind, without worry about what others thought. He was genuine. And I wanted to possess that same kind of smart, funny, edge that made him so interesting. There was a time when I had it, when I felt it.

In that part of my life, I drank hard and stayed up all night listening to music. I wrote poetry and lyrics. I wrote my first short stories with a sharp wit that wasn’t afraid to make fun of things in the word that seemed hypocritical or otherwise disingenuous. There was in me a sense of wild mischief and quirk. But as the years went by, I started to care too much about what other people thought of me, how I was seen. I tried harder than anyone I’d ever met to “get my act together.” The result was that I broke off that wild and quirky piece of myself and buried along the road somewhere. I developed a sense of pride that I’d worked my ass off to become a responsible, upstanding citizen and contributing member of the community. So I forgot about Kinky, except to note he was still making music, and had also became a novelist who cranked out a lot of murder mysteries.

Life happens on more than one level at a time. Moving to Austin was now part of a search for the edgy kid of my 20’s. It was also a bold statement of my 60’s. Hubby and I saw this as a great adventure — doing a huge interstate move at a time when most people are downsizing, simplifying and slowing. I’ve taken risks before and the risks were always worth it, even when I seemingly failed. It wasn’t that I wanted to relive that earlier time, but I knew it was crucial for me to pull it forward to where I was now. Kinky Friedman became my symbol for that, a light that would help me rediscover that sense of wild again.

So where to look for this 74-year-old Texas icon? A bar in Austin? His animal preserve in San Antonio? To start, I bought his book, Armadillos and Old Lace. That might give me a clue. Then, I started to think about what I would say to him if I actually found him.

I pictured myself sitting in a bar in Austin, ordering a soda water and lime, and pretending that it was vodka on the rocks. I imagined leaning forward and asking the bartender if he knew who Kinky Friedman was. I’d tell him that I was on a quest to meet the musician, writer, and political activist. The bartender would nod toward a stage, where outlined in the smoky haze would be a guy tuning a guitar with a cigar in one hand.

I’d walk up to the stage. “Do you remember being on The Midnight Special in the 1970’s?” I’d ask. “Do you remember the young secretary on the show back then, the kind of funny one?”

He’d shake his head no and look perplexed.

“I guess it doesn’t matter if you remember her or not, I’m just looking for her, is all . . .”

“You might check somewhere down that road between happiness and despair,” he’d say, quoting one of his novels.

Then again, the bartender might just shrug at my question and say, “Everyone knows who Kinky Friedman is.” When pressed, he’d answer that he’d “never met the guy personally.” And I’d walk away remembering that I had met him personally, once when I was of a quicker wit, a faster step, and sharper edge. It was back in the days when the vodka in my glass would have been real and irreverent poetry was the prayer on my lips.

Posted in A Day In the Life

The Changing Summer

The smoky skies of Ashland have cleared enough that I can go for a walk with the dog without coming home and coughing. Nothing like reacting negatively to environmental smoke to get you to appreciate breathing! The past couple of months have been challenging. I’ve been blessed to experience most of my life in fitness and in health, but the smoke  from surrounding forest fires that lingers in the valley over the summer months attacked me this year, putting health and well-being out of reach.

For the past six weeks, I’ve been trapped inside. . . a lot. And the thing I missed the most was spending time on the deck hammock, looking up into the oak tree and getting lost in the patches of sun and sky that filtered through the leaves. Whereas summer used to mean home-made popsicles on the front porch and harvesting herbs, now it means staying inside and changing the air filter.

This summer tale is not just mine. It’s becoming all too familiar a story. The climate is changing and when temperatures rise, ideal conditions for forest fires rise too. I fear that this is the new normal for the west. What’s equally as sad is that there are things we could be doing to help the situation. But it will take government and organization and a willingness to listen to scientists who’ve been studying the problem. My greatest hope is that we find the courage to take action. Action number one: Vote out any idiot who doesn’t think that Climate Change is real! That’s at least a start.

Posted in A Day In the Life

You Can Be Super Without Having to Be Superwoman!

One of the things that I remember from the 1980’s about being a strong, independent woman was this phrase: “you can have it all.” Turns out you really couldn’t have it all. What the phrase honestly meant was, “you can do it all.” You can raise kids, have a career, take care of a home, volunteer and have the time and energy to bake Martha Stewart cookies on the weekend .

My life looked more like this: work a 65 hour week, collapse on Friday night. Be grateful that I don’t have kids. Drag my yaya to the grocery store on Saturday morning. Sleep all day Sunday, then get up and do it again. Screw homemade cookies. And what was amazing was that around me were lots of women who did have kids and managed far better than I could without them. Most of the women I knew back then were always on the edge of burnout. Because, we wanted to have it all.

Fast forward to present time and another insidious phrase is clawing its way into the psyche of the culture and it’s STILL about “You can do it all.” It refers to superwoman and their superpowers. Seems like everyone has a breast-plate and a friggin’ super power. I think women today have it only slightly better than my generation did — if they’re with a partner, chances are the division of labor is more equitable than it was in the 1980’s. Except that you have to allow for a wave of women raising kids on their own without any physical or emotional support from the outside. We can call these women superwomen with super powers, but sometimes I fear that saying is just a way to make women feel bad that they can’t do everything and have any energy or balance left at all.

Could it be as simple as redefining the words and phrases that we use? Does strength and courage have to mean bad-ass? Or can it mean standing up when you get kicked down, even if your knees are skinned? Can independence mean saying “no” to some of the stuff you didn’t want to take on in the first place?

I’m retired now, but I haven’t let that stop me from grasping at the same kind of drive that I had in my thirties — the one that told me I could have it all. Though I now have the time to write, read and study, I do so with a ferocious discipline that puts me back in a time and a place where I believed that I was supposed to WANT it all, let alone, have it all.

Recently I’ve begun to think that if I really could have it all; if one day I was awarded it all, would I know what to do with it? That thought gives me pause and makes me consider my Labrador retriever: if you catch the squirrel buddy, what are you going to do with it?

I have to remind myself . . . a lot . . . that life is never meant to be one giant “To Do’ list. It’s meant to be an experience of the senses and an enlivening of the heart — if I could remember that, I think that the rest would probably just fall into place. Maybe that’s what courage really is.

Posted in memories

The Size of a Parakeet’s Heart

Budgerigar in the its cage. Budgie

Breakfast happened in a sunny corner of the kitchen on a plastic tablecloth whose flowered print had faded in spots from the sun and the plates that scraped across its surface. The table was pushed against the windows, and looked over a struggling garden in which I had once planted the watermelon seeds saved from a late summer afternoon. When the green shoots found their way up into the light, turning into vines, I imagined opening a watermelon stand and selling pieces of fresh watermelon to all of my neighbors. My enterprise was cut short, however, when something ate the vines, shredding their leaves into skinny, little pieces.

My mother kept a row of potted geraniums on the table. Red flowers bloomed almost year round in a world that was mostly bright colors and sunshine. Part of that brightness was Penny. She was my first true love, my first true friend, a parakeet dressed in exotic green, accented by dark veins of blue feathers. Each morning my mother would open the door to Penny’s cage, and the little bird would fly a couple of times around the room, lighting onto the table in front of my breakfast plate, chirping while she waited for me to feed her bits of unbuttered toast. Sometimes she would hop onto my shoulder as I ate.

Every day when I got home from school, I checked to make sure that she had birdseed and clean water. I wasn’t allowed to let her out unless my mom was there, but I gave her what felt like a lot of my six-year-old attention, crooning, whistling and singing to her. During the times that she was free to fly around, she would always make her way to me, resting upon my hand and hopping up and down the length of my arm. We had our own special way of telling each other: I love you.

One day my mom and I came home to the smell of paint. I knew that the landlord was having all of the kitchens in our row of duplexes painted. We had shopped the week before for new dishtowels and potholders to go with the freshly painted kitchen. I hadn’t realized that the paint would smell so bad though, and I held my nose as I went to check on Penny. But something was wrong. Penny didn’t move. She sat motionless on her perch with her head resting inside of a bell that hung off of the mirror in her cage. “Penny?” I shook the cage and she fell. “NO!”

I heard my mother’s sad voice as she rushed to see what was wrong: “Oh, Penny,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

“What happened to her?” I asked.

“I think the paint fumes were too much for her,” she said. “The painters didn’t think to put her cage outside and she died.”

No one in my life had ever died before. I knew other children who’d told me that their grandma or grandpa died, or that their dog died, but I didn’t understand what it meant. Something pierced my heart, a feeling of absence so fierce that my whole body hurt.

“I didn’t get to say goodbye.” I said.

I wasn’t sure where Penny had gone, only that she wasn’t in her bird body anymore. My mother helped me to give Penny a funeral, wrapping her in a scarf and burying her in the garden outside the kitchen window. I marked her little grave with rocks that I placed in a careful circle around the newly turned earth.

For days, I tried to cry the ache away, and then one day the loss no longer consumed me. Eventually we put up the new dishtowels and potholders. We moved to another duplex, another apartment, another town. The years between Penny and I grew wide with the passing of time.  Now, as my hands and feet begin to wizen, I recall this story and write it down. I  still have tears left for Penny and the life lesson that she imparted:  Love, even the size of a parakeet’s heart is eternal.

Posted in A Day In the Life

A Birthday Selfie – Reflections on 66!

IMG_1852Today I’m 66 years old. The number seems wrong. It can’t possibly be true that the group of people with grayer hair and deeper lines are the same ones who walked with me out of childhood. Wasn’t it just last week that we were in Topanga Canyon? Last week that we were listening to The Eagles new album and drinking margaritas?

My friends are precious to me, some known for 40 and 50 years. They’re the source of birthday cards and calls, emails and birthday lunches. Gestures of love scatter like almond blossoms across a well-worn path, and I feel blessed that it’s the small, heart-felt things that have come to mark the years.

The past and the future colloid: I’m rooted in the longhaired, idealistic girl with bare feet and poetry on her lips; now the serious writer, with wool socks and messy pages, trying to tell “the” story, because honestly, I’ve only ever written one story. My life has grown out of that place where idealism and reality crash into each other, and the current takes you.  Marriage, career, divorce, marriage again happened in a kind of planned chaos, but let me live to tell the tale.

I’m 66 years old and keenly aware of how life recedes as the numbers increase, aware of wavering significance and limited hours. So many things fall away, and what remains is the fullness of the experience; the gratitude alive in the heart, the old friends from a certain time and place who remind me of where I’ve been.

Today my true companion, my one great love, will sing to me. We’ll wander the aisles of the gardening center and gather flowering plants for the empty containers on our deck. We’ll hold hands. We are that older couple that makes young people sigh, envying the kind of love that survives the journey.

This morning, as I drink my tea and muse about the years, I reach an easy conclusion: I love my life. I love my friends. I’m grateful for each turning of the wheel, for each memory, for each deep line etched into the map on my face, telling a story of so much joy, so much pain, so much living . . . I’m blessed to able to say, “this is a very happy birthday, indeed.”