Monday, November 30, 2009

Forty Years, and Four Days, of Family

My parents, according to legend, met during middle school biology lab. My mother's version of the story has my father as her lab partner and trying to take over frog dissection, thinking she would be squeamish and amenable to simply observing the process. Mom was having none of that and, baring her scalpel, vied for vivisection rights. The rest, as they say, is history. They finished middle and high school together, endured four years on opposite coasts during college, and married promptly after my father's graduation in 1969.

And miraculously, while other couples of their generation set new records for American divorce rates, they persevered for decades.

A few years ago our parents (of five offspring and by now eight grandchildren), declared that we would be celebrating their 40th anniversary with them on a trip, somewhere, sometime in 2009, and we should make ourselves available. We're there! we declared.

Plans narrowed to a Mexican Riviera Carnival Cruise out of San Diego during Thanksgiving week. We marked our calendars and watched as the economy shortened our cruise to four days, three nights: round trip to Ensenada and back. But we didn't care; we'd be together, in cabins down the hall from one another, and who knew what capers would transpire.

And that is how it came to be that a Mammom and Bampa and their four kids and their spouses (minus the pair who gave birth to Grandchild #8 just three days before departure), along with six grandchildren plus a mother-in-law and cousin boarded the Carnival Elation for a 40th Anniversary Adventure last week.

Our party of 18 was rarely all together in one place, except the day we conspicuously navigated the streets, shops, fish tacos, and margaritas of Ensenada. In various groupings and combinations we swam, mini-golfed, water-slid, toasted, gambled, spa-ed, buffeted, feasted, napped, exercised, and ate some more. My husband figured out on the second night of dining (rather coincidentally on "Elegant Night" when they serve lobster and prime rib), that no one will stop you--or more importantly, CHARGE YOU--from ordering two entrees. So he did. Steak AND lobster. And then several of my family members followed suit.

My generous parents provided the opportunity for us all to come together and celebrate, in effect, our very existence (and closeness to one another), thanks to them. In foresight, in the moment, and in hindsight, it was an exquisitely unique and special time.

Some other cruise highlights:

Delayed Departure: Our family's strategy was to board the ship as early as allowable, even if it was going nowhere. Our excitement began in various lines at 12:30 PM on Monday, but it wasn't long before we were enjoying reggae music and Mexican Mamas ("$7.50 for the first one and ALMOST one dollar off for a refill!") poolside. I believe the ship was meant to pull out around sunset. But alas, some of our fellow passengers were running late, and "because Ensenada is an easily reachable destination," Carnival announced that we would be extending our truants the courtesy of delaying departure.

Our entourage, along with most other passengers, was gathered on the top deck, anticipating the casting off of lines. My husband and brother-in-law discussed the possibility of mooning our comrades when they finally made it aboard. But we eventually decamped for dinner preparations, and the boat started moving, and then my sister-in-law got seasick.

Club Carnival: I just assumed any childcare on board was costly and questionable. Instead, it was FREE and AWESOME. So awesome, in fact, that 1) Daughter #1 was angry with us when we picked her up "early" at 9:45 one evening, and 2) after their first time, both girls begged to go back. We spent our days with the girls but took them to "Kids' Camp" each night so we could dine with the adults. As a gift to Daughter #1, we left here there until 11:30 on the last night. That's how much we love her.

The Coca Cola Scandal: Giddily relating her first Kids' Camp experience as she and her dad made their way back to our cabin, our First Grader admitted that, "Dad, you're probably going to fire me. In fact, yep, you're definitely going to fire me." The fire, though, was the glint in her eyes as she confessed that when the counselors gave her the choice to have water or Coke with her dinner, she totally went with Coke. "But Mom," she explained later, "It wasn't my fault. They gave me a CHOICE."

"And," she added, "I love Coke."

The Hairy Chest Contest: Taking for granted that this cruise would be a true escape from work and regular routine, it only occurred to me two days prior to our departure (from our own city's port, natch) that it was Fairly Likely that one of my students would be on this cruise. As we converged upon my parents' stateroom on the first afternoon before leaving port and watched our fellow passengers and family members board below, I spotted two former students on the gangway.

Well, I figured, former students are in a different jurisdiction from current students (and then there's international waters to factor in, ha ha!). Out of respect for the fact that these young men were in the less desirable position of having their former vice principal on their vacation, I avoided crossing paths and making direct eye contact.

However, my daughters and I did walk through the pool area as one of our alums was competing in the ship's Hairy Chest Contest. Daughters wanted to stick around. I did not.

Blackjack: Like so many of the things I do, I gamble one-dimensionally. What I mean by this is I know the simple aspects of one game, ignore the complicated stuff like buying insurance, etc., and then make up my own guidelines to keep me safe. I apply the same strategy to my sewing machine, for example. I know how to stitch in a straight line and I can sew stuff. Don't talk to me about button holes.

Guidelines that keep me safe in blackjack include agreeing how much money I will put out initially, and then how much I am willing to lose. At some point I decided I wanted to win enough to pay for the massage my husband kept hinting he'd really appreciate. Following the old "quit while you're ahead" maxim, I walked away from the table on the third night $100 up. And still not totally understanding the finer points of gambling.

Shane: So much to say about Shane. I'll try to keep it brief and stick to the best parts.

On our last night aboard the Carnival Elation, various adults gathered in my parents' cabin for a pre-dinner drink and Together Time. Door propped open, I happened to make eye contact with the resident of the cabin across the hall as he headed unsteadily out of his stateroom, drink in hand.

"Cheers!" I lifted my drink, and he responded in kind, peeking into my parents' "well-appointed" stateroom (certainly in comparison with his interior windowless room).

"Wow," he murmured, "This is a nice room! Where are you guys from?"

"San Diego," we answered, "What about you?"

"Well, have you heard of Riverside?"

We all nodded.

"Yeah, well. Actually, I'm from Hemet." (A town slightly more remote...)

He paused a moment, and then opened up.

"You know how the boat was delayed?" We nodded. "Ha! That was me and my buddy. It was his birthday last week, so we went to Vegas, and then it was my birthday this week, and we scheduled this cruise. We got here and realized we forgot our passports. We had to drive all the way back to Hemet. But we remained in contact with Carnival the whole way, and told them 'Don't worry; we're here! We're parking.'" He shook his head ruefully and took a swig of his drink.

"We were actually still on the freeway, like fifteen miles away."

My brother-in-law mentioned that "someone" had talked about mooning the late arrivals. Shane laughed, loving that he had achieved some shipboard infamy.

"Anyway, I figure we saved the boat four laps outside Ensenada."

We all drank to that. Our ship had spent an entire day "at sea," basically idling outside our one Mexican destination.

Shane, we learned, was a divorced surgical tech and dad living with a divorced roommate and planning to start a Physician's Assistant Program. "Life has been great since my buddy and I moved in together...we have so much fun."

It was only one sentence or so later before we learned that Shane's "buddy" and roommate was his sister's ex-husband.

You can't make this stuff up.

He asked us if we had encountered a group of now-infamous Bachelor Party guys on the cruise. In Speedos? With the Bachelor wearing an obligatory crown everywhere he went? Yep, we'd seen them.

"Well, we saw them in Papas & Beer in Ensenada." (Ed.: But of course!)

"I asked them if any of them had gotten laid."

He took a sip of his drink as we waited in anticipation for the answer.

He shook his head. "They didn't."

It was the perfect non-story to make us all raise our eyebrows and look around uncomfortably.

Proving, folks, that while the drinks ain't cheap on a Carnival Cruise, the childcare and entertainment is.

Here's to my parents, and 40 years of traveling, living, and loving together. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for a wonderful time, then and now.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Feeling Thankful (that Dinner Is Tomorrow)

Our cruise ship returned to San Diego this Thanksgiving Day morning after making a short voyage south to Ensenada (more on this trip later). Because most of our extended family was aboard--and exhausted--and the turkey in my mom's fridge is still defrosting, we plan to pretend tomorrow is our Thanksgiving.

So we emerged from the managed chaos/cattle call cleanly titled "Debarkation" into the sunlight of a familiar port we call home on a day when everyone is cooking or otherwise ensconced in family affairs, with ostensibly nothing to do. Except unpack and watch in horror as our kids, hungover from too much Carnival Cruise Kid Camp Fun, cackle and careen uncontrollably toward today's end, which we hold out hope will be more whimper than bang.

Without the competing attention of our Family Thanksgiving Dinner at Mammom and Bampa's, though, we had the opportunity to stick around for the feast at Christie's Place, a resource center for individuals and families afflicted with and affected by HIV and AIDS, where we have delivered homemade desserts on Thanksgiving for over ten years. We were present for the speeches before dinner was served, therefore, and listened as person after person thanked friends for being lifelines, for being supportive and nonjudgmental, for accepting and keeping them alive. One man in the mainly Spanish-speaking crowd delivered his Thanksgiving blessing in Nahuatl (Aztec).

Our initial contact at Christie's (who has become a dear friend over the years) is the leader and facilitator of a weekly Spanish-speaking support group as well as a university employee busy researching and promoting early HIV/AIDS intervention. She openly celebrated the uniquely diverse demographics of her participants: gay and straight, transgendered and cross-dressing, afflicted and affected, all coming together to help and support one another in good health and habits.

Recognizing some of the faces in the crowd as regulars at Thanksgiving over the years, I recalled a piece I heard on NPR a few weeks ago. People diagnosed with AIDS and HIV are surviving longer than ever expected in the 80s and 90s, but not without effects: research is revealing cognitive deficiencies among long-term survivors, associated with either the disease, or the drugs used to treat it, or both. Meanwhile, AIDS and HIV have moved out of the mainstream of disease activism, and funding wanes.

Raoul and I stood on the front steps as he explained to me that in his lifetime he has been in prison, on drugs, and without hope. At his initial diagnosis, he shared, he thought he would soon be dead. Now he is a caseworker who steers newly diagnosed patients toward resources and support. He gave me his card asked me to let anyone afflicted and afraid know that there were people out there who understand.

Meanwhile, our kids had seconds on turkey and we lingered as folks began packing up leftovers to take home.

Now it's 6 PM and my Facebook Friends are updating on successfully-served birds and pie. And we are winding down, with a tart to bake for a Friday Thanksgiving Feast yet to be had and oh-so-much to be thankful for, not the least of which is our good health and fortune.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Home Alone

I'm at home sick today, and therefore faced with the surreality of being in the house when No One Else Is. So many possibilities! If you're not feeling crappy, that is. One voyeuristic opportunity I realized shortly after the other three human inhabitants blew out the door this morning and silence settled in was that I would have a sneak peek at the secret life of our pets.

Which so far has consisted of them following me around and lying down where I do.

Being away from school, that living, breathing city of 1000+ people, on a day when it's functioning without me always feels strange. I will acknowledge that, as someone who works in an educational setting, I am plenty accustomed to days off. It's days off without my children and anyone else's that seem eerie. When I finally pried myself from my bed and the gripping novel I was reading to take a shower and hit the pharmacy and post office, I marveled at the child-free world I momentarily inhabited. I finally passed a teenager in the cosmetics aisle, and as we made eye contact, I thought, You should be in school, girl.

So should you, Vice Principal, I reminded myself. We probably both called in sick.

We grow accustomed to seeing the usual characters in our daily dramas, as routine and cyclical as soap operas. In the meantime, there are other worlds whose residents we rarely meet. I was several months into my first year of college before I realized it had been a long time since I'd seen a dog or a baby: my world was professors and twenty-somethings. Now it's mainly teenagers and other parents of young children. I rarely escape from campus during the school day to run errands. And I avoid them on weekends with my daughters, save the requisite Costco or Target run.

So I was in the post office today for the first time in I can't remember how long, standing in line with no clerk in sight thinking, I am in the post office, in the middle of the day! Who are these other people? What are their jobs? Are they on lunch break? And then a man, frustrated over the wait, grabbed the box he'd chosen from the shelf and packed but hadn't paid for, and left. I was glad that he opted not to go postal, and also that I was not Vice Principal of the Post Office.

Back home I kept the TV and music off and listened to the weekday sounds of my neighborhood in concert with my snorting, sneezing, sniffling, and coughing. Cars passed, dogs barked, birds chirped. I was home to lend a neighbor the weed whacker and when the Arrowhead deliveryman arrived.

Of course, what I truly desired--and what everyone deserves--was a (healthy) day off of work (or child rearing) alone in my house or out exploring those other foreign mid-week worlds.

Like, I wonder what dramas unfold in spas on Wednesdays?

Maybe someday soon I'll find out.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

List: Gifts

I've been thinking about gifts and giving recently; after all, it's almost the season. My four siblings and I have been drawing names for an exchange for many years, and now that we're all married, our spouses are included too. This year, we're using the theme "Memories" to guide our gift giving/conceiving/making for one another. I'm torn between conjuring artifacts of past good times and the opportunity to facilitate new ones.

Meanwhile, I think of the memorable gifts I've given and of which I've been the lucky recipient; I can't be alone in feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of cataloging the bounty of my family's and friends' generosity. But here are a few examples that spring quickly to mind:

1. The Six-Pack of Pacifico: When we bought our house and escrow closed, some friends of ours--not even friends we see every day--were waiting on the curb with beer when we pulled up with our keys. It was a wonderful, sweet surprise. And a unique moment we got to share with them because they took the time to honor it.

2. The Running Watch: One of the best friends I made when I lived in Washington, D.C. as a young college grad and Teach for America teacher was Robin. Robin was a bit older than I, but a fellow runner and marathoner-in-training; we met at a local running apparel store that hosted a weekly training run. For the next three years Robin and I were regular running partners and confidantes. When I prepared to leave D.C. to teach in Africa, Robin gave me a gift. When someone leaves you, he shared, you should give her something that you will miss, something symbolic of your time together. Robin gave me his running watch, which had a beautiful woven nylon strap and which I know he loved. I wore it till the battery needed replacing; now I save it to remember Robin and his philosophy behind the gift: sacrifice and give truly.

3. Art: We are fortunate to have incredible artists as friends as well as to work in the company of talented student artists. My friend Sarah has given us a number of her paintings over the years, including a pair of aerial landscapes as a wedding gift. My sister-in-law's stepmother went to Kenya right before we got married, and my brother and sister-in-law commissioned her to paint a gorgeous work called Bride Price, which features Maasai women and cattle on wood. One former student framed and gave me his photograph of Buddha, and another painted me a second version of a painting I admired.

4. My Sister's "34" Email: For my 34th birthday, my sister sent me a list of 34 things I have accomplished in my life, among them, successfully "sunscreening a smiley face" onto my stomach one family vacation. There are thirteen years between my sister and me, but that email reminds me how close we are nonetheless.

5. Wedding Vows: My husband blew me--and our guests--away with the vows he wrote and shared on our wedding day. For our fifth anniversary, he asked my sister to hand write them and sketch our wedding flowers, gerber daisies, onto watercolor paper and framed them for me.

6. Grandpa's Almond-Wood Box: My grandfather was a carpenter, among his many talents and vocations. For one of my birthdays when I was a teen, he gave me a red-velvet-lined jewelry box made of almond wood. It's simple and elegant and a treasure to me.

7. Dataman: I got Dataman for Christmas when I was maybe seven years old. I loved that calculator; a nerdy first generation video game, it was all math, and my favorite game was one in which you guessed which number Dataman was "thinking" of. When I mentioned that Dataman was one of my fave toys as a kid, my bff set off secretly to find it online and order me one. She revealed her plot only when she was unsuccessful in locating the near-extinct species. But that was one of the best gifts someone never gave me, and the thought is what counts.

8. Wedding Quilt: Our dear friend and honorary family member Auntie T has been an important part of every stage of our lives, particularly our wedding. She organized my bachelorette sleepover party (and baked the penis cake, ahem), bought and arranged our flowers, and sewed us the most amazing wedding quilt, with fabric from her world travels and hand-embroidered poems and favorite quotations. It's been on our bed ever since.

9. Tiffany Daisy Earrings: Preparing to walk down the aisle at my wedding, I had the assistance of both parents. My mother attached my veil and arranged my train--her very own, as I wore her wedding dress. My father brought out a signature robin-blue Tiffany jewelry box and gave me a pair of earrings--daisies with tiny diamonds in the center--the same flowers on my mother's vintage 60s gown and in my bouquet. The emotional moment that ensued held up the ceremony and had many wondering if I had cold feet and left my husband-to-be, standing and staring at our crowd of friends and family as our violinists continued to play. I love my earrings and wear them daily in my 'second piercing' holes.

10. Various Books: Some of the most meaningful gifts I've received over the years have been books, sometimes because of their significance at the time or insights into the person who gave them. Most recently, a year of McSweeney's selections and David Foster Wallace's This Is Water, a surprise from a colleague. Also: A collection of Pablo Neruda's poetry, a hardcover copy of Huckleberry Finn, Barbara Kingsolver's Small Wonder, Fooling with Words by Bill Moyers, and Franny and Zooey.

And one of my favorite gifts to give (I think I've passed on more than ten volumes): The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Driving while Cussing

One of the most memorable conversations of this week was at our dinner table Tuesday night. Husband was discussing work, and my response to one of his comments was, "Too bad people feel the need to b-i-t-c-h about everything, huh?" Our six-year-old just sighed and shook her head and said, "Mom, b-i-c-h is NOT a good word."

And then she added, "You know what else is not a good word? F-r-i-c-k-i-n."

Yes, we've already covered those terms. The former goes back to a moment a few months ago when we were in the car and some broad in a Chevy almost hit us and then ALSO flipped me off. At least I had the foresight to spell the word to describe that driver. I had to restrain myself on Tuesday from explaining to our daughter that the verb form of "bich" is not nearly as bad as the noun form. Right? And, of course, frickin' is better than its alternative.

But really, I should just stifle myself and let the kind people hired to teach our daughter do their good work, since our daughter is receiving an excellent, well-rounded education.

We love our daughter's school. It's the elementary school of our youth, with neighborhood kids walking to campus daily, alumni from the 40s, 50s, and 60s still showing up for meetings and to support its current programs, and some of its very own teachers living only blocks away. It's a traditional school; the only 'bell and whistle' it boasts among competing language immersion, arts and science magnet, and museum and co-op schools is the International Baccalaureate Program.

The IB Program at the elementary-school level is primarily a qualitative approach to education, community, and self, promoting global awareness and reflective learning. International Baccalaureate tenets have become more evident in her first-grade homework, with our daughter being asked to write thoughts about classroom and community values such as respect.

For last week's homework, she had to reflect on what her world would be like without rules. We read the prompt, and she thought about it for a while. And then, exhibiting few libertarian tendencies and like the appropriately good six-year-old citizen she is, she wrote,

"If there was no rules everyone would do the wrong things. People would smoke and crash there cars."

And then she drew some blissfully happy people, living the lawless life:

Again, I am tempted to explain to my daughter that smoking isn't actually against the law; it's just against the law to do almost everywhere. Then we could have a discussion about how smoking is bad for you, and yes, honey, there are things that are bad for you that are not against the law, and things that are not bad for you that are against the law, and things that are bad for you that are against the riding in the car with your seat belt unfastened. In fact, could you please fasten your seat belt before I get arrested? Thank you.

It's so interesting to me that elementary-school-aged children readily correlate "doing bad things" with smoking. It's like the gateway crime. I remember back in the 80s when I was a teenager and out with my mom and my little brother, who spotted a smoker ahead on the sidewalk and stopped us all in our tracks with pointed finger and stage whispered shock: "OH MY GOSH! There's a SMOKER!" Math and grammar skills might not stick, but anti-drug education DOES.

In the early grades, anyway.

The extent to which smokers have been vilified as a result of more and more stringent laws restricting their activity (while tobacco companies continue to turn profits) has actually made me pity them on occasion. I can feel the shame emanating from the gentleman lurking in the gap between attractions at Sea World, trying to sneak a quick puff. Meanwhile, alcoholic Uncle Bill is welcome to his fourth beer over at the Anheuser-Busch Beer Pavilion.

Nevertheless, I have to wonder why driving while texting is illegal and driving while smoking is not. After all, driving behind smokers subjects me and my passengers to second-hand smoke. AND, the last two drivers whose crazy maneuvers had me shaking my head (who makes u-turns in the middle of a four-way stop?) both had cigarettes in hand. I had to hang up the phone and slam on my brakes.

The truth is, daughter, laws or no laws, the frickin' b-i-c-h-es are going to keep smoking and crashing there[sic] cars. And smiling. It's just human nature.

In the meantime, dagnabbit, there's a new rule in our house: No more bad words, not even s-p-e-l-l-e-d out.