Minute by Minute

I love the Labor Day holiday, that bittersweet transition from summer freedom back to school. My very first Labor Day after moving to California, I flew to Houston to meet my new baby cousin (he’s now a senior in high school). I hung with family, cuddled the baby, ate at chain restaurants, and annotated the shit out of my new grad school books. A year later so much had shifted. I don’t remember what I did that second year, but I’m going to guess a festival with Dennis, something with Dennis. We’d been dating for eight months by then and I was all in.

My third Labor Day in California is the one I relive, to some degree or another, every year since. Dennis was in a coma following brain surgery on September 1, and his doctor was on vacation. For a week I visited him and saw with relief that the swelling of his head had subsided. The hospital plastic smells were nauseating, the ICU was so quiet. I hardly ate. I held his hand and put my head on his chest and begged him to come back to me.

This Labor Day I’m coming out of a month of anxiety awaiting my first CT scan, which resulted in what I knew. I have a stone (not a tumor) in my salivary gland. The fear I felt was mostly of my own brain’s making, at odds with the more visceral truth buried inside me: I’m okay. Dennis’s fear was palpable in those weeks leading up to his surgery, even though he was in the hands of one of UCSF’s top brain surgeons. He started eating those microwavable Amy’s meals, total comfort food, that gave his flat tummy the slightest bulge. Saying good-bye to his six-pack, to the frenetic pace he’d lived for so long.

In the days before surgery we spent more time than ever in that redwood hot-tub out on his deck, with the Olympic swimming pool heater. From cold to perfect in 7 minutes. Now that I’ve gone through my own (very minor) medical scare I can appreciate the unease that wrinkles every smooth moment. And yet what I remember is his perfect laugh and the way he listened more than talked (right, right, he’d murmur, always tuned in).

On this 15th anniversary of Dennis’s death, Michael and I have been separated for a year. He just moved into a sweet yellow house with a big backyard that’s perfect for him and the girls. I love my own downtown place, writing at my kitchen table with the breeze blowing in the upstairs window. And yet I ache for what’s been lost, especially those earliest days when I overheard a friend tell another friend at a party: Michael just loves her so much.

There was no light that first week of September when Dennis lay in darkness. I bargained with God—bring him back and I’ll never worry about stupid shit again. Minute by minute, that’s how I’ll live. One morning I put on a pair of yoga pants that he especially liked. It was impossibly awful, cruel, that he would never see me in them again. I kept thinking, he’s still my boyfriend. We never broke up and now we never will. I have always believed in everlasting love. I’m 41 and still can’t release myself from that fantasy.

I did the same bargaining in the days leading up to my scan, even though I was quite sure it wasn’t life or death. Just let everything be okay, let me not have cancer or need some immediate tricky surgery, and I swear I’ll let go of the small stuff. I’ll appreciate every breath, I’ll surrender to heartbreak. Michael was steadily there as I alternately spun doomsday scenarios and took deep breaths. I’m not worried, he said over and over again, waves of calm. A beautiful friendship has grown over the tender wounds we couldn’t stop picking. A year ago he resented my micro-managing; this week he asked for my help setting up his new kitchen (heaven).

On September 8, before they unplugged him, I got to be alone with Dennis for the first time in a week. I touched my face to his and I begged him to wake up. I let my crying get loud. Then I told him I wanted him to be at peace. I listened to the raggedy pulls of his breath through the machine and knew it would never be enough time.

If he’d lived, Dennis and I would’ve had to break up. He was way older, had wounds that ran deeper than his capacity to love the way I wanted to be loved. But we’d surely still be friends. I’d give anything to sit out on that deck with him as the earth cooled down for the day. He’d be shirtless, in those black cut-offs, telling me a highly entertaining story about a water main or a deer family. He’d like hearing about the antics of the girls, about the doves that were nesting on Michael’s deck.

We’d listen to Joni Mitchell and watch the sky darken and reminisce about those old days. Maybe we’d talk about how sweet nostalgia is, how it almost balances the sting of time passing.

in the time of the naked ladies

I get nostalgic every August, the anniversary of my move to California. August is when I packed up my Volvo, Foxy, and left the lovely lakeside town of Burlington, Vermont, where I’d lived for 6 years. I was 24 (such a kid!) and in an abysmal relationship that was looking like it would kill me more than make me stronger. We’d been going back and forth for two years, since the fall after I graduated from college, and even though he’d put his fist through my living room window, I could not break free from this guy. Intellectually I knew what to do—follow the nice cop to the station to get a restraining order—but I kept succumbing to my strung-out id brain (stopping by his apartment on my way to the station to warn him about the restraining order).

So I did the only thing I could think of: I applied to grad school across the country, found  a room to rent, and told my almost-ex that no, he couldn’t come with me. He fetched a piece of broken glass from my recycle bin and threatened to slice his wrists, but I did not give in.

My drive out here was one of the loneliest, most boring treks ever. I ate Subway sandwiches and drank bottled water and found a cheap hotel every evening before total darkness descended. I had no weed to smoke and was not a drinker. No one I knew had a cell phone yet. Every night I watched Friends or Frasier before drifting off into fitful sleep. I couldn’t remember being sadder.

I knew that my awful not-yet-ex boyfriend was also on his way out West, driving the same flat highway, tortured in his own pathetic way. He couldn’t bear to stay in Vermont without me, he’d said, so he’d decided to move to Eugene. I was both terrified and comforted by the fact that we would be sharing a coast.

Every morning I woke up early and rode my bike for exercise. Didn’t matter where. In Wyoming it happened to be a lovely windy frontage road. In Nebraska it was industrial and ugly. I was looking for freedom, for a release, before climbing back into Foxy and hitting the 80 for another sweaty day of driving.

Thanks to a couple of dear friends (Minnah!), I had some mixed tapes to keep me company. Beck and I sang about what a lost cause my relationship was. Lucinda Williams and I implored him not to tell anybody the secrets I’d told him. Gillian Welch took me on a soul journey. I sang and cried and sipped my water and held my pee until Foxy needed a fill-up.

After five days of driving I made it to Sonoma County. I was disappointed at first. Where was my lake? Where was my lively cobblestone downtown crammed with cute college boys? Of course I couldn’t stop thinking about him. But I also couldn’t stop inhaling the high-summer air. I’d never smelled such spicy sweetness. And those radiant pink flowers! Bobbing in clusters along the roadsides, their long, elegant stems defiantly leafless…

And so it goes. Another August, another season of the naked ladies, still just as pink and leafless and stunning to me as they were fourteen years ago.  The blackberries are ripening, the river is cool but no longer cold, and there is another man terrorizing not just me, but the nation, the world. My ex was mean because he was deeply unhappy. Is this true of our president and his nightmarish ilk? Do they lash out because it’s psychically easier than facing their own self-hatred? At some point it’s too tedious to care about why people commit the evils they do. It’s enough to know they must be stopped. If only it were as easy as packing up the trunk and hitting the pedal.

Six months after landing in California, I finally ended all contact with the man I thought I would never escape.

I’m so grateful I made it out here. I’m so grateful for my liberal bubble, where I feel safe and comfortable amidst like-minded folks. When I fled that awful relationship, I knew the danger and misery I was leaving behind. How could I have known the beauty and warmth and love that awaited me? How can any of us know?

do something: a brief history of my activism

Senior year of high school I was voted “Most Likely to Lead a Protest March,” for railing against the injustices of the dress code and writing articles for the school newspaper with titles like “Welcome to Prison.”

But it wasn’t until college that I became a critical thinker capable of understanding why I’d struggled against my Catholic school upbringing. My liberal arts education, literature and anthropology and political geography, helped me see what I’d sensed all along: that maybe there were different ways to live and worship and love and construct society. Maybe the most important thing about Jesus was his radical socialism.

When Bush stole the win from Gore in the 2000 election (the first I could vote in), I was almost 22 and almost finished with college. I burned with righteous indignation over the injustices of the capitalist world. I knew I’d benefited from that world, and I also knew that the global majority did not.

After graduating, aimless and missing the headiness of college, I took an adult ed class with a professor who was part of the International Socialist Organization. Inspired by her intellectual vision, I joined the movement, attending their weekly meetings and peddling their newspapers and dutifully highlighting dense tomes by Trotsky and Marx.

Activism in my 20’s came naturally. Sure, I was hotheaded and rife with contradictions, but at least I was grappling. And I was grateful for living in a country where I could wear a Fuck Bush tank top in DC while protesting the Iraq War. Proving the prophecy of my teenage peers, I even commandeered the bullhorn at one downtown march. I can’t remember what exactly we were protesting, but I can remember the thrill of speaking out collectively against injustice.

I carried my activism out to California and into grad school, where I tried mobilizing fellow Writing Center tutors to join the fight for higher wages. I seized upon Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and wrote my thesis on liberatory education in the college classroom (not realizing until years later the irony of trying to “liberate” upper middle class white kids at SSU). I took my high school students to a midnight vigil outside of San Quentin, crying with them when the execution bell tolled.

And then I turned 30, Obama got elected, and the whole world sighed with relief. No need to protest against competence. As I got married and had kids, my activism grew less active: quiet, inward, and domestic. M and I try our best to live our values. We grow food and buy our clothes at thrift stores and participate in our community like the educated liberals we are.

I never stopped being politically-minded or challenging my students to think beyond their indoctrination, but the Women’s March in January was the most active thing I’d done in a while. It felt so good to bust out the markers and duct tape for sign-making with my four year-old daughter. Marching through downtown Santa Rosa in the cold rain moved me to tears more than once. Almost like a home-coming.

Now I’m compelled to do more. So yesterday evening I spent a couple hours volunteering with Food Not Bombs, giving free food to hungry folks right down the road from my house. Hardly earth shattering, I know. But in some ways, that’s the whole point of activism: low-key and un-glamorous, service to the most forgotten, disenfranchised people.

As I wrapped burritos in tinfoil, an older man, dirty and kooky and pawing at the boxes of pastries, kept talking to me. It was clear what he needed most. And so I did my best to listen.

open letter to my students

Dear sweet sometimes-clueless but mostly well-meaning students:

I asked you to write open letters to anyone or anything. I pretty much gave you complete freedom; I mandated only a page limit and that you get real. I asked you to be vulnerable and raw.

And (omigod) you did. You really effing did.

You berated your roommate, DJ Douche-Bag, for using the shower mat to soak up the leaky toilet water after his giant shit; you ripped into your drunk dad for turning you scared and passive and anxious; you yelled at your metabolism for keeping you creepy-skinny; you pleaded with your inner critic to stop pointing out your yellow teeth and hollow-eyed stare; you interrogated your shadow side for luring you with thoughts of suicide; you mocked the women looking for love on The Bachelor; you mocked your peers for being chronically bored and stoned in class; you mocked everyone who thinks auto-tuned sugar-pop can hold a candle to Leonard Cohen; you mocked your own inability to let go of sleeping with a security blanket.

You wrote to redwood trees, helicopter parents, empty toilet paper rolls, razors, ungrateful cats, ex-boyfriends galore–one of whom found himself “six inches deep in some chick from Chemistry.” (I snorted.) You wrote to your mothers: drug-addled, doting, dying, even deceased. (I cried and came back later.) You were so brave. You humbled me.

You are the students I’ve sometimes written off as spoiled brats, victims of your own white privilege, apathetic and shallow. You often stare at me in class, blank-faced and humorless, and I joke that I need to check your pulses for signs of life.

But on the page you spring free! You dare to own your pain. You make me ache for you and all you had to go through when you were only eight years old. I wish I could take each of you aside and hug you tight and assure you that you will be fine, that just by writing this you are on the path to freedom and redemption and love. Instead I will gently show you how to correct those sloppy run-ons, how to recognize shifts in tense and person, how to wield verbs like weaponry, how to pare your sentences down to the bone and expose even more of your hard-won truths.

swimming with dahlia

She wears my old swimsuit, a blue one-piece with Snoopy, Woodstock, and rainbows printed all over it. 80’s chic.

The pool is hot-tub warm. A benediction. Worth walking through the rain for.

I chat with another mom and admire her three-month-old. The kid connection. Nothing has made me more friends than parenthood.

Dahlia loves the water. She grips the longest strands of my newly-cut hair as we glide around the pool.

A sprinkling of elderly ladies are delighted to see her. She smiles back.

When I sit her on the shallowest step, the water is above her chest. Almost 10 months old and still so small.

She cracks up when I kiss her chin; she takes the opportunity to bite my nose.

When we come back home I nurse her, put her down for a nap, munch some trail mix, finish reading my book, and watch the rain.

My own mom kept everything, even all my threadbare swimsuits. I wish I could pack this memory up in a box to open years, or even decades, from now.


I used to blog regularly. Those were the days when M and I took long meandering walks and planned overseas adventures and slept until 9 on weekends and had a regular froyo habit. I was just entering my 30’s, ripe and ready to have babies and start writing for reals.

Fast forward a few years. M and I have two lovely daughters, established careers, and a very practical family car. I’ve published things I’m proud of and can execute a decent chaturanga. Our adventures run more towards Train Town and children’s museums, but still, we’re frolicsome.

What hasn’t changed much are my propensities to fret and fear the worst, to seek some kind of order to assuage the terrifying uncertainties of life. In fact, most days I feel like my anxiety is worsening, like catastrophe is lurking around each routine check-up and seismic blip, like I’m stalking perfection.

So imagine my surprise when I managed to have a fantastically un-perfect birthday yesterday. Each chase (perfect cottage cheese pancakes! flawless Pilates class! scrumptious Chinese lunch! fun happy hour party!) was tripped up by something (a burned skillet; a parking ticket; stuffed on orange chicken; my crying baby).

And yet none of it ruined my day. Dahlia finally quieted down and napped (dear sweet M babysat) while I took Mallory to a party. She pounded juice boxes and watched a puppet show; I chatted and laughed the evening away without worrying that I wasn’t sufficiently bedazzled. Once back home, M and his sister lit the candles and I savored each bite of my gilded champagne buttercream cake even though I forgot to use our new antique cake spade to serve the slices.

So here’s to a new year, a new age (38!?), a new possible outlook. Here’s to being able to roll with the waves, accepting both the crests and the troughs. Here’s to living this moment with gratitude instead of fearing its demise or mourning its tainted imperfections.

Here’s to a new blog! This time around I’m not going to be such a Capricorn about it. No strict schedule, no obsessing over each comma, no mandates to post every week, no waiting until the moon is waxing just so…

Just me and my fingertips and whatever slice of life we are inspired to capture.