Saturday, October 31, 2015

Punto Lobos

It's Halloween and it feels like the last day of light and color before November's wind sucks the life out of me and leaves the world black and white. I've been trying to breathe deep of the remaining mild days and save my strength for the hard work ahead. The last two months have been a honeymoon with my new job; the girls have adapted well to Mommy working and the school seems so warm and nurturing to students and new employees alike. Every day I jump out of bed excited and gird my loins for the challenges ahead, donning my good luck charms. A gold necklace from Mia, a gold bracelet from Nora and my wedding ring from Randy. 

There's another ring I put on the opposite hand, a special piece whose silver is wearing away to reveal the copper beneath. It is adorned with a small faceted black stone and I touch and turn it frequently as I work, remembering the day in January that Randy found it on the hill over Punto Lobos. 

We were hiking together, in Mexico, the girls left behind with Aunt Joan for this special 50th birthday weekend trip. High on the cliff over the beach where no one swims outside the town of Todos Santos. A working beach for fisherman who spend the day pulling the day's catch up out of the sea in their small open craft called "pangas," then approach the beach and wait out the killer waves, wait for the safe moment to gun their boats straight up onto the hard pack sand. They clean and cut their fish right there on the beach, next to the boats. No harbor, no piers. The boats are carried in and out of the water by hand. On a good day, a fisherman will profit between $18 and $30 (300 - 500 pesos.)

Now this beach is gone and the fisherman have no place to work. Tres Santos is a mega-development planned for this site and the desert around Todos, with goals to build luxury condos and single family homes, hotels, shopping districts, a farm and more, funded by the Black Creek Capital Group of Denver. The first phase of the project leveled the mangrove that once bound this beach. The result is a barren plateau. Rain drainage from the worksite (that would normally be absorbed by the sponge-like protection of the natural mangrove) flooded the single sand road that gives access to the beach. The company next built a seawall, banned in many seaside communities for their contribution to erosion and sure enough, a late summer storm swept away most of the beach and the waves now strike the wall. Most of the yellow sand in the picture above is gone and the waterline is right up to the dun-colored construction site in the upper right. The fishermen only have a narrow space to launch their boats. In a desperate attempt to stop more erosion, Tres Santos dumped tons of rocks in front of the seawall. The incessant Pacific waves have spread the rocks across what was once a pristine beach. The new rocks are damaging the propellers and engines of the fishermen's boats.

 A new propeller is 18,000 pesos or $1100, a new transmission is 78,000 pesos or $4700. 

Yesterday the fishermen had had enough and began a peaceful protest to block the single road to the beach and get answers from the company that was ruining their livelihood. Tres Santos sent a couple of security guards with no knowledge of Spanish to photograph the men.

What makes the situation even more insane is that Tres Santos is marketing itself as a "green" project in partnership with the village. Here is video from a promotional event in New York in April to gun up investors for the project. Hotelier Chip Conley, head cheerleader of the project, reads an old story of a traditional fisherman urged to give up his traditional ways by a clueless MBA.

The tragic irony and hypocrisy here are staggering. A rich white man with an MBA who cannot see himself as the clueless butt of his own story. Real fishermen with real families are suffering because of the incompetence of Chip Conley and the businessmen of Black Creek and Tres Santos. The "Three Saints" of Tres Santos are greed, exploitation and destruction of the earth.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My Favorite Moments of Summer, 2015

1.  Mia at peace, our first morning in Saugatuck. Before breakfast (we would drive through the rain to find gooey rolls from Kismet Bakery and farm stand peaches) we climbed down the sixty-five steep beach stairs to the narrow strip of beach below our rental cottage. The water was cold against our calves, then comfortable, then irresistible. I stripped to my undies, checked the empty beach north and south and threw off the rest. Waded into the welcoming liquid, sank completely under. Mia joined me and we laughed and peed and bobbed. The morning was still and eerie. Thunder boomed like strange unseen artillery from the west without any answering flash of lightning. A light gray bank of storm cloud approached us in a line as straight as geometry though the darker gray morning sky. Mia's head and shoulders rising up out of the gentle swells, her slicked back hair, her dear survivor's face, so more precious, even more precious to me after her hard year, her strong dark eyebrows, her complicated smile with its tiny dash of scar from a second grade gym accident, my dear dear oldest daughter, soon to be thirteen, lit with the strange diffused overcast light and with that oncoming angle of storm behind her, I had to take a picture.

"I wish I had my camera," I told her and instead put my hands together, the thumb of one hand meeting the first finger of the other to frame her in the rectangle I made. Click. To remember our morning forever.

2. Nora in action, again, this time with Randy, poolside, at Fox Lake. We're entertaining friends, I'm floating (again) weightless in the warm water, glorying in the blissful weightlessness, spinning around just because I can when Randy's music mix switches into Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off." Nora jumps out of the pool, runs to the side by the speaker and starts to shimmy and shake to the beat. Randy joins her and their duet is funky, fast, funny and fearless. I stared, mesmerized, enchanted, terribly moved.

Nora is still a child for a few more moments, her voice still a piping lilt, her waist still thick and sturdy. Her eyes are still huge in her dear head that is proportionally large for her body. I still need to bow down to bring my face close to hers and that sacred bend to childhood and to this, this happy, sad, delicious, carefree, troubled, rainbow-squid-hat wearing little one is the most holy thing I can do in my life.

3. Back in Saugatuck (it really is My Happy Place, along with Todos Santos, Montana, and the California coast or is it wherever Sally and Erik are that I am so content?) before a hike in the Saugatuck Dunes State Park, I sat on the top step of the aforementioned sixty-five and ate a slice of Erik's homemade bread slathered with Kismet butter and Sally's strawberry preserves. That is all, a perfect moment but my persnickety self insists that I admit the entire truth which is less flattering and a combination of the breakfast bread and the sparky moment an hour or so after as later on that hike a man I had never met, a friend of Sally and Erik's, an editor of a Chicago poetry journal, told me he read We All Fall Down and I flushed with confused pleasure. What? How? Sally? He was very kind and his compliments were a shot in the arm. I send out these dispatches into the ether and it blows me away whenever I hear from strangers, "I read your blog."

With gratitude,

Sunday, August 23, 2015

New Job

Here's a story that I performed this week on stage at Second City Sunday Morning Stories. The audience was awesome and gave me a really nice reception although I was a little shook because I couldn't see anyone behind the bright lights. I know that's a typical reaction to being onstage for the first time, but it startled me nonetheless. I have changed the student names, but they really are wonderful to work with, frustrating and funny and silly and unpredictable and I so love working in a school again.

I started a new job this week. I'm a paraprofessional in a local high school Humanities department, a Parapro. I help out in two freshman Reading and English classrooms; I make copies; I take attendance; I tutor; I supervise the study hall. I'm a para. I para-lotta hats.

It's been thirteen years since I've been in front of a classroom. I tell people I'm going back to work, but that feels weird. Because I have been working for the past thirteen years. I've been wiping shit off baby asses and keeping little tiny people alive and fed and clothed and clean and packing about two thousand sack lunches and doing laundry, mountains upon mountain ranges of laundry. And wrangling Brownie troops and volunteering to dress up as the Plastic Bag monster for Earth Day at the elementary school. I put on this jumpsuit with layers and layers of plastic grocery bags attached with safety pins, there was even a cute little plastic bag chapeau and I roared into the cafeteria "I am the Plastic Bag Monster! I live for a million years! Chicago has banned me forever!"

And it was fun, but it was work, too.

But now I'm getting a paycheck and hanging out with a lot more grownups, yay. But today I really want to tell you about the kids. Because you gotta love the kids. If you don't, don't work in a school.

They just crack me up. There's this kid in Study Hall on Tuesday, it's a silent study hall and I turn and catch him like this, waving his arms in the air like he's trying to crack up his friends on the other side of the room. And he freezes with his arms up, I stare at him and he's just stuck there like maybe I won't notice? or he doesn't know what else to do? and he kind of shrugs, like, "Eh, you caught me, what can I do?"

And then there's Dion, in 7th period who's so antsy he can't sit still and he's doesn't so much sit in his chair as inhabit it. He's contorts himself around it, his knee under his hip on the seat of the chair and his other knee's on the ground and two of the legs of the chair are off the ground and he's grabbing onto his desk in front of him for dear life because he'll fall if he doesn’t hang on while we're reading the story in the copy packet. That I copied. I'm a para.

But the story in the copy packet goes on and really, it's this funny story called "Becoming Henry Lee" about a Korean kid who tries to sound more white by watching a VHS copy of Roots and imitating the plantation owners accents, I know, it's ridiculous and funny but my students, these kids, these fourteen year olds whose reading level is three or four and six years behind, they can't read dialect very well and it's going over their head and it's 7th period and they're fading fast so my friend Kerry, who's teaching the class, she says, "Okay, we're all gonna stand up and clap. C'mon, get up." And she starts clapping and I'm "okay" and I start clapping and you know when you're a teacher you know these things can go south really easy.

The kids are staring at you like you're an idiot and you've lost them. And when you've lost them, it doesn't matter what you say, they won't do it, they'll talk over you and walk right out of the room, they'll eat you up, chew you real good and spit you out on the floor. It's really hard to come back from that. But in for a dime, in for a dollar. So here we are, we're two middle-aged white ladies clapping in front of a room of adolescents. And Thank God, Angel stands up, because he's such a sweetheart, he'll do anything the teachers tell him and then Eric stands up, because he's always up for something different and then we start cheering each time another kid stands up and then we start calling the sitters out by name and poor little Mulan who is this shy quiet delicate little thing, I call her name and I say, "You can do it!" and she smiles for like the first time all period and she stands up and they're doing it, even hard case Ralph until only Marika, sleepy defiant apathetic Marika is left and we gather around her chair and chant and clap, "Mar-i-ka! Mar-i-ka!" and she says "no no" and flops her head down. And then she does it. She changes her mind and hauls herself to her feet.

She stands up and we're all standing there, clapping for each other, for no other reason than we're here in school and it's the middle of August and their Chicago friends are still at the pool and reading is really hard for some people but we're doing it together and every kid needs a standing ovation once in a while.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


I took my old paperback copy of Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard with me to California, my go-to book in times of stress and trouble and yes, joy, too. Its account of mountain trekking, nature observation in the Himalaya of Nepal and the tenets of Zen Buddhism helped me in the aftermath of our friend Jerry Smith's suicide last year and it helped me again on this challenge to go see my dear brother.

First stop, LA. To offset my guilt for this solo trip that mom-guilt colors as an indulgence, I take the $1 bus from LAX to Venice and walk the rest of the way to my hotel. One dollar, people! So what if I need to ask a bunch of people where to catch it and take a shuttle and then stand on the side of the road while the sun is setting and I'm not sure I'm in the right place? The bus cost one dollar!

The next morning on my rented bike from Venice Beach to Will Rogers Beach, the heat rose up in waves over the warm sand but the wind chill off the ocean cooled my skin, a delicious sensation. I could ride all day.

At Temescal Gateway Park in Pacific Palisades, I climbed a log across a dry creek, scrambled under low bushes on my hands and knees up a steep hillside, and met people running on the trail that had me huffing and puffing and stopping every few minutes to rest. "Is this a loop?" I asked every walker I met and yes, yes, it was, up to epic views of the city and the coastline, then down, down to a dry waterfall, oaks and butterflies, tiny lizards and sketching art day camp kids.

The ocean was my reward, a soup of seaweed, long brown strands and stringy red puffballs. I laughed with the family next to me in the surf, laughed at the intoxicating sensation of surging cold water on hot skin.
Venice garden along the canal

The bike ride, the canyon hike, a walk along the charming Venice canals and a trip to the Getty were all for me. My second day in LA, I took the bus (did I mention it's only a dollar?) and walked to MPG, a rental car company with an all green fleet and picked up my hybrid Speck for the drive to Bakersfield.

There may have been times I've taken a break from the kids and I'm running out the door and nearly laughing with relief once I'm in car but this time... six days felt long. It was hard but I knew the girls were with their dad and aunt and uncle and cousins and every time I felt out of place I would remember to breathe and think, "This is exactly where I am supposed to be right now." It helped.

Oilfields outside Bakersfield

I met my brother for dinner on Tuesday. I was so happy to see him; he'd just got a haircut and he was all neat in his work clothes. He looked healthy. "This is my brother!" I told the hostess. "We haven't seen each other in a couple of years!" At the Getty I'd found a gift for him, a simple compass on a chain. When I took it out of my bag, he said, "No Cindy, you keep that," and pulled out his phone to show me an app with super precise longitude and latitude and something like the density or chemical makeup of the ground under the California Pizza Kitchen we were sitting in, I'm not sure. We laughed at how cool it was.

He's saving for retirement. I'm proud of him.

I drove the next day to Sequoia National Park and spent the day hiking, navigating hairpin turns at 10 mph, breathing deep the spicy clean air given off by the largest trees on earth, awestruck, moved, grateful, unable to stop grinning.


Those grey gashes in the bottom of the valley are the road


The sun broke out on my way out of the park and down into the Central Valley via 198. Gold sun-baked hillsides above deep green lemon groves.

And then the turn off to go back into the Sierra Nevada to my brother's tiny town:

Another breathtaking drive to Lake Isabella at twilight via 155 through Woody. My brother's house sits on the narrow terrace of a steep hillside. He has cut a row of even stumps to line the dropoff at the edge of the driveway and fashioned a homemade table under the trees. He has two dogs, a black Lab and a German Shepard. They are friendly and gentle omega dogs, refusing to go with me for a walk, standing firm next to my alpha brother no matter how he urges them to follow me. I check in to a tiny and cute motor lodge at the bottom of the hill. The office guy sees I like tea and has his daughter leave me Sleepytime teabags to steep in my room.

The mountains are beautiful up here. John Ford shot scenes for Stagecoach right down the street at Tillie Creek, I am freaked to discover at the tiny historical society in the touristy town of Kernville. I spend the day hiking in the Sequoia National Forest. Another day of wonder. I leave the trail and follow the long lines of fallen trees up a hill: I find a flake of fallen tree bark that could be a flattened infant griffon. Centered between a fallen yet still green-needled fir branch and the same branch now brown and dead is a blue jay feather.

Can you see the griffon's eye, his snout?
I've wondered before, in Montana, how it is that our cruel natural world can transform into the most hospitable of environments, every stone a step for a boot, every fallen log a resting place. I know there is no design, no benefit for anything but ourselves in these woods, but this reforming of the world into a welcoming place happens nevertheless. Thank you, tree; thank you, soft yielding mulch under my feet.

And yet, and yet, as I am wary of the patterns and purposes that religion and my brother find in randomness and coincidences, I know that our minds' work is to create meaning, and nature abhors a vacuum of sense so their organizing efforts is a kind of natural occurrence too.

On the drive back down the twisty Kern River Canyon, I stop to soak my happy toes in fast flowing river water that is both sparkling and brown. This is snowmelt from the unseen Mount Whitney, highest peak in the contiguous U.S., why is it not freezing? It feels so perfect on my hot feet and they are soft after the splashing.

Cairns on Dome Rock
The wind has carved grooves into this dead stump that seems to have grown up out of the granite.

On Saturday, we took a long drive around Lake Isabella. My brother had me pull the car over to show me a strange old stone box half buried in the hillside. The door was long gone but you could see where the hinges had been and there was a little metal shelf inside. A mystery, my brother thought it might have been a storage place for gold from the area mines. He had brought along his pickax and other prospecting tools and hacked out shiny rocks from the glittering veins of mica in the cliffs. The rocks fell away in thin sheets. The shine was beautiful in the bright California mountain sunshine. "I've got the gold rush!" I said and laughed. I did. It really was thrilling.

We had breakfast at the tiny regional airport next to the lake with a campground and little cafe.

"There's one of the type of plane our parents died in," he says as we're crossing the parking lot. It's a small craft, two windows on each side, the back ones hung with a diminutive set of curtains. Hard to believe you could fit four passengers and enough luggage for a week in the Bahamas.

"A Mooney executive. You can recognize it by the distinct tail. It looks like it was put on backwards." And it does. We stare for a moment, clear-eyed, interested. Such is the strange way you have of looking at the world when there's a loss so big in your life that you can't remember a time without the hole in your heart.

The waitress who brings us our oatmeal with blueberries refills coffee for the other tables and answers a squawk from the walkie talkie behind the counter. It's a pilot waiting to take off and she gives the all clear. "I check out the campsites, too," she laughs. "I wear a lot of hats around here."

The Kern River at sunset. Beautiful long sloping saddleback ridge over Kernville at the upper left.
We were both tired and irritated by the afternoon so I took a inner tube ride down some fun and mild rapids on the Kern. Happy Fourth of July parties spray me with water guns but it only feels cool and good. I still have not had enough of this water so on the way back to the motel, I pull off on an unmarked road and bushwack down to the riverside. I've got my new river shoes on and I wade into the cool current.

Matthiessen writes:

The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself; the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no "meaning," they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.

On Sunday I hike up the hill to my brother's house. The dogs greet me silently. Ron is sleeping to the sound of a portable fan, but he wakes and we say goodbye with love.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Down the Rabbit Hole

It's June, the month when light-filled hours flood us with fizzy serene energy, the month that answers the question I ask every May: "How on earth could spring get any more lovely?"

Father's Day was bright and beautiful, love pouring out all around, fun games of bocce and bowling, high white clouds overhead as we left Pinstripes. "Do you like the sky we ordered?" and he did, as well as the customized pair of Converse and the cake with "SuperHero Dad" in red and blue icing. Randy seemed very happy and I was content, because I wanted his special day to be as good as mine was.

On Mother's Day, I had wanted so much and I got it all. A yummy brunch, time with the girls and Randy, time alone to visit the memorial trees planted for my family in LaGrange. In the morning, we took the girls to see the latest Chicago Children's Theater production and their rock 'n roll Alice in Wonderland hit all the right thematic notes for our spring season.

Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are cerebral books composed by a mathematician, challenging to many kids for whom the puns, wordplay and absurdity fly over their heads. This production chose to find the heart in the source material by interpreting the Jabberwocky as a monster who howls all your self-doubts and fears. "Ugly! Clumsy! Stupid!" screams the monster and its destruction is both as simple a task and as epic a battle as convincing yourself the lies are not real.

Anthony Lane in June The New Yorker writes on a new book about Lewis CarrollConversations about what is real, what is possible, and how rubbery the rules that govern such distinctions turn out to be abound in the tales of Alice. Yet they are sold as children’s books, and rightly so. A philosopher will ask how the identity of the self can be preserved amid the ceaseless flux of experience, but a child—especially a child who is growing so fast that she suddenly fills an entire room—will ask more urgently, as Alice does, “Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.” Children, viewed from one angle, are philosophy in motion.

And Andrew Solomon, in The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

The University of Michigan's Arnold Sameroff is a developmental psychiatrist who believes everything in the world is a variable in every experiment; all events are over-determined; nothing can be understood except by knowing all of the mysteries of God's creation. Sameroff would suggest that though people have certain complaints in common, they have individual experiences, with individual constellations of complaints and individual networks of causes. "You know, there are these single-gene hypotheses," he says. "Either you have the gene or you don't, and those are very attractive to our quick-fix society. But it's never going to work."

We are down the rabbit hole as of late. Curiouser and curiouser. Logic and proportion have fallen something something. Little girls eat a bit of cake and grow so fast they seem to soar toward the ceiling. I'm actually looking forward to junior high (can you imagine?) as a respite from the challenges of middle school. Skewed sensitivities, hormonic (surely the opposite of harmonic! #dontcallmeshirley #canthelpit #sorrynotsorry) behavior, all facets of the strange way-place that is pre-adolescence.

And I'm off to California tomorrow to see my brother Ron. Traveling without the girls or Randy feels Off, but Necessary. Sometimes my own Jabberwock lurks.

Breathe. Breathe. There is a wise mind within all of us; it knows our capabilities and the truth of the world.

Last night at dinner, we had rode our bikes to Nick's which is one of my very favorite summer family things we do, last night at Nick's Nora said, "I'll miss you! I wish you could come to Fox Lake with us," and I sank a degree before my Alice chimed in, "She's going to see her brother. Daddy will see his sister and Mom will see her brother. It's the right thing to do."

My dear fighter, my Alice lost in the mazes and riddles of her age and her own unique self, my dear dear daughter bringing symmetry, sense and peace to me, gifts I so much want to be able to return again to her. Breathe. Breathe. Let us all breathe.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Spinster by Kate Bolick

The meme of the day is Mad Men's Peggy Olsen, walking down the halls of mega-ad-corp McCain-Erickson, arriving at her new job three days late, probably hungover from the rounds of vermouth the night before, a cigarette tilted on her smiling lip, an erotic antique Japanese print under one arm. A triumphant entrance for this character who over seven seasons has weathered many of the outrageous challenges single working women faced in mid-century New York.

An apt image for our From Left to Write virtual book club day discussing Kate Bolick's celebration of the autonomous life and accomplished women of history who have desired and delighted in their independence, with or without solitude: Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own.

I spent much of my single life alone, but not lonely. At the time, living by myself seemed the most obvious choice, if it seemed like I had any choice at all. When I received the notice from the small mid-western liberal arts college where I was to spend my freshman year that I would be living in a single room, I was content. Even when I saw the pocket size of my bedroom, even when I saw that mine was the only one of its kind in the building because the similarly configured rooms on the other floors had been converted into ironing closets, I did not mind. I liked hiking up to the empty fourth floor attic to find my own private bathroom. I liked the cozy way the head of my bed hit one wall and the foot was tucked against the other.

I spent another year and a half of college in single bedrooms, then rented my own apartment for grad school in Iowa City. I loved that first apartment, the dark wood trim framing the doors and windows, the plaster walls with a picture rail to hang my art posters,  the hardwood floors and big windows facing east, south and west. When I first moved to Chicago at twenty-six, it didn't dawn on me to seek out a roommate until a couple of years later when my cousin found herself in need of a space at the same time I was trying to get out of a bad lease. Sally was the most amiable of roommates and I was sad when she moved to Atlanta with her new beau, whom she would eventually marry.

I married too, at thirty-five, which is seven years older than the national average for women. Yet it did not feel like a delayed decision. Marriage was not on my radar as a young woman; college, grad school and career were my first concerns. No relationship until Randy suited me or had any potential, not that I was even thinking in those terms. Marriage seemed such a throwback, a state unnecessary to the common sense of everyday feminism. My four closest friends were happily childless (and remain so to this day) and busy with fascinating and engrossing work. Who needed Joni Mitchell's "piece of paper from the city hall keeping us tied and true?"

Randy and I lived together happily for seven years and could have continued in that way, but we both wanted children. And although my dear boyfriend offered to give me what I wanted, and although I could not care less about what other people thought, the idea of being an unmarried mother made those imaginary children seem entirely "mine" rather than "ours." So fifteen years ago this July we tied the knot. Two cute little girls arrived soon after.

Does this mean I am not a spinster? Could I still have a spinster's heart within a close and loving family? A heart that is grateful for time to read and write and that adores refreshing solitude, yet also one that courts an emotional self-sufficiency that makes me reluctant to pick up the phone or ask for advice or help. Bolick points out that her spinster life is "teeming with people: family, friends, colleagues." It's a privileged life in many ways, a life of great confidence, one I admire and perhaps envy at times. But there is only one reality, there are no other possible worlds accessible to us except in the imagination, and my full and happy house is my most beloved home.

This post was inspired by Kate Bolick's Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own. The publisher provided me with a copy at no obligation. You can read more responses to Bolick's book at From Left to Write.