REPORT A PROBLEM
First time I knew I was racist, the study break was over. Three dormmates—all hyphenated Americans—deviate over cracked textbooks, twiddling pens, “Do you laugh at racist jokes?” “I know so many.” “So do I.” Pause. We slink floorbound, huddled, whisper every bit of them: Italian, Jewish, Filipino. Those are us, so it’s okay. Subdued laughter. Continue. Black, Chinese, Mexican, Pollacks, Gays, Rednecks, Retarded. Split-sided yet culpable, tormented yet purged, we swallow, maintain silence. A decade later when I understand I’ve lived a second-class citizenship my whole life, cue this memory. I’ve minoritized my own self. Joke’s on me.
Christians dispute: Oprah the anti-Christ? Thursday’s show highlighted a celebrity marriage: ten years, four kids, honest commitment. A real miracle in Hollywood. Next, God told a woman at a visiting, fundraising West African choir, “two of these children are yours.” From that orphanage, Thirty-one Liberian teenagers adopted by Middle Americans. Following that, a gay couple foster-parent special needs children, adopting several. One commercial mid-show invited viewers to log on to Oprah’s New Earth podcast; spirit guides help channel soul purpose. Here, subversive red flags rise. Yet, we’re distracted, searching adoption agencies online—sniffling, calling friends, too preoccupied to cry wolf.
After our baby feeds, that breast no longer springs with the heft of a softball. The other, unsuckled-for-now breast, full, waits to be slung: deft, underhanded fast pitch. Mirrored, I see through my v-neck stretch T one nipple buoyed an inch higher than the other. Two completely different breasts sidle next to each other between my arms. I’m thrilled. In between bearing children, this usual A-cup, raisin-smugglin’ typagal only dreams of morphing into Betty Boob. Who knew the flabbergasting rule (“the more one sucks, the bigger they get”) would produce
whimpering dependants—one grown man, one child? Some feat.
A suburban pet store, a Tijuana orphanage, and an elderly rest home receive remarkable philanthropy. People take ‘field trips’ to walk puppies, caress babies, share stories. Minimum requirements: ID, supervisor, time. Maximum: risk, transformation, revolution. Only demons find controversy here. What, then, of pit bulls at the pound, latchkey teenagers, politicians, incarcerated, even the affluent? Outgrowing naked, squeaky, ego-less, adorable, safe, don’t we still need? Far as we know, in our galaxy, these are now certain: Mars has water; and, on Earth, too many wait for the chaperoned ‘okay’ to step, reach, touch. Sadly, this fear merely fortifies our loneliness.
A ‘Leroy,’ I’m told, equals four ‘Starvin’ Marvins.’ I’m two ‘Leroys’ into imploding this twilight. Can’t conjure unnamed food to glut the ache. Scan kitchen. Open, shut, roll open, roll shut, creak, uncreak: zeroid (zero-void=doubly empty space). Mid-Leroy, spark the TV. She shines the second half of “Down to You”: 1.5 stars, formulaic plot, Prinze, Jr., Stiles, sophomoric love. They “met too young,” re-started post-B.S. (Bachelors of SUCKas). PoppopopPOPsizzzle. The flavors of
first, college love ignite 3,000 meteoric taste buds. Nibbling the costly misinterpretation “first” means “One, True, Lasting”, I touch my tongue to plate as Chef Tantalus tarries.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame lives in my shoes. My Quasimo-toes. Fourth in line, elongated, frightening hunchback digits. Freakishly conspicuous, curving my shoes a half size longer. Before now, I despised Quasimo-toes. Did I inherit these from Mom’s own unreconciled trodden paths? I wonder this, kissing my newborn’s feet, staring at brilliant, teeny toes. No clear evidence she’ll endure these noble savages I’d grown to spurn. Nevertheless, ‘though I may not have stayed the ‘straight and narrow’ on My journey, it has been redeemed. It’s my unsaid prayer that if she gets Quasimotoes, they’ll be her legacy, not a curse.
You dreaded reading in public, conspired to flask yourself in case butterflies’ wings flapped razor-like inside. Yet, I noticed that shift—spellbinding—when art releases atmospheric, expanding oxygen to its fullest, happened when you finally went up. Your voice: slight quaver; your mouth: self-forgiving smile. You read quickly, listing radio stations, those songs; could they answer the unanswerable as you drove to say a final goodbye to your mother? By the end, you were breathless, butterflies quieted. Together, our lungs reacted, alveoli effervescing, drunk on your words. Instead of holding our breath, we found we were holding yours.
When rich in time, I made homemade presents. Lemon bars, coasters from tiled photography, poetry, exacto-d cardboard picture frames. First time rich in salary, I bought everyone what people really want: perfume, gift cards, sports paraphernalia.
We are rich either in time or things, rarely both.
Years later, visiting a friend, staggered in his condo among his I-pod, HDTV plasma and international wine collection, I spied a faded, hand-papered candle, a beleaguered dolphin punching fray-edged moon, trophied on his highest shelf. We chatted, hugged and separated, promising to connect more, he having a business trip, myself needing to return e-mails.
Amazingly, in my 20s, my filters blocked out all baby and kid presence in public places. It’s taken my own children to see some places not only tolerate, but create space for children to thrive. The most recent innovation: cafés with supervised, gated play areas, art, reading, music classes,
our children to hang out, eat, and express themselves while parents e-mail, sip mochas, generally recompose ruffled feathers. Should people remain arrogantly myopic as I was, I’d be a Starbucks shut-out, ordering drive thru lattes, minivanning far away from quiet storefronts where half the world is neither seen nor heard.
What day’s “Saturday Night Live” on? How long is “Sixty Minutes”? What year did the War of 1812 happen? Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb? Did you know there are three “l”s in the word “gullible”? Is there raw fish in your pocket, or are you just happy sashimi? What are the sexiest animals on a farm?
Brown chicken, brown cowwww
. If you’re walking down the street, and all the wheels fall off your canoe, how many elephants would it take to cover up your pancake? An orange because motorcycles have four doors. D’wanna study together? Ahh, joyful, awkward, college-virgin foreplay.
Am I the last to discover Natalie Coughlin, Olympic swimmer, was born in my hometown, went to my alma mater (Go Bears), and is part Filipino? Bet she’s my ‘little’ cousin! I’m telling folks I taught her everything she knows: which Vallejo thrift store has the best retrofunk clothes, what food stand has the filling-est nutella crepes to lipsmack during study breaks in Berkeley, and the healthiest ground turkey lumpia recipe for family potlucks (one
stay fit for Olympic training). What’s homegirl teaching me? Truly, if local pinay Bear can go for Gold, then anything’s possible for me, too.
I’m reminded of my mother-in-law by a suburb-displaced, Uptown woman ambling by: battle-weary wrinkles, overzealous makeup, white, wig-like blossom of hair, bedazzled black tunic. She carries blended Starbucks drinks. Her waning moonface, night and dazed, floats over the plastic cups. Two domes. One, the Holy Sepulcher, built on Golgotha—Christ’s crucifixion; the other, the Dome of the Rock, Mohamed’s ascension. Unlike those in Jerusalem, these facsimiles are transparent, almost invisible, unable to protect—conceal—what burns inside. At last, the veil removed, my mother-in-law can walk as this woman, from place to place, a pilgrimage complete, herself carrying the glory.
She said, “In my heart, my bags are always packed.” What discipline to choose to wait, build a home where furniture gets worn, refrigerator filled, emptied, and refilled each week, habitual paths slowly scratched into original hardwood floors. Over two decades, quietly moving stuffed backpack in front of the bus stop to the garage, top shelf next to her first globe. Back and forth. Pushing a cracked, periwinkle leather suitcase through the two front steps and back into the coat closet, poorly-engineered wheels sticking, rolling, unable to maintain the suitcase’s balance, unable to support the baggage’s weight, growing heavier yet.
“Hi. Where are you from?” Then, “…which parent do you live with?” I said, “Both” with a question mark tone, stunned by the trademark Berkeleyan greeting. Dozens of house partygoers, underaged, shooting beers and tequila around drinking games, all children of divorce. I was passed around as anachronism: the girl whose parents are
together. Never a badge of honor at home; it was status quo. Ironically, that summer, mom announced their impending divorce. They wanted to wait until I left for college. Part of the circle, I can now lift a drink to the prophetic, “I Never…had divorced parents.”
What do you do when your children skip their naps? You say you’re not going to cry, then try two more hours to ignore, pamper, bribe, inspire—finally, turn them into magic beans. You distract yourself by baking brownies, except they’re dry, too healthy with egg whites and carrot puree lurking inside. You pick a fight with your husband who is also googling magic beans in the office. You pray, “Lord, where’s the grace?” as you walk down the hall hearing your toddler serenading his cars, the baby cooing, sit in the hallway and whisper through tears and giggles, “Thanks.”
Touched a gold medal once. The volleyball Olympian was at a beachside bar after Athens, buzzing off free drinks, the closest I’ve come to that level of spectacular self-discipline and accomplishment. My husband’s employee gave him her One Year sober coin, thankful for making her join AA in exchange for her job, home, life. Makes me think of toll collectors who touch coins everyday, some from people who have crossed oceans, pouring themselves out to secure their children’s livelihoods. True Champions are everywhere, never dropping a shift, an eyelid, a breath. We’re closer to glory more often than we know.
Long bus rides are catalysts for entertainingly revealing ‘what if’ scenarios. “What if you could gain a certain talent by losing one you currently embody?” People compromise sleep to speak three exotic languages, curly hair’s tossed aside for restored 20/20 vision, IQ points sunk for dateability. If I could sing, I’d be slightly overweight for the rest of my life. Seemingly little to sacrifice, I’d been effortlessly thin my whole life: our culture’s megabillion industry. Flash forward: pregnancies and the 30s. Still singing off-key when trying to harmonize, my thickened midsection gorgles and rubb-y thighs shuffle quite a nifty tune.
Long distance friends are Facebooking wonders and woes of round-the-clock newborn feedings. My low milk supply meant nursing, formula supplementing, pumping. Repeat. Asa restarted eating every two hours, meaning I had 45 minutes between feedings to eat protein, drink mother’s milk tea, use the bathroom, catnap, and bawl dramatically when hormonal flux cosined. For weeks, I hallucinated each 10th daily feeding, forgetting my name, the day, whom the suckling creature belonged to. I was utterly untrustworthy about everything. And yet, this is the critical time to be dependable. Fledgling life hangs in the tremulously
balanced balance of a mother’s wings.
Nothing about this equation added up. I met him through his girlfriend during grad school. He was hiring; she remembered I liked tutoring diverse populations. They were a break-up/make-up couple. Respectfully, I never asked. Our first ‘un-date’ was over surf-n-turf with visiting girlfriends, his roommate. Followed by several of what he called jicamartinis (really appletinis). We
a month into dating. Gladly lost my job for inappropriate attraction. His ex- left, e-mailed, “you’re dead to me.” Eventually, she married, too. The equation wasn’t addition, after all, but exponential multiplication with unresolved remainders: one collateral damaged refugee, two bystanders—both convicted.
Sunday worship in the school auditorium, in back—my usual place—I could stand without claustrophobic seats gangbanging me. People trickling, handling krispy kremes, caffeine, bulletins. Some, Bibles. Singing, trying to ‘get’ to ‘that holy place,’ I saw the foster child laboring, rolling his walker. Kinky hair, latte-colored chubby cheeks, loose-jaw smile were framed by shrugged shoulders as twisted arms knotted around metal handles. They carried his withered legs, heavy sneakers dragging behind—obviously for fashion, not function. I prayed, “Lord, heal,” obligatory, as I lamented,
it isn’t fair, is it?
, faithless—unsure if I was yet in ‘that’ place.
Routine worship. I spotted the handicapped boy early—walker scratch-rolling, one-sided leaning. Suddenly, a blink. Clarity sharpened. Heaven began swirling terrestrial. Soon, every person coming in: visibly maimed. Crutches, wheelchairs, canes. Wracked, malformed, amputated. Gaping, desperate, there was nowhere to conceal brokenness. I began to shake, crying and nodding my head in assent. I knew He was answering nagging questions of unfairness. He knew if I saw how fragmented we are—all needing palettes lowered by our friends at Jesus’ feet—if I saw everyone’s insides on the outside, too, I could see his lens, sense compassion, urgency towards wholeness.
NPR segmented a man writing about Hurricane Katrina. Living in New Orleans, he journalled his manuscript on the second floor of his home—the first rotting, still. Queried publishers yielded the same rejection: too many books on Katrina. He disagreed, got creative, let publishers take time to sift, find his story, pan gold. Earning $70K last year even before this book, writing has replaced his day job. He claims the other hundreds of Katrina books detail the terror and tragedy of the moment, that his inches along while piecing back together a life. This time around, it’s no longer unexamined.
Ever wonder why some guests really cry at weddings? Before communion, the pastor shared that as he prayed for this ceremony, an image came of someone with tape over his mouth. He discerned it recalled broken relationships, pain so profound it remains unutterable even now. He underscored the purpose of bread and wine: reconciliation; forgiveness is fundamental. He invited people to forgive, partake, a matter of the heart. Searching myself for bitterness, I was relieved to find none. But, what about pain I’ve caused others? Do I compromise their communion? Are some of these tears around me mine to reconcile?
Imagine having that white tableclothed reminder in our home’s entryway. A loaf of French bread, a wine glass filled. Every morning, on the way to making livings, husband and wife must take, eat, drink. Forgiveness: choose, accept. Evenings before bed, tear, dip, swallow. Years mature, jobs change, homes grow, children arrive. Hourly, the table invites. Imagine it remained dynamic, not as religious shrine, but as means of survival, even abundance in our brokenness. Imagine it as Jesus sitting at our feet, the last, Passover supper. Offering himself. How could we look into his eyes, refuse the elements, and not partake?
If every person we meet is for ‘reason, season or life,’ how do I move him from reason (student needing class) and season (we now eat Thai occasionally) to life (I wanna know how his lover died, what authors his humility, why does he believe in our friendship)? Of what I can possibly offer him (open heart and ears, longing to pray him Up, resolution to repent for categorical, Christian discrimination), trying to be part of any answer for him—as we all seek—may mean glaring at my reflection, maybe discovering an ugly, confused hypocrite, mournfully unversed in loving.
At 10:45 p.m., tectonic plates are settling after today’s earth--, soulquakes. Our son, an official preschooler. Both of us dropped him off; both of us cried noiselessly, eyes fixed on the road, proud but already missing him. Visiting family was also dropped off at the beach boardwalk. Picked up after all of us tsunami-gauged waves, checking sandcastle integrity post-rumblings. Dad finally home at kids’ bedtime (work, birthday dinner, another threat to his employees’ jobs). Continental drifts, small fires—some constructive, some destructive. Balance? Everything stemming from deep furnaces—passionate—more eruptions, quaking, virgin geography to include in our archipelago.
Souplantation: dream escape. It recalls once-vegan diet, finding more than two things to eat when dining. Verdant, rainbowed salads usher regularity….Now omnivorous, clam chowder, cheesied foccacia and chocolate lava cake are savored. Souplantation safeguards leisurely luxuries of picking and choosing what to plate and bowl. Beyond my routine of eating toddler leftovers—two-bite-swallow-gulp-water-drive-minivan—I exploit multiple eating muscles at the Plantation.
Slurp, crunch, chew, sip, lick, roll, suck, grind
. This culinary orgy creates the illusion I have time, time, time. None seated in surrounding tables suspect my indulgence, probably because they’re salivating in their own liberating fantasies.
Roll. Suck. Grind
Thirteen and seven, our two nieces are richness in our home. They calm our feisty newborn, enthrall our toddler, and joyfully fill our house with the calm of unpretentious naiveté. They laugh without second thought at their own big-eyed observations. Both harmoniously come, go, do as we ask—trusting, trustworthy. At the beach, any shore-washed spot is The Perfect Spot to start digging like maniacs, the only sought treasure the digging itself. As the hole grows and slowly begins filling with the ebb and flow, sisters sink, careless, aimless, sinless. Our toddler joins in, I splash the baby, everyone sparkling.
Carolyn is really sick. Her eczema is eating her alive, and from the inside, her blood is waging a counter-offensive, infectious swelling trying to rip away her poisonous skin prison. She itches, flakes, cracks, bleeds, oozes, boils, screams, goes mute, fights, surrenders, prays, wonders, hopes, is resigned, is alive, is wishing she wasn’t. Her name in Germany, “free man.” Yet, she’s incarcerated, on spiritual death row. In France, “little and womanly.” There’s nothing small, feminine about dis-ease. Italy designates her “pretty song.” Is she lyrical when bed-ridden, a scabbing insomniac? If God knows our names, when will he reveal hers?
Old vet chooses snow bunny Veep? Controversy! “Inexperienced beauty queen demeans Hillary’s efforts to substantiate women in politics, bringing us back twenty years.” Are conservative Christians wrestling, too? At least she’s ‘under’ a man; doesn’t violate fundamentalist dogma. Is this May/December duo more appealing than the single-mom-raised, half Black, half ‘terrorist’ candidate? Our hearts aren’t beating agitatedly either way. A slow revelation emerges:
we’re radically moderate
. Mother of five should protect education despite party lines, yes? Minority man empathizes with social inequities, continually defending the underdefended, right? Although supporting Obama, for us, after the last exhausting decade,
Your brain ever ‘eat’ something first, while it’s still being transported to your mouth, but when your tongue encounters it, it’s a counterfeit of what you predicted? Once, lunching, I sidestepped Desserts, preferring bowled fresh fruit. Only, as cubed melons kissed my lips, the façade materialized. I tasted
kind of fruit, but not the fruit I anticipated, deserved. Thwarted, I recommitted to trusting instinct: order crème brulee. These brain-to-mouth fake-outs are like dating. You repromise yourself, no more ‘casting pearls to swine.’ Then, you date someone on the Red Flag hitlist. It’s the bowl of phony fruit all over.
The Tip Jar