Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Little Less Complaining

Somewhere in the deep crevices of my mind, I must have been entertaining dramatic scenes of reconciliation. Like in those tear jerker movies, where the woman lies on her death bed, gasping her last breath, and someone dear, lost long ago, charges into the room to look the dying woman in her eyes, to forgive, to share those final moments. I think I must have hoped that the specter of cancer, of what that word evokes, would have softened angry hearts. But it turns out that it was only my wishful thinking, yet again.

And the episode is already over. No dramatic moment. No climax. No forgiveness. Just a visit with the doctor this past Friday where he announced that the cells are only precancerous. A quick snip, snip, removal of the precancerous body parts on Monday. And now onto recovery.

The day after I found out that I didn't have cancer, I found myself in the bathroom bawling. And grumbling under my breath. Why was I upset, I found myself asking. It was real, this sense of disappointment. I found myself thinking about my sister. She, who was supposed to be there for me. And yet, it is only Jeff and a few of my friends who even knew about my possible diagnosis and my last two weeks spent trying to fight off worries of what if's.

I found myself rebuking myself in my head. The ridiculous idea of capitalizing on this impending doom. That I shouldn't just be grateful. That I should fail to appreciate the gravity of such an illness. I'm sure anyone with cancer would gladly swap his/her diagnosis with mine. I thought about this dad with stage 4 lung cancer, and how his post made me cry.

I thought about what it meant. That I would entertain the idea of inviting harm onto myself for a reconciliation with her. That idea seems shameful. And I thought about how people who find you only in your moments of impending doom. Are they any better than vultures?  Would I even want someone like that in my life, even if at the end?

Yesterday, after a day at the hospital, we arrived home after 5pm. The night was setting, the kids were tired, and I was heavily medicated. It took all of Jeff's patience to get the kids to stop whining and picking on each other, while I reclined in my seat trying not to move. Jeff helped me up the few steps to our house, and we trudged into the house.

As I was taking off my jacket, I heard Jeff say, "Wow. Look at all this!"

He was standing by the front door looking out to the front lawn. There, we found two bouquets of flowers, a bottle of beer, and a bag filled with home-made pulled pork, steamed corn, mac and cheese, bread, and a hand-made card from their 6 year old. The food was still warm.

I thought about my friend whose husband dropped off the food. They have three little ones, they live 40 minutes away from us, and they delivered the food in the middle of rush hour traffic. We have three more friends lined up to bring food for us this week. And I declined several others offers, knowing we'd never get around to eating everything. I also thought of my friend who brought me books, and several others who offered to watch our kids and to pick them up and drop them off from school and activities.

Jeff turned to me and said, "Look at all the friends you have. See! No more complaining about San Diego!"

No, no more complaining. Ot at least a little less.

I am grateful. For those who showed they care. Who took time out of their busy lives to prepare nourishment for me and my family. Who want us to be well. And for those who want me to share my life with them.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Little Changes

I would be lying if I said I wasn't expecting it. For some reason, I feel as if I've been suspecting it for some time, maybe for months. Not that I had any reason to. And not that I've detected anything unusual. Just a little irritation, a slight itchiness, differences that I could have easily brushed off.  As if there is some secret layer of knowledge that only your body knows, and whispers to your brain, only to have your brain dismiss it as nonsense.

So when the words "cancer" and "biopsies" came out of the doctor's mouth, I didn't even flinch. I sat on the examination table, nodding along. The doctor's eyes were wide open, and she looked into my eyes intently. She read the lab results slowly, deliberately. And I kept nodding along, my suspicions confirmed. I wonder if I would have been disappointed if the results had been otherwise.

After the biopsies, I dressed myself and waited for a copy of the lab results. I could have waited in the examination room, as they expected me to, but I found myself in the hallway, looking for the nurse, tracking her down, calming prodding her to get what I was waiting for.

Later, as I sat behind the steering wheel, I felt a mild irritation creep in. This pesky news, on top of everything else. Just when I started getting into pilates. Just when I managed to secure some quiet time to myself. Just when I was feeling like my days had gained a sense of order. Then, a random flurry of thoughts. Will people treat me differently? Maybe l'll lose a couple of pounds after all this? Can I keep doing pilates? What does this mean for the holidays?

That evening, after the trick or treating with our kids, I pulled out my laptop and started googling. A 100% survival rate with early detection. Relief.

Throughout the weekend, Jeff kept asking, "How are you doing?"

I found myself saying, "The body does what it does. Not much I can do."

Still, I kept finding a little bubble pop up in the back of my head, as if reassuring me, It's not a big deal, it couldn't have progressed that far, no need for melodrama.

These little changes have a way of creeping in despite yourself.

As I made my children's breakfast this morning, I didn't feel the need to harp on the kids to sit down, to stop screaming at each other, to just eat their breakfast. I found myself sitting down with them to help them with their socks, when I would have normally barked at them to put them on by themselves. That little voice in my head that complains constantly about the mundane tasks of my life kept quiet, and the agitation that had been coursing through my veins for the past few years receded, as if I were a ping pong ball that finally settled into a groove on the roulette wheel.

Today, I'm waiting for the biopsy results. And waiting to make an appointment with the oncologist. And things look a little different.

I want to drink my coffee with half-n-half. I want to reach out to old friends. I want to make new friends. I want to write. I want to read. I want to replace the dead battery on my watch. I want to hug my kids and Jeff - and anyone else who'll hug me back. I want to do my hair. I want to watch random videos on Facebook that make me laugh. And I want to linger even after the small talk.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Our House

Our house towers on the corner of a street lined with yew pines, perfectly trimmed hedges, and modest bungalows, just two blocks from Marine Street Beach. Its oak beams soar to the sky and jut out horizontally like branches of a mature redwood in Muir Woods. Its sides are lined with glass, thick enough to withstand an earthquake, angry fists, or carelessly tossed frisbees.  

Some might call it a glass house, an encasing for something precious. It is as exposed as the primate exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, yet as protective as the Popemobile. It’s imposing enough to draw the attention of random passersby, and gracious enough to elicit their praise.   

To enter, you walk up four cement steps book-ended with miniature pumpkins, past the red-hued garden rose, toward the imposing glass wall, and push past the heavy wood-framed glass door now decorated with gooey spooky ghosts, purple and orange pumpkins, bats, goblins, and tombstones, all pasted haphazardly and reliably asymmetrically, all at eye-level with your crotch.  As the door swings, it jams abruptly, jarred by a small green translucent superball left forgotten at the perfect spot to trip an unsuspecting guest, and you are forced to sidestep the tiny green specks that appear to sprout out of the wood floor. 

When you walk in, you are intrigued to see in the center of the living room a cylinder staircase the size of a trunk of a giant sequoia, rising from floor to ceiling, not unlike the winding spiral of the Guggenheim Museum.  

To the right, you see a pair of brown velvet chairs, angled just so as to invite intimate conversation without kissing knees. They flank a stand of flowering orchids, as if beckoning a queen or at least a special guest to grace its seats for a photo op. Instead of a royal romp, it currently hosts a reclining Darth Vader draped in a flowing black cape with his arm, mid-air, brandishing a florescent red lightsaber. With him, a Minnie Mouse plastic tote bag overflowing with Duplo Legos on a field of spit balls yet to be soaked in spit. 

You follow the trail of crusted dribbles of milk and streaks of mud, past a grove of Fisher-Price Little People, each figure seated on a chair in a perfect circle, as if gathered for an annual summit, to the plush rug in the center of the grand room. There, you find a toddler’s table, surrounded by three chairs in primary colors, two standing, one fallen. The table is more covered than not, by a singing Cinderella there, a dancing Belle here, a leaping Luke Skywalker, and an exploding droid ship. A crust of Crayola Air-dry clay adds unexpected texture to the table's surface, and drying glitter glue, unexpected dazzle. 

Under the table lies an unruly collection of construction paper, like a pile of raked leaves, some tossed after one or two mis-spelled words, others filled with a chaos of colors, all works in progress. All are invariably wrinkled or grease-stained, and many discolored with age and torn at the edges, as if they have been tossed from here to there, never to find a permanent home, yet too precious to be discarded.    

Like fallen foliage, plastic plates and teacups, half-torn workbooks and board books, crayons and markers, tiaras and hair-clips, pieces of corn flakes, and missing puzzle pieces clutter the rug. Along the wall sits a child’s kitchenette fitted with a refrigerator, a microwave oven, a stovetop, all of its doors ajar and exposing a coffee maker, a blender jammed with waffles and sausage, and baskets filled with enough plastic food to last you a winter. 

Around the room, princesses lie about, like damsels in distress, waiting to be rescued by either a prince or a fickle toddler. A plush Snow White left behind on the rocking horse, an Elsa doll with her tiara fitted askew on top of the toddler piano, a red-headed fair mermaid wedged behind the drum set. While heroes are aplenty, they have all been corralled by the five-year old for the great battle brewing in his bedroom. 

The discriminating eyes might spot the row of cookbooks and novels tucked behind glass cabinets in the far corner, secured with child-proof latches, and the delicate hand blown glass ornaments perched behind the display of Lego Star Wars vehicles on the uppermost shelf. Portraits line the walls, all evenly spaced, one of a wedding, many of the children at various ages. Here and there, post-its of various sizes, colors, and orientation, scribbled with indecipherable messages, speckle the wall.


Sometimes, on days when the chaos feels insurmountable, I think about the 900 square foot one-bedroom apartment I used to lease just a block away from the San Francisco Bay in my late 20s. There, my row of orchids lined symmetrically along my window sill, my column of New Yorkers perched on my night table, and my collection of literature sat undisturbed until I reached for one. My floors stayed clean, my counters free of clutter, my refrigerator never over-stuffed. I miss my chaise lounge where I spent many evenings, uninterrupted, with nothing other than a book and a cup of tea.   
But I am reminded that it is in my current house where I hear the crunch, crunch of my daughter as she nibbles on her Persian cucumbers, where I wash the dirt out of the crevices of little toes at the end of the day, where my children, my husband, and I rest and sleep to ready ourselves for another morning. It is in this house where my two year-old learns to say please and thank you and to make bubbles with her hands before running them under the water.  

It was in this house where my then four-year-old son scrutinized his sister for a long time as she sat on the potty before straightening up to ask, “Mom, why is her butt in the front?” This same child startled us months later by asking why everyone has to die . . . because he doesn’t want to die. As he cried, we held him and comforted him the best we could. 

In this house, we don’t pray, but we hug. Yet, despite the imperfect balance between chaos and order in this house, I cling to some undefined faith that here, we’ve found a haven from the harshness that nature can be, while abundantly reaping its fruit. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The View

I'm taking a writing class and re-working some of my old stuff. Here's the one I read in class yesterday.

I spotted them from a distance as they trudged down the terminal, my dad with his hunched shoulders, tilting toward the ground, his ever-present determined grimace on his face and my mom, also sagging a little, fighting to stay upright.  He was rolling his carry-on, and my mom was carrying three mis-shapened bags with her outstretched arms as they clanked against her legs with every step she took. Their hair was rumpled, and I saw my mom reach up with a bag slung over her shoulder to pat her hair down. They must have napped on the six hour flight from New York.  

I put on a bright smile. We waved to each other.  “Hi, Mom, hi, Dad!”

As they approached, I could see how they had changed in the six months since Christmas.  A little more shriveled, a little more haggard, a little more faded.  

When they crossed over, I took one of my mom’s bags from her and slung it over my shoulder. I took the other and draped it over my dad’s carry-on. 

“No, no, we can manage,” my dad said, as he resisted my tug. 

“No, Dad, it’s ok. Here, I’ll take it.” 

I let him keep the last bag as we strolled out of the terminal. 

“Did you check any bags?” I asked.

“No, this is everything. They charge you now for checked bags, did you know that? Fifty dollars a bag! Why would I pay fifty dollars for them to put my bag on the plane?”

We walked to the parking lot. 

Once in the car, I told them the itinerary that I had mapped out months earlier. First, a drive to Half Moon Bay to show them the best view out here, then Sunday brunch at the Top of the Mark overlooking the city, then a quick stop at my studio in the Marina before driving them to the hotel in Sausalito perched over the water to spend the night before they headed back to New York the next day in time to open their dry cleaner’s by Tuesday morning.  It was their first trip to my city and their first vacation in over fifteen years, and I wanted to pack in as much as I could. 

“Mom, I think you’ll like Half Moon Bay. It’s so grand. So different from the beaches in New York…”    

"But what about all the food I brought for you?” My mom said. “We should put them in the refrigerator right away…”

"Oh, Mom, we don't really have time to go by my apartment first. I thought we could fit in Half Moon Bay before our reservation…”

"What if it keeps leaking?"

"What if what keeps leaking?"

"The kimchi. It was leaking on the airplane and the stewardess was giving us funny looks. I think the other tupperwares are ok..."

"Oh, you brought kimchi?"

I stepped out of the car and wrapped the containers in plastic bags. 

Then I started driving us across CA-92 toward the California coastline. 

It was just minutes into the drive when I saw the fog. Looming in the distance, a swath of white stretching out like a runway across the expanse of the horizon. It looked as vast as a tundra, as impervious as a prison wall.  Even from a distance, I could see how quickly it was rolling in, charging toward us, like a belligerent battalion, rearing to fight. 

It’s the same fog I had seen year after year of living in San Francisco. The same, predictable, summer fog. In my planning, I had somehow forgotten to consider it. 

As we drove closer, I could see it amassing, growing thicker, wider. It was stampeding angrily across the sky. Its silence was deceptive; it should have rumbled. 

I found myself driving faster. I wanted to beat it. I had my plans. I had mapped out exactly how the day should unfold.

As we neared the town at the edge of Half Moon Bay, I could tell I was losing. The entire town was enveloped in fog, and there was white haze in every direction. My parents stared out of the window to find what it was they were supposed to be seeing. Fine mist bombarded my windshield, and I turned on my headlights to find our way to the coast.

I turned right onto Cabrillo Highway and entered a parking lot. We opened the car doors, and a gust of wind rushed in. When we stepped out, the wind slapped our cheeks and whipped our hair. We turned our backs against the wind to catch the front flaps of our jackets and zipped up to our chins. 

When we turned to face the ocean again with our arms folded across our chests, all I could see was a stubborn swath of fog across the entire stretch. No vision, no vista. No ocean that stretched out endlessly, the way it had revealed itself to me countless times when I had come alone. 

For the next few minutes, we stood in the midst of this invasion, shivering and bracing against the wind as we stared at the white fallout. I’m not sure what we were waiting for. Perhaps a break in the fog, a ray of sun, a sign of mercy.  But we just got colder and colder, and the view, no more apparent.   
I felt tears coming to my eyes. I felt taunted, betrayed. I breathed slowly to give disappointment time to settle. 

“What a shame,” I said. “The ocean here is so beautiful. I wanted to show it to you. Usually, if you look this way, you can see these amazing cliffs, and there, by the cove, there are usually so many surfers, and if you look south, you can sometimes see as far as Big Sur…” 

My mom, huddled in her hooded red parka, turned with each direction I pointed out, even though her view remained constant. And as I talked, she nodded along to my words. 

After a couple of minutes, with her eyes still gazing out into the distance, she reached out, held my arm, and said, "I imagine it is very beautiful."

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Strange Comfort

I've always been mindful that a single event can upend your life, but I always thought about them in catastrophic terms, like the loss of a child, detrimental crippling of your body, a horrific crime. I never imagined that my sister's decision to cease communicating with me more than seven years ago could continue to affect me the way it has. This act by one person, in a world of more than seven billion, has changed so much of how I see things, including myself, and how I face the world going forward. It's like the unraveling of a single knot that silently threatens the integrity of the whole quilt.

At several different points during those seven years, I made my mind up to accept it, even though I could make no sense of it. How do you comprehend that someone in your family would rather be rid of you and pretend you are dead, rather than talk through whatever the problems might be? Could I be that unreasonable, impenetrable, uncompromising that she should prefer silence over any combination of the million plus words that exist in the English language? 

But those questions no longer haunt me - not with the same intensity. And I no longer hope and anticipate and dread at the same time that her email address will suddenly pop up in my gmail inbox or that I'll see her phone number on my phone. I no longer plead with my parents to figure out a way to help us, bringing up examples of what others parents have done in similar situations in the books I've read, and no longer have to try to digest their words, What can we do? When has she ever listened to us? I no longer think about how much my children have already grown and how they change every day and how she will never know them as they were today, yesterday, the day before, and so on. I no longer fret over what to tell my children about her, preferring silence to do its job of keeping her nonexistent in their lives. 

I do not limp around like an injured animal. Instead, I rarely talk about it unless someone brings it up or innocently asks about my siblings. I no longer feel the sting of shame when I choose to reveal that she has estranged me. I do what I can to go about my business and live my life in all of its humdrum details. I load the laundry, post photos on Facebook, and dance with my children as we watch the parade at Disneyland. I get hair cuts, manicure my toenails, go on vacations, and chat with other moms at my son's school. 

I tell myself that I found a way to get a handle on the hurt, to tie it up once and for all and tuck it away, not to dismiss it, but at least to move it out of my immediate path.  

What I didn't expect was for it to continue to unravel year after year, left alone as it was. 

Even in the quiet of an ordinary day, I find myself transformed, often into a lesser version of myself. A squabble between my two children hurls me into crisis mode. A minor argument with my husband takes me to a dark place, where I wonder what is wrong with me, why am I not fit to handle any relationship, will no one put up with me? I no longer make friends so easily. I stay guarded, reluctant to put in the effort it takes. A cancelled dinner or a no show at a playdate feels like an affirmation of an uneasy rumbling deep in myself that I suspect must be really true, something others have always known about me.

Even happy or neutral moments stand unprotected. Nothing more than an innocent scene from a Frozen sing-along where I sat between my husband and my four year-old with his enormous bin of butter-drenched popcorn while my two year-old wiggled restlessly on my lap. On the enormous screen, the younger sister Anna protects her older sister Elsa from Hans' sword, playing out "her act of true love," and saves their kingdom forever. As Anna started to thaw, tears gushed out of my eyes, even as I sat very still to avoid calling attention to myself, and my mind flailed wildly, wondering what happened, how did we fail so terribly, why couldn't we find our way to a happy ending.

Or another evening in a resort tucked under the soaring red rocks of Sedona, where I had taken my parents on vacation. A conversation with my mother at the dining table under the hanging lamp while the kids sleep and Jeff and my dad huddle over their iPads. It is here where she lets slip her belief that her children are defective. In my sudden anger, I push her to explain, what is my defect? What is my defect? She blurts out, you are too headstrong, too narrow-minded to understand other people's weaknesses. Suddenly, I realize that she, who could find no way to help us even as I begged, holds me at fault for the breach between us because I'm the one she always described as tough, and my sister, delicate. Under that hanging lamp, I felt that thread further unravel.

Before, I would never have described myself as cynical or bitter. But now, if someone were to ask what bitterness tastes like, I would describe it in delicious detail.

The other day, I was reading an article about a child of murdered parents who was eventually adopted by the police officer who found her at the crime scene. Talking about the policewoman who became her mother, the child who is now a young woman said, "She taught me what it was like to hope and to truly trust; if ever in life I didn't think things would work out, I could trust her, and I would just put all my trust in her and she would get me through to the other side."

Reading that made me think about how I've undergone something akin to the reverse of this process. This estrangement from my sister has taken away much of what I had taken for granted: the belief that there are people in this world who will always be there for you, that your family is for keeps. I no longer have this faith that things will work out, and I feel anxious about putting all of my trust in a single person, even my husband.

In the midst of this pessimism, I opened a book two days ago and didn't put it down until I was done. Sonali Deraniyagala's Wave. It is a memoir by a woman who lost her two children, her husband, and her parents in the 2004 tsunami. I feared reading it after skimming the description, but downloaded it impulsively on my kindle and plunged in. I could not stop turning page after page, even as I read clenching my muscles and holding my breath. Often, I feared the upcoming sentences, afraid that they would feel too real. And many times, they did. Her boys, her husband, the author's despair, her terrible loss. She experienced the worst of my fears, and somehow she is still alive. She found a way to live. I could not understand how. How do you live after such a devastation?

One of her passages early in the book stayed with me. As she watched the tsunami approaching from her hotel, she ran holding her children's hands as her husband ran behind them. She did not stop to knock on her parents' door next to hers. She just ran. She had no time. Her job was to save her children. As I read it, I understood her. I did not judge her or wonder why she did not stop to try to save her parents. I understood.

Thinking about that helped me put some of this into context. The immediacy of my family.  

I also thought about the devastation I would feel if I lost my children and Jeff. Reading Sonali's book helped me realize the depth of that devastation. The estrangement from my sister in that context is really nothing. If I lost my children and Jeff, I wouldn't know how to live. And that thought has never occurred to me about my sister's estrangement. Realizing that is a strange comfort.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Our Little Princess

The other day, we started our morning battling. I dropped the first gauntlet by reaching for an apple red ruffled top with a pair of blue jeans. This caused my two year old daughter to scream, "I don't want to wear pants. I wear a SKIRT!" She stomped over to the closet with her little feet sticking out of the holes in the blue sleepsack and reached for a hanger. "I wear Hello Kitty SKIRT!"

The "Hello Kitty SKIRT" is a full fledged tutu. The waist is banded with a glittery silver belt stamped all around with Hello Kitty's face. The skirt flares out with a swath of light pink, then bright fuchsia, and juts out shamelessly, creating a halo two feet wide around my daughter's pale, thin, naked thighs.

"Well, okay," I said, "but you have to wear some leggings, ok?"

As she saw me grab a pair of black leggings, she screamed out, "NO, I don't WANNA wear PANTS!"

"Don't worry. You can still wear the tutu, but with leggings, ok?"

To demonstrate, I helped her out of her sleepsack and pajamas, changed her diaper, slipped on the ruffled top and then pulled the tutu up to her waist before reaching for the leggings.

"NO! NO! NO PANTS!" she screamed when she was where my hand was headed.

"It's too cold today. You have to wear something under. You aren't even wearing tights."

By this point, her face was covered with snot and tears and she was convulsing.

This wasn't the first of its kind. The battles started a few weeks ago when she watched Cinderella for the first time during our Friday movie night. To teach our son some lessons on compromising, we told him that his sister would choose the movie that night. We had never watched a "girlie" movie before and our choices were limited to a set of Disney DVDs that my husband and son had impulsively purchased during a Costco trip.

She hadn't really sat through a whole movie before, not feature length anyway. She usually watches for about 20 minutes and then scuttled around from one toy to the next, like a butterfly dancing from flower to flower. Not this time. She sat in the crook of Jeff's arm, from the opening scene to the credits, eyes popped open, jaw dropped, completely mesmerized.

The next morning, after I dropped off my son at preschool, we passed a random stranger. Seeing S dressed in her poofy tutu, the lady flashed S a big smile and said, "Hello, little Princess." After the lady passed, S turned to me and said, "Mama, she said I'm a Princess!" That evening, S came up to me as I stood at the kitchen sink and proclaimed, "I am a Princess now."

I never worried about having a princess for a daughter. When my friends read articles and blog posts about the pitfalls of exposing your daughters to princess-dom and proclaimed their boycott of all things princess-related, I didn't pay much attention. Surely, they are over-reacting, I thought. We felt safe knowing that our daughter has an older brother, who had to date not been exposed to any girlie movies or toys. Our house was filled with legos and train tracks, and we had no more room for more toys. Besides, what were the odds of having a princess daughter?

When growing up, I had no delusions of royalty. I was the chubby kid with the bowl hair-cut.  I was the ugly one in the family. No one told me, but it was obvious by the way my sister got all the attention for being cute. I didn't like to wear skirts because I had thick calves. I didn't even dare dream of being a cheerleader, although one girl in my seventh grade class who was chubbier than me still made the team. (But she knew how to summersault.)  I never made the cut for being a princess in my own life, so how could I have even imagined that I would have a princess daughter? And if I were to have a princess daughter, didn't it mean that I would have to become the wicked witch?

When my daughter's verbal dam burst and she started proclaiming her need for a tutu, I hesitated for a second. I do know a couple of women in real life who are still waiting for their prince charmings to show up and whisk them away. Often, I look at them and think, "Girl, you got so much more going for you than any man could ever do." But when I think about it, these women aren't really waiting around. Not really. They have their lives and careers in order. They have their social lives. They got it together, except that they are waiting for that icing on the cake. What's so bad about that?

I then thought about what my son's preschool teacher told me. She told me that they have some serious problems when the kids want to play act "Frozen" because none of the girls want to play the role of Anna, the younger sister who is the princess and the love interest. All the girls want to play Elsa, the queen with the power. Sometimes, they have to tap one of the boys to play Anna (well, I guess it beats playing the role of Sven). Maybe all these years, all the wanna-be princesses didn't really wanna be princesses after all. Maybe they chose to identify as princesses because all the queens in the old Disney films were wicked and wore ugly dresses.

I also thought about my reaction to Cinderella. How I found her beautiful, how I loved the way all the good creatures around her loved her and came together as a community to help her in her times of need. I felt aggrieved for the injustice she suffered and empathized with her longing for a better life. And when she finally received what was her due -- a return to the kind of life that should have been hers to begin with -- I interpreted the movie to be about social justice. How could I begrudge my daughter for embracing her?

Maybe that is what all these little girls want when they proclaim their desire to be a princess. They want to be the star in their own movie. The good one. The beautiful one. The triumphant one. Isn't that what we all want?

Later that day, I ordered six more tutus for my daughter. One for each day of the week.

Let her have her moments, I say. She can twirl as she wants. And wave her wand. And be as beautiful as she wants to be.

Yes, there are pitfalls in these films. One I may not show my daughter again is The Little Mermaid, which I found to be pretty disturbing. And the role of the pixie in Peter Pan was sexism embodied. But maybe having healthy role models in real life will count for something. And maybe I can strive to be that role model, instead of playing the role of the wicked witch.  

Thursday, May 8, 2014

My So-Called So Cal Life

I am utterly failing at building a social life in San Diego. We've been here for three and a half years, and I don't feel like I have many friends in the area that I can count on. The kind of friend you'd keep no matter where you moved on. Three and a half years is a long time to not make friends.

During the first months here, I felt desperate to connect with others. So desperate that my desperation may even have seeped out. Once, Jeff and I were hanging out at a picturesque park right by the cliffs with our dog and our son when a woman, also with a canine and offsprings, stopped to chat with us. It turned out that she too was a lawyer with connection to a high tech company that Jeff was familiar with. On that ground, we were able to chat almost an hour and even exchanged email addresses as we parted. That evening, I made the fatal mistake of inviting her over to our house for a BBQ that weekend. Who in her right mind invites a stranger to her house after one conversation? And who in her right mind would accept an invitation to a stranger's house, especially with her kids in tow? I never heard back from her.

Since then, we've met people -- once we made the effort to venture out of our house, after carefully covering our eyes with sunglasses to let them adjust to the glaring sun -- at meetup groups, at my son's school, at local playgrounds. We have worked on honing our small-talk skills, being careful to banter with wit and share some revealing tidbits about ourselves while striking the careful balance not to reveal too much. I have made some effort to blend in with the locals, taking the time to blow-dry my hair in the morning and refraining from grimacing whenever talk of Botox or God surfaces. I pet their dogs, and I ask their children's age. I smile knowingly when someone mentions a TV show. I ooh and aah over designer purses and even the make of their cars. I volunteer at my son's school.

Sometimes, these efforts seem fruitful. We've been invited to dinners, to playgroups, to Easter egg hunts. We've chatted tete a tete with other parents and exchanged jokes with people across the table. I've even had ongoing text exchanges with some of them, and even befriended them on Facebook.

But on days like today, these seem like nothing other than white noise. Mere clutter to fill up the time, to mask my failure to make real connections that are so elusive even under the best of circumstances.

The conditions I am living in are far from ideal. I am an alien in Southern California. I grew up on the East Coast. I wear too much black. I have never had plastic surgery, unless you count the laser removal of some moles on my face. My boobs are my own. I don't own a bikini. I easily weigh 20 pounds more than the average local mom. I did not have children in my 20s. I don't like beer. I am not familiar with any sports teams. I don't watch TV. I am not blond. I place a premium on being genuine and reliable. I like to talk about books and current events.

When I complain to Jeff, he says, "Well, I don't have friends either, but I have you and the kids. That's all I need." Well, I need friends. Especially girlfriends that I can talk to, about things that deeply matter to me. I'm not sure if it's a function of having grown up as an immigrant in this country, but I also need to be around people who mirror some part of who I am, someone who by his or her sheer existence can serve as a validation of my own perception and experience. Maybe I'm asking for too much...

I've instead had the opposite experiences. At least once a week, I feel invisible. Sometimes, people seem to see through me, and I don't think it's just me being overly sensitive. I could be picking up my son at school, and people I know look past me to greet someone else behind me. The other day, I realized it's the way I sometimes look past landscapers mowing a lawn or construction workers hauling debris on a construction site. I don't really see them. They are mere fixtures in a scene, with no individual identity. They cannot serve me any purpose -- and cannot possibly have any connection to me.

Ever since my sister estranged me, I've become more insecure and needy. Every failure to connect with someone seems to validate my deep fear -- that I'm flawed, that I lack the skills to manage myself socially, that I'm not enough to merit someone else's time. That insecurity and fear make me frigid, socially unengaged. They bind me in an unhealthy circle of not even wanting to reach out, to bother to try to connect with others. A cranky voice in the back of my mind wonders what the point is anyway.

We've talked about moving back to San Francisco -- where I felt so much at home, where I had many treasured friends. But when we visit, I know it's no longer our home. Our friends have moved on with their lives. The schools suck. The restaurants don't have high chairs. Everyone moves to Marin or to the East or South Bay anyway -- and what's the point of living in a more expensive suburb where you have to drive two hours to visit friends?

The other day, I chatted with a dad in my daughter's gymnastics class. A large African-American man who told me that he grew up as an orphan, a ward of three different states. Despite all that, he managed to put himself through college and went to law school, and worked at a corporate law firm in New York before moving to San Diego not too long ago. He told me that most of the kids he had known growing up are now either dead or incarcerated. I had seen him before, chatting and laughing with the other moms in the class. Watching him made me wonder how he could fit in so well when I seem to be struggling so much.

I don't have a solution, but I do want to smack the self-pity out of myself. To just buck up and figure it out. Maybe I just need to make myself more agreeable. Or less rigid. Or have a better sense of humor. Or turn blond.

If all fails, I guess we can start importing some friends down here.

I know it's not as bleak - or as black and white as I've painted it to be. There are people I can call, people I can grab a drink with. People who will respond if I needed help. People with good hearts and warm intentions. But do they get me, and do I get them? Here, at this stage of my life, there are so many variables at play. I'm not exposed to the same demographics as I was when I met people through work or school. I'm now a mom, and I don't have the time to nurture friendships as I once had. The moms I am meeting are in the same boat. You are busy, they are busy. They work. They don't have the same aged children as you do, or if they do, their children are overly aggressive toward yours. Neither of you has time to nurture your interests the way you used to. It's hard to find the time to sit down and talk when you spend all your time chasing after your two year old. Your friendships can only go so far talking about parenting techniques. I know all that. But knowing doesn't change your reality -- or make the shortcomings more palatable.

But I do remind myself that it took me four years to feel settled when I first moved to San Francisco. That is some comfort. And it takes time to build depth in any relationship. Maybe it's patience I need to nurture -- and some self-confidence. And to remind myself that I survived relocations to New York, Houston, Chicago, D.C., and San Francisco, many on my own. Could this one be that much worse?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Elaine Quijano profile

I recently wrote a short profile of Elaine Quijano, a correspondent for CBS Evening News and CBS This Morning, for Audrey Magazine. Here is the article.

Saturday, February 8, 2014


These days, my impatience seem to have reached a new level. It takes very little for me to get frustrated with whatever I am doing, too quick to fall into despair. Today, I was trying to teach my four year old how to spell some rhyming words. I first tried to make it fun. "Hey, do you want to learn how to spell Bat Man?", pointing to his Bat Man shirt. "Yeah!" was his enthusiastic response. So we did BAT MAN, then CAT, then SAT. Then he lost interest. "What other words can you think of that rhyme with BAT and CAT and SAT?" "I don't know" was his response. After a bit of cajoling and dropping some obvious hints, I found myself threatening. "Ok, then, no Lego Movie if we don't do this." Then it soon frittered to, "Fine, let's just finish this." We hurried through the next few words and then I found myself saying, "Go do whatever you want."

Through the process, I heard the coach in myself admonishing. Don't ruin it. Don't ruin it for him. Don't make this a negative process. Don't make negative associations for him. Help him love learning. Keep this fun.

But the voice that prevailed was the voice of dejection. The voice of giving up. It's the voice that takes over as you are losing the race, even as you resist its power. The one that says, "You suck."

I've been realizing over the past several months that parenting requires a certain amount of faith. The faith in the value of family. The faith that things work out in the end. The faith that all this is worth it. The faith that I can do this.

It's not something I thought of before. These are things that I took for granted -- that I would be a part of a loving family, that I would be a positive influence on my children, that things would work out if I just tried my best.

But strange things happen when you've been estranged by members of your own family. Bit by bit, the things you've always taken for granted no longer seem so obvious. You start to second guess everything that you've ever said, ever done. You scrutinize yourself through different sets of eyes and find yourself less worthy, less likable. You find yourself less powerful, less invincible.

The threat of failure lingers over you. You've already failed. You've screwed up one of the most fundamental relationships in your life. So majorly. Who's to say you're equipped to handle others? You are that person that others -- ones supposedly closest to you -- felt the need to banish. The one who could not be tolerated. The one who had to be thrown away.

It does a number on you, even as you resist thinking along those lines. You wonder about all your past actions. All the effort you undertook in the past to make things work. And how futile they turned out to be. Or damaging. And how all your good intentions fell so short. It makes you second-guess, when you should simply be chugging along, giving it your best.

I'm using this space to remind myself of all that is in my power. All that I can control. To remind myself that I am not all that rotten. I know it, but these days, when I fall short, I have fewer people to reassure me -- and too many reminders to suggest otherwise.