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."