Panorama of San Bernardino

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Junior College Days

When I was in junior college in the 1990's at Mt. San Antonio College ("Mt. SAC") in Walnut, I just wanted to get through it and transfer.  It took me years because I waitressed full-time and took classes around my work schedule.  It never occurred to me to quit working.  This first generation college student knew nothing about financial aid.

I had been on my own since I was seventeen and had to pay the bills.  My younger sister Annie and I lived in a two bedroom apartment in Upland.  Annie attended Mt. SAC as well and we worked at different restaurants together.  She drove me everywhere, including to school which was at least a twenty to thirty minute drive each way, because my car was always on the fritz.  Transportation was always an issue for me in my twenties.  People take their cars for granted and when you don't have a reliable one, life is difficult to say the least and sometimes impossible (especially with the unreliable public transportation in the Inland Empire).

My English professor Holly Cannon assigned us to read James Joyce's story "Araby" from "Dubliners" and I was again hooked to the written word.  Professor Cannon told me that I was a talented writer.  Back then, computers were uncommon and she would write compliments on the front page of my hand written papers in red script. 

"The Mountaineer" was Mt. SAC's monthly newspaper.  I took a journalism class and applied to work for the paper.  After one semester, the advisor Ms. P asked me to be the editor-in-chief.   Ms. P had previously worked for the Washington Post in DC and I idolized her.  She was sarcastic and tough as brick.  You did what she said and you did it right.  When she asked me to be the editor, I was too scared to say no and pushed my worries about work aside. 

Ms. P knew about my money problems and offered me a small stipend.  I walked around campus with my recorder in hand looking for stories.  I stayed in the office until late at night writing and researching and editing other students' work.  When I broke the story of the student council buying themselves beepers with student fees (titled "The Beep Goes On"), Ms. P entered the story into a contest and it won second place.

Every month, we drew out the newspaper's layout together on wax paper with crayon.  We cut out the articles and headlines and placed them with tape.  Advertisements had to fit in as well and I learned the concept of too much white space. 

I loved publishing day.  Ms. P and I would drive over to Colton to pick up the papers from the press after which we put them in the racks and handed them out to students walking by.  It made me forget all my money struggles and that dreaded math class I was trying hard to pass.

Ms. P tried to mentor me.  I was a bit self-destructive in my twenties (ahem, let me correct that, very self destructive) and I remember one day I came into the office with a severe hangover.  She yelled at me and I yelled back.  I screamed at her that I was barely making it financially and that the paper was taking over my life.  She told me that I should apply to Columbia's journalism program in New York.  I scoffed at her.  Me, this barely making it waitress from the Inland Empire, in New York?   "Forget that," said my twenty something self.  My forty year old self wishes I had at least considered New York.  I would have loved it.  Ms. P was disappointed when I told her that I had decided to apply to UCR's English Literature program and after a year (and my third time taking and finally passing that damn math class), I gave up my post as editor-in-chief and transferred to UCR.

But, I never forgot that feeling of just pressed warm newspaper in my hand and seeing my name in a byline.  The black ink marking my skin.  Reminding me that I was worthy and I could do this.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Hindsight

I live my life looking backwards in the rear view mirror.  What I mean by this is that I never realize how good my life is when I am actually in it.  Instead, I appreciate moments after they have passed when I am looking back in remembrance. 

I was reminded of this today when I got a email from my former secretary that I worked with when I was at the big firm in Houston.  My secretary, let's call her Linda, was simply fabulous (I try not to use adverbs, but one is appropriate here).  Linda resembled a young Morgan Fairchild and dressed better than the attorneys.  Linda was an old school secretary.  She formatted my motions, edited my text, wrote my letters, organized my office, and tracked my calendar and billable hours.  She even fed my cats when I was on vacation.  To say Linda was organized is an understatement of epic proportions.  And, she was wicked smart. 

We were friends from the start.  Linda was the clutter free yin to my disheveled yang.  We were sisters in a prior life. 

One day, I had a discovery production due.  There were hundreds and hundreds (maybe thousands) of documents to produce to the opposing side.  Linda and I spent days together in a conference room organizing everything.  I reviewed the documents and Linda put on the bates stamps (for those who don't know what a bates stamp is, it is like a bar code).

At some point, Linda and I were so tired that we made stupid mistakes and kept on having to start over.  Instead of getting frustrated, we pretended we were Lucy and Ethyl in the chocolate factory assembly line.  In the hell called a civil litigation discovery production we had a blast and we made our deadline (just barely).

Another time, I was bugging Adrian about marriage and Linda loaned me a huge fake diamond to wear.  Adrian asked where I got the ring and I told him, "It's a fake but I told everyone it was from you.  So you better hurry up and ask me and get me a real ring."  It didn't work.  Linda and I shared many a laugh on that one.

I never stopped complaining for the entire three years I lived in Houston.  What was my problem?  I was in my early thirties and had plenty of friends.  The people in Houston were amazing.  I worked at the number one law firm and attended black tie dinners every month.  The money was good.  Cost of living was low. 

Every workday, my colleague Nancy and I walked to Starbucks with another associate named David.  We sat and sipped our coffees and talked about all the funny things that happened at work.  We called the talks our "episodes" and cast our fellow co-workers and one another (Nancy was self cast as Susan Sarandon, David was Alfonso Ribeiro and I was Drew Barrymore). 

I can picture my younger self sitting at the Starbucks and want to scream in my ear, "One day you will look back and realize that you are having the time of your life.  Appreciate it, you foolish girl."

Unfortunately, I do not have a time traveling DeLorean.  But, from now on I pledge to appreciate my life in the moment.  I want to appreciate the next decade while I am living it, not after.  My goal is to be present in the here and now.

What the hell.  Maybe one day I will look back and think, shit, that time with the moms in the house wasn't so bad after all.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Stressin out

I have been stressing out a lot lately.  It seems as if I am having a mini nervous breakdown on a daily basis.  The stress is not work related except in the sense that my job does not pay me enough money.  

But the reasons for my stress aside, I have decided as of today that I will try not to stress out.  Stress is toxic and ultimately counter productive.  For example, yesterday I was stressing out big time.  I was on the phone trying to take care of an issue while driving through Carl's Jr. to pick up my lunch (which in my attempt to lose weight before my fat girl surgery is a lettuce wrapped turkey burger and a Diet Coke).  I drove through the drive-thru and ordered and pulled up to the window to pay.  After I paid, I drove away. 

I returned to my office change in hand and thought to myself, where the fuck is my lunch (sorry for the cursing, but even my thinking is profane)?  As you probably guessed, my lunch was still at Carl's Jr and when I walked in, the cashiers were laughing.

The thing is, the stress did not solve anything.  It merely deprived me of the time it took me to drive back to get my lunch.  That evening, I took care of the issue (i.e., bill)  that stressed me out and felt better.  Still, I haven't slept well in about two weeks.  I wake up in the middle of the night stressing about everything wrong in my life.  In the moment between sleep and wakefulness, I feel myself start to stress and whisper a little prayer.  Sometimes, you just have to let go and I know I cannot solve my worries by myself.  I need divine intervention on this one. 

The question remains, however, how do I relieve my stress or combat it?  Easier said than done.  This afternoon after court, I had a another "episode".  My head felt as if it would explode.  I drove home from work a bit early and curled up on my bed and tried to relax.  My husband came home and asked me what was wrong.  I told him of the issue and he was very supportive.  He solved the problem.  Yet, the stress did not subside. 

Later, I was warming up tortillas for tacos for dinner and put my head in my hands.  "It's all too much," I told him.  "I am going to have a heart attack."

I went upstairs and tried to relax again.  It still didn't work.  My husband convinced me to go for a walk with him and the moms and as soon as I got outside, I felt a bit better.  The sun was out, the sky was clear and my mood began to lift.

We walked for about twenty minutes and now I can breathe.  Just breathe I tell myself, breathe in and out and let it all go.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Same Old Story

I just saw a quote from James Joyce that inspired me (along with the James Joyce paper doll I found in San Diego that is now in my office).  I will paraphrase it for you.  Writers only have one story to tell and they, or should I say we, tell the same story over and over again.  Thus, as Joyce noted, writers are trapped by their own experience and whatever form we write our story in, i.e. memoir, fiction, or poetry, it is essentially the same story being retold over and over.

I know it is a truism to say that we are shaped by our life experiences, but in writing, this truism is similar to the plot in "Groundhog Day" in the sense that writers are obligated to repeat the same story over and over despite their best efforts to move on.  For example, Ulysses tells the story of a day in the life of Leopold Bloom which is, in essence, the story of Joyce's relationship with his wife Nora Barnacle (aka Molly Bloom).  

For most writers, this oft repeated story is one of our childhood experiences.  I know it is for me.  In some ways, I am still a young child sitting on the roof with my sisters watching the sunset to the sounds of my parents fighting below.  I wish I was past it.  I really do.  But perhaps, the art lies in reshaping my past, in writing it all down and in the process of memorializing it, conquering the beast of my past. 

Or maybe, the art lies in the honesty of speaking out and sharing that my life was not perfect, but flawed and at times, ugly.  There is nothing so beautiful to me as someone who just tells it like it is.  Without any sugercoat on it.

Sometimes, the art also lies in finding the beauty in the chaos.  Despite the fact that I had a somewhat tumultous childhood and young adulthood, there were many good times.  I had a mom and dad who worked hard and gave my sisters and I everything they could.  And, we had adventures.  Crazy adventures.  Adventure cannot be overrated.  It is the stuff memoirs are made of and if I am doomed to repeat my story so be it.  I have some pretty fucking fantastic stories if I do say so myself.

I wouldn't trade my life for an idyllic one.  My childhood turned me into a survivor, a hard worker, an empathizer, a progressive, and a lawyer fighting for those that society throws away.

And, most of all, my childhood made me a writer.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Trading Places

Everyone used to say my twin sister and I looked exactly alike.  We didn't look exactly alike at least not to each other.  The doctor called us “mirror twins”.  We could fool people when we wanted to, even my mom.  It didn't always work. 

My kindergarten teacher was named Ms. Glenn.  She was a large woman with a tight bun and a sharp ruler that she wasn’t afraid to use.  I had seen her use it before, but I was always the good girl.  I sat in the front of the class waving my hand.  I wanted to please the tyrant. 

Jackie had Mrs. S as her teacher.  We called her Big Bird because she was six foot four with long blond hair.  Her students were always signing and finger painting.  Her class was like that episode of "Davey and Goliath" where the kids sat around the campfire singing Kumbayah. 

Mrs. S was a regular at my mom’s restaurant and ate there every Friday with her husband.  She always asked for my mom’s station.  Mrs. S adored Jackie and raved to my mom about how creative and sweet Jackie was.  “She called her sweet,” my mom would tell my dad with a puzzled expression.  Jackie seemed to be a different person under the protective shade of Mrs. S.
Our classes were right next door to each other.  It drove Jackie crazy that they separated us.  My mom said you should separate twins, that way they can create their own separate identities.  I never bought it.  What good was separate classes if you wore the same outfits and everyone called you the twins? 

The switch was Jackie’s idea even though she will say it wasn’t. 
The Sunday night before the switch we were in our room.  Out of nowhere Jackie said, “Lets switch classes tomorrow.  It’ll be fun”  I resisted for about five minutes, but finally gave in and told her, "Fine, but we better not get caught.  Let’s wear the same clothes that day.”  We both knew that wearing the same clothes wasn’t hard because all our clothes matched.
That Monday morning we walked to each other’s classes.  Mrs. S was busy tidying up the room when I walked in and glanced at me and said, “Good Morning Jackie.”  I smiled at her.  Even though it was a math day, I didn’t mind. 

Mrs. S was the opposite of Ms. Glenn, sweet where Ms. Glenn was sour, calm where Ms. Glenn was always pacing the room.  Every time Mrs. S said “Jackie” I looked up and responded with an answer.  I was doing fine and after lunch break I started to relax.  We were getting away with it.  
Right next door, Jackie struggled to write my name on the black construction paper cat she had made for the class Halloween party the following week.  We hadn’t thought of the handwriting issue.  Jackie was always getting her letters reversed.  My mom liked to say it was because Jackie was left handed.  Ms. Glenn immediately noticed the backwards N.  Jackie broke down quickly and confessed as if she was under the sharp glare of interrogation lights.  She blamed me. 
Ms. Glenn yanked Jackie over to Mrs. S’s class and told Mrs. S of the switch and led me back to class.  She told me to place my hands on top of the piano and took out her infamous ruler.  I still remember the crack of the wood on my skin.  I was no longer the good girl.  I still blame Jackie. 
When my mom picked us up that day, Jackie said, “Mom, you won’t believe what happened, Juanita and I switched classes.”
“You what?” my mom said getting red in the face.  Jackie knew she had to distract her and continued on, “Yeah mom, and guess what, Mrs. Glenn hit Jenny.”  
I held up my red fingers.  I knew what was coming.  
My mom stepped on the brakes and swerved to bring the car to a halt against the curb. 
“Let’s go,” my mom said.  My mom walked quickly back toward the school as she muttered under her breath.  I followed behind her.  She marched down to my kindergarten classroom while I pleaded with her not to embarrass me, “Mom, I’m fine, don’t say anything, please mom, please.”
My mom pulled open the door and as soon as she crossed the threshold of my classroom, my mom got right in Ms. Glenn’s face.   My mom spitted out her words.  “Don’t you ever touch my fucking child again or you’ll be fucking sorry.” 

Ms. Glenn backed up against the piano and stammered, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Mantz.  I’m sorry.  It won’t happen again.  I’m so sorry.” 

Ms. Glenn went from a towering giant to a shrinky dink in five seconds of meeting my mother.  When my mom was mad, she could make the devil wet himself. 

As we walked out of the room, I turned and shook my head at Ms. Glenn in an "I told you so" kind of way.  I looked into her watery shaky eyes and almost felt bad for her.
My mom told off the principal that day too.  Told him that she was the only one that could hit her kids.  Said she was going to sue the school.  She used the F word at least five times.  He apologized as he took notes.  The staff milled around his door through the textured glass.  
Ms. Glenn tiptoed around me for the rest of the year.  I may not have been the good girl anymore, but at least I was the bad girl with a bad ass mom. 

The universe does compensate.  Sometimes it sucked having a crazy mom and sometimes it wasn't so bad because she didn’t take anyone’s shit and scared the bullies away. 

 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

May Flowers

Today is the first day of May.  I am taking the moms to see the play "Ramona" in Hemet, assuming, and mind you it's a big assumption, that my mother in law is talking to me.

I am letting the shit with my mother in law go because I have other things to think about.  It is my father's birthday.  He would be seventy five today.  My father died more than five years ago.  Sometimes, I cannot remember his face.  I have to squint and furrow my brow to remember what he looked like. 

It's scary because I never thought that would happen.  I made a video of him right before he died.  He looked so frail, his arms stick thin in his white t-shirt, his face gaunt.   The days after his death, I watched the video of him over and over.  I pressed rewind so many times my thumb hurt.  Adrian made me delete it. 

My dad loved flowers.  His favorite flower was a geranium.  I always thought it a quirky choice for a favorite flower.  When we were little, he planted pink and red geraniums all along the front of the house. 

My dad was also a gardener.  The last couple years of his life, I lived in San Francsico with Adrian.  On holidays, I came home to visit him and my mom at their senior citizen's complex in Mira Loma.  When I arrived, the first thing my dad would do is take me to see his garden.  He wore his usual attire of a pair of Wrangler jeans held up by his "Big John" belt buckle and a blue cowboy shirt. 

"I gotta show you this Jenny," he liked to say as he huffed his way outside to his golf cart to drive me over.  It was only a two minute ride.  "You should visit more often." he would add.

His garden was a five by five square surrounded by a green fence made of a trellis like material.  My dad would stand on the outside of the fence and point out the different vegetables and fruits.  There were tomatoes, zucchini, watermelon. corn and grapes. 

My dad loved that damn garden.  He even made gardens for other seniors.  They paid him a hundred bucks and he built their fencing for them and lined up their rows.  He only cleared about thirty dollars a garden, but it made him happy to create something, to feel useful.  I picture him out there in the sun, sweat running down his brow.

I remember about seven years ago (is it really that long ago?), my mom and dad came to visit me in Houston.  I was working at a large firm and my parents spent the days at my house waiting for me to get off work.  I didn't spend as much time with them as I should have.

I came home one day and my dad had planted a whole section of tomatoes in my backyard.  Right next to the telephone pole.  I yelled at him for planting tomatoes without my permission.  He looked at me and said, "Jennie, I don't want to fight."

Weeks or perhaps months after he left, I walked outside to see humongous red tomatoes hanging from the vine like red cantaloupes.  Adrian called them my dad's radioactive tomatoes.  Later that night, I ate them with salt and pepper.

I can almost taste those tomatoes and a slight, bitter hint of regret.