Panorama of San Bernardino

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Coming Home

"But my heart cried out for you, California.  Oh California, I'm coming home.  Oh make me feel good rock n' roll band.  California, I'm your biggest fan.  California, I'm coming home."  California by Joni Mitchell 

I have always had ambivalence about being home.  My elementary school years were chaotic with my parents' chronic fighting, but also stable in some ways because we lived in the same four bedroom house on G Street, east of Grove Avenue, in Ontario, California.  It was not the best neighborhood, but our house was bought brand new and later, my parents added a swimming pool.  There were backyard barbecues and pool parties.  My sisters and I swam every day and got every damn cent out of the cost of that swimming pool.

In my teenage years, my parents bought a bar, lost the bar and then their house.  After they lost the house, we moved around.  A lot.  We were like nomads going from place to place.  Every year from rental to rental.  Ontario, Upland, Montclair and then back to Ontario.

After high school, my roaming continued.  I lived with my sister in an apartment in Upland for a couple of years and later, we moved together to an apartment in La Verne.  When I lost my job, I moved back in with my parents to a trailer park in Pomona.   What saved me from the trailer park was transferring to UC Riverside and moving into student housing.  After UCR, I moved to law school in Los Angeles and then after law school, to Houston and then to San Francisco.  Finally, at thirty-five, I moved back home to the Inland Empire.  When people ask me why I returned, I usually say, my dad died and my family needed me.  In reality, I needed my family and felt an overwhelming need to tether myself to the familiar.

The funny thing about home is that even when you are not at home, you are thinking about home.  Yet, when I am home, all I want is to do is leave.  New York would be nice.  I daydream of packing it all up and leaving everything behind.  But, I know myself well enough by now to realize that I am never happy anywhere.  I always feel as if I should be somewhere else, stuck in a perpetual kind of real estate limbo.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I rented out our North Fontana home and moved with his mother to the High Desert.  My husband wants to stay out here and build a house of our own.  I keep begging him to move back down the hill to Fontana, Rancho Cucamonga or to my dream town of Claremont.  (How ironic is it-only native Inland Empire people will get this-that I am begging to move to Fontana?)

Today, I watched as my husband spent hours organizing the house and cleaning the backyard for Thanksgiving.  My family is coming over and we are going to feast and hang out.  I was supposed to be cleaning, but instead I stayed in bed and did nothing but talk on the phone and read, write and listen to some music.

After hours of hard work, my husband walked into the bathroom to take a shower and said, "Weren't you supposed to clean the bathroom?"  I grunted that I would do it tomorrow.  He didn't say anything, just shook his head.  He knows me and understands that my laziness has its purpose.  He is barbecuing dinner while I write this blog.  "Come out of your cave," he coaxes as he blasts The Cure on the backyard's stereo speakers.

Does it really matter where I live?  Isn't it more important who I live with?  And that I have a husband who loves me and appreciates me with all my craziness and tendency to watch Hallmark movies, Food Network and/or write all day rather than cleaning and cooking.  In the end, he gets me.

It is a cliche, but also a truism to write that home is where the heart is. And truth be told, my heart is right here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Where do we go now?

Sometimes, I use this blog as my own personal therapy session.  I work out things on the page so I can work them out in life.  This can have its drawbacks.  For most of my life I have been an open book, but this blog has made me an open book that can be read by anyone.  Perhaps, I am guilty of over-sharing.  But, truth is, I know no other way.  This is me dear reader.  Consequences be dammed.

As you all know, life has been difficult this last year.  2014 is almost over but for me it will always be the year of the miscarriage and tax audit (there is an insensitive joke here, but I will refrain).  Both experiences were traumatizing in very different ways.  I could be flippant here and say that I am not sure which was worse, but in fact, I know which one was worse.  Money is only money.  Getting pregnant via IVF and then having the proverbial rug pulled out from under me almost destroyed me.  I survived.  Just barely.  Excuse me if I am still a bit fragile.  

Where do I go from here?  It is a question I keep posing to myself in my head.  I am married so my decision making process on this issue has to be a collective one.  Thus, the real question is, where do we go from here?  My husband is getting weary of the dialogue.  But, I am still an individual with my own wants and desires and I do know what I want.  I want a baby.  A child.  I want to take care of someone else and be a mother.

Yes, that's what I want and I wish that I could imagine it into being.  If I was Harry Potter, I would wave my wand and make it happen.  One thing I do know for sure is that I will make a great mother.  For many years, I wasn't too sure.  The harshness of realizing that being a mom might not happen for me has made me realize how much I do want motherhood and how hard I am willing to work at it.  My kid will be loved to distraction.

I suppose for now, I am going to keep swimming.  I will put one foot in front of the other and keep on this journey of mine. I do not know where I am going.  I just know that I need to get there.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


I don't usually write about my job as a public defender.  For one, you would simply not believe some of the things I see.  The courtroom is a surreal, odd place and a heartbreaking one as well.

But, sometimes, I have to try and make sense of the criminal justice system.  It does not make sense most days. It tries to.  With the Penal Code, it is codified and the law becomes objective.  But it really is not.  It is people doling out the justice ultimately, and as a result, justice becomes random.

Most days, I do a job working within a broken system.  One day, a petty theft with a strike prior can send a young man with a lower than average IQ to prison for five years and the next day, that same crime is worth no more than a year.  I have learned what the word relative means in practice.  Because everything is relative.   The things we think of as wrong, immoral and illegal as a society, and the punishment those crimes merit, change with the wind.  Don't misunderstand me, I am overjoyed that the recent proposition passed making most drug and petty theft crimes misdemeanors.  It just took too long.

Why did the proposition pass?  I think it took us seeing as a society that building jails and prisons is expensive, too expensive.  We are creating bands of misfit toys and we need islands to house them in.  Those islands cost millions and the upkeep costs billions.  It took us seeing as a society that programming works because maybe, just maybe, these misfits can be fixed?  Or helped?  Or god forbid I utter the word, rehabilitated?

I believe in the goodness of people.  I am an eternal optimist, and that is how I do this job.  I believe, sincerely, with all my heart, that people will do the right thing if given the right opportunities.  But if people only have bad choices to choose from, they will make bad choices.

Do rich people steal from the supermarket?  Rarely.  Because they have the money.  People steal when they are desperate.  When I was struggling to get by through law school and didn't pay my bills, it was because I did not have the money.  I could not get a private loan to save my life.  And when I didn't have money for food, I clipped coupons and borrowed money from family and friends.  I was lucky I had family and friends to borrow grocery money from.  I didn't have to make a bad choice.

Not everyone is so lucky.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Ham of a Thanksgiving Story

I love the holidays.  It is a season of scents.  If Christmas smells like pine needles, cookies and hot chocolate, then Thanksgiving smells like maple and pumpkin to me.  Oh and ham.  Thanksgiving definitely smells like ham.

A ham is a must on Thanksgiving for us Mantz girls.  Dad loved ham and every Thanksgiving, he roasted a ten pound ham with pineapple.  His turkey was too dry, but the ham was always delicious.  Dad would fry it up the morning after Thanksgiving with eggs.  It is the flavor of our childhood I suppose.  And now that Dad is gone, the ham is really all we have to remind us.

In the last couple of weeks, things are different.  I have felt slight twinges of what I recognize as happiness.  The fog from the last six months is lifting and pushing away all the anxiety and pain that I was drowning in.  I wish I knew how this is happening because I would bottle it and sell it to others who are struggling.  This new found happiness could be the result of the passage of time, it could be my new therapist, it could be that the holidays are coming which always cheers me up, or it could be a combination of everything.

When I feel happier, I can better appreciate my family's idiosyncrasies.  This year, I am hosting Thanksgiving again.  We took a break last year and I regretted the lack of chaos and missed everyone.

Of course, a holiday in the Mantz family is not a holiday without some argument.  This year, the argument was over a ham.

My twin sister Jackie offered to bring a ham on Thanksgiving.  Our younger sister Annie is bringing the potatoes, salad and dessert.  My husband Adrian will make the turkey, he stuffs it with fruit and I am making the sides: cranberry and apple stuffing, candied sweet potatoes, a three cheese mac and cheese with fried bacon as well as homemade cranberry sauce and green beans with olive oil and almonds.  I never ever use mushroom soup on my green beans, I hate the processed flavor it brings.

Dear reader, let me explain my day and the ham debacle.  Jackie called me at lunch on a day at work where I didn't have time to eat, drink or pee all morning.  I had fourteen clients on calendar and we were down two attorneys.  I left court at noon and had to be back at court at one thirty. I got back to my desk and a colleague stopped by to talk about a case and when I looked at my watch, I saw that it was one p.m..  I had thirty minutes to grab lunch and get back to court.  Then my phone rang.

"Hi, I can't bring the ham.  The remodel is not done and we don't have a kitchen and I just can't do it," Jackie said in her don't mess with me voice, without any introduction or pleasantries.  This had clearly been on her mind all day.  I just didn't care.  All I wanted was to go get my Subway and Diet Coke.

"OK," I replied.  "No ham then.  I can't do it and you said you would do it.  But if you can't do it, you can't."  I didn't have time for this.

Jackie's voice rose an octave.  "I asked Annie and she said no.  I don't know why she can't make the ham and I can do the potatoes, salad and dessert."  Jackie was obviously upset, but so was I.  Why couldn't she honor her commitment?

"Jackie, you said you would bring the ham. Don't put it on anyone else," I said.  My temples were pounding.  All I wanted was a Diet Coke and my half turkey sandwich with avocado.

"What about mom?" Jackie said.  "She can do it."

"No, she can't.  Do you want us all to get food poisoning?" I asked her in what I admit was a rude tone.  (My mom is not a good cook.  One time she tried to make a chicken and the inside was pink and I ate it anyway.  Suffice to say, the effects were not pretty)

"Just forget the damn ham Jackie, who cares?"  I was so over this.

"I want ham.  We always have ham," Jackie said.

"Than buy a damn ham Jackie," I said in my I can't handle this shit, oldest sister voice.

"A ham is a hundred dollars," Jackie said.  Then she just started rambling about how it is just her and Joe, a hundred dollars is a lot of money and she shouldn't have to spend so much.  Then she went nuclear.

"I just won't come over on Thanksgiving then."

And suddenly, I got it.  Jackie wanted our ham tradition and she couldn't do it.  But she wanted a way for it to happen.  She wanted to eat ham and remember how Dad would always make it.  I pictured her on the first day of kindergarten, in her two left shoes.  She had been my best friend forever.  This was ridiculous.  Arguing over a damn ham.  I shook my head and started typing into the search engine online and ordered her a ham.  I was done with this.  No more fighting.  No more saying we were not getting together.  I needed my twin and we had to stop the drama.  It was only a ham.  I cut her off and started my own tirade.

"Jackie, I am hungry, thirsty and I have to get back to court.  I looked it up online while you were rambling on and a Honey Baked Ham is fifty dollars for the amount of people we are serving.  Just buy the fucking ham, we can split the cost.  I already ordered it for you and I will pick it up for you after work the day before Thanksgiving.  Stop the nonsense."

Jackie was quiet.  "OK, but I want to pay for the whole ham.  I won't do it unless I get to pay for the whole ham."

And so now we have a ham.  Daddy would be happy.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Thanksgiving and Dad (subtitled: John's The Man Who Cuts The Ham)

While planning my Thanksgiving menu, I think of my Dad.  Every Thanksgiving, Dad would put it all together by himself.  As kids we never appreciated it and once grown, my sisters and I would show up at my parent's tiny apartment and start drinking to get through it all, not realizing the hours Dad had spent on his feast.  Every year, he put out a homemade vegetable tray with radishes, pickles, celery and large, black olives.  His cranberry sauce was canned and his potatoes lumpy, but Dad's magnum opus was always his potato salad with just the right hint of mustard and pickles.  (Mom is still here and she tries to make his potato salad.  It is not the same. But, she tries.)

Dad, who loved his pig, also made a ham every Thanksgiving. As a young child, I distinctly remember being awakened by the sound of Dad cutting up ham with his electric slicer early on Thanksgiving morning.  Dad was an insomniac and probably figured that five a.m. was as good a time as any for slicing.  My best friend Melinda and her little sister Pam, who had themselves been awakened by the slicer in the wee hours of the morning on a non-holiday sleepover (Dad was probably making his special fried ham and eggs for breakfast that morning), made up a song called "John's The Man Who Cuts the Ham".  We would sing it every time they spent the night in anticipation of being awakened by the zzzzzzzzzz of the ham cutter.  

In the years since his passing, I have to say that I sorely miss Dad's dry as desert turkey (so dry it could choke you) and his mushy stuffing and that damn vegetable tray, with all the pickles and radishes cut by hand.  And I would kill for a bite of his potato salad.  I wish I could see Dad's face.  I would just stare at it and try to memorize it.  I wouldn't drink a sip of beer.  I would sit with Dad and talk.  Give him the time he always wanted from me and that I never had.  

Those last weeks of Dad were not him really.  Oh there were flashes, don't get me wrong, he was still there buried deep under the pain and drugs.  Yet, the Dad I want to remember is the one who would stand up for hours cooking us all Thanksgiving dinner whistling along to Johnny Cash.  I don't want to remember the Dad in the hospice bed.  

Every year, I consider buying premade food for Thanksgiving.  Last night, I even picked up a menu at the Honey Baked Ham store.  Once I thought it over, I shook my head.   I have to try and carry on Dad's tradition.  For us Mantz women to cook is the surest sign of love because we are not naturals at it.  It is stressful and difficult and not always enjoyable for me, but this year I am going to try and appreciate it more.  Adrian will make the turkey to guarantee that no one gets food poisoning, and my twin Jackie will bring the ham.  My little sister Annie is bringing healthy salad (because she believes salad is a necessary evil) and a pie.  I will do everything else.  

This year, instead of rushing, I will take my time on my candied sweet potatoes, homemade cranberry sauce, roasted green beans with almonds and a sage, celery and apple stuffing.  I promise you dear reader that I will slowly cut the celery and apples by hand while humming along to the country station.  I will even put out a vegetable tray with pickles, radishes, celery and black olives. Maybe I will place an olive on each of my five fingers, just like I did when I was little, and wave my fingers up in the air while remembering that I always used to name each one of the five olives: Mom, Dad, Jackie, Jennie and Annie.  

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Lessons Learned

In the last few months, I have learned some lessons.  The learning process has not been easy.  In fact, it's been a painful process of self discovery.  But, a necessary one.

First lesson,  I no longer have to stay on high alert.  Remember the movie War Games (the original with Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy only please)?  In it, Dabney Coleman describes what the Defcon countdown symbolizes.  Defcon Two is high alert and Defcon One is war.  For most of my life, I've lived in a state of Defcon Two.  Why?  Maybe I am hard wired that way or maybe my somewhat chaotic childhood (it's all relative, however, isn't it?) ingrained it in me or maybe my scrappy twenties, when I was struggling financially to get to the life I wanted, created my predilection for panic mode.  In the end, who knows?  But whatever the reason, the result is that I cannot relax.  Ever.  Seriously.  I can't relax at work.  I can't relax at a restaurant or on the weekend or on vacation.  And I certainly can't relax at nighttime to sleep. I must ask myself, what am I so terrified of?

The root of all anxiety, I have learned, is fear.  This fear may have served me well earlier in my life as a motivating, propelling force, but now, not so much.  Excuse me please if this seems like self absorbed neurosis, but I am writing this to see if anyone else can learn from my struggles, or at the very least, relate.  And ultimately, I have learned that I can't live my life on Defcon Two anymore.  It's not a happy life for me or my loved ones.  If happiness is my goal, I gotta let this go.

Second lesson, I need to learn to say no.  We humans get asked to do a number of things any given week.  New job opportunities arise, creative pursuits are posed and then there's also the social engagements.  But, when you can't say no, you become overextended and stressed out and life is not fun anymore.  I have learned a new technique.  Instead of saying yes, I have learned to say, "let me think about it."  Then I think about it, really think about it, and craft my response.  Not to say the technique is perfect or natural for those of us "yes" people (I actually had to stall so I could run my "no thank you" response to a recent job opportunity by my therapist first), but it works.  People often just want their offers to be considered and a gracious response, regardless of the answer, is appreciated more than one thinks.

Third lesson, live in the moment.  This is the hardest for me.  It may be because I write memoir that I am always documenting and observing rather than living in it, but I pledge, right here, right now, that I will live and breathe in the moment.  There are quests I want to set out on, magical rings I need to fling into the fire and all that, but I need to live in the now.  This moment and moments with my mom who is getting older and my husband who is getting older and my sisters who are getting older and my friends who are getting older, are all I have.  I want to recall my forties as a time when my epiphanies created a beautiful life for myself.

Lesson four, my creative endeavors will happen in direct relation to the effort I put into them.  This blog happened because I made it happen.  Years ago, I sat on my ass for three days straight at a Starbucks, for ten hours each day, and made this site.  I did everything myself, the pictures, the layout, the text, and when I finished it, I marveled at what I had done.  The same is true with almost every story I have written.  It's the focus that matters and letting go of the conscious mind to let the subconscious artist in me free.  Writing a story can put me in a trance.  But, if I don't take the time or the energy to feed the process, it fizzles out.

Lesson five, the final one (as a young child I was always obsessed with the number five probably because there were five of us in my immediate family), I like me.  I like myself dammit.  I am a good person and strive to be an empathetic and nice person.  I have claws yes, but I try to bring them out only when necessary.  I am certainly not without my faults (ask my husband for examples or see above).  But all in all, I like myself and I want to be a better person and artist and damn, I would make a fucking fantastic mother.  And if you don't like me, or my tendency to ramble or cuss, then I don't care anymore.

This is me and I've said it before, but shoot I'll say it again, this is JEM's world baby, you're all just along for the ride.