Thursday, December 13, 2018

A recipe for happier holidays: Forgiving family members for not being how you want them to be.

One of the newer ornaments next to one missing her hat.

Growing up, my favorite Christmas ornaments were ones my mother had grown up with – little winged fairies that you could make float on the tree's branches. And when nearly all of those delicate ornaments fell apart, my sister made me new versions that I loved even more than the ones I grew up with.

That Was Cool.

Her gesture was especially meaningful because we had recently lost both of our parents, and were now decorating our own Christmas trees as young adults because our mother died when we were teenagers, then soon after her death, our father removed himself from our lives.

And while my sister and I had never been close, her thoughtful gift made me believe we could finally form that close bond I always wanted to have with her, especially now that she was the only immediate member I had left.

But we never got close. Instead, I spent the next 20 years chasing her affections, constantly examining every interaction for clues as to how I could make her love me like I wanted. Because I was certain that since I lost my mother and father so early, I had to then deserve a sister who loved me, right?

So I chased the fantasy of a devoted sister relentlessly until I finally had to decide that for my own sanity and happiness, I needed to accept that I would never get what I wanted. And instead of chasing someone who would never love me, I needed to give my time and love to the people who wanted to give their time and love to me.

Because love isn't given to us because we deserve it – it is just given, whether we deserve it or not. And everyone, even your family members, are never going to be exactly (or even partially) who you want them to be, they are only always going to be who they are.

And while relatives share your blood, they don't necessarily want to share your life. Often (and dare I say almost always?) the best families are the ones we create ourselves by finding people who love us because of who we are, not because we're related.

And, honestly, what’s cooler than someone being with you because that's where they decided to be, not because it's where they started out?

Of course, letting go of my sister was still one of the most difficult journeys I have ever embarked on, and is one I will likely never fully complete. But at least now I know I am finally making progress, because recently while decorating my tree, I realized I can finally look at those ornaments she made without being drowned by deep pain.

Now when I float those fairies on branches, I can remember how kind it was of my sister to make them for me, and simply appreciate that gesture without aching for anything more. And that feels very cool.

Super Cool Postscript: After this essay was recently published in the newspaper I work for, I began to feel embarrassed this week, fearing I had shared too much of myself. But then I got an email from a reader who said this:

"The tenderness with which you approach your feeling and hurts brought tears to my eyes. Your words of truth about how love is, or isn’t, resonates and really helps my poor heart. 

I am so grateful to you for writing this. I don’t feel quite so alone, and think that maybe there is a path for me out of the sadness that frequently consumes me."

These words made me feel that baring my soul was worth any embarrassment, and reminded me why writers feel compelled share our truths -- because at some point, we read the truth of others, and their words gave us strength.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Ukiah woman floats on stage as the Ghost of Christmas Past

Dell Linney as the Ghost Of Christmas Past. (Photo by Chris Pugh)
We took my mother-in-law to see "A Christmas Carol" at the Ukiah Players Theatre, and all our trio wanted to talk about after the show was the woman playing the Ghost of Christmas Past, who looked like she was floating on stage as she kept her arms in constant motion.

That was cool.

Ukiah High graduate Dell Linney played the ghost, and said her flowing white outfit was designed to make her look like a floating candle, with her arms evoking its "smoky, flickering" flames. The plan worked, and I marveled at how long, and seemingly effortlessly, she kept moving her arms.

"I try to keep doing different motions," said Linney, explaining that it is when you do the same movements over and over that your muscles really get tired. "The arm movement is something that I could always do, but I practiced to be able to maintain it for the play."

Linney said she never timed the sequences she shows Scrooge from his past to see exactly how long she had to keep her arms in motion, but "we did rehearse over and over. And once it became normal to constantly be moving, I could put it on the back burner in my head and focus on the emotional delivery in the scenes."

And it helps that "our Scrooge is so fun to act opposite and tease and patronize," she continued. She indeed had good chemistry with Chris Douthit's Scrooge, answering all of his increasingly frenetic energy with a stern calm that pokes and prods him until he admits the truth.

As for her flowing white outfit, Linney said her costume was imagined by director Jenny Peterman, who wanted "to create an interpretation as similar to the book as possible."

Linney's ghost appears to float on the UPT stage.   (Photo by Chris Pugh - Ukiah Daily Journal)

Another cool aspect Linney brought to the stage was a live turkey to stand in for the Christmas goose Scrooge has delivered to Bob Cratchit. 

"I bring him because he's the most tame," she said of the six-year-old Heritage turkey who plays Brother Turkey, explaining that her family raises the birds to sell as breeding pairs, not for meat.

But the turkey can't be brought into the theater until his big reveal, because "he will 'gobble' when he gets startled, like when something loud happens on stage."

Before she went on stage as the ghost, Linney said she hadn't really danced, "but the last few years (working with the theater) has helped me learn that I actually enjoy expressing something with physicality."

Watch a video of Dell at work, featuring cymbal swells by the awesome and gracious drummer Buck August.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

My favorite iPhone function? “Block this Alcoholic.”

A mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Someone with a drinking problem texted me once, likely hoping first for a sympathetic ear and next some money. After sending them a quick, “You need to stop drinking, don’t throw away your potential,” I blocked their number and all future communication.

That was cool.

That may sound cold to someone not raised at the mercy of an alcoholic, but I was, and I refuse to serve in anyone else’s war of addiction. I was drafted at birth, then only mercifully discharged two decades later when my father moved to another state.
Before that, my life was a bus route with only three stops: 1. he’s not drunk now but will be soon; 2. he’s drunk so avoid him; 3. he’s gone to bed so you can clean up all the messes, then try and get some sleep before you get back on the bus the next morning.

But even if your alcoholic moves away, you are never completely free from that bus if they can still drive it, and pull up to your door at any time. 
Like the Christmas morning I was spending with my friend when her father (yes, another drunk) showed up unannounced after driving across three states with his newest hungry children. 
They didn’t ask for food, but she knew they hadn’t eaten because he never fed her on drives like that, so we all sat down to a very uncomfortable breakfast that morning, proving there will never be a “Block this Contact” function that completely works on family.
But there is one on my phone now that works on other people. And man, that’s cool. Because while I can never protect younger me from the past, she does smile knowing I at least have the power to protect her now.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Marriage is like building with Legos. But don't follow the instructions on the box. Build something new.

When I met my husband, I felt like a misfit Lego piece that had finally clicked into place. Instead of twisting myself into shapes imagined by others, I found someone I could build something new with.

That was cool.

And while that first connection is crucial, how you build with your bricks afterward is even more important.
It’s best if you stay on equal footing, not one of you a brick and the other a big square of grass: then all of you is attached to them, but only a small part of their piece is attached to you, leaving plenty of grass for other bricks to click onto.
Just be careful of becoming too alike and attached. You don't want your borders to dissolve so much that you forget how to separate, never enjoying your own hobbies and friends. 
“I like doing things apart,” says my aunt of her 25-year-marriage. “When you’re together all the time, you have nothing to tell each other. All your stories are the same.”
Just don't spend so much energy on other interests that you can't reconnect: time apart should strengthen your bond, not weaken it.
But the most important thing to remember is that what you build with your bricks doesn't have to look like what anyone else created. In fact, it really shouldn't. Because it's your own.


Sunday, September 2, 2018

I found an antidote to fear: a permanent reminder to make the most of my time

Turning 41 was a big deal for me, since it was the age my mother was when she was killed in a car accident.
I thought for a long time about how I wanted to mark that milestone, and eventually decided to get a tattoo.
It's on my forearm, in a spot that's both easily hidden and easily seen every time I need a reminder. 
A reminder that every year, every day, I have now is one that my mother never had. And that I should make the most of every one I get from now on.
And this week when I wanted to celebrate my mother's birthday by exploring a new trail, that tattoo made sure I went. 
Because her accident also gave me a fear of driving, and that fear was trying to tell me not to go, that unnecessary drives are unnecessary risks.
But I looked at that tattoo and it told me to go. So the dog and I, we got in the car and drove to that new trail.

That was cool.

Even cooler? I know my mother would have been proud.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

When exploring a new city, always detour for "fresh, hot donuts."

While wandering around Philadelphia, I saw some signs promising "fresh, hot doughnuts." 
I'm sad now I only tried the doughnuts, actually.
Of course I followed them, and they led me to a cheerful young woman cooking up those promised doughnuts and many other treats in her historic home.

That was cool. 

I bought a doughnut and sat down to chat with the baker, who told me her plan. She was selling cookies, brownies and other desserts out of her cozy home in Elfreth's Alley (described as the "oldest continually inhabited street in the United States" by my handy guidebook, Frommer's Philadelphia: Day by Day) with the intent of raising enough money to lease a storefront. When we spoke, she was excited to report that a spot in a building she thought was perfect was opening up soon.

I wished her luck in landing that spot and thanked her, only half-jokingly, for not being a witch leading me to a trap like poor Hansel and Gretel. More than one person had poked their head in her home while we chatted to see what this place promising "fresh, hot doughnuts" looked like, but none of them stepped inside to try them.

I could not have been happier that I did, though, as that detour is one of my favorite memories of Philadelphia. It had nearly all the joys of travel in one bite: meeting new people, wandering down charming little streets, and eating food made right in front of you by a local.
I only hesitated for a second before following this sign.


Friday, August 3, 2018

When his fire-ravaged constituents lost power, local senator becomes rare source of information

McGuire, left, and Allman in Ukiah last October. (Chris Pugh)
California State Sen. Mike McGuire is not a spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric. But late Saturday night when much of Mendocino and Lake counties lost their electricity after watching two fires rage out of control near them in triple-digit heat, McGuire was immediately trying to figure out what had happened so he could let his worried constituents know.

That was cool.

As a state senator, it is not McGuire's job to be giving reporters and residents updates on fires and power outages at any time, let alone near midnight on a weekend. But he knew much of his district had spent the day under huge plumes of smoke filling the skies as if two nuclear bombs had been dropped on the mountains east of Ukiah.
And perhaps the only thing scarier than seeing that is not being able to see anything at all  because your power went out, stranding you in the heat and darkness with no information. One resident said her family was just outside the mandatory evacuation zones and without electricity they "were blind" and helpless, with no water to keep their property safe and no way to know if the fire was getting closer.
After I lost power at 10:30 p.m. July 28 and realized how widespread the outage was, I started contacting anyone already saved in my phone who might have information, including Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman. At first Allman didn't have anything to tell me, but soon he did because McGuire called him after learning from PG&E that smoke from the fires was affecting their transmission lines. 
Then McGuire posted what he found out on social media sites such as Twitter, letting me and the rest of his followers know that the problem had been identified and was being resolved as quickly as possible.
Few other people were sharing official information about the outage around 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday night. So why was McGuire?
I think Allman had the answer: "He's a good dude."

Monday, July 30, 2018

Who is the best first boss a teenager could have? Someone who loves their job

Chris Pugh - Ukiah Daily Journal
I met the manager of the Ukiah Costco recently as his employees were running around getting the store ready for its grand opening. When one of those employees stopped briefly to tell me this was her first job, the manager thrust out his hand to give her a high-five.
"Costco was my first job, too!" 

That was cool.

I can't think of a better first boss for a teenager than someone who loves their job and is proud of the work they do.
First and foremost, the teen learns that a job is something to be respected and done to the best of your abilities.

Second, they learn that taking pride in your work makes any job more pleasant and productive for those around you. Even if you don't enjoy what you do, a co-worker who does their best with every task can inspire you to do the same. 
But perhaps the most important lesson a boss who loves their job can teach teenagers is that such a feeling is even possible. And hopefully they will be inspired to find one they can love, yet while still appreciating every job they get during their search.
Because acting like a entry-level position is beneath you does not convince employers you are destined for bigger and better things. Quite the opposite.  
Performing well at the job you have doesn't mean you've resigned yourself to it forever. But it does mean you are far more likely to land the job you really want.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

I got an e-mail from Barack Obama after the 2016 election. I read it a lot these days.

After the last presidential election I wrote to Barack Obama, hoping he might have some insights that would help me in the years to come. He wrote me back.

That was cool.

And yes, I know these words have likely been sent to million of people, but they help me every time I read them. And I've been reading them a lot these days!

Here is his response:

Dear Justine:
Thank you for sharing your story.  I understand the feelings of uncertainty many Americans have had lately.  But one thing I am certain of is that America remains the greatest nation on earth.  What sets us apart is not simply our economic and military power, but also the principles upon which our Union was founded:  pluralism and openness, the rule of law, civil liberties, and the self‑evident truth—expanded with each generation—that we are all created equal.
One election does not change who we are as a people.  The America I know is clear‑eyed and big‑hearted—full of courage and ingenuity.  Although politics can significantly affect our lives, our success has always been rooted in the willingness of our people to look out for one another and help each other through tough times.  More than my Presidency, or any Presidency, it is the optimism and hard work of people like you that have changed our country for the better and that will continue to give us the strength we need to persevere.
Progress doesn’t come easily, and it hasn’t always followed a straight line, but I firmly believe that history ultimately moves in the direction of justice, prosperity, freedom, and inclusion—not because it is inevitable, but because people like you speak out and hold our country accountable to our highest ideals.  That’s why I hope you continue to stay engaged.  And I want you to know Michelle and I will be right there with you.
Again, thank you for writing.  Whatever challenges we may face, there is no greater form of patriotism than the belief that America is not yet finished and a brighter future lies ahead.
Barack Obama

Thursday, June 28, 2018

In a new city and need a place to eat? Skip Yelp and ask a local where to go

While visiting Philadelphia for the first time recently I found myself hungry with no idea where to eat lunch. Luckily, I had wandered into an art gallery to check out some cool drawings and the woman working there I was chatting with about the heat wave I hadn't packed for recommended a cafe nearby that ended up being the perfect spot.

That was cool.

All I told the woman was that I wasn't interested in eating a Philly cheesesteak just then, so she suggested I go to Day By Day around the corner. There I found exactly what I wanted: a salad full of fresh greens topped with quinoa and chicken, served in cafe full of windows with many locals sitting alone that were very friendly with both each other and the staff, creating a soothing atmosphere for a woman traveling alone.

The $1 grab bag of desserts.
Even cooler was what I found on my way out: Next to the cash register were $1 bags of broken cookie, brownie and tart bits, what I think is the perfect way for businesses to avoid waste by offering folks like me a little taste of every dessert instead of having to choose just one. 

What was not cool, however, was the cafe I chose through Yelp alone.
I judge breakfast places on just a few basic items because that is all I order: coffee, eggs, potatoes, toast and bacon. I don't care what your scone or scramble of the day is, I want a reasonably-strong cup of coffee, eggs cooked as over-medium as possible and served with decent sourdough toast, big pieces of smokey bacon that ain't limp and greasy and some nicely seasoned and properly cooked potatoes that are preferably hash browns.

I picked a place in the Philly neighborhood I would be walking through that had great Yelp reviews,  but it failed to deliver on nearly every part of the basic breakfast. The eggs were cooked well, but the potatoes were underdone and poorly-seasoned (the type of homefries that seem to be seasoned solely with big chunks of onion) and the bacon slices were not only limp and greasy but also small. Saddest of all, the sourdough toast looked beautiful but had the taste and texture of Kleenex. Oh, and the coffee was mediocre at best. (And yes, I did fill out a Yelp review letting people know that, in my opinion, this was not the place to find good basics.)

So, technology like Yelp is great for some things, but when it comes to food, I vow to seek recommendations from live people whenever possible. And if not, I'll stick to the recommendations in my guidebook, which I should not have strayed from. (Lately whenever I choose a new city to visit, the first thing I buy is the Frommer's Day by Day guide for that city, which so far were great for both Boston and Philadelphia.)

Sunday, May 13, 2018

When I couldn't get pregnant we adopted: A dog

Card from the dog. Or so my husband says.
One day on a hike I met a woman with a baby strapped to her chest. “Is your dog friendly?” she asked. “My daughter’s really into dogs right now.”
I said my dog was very friendly, but was still amazed when the woman leaned her baby’s head toward the dog, who eagerly reached up and licked the pink mound offered to her like an ice cream cone.

That was cool.

The woman and I both laughed as she lifted her child back up, but soon I felt a strong wave of sadness watching this happy young woman carrying what would soon become a happy little girl with her mother’s red hair.  

I felt sad because while I had been that little girl, I would never be that woman.

Any chance of me becoming a mother likely died with my mother. Since at 15 I was forced to mother myself, any desire to mother anyone else evaporated. For decades whenever I saw women carrying babies, I never ached to be the mother, I ached to be the baby.

So when I finally decided I might want to be the mother, the desire likely came too late, because a baby never did. But when I finally put away the ovulation charts at 42, a few months later that dog decided I would mother her instead.

And she really needed mothering, because she was a 13-month-old dog who had never been taken for a walk or taught any manners. I know that because I watched her all those months in my neighbor’s yard, where most days she had nothing to do but watch me garden.

So she dug a hole under the fence to stick her head through and see me better. Soon I was talking to her all the time, greeting her by sticking my hand through another hole in the fence so she could lick it, and playing chase with her by running from one end of the fence to the other.

At night I’d sit at the fence and call to her. She would come and lie on her side, stick her leg through the hole and I’d hold her paw, telling her some day I’d take her for a walk.

But the week my husband came home with a leash we noticed she was no longer in the yard. I looked for her in the animal shelter and there she was, in the very last cage, after being found wandering in the hills several miles away. I wasn’t sure it was her at first because I had never seen her ears or even her whole head before. But she knew it was me immediately, jumping up and pawing through her cage to reach me.

When her owners didn't claim her, we adopted her and on Halloween night we could take her home. The next day I borrowed a crate so she could sleep in the house with the cats, and after seeking help from a dog trainer I quickly got her to stop jumping on me.

It took much longer, however, before the dog and the cats could be left alone together, even longer before I could walk her without her pulling on the leash, and even longer before anything left in the back yard would not be chewed to bits.

I don’t think she will ever learn to avoid skunks or to not run up to new dogs, despite one taking a chunk out of her side for being rude, but she knows the driving routes to and from our favorite parks so well that she will tap my shoulder with her nose if I make what she decides is a wrong turn. I spent more than 40 years being a devoted cat person, but few things now give me more joy than watching my dog running free, then sprinting back to me, her tongue flapping.
It's been nearly nine years since we brought home the dog, and sometimes I wonder if I should have adopted a human, too. But then I remember what my mother
s friend, who raised both human and four-legged daughters, told me: "Stick with the dog. She'll be more grateful."

And so I stick with my dog daughter, and sometimes when I hold her paw, I'm still grateful that it's no longer through a fence. And know she's grateful for that, too.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Ukiah High Milk Club: Building community over bowls of Lucky Charms

I recently visited with a group of students at Ukiah High School that meet once a week to enjoy milk with cereal and cookies. They call themselves the Milk Club.

That was cool.

Club president John Gonzalez admitted that many of the kids first came to the club because of “the absurdity” of it, then stay because of the supportive culture.
“It’s just a great place to have lunch,” said one student, and Gonzalez said he chose the classroom they meet in because it has lots of circular tables where students can eat in small groups like a family around a dinner table.
While the students eat bowls of Lucky Charms (some choose the healthier cereal options available) they often invite members of other clubs to speak, a practice Gonzalez said is meant to create a sense of community, rather than competition, among the students.
Making a practice of sitting down to eat with people who arent members of their current club will serve these students well when navigating a world full of people who dont think like them, and who now more than ever seem divided into tribes that spend no time listening to, let alone trying to understand, the other side.
Because sitting down and talking with someone over food is one of the easiest and most effective ways to build connections with anyone: your family, your co-workers and every other human we share the earth with.  And even if you’ll never agree on who should be president or that Lucky Charms are magically delicious (theyre not, Frosted Flakes have all the magic), odds are you can always find to something to agree on, even if it’s only your favorite ice cream flavor.

What was even cooler than watching the kids sit down together and enjoying cold cereal, however, was the behavior Gonzalez was modeling outside of the club, which was more respectful and considerate than most adults three times his age. 
After realizing he couldn’t keep the first appointment we made over the phone, he tracked me down online and suggested we meet two weeks later. The evening before our appointment, he sent me a very polite and friendly reminder.
After I met with the group, he sent me some more helpful information and an enthusiastic thank you for attending, followed by a final thank you from the club when the article came out (featuring a handmade card put in an envelope made out of a recycled paper grocery bag).
Of course, I don’t need to be thanked for doing my job, but it was much appreciated.
In a time when so many people seem to just be lying in wait for the next the psychic wound to be inflicted on them by their fellow humans, it was inspiring to meet a teenager so focused on what he could do for others, then leading by example. I sincerely wished him luck in his future endeavors, but I doubt he will need it.

Coolest of all, however, was when a couple of kids came near the end. Neither of them drank cow milk because one was vegan and one opposed to dairy milk for “environmental reasons,” but they still came because they felt the club was more about friends spending time together than anything else.
And then they entertained those friends by one picking up his trombone and sounding like a car accelerating and the second acting like he was shifting gears and steering.
When I showed my husband the video I took of their pantomime, he exclaimed, “Could those kids BE more wholesome?!” 
No, I dont think they could.

Read the story here.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Westerns With Dad: Man launches podcast with dying father, but they don't talk about cancer. They talk about movies.

After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a man launched a podcast with his son. But the men didn't talk about his illness. Instead, they talked about the movies he taught his son to love, calling their show Westerns With Dad.

That was cool.

What a great gift for both of them. And an “enormous giftis exactly how the son described the podcast in his farewell episode this month.
This was a means for my father and I to work together on something, to be speaking to each other frequently, but not about his diagnosis, the son said on the last episode of the podcast, which they did 50 episodes of over the past 50 months.

 I was introduced to the podcast by my husband, who also loves westerns and liked the mens easy rapport. But when he saw the farewell episode explaining that “Dadhad died, he did not want a sad blanket of reality dropped on one of his means of escape.
I had a very different reaction.
“What a great idea, I said. That must have been why they started the podcast.

 I knew how I would treasure having so many  conversations with my mother to listen to any time I wanted. 
She died long before we could record every second of our lives with the phones in our pockets, so my only hope at the time was a training video shot recently at her work. She only told me about it because she had been surprised by how many of her facial expressions she recognized in her own.

I called to ask about getting the video, and I still remember the pain in the mans voice as he told a teenager he already taped over perhaps the last footage of her mother.
So of course I think the episodes are wonderful for the son to have, but what better gift could he have given his dad than to just sit down and talk with him?
I read once that the amount of time your adult kids want to spend with you is a direct result of how much time you spent with them growing up. Take the song Cats in the Cradle” by
Harry Chapin. Its about a father who cant get his son to hang out with him because he never stopped to hang out with him when he was a boy.  
This podcast is the opposite story. And if my son had done that for me, it would tell me I raised a great human being who thought I was pretty great, too.  
Here is a link to the last episode they did together: