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Remembering Mike

mike_haner

One of my favorite people on this earth was named Michael Colin Haner. He was one of my closest friends. And last night, he died.

Most people who knew him called him Haner, sometimes Mike. In my phone, he was listed for years as Haner-Bananer, something I had started calling him when I first met him, 13 years ago.  When I wanted to annoy him, which happened often, I called him MSG. This was an inside joke, of which we had many, and it was short for MikeStar Galactica, because, for at least a year, he tried desperately to get me to watch Battlestar Galactica so that he would  have someone to talk about it with. I never did watch it, something I now regret, in that way at the end of things when you regret not the big failings, but the small, seemingly insignificant ones. He claimed to hate MSG, and that too became a running joke. Yet, when he signed his emails to me, he always wrote: Haner (msg) in tiny letters so small I almost missed it the first time.

For years, he has called me Baby Ham. It was a term of endearment that he never did explain.

I could call him an old friend, I could call him one of my dearest friends; it’s hard to describe a person who is not only dear for his friendship, but for everything he was: the funniest person I’ve ever known, the most loyal. Sometimes inscrutable, always vain, proud, and surprisingly private. And while he was endlessly cool, he could also be fragile and vulnerable, making his way through this often cold, frankly complex world the best way he could. I sometimes found myself wanting to protect him, which felt both necessary and strange–this absurdly intelligent and self-reliant man who had been independent and on his own since his teenage years. I never told him that either. I don’t regret it. He shrugged off concern in the same way he shrugged off the opinions of other people. He would have said, “No, baby ham, it’s good. You don’t need to worry about me.

Haner didn’t like to be looked after. He liked to be the one doing the looking after. When I got divorced seven years ago, I told him one of the hardest things was getting past three o’clock in the afternoon. My then husband left work at three, and would call me everyday on his way home. It hurt when three o’clock turned to four o’clock and there was no phone call anymore. I told my friend this late one night, the kind of phone call that has gone on so long, you start to tell things you would never tell anyone else. I forgot about it later, but the next day, at three o’clock in the afternoon, my phone rang. The screen read “Haner-Bananer.” He called me at three o’clock that day and the next and the day after that. He did it almost everyday for two years. Even when I was in meetings and couldn’t answer the phone, he called. Even if we only spoke for seconds, he called. It meant the world to me. It was one of the most loving, kind and selfless acts anyone has ever done for me. I could never, ever forget it. I wanted to tell him exactly what it meant to me. I know I didn’t need to, but I wanted to. And I never did.

Despite living in different states, we somehow managed to talk almost everyday for more than a decade. We talked about everything. How we wanted to own an alpaca farm but didn’t want to have to touch or interact with the alpacas. One night, he called before going to a crawfish boil, and when I told him he should take a pie to be nice, he was so mystified at why anyone would take a pie to a party, and we analyzed it so long, discussing every detail of the process, that he ended up being late to the party and didn’t have time to get the pie after all. We talked about conspiracy theories, a favorite topic of his. We talked about his belief that my beagle, Scout, might be a lesbian who was afraid to come out, and how I should let her know that her home was a safe place for her to be whoever she might be.

Once, in the midst of a terrible hangover while visiting him in Southern California, we sat together in a hotel room for hours, and shared a limp, unremarkable foot-long Subway sandwich, watched the same CNN stories repeat over and over again, and discussed how we would handle being in a riot, and what we would choose to loot first (“Burritos,” was Mike’s answer). I remember that day and that sandwich as among the best of my life. He told me it was a Jesus-sub, it had the power to heal hangovers and hepatitis. I thought about telling him it wasn’t the sandwich at all, just that Mike Haner had a way of making you feel better simply by being in his presence. But I never told him that either.

We also talked about how much he loved Rufus Wainwright, but for some reason, he was embarrassed of this. He told me that if I ever told anyone else, he’d hunt me down like a dog. We discussed whether or not “like a dog” meant in the way a dog would be hunted down, or how a dog would hunt someone else down. I never told anyone, until a little over a week ago, when I got the news that he had slipped into a diabetic coma, and it didn’t look good, and I flew to Austin to see him. Mike never woke up from that coma. When I stood by his bedside with his mom, Jeanne and our mutual friend, Kelley, he looked as if he was only sleeping, even with all of the tubes and trappings of the ICU, like he would wake up any minute, look around at us and say, “What’s all the fuss?” Together, Kelley, Jeanne and I stood in his room, while we played his favorite Rufus Wainwright song: Across the Universe.

“Limitless undying love it shines around me like a million suns and calls me on and on, across the universe.”

Since I was a little girl, I have often gotten in trouble for talking too much. My curse in life has always been saying too much, speaking up when I should have stayed quiet. This has led to a great deal of heartache. But as I think about my friendship with Michael Colin Haner over the years, it is a friendship in which we talked so much, about everything, but at the end of it all, I find that my curse is that I did not say enough. Here is what, in the end, I wish that I could have said, here is what I learned from my dear friend, one of my favorite people who has ever walked the earth:

This private, sometimes proud man was one of the first people to show me that it was okay to let people in, that despite great hurt and great sorrow, great disappointment, that I could still have faith in people, that there would be those people to whom I could show those vulnerable, embarrassing pieces of myself to, and those people, those good, special people, would still love me anyway. He taught me to pick a few people that matter and tell them your secrets, because those secrets are too heavy and sometimes too silly to carry on your own.  He taught me that when you have a big heart, a Haner-Bananer-sized heart, that you can meet people where they are, without judgment, without demands, without expectations of what they can do for you, and you can love them with everything you have, and you will still never run out of room.

And if you live life in this way, this generous, open, lovable way, and when you can learn to laugh at yourself and to laugh at life, even the darkest, hardest moments, you will find yourself, at the end of everything, surrounded by the limitless, undying love that will shine around you like a million suns. And when it’s time, it will call you on, and on, all across the universe.

I had a dream once that came partially true a few days later, and afterward, Mike called me The Prophet Ham for weeks. It had a dramatic, Old Testament-style feel to it, and I loved it, though I never told him. After that, he would ask me what I had dreamed, to see if anything else would come true. I told him any dream I had over the years that involved him. The last dream I had about him, I called him the next day. We were driving in a car, going 100 MPH along the ocean, with the waves crashing up and around us. I said, “Are we allowed to drive on the beach?” And he said, “It’s my beach!”

He pressed the gas and we sped up even faster, and he was laughing and laughing, the same kind of laugh as when I told him to bring a pie to a crawfish boil. His face was open and vulnerable, his blue eyes bright. He was the very picture of boundless joy, and there was nothing to hurt him then. No diabetes. No pain. No anxiety. No awkward small talk, no fear. All of it in that moment was erased, left only with joy, his whole heart in his face, alive, with nothing to ever hold him back again.

I told him that dream and he said, “I hope that one comes true!”

It never happened.

Or, maybe it just hasn’t happened yet, and that beach, that place, that ride, that joy, is all yet to be. I am, after all, as Mike always said, the Prophet Ham.

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I Remember You | or | High Dive

september-11

It’s been 13 years since September 11, 2001. It’s not a remarkable round-numbered anniversary, but I have been thinking of it the last few days. I was trying to remember the person I was then, the college student woken up by a 6:45 am phone call, irritated that it meant I was woken up 15 minutes early. It’s hard to remember the person I was in a world of an indefinable quality of before.

Of all the great glut of memories, there is one image that has haunted me for 13 years. Two people falling silently together through the air, holding hands in their shared descent. I still wonder if they were friends, if they sat next to each other in a pool of cubicles. I wonder if they knew each other’s names. Even in the horror of choosing to jump, I find something tender in their clasped hands. I feel a relief that if only in this last instant before the forces of gravity might pull them away from each other, they were not alone.

I wrote this in 2004 and revisited it in 2012. This is for them, captured in mid-air, stilled in their conjoined flight, as if pressed beneath glass, weightless, free.

High Dive

“God! Save their souls! They’re jumping!

Oh, please God! Save their souls!”

-Manhattan, September 11, 2001

I won’t say

Don’t be afraid.

It would be easier that way, I think

But this will not be easy.

This is not an hour of fantasy

And for you I will not pretend.

But I will:

Kneel with you at the

Wound of wall

Where sound erased the glass,

Kneel at the concrete pier that was

Once your office

Where sometimes I passed,

Smiled if you looked up

(You never looked up).

Kneel together with you

Where the tufts and ridges of

Carpet sear their patterns  into

Our knees.

Kneel until the air is black

Until your heart slows with mine.

But I won’t say

Don’t be afraid.

I will say that I loved

A woman once with hair

That fell in her eyes—

And you can talk about your

Children– if you have them—

About the message you left him

The first time—that everything was

Alright, we all left those.

Tell me about the town where you grew up—

About the first time your stomach

Somersaulted and your purse slipped

From grasp when you pressed

The button in the elevator—

one-oh-one—

or was it SOS? I can’t remember now.

Kneel until you are ready.

And when you are ready:

I will tell you about the summer

I learned to swim

In a wide mouth of ocean near Seabright

How the sea was very bright that day

When my father held my hand at the bluff

And when our feet left the

Edge of land we knew behind—

Blue sky was all I could see

And the first plunge into the waves

Was like coming home.

I might say—

It is alright

Today.

And when you are ready:

We will match our toes to the edge of

The bluff that was once your office

As the surf of grey cloud

And the wave of ash rises

And you can weave your

Fingers through mine.

And when your heart

Slows with mine?

When you release the

Amen of exhale?

You could close your eyes—

But I hope you will open them:

Wide.

For the sea is very bright today

And as we float and fly

In the September sun

The blue sky will open its face to you

And it is almost like coming home.

And this time

I will pray:

Don’t be afraid.

It was easier this way.

Copyright Nicole DeLeon. All rights reserved.

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Being a Grown-Up: I Still Don’t Get It.

I think it's that way.

I think it’s that way.

When I was little, and I mean really little, around three, I used to sit in my mom’s lap and cry about growing up. Even at that age, I’d already figured out that being a kid was a pretty sweet gig. It was socially acceptable to pretend, all the time, and as a writer, there is nothing sweeter than be allowed to linger in the imaginary for as long as possible. Growing up meant growing out of what was comfortable, heading into the unknown. While I love travel, changing jobs, new friends and restaurants I haven’t yet tried, I have been surprisingly reluctant to ever be considered an adult. I hated the rush and competition of it all—get married, buy a house, buy a bigger house, pop out spawn, show up, grind out, pass time until the next big milestone. As much as I hated it, with the exception of having kids, I played right along.

For me, believing that reaching a certain milestone on the calendar means I should suddenly and automatically have it all, be it answers or things, is a myth, and it has dogged me all my life.

I dreaded being grown-up so much that it left me without any real understanding of what it actually meant. It was tied solely to age and responsibility.  I thought I was grown when I got married, but I was 20, and while my then-husband was a great person with a good heart and the best laugh I’ve ever heard to this very day, he was no more right for me than I was for him, and our collective lack of “grown-up-ness” kept me, and him, from seeing that before we wed.

I thought I was grown when I bought my first house, and then my second, but I still believed that my happiness could be paid for, that it could be found while strolling the aisles of my neighborhood Target at 9:45 pm on a Thursday, stuffed between the racks at Anthropologie, rattling around in boxes containing shoes that still had their price tags, never worn.

I thought I was grown when I turned 30 in the hospital, fighting for my life as pneumonia and pleural effusion constricted my lung and choked back my ability to breathe. But, I made medical choices based on what would make my mother and estranged husband happy, instead of what would make me well. If I had been grown up, it might have gone so differently.

I thought you’re really a grown-up now the day I walked away from a courthouse, divorced for all of five minutes. My life was in shambles around me, drowning in unending waves of medical debt caused by a six-week hospital stay and the loss of a second income to mitigate that disaster. My ex-husband, the first boy I had ever loved, drove away without looking back, and I stood in a parking garage and wondered which instruction book or college class that I’d missed prepared you for what to do when your life plan fails, and you have to start over at the very age you thought you’d have it all.

I didn’t feel grown-up then, or any time before. I didn’t feel whatever it was that I was supposed to feel. Nothing in that moment or the ones that came before made me feel like whatever happened, I could handle it. The only thing I had to hold on to was the understanding, unglorious as it was, that I would probably handle it, whatever came next.

Sometimes, that’s the most you can ask for.

I hear all the time that 30 is the new 20, that 40 is the new 30, that with each passing decade we grow-up later, a perennial adolescence that characterizes millions of people, and leaves our parents and grandparents clicking their tongues, tsk-tsk, at their terribly helpless, immature children, while they cash social security checks harvested from our paychecks.  I try to examine the differences between me and them, between my mother and my step-father, to see what it is that they had I didn’t. But all I can see is an unwillingness to settle in to the great unending ho-hum of middle age.

We have become a bumper-sticker age, and the slogan is: what’s the rush?

I think older generations see a great failure when they look at the Xs or Ys or Millenials or Zs or whatever we are labeled. I like to think that the older generations are the sinister cabal behind the great flood of “30 Things You Should Have Done By 30” stories, and any other number of vapidly definitive lists floating across the internet these days, convincing 30- and 20-somethings  that whatever they are currently doing, it’s not enough. Secretly, I imagine these lists are a malicious plot to light a fire under kids and stepkids and grandkids who aren’t performing up to snuff. Even while I suspect them of nefarious intent, I am addicted to them. I read every single one. I keep expecting that the next one will really have the answers, but it never does. What they have is  highly-styled stock photography and a bunch of clever clichés that fuel our collective inadequacy, the staples of our I-Am-Not-Enough-ness.

Every time I see one of these lists as I scroll through my newsfeed, I want to tell the people I love, all of my friends that they are too beautiful, too smart, too full of life to ever be contained in a catchy, paint-by-number list, but I never do.

I want to tell them, to tell myself: It’s all bullshit. There isn’t a list in the world that contains all of the answers. Just like there isn’t a person, or a generation. There is no universal life plan, a one-size fits all guide to the future that, if we follow it, results in some Candyland-style ultimate destination, gumdrop-lined and drenched in the syrupy sweet assurance that everything turned out okay. Our parents, and the people we once saw as grown-ups with all the answers were never any closer to the answers than we are now, no more sure than us of their places in the world. They were just much better at pretending than we were.

Maybe the greatest difference between our generations now and the ones before is that neither of us have ever had the answers, but we are much more willing to admit it, much more willing to say, “I don’t know.”

And maybe that’s the most grown-up thing of all.

I { hate } you?

For most of my life, I wasn’t allowed to say I hate. My parents are Christians, and pretty devout, and saying that you hated another person was about the same as saying you wished they were dead. Most of the time that they pointed this out to me, during years of adolescent angst, I wanted to respond, “Well, yeah! Exactly!”

When I was a young adult, first making my own way in the world in my early twenties, I got a little more comfortable with saying, “I hate bananas,” or “I hate the Red Sox.” Every time the word passed through my lips, I felt a twinge of something. Guilt, maybe. I thought it was residual from my parents, the fear that if they, and possibly God, knew I was saying these things, they’d be so disappointed in me.

But it never really went away. To this day, I still struggle with saying that I hate another person. Even during the 2008 and 2012 elections, when the Tea Partiers in my life emerged from the woodwork to fill my newsfeed with accusations that Obama was a communist, a Nazi, an anarchist, a Muslim, or the devout follower of a Christian preacher who they decided was racist against whites, whose dark skin and last-name-ending-in-a-vowel was evidence that despite having produced every version of a birth certificate requested, he was not born in the U.S., even then I found it hard to say, “I hate them.” or “I hate Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Glenn Beck, Ted Cruz…” insert name here.

I get that this is my issue, my thing that I struggle with, but the truth is…it used to be more universal. I don’t mean using the word hate. What I mean is, we used to keep our hate under wraps in ways that have now gone the way of the do-do. (That is not another Sarah Palin reference). For a long time, even when we politically disagreed with someone, when we despised their religious ideologies, we kept it to ourselves, or voiced in small groups, to our spouse in a sort of vituperative pillow talk that rarely got repeated in a public forum. The shouting and banner waving racism characterized groups only on the very extremes of American society, your Klans marching on the Mall, your burning crosses, your neo-Nazi skin heads in jackboots, poo-pooed as the outliers of society that was polite, and at its core had the potential, always the potential, to progress, to improve.

Now, we say, I hate you, I hate them, like its the punchline to a knock-knock joke that can be told at cocktail parties, across the dinner table, typed into Facebook status bars, spotting our Twitter feeds. Knock, knock, who’s there? I hate you. I hate the poor. I hate the Muslims. I hate the Jews. I hate. I hate. I hate.

I hate it.

I get regularly accused of going on “carebenders,” which are exactly what it sounds like.  I think I saw enough violence and anger growing up with my devout Christian step-father, the one who didn’t let me say hate, but who showed his hatred for me with the back of his hand. I saw drive-by shootings, and shattered windows of cars on the way to school. I saw girls pull each others hair out nearly by the root, teeth bared in school quads. I grew up amidst  violence, and all the while I thought it was a thing that was happening now, but once  I grew up and got out, it would become a thing that happened then. It would get better. Things would never go back. Sometimes I think the carebendering I do is my last ditch efforts to get some semblance of that belief back, that it really will get better. That we will grow up and go forth. That we won’t always hunker down, clutching our material things to our chest, saying “Mine!” the way the bratty kids in first grade did with the good crayons.

But it hasn’t gotten better. It’s gotten worse. Now I hear people say they oppose universal health care because why in God’s name should they spend any of their money to help others who are poor, when it is their own fault they are poor. As if millions upon millions of Americans don’t have healthcare or a means to improve their lot in life because they gave up a job at the mall at 18 and instead, summered in Monaco, fritting their dollars away like the grasshopper who played too long and too hard, and had nothing to show for it in the end but cancer that was a death sentence  because it was a pre-existing condition. Now, I regularly hear self-described Christians demand to know why in God’s name is it my responsibility to do for other people?

I must have missed that verse where Jesus said to do unto others as you feel like doing unto them. When he charged them for loaves and fishes. When he said, “Strap your guns and screw the poor.”

Recently, I heard someone say that the new healthcare laws, and others like them, are going to change the American we know for good. He lamented this. I applaud it. Because the America I know today is mired, not in political division and economic disparity, not in religious strife and the denial of rights. The America today is mired in hate. It festers beneath the surface of the superficial shell of our Netflix queues and Macy’s charge cards. It spreads sickly and tumorous beneath the mask of low APRs, of seatback TV screens and SUVs, and the false face of one nation under God. Hate eats away at the core of this country, and it will continue to do so. We look out to fight our foes, see the demonic in our enemies. We turn our faces away from the truth: the downfall of this nation will never be single-payer systems, gun regulations, or a Bachmann-style end times scenario. The downfall of our nation will be the war within, the pre-existing condition of selfishness, as we fight to grab for all that we want, or the courage to open our hands and extend to others, and to ourselves, what we need.

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“I Still Miss You” or “My Grandfather, the Timberwolf”

timberwolf1

Today is June 24. It  holds great weight for me. Not because tomorrow is my birthday, and thus, June 24 is always my last day of a certain age. Today has weight for me because on this day years ago, the day before my 14th birthday, my mom woke me up that morning to tell me that my grandfather had died earlier that morning, and that, within a few hours, we would be making the long, 16 hour drive from Phoenix to their home north of Sacramento, to the house in Cameron Park that sat on a hill, where my grandfather would run his trains in the small workshop he’d built on the property, just opposite of the greenhouse in the yard, near the birdbath he’d installed out of cast concrete, where his favorite cat, Rover, used to lay in wait for birds to alight.

It was the last day of the 13th year of my life, an unlucky number, for what would become an unlucky year, though, until that moment, it hadn’t been. I’d had my first boyfriend that year. His name was Chris, and he had dark hair and eyes, and a funny scar from chicken pox on the side of his face. He played baseball, and sometimes he was mean to me, in that way that sort of harmless but cutting way 13 year old boys often are. I’d had a pretty dress for 8th grade graduation, I’d taken Spanish, and had a best friend named Traci who had signed my yearbook that year, “We will be friends forever.” But on the last day of what had been a lucky 13th year, all the good faded into a battleship gray that I am not sure ever fully dissipated.

My grandfather was my favorite person in the world. He was my step-father’s step-father, an only child like me, the same sort of odd, unrelated duck that I was at family gatherings. Neither of us looked like anyone, and so I liked to pretend that  we looked alike in some funny twist of fate, that maybe, somewhere, we were actually related, and through a series of strange occurrences, had come together, never knowing we really were the same blood.

We could not have looked less alike, but we were alike in other, more important ways.  We were both writers, a lifelong passion of his that had been somewhat fruitless in terms of publication. For me, writing had begun at age 7, when, unprompted, I wrote my first short story about a teddy bear.

We also both loved history, and travel, which for him had been a realization, his passport stamped with countries like Japan, Egypt, Britain, Morrocco, France, Switzerland…I could go on. For me, travel was the thing I was going to do when I grew up and got out of Maryvale, in West Phoenix, and he would buy me picture books of all of the places he thought I should go.

My grandfather was the first man who loved me, not because he had to, but because he liked who I was. We wrote weekly letters to each other. He taught me to play poker using foreign coins left over from trips he’d taken years before. He pasted wildlife stamps in his letters, not of cute animals, but the scary ones of insects and strange larvae-like creatures that subsisted on tree bark, and wrote funny comments under each one. I sent him pictures I drew of characters I’d thought up, including a reoccurring glasses-wearing librarian named Agnes. When he visited Phoenix, we went to Long John Silver’s and shared a lemon merengue pie afterward, his second favorite (pecan was his actual favorite), and I interviewed my stuffed animals, a hard-hitting journalistic approach where I demanded that each admit their involvement in a conspiracy to steal cookies, and Grandpa was my sole studio audience.

When I visited him, we went to Sutter’s Mill and saw where gold had been discovered. He took me to Marine World Africa USA and we patted the heads of dolphins and shared a souvenir mug of Pepsi. He took me to the train museum in Sacramento, imparted his love of trains to me, and he and I would stand together in his workshop and get his own model trains moving through a perfect, placid town of his design, and for a moment, in his lined and creased face, I imagined I could see what he’d looked like as a child.

He told me stories of growing up in Los Angeles, of having a summer cottage next door to one owned by William Jennings Bryant, and, as a small child, visiting the former presidential candidate and dynamic, history-making litigator every day, never fully realizing until his mother told him who the man was. He talked about running down to the pier with his friends after school and seeing a man on the pier extricating himself from chains wound around him, the name Harry Houdini meaningless at the time, until he would recall it years later.

He would show me photos from his extensive scrapbooks of World War II, where he’d fought in the European theatre, where he’d been a part of the Timberwolves, the 104th Infantry Division, which had taken part in the liberation of the Nordhausen concentration camp. He did not talk about what he’d seen when I was little, but later, not long before he died, he began to send me photocopied clippings from letters he and his friends had written back and forth to each other, or we would look at photos of himself in uniform with his widowed mother, sending her only child off to war, or pictures of he and his fellow soldiers, sitting in the remains of a shelled-out building, laughing at a joke that had been told moments before the click and whir of the camera. He lived the width and length of his life, in every way.

When my step-dad shouted at me, was harsh or mean, as he invariably was, my grandfather, when he was there, held me as I cried into his chest, and later told my step-dad he was ashamed of his behavior, that there was never any reason for a man to shout at a child.

I got to know him for exactly 9 years. From 5 until 14. We had become fast friends from the first moment I met him. It was the most natural thing in the world to me, the five year old, meeting my new step-father’s parents, to immediately call him grandpa, but now, as an adult, I wonder what it had been to him. Here was he, a childless man, who had raised his two step-sons, a man who had seen war and extreme human suffering, a man who then had to adapt to  normal society again afterward, who had traveled the world, and now, here, was a five year old dishwater blonde with no family of her own outside of a single, anxious mother marrying a man twenty years her senior. The first time I met him, I put my hand in his and called him Grandpa. I do not know what he thought of that. I was too young to have thought of such a question when he was alive, and now, it is one of just hundreds of questions I wish I could ask him now.

I think of him almost every single day of my life. Any piece I write that is sent off and read and selected for an award or for publication or for inclusion in a theatre festival or a night of solo performances, I think of him. Of the box of saved rejection letters found in the garage upon his death. I think of all the ways that he never stopped writing, still tinkering away at the same short story about his Aunt Lutie that had been rejected dozens of times, right up until his death, also still sending out letters to his fellow Timberwolves organizing reunions, keeping in touch, staying connected. He cared about those tenuous connections we have with those we love, with whom we have shared such significant experiences.

He loved me more than any man had ever loved me at the time, loved me in ways my own father and later my own step-father had been unable to. He saved every letter and drawing I’d ever sent them, and had all of them carefully pressed into an album, which he kept in the nightstand by his bed. Among framed photos of his wife in front of major world locales– standing on a balcony over looking Cairo, or in front of the Eiffel Tower, or somewhere near Picadilly Circus in London, he had a framed photo, in the center, of me, interviewing a Teddy Ruxpin with Fisher Price microphone.

Years later, when I would finally grow up and be lucky enough to learn to like certain things about myself, they were the things my grandfather had loved about me since I was a kid. Somehow, he could see something in me that no one else could see in me, and I think, through what would become very rough years without him, he gave me something to hold on to. He had loved me, and thus, there was something in me worth loving. I have never let go of that; I hope I never will.

On this day, years ago, I was thirteen and  I was unlucky enough to lose my grandfather, Harold Joseph Fraulob. But on this day, in 2013, I know I was lucky enough to have loved him, to keep on loving him, lucky enough to have ever found him.

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I love Kosher Bazooka.

kosherbazooka

I grew up in the hood.

That’s not meant ironically. I really did. The Maryvale neighborhood in West Phoenix now boasts itself as the most crime-ridden of the entire metro area, surpassing South Phoenix for the first time in the city’s history. Way to go, Westside. As we say in the business of writing about kosher gum: Oy vey.  The grocery stores had aisles and aisles of Hispanic foods in my neighborhood, and eventually, those grocery stores gave way to the Food City and Ranch Market varieties, geared entirely to Hispanics. When the changes first happened in the place I’d grown up, it felt strange at first. Signs in Spanish and English, brands I’d never seen. Tastes and flavors that were foreign, odd, different.

But soon, the new became familiar. I got snobby. If people used enchilada sauce in a can, I judged.

Then I grew up, went to college, failed at relationships, changed jobs, moved up, and now I live where Scottsdale and Paradise Valley meet. This has to be the least crime-ridden neighborhood in the Valley, unless you consider spending more on a Prada bag than my family spent on rent a crime, and I do. When I first made my way through my new neighborhood, saw rows of luxury cars, fell asleep at night without the sounds of helicopters overhead, that too felt strange. And the grocery stores here?  The Fry’s Signature Marketplace in my neighborhood now has the biggest kosher food section I’ve ever seen, including its own freezer aisle.   Now I’ve become a snob in a different way altogether.  I’ll pass on the Manischewitz, thanks, but kosher frozen pizza? Kedem juice? Kosher meats? Most of the time the taste difference is negligible, but one area in which it really matters is the greatest love of my candy life: Kosher Bazooka Bubble Gum.

Bazooka Bubble Gum in general fascinates me. It began after World War II and was named for the musical instrument. The weapon, far less kosher, was named for the same instrument, so in that way, the bubble gum and the weapon are contemporaries of each other, like two cousins named after the same grandparent.

But kosher Bazooka? Manufactured in Israel, it is considered kosher for Passover because it contains no leaven, being made with real sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Because of that, it is one of those rare things considered better for you, while being in no way good for you at all.

What sold me on the kosher Bazooka gum wasn’t actually the corn syrup. Sure, I should stay away from it, and God knows, Super Size Me and Food Inc have terrified me to the point that I equate the words ‘high-fructose corn syrup’ with chemical warfare and people who use the phrase ‘tap that’ in a non-ironic way.  What sold me was the comics are printed in Hebrew, and for reasons I’m not fully sure of, I love that. It could be my long-lasting love affair with all things Jewish.  It could also be that when people take a piece from the jar in my office, I like watching their faces as they peer down at the comic, confused.  The way people uniquely register confusion, their faces evolving in a series of blank stares, wrinkled brows, curled lips, is another one of my favorite things, and that’s just a bonus.

But what I think I love most is the way kosher Bazooka makes the most ordinary thing, age-old, familiar, into something extraordinary, new, unexpected, which is what I have devoted my life to, as a creative professional, as a writer.   I like that kosher Bazooka is something I know, but surprise! Maybe I didn’t know it after all.

That is my most favorite thing about life in general, about the world around me, and my least favorite thing, all at the same time. I have come to know, in my years on the planet, a lot of people, a few places, and lots of things. I had a few things happen in life. A marriage ended. I got severely ill for a long time, changed jobs, moved houses, lost friends, gained new ones. Sometimes I feel  like  I got it all figured out, that I was on the right path, that I had all my ducks in a row, that I now had a hold on all the right people. Invariably, any time I have believed that, life or the universe, or whatever you want to call it, has enjoyed making my certainty the punchline of a joke that is so unfunny to me, it may as well be written in Hebrew.

This evening, as I passed through an aisle of my local grocery store, the one with its valet parking and cooking classes, the one that sometimes makes me feel like a stranger still in my own neighborhood, an interloper from the barrio, venturing into a world that is never going to be quite mine, I saw it there, in the kosher aisle: a little bag of kosher Bazooka bubble gum, at once familiar and unexpected, reminding me that sometimes, the best thing of all, the thing I have loved most, is that perplexity, that uncertainty, that moment when I settle down with what I think I know, only to discover something completely new.

I am starting down new paths left and right in many areas of my life. Starting down paths without people whom I had believed for decades would always be there. Heading down other paths that I had no preconceived notions about at all, they are that unfamiliar. Starting down paths I began long ago, but hedged and fell back, afraid. There is so much new happening every day around me, that I sometimes feel too afraid of all that I don’t know, and want to turn back to all that I do, even if what I knew was painful, sad, unhealthy, or just plain not what I wanted.

I don’t know if this will make sense to anyone but me, but for some reason, a piece of hard bubble gum wrapped in Hebrew comics I can’t read reminded me tonight that it’s okay not to have figured everything out; that maybe it is okay right now that I feel, sometimes, like a stranger in a new world, heading out on my own through uncharted territory.

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I Don’t Miss You -or- When Did I Get Over This?

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Tonight, out of nowhere, I remembered something about my dad. Not specifically about him, because, outside of a handful of times when I was a baby, too young and probably too poopy to have really taken note of him, I’ve never known him. He left a long time ago in a flurry of hurtful slurs and denials, and went on to marry a woman with a daughter my age whom he adopted as his own, because sometimes, the things we do to make up for the glut of guilt and the gaping holes we’ve created in our lives, need no analysis. 

I told this story, and a friend, a kind and caring one, apologized, hoping that the topic he raised didn’t cause me pain, talking about my dad.

I had to think for a moment, really think. Maybe my feelings were hurt and I was crushed and maybe there was an edge of sadness to everything and tears were pooling in my eyes and my chin was all wobbly and I just hadn’t realized it yet.

I tried to take note. Be still. Reflect. Observe. Here is what I observed: my laundry piles of clean clothes are out of hand. My dog snores like a human being and maybe I should get that checked out. I want a new iPhone case but I don’t actually need one, I just want one? That’s very first world country. Also, is there a second world? No one ever knows when I ask them. I should Google that. I wonder how Google feels about Google the brand becoming Google the verb? In all actuality, I don’t even use Google. I use Yahoo! because I’m nostalgic that way. 

I miss the Dewey Decimal System. 

In 2006, I was supposed to fly home to PA, take a small trip in my aunt’s car to a house at the end of a long wooded street in my hometown, a house that faces a rocky slope that leads up to the forest, through which you can cut and find the cemetery where my little sister is buried. There are two horses that run around in a wide paddock at that house, and a dusty black Cadillac that is parked crookedly on the street, and a pick up truck, maybe a Chevy, in the driveway. My father lives here. I was supposed to meet him, at that house, at my cousin’s, at his mother’s, maybe at the little cafe in the town of about 300 that was once a bustling town that made its living on the timber business, the same town where my mother lived when she was pregnant with me and was nearly killed in a house fire, just a month before I was born. We were supposed to meet for the first time since I was a baby, and I was going to say things like, “I’m not angry with you. I don’t hold any grudges and I don’t want to make this difficult for you.” And other things that weren’t true but I thought I should say. And so, I flew three thousand miles, and my aunt drove me to the town and I had blonde hair and a tan from a week at Myrtle Beach, and I looked the best I’d ever looked in my life. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and thinking–I need to look like someone he would be sorry to lose. I walked up the drive and my cousin was waiting for me at the door, and she was smiling in that way people smile when they are about to tell you that your pet hamster was eaten by your other pet hamster.

And my dad never showed. He could not, he had said, because it would make things too hard for him. 

When I flew home, my plane hit a terrifying patch of turbulence, and dropped hundreds of feet in the air, food and drinks flying off of seat-back trays, and luggage falling out of overhead bins, and passengers screaming and clutching each other. And I sat, unperturbed, staring at the seat-back in front of me, and hoped the plane fell out of the sky. 

It was a rough few years after that.

Tonight was the first time I realized…somehow, in the nearly 7 years since, after years of therapy and drinking too much at times, of forming bad relationships that were meant to keep the wounds open and unhealed, something had happened. I didn’t care anymore, and I don’t know when exactly that happened?

This is the thing about healing that has constantly surprised me. It reminded me a bit of a scar I had on my right forearm. I was pulling a baked ham out of the oven, and in my hurry,  my arm seared against the side of the oven. Later, it turned into a soft white scar that resembled a bird in flight. It was my favorite scar of my life. It lasted for years, defying all possibility that it might fade, still bright and glimmering three or four years after the incident. Then the day came, years later, that I looked down and realized, the bird scar was gone. It had healed and faded away, and I had never noticed it, until someone asked about scars.

I am covered in scars, inside and out. I realized tonight, maybe I am covered with less than I thought I was. I had become so accustomed to this clinging sorrow over my father’s own inability to be my father, that it was this permanent companion, the Annie Sullivan to my Helen Keller, blind and deaf to my own life’s progress. I would think, I’ll try to stay positive, look at the good things in my life, appreciate the relationships that I have, and someday, someday, I’ll be able to let this go, even while secretly, I believed that someday would never come. Now, I see, in some quiet moment, when I was sitting around the dinner table with my best friend Natalie and her large and loud Colombian family, or when I was holding the hand of someone new and wonderful who called me sweet pea, or when I was looking upward and figuring out Jupiter and its moons in the sky or when I was learning the Hebrew word for peace, that someday had come and gone and I never realized. The scar had faded.

I don’t know what happened between my parents, or what lack persists in my father that keeps him from being the kind of parent I could be proud of, who could see past his own discomfort to give of himself. I have accepted that I will never know, and that, in the end, what explanation would be good enough anyway? Now I feel…sad for my father. But wait…that’s not true either. Now I feel…glad I was born, and glad for whatever circumstance caused my coming to be. Now I feel glad he didn’t show in 2006, because what might I have been saddled with then that could have held me back in my own upward flight, what scars might never have healed, what new wounds opened? Now I feel glad that life is exactly as it is, and that I was unsuccessful in my efforts to force it to be something else. Maybe, in the end, I just needed to have faith in the inexplicable, faith in the idea that I don’t need an explanation to be able to let go.

For little girls everywhere who yearn for fathers who never were, let yourself heal.

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“Throwing Apples in Glass Houses” or “When Did We Become This Sanctimonious?”

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This Applebee’s brouhaha has got me thinking.

For a quick recap, let me explain, in case you’ve been either a) living under a rock in the social media world for the last few days, or b)  so involved in your legitimately fulfilling life that you truly don’t need internet drama to fill your day. A pastor and her crew eat lunch at an Applebee’s after church one day, and, being a largish party, they incur the automatic 18% gratuity, versus the choose-your-own-adventure tip they had come to know and love. The pastor crosses out the required tip, marks a big, fat zero instead, and adds the pithy observation that she gives God ten percent, so why in the hell (religious allusion) would she give some hardworking human being she doesn’t know 18%? A valid point, if you are the sort of person who equates the  creation of the world with the act of bringing a previously frozen basket of chicken fingers to your grimy table at your local Neighborhood Grill (proper noun, all rights reserved). Another server finds the ticket and posts a photo of it on /reddit (I thought that was for amateur porn?) with some sad sack of a story about the grace of God paying her electric bill and while you’re at it God, please pay for premium channels and TiVo instead of just this basic cable business, that would be great, thank You.

In what appears to be the most tragic twist of fate since the Olivia Newton-John song “Twist of Fate,” and possibly the worst thing to happen in the whole of human existence, the photo-posting server (we don’t say waitress anymore), was fired.

This led to the aforementioned outpouring of support? No, rage. Frothing at the mouth, ready to take up arms, seriously considering writing a strongly worded letter kind of rage. How dare Applebee’s fire that server! How dare that Pastor continue to live. How dare she, that beast of a human being, (is she even human?) continue to draw breath after writing a snarky comment on a receipt about a tip? Clearly this is evidence that God is dead, that Applebee’s is a modern-day Auschwitz, and by God, if I have to start eating lunch at a Bennigan’s,  I will.

According to the comments on Facebook and the various tweets, along with a plethora of outraged blog posts (hello, pot. this is your friend the kettle. I’ve got news for you.), this pastor has committed the unforgivable sin of writing a dickish note to a server. And Chelsea Welch is a hero of our time, because she has kept the public informed that Pastor Alois Bell is a real jerk.

Chelsea 2013.

As I read through all of this, I had a funny realization. The comments from facebookers and tweeters (not the stereo kind), the bloggers, and the article-commenters. Alois Bell’s insincere apology. Chelsea Welch’s defense of her actions. Myself, for wanting to write, “Get a life,” and “It’s wonderful that people have all this time on their hands to concern themselves with the goings-on at one Applebee’s.”  And also myself, for thinking, “People eat at Applebee’s?” I mean, besides my boyfriend. And that’s when I realized…every single one us is guilty. Guilty of being incredibly sanctimonious.

Sanctimony is a tough one. Of all the sins you can commit, it seems so mild. It’s not adultery or fornication, which I think of as ‘the fun ones.’ And it’s not the Serious Business ones: murder, grand larceny (I’m still not entirely sure what that is), hitting children and kicking animals. (Eating them is fine. Kicking? No.)  Sanctimony is so tough because it accompanies that rare and beautiful moment: that instance in life when you are convinced, beyond all doubt, that finally, you are completely in the right, that you have done nothing wrong, that the people around you are the ones to blame, and because of this, you are confident in your goodness and those other people can kiss your innocent ass. Therein lies the problem with sanctimony: it causes our rightness to be unbearably short-lived, and suddenly our rightness becomes a new kind of wrongness. Now we aren’t the ones guilty of the mistake that other guy did; we’re the ones guilty of rubbing her face in it.

So I thought about Alois Bell for a moment. I even watched the video where she goes on local television and apologizes for what she did. She’s very different than me. From what I understand, she became religious when she was homeless and pregnant with her child. She had a calling, or she saw the light, whatever terminology fits her experience. I don’t believe in that sort of thing, but I certainly can understand finding something to hold on to when things are dark and seem interminably hopeless. She explains that she did pay the tip; the tip came off of her credit card, and besides that, she left an additional six dollars. I have no idea if this is true, and in all honesty, I don’t really care. What mattered to me most was her simple explanation for the note:

“I’m human. I did that.”

One time, when I was in the third grade, I found a note on my desk that said, “I don’t like you Nikki.” Forgetting for a moment the lack of a comma, I looked up from my desk, and a girl named Irene was looking at me. Clearly, this was an omission of her guilt. I immediately wrote a note of my own that said, “You’re a butthole, Irene.” (Note the comma.) Only I didn’t leave it on her desk anonymously, the way she had done to me. I waited until it was lunch time, and then, my friends and I walked right up to her and handed the note to her. She opened it, read it, and in that instant, her face crumpled in a strange sort of way I hadn’t expected and she started to cry.

Apparently, she didn’t write the note.

I’m human. I did that.

As human beings, we do stupid things every day. Sometimes those things hurt ourselves, and sometimes, they hurt other people. Sometimes they are annoying. Sometimes they are funny and silly and sweet. Sometimes, they are stupid. Sometimes, we get called on the carpet for what we’ve done. Sometimes, like that person who first wrote the note to me, sans comma, we get away with it. Was the note snotty? Was it incredibly rude and thoughtless and hypocritical? It sure was. But I have done that. I have been rude and thoughtless and hypocritical. I am endlessly grateful for all of the people who, when I pulled a stunt like that, gave me a pass. Who gave me mercy instead of sanctimony. Who simply let it go.

Eventually, this will all blow over. We’ll forget Chelsea Welch’s name, and she will get a new job somewhere that doesn’t serve recently-defrosted fettuccine. She will remember this, probably with a settlement check that could send her to the Greek Isles for at least a month, and laugh about it. We will forget our outrage in her behalf, and get back to the business of flipping her off in traffic if she is driving too slow for our liking. We will probably, eventually, forget Alois Bell, the pastor for St. Louis who admitted to the crime of being human, whose rudeness and hypocrisy filled a few slow afternoons at the office. There will be some other slight, some other wrong, some other thing to fill our hearts with righteous indignation. I don’t think we’ll remember any of it, but I hope, I hope I will remember one thing, that I will carry away the next time I open my mouth to say, “How dare she–” or “I would never–“, some of the wisest words I have heard in a long time:

I’m human. I did that.

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