Wednesday, November 6, 2013


Today is my birthday. 

In general, I'm not a big birthday guy. I'm more up for celebrating other people's birthdays than my own, but even then...I don't really make a big deal out of them.

But over the last couple of years, I've noticed something on my birthday. I'm especially nice to other people on my birthday. On a day when it should be all about me, I try to make it about other people.

Last year, I was driving to Sacramento for work and saw a car pulled over on the causeway between Davis and Sacramento. I pulled over to the shoulder and picked up a man who was with his wife and two young daughters. They had driven from Sacramento to Oakland (it was election day and Oakland was where he was registered) and were on their way home. After loading them into my car, I drove to the next exit and headed back west along the causeway 4 miles, exited and then along to causeway again to get BACK to their car so we could get the groceries they'd left there.

While loading my car full of food, a highway patrol officer stopped and said he would take care of them. When he asked why I was with them, I explained how I'd pulled over to help. 

The officer looked at me like he'd never heard of such a thing. Then he thanked me a couple of times, as did the family. 

I got in my car, drove off, and went about the rest of my birthday.

And that interaction, more than the 20 people who came over to celebrate me that night, made my day, because your birthday is a day that celebrates you being alive, and I want that life to count for something.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Food: A Family Tradition

My mom was a pretty good cook. She rarely made anything very fancy, except for holidays. She made a great turkey at Thanksgiving, but most of the time, she made simple things. In the midst of that, she managed to make some family traditions that centered around food.

In my family, Wednesday night was taco and bad joke night. If you didn't come to the table with a bad joke, you didn't get any tacos. And the tacos were about as unhealthy as you could imagine. We had the standard ground beef as filler, but the thing that made these tacos so bad for you was the shells. Mom would heat up a quart or so of oil and deep fry tortillas. Once they were a nice brown, she would use tongs to pull them out, literally streaming oil out of the bubbles that formed on the tortilla. After a brief trip to a paper towel, they were ready to eat.

On Sunday nights, we had breakfast for dinner. Fried eggs, bacon, and sourdough toast was the menu. We would take our plates into the family room, a rare treat to be in front of the TV instead of at the table. We would watch whatever Disney movie was on that evening. Looking back, my mom did that Sunday nights because it was the easiest thing for her leading up to the week. But I always looked forward to that dinner and the sense of specialness it carried.

Easter was always a big deal for my family, with lots of relatives coming over. The food I looked forward to the most was a giant pan of cinnamon rolls, which my mom would put in the shape of a lamb. The rolls ended up looking like the wool. They were just cinnamon rolls, but their rarity and shape made them unique to family sitting around the dining table and us young ones at the kids' table.

None of it very fancy or hard to make really, but all of it meaningful. 

I guess sometimes food is more than just what you eat.              

Monday, November 4, 2013

My Best Jacket

I was never really very athletic as a kid. I've always been thin, which as a kid was a polite way of saying "you're made of nothing but elbows." I also started school a little young which meant that I was developmentally behind everyone. That combined with being a late bloomer (a.k.a. puberty free) made it so that I was a typical last picked, unathletic, just put his name on the roster and he'll sit quietly on the bench kind of kid.

When I hit high school, I was barely over five feet and wouldn't crack 100 pounds if I were soaking wet.

Which was why getting my letterman's jacket was one of the biggest moments of my teenage life.

My freshman year, I joined the swim team. I grew up around water, going to the beach and splashing around in the summer, but I wouldn't have called myself a swimmer. I remember my first few practices; I was so tired and out of air that I would roll over doing the freestyle and add in a little backstroke so that I could get just one extra breath in there.

Somehow, over the course of that season, my body figured out that this was the kind of thing it was actually built for. I had long arms and long legs, and not a lot of weight to move. It turns out that being built like a two-by-four made you pretty aquadynamic. 

The coach's solution to my newfound streamlined nature? He was going to make me a distance swimmer. Just a few weeks after I learned that rolling onto my back wasn't an acceptable practice, he had me swimming timed miles in practice. 

All season long, he kept me going with the promise that if I got good enough, he would let me swim for the varsity team at league finals. If you placed at league finals, you earned a varsity letter, which meant you could buy one of the coveted jackets. 

I swam like crazy all season, placed at league finals, and was one of only three freshmen in the school to earn a varsity letter that year. When I got my jacket, it smelled of felt and leather and it was like no other clothing I'd ever owned. It represented accomplishment, hard work, and an identity that I'd never known before: I was someone who was good at something.

Even though it was late May and close to 90 degrees, I wore that jacket to school the next day. And, probably the day after that as well. Being uncomfortable on campus has never been so worth it.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Scared of the Dark

So, my brother and I shared a bedroom for about the first nine years of my life. For most of that time, we had a set of bunk beds. Being older, Chris got the obviously cooler top bunk. We had them set up with mine at a right angle to his, my left shoulder up against the ladder for his bed. 

I’m not ashamed to admit, as a kid I was a big time scaredy cat. I don’t know if I just had an overactive imagination or what it was, but there were lots of nights I was too scared to sleep and would sneak into my parents’ room and either sleep in their bed or ask my mom to come sleep in mine to keep me safe.

Rest assured, this stopped before I hit middle school.

But I was often scared at night, my mind filling in the space that my bedside lamp couldn’t reach. I imagined all sorts of monsters lurking, just waiting for me to drop my guard. I was even scared to sleep facing away from the bathroom door, because they just might come in through there. 

I saw the movie Gremlins in the theater as a three year old; I’m still not sure why my parents thought that was a good idea. I spent most of it in the lobby, using Jujyfruit candies to comfort me. But I caught certain scenes of the movie in between crying and my parents switching off who took me out to the lobby. After that, I was definitely scared of gremlins.
You're telling me this wouldn't scare the crap out of you as a three year old?

For months, I would be absolutely certain that a ravenous pack of gremlins was right at the foot of my bed, waiting to chew on my feet. 

There was one thing that kept me sane and comforted me enough to fall asleep each night. 

I knew that if gremlins WERE to crawl up over the footboard and get under my covers, all I would have to do is scream. My brother would be quick thinking enough to both realize exactly what was happening, and also comprehend that he just needed to roll off his bed and land on my legs, squashing the gremlins.

I’m serious. This was my thought every night. I envisioned my brother waking up and instantly knowing what needed to be done and just roll off his bed onto mine, saving me.

Because he’s almost seven years older than me, my brother and I got in more than our fair share of fights sharing a room. But every night, fighting to fall asleep, I was glad he was there and missed him when he eventually moved out and I was left alone.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Sea Shells, Ice Cream

This feels like an odd memory to write about, because I’m currently sitting in a mountain cabin surrounded by snow. 
I grew up spending lots of time in Newport Beach, because my family had a house there. We often went with another family who stayed with us, the Adams. Matt was a few years older than me and his sister was about my brother’s age. We would spend weeks there every summer, mostly playing in the bay surrounding our little island. 

On the island was an ice cream shop named Dad’s, and they had a special offering: Balboa Bars. A Bal Bar is a brick of vanilla ice cream with a stick through it. They dipped the ice cream in melted chocolate sauce and before it hardened, they put the bar in sprinkles, or nuts, or chopped up Oreos. The chocolate would resolidify and they would hand this delectable summer treat to you on a cheap paper tray.

My parents being smart and recognizing that we would eat as many Balboa Bars as possible, they tried to ration how many we had. I think most days this “rationing” meant that we kept it to one bar per day. So, my siblings and I figured out a way around the fact that my parents had all the money.

We walked the beach, collecting seashells, and would eventually reconvene to lay out our newfound treasures. The beachfront on Balboa Island has a seawall about three feet high, perfect for spreading out a towel and the cream of the crop shells for an impromptu sales booth.

We would charge nickels, dimes, and quarters for the especially unique shells. After a few hours working the beach front, enough people would have played along for us to have a Ziploc bag full of change. I think most people just walked a few hundred feet and tossed the shells back into the sand, but we had a great sales rate when people heard that we were trying to earn enough for Balboa Bars. 

Now, when I go to Balboa, I still see kids selling shells from time to time. It’s a little sad for me now, because I think three decades of people like me collecting all the best shells has left the beaches pretty sparse of shells. Whenever I see a shell sale now, the kids have painted on the shells, making them bright pink and green. They lack the simple charm of the ones we sold, but I always make sure that I don’t pass by without giving them something for their shells.

Balboa was such a huge part of my childhood, and I think what makes me saddest about this memory is that the place simply can’t be what it was when I was younger. Balboa Bars cost too much now to buy with change. The beautiful shells have been long since harvested from the sandy shore. 

But looking out at the snow just outside the window, I know that no other place will ever hold the charm and the magic that Balboa has for me. Even though the island is different now, it’s still the place where I could make a whole day out of seashells and ice cream.

Friday, November 1, 2013

My Neighborhood and an Earthquake

Growing up in Southern California, earthquakes were fairly common and I grew used to them. But the first one I remember experiencing was distinct. It was 1987, and I was lying on my bed next to my older brother reading a Batman comic book. About a quarter to eight, the room started to move.

I'm not sure if I had ever experienced an earthquake while awake before that, but I know that this was a foreign feeling for me. My parents had trained me to go to the long hallway in the house and get in a doorway, the most stable place in our home. That hallway was right outside my bedroom, so my brother, being the quick thinker that he is, picked me up and tossed me towards the hallway.

I guess he was looking out for me, but it only made me more panicked. 

Once it was over, we checked the news and saw that it was a 5.9 shaker, no small deal, even to an area where earthquakes happen regularly.

After some debate, my mom decided that we were all going to school anyway so my brother headed off to middle school while my mom walked my sister and me the few blocks to our elementary school. When we got there, it was a vague sort of controlled chaos. The majority of kids had still shown up, most of them with their parents instead of the standard solo walkers and bikers. 

My mom was allowed to sign out several other kids, and since they decided to cancel school once everyone had checked in, we ended up taking home four or five families worth of kids to our house. I grew up in a neighborhood with lots of families the same age, and we all served as the emergency contact for each other. 

There were about 20 of us crammed into our family room, watching TV all day. It was a funny feeling, being both on edge for aftershocks (which came throughout the day) and excited to be missing school and hanging out with all our friends. We even made a game out of waiting for the aftershocks. There used to be a vase full of fake flowers on top of our TV, and every time they moved even a little, we would all yell and grab cushions and put them over our head. My brother would even put on an old hard hat. Most of the time, the flowers shook because our dog was scratching behind his ear.

I think the strongest memory of that day was how much fun it was, even though it was a scary experience and I was on edge a bit the rest of the day. When I look back, I'm kind of amazed at how well we all knew each other; my mom signed out almost two dozen neighborhood kids, and those parents trusted her to look after them on a day where everyone was a little nervous that "The Big One" would be on its way. I think that says something about my mom and it says something about the kind of neighborhood we had. The only way to get the kind of reputation she had and the kind of neighborhood we had is through time and consistency. Being dependable time after time, they trusted her, and we had all been together long enough that our neighborhood felt like we were all in it together. 

What a place to grow up.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

30 Days of Memories

There's an organization called National Novel Writer's Month, or NaNoWriMo for those in the know. Their goal is to get people to write a 50,000 word novel in the 30 days of November each year, and hundreds of thousands of people participate world wide. Last year, I was a "winner" (meaning I completed a 50,000 word novel in the month) and loved the experience. It was a challenge, trying to keep up with the required daily word count.

I enjoyed how it pushed me to be creative and to write every day, and I would love to participate again. But I'm at a spot where it feels like giving 90 minutes a day to writing isn't the best use of my time, so I've decided to tweak it a little. Rather than be driven by a word count and the challenge of writing a novel, I'm going to write about one memory each day. My hope is to recall moments I thought were lost and to flesh out, give life to the familiar recollections. I tend to need deadlines and external motivation to write, so I hope this does the trick!

I'll be posting most of them right here all November long, though I expect to hold back a few particularly personal ones. Make sure you check back all month to see what turns up!