Sunday, September 27, 2015

This was my Home

For Labor Day weekend, I headed up to my parents' home to decompress.  I was one week into the new semester and should have sequestered myself in a back room with my books, but I couldn't. My calendar for the imminent future was packed, and I didn't know when I'd be back.  Dad had also just returned from Sacramento, where he works during the summer.  Saturday had brought an autumn chill, so he built a fire in the fire pit and we propped our feet around it, breathing in the smell of campfire and pine as we conversed over margaritas and watched the light show cast over the mountain by the setting sun.

Dad and a handful of volunteers devoted Sunday morning to installing signs he had made for an interpretive trail at the elementary school.  Mum told me the trail was an especially nice one, so I made a mental note to visit it in the near future, while the leaves are turning.  The summer heat returned for what we hoped was a last hurrah, so we spent the afternoon at the community pool for potentially the last swim of the season.  I sat on the grass staring at the white domed roof of the enclosing structure framed against green peaked mountains and towering pines, soaking in the cinematic beauty of the scene.  In the evening, dad put on music while he and mum gradually infused the house with smells of gravy and parmesan and other delectable aromas. I danced in the living room to Celtic instrumentals, safely embraced by the honey-pine walls of our home.

On Monday, dad placed a large poster board in front of me, curious if I'd remember it.  It was plastered with cutout drawings, poetry, and a fictional biography I had created in grade school.  Though I could not have summoned any recollection without this tangible invocation, one glimpse transported me back decades.  I could feel the plastic scissors in my hands, smell the Elmer's glue, remember the view from the stage when I delivered my speech.  We talked about how hilarious it was to still have it on hand, how impractical to keep, and how impossible to let go of.  We all agreed that we should have these things digitally scanned in the future, for easier storage.  Then we put it away in the attic.

On Tuesday I should have returned to the valley, the city, the hamster wheel that is life when you're attempting to establish one.  But I wasn't ready.  The hour of departure ticked by as I sat on the couch engrossed in conversation that the lecture hall failed to lure me away from.  I guess I am still not quite a grown up.  "One more day" my inner child protested as my inner adult hit the snooze.

That evening we watched a film in the little-used room that was recently converted into the ghost of my grandparents' cabin.  My last remaining grandparent passed away last year, and his living room is now in our basement.  We sat on my grandparents' living room chairs watching a film on their television under the glow of their living room lamps, which my grandma had made.  Surrounded by their treasures, I was transported to the favorite place of my childhood, ensconced within the warmth of that sacred place as though it never changed.

On Wednesday as I prepared to depart, I gathered some towels that had been folded in a corner of my bedroom.  Underneath those was a brand new drawing tablet I had received for my birthday.  It was waiting until I could afford a computer that could accommodate it.  This, in turn, was nested within a brand new bike basket, which was waiting until I could afford the accompanying rack.  These I looked at wistfully for a moment, and left where they were.

On Saturday, September 12th, my parents were preparing for a dinner party when the plumes of smoke first appeared beyond the deck.  Just as they'd begun loading the car, the sheriff arrived with an order to leave.  The fire had begun a few blocks away.  It exploded to 40,000 acres within hours.  By evening, the media was referring to our entire town in the past tense.

That night I lay in bed mentally wandering the walls of my family home, taking inventory.  Family pictures on the walls with no digital counterpart... my parents sitting on a grassy hill, before they were married, my uncle Bob who died in the war, grandparents and great-grandparents, our favorite family portrait from that time we took mum on the Napa wine train.

I see my dad's National Geographic collection, which he's been collecting for my lifetime.  I see his handmade furniture.  I see the globe my granddad used to hold in his hands, tracking our travels on a map with his finger.  I see all of my mother's original paintings, her handwritten journals, her correspondences with her sister, now deceased.  I see the letter composed in crayon that my militantly unsentimental dad kept in his cabinet.  I see the antique medicine bottles we found in an old shed, still sealed with hundred-year-old tablets.  I see our childhood schoolwork and toys.  I see the furniture that my mum made laway payments for months upon end to afford.

The newspaper has posted pictures of complete devastation.  They release statements that "all is gone" within a 3 mile radius  at which we stood near the center.  I spend hours scouring the internet for any comment, any photo, any shred of reference to our neighborhood.  Anything to give me the slightest clue, the merest hope that we still have a home.  But the closer I get, the more remote seem the chances.  A youtube video of a burning building is identified to be across from ours.  A resort down the block is reduced to smoldering embers.  As I walk through the halls of my family home in my mind, I desperately want to reach out and grab the things I can still clearly picture - snatch them out of the past into permanence.  But a new reality is taking shape.  I see myself standing in a field of ash.  My existence is suddenly defined by a photo of a sign hung askance from a once-charming trellis now isolated in a barren landscape.  It reads, "This is where I belong".  My past is gone.  Everything has been erased, and all that remains is pencil dust.

Captured by Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle
A few weeks ago my mum was trying to place a tray on a shelf just out of reach above the dishwasher.  It fell and struck a handmade ceramic mug in the top rack which she had won it in a Christmas raffle at the gallery where she used to work.  It reminded her of the community she'd belonged to, and she still drank her morning coffee from it every day.  It broke under the impact.  My mum has lost a lot in recent years.  She lost her sister to cancer, and her parents more recently to age and disease.  What little remains of happier times becomes priceless, anchoring us to memories ever more remote.  It was just one mug, but it was also an era.  It had a value impossible to express.

It was just one mug, worthy of grief.  
Where do you begin to grieve for a household?


At 12:27pm on September 14th I received photographic confirmation that ours was among the properties to survive the firestorm.  We were literally on the perimeter of the fireline.  This post is dedicated to the real victims of the #valleyfire and other natural disasters still faced with this momentous reality.  I wish for you strength of spirit and speed of healing.  May the worst be behind us.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Spoiler Alert! How Amazon Stole Christmas

No two households are exactly alike, but in our house we’ve
always celebrated a pretty traditional Christmas. We get the Christmas tree, wrap the presents in holiday paper and bows, then sit around and agonize over the alluring beauty of it until Christmas. We examine all the colorful boxes, compare their different size, weight, and sound. Find our names on the labels and fantasize about what they might contain. Or try to thwart each other’s guesswork by wrapping gifts in mismatched boxes and adding objects to alter their weight.

My grandmother used to say, “the dreading is worse than the doing,” and she was generally right. But the same principal seems to work in reverse; anticipation is better than action. Opening presents is fun, but the real joy of the holiday is in the approach. Looking back on our childhood years, it’s not the gifts we remember but the nights we couldn’t sleep from sheer excitement, the days spent in happy contemplation of the pleasures that awaited us, and all the different forms that they might possibly take.

Like most children raised in this tradition, I also used to turn it into a treasure hunt. After the tree went up but before the gifts appeared beneath, I thought it was excellent fun to poke around in every closet and cupboard in search of the booty. This came to a screeching halt one year - when I accidentally succeeded.

I stood there in my triumph with nothing for reward but a growing disappointment. There was no celebratory atmosphere. No laughter and smiles and “thank you”s and hugs. No one was going to help me set it up and play with it; I had to leave it as I’d found it and pretend it never happened. Christmas was still weeks away, and now I had nothing to look forward to. Worse, when my brother was discovering what secrets his box held, I was going to be putting all my effort into faking my surprise. This is when I realized I had robbed myself of the best part of Christmas.

Amazon has been, on the whole, an exceptional company to deal with. As a rule, I am not a fan of corporate monstrosities, but Amazon has done admirably at withstanding reproach. Somehow, as the company has grown they’ve managed to keep site of a basic tenet that almost never survives rapid expansion: the more you give the customer, the more they give back. There are few places, particularly online, where you can shop without the paralyzing uncertainty to which low and middle class consumers like myself are accustomed: should I spend the money? Is it the right decision? Will it be worth it? What if it’s the wrong size, or doesn’t work, or looks nothing like the picture? I can’t afford to waste the money... Amazon understands that, in business, you have to spend money to make it. For every guilt-free return they accommodate, they earn countless years of loyalty and future purchases.

Of course, no company of that scale is without its Scrooge. Every year at this time, hundreds, if not thousands, of duplicate gifts are purchased. That means a massive influx of post-holiday returns. To maintain consumer confidence, Amazon makes the return process as painless as possible. But at some point, somewhere, a board meeting or two have been held to discuss methods to increase revenue and cut company costs. And some suit-and-tie made a suggestion, and the board was convinced it was genius.

A few days ago, my father saw something new appear on my brother’s wishlist. He promptly purchased it as a Christmas gift, only to notice afterward that it was marked purchased on my brother’s list. Disappointed, my dad concluded that my brother must have purchased it for himself and that he would have to get something else. Fleetingly, I wondered if the purchase it could refer to was my dad’s, but I dismissed it. Amazon wouldn’t willfully spoil my brother’s surprise. That would be absurd.

somebody may have purchased this for you recently
Then the other day, something else happened. I had stumbled onto a product similar to an item I had in my own wishlist, and decided to bring it up to compare. But when I tried to click the link from my wishlist, it prevented me. Instead I received the message, “somebody may have purchased this for you recently” and asked me to confirm that I wanted to proceed. All of my other links were still clickable. Something told me there was no “may” about it.

A quick google search led me to instructions on Amazon’s site directing me to my profile settings. Tucked at the foot of the page was a little check-box next to the words, “Don't spoil my surprises”. Great. The problem is - it was already checked.

If you are one of those unusual people who have ever engaged yourself in an ongoing series, you may be familiar with the tremendous taboo of revealing critical plot information to someone not yet up to that point in the story. In other words, spoiling the story. Your neighbor may know how it ends, but you want to get there on your own. By divulging that information they are robbing you of the experience.

The same principal applies to gift giving. The joy of gift exchange, at least for myself and I think at least a few others, is not the acquisition of things. If that were the case, we could all spare ourselves the runaround and put the money we spend on gifts toward whatever we want from our own lists. But it’s not a gift when you give it to yourself. There’s no mystery. No suspense. And no human connection. The pleasure of opening a gift is in not knowing what to expect. The pleasure of giving a gift is in imparting that joy to others. There is nothing like being the source of a smile that answers to a special discovery.

Of course, not everyone feels the same. Some would rather spare themselves a little inconvenience down the line. Amazon would certainly like to spare the expense. For that reason, it is more than reasonable to provide the option to be informed which items off your list you’ll be receiving as a gift. It’s even more reasonable to make that information accessible to the gift buyers. Just last year my brother and I bought the same gift for our mother that her sister had, and we both shopped from her wishlist. A notification at checkout that the wishlist item had been purchased would have been a welcome improvement.

But if that option is only available with the caveat that the recipient will be informed – if that convenience only comes at the cost of the surprise - we would readily decline. We suffer through the worst of the holidays - the expense, the stress, the hours of travel and preparation – all for that moment when her eyes light up and she laughs and her smile radiates with childish delight. We live for that moment of a return to childhood, ourselves, as we weigh a package in our hands and surmise at its contents. We don’t go through it all just to have the moment of climax anesthetized by foreknowledge and false posturing.

In the capricious world of commerce and an era of rising ethical consciousness, Amazon has managed to accumulate remarkable good will. I can only hope that this is a transient mistake, and they aren’t in line to squander it. Please adjust this to be a victimless policy. Amazon - don’t be a Grinch and steal Christmas.

If you have an opinion on this issue and would like to effect Amazon policy, please follow the "Help" link from the Amazon main page and click the orange "Contact Us" button from the right-column menu.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Relationships are like Shoes

Relationships are like shoes.

The chances that you are going to walk into the nearest shoe store and discover perfection in the first pair you approach are highly improbable.  Even supposing you did, how would you know?  Suppose they are the first pair of shoes you have ever had the luxury to experience.  If you are inclined to enjoy the sensation of foot armor, then a life of barren feet will predispose you to exalt in even the shoddiest pair conceived.

To find the essential pair, you are going to have to try on a lot of shoes, and you will be visiting more than one shop.  But here's the difference: this is an analogy about relationships.  So, provided you're not polyamorous, you can only have one set of shoes, not a harem in the closet.  This choice has to count.

Some of the shoes will have the perfect aesthetic.  The moment you lay eyes on them, there will be an instant connection.  You'll know that these shoes were made for you.  Until you try them on, and then it's another story.  You may look fantastic in them, but there's torture in every step.

Some will be hard pressed to capture your attention at all.  You'll be thanking whatever karma fairies thrust them in front of you because they're not what you were looking for - with your eyes. 
You put them on, though, and it's all kinds of paradise.  But then maybe you walk to the mirror and realize they have neon pink flamingo heads popping out of the toes.  They repel you.  Your relationship is half a lie.  You can never love all of them.  And you can only have one pair of shoes.

You'll try shoes that are too short, too large, too narrow in the toe, too pinched in the heel, too unsupported in the arch, too gaudy, too grisly, too high class, too unrefined, too casual, too high maintenance, and too many things to anticipate.

And then, through patience and diligence, one day you are going to find a pair that fits you in all the crucial aspects.  A pair that compliments you so well it may almost have been tailor made, yet possesses sufficient novelty to hold your interest.

5minuteswithmolly.wordpressAnd now and then even this beloved pair will allow a rock to breach its barriers and, inadvertent or no, render you a wound.  And eventually this pair will bear testament to your shared history together with a mounting collection of scuffs and wear.  But the true test of their worth will be in how much (or little) these things matter to you against the measure of their merits. 

Merits you will be sufficiently versed, by now, to appreciate.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Fall to Earth Day

Today I faced my fear.

Unfortunately it was incontestably a sensible fear.

I jumped out of a plane.

Why did I do this? I don't identify as a "risk-seeker".
I did it for the adventure. I did it because I only have one life, and I want to see every possible perspective, feel every possible feeling.

It's a long held secret, but the line for the Tower of Terror in Disney World may be the most paralyzing fear I've experienced. They explain, going into it, that it rides like any other ride - and then pulls the ground out from under you while you're blissfully unaware. Like the tension that builds at a thriller film all the worse for knowing what to expect, the knowledge that at any moment, without warning, my foundation would capitulate had my stomach on the floor for the entire walk to the galley. But I had the advantage of my age; I could remain inconspicuous if I kept quiet, since the adults stood several heads above me. So I sealed my lips to avoid betraying any quiver, schooled my expression, and concentrated on walking with boneless legs.

I could only imagine how thoroughly I would relive this drama if ever I pursued a stunt as insane as leaping out of a plane. I presumed, rather, that it would be infinitely worse. That I would approach the date in agonies of anxiety, that the ascent would be an eternity of torment - the likes of which were heretofore unknown to me, that the moment of truth would be the pinnacle of excruciating.

But I wanted to do it.

I wanted to reaffirm that I am not one to let myself be controlled by fear. Although it was warranted. What's more sensible than your brain forbidding you to jump from a plane? My very genes were offended at the blatant disregard for survival.

But you always wonder how you'll respond in an emergency. What happens when the time comes that you need to do the impossible? Something your brain can not logically accept? Despite all the bravado and noble intentions, you may never know.  Would you run?  Shrink back?  Shut down?  I hope never to find out. But this is a way of testing fortitude within relative safety. Of doing something you thought you could not do.

And it is a way to see things that some people will never see. To know what some will never know. It is a chance that is only available to us through the miracle of invention; an opportunity that our ancestors could only imagine - as we fantasize about space flight in the future. From that perspective, it seems downright negligent not to embrace an experience only afforded me by the sheer chance of my orientation along the timeline.

As the plane ascended, I kept thinking back to my childhood. As we once wound along the mountainside in our car I would gaze into the valley below still believing that maybe it was possible to fly through sheer audacity; the determined suspension of doubt.

Today, I would finally take that leap.

The ticket was a birthday gift, so I had two and a half months to prepare myself. The waver in my stomach came not in waves but ripples, at random, when I allowed my thoughts to drift that direction. I anticipated this to worsen in frequency and severity as the date approached, and for a while that expectation threatened to substantiate. As March wound down, the indistinguishable future became the undeniable present.

But a couple of weeks before D Day I was together with my brother, who had done this before. To my surprise, he did not hint at even a fraction of anxiety.  I could not detect a note of forced calm.  When pressed, he would earnestly admit to being more anxious strapped aboard a commercial jetliner than leaping out of the sky.  With this, my apprehension all but evaporated.

In fact, I may have robbed myself. I managed to achieve such a level of calm that my adrenalin was reduced proportionately. I had a momentary thrill of trepidation as I stepped onto the ladder entering the plane, and of course as I approached the exit of the aircraft at 10,000ft. But there was no time for hesitation, and as soon as you were in freefall it was - oddly - impossible not to be strictly euphoric. That a clearly land-dwelling mammal with no innate capacity for flight should feel anything but sick in sheer freefall is entirely peculiar. And yet, nothing can describe it but unadulterated elation. Literally, dreams coming true.

As we tipped out of the plane, there was no sense of an impending impact. The ground was like a soft watercolor landscape taking up an inconsequential fraction of the sky. It felt like I had fallen into nothing; that I was untethered from physical reality, adrift in empty space.

Slowly, the ground clarified beneath me, taking on more detail. It began to appear to me like a map, and I the satellite through which I usually receive the image. But my arms were flung wide over it, and it stretched as far as I could see beneath my palms. The sensation was surreal. It felt virtual. Was I really here, floating in space, staring down at earth with my own eyes?

I raised my line of sight to sweep the horizon, but beautiful though it was, it was a conventional horizon; always away in the distance. The ground captivated me, as this was a view I might never have known, and might not again duplicate.  It was like the most breathtaking aerial filmography, but there was no interface to dislocate me from the reality.  I was really flying - or falling like an angel - toward earth.

My partner released the chute, and all at once the sound of air rushing over my ears ceased, my momentum halted. I was vertical again, floating above the Earth. A moment of disappointment quickly gave way to awe. The silence was penetrating. I was drifting through the sky as idly as a dandelion seed. The peace that pervaded me was unrivaled. It was as if I were in a separate dimension entirely reserved to myself. I could see the other parachutes sailing at a distance, and I was coming level with the crests of rolling hills, but the world was apart; no sound of human, animal or machine were detectable. It was perfect solitude in a dreamscape of drifting scenery.

Slowly, but too soon, civilization solidified into an ant farm of discernible activity. And then, with no barrier between me but open air, I experienced the distinct sensation that I was actually standing upright on a set of Hollywood miniatures. The proportions easily convinced my brain that, had I only reached out, I might have pinched a car between two fingers. Or crushed a building beneath my shoe with a careless step.

But I was prevented the opportunity. The homesteads gave way to wide, empty fields in the gully between green hills. My partner instructed me to lift my legs for the landing, and we cradled to Earth like a feather on the breeze.  From nearly two miles in orbit, I landed, like a cat, on my feet.