Friday, July 27, 2012

Long of Tooth

Two of my dental crowns break on what is otherwise, except for witnessing the mugging of Phillip Seymour Hoffman by two transsexuals, a lovely visit to New York. My stalwart dentist is able to fit me with plastic flippers upon my return. The memory of myself in the mirror, sans incisor, is something I wish I could erase from my brain like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. At first I am thrilled with my new flippers but I am cautioned that they are a temporary measure and that I need two extractions in the very near future. Neither tooth is in a position where bridgework is feasible so the only remedy is bone grafts and implants. I need three of these. The estimated cost is about the equivalent of a new car. A Hyundai. But still.

I decide to stick with the flippers for as long as possible but the front one, with little to anchor it in place, slips around and has even come out a few times while I'm eating. This seems to occur disproportionately frequently in restaurants. I am unable to stick the friggin' thing back in without using a mirror. Even if there was a gun to my head I would not open my mouth without it in place. I must leave the table abruptly and without explanation to find a restroom. People must assume I've contracted food poisoning which would actually be preferable to being seen missing a front tooth. Corn on the cob and apples are off limits. Chewy candy too but I can't really complain about that. When I clean the flippers, after the additional humiliation of purchasing Polident, I am careful to avoid catching my reflection in the mirror.

My dentist recommends looking into having the implants done at his Alma Mater, USC Dental School. I get caught in a morass of voice mail and the one human being I do connect with is a total bitch. When I was eighteen and attending school in Redlands I had a bad car accident and needed a lot of reconstructive dentistry. The work was done patiently and expertly at the nearby Loma Linda Dental School. For years after I was complimented by other dentists on the quality of the work. While it's about a ninety minute drive I call Loma Linda. A friendly person answers the phone and I am able to easily make an appointment.

Loma Linda, was founded by 7th Day Adventists at the turn of the century. Adventists are sort of like Jews. Both worship on Saturday. Both believe that the dietary laws given in the Torah still apply. Both believe in the Ten Commandments and that the Old Testament is the word of God and that the stories document actual historic events. Both push their kids to become doctors. For the Jews this is about nachas, The Adventists however are health nuts and most are vegetarian. So, unlike Jews, they wouldn't be caught dead scarfing down chopped liver and corned beef at Canters. Nutrition faddist William Kellogg of Battlecreek who can be considered the father of breakfast cereal, was a 7th Day Adventist. The National Geographic Magazine reports that Loma Linda is one of the three places in the world with the highest longevity. Such a large percentage of the population are Adventists that up until very recently, the town was one of the few locations in the country where mail was delivered on Sunday and not Saturday.

There are a number of Adventist hospitals throughout the country. Particularly distinguished, Loma Linda is where a baboon heart was transplanted into Baby Fae in 1984. The infant died a few weeks later but the research led the hospital to become a pioneer in the field of infant human-to-human heart transplants. The campus has quadrupled in size since the 1970s. I am a bit early and am able to locate the supermarket that I remember from my vegetarian college days. Vegetarian food manufacture began in Loma Linda in 1903. The brand name was originally Sanitarium. The canned meat substitutes were one of the few vegetarian products available in my own herbivorous era. Loma Linda certainly has a nicer ring than Sanitarium but my memory of the products is that, based on the texture and flavor, Ken-L-Ration would be the most apt.

The market is pretty much as I remember it. There are ginormous pallets of Loma Linda canned goods and nuggety things that require reconstitution. I am craving caffeine but the Adventists eschew it and there isn't a Coke in the house. Loma Linda is one of the few towns off Interstate 10 that has no Starbucks. I like supermarkets the way other people like art museums and I am happy, even decaffeinated, to stroll the aisles. I score some popcorn from the bulk bins, about 500% less expensive than the packaged products. The good news is this can be eaten in unlimited quantities on the Weight Watchers Simply Filling plan. The downside is that it is hard on my wobbly plastic fake teeth and therefore must be consumed in private.

I expect the dental school to be sort of like the Free Clinic but all of the other clients are my age and neatly turned out. I could be in Beverly Hills but for the lack of any reading material except Adventist publications and a television blaring Fox News. The Adventists eat healthfully but they are not hippies. Loma Linda is Republican in every respect but dietary. Maybe I'm a jaded big city girl and the pervasive friendliness is just small town. But even though Adventist practice isn't particularly outre as religions go, the place feels culty.

I am called by a beaming technician for a panoramic x-ray. Other than my home dentist and his assistant, this is the first person on the planet to see me without my flippers. He senses my mortification and thoughtfully hands me a mirror to reinsert them when he's finished. I am assigned to a lovely young dentist who also insists again that I remove my flippers. She is from the island of Majorca. I know this is a favorite spot of British tourists. She says that half the Island is visited by Brits and the other half by Germans. They keep to themselves and don't interact much with the natives. They all drink Budweiser and avoid Spanish cuisine. She compliments my Spanish but she is just being polite. Even though she knows my age from my chart and has seen me without my flippers I am too vain to tell her that the last time I was in Spain, Franco was still in power.

The clinic's price for the implants is far less than a private dentist would charge. It is still an awful lot of money but a very reasonable interest free payment plan is available. I will be making many more trips I guess to Loma Linda, next time with coffee in a thermos. I do have dental insurance but this isn't really like medical or car insurance. It's more like a maintenance plan that covers cleanings, check-ups and x-rays and caps out at $1500 a year which doesn't go very far for most middle aged mouths. Apparently, this $1500 annual cap has been unchanged for over 50 years. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont recently introduced comprehensive dental care legislation. Himself sees dentistry, particularly orthodontia, as falling into the elective category but untreated cavities and even misaligned teeth can exacerbate serious health problems like diabetes, heart disease and pre-term birth.

One quarter of Americans over the age of 65 have lost all of their teeth. There are at least 17 million low-income American children who do not see a dentist every year. Dental treatment, like mental health services, is considered by many to be a luxury item. Unfortunately, in dentistry and mental health, the lack of early intervention often results in pretty dire consequences. My own implants won't exactly take food off our table but the expense for us is way more than chump change. Nevertheless, we will manage it. Obamacare will expand dental and mental health coverage but most likely fall short of elevating mental and dental health to parity with physical healthcare. For the middle class the inadequacies of today's so-called dental insurance programs can be disastrous. My own flippers will be replaced by permanent crowns within the year. I am motivated purely by vanity but my Spanish dentist says in perfectly clear English that if I don't get started on the work soon there's a good risk for infection. I guess that's the same sort of vindication you get when you want a nose job and the doctor reports you actually have a deviated septum.

Friday, July 20, 2012

On Guard

We visit our friend Alan, an inmate at California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. There is an 800 number to call in advance to confirm if there is normal visiting. Sometimes there are cancellations due to lock-downs or flu epidemics. There is a long message about visiting procedure which is impossible to bypass. It is repeated in Spanish. Then the caller selects the region and next the specific prison for a message regarding each individual yard's visiting status for the weekend. I am reminded of what a different universe we're on the verge of entering by messages like “Level 4: regular visiting for black inmates. No visiting for white inmates.” When the message pertinent to me comes around I realize that it hasn't been updated from the previous week. I wonder how much manpower it would take to post this information on-line instead of absorbing the cost of myriad calls to an 800 number. I decide to take a chance and make the trip. We set the alarm for 4:30.

I lay my clothes out the night before. The dress code is complicated and strict. There is a small charitable organization called Friends Outside with a trailer near the Visitor Center. They supply black sweatpants and t-shirts for those who are stymied by the long list of don'ts. I suspect we might have better reading comprehension skills than many of the other visitors, nevertheless, on a freezing winter day we had to return our coats to the car and once we had to avail ourselves of Friends Outside to borrow a t-shirt for Spuds. A white t-shirt with graphics is OK but a plain white t-shirt is verboten. I step into my black skirt and realize there is a tiny metal grommet which would create a problem with the metal detector. I make a hasty switch in the dark to a pink skirt and t-shirt. Black and pink are pretty safe. Other colors are all iffy. Clothes without pockets speed the process a bit. I remove my wedding ring and wear no other jewelry. I slip on a metal free sports bra and choose sandals I can step out of.

Once in the morning fumble Himself's driver's license falls to the bedroom floor. There's no way you can enter a prison without ID so he sits in the car with a book while I go inside. The guards tell him he can't wait in the car so he sits in the Friend's Outside trailer while I visit Alan.. Now we place the permitted items in a Ziplock bag the night before: $50 in quarters and single dollar bills, our driver's licenses, and an unopened pack of kleenex. Before we enter we remove the car key from the ring. Only one key, sans remote, is allowed. We've visited now more times than I can count and have gotten used to a lot of things that at first were quite jarring. I think though that it will always feel weird not to have my purse at hand.

We always stop at the same restaurant about five miles from the prison and eat the same breakfast. The road out of town is dotted with farms and there's a sign for an ostrich ranch. The entrance to the prison, stone pillars and razor wire, always seems to pop up suddenly. There is an other-worldliness that wallops me as soon as we cross onto the prison property. We arrive at about 8:15 am. Visiting starts at 7:45 and today the room is atypically crowded. There is a form to sign out and submit and then we wait to be called. There are signs advising that a transition to a new visitor intake process may create delays. We submit our forms and wait about an hour. Finally Himself is told that visitor information must be updated every two years and he is presented with another form to complete. I tell the guard that we've always visited together so there should be a form for me to fill out too. He says it's probably in another batch. Himself is called for processing. I wait by myself for about an hour. Everyone who was in the waiting room when we arrived, and most of those who've arrived after, have been processed. I suggest to the guard that my form may have been lost. I am told to return to my seat and continue to wait.

Finally I am called for processing although I am never asked to complete the supplemental form. I report to a table and given a wooden box for my bag and shoes. The gloved guard checks my driver's license against my visiting pass. He examines our money and car key carefully. He checks my shoes for contraband. I am slightly embarrassed by the Nordstrom Rack sale sticker I've been unable to remove from the instep. The guard tells me not to wear my pink t-shirt again because it is too close to white. I realize these rules are for my own protection but I don't think there's any chance that in a riot my flouncy pink skirt and faintly pink t-shirt would be mistaken for prison issue. I know though that I am at a prison and that instead of arguing over this inanity that the politic response is to thank him for letting me slide this time.

The metal detector is next. Fat people always set it off and even in my newly diminished capacity it buzzes. I am advised to pass through again very slowly, being careful not to touch the sides and am successful. I collect my shoes and the bag of money. Another guard checks my pass against my driver's license again and stamps my hand with ultraviolet ink. The bus has just left so there's a long wait for the next one. I notice guards coming from the front area to copy white forms like Himself has completed. I think about how easy it would be to move the Xerox machine next to the desk where the forms are being turned in as I watch the guards plod back and forth. There is palpable tension in the waiting area. Admission is taking forever and the consensus is that the guards are being particularly persnickety this day about wardrobe. One lady, with a fancy hairdo and Friend's Outside issued sweats and t-shirt doubles over sobbing.

We finally board a rickety school bus. A mom shushes her kid who complains about the lack of seat belts. The classification system has changed. What was known as Level 2 is now known as Facility D and I am still confused by this. Plus, the bus takes a different route than I'm used to. I realize when the bus stops at Facility C that I've missed my stop. I ask the driver if I can walk the 30 feet to the correct visiting area and am not surprised by his curt answer. I apologize. No response. The driver makes a complete circle and I presume he is just going to return me to the visitor center to wait for another bus but he continues back around to Facility D. I thank him obsequiously for going out of his way and he silently opens the bus for me to disembark.

There is a tower looming over the yard. I hold my driver's license and visiting permit up to a camera and the guard opens a gate so I can step into a cage. That gate closes and then another opens. There is a barred door at the entrance of the visiting area. I slide my driver's license and visiting pass through the bars and a guard tells me to wait. I can see Alan and Himself inside. I am finally admitted, pass my hand under the ultraviolet light and an inmate worker escorts me to our numbered table. Himself announces with great excitement that there are fresh avocados in the machines. I bid Alan a hasty hello and make a beeline for the vending area. Not only are there small avocados, 2 for $5, there are fresh mangos, also $5. There is a microwavable meal of roast chicken and rice that I've never seen before so I nab that too for $7. Inmates must stand behind a line and only visitors can operate the machines or handle money. The vending machine concession is run locally so in addition to the usual shelf stable items like Lunchables and frozen burritos, there are always a couple of homemade offerings.

I am probably more food obsessed than most people but in the visiting room, the vending machines are the main focal point for just about everyone. Partially this is because there isn't much else for distraction but a stack of bibles, catalogs of supplies that can be ordered for inmates and a table of board games. Also, the machines sell items that are not ordinarily available to the inmates. There is very little fresh produce provided in prison and drinks containing sugar are forbidden. This is because fruit and sugared soda can be used to distill pruno, the infamous jailhouse hootch. Once the machine ate $5 and I received a handwritten reimbursement check from Tehachapi several weeks later. About two hours into the visit the vending area is cleared and workers restock the machines. Inmates and visitors hover outside the boundary line eagerly and plans are made to score new offerings. I suspect this is a lucrative little business.

Himself and I are just as excited as Alan by the avocado and mango. It's been a couple of decades since he's had either. There are plastic forks and paper towels available which are asked to use “sparingly.” This strikes me as pretty literate signage for the venue. It seems daunting to dissemble and consume a mango and two avocados without a knife but during Alan's stupidly long sentence he's honed patience and ingenuity. He uses a plastic fork to poke tiny perforations between flesh and rind and then peels away the skin. Himself loathes both avocado and mango but he is proud of himself for having spotted the rare fruit and he beams with pleasure as Alan pops the tiny neat sections into his mouth.

The conversation leaps from subject to subject but after so many visits we click into an easy banter and no one is uncomfortable with brief silences. Alan is younger than we are but his sense of the world outside is informed mainly by newspapers, magazines and network television. He has never operated a cellphone or a computer. Fortunately he was able to complete college study before Governor Schwarzenegger put the kibosh on prison personnel proctoring exams which pretty much killed all of the higher education programs in California prisons. Alan has also been certified in air conditioning repair and is currently earning a welding certificate. I think he stands better odds of finding work after his release than most parolees. I think that returning to a world he only knows from tv and magazines after twenty five years will be his biggest challenge. We try to fill in the picture a bit and assure him that when he is released in five years we will help him with acculturation.

Visiting hours are over. It's time for the final kiss. The inmates line up against one wall and the visitors stand opposite. We head back to the bus with elderly parents, loyal girlfriends and children. The inmates are searched and then return to the dorm. Some will have a visit the next weekend and for others it will be months or years. There are lifers who will die here. Some will parole but without improved coping skills, or preparation for entering a vastly changed world, will likely be back behind bars again soon.

It's called California “Corrections” but this is like calling the ultra rich “job creators.” The system is all about punishment. Alan is exceptional in his resilience and commitment to self improvement but more commonly, broken people end up in prison only to emerge even more damaged. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, recidivism is a plus as far as the all powerful correctional officer's union is concerned. Programs aimed toward rehabilitation have been radically slashed. It is politically expedient not to be soft on the bad guys or even kids who are at risk for ending up stuck in the our revolving door criminal justice system. The union however gives big bucks to politicians and salaries and benefits of prison personal are pretty much sacrosanct.

Michael Santos is incarcerated in a federal prison. He was sentenced at age 23 to 40 years for cocaine sales and will be released in October of this year at age 49. He has written extensively about prison life and culture. He notes that several guards have taken umbrage with him for referring to them as prison guards and not “corrections officers” He refers to a job description which contains duties relevant only to guarding and not correcting. My own experience has been that some of the guards are obnoxious power trippers but I've encountered some who are genial and helpful. My aspersions aren't at the individuals but at the definitions of their jobs.

We let the elderly and moms with kids board ahead of us and catch one of the last buses back to the visitor center. We turn in our passes and pass our hands again under the ultraviolet light. The guards are eager to go home and even though most of the visitors face a long trip home, the bathrooms are all locked up. The only alternative is to cross the lot and wait in line for the single restroom in the Friend's Outside trailer. As I leave the prison I feel, restored to normalcy, a physical rush. The grim setting and the room full of inmates and the families who are also punished for their crimes is bittersweet. But I feel good about Alan and his future so I can detach myself a bit from this enormous sorrow. Still it is hard to control the urge to burn rubber when I depart the gravel lot. It isn't the inmates or their loyal and long suffering visitors, it is the guards I can't get far enough away from. It is the sensation of someone whose judgment I wouldn't necessarily trust having complete control over me. It is a powerlessness like none I've experienced before.

I receive a letter from Alan a few days after our visit and I am not surprised at how happy he's found his time with us. He thanks me for the avocado and mango. He says he can't wait to barbecue for us when he's released. He promises to figure out something vegetarian. How wonderful it will be to see him someplace other than a drab and crowded room. I wonder how it will feel to him, after 25 years, to not have his every move observed by a glowering guard in the requisite mirrored shades.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Wherever You Go There You Are

I read the ultra cool People's Guide to Mexico and decided to spend the summer after my freshman year in San Miguel de Allende. I enrolled in classes at the Instituto Allende. I flew into Mexico City. There was a brouhaha when it was discovered that I was only seventeen and there was no adult coming to meet me at the airport. I was ushered into an office and seated on a saggy vinyl couch. Ranchero music faded in and out over a transistor radio. Lots of people in uniforms came and looked at my birth certificate and then walked away. The 70s had schooled me in being assertive and a feminist but my interpretation of this cant led merely to a posture of entitlement. I was probably a little abrasive and petulant, particularly as no one seemed to be doing anything to assist me. I missed the shuttle for the four hour trip to San Miguel. Finally I shattered and couldn't keep up the independent self-confident woman facade any longer. I burst into sobs. This was my first lesson that tears were more effective than self confidence or cash for getting doors to open in Mexico. Suddenly all of the officers squeezed into the tiny office and there was some whispering. I was told to follow an elderly guy, barely five feet tall and just about the same width. He insisted on carrying my bags which included a huge suitcase, a duffel bag and a typewriter. I presumed he was going to put me on a flight back to L.A. but he walked me out of the airport and located a driver. I had Mexican cash but no sense of the real value of 10,000 peso notes. The officer negotiated the fare to San Miguel and helped me count out the bills. He even told me he'd included a tip and to make sure the driver helped me with my bags and not to give him any more money. A scapula hung on the rear-view mirror and Beatle's songs in Spanish played on the radio. The driver quizzed me about why my parents had let me travel all by myself. I tried to explain that American parents were different. He gave up on deciphering my mangled Spanish and went back to singing along with the radio.

San Miguel de Allende is a picturesque colonial town in the state of Guanajuato. The campus of the Instituto was originally a church annex constructed in 1734 and beautifully kept up with graceful stone buildings, cobbled walks and fountains. Even at the hottest part of the day it felt cool in the thick walled classrooms or well tended gardens. In 1975 the student body was comprised mainly of American hippies and recent divorcees. I enrolled for classes in Aesthetics, Natural Fibers and Dyes and Weaving. I found a beautiful apartment in a restored colonial building a few blocks from the main square. The property was owned by an American man and his Mexican wife who was a cookbook writer. I shopped at the Tuesday market and filled my basket with marigolds and tuberose and locally made cheese. I experimented in the kitchen with herbs and vegetables I'd never seen before. I brought samples of my creations to my landlady. She accepted my offerings with a shrug and withheld thanks or praise. When my old fashioned oven exploded when I tried to light the pilot and I lost my eyebrows I was chastised by her for lighting it incorrectly.

The Aesthetics course was taught by Pierre, the author of a couple unreadable novels. We'd sit around on the floor in a circle and Pierre read us stuff he was fond of, which much like his own writing, was impenetrable. I never missed a class though because one of my fellow students was Ricky, a gorgeous hippie boy with long black hair and ice blue eyes. He wore overalls with Mexican embroidered shirts and tire-tread soled huaraches. Ricky and his Australian Shepherd, Roxie, had driven his VW bus all the way from Chicago. I spent all summer futilely trying, on various pretenses, to lure him to my apartment. I even promised I'd weave him a vest out of Roxie's fur if he agreed to bring her over for me to brush her every day. He just brought a brown bag filled with her fur to class.

The weaving course was taught by Evelyn, an older American woman with a chip on her shoulder. Evelyn was one of those ex-pats you'd run into and know immediately why she hadn't cut it in the U.S. We learned the difference between warp and woof. Then Evelyn set about teaching us to thread a gigantic floor loom. I never really mastered it and Evelyn made note of this in her typically nasty manner whenever there was an opportunity. I will add that there were a number of artistic weavers, including Evelyn, who were based in San Miguel de Allende. All of them employed Mexican women to operate the looms and could only lay claim to having designed the finished wares.

Natural Fibers and Dyes was taught by Christa, a Chinese American from Berkeley. Her husband taught Sculpture at the Instituto but they were getting a divorce. I saw them screaming at each other in the hall once. A couple of times Christa dismissed class early when she couldn't stop crying. We walked all over the hills gathering stuff that we thought we might be able to wrest some color from. Then we'd boil plants or roots in big cast iron pots. Almost always, even the brightest flowers or fruit would yield a yucky gray or beige hue but we dutifully kept samples in a field work notebook. The next step was to apply a mordant, to set the dye. We used alum or vinegar but Christa said that the traditional method was “cured urine.” She reported having had excellent results with this herself but none of us wanted an “A” that badly.

One day we went on the rickety old Instituto bus to a farm a few miles from the town. There was a field full of sheep. These were in no way similar to the animals displayed by the 4H Club at the county fair. These sheep were stinky, filthy and angry. Our assignment was to sheer the sticky matted shit spattered wool using rusty hand clippers. I don't know if sheep are capable of hatred, but if they are, the one I sheered felt it in spades when I was done with her. And it was mutual. Then we had to card and spin the wool using a manual drop spindle. Then the wool had to be dyed and set. Again, Christa encouraged us to try the urine method but everyone used vinegar. Finally, we were to incorporate the wool into a weaving. I found this weaving when I was cleaning out the garage. It is even more pathetic than the poor shorn sheep. Seldom has such an enormous effort yielded such paltry results.

I shared my apartment with Marie, a Jewish elementary school teacher in her mid-twenties from Long Island. She'd come to Mexico for a breather from Eddie, her fiance. If she didn't call him twice a week from the pay phone at the drug store he'd freak out and start calling our landlady (who wasn't the warmest person in the world) heedless of the time difference. The date was set and Marie already had the dress. She saw a couple months in Mexico as her last hurrah plus the coursework would up her pay-grade. She took up smoking, drinking, swearing and casual sex religiously.

When I noted it was weird to hear a 3rd grade teacher say “fuck” every other word she went off on me. She yelled that all of the things that were expected of her were bullshit. “Fuckin' bullshit!” Later she said she was sorry and that it didn't have anything to do with me. She invited me to the local watering hole to make peace. I tried to keep up with her, drinking straight shots of tequila chased with Corona. Marie left with the guitarist. I stumbled home through the cobblestone streets and puked in a planter on the plaza. Marie, too incapacitated to manage the old fashioned lock, woke me up at dawn. Neither of us were at our best the next day. I managed to make it to the couch but Marie stayed in bed and groaned and made me swear to never let her drink again. The bell rang and I opened to door to a compact American guy with horned rimmed glasses. He asked for Marie. She stumbled out from the bedroom.
“You didn't call me last week,” Eddie bellowed.
“I couldn't get a line out,” she lied.
Within twenty minutes Marie was packed up. They took a taxi to Mexico City and caught a flight home. I got an invitation to her wedding a few months later. I didn't go but we exchanged letters a few times. We fell out of touch after she'd reported the birth of her second kid.

The thing I realized about hippies was that there was always another place cooler than where you were. That summer in San Miguel the groovier destination was Guatemala. I thought about how righteous it would be to drive south with Ricky and Roxie. I'd sew patches on Ricky's overalls and embroider a collar for Roxie. The only thing that went south was the fantasy itself when a petite blonde with lots of teeth arrived in San Miguel. She was introduced by Ricky as “my old lady.” Still, it seemed inevitable that I would find what I was looking for in Guatemala. When Ricky proved unavailable as an escort and I was down to my last few traveler's checks, I invited my mom.

I met Mom at the airport in Mexico City and we flew on a tiny plane through a big rainstorm to Guatemala City. Having just completed a course in weaving, I was enchanted with Guatemalan textiles. Some of the weavers at the Instituto gave me lists of villages worth visiting. We went way off the beaten track and traveled often in ancient vans. These usually had wood planks in lieu of benches and served to transport livestock as well as people. My mom was about the same age then that I am now. She'd been to England and France but otherwise never out of the U.S. I'm sure she made me insane but now that I am the same age that she was at the time I realize what an phenomenally good sport she was. She gawked at chickens and happily held babies as we traversed narrow rocky roads through steep mountain passes in vehicles that weren't exactly in compliance with safety standards. Mom loved bargaining for weavings and souvenirs using her high school Spanish and even managed to strike deals in villages so remote that the natives spoke only in a local dialect.

On the way back home we spent a few days in Mexico City. I'd picked up a beautiful handled basket in Guatemala and was using it in lieu of a purse. It didn't close but at age seventeen traversing the crowded city with my wallet ripe for picking wasn't of concern. Mom and I were in a crowded elevator. When we got off she said, “Check your purse.” She said one of the guys standing next to me had a “funny look” on his face, and indeed my wallet with my cash, traveler's checks and birth certificate was gone. We went to the police station but it was obvious no one had any intention of doing anything. My mother said that based on my stupidity, of course they wouldn't help me. I hated it when she was right and rubbed my nose in it. I was devastated too that my mother's lack of faith in people's goodness was affirmed again. The memory of this incident comes back to me often when there's a circumstance when I know better than my own kids.

We replaced the traveler's checks easily. The Embassy said it would take a long time to replace my birth certificate but flying out of Mexico with my American mother shouldn't pose a problem. We arrived at the ticket counter and were told I couldn't board the plane. My mother went immediately into haughty mode and demanded that they call the American Embassy. “She's an American! She's my daughter! Are you blind?” A guard was called and we were led to an office similar to the one in which I was sequestered upon my arrival in Mexico. “I know what will work,” Mom whispered. “Mexico is run by the mordita.” This literally means “bite” but is slang for bribe. Mom was only willing to part with about three bucks though so I feared a massive backfire. “Don't!” I hissed. “I know how to handle it.” I thought about a cat I'd run over when I first got my driver's license and the tears started to flow. Mom got with the program and emitted some loud sobs and a bone chilling wail. Again, a group of officers assembled in a tight circle and whispered. Several minutes later a man in a suit appeared and said we had to go with him. He led us directly to the tarmac and ushered us onto the plane. No one had boarded yet. When the other passengers came aboard I must have looked very smug indeed having redeemed myself a bit after the humiliating wallet episode. I thought they must have pegged us as real VIPS.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Six Month List

I am my father's daughter and not a natural vacationer. Unlike Dad, I have total access to the office from just about everywhere. Actually, not being a wilderness type, I have access from everywhere. This is a mixed blessing. My father always had a big staff to man the ship. Even so, despite his compulsive frugality Dad would even make pricey ship-to-shore calls to check in with the office on a daily basis. Times change and now the staff is tiny. I am the only real administrator so I try to stay online during business hours. A few years ago I drove one of the most beautiful stretches of Northern California suffering through endless cell phone negotiations with an impossible customer. This trip I get word of a threatened lawsuit. While my dad never really modeled getting away from the office and purely relaxing, he did teach me not to be afraid of attorneys. I've had many decades of experience with legal letters. Nothing will come of the recent one except my irritation at the instigator's churlishness. Nevertheless, it is difficult, even in the middle of sylvan redwoods to stop myself from chewing over the wording of my response.

We visit the little cabin in Mount Hermon several times a year and while I choose to remain in touch with the office, the rest of the agenda is limited pretty much to shopping for provisions, preparing meals, hanging with close friends who live next door, reading and walking in the forest. The cabin feels like our own. We know where everything is and have an arrival routine-remove all artificial flowers from sight, reorganize pots and pans and unplug the carbon dioxide monitor so I can plug in my laptop. I have mastered the quirky stove and know where the plushest towels are stored. The best thing is the weekends when I don't have to monitor the office. I sleep late and luxuriate in the prospect of a day without a single thing I have to do.

We do venture out this trip for a Richard Thompson concert in Santa Cruz. Thompson is a guitarist's guitarist and wonderful songwriter. He came on the scene with Fairport Convention in1967. He left the band in 1971. I think he is most well known for this affiliation, although he's had very respectable solo career. I provide these dates here to clarify for the reader the demographic we encounter at the show. There were a couple of families with kids or maybe grand kids but ninety percent of the crowd is older than we are, but by just a smidgen. There's a sea of white hair. Indian skirts, Birkenstalks and embroidered shirts. Signs of recent knee replacement surgery.

I am weirded out by being so weirded out by the oldness of the Richard Thompson crowd. It is a scene from some wacky 1960s skit about where old hippies go to die. I experience a sensation similar to when I check out my high school class page on Facebook. Everyone looks so friggin' old. Despite compelling evidence-my skin looks different and suddenly my eyebrows have gone white-I cannot accept that I am the same age as the Richard Thompson concert goers or my fellow Grant High School alumni. It guess it is normal to deny our mortality but maybe my reluctance to accept that my days are indeed numbered distracts me from getting the most out of them.

Some sort of serenity would make the decay of my body more tolerable but I am still distracted by small problems, blown way out of proportion. I know that the irritations that cause me to toss and turn and wake up in the middle of the night will be resolved. My health is good. My husband loves me. My kids aren't delinquents. I have over 200 friends on Facebook and I even know some of them. Millions of people would trade my problems for their own. At age 55 I've honed the discipline to be careful about my diet, keep the momentum going on writing projects and exercise just about everyday. But, I still don't have the self control to keep small annoyances from tamping down my carpe diem spirit. While my late mother has been knocked around a bit in this blog, she gave me good advice about coping with anxiety. Mom always encouraged me to make a list of all of my worries and stash it away to be read in six months. Inevitably, after half a year passes these troubles are long forgotten.

The last couple days of our visits to the Redwoods are sort of wistful. Finally we wash the linens and towels, scrub the floors, put the artificial flowers back on view, replace the carbon monoxide detector and lock up. I hold back tears but we listen to good music or books on tape on the drive back and before we know it we arrive at home. The kids are stretched out on the couch and the TV is blaring. They've tried to keep things in decent order but it will be weeks before a number of kitchen utensils resurface.

I am unpacked and caught up on the mail within an hour and the vacation is over. While there are no redwood vistas, it is usually breezy on Mount Washington and we have verdant views from every window. The jacaranda and gardenias are in bloom. The cats laze indolently on the deck. The dogs are happier to see us than the kids. Sentimental knickknacks acquired during our twenty years in the house cram the shelves. While we fantasize that the little cabin is our own, when I can separate from the anxieties pertinent to maintaining and paying for our house, I love the space that we don't have to pretend is ours.

We'll return to the redwoods in a couple of months. I've made my list. I know indeed that in six months the trifles that dog me now will most likely be forgotten. I am one of the crowd at the Richard Thompson concert and I am an alumni of the Grant High class of 1975. The list I make in six month's time might well have concerns that are not insignificant or resolvable in six months, or a lifetime. I will refrain from french fries and drag my tired ass out of bed at the crack of dawn to trudge through the hills. I will keep myself manacled to my computer every Friday until there are some words I am not embarrassed to have read. I have always been a worrier though. I guess the best I can expect is that having averred the futility of this I will be more mindful and not let petty concerns obscure the sweetness of the cabin, my real home and my family. Note to self: Vacation is just a state of mind.