How to build a house (part 1)

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, July 10, 2016

At eight years of age, my best friend is a little girl named Minnie who lives not too far from our house on the shores of Lake Washington, in Seattle, a friend with whom I spend the majority of my days, outside, making stuff up.

We make up a language and we make up a club, of which we are the only members. We create a clubhouse in Minnie’s backyard among the Northwestern azaleas and rhododendrons and we sit there, squatting, serving things on leaf plates and pretending we understand our language, which consists of only two words put together in different ways. It is deliciously cozy and consumes our days. We feel sheltered not only by trees and shrubs but by the insular, hermetically sealed world of best friendship.

In contrast, the house I live in with my family — that speaks the normal language of dysfunction with too many words put together in too many ways — is vast and contains rooms that each have their own particular vibe. The dining room rings of precision and order, the kitchen of Mozart (my mother’s single obsession), the TV room of my father’s uninhibited laughter (heard only late at night with each one of Johnny Carson’s jokes). The living room has a stiff shirt-and-shoes-only feel, and the cellar, of course, off-gasses fear.

My room, which is covered in red and gold Chinese wallpaper (dad’s choice and I am not allowed to tack up or move things), is, at least, a smallish room, and it is carpeted. I hide coins under the corners of the carpet and sleep with my two stuffed snakes, each one flanking me snuggly like a sentry. I don’t feel particularly safe in this house, as big as it is; this being said, though, I still dream about it, and visit it occasionally, as if, really, it has always inhabited me.

Aside from the crucible of my eighth year are all the other houses and homes I live in during my life, from the last of the antique-filled dorm rooms in a small So-Cal college to the last hippie house off Dupont Circle in D.C. to one of the last of the sweeeeeet ski-bum houses in Telluride (right across from the current library), which rents for $250 a month in 1990.

In 1993, we buy a house at Lawson Hill when the development is still young, and we stay put, feeling it fill out with life, our child’s life. I construct a tree in her room, up to the ceiling, and plop a freezer-sized playhouse down beside it. The actual trees on the property get bigger and so does she, and when I finally sell the house, her loss is large enough that I know we have been successful in creating a home, and not just one that will stalk her in her dreams.

I am remembering, too, a tiny, impeccable woodsie home we stumble upon some eight or nine years ago while tromping through the aspens in summer. Lock and key, doormat and door. Clad windows. We find the key and trespass, slowly peeking in then stepping in completely. There is barely room for the three of us who stand there, dumb and in wonder, at the care and completeness of the surroundings. Sink, tiny bookshelves, bed, closet, windows with a view. Everything is in its place. What more could be needed in life than this? Silently, we compare it to our relatively very large house, and then, one click up, compare it to the mega-homes higher on the hill. What is shelter? To sleep, eat, read, stay warm, all in the company of trees, while mosses grow on the shingled roof?

Now, on a brand new day, I am in yet another house, one that we have helped build with our own hands, one that we have, with some help, designed and laid out. One that saw every cliché of house building come true despite our cavalier dismissal of generalizations and of pitfalls only others would encounter.

I am standing here on a floor I helped lay, humbled in every way by the process. I ask myself what it is I want to feel here — the deliciousness of my Minnie-days Diggity-dog club, the coziness of the woodsie, a delight in waking up and seeing the sun pour in, the peace and security of a cherished space. I want to cultivate gratitude for the daily miracles of comfort, beauty and light.

Already, I can tell you there is one thing I feel an enormous appreciation for — uninhibited joy and a profound sense of well-being, even — and that is that after over 30 years at altitude, I now have enough BTUs on the range to boil water well every time. I will never, ever take this for granted — which is a feeling I hope will spread in contagion to all the rooms of my life.


Acts of rebellion

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 4, 2015

I am standing on floor 26 of 666 Fifth Avenue circa 1982 in a corner office that belongs to my boss, a middle-aged woman who has pulled herself up from the secretarial pool to VP status in one of the largest publishing houses in Manhattan. She is out to lunch and I, one of her minions, am on the phone, looking down at the tiny people milling below, as I speak with my mother who has promised to send me some cash, maybe $50, which was a lot of money for me back then.

She does this on the sly, without my father knowing, because, though I’ve done the impossible, which is to move to New York City to find work in publishing, I’m always broke. I make about $9,500 a year (publishing is an industry notorious for abysmal wages) and pay nearly $500 a month for my precious apartment in Yorkville, on the Upper East Side, that has a bath in the kitchen and a toilet down the hall. I penny pinch with groceries, attend free events and make my own dresses.

My father has been against the move to New York from the get-go. He doesn’t believe I will do it until he himself is standing on a platform at the Seattle train station, seeing me off on a six-day trans-Canada trip, suitcase in hand, on a journey that will land me at Grand Central Station.

When I quit the job in publishing after two years, my boss sees fit to tell me why I don’t have the stuff to rise through the ranks as she did. I rebel against publishing and find a job in a sweet little advertising firm and set my sights on copywriting, which turns out to be too much a man’s world even in the ‘80s; but, still, I last two more years before dropping out and heading West.

At this point, my father, who has never wanted me in New York in the first place, is against my moving away. He does not at all like the sound of the words “alternative lifestyle,” or the idea of scrabbling for jobs that have no merit in a town he has never heard of, pretty postcards aside. When I land in Telluride and have a series of ultra-innocuous adventures, probably none of which should have been revealed, the conservative, protective, ex-colonel with doctor-lawyer expectations for his youngest daughter cannot cope. He excommunicates me from the family.

My name is not spoken in the house. I lose contact with my older siblings. All conversations with my mother are done secretly, infrequently and with plenty of unspoken anguish on the line. I’m not a drug addict or a criminal, I’m something worse: a person with wasted potential who has fallen by the wayside. Someone who cannot be rehabilitated.

A couple of years later, my mother calls to tell me dad is dying and that I, along with the other children, need to come home. It’s uncomfortable, but the brave part of me kicks in, acting as if nothing has really happened, however much this emaciated version of my father cannot really look me in the eye. I’m unable to say how painful it has been, and certainly unable to receive or give the love we both need. And though I, along with the other children, am handed a gift from his sickbed — a charm bracelet of my grandmother’s — I can only stare at it, thank-you smile pasted on my face, thinking it is the most painful present I have ever received.

Before he dies, I write him a letter telling him I’ll probably marry the man I have found and live with — the one he hasn’t and won’t ask about. I write that I think he would probably like him and tell him why. My daughter, his eighth grandchild, born eight years after his death, is the only one of them he will never have a relationship with — but she is the spitting image of him as an infant.

Two years after she is born, I finally have a dream about my father in which there is a certain peace, wholeness, forgiveness and healing. Some years later, a psychic friend tells me that my father’s message for me is this: “I had it all wrong.”

“Does that make sense?” she asks me. Well, of course it does. Because of course he did.

Over the years I have had to ask myself to what extent my rebellion against my father was necessary for me to forge ahead in a way that made sense to me. Was all that pain and suffering really necessary?

What I came up with — and what I’ve come up with since, in other devastating situations in my life — is this: all the healing from suffering has been and is necessary. Every last speck of it.

Our elders, ourselves

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, August 23, 2015

Thirty minutes until my workday begins and I am on Main Street sneaking in a late bi-monthly transatlantic call to my aunt Michelle — who, at 90, is the undisputed matriarch of the family. I am about to receive a bit of a tongue lashing from her, which I deserve.

As the phone rings, August sunlight is filtering through the quaking aspens, grazing my shoulders. But when I hear her voice, the San Juans fade away. I can picture this woman, the middle of the three sisters in my mother’s family, as clearly as if she were standing in front of me.

Her dark, thinning hair is carefully curled. Under a perpetual cardigan, she is wearing a crisp peach or sky-blue blouse, buttoned to the top, with a silk scarf and brooch. Her A-line skirt is knee length and her shoes sensible but elegant. There is probably the remainder of the day’s lipstick on her lips.

She has never wavered from the attention given her appearance, even after her husband of over 60 years passes, taking a large portion of her heart along with him. And no matter what is going on — pain or heartache or worry or just plain weariness — her smile is exceedingly quick, youthful and captivating. I don’t hear much of a smile today, however.

Bibiche (bee-beesh’), the nickname we Americans use for her (biche means doe) is still sharp as a tack: she talks French politics, American forest fires, Downtown Abbey, radio interviews, all manner of topics and details. (In the past year, she has had to give up her English language class, for which she registered at the age of 87.) She has lunch a couple of times a week with her only son and daughter-in-law and, of course, keeps close tabs on everything related to the family.

After a brief hello and thank you for calling, she is doing one of her little tricks: telling me things I don’t know about one of my own siblings, a brother who is in the process of moving after 30 years in the same place. Really, I have no idea. She quizzes me on the others and I share news, both good and bad. She listens politely, remembering everything in order to update the French side. I tell her I am ashamed not to have written my great cousin, Francoise (72), after having promised — again — to be better about it. Well, she says, Francoise is also really busy, you know, what with the grandkids, cycling, her theater group. At the same time…

…I can’t keep doing this. You younger people are going to have to step up and keep in touch with each other. I’m getting old. You know, after my 90th birthday party, I sent you and your siblings photos — all of you — and not one of you acknowledged receiving them?

There is a pause and I hear the worry and concern in her voice. Here she is, at her age, still tending to the nuts and bolts and fabric of our family across the pond better than we are. I know her mission after my mother’s passing has been to hold it all together, not to forget the sister she idolized, or those of us who stand in for her now. We have not helped.

I’m sorry, I begin. There’s really no excuse.

I know you’re busy, she says. But can you find out if your oldest brother has those photos I gave to him? And the only reason I know about your other brother is because I kept calling him until he finally answered. I wasn’t sure I had the right address or phone number.

She has always fretted over letters containing photos and mementos landing in postal purgatory. And though she has recently acquired an iPad, electronics still make her nervous. I assure her I will try again to use her iCloud address to send photos. Her goodbye is weary.

On our visit two years ago, Bibiche has us over for a “simple” lunch of shrimp salad and duck confit, serves us coffee and dessert, and then presents us with gifts from the local chocolaterie and yet another envelope of photos. She waves to us from the door of the garage knowing it may well be the last time.

I think about everything this woman has done for me in my life — besides just simply being my aunt and loving me. She has given me an appreciation of care, both for self and others. An appreciation of connection, to family and the world at large. An appreciation of marriage and deference. Deep concern for people, as well as a light touch.

Our phone call reminds me: she is an example for you. Take advantage, now!

Balancing acts

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, July 26, 2015

On our street, growing up in Seattle in the ’60s and ’70s, the big old houses are still filled with Catholic, Presbyterian and Mormon families, so there’s nothing really special about five or six kids at a time having the same last name. During the summers — for a brief, spellbound number of ’70s golden years — all these kids band together, about a dozen 13- to 17-year-olds, rubbing up against each other, trading pheromones like baseball cards.

We’re addicted to each other and our stories, to the houses and the families we talk about as if they’re connected to us, but only very remotely, as if their blood isn’t ours, their dysfunction exotic and interesting rather than inflamed and endemic.

Yes, we stray far from our families in the summer. Long days are spent roaming the neighborhood, clumped behind some mean guy’s house, or at a pier down by the lake, or sort of heaped on a mound of grass where our hormones rise and condense into clouds of pink and blue and pink and blue and purple. Our sub-addictions — game after game of truth-or-dare and dancing to a pile of vinyl 45s for hours at a time — occur in my best friend B’s basement, a room her beyond-lenient parents have provided to us as a sort of halfway house, bridging the correctional facility of home life to the real truth of a world full of choices. We paint it purple and yellow and put up Hendrix and Peter Max posters.

There’s a veritable double rainbow of archetypes within our tight little mob. K, the picked-on skinny kid who gets his sweats yanked down on a regular basis. The quiet girl, L, who hides behind the veil of her long, straight hair. The promiscuous sprite J1 and her goofy, attention-desperate older sis, J2. The three Mc-sisters who live in a man-less mansion, three generations of women, most of them snarky and sarcastic but sharp. The Ph boys, all redheads, who live a bafflingly Mormon life, all except K, the neighborhood heartthrob, who knows more about belt-notching and making out than the rest of us put together. There’s S.O., the pretty girl with thick calves. And A, the token older guy who needs to feel good about himself and dates one of the Mc-sisters, a Wiccan before the word is even in use. And there’s S.M., the irresistible blond boy I really like who never says a whole lot about his gigantic, badly-tended house and hard-ass father. And, of course, there’s the above-mentioned best friend, B, whose liberal father and mother are probably the front-door key to this whole house of baseball cards.

Every one of these players comes with me in the satchel of my adolescent heart as the golden years fade and we, all of us, simultaneously exit our looking glass world, stepping out into different compass directions.

Fast forward forty years: I pick up a vintage sweater in a thrift store, made in the USA of 100 percent Orlon and boasting one large stripe of black and white in a gray field, with the words SKI BUM written in orange across the chest. Instantly attracted, I put it on and like what I feel. I don’t know why. Sure, I may have approached a ski bum lifestyle in my early years in town, with crack-of-noon-at-Chair 8 days and working nights and splitting town for long bouts in April and October, but I’m not by nature anything remotely “ski bum.” I’m an imposter. A wannabe. Nothing consciously strikes me about liking and wearing the sweater until one day when a particular friend smiles at it and says, “Now, there’s a balancer.” In other words, my personality, seeking a turn for the lighter, more carefree and less mental, has tried to self-correct with and sleeves and a slogan. Something I actually wear, my heart not on my sleeve but my chest. I love it.

I start thinking about “balancers.” What’s the balancer for this moment — laughter or silence? This meal — sour or sweet? What’s the balancer for this day, this year, this life, this personality? What weight and component does the scale need to set itself sinking or rising to a more beautiful equilibrium?

Now, in remembering the glistering summers of my halfway-house years, I can see — in an expansive and liberating moment — all us kids as we really were: living, breathing balancers for each other, softening each other’s stories into a life putty we could actually work with a little better in life.

Seminal. Summer. Vacation.

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, July 12, 2015

By the time I turn 11, half of our household has left — one for school, one to get married and one to join the Air Force — and I’m all alone with my mother and father in the four-story, 5,000 square foot house I still dream about, perched above Lake Washington, with a view of Mt. Rainier to one end and Mt. Baker to the other. It’s one thing with six people inhabiting it, but quite another with three.

The following year, in what appears to be a true act of compassion, my father will buy us a puppy to make up for the lack of bodies milling about, but for the time being, I spend most of my time kicking around with the neighborhood kids, back at the house only when the streetlights plink on, which is around 9:30 p.m. in a Seattle summer. It’s an adjustment, being an instant only child, and maybe not such an inexplicable wonder that they let me stay out so late.

We’re house rich but cash poor. Dad lasts a year at Boeing before the layoffs and then decides simply not to go back, to work things out on what was then a meager colonel’s retirement. So when my mother announces that we’re going on vacation — taking the ferry to Orcas Island because a friend has offered up her cabin for a week or two, I hardly know what to feel or think.

We don’t go on vacations, not like other people do. No, we don’t have the means. In addition, my mother and father, who have moved eleven times in seventeen years, have no inclination — zero — to budge.  But if someone offers up an ocean-front cabin, for free, and if it gives my dad a chance to put the DIY fishing boat (not kidding) in the water and troll for the ever elusive salmon one more time, he’ll take it. For all of us. (I catch a sand shark and a red snapper one particular day, but only because the boat stalls and we fish while waiting for the engine troubles to be sorted out.) (Other than that: no fish.)

In ‘69, the San Juan Islands have not yet boomed. The rustic little cabin right on the water, with a dinghy down below and a crab pot in storage and a tiny, shell-beached island to row to (named Skull), worms its way deep into my brain. The cabin kitchen, small and covered in contact paper, has a functioning toaster as the jewel in its crown. And the damp smell? A maritime combo of tide-so-close and rain every couple of days.

I fall in love — not with a person but a place. In love with the wobbly table and the old Scrabble set. With the lumpy couch and gothic romance novels by Victoria Holt. In love with spitting watermelon seeds out while a bucket of chowder-bound clams spits out sand. With picking mussels, and eating crabs, old-school general stores and the salty feel of the Pacific Ocean in my hair and in my lungs.

Before my dad shows up and starts ordering people around (which he has done for a living in the U.S. Army for 25 years), my mother and I enjoy some of the sweetest summer days I will ever know. Simple days made heady with a kind of boredom that is essentially unavailable to us today — unless we hunt it down. The kind of boredom we now stave off as we go about filling our days with forward motion, visual stimulation and endless things to tick off.

It’s July Fourth on Orcas Island. We are shooting off our packets of firecrackers and pinwheels and pop-pops and snakes. Right around the corner in the next inlet, there’s a fancy party going on. We can see the flashes from their Roman candles and bottle rockets and hear the screams of their children and adults, carrying on with what kind of extravagance I can only imagine. I spend a good amount of time wondering what is going on just there, beyond the light — what better brand of vacation they are privy to, even as I stand there writing air words with my own sparkler.

Who knows what the words might have been. Something classic, like “Please, God, make my life more interesting.” Or a site-specific word, like “geoduck,” which is a Northwest clam with a firehose neck you’ll never forget. Who knows. More likely there were no words at all sparkler-ing in the black above my head — just the endless loops and flourishes of an adolescent hand watching itself move through space and time.

Life hacks 501

published in the Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, February 1, 2015


I have a life hack of my own, something I will share with you in a moment.

For those of you who don’t know, a life hack is a solution to an everyday problem — a gizmo, a workaround, a MacGyver, a light bulb on the head of process. Something that makes your life easier, more ingenious and sometimes more sustainable and fun. Like, for instance, using an old CD spindle case to carry a loaded bagel. Or using a can opener to pierce through the bombproof plastic packaging you usually cut your fingers on. Those are life hacks.

The term, of course, was coined in the ‘80s when computer “hackers” needed sweet solutions and workarounds to improve, or skirt, workflow. Computer hacking turned into life hacking — and why not? We’re all efficiency experts, if we want to be. All it takes is that one moment of grace, the one wedged between frustration and daydreaming, to be open to the possibilities and allow solutions to present themselves.

My former father-in-law (Gary’s dad), who turns 90 on Feb. 2, and who is still very much a part of my life, recently sent an email full of these life hacks out to his posse, something that gave me a chance to think about him as I smiled my way through the use of spaghetti for lighting a low-wicked candle, toothpaste to clean car headlights, and using a dustpan to force the flow of water from a bathroom sink into a bucket.

What’s the life hack for turning 90? What’s the trick of staying alive, engaged, interested and able to relish things like funny moments — and life hacks?

I’ve admired Bob for lots of years. He managed to make it through the depression, father absent, and work his way through the business of paper boxes, collecting sports along the way (he and his wife Jane lived in Aspen as ski bums in the 1940s, and picked up windsurfing in their middle age). When they retired on Kaua’i in the late ‘80s, he put his hobby — photography — front and center and became one of the most successful landscape photographers on the island, fearlessly hauling product to craft shows, and picking up friends as he went.

When photography went digital, Bob, who knew nothing about computers, got rid of every single piece of the outmoded equipment and opted in to the new era, hiring a techie to help him wade through the mire. He learned Dragonspeak voice-recognition software to facilitate email writing, since he’d never really had to type that much. He learned the basics of Photoshop and then got help and took courses and workshops. He bought a large-scale printer and started printing and matting all his own photos. Then he started printing on canvas and experimenting with Photoshop painting effects. All in his 60s, 70s and 80s!

Recently, he went ahead and bought his first drone and started taking aerial photos of all the things he’d shot with his feet on the ground or on the deck of a boat. Since then, a few of the drones have crashed, but he’s replaced them and continues eagerly on, shooting the Napali coast, Hanalei Bay, the lighthouse and all the outrageous panoramas of the place he made his home.

Bob, on this the eve of your 90th, I just want to tell you how much I’ve benefitted from witnessing your engagement with new things and people in your life. How you’ve asked for help from those who have had it to give you and pursued your interests with faith in positive outcomes. How you’ve not been afraid to step into new territory.

I’m not saying it’s all been perfect or easy or without pain and sorrow, because I know it’s not been. I’m not saying you’re perfect or easy or that every relationship, especially those closest to you, has not presented challenges, some of them beyond your own life hacks. Most of us could say the same.

I’m just saying that for a guy who is 90, whose voice sounds as youthful as it did when we first met, who still enjoys his morning omelets and TV shows and holiday parties and the companionship of ultra-long-term wife Jane (who will get her own tribute when she turns 90), and who still has a zest for friendships and forays into unknown creative territory, I truly salute you. I wave my hand like an idiot and give you a big hug and squeeze. Wish I were there to gawk at a sunset with you all.

I thought of you the other day when I picked up a tin box of Altoids (peppermints), the one I keep in my car, because the ice was thick on my windshield and I was so utterly over (as they say) the plastic scrapers that have never worked and never will. And guess what? That box of Altoids worked — worked like a charm on the windshield ice, even at 18 degrees Farenheit. I smiled in delight at the simple beauty of it, the sweetness of the hack. Like I was getting away with something.

Well, every day, actually, we get away with something — we get away with another day under the light and warmth of the sun. Hope yours on Feb. 2 is especially sweet, soft and delicious!

Once upon a time, New Year’s Eve 1945

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, January 4, 2015

My mother and father met at a New Year’s Eve party in Paris 1945, at the end of World War II, at the Pierre Hotel in Paris. She, the 24-year-old eldest of three girls who had been working to help support her family for eight years already, was on leave from her duties with the U.S. Army in LeHavre (where French women had been recruited by the American army). He, a U.S. Army lieutenant, was brought to the very same party by one of my mother’s platonic American escorts, which were numerous, as she had not yet met the man of her dreams.

The encounter was some sort of extreme, war-born form of romantic thunderclap and lightning. She fell for his American good looks and blue eyes and “slow, devastating smile” — none of which would have succeeded without the requisite smooth moves on the dance floor. She speculated that he was probably swept off his feet by her loose and wavy dark hair, vivaciousness and lack of “war paint,” as she called it. She also attributed her conquest to a sprinkling of freckles, something she evidently considered essential to that wholesome brand of withering beauty she ascribed to.

Whatever the mysteries of timing and circumstance, chemistry and karma, after meeting only half a dozen times, there they stood on March 13, 1946, before the deputy mayor of Paris’s 16ème arrondissement, joining two 180-degree live wires together, touching and sparking themselves into the velvet dark of the quantum field, where the creation of stories — and of life itself — happens.

Under the laws of the last days of the Third Republic, they were united. They ran down the steps of the Hotel de Ville and into the open jeep my father had secured for the occasion and made their way to her parents’ house for the wedding dinner of leg of lamb, bombe glacée (an ice cream cannonball, popular back then) and champagne. Her family, impoverished like so many other families during the war, was stunned by the union, by the notion that their Jeannine would be leaving them; but the reality of the situation was plain to all: bowled over, in love and determined escape the reaches of poverty, there was no stopping her.

When she finally got her travel orders, however, she panicked. “I was passionately in love but I really did not know the man, and I intended to spend my whole life with him, come hell or high water. I took my luggage to the railroad station and did not sleep much that last night at home, believe me.” (This is all recorded in an unfinished 75-page memoir she was writing, the last sentence left original, half completed, and hanging by my oldest brother Gael, who published it for the family after mom died in 2002.)

On May 7, Jeannine Curry, née Moulignier, boarded the Zebulon Vance, a liberty ship, with 200 other French women she claimed to have had very little in common with (!), since many of these women were obviously pursuing hasty marriages of convenience. On a journey of 12 days, like many of the others, she spent five dry heaving. When the ship finally arrived in New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty gilded by the late afternoon light, the girls were kindly given an extra night on board to rest and recuperate. At 4 a.m. the next morning, they began making themselves presentable, and, after breakfast, each was called alphabetically from the deck of the ship, luggage in hand, to greet their men and begin another life.

According to my mother, her Jim, handsome and elegant in his blue suit, starched white shirt and “sedate necktie” drew numerous wolf whistles from the other girls. He wore, she said, a face as happy as hers and a “long, very affectionate greeting” ensued for two very modest people. They had three perfect days in New York — Empire State Building, the Radio City Music Hall, lots of walking hand in hand and Lord and Taylor for a few items of chic, American clothing.

This brief period of not even six months was the magic crucible from which the rest of my mother’s not-so-easy life was born. So when people ask if I believe in fairytales, I have to say that my very life — to some extent — was born of one. Well, the beginning of one, anyway.