anxiety · cancer · family · grandma

Upside-down Flowers

flowersudI sit with my Grandma in her living room and we discuss Mother’s Day because that’s when my brother’s supposed to visit with his new daughter. My brother is estranged so my parents will not be attending dinner with the whole of the family. They will instead noncommittally meet for a Mother’s Day something or other with their new and only granddaughter–surely it will be just formality–and my mother will fear being hurt as she has since she was six and when my grandfather disappeared for a month and without reason. This is to say, there is no blame: running from hurt seems hereditary, and why I’ve learned to instead love everyone.
My grandma and I agree there probably will not be a lot said or repaired, while my grandma talks and has cancer. The clock rings twelve and I can’t hear her because the tumor presses on her vocal cords.
“Should I tell your brother? About the cancer?” My Grandma is 89; I’m 37. It is strange to have a person twice as lived ask for advice. We consult.
Finally: “He should know before he gets out here, I think.”
I have a McDonald’s cup of coffee in hand because, anxious, I drove past my grandma’s house on the first run and found myself in a foreign parking lot, so why not buy coffee. It’s decaf. There’s that. Wouldn’t want to trigger any nerves.
My grandma points out a quilt that she’s displayed in her front room forever.
“That’ll be yours. There’s a mistake in it, though.”
She proceeds to tell me how she’s made these errors in all her quilts, some that she’s painstakingly corrected with scissors, needles, and thread before her retinas finally gave out.
She says she misses hand-quilting and I say that I get it. If you took writing away from me, I would be empty and how dare life grant you a passion and take it away so that you die with your hands tied behind your back or that your nose be given a needle, or that you must hold a nib between your teeth.
She tells me, forgivingly, that she knows I see things different, but that God’s carrying her through this. I was the only one crying. With a fucking cup of McCoffee. Which is far less poetic than one set of footprints.
I tell her that in every Persian rug, the crafter makes exactly one purposeful mistake. That perfection belongs to God or something and how arrogant to make something perfect.
We are excusing imperfection and there was that time I took care of her garden when she broke her hip and I under-watered her plants.
(She is Stage IV. I know this already. The doctors will tell her this two weeks away from today. She has headaches. Really bad headaches. I know it’s Stage IV–I’m sure of it).
I tell Jenn I don’t want to cry in front of Cayde yet. My grandma says she’s not panicked and that she’s 89 and has had a long life so crying would be betrayal.
I work with birds, and panic causes myopathy, in which case trauma shunts blood to the core, and wings and limbs turn white and lose their use. Blood rushes to the heart, which once protected by blood, eventually gives up because of too much blood and then the heart breaks and it stops.
I take off my glasses at some point and my grandma tells me that all will be ok. There’s no one not dying in my family that would say said same. And can you imagine that?
I will inherit a quilt and stitched into it is a flower patch that is unerringly and certainly upside-down.

job · penguins · people


Conference Room 125 in California’s State Capitol Building is outfitted with ten-foot doors and ornate molding, and there are chairs upholstered in green leather with applied nailhead trim. The framed paintings are oil–not replicas–and only the conference table, by comparison, is something of disappointment. One might expect mahogany but it’s crafted of a more pedestrian wood and sheeted in glass overlay.
We’ve invaded the place, visiting with a menagerie of animals. A Eurasian Eagle Owl holds court, perching with an air of regality on a corner stump.  All day I hear interns and politico handlers make jokes comparing the zoological and political professions. Stumping, handling, the fact of animals as part and parcel to each respective vocation.

Inventory includes: a kinkajou, an opossum, a porcupine, two owls, two penguins, and a bearded dragon. There’s a kangaroo, too, that takes repose in the assembly room, snuffling the  jacquard carpet. She has a joey that’s now so big, its ears and legs don’t fit the pouch anymore. Instead appendages stick out in rakish and adorable angles. The joey’s along for the ride and her mom paws at the carpet as she did the lawn outside the capitol, grubbing in the green threads as she would clumps of grass. The mother roo is so earnest in her affection of people that navigating the office furniture is something both nonchalant and eager; she accepts every bid for attention while carrying around a fulcrumous tail that gives all movement an unexpected grace. Incidentally, kangaroos are the only animal on the planet whose heart rate slows when in motion.

I talk with Speaker Toni Atkins who, briefly, has a kinkajou on her shoulder. She is saved disgrace when the kinkajou’s keeper notices a raised tail and when the keeper—in deft motion—removes the kinkajou by its prehensile extremity, simultaneously palming a sudden and voluminous bowel movement. Animals are what they are. Atkins is preoccupied with the penguin and so doesn’t notice that her dress, perhaps hair, were almost ruined were it not for the keeper’s self-sacrifice. We are guano technicians if nothing else sometimes.

In the executive room, there are more visitors. I’m asked to bring a penguin to the governor’s office, in which case a meeting of the Executive Fellows is interrupted. The gubernatorial conference room features a long farmhouse table, but also sundry dog bowls because Governor Jerry Brown brings his corgis and borgis to work. The table is lined with well-tailored and surprisingly young professionals, shouldered in almost ridiculous fashion round the workings, hunched over papers and wafting a soft cumulus of bergamot and agarwood.

Governor Brown is nonplussed, though he certainly has been disrupted, and he invites the penguin to the table. He exudes a James Caan gruffness and has particularly close-cut hair. The surreality of a sudden penguin in the room deserves remark, and I say as much to the Governor. We then exchange identical wounds, which are not surreal but matter of fact, he having been bitten by his new borgi pup this morning, and me having my wrist reddened by a penguin nip a few hours prior. He shows me his bandaged purlicue, white tape in between the thumb and forefinger.

“You know those puppies, how they have soft teeth.”

The penguin runs up and down the table to much amusement, its tamping feet making their particular slapping sounds, and I hope to God my bird doesn’t shit on any important legislative papers. Instead, the penguin suddenly finds a centerpiece she needs do battle with—a basket of antlers and wicker balls that grabs her attention—and she pecks at it determinedly.

Governor Brown’s borgi trots into the room and we conclude there, feathers and fur in the same room and with the Executive Fellows laughing, cell phone cameras on point.

The day will end with my second time on an airplane in less than twenty-four hours, leaving SMF for SD when in the morning it had been a more alphabetical affair, SD to SMF.

But midday, my colleague Lara and I sit in the shade outside the Capitol Building for a lunch away from the animals and—it being the late spring growing season—the Capitol arboretum is rife with new and verdant leaves, something we both remark as we laconically gnaw our sandwiches. We’re sitting in the welcome shadow of a needle-leaf tree next to a bronze statue commemorating the Sisters of Mercy.

There is the disjoint of buildings surrounding the Capitol: roofs with patinas, also dilapidated gables. In between there are pre-cast concrete facades and curtain walls of reflective glass. It’s an interesting downtown, certainly incommensurate, like how there’s a rusted-out fire escape across from the new and sleek sushi joint. The bicycle racks outside are something also soft-toothed, like Jerry Brown’s borgis.

In the ascent leaving SMF there are fields like geometry outside the window, acres of humus dissected in neat right angles by aqueducts, cruor-browns bordered in cypress green. There are tall tree lines planted to block the wind, just opposite of what we need, we being also a tall thing only up up in an airplane and where wind is necessary. Things wink out of sight once we pass the clouds and when already it is dark.

I’m reading an old book of poetry to pass the time—Sharon Olds—and I’m writing down the words and phrases I find interesting.



‘Taut percale.’

‘The craft of oblivion.’

At 39,000 feet, the pilot announces that we’re at 39,000 feet and I read: ‘He looks at me the way Houdini studied a box to learn the way out, then smiled and let himself be manacled.’

I hate being trapped this high up and in a fuselage. I have leg-room which means I’m nowhere near an exit door, but on the way down and when the avenue lights are acceptably in focus, I feel ok–commensurate–and my penguin calls a quiet ‘hoo.’

job · penguins


Twenty years ago, I punched my first time-card. The clock was a boxy metal affair and aligning the card just so was a mathematic I proved bad at. My time-in/time-out punches were often overlaid in the same cell, and in mimeograph purple; the cards themselves were of the same card-stock you’d find in library card catalogues: manila. Mimeographs and manila card catalogues are all fast-dying things.

Before my SeaWorld job, I worked under the table and got paid in twenties. I wrote essays for my high school English teacher and did research for her in university libraries. There was also that one summer I helped my friend’s dad build a two-hundred foot retaining wall in his backyard and it was the first time I found myself trim after a prolonged and adolescent pudginess.

SeaWorld was my first real job in that FICA was involved and I was cut paychecks on the regular. I made exactly $4.25 an hour. My job involved sweeping popcorn hulls in the varied stadiums, directing people traffic, selling fish in the feeder booths. I loved it, especially retiring to the car at near-midnight on summer nights and when there was a parking lot culture beneath the fireworks. The nights were always salt-air sticky and how many late night/ early mornings I spent talking far past my scheduled shifts with accidental friends when leaning against car hoods. There was a Denny’s down the street which is designed to be the after-hours hangout. The waitresses knew us by our ill-fitted windbreakers and obvious name tags.

I met my future-wife at company orientation. She chose a seat next to me because I looked like someone she’d like to know. (On a serendipitous note, and a story I like to tell, I had a picture of her dad hanging on my wall for most my childhood: he was the athletic trainer for the Chargers when they were at their winningest, and I had a thumbtacked poster of the ’84 Chargers on my bedroom wall).

The lack of responsibility while first understanding responsibility was a great and questionable suspension, like a bridge to nowhere exactly soon. So much fun and abandon, those days.

I worked Park Ops and the Education Department. I worked Employment (I actually ‘hired’ the people who would later be my tutors in Aviculture). When finishing college, I had late-night gigs at Shamu stadium overseeing the killer whales. There were absurd moments I had my typewriter at orca poolside, finishing essays before clocking out at eight o’ clock in the morning and driving up the freeway for a full day of university.I knew all the orcas by their particular respirations. Kasatka was my favorite. I’d lean against the glass with my typewriter and she’d hover above my shoulder, my essays on Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ being THAT interesting. She’d read my writing and, occasionally, she’d spit a squid over the plexi-wall which was either complaint or particular playfulness. She had a habit of sticking her tongue out, curled, and this was her laugh. She talked in an echolocative whisper, which, most people don’t know can in fact be a whisper.

I got the penguin job. Things happen when you’re busy making other plans. This was certainly temporary, I would say.

That was sixteen years ago.

At lunch a number of months ago, we were talking beards, facial hair having only been allowed at SeaWorld a few years back. I grew the first beard of my life because all the guys are supposed to grow one at the Penguin Encounter. It’s just the thing: the Polar Beard. And my beard was red for exactly a year before it’s fast disappearance. My friend, a younger keeper, called me out on my self-chastising, me eschewing my wrinkling eyes, and the fact that my beard is growing in it’s whiteness.

“Dude: it’s iconic,” he said, meaning my beard.

The red has certainly retreated, and the white has claimed all my chin. The left side of my moustache is currently (ant)arctic-frosted and I’m losing color fast.

On and along a PR trip, another friend said: ‘We’re kinduv elder statesmen, now, in our jobs’ which is an interesting bent. I used to sweep up popcorn, but know I have an enviable keep and it’s easy for me to talk keeper talk, there being no stadium chains to pull or people to necessarily be polite to. Globulins, hematocrit, albumin, WBC, You gain sophistication and you lose pigment and penguins are your friends.
You find yourself twenty years later and ask: ‘how did I get here?’ I open the PE door with its solid ch-chunk. Never gets old. Walking into the exhibit, I mean.

Little Man, my favorite penguin, explodes into an ecstatic display once I step onto the ice. You don’t give this up for anything.

I have my favorite animals; I also have all the people I’ve met along the way, and they remain. SeaWorld: thanks for the twenty years, and my wife and the half my life. I’d probably still clock in wrong on the old machines. 1995 and 2015 would probably be transposed on the same line.

Cayden · childhood

The Opposite of Smooth

I prod my friend Kayla at work when she pouts over some unachievable fairness.

‘You’re such a GATE kid,’ I joke.

GATE kids have an overdeveloped sense of wrong and fair and right–it’s a trademark of the program.

Kayla was a GATE kid; I’m a GATE kid, too.

When taking the admission test years ago, I was given an antonyms quiz outside of room three. I missed one question:’What’s the opposite of smooth?’




‘Not rough?’

‘Bumpy.’ I shrugged. I was in first grade and about to skip second into third.

The proctor check-marked the question in red, but smirked. It’s cute when you’re a few degrees shy of perfect and all of five.

Cayde scored in the 99.6th percentile today on the GATE test.

I had some tears, mostly because I was proud, Cayde’s brain and heart having been proven equally big; but I also had tears because ‘bumpy’ is the opposite of smooth, and life is never ever and certainly not fair.

Cayden · family · Findlay · home

First, Do No Harm

I like to instill in Cayde ‘First do no harm’ as a matter of principle, whether it be Hippocratic or not, and he generally follows the rule save for when it comes to sundry pieces of furniture, or the unfortunate cat.
Finn was sick yesterday, which Finn announced with a 1:45 a.m. upheaval followed by near-hourly bulletins, as events warranted. Eleven a.m. and I had to cancel a visit with my grandmother, Finn being pale beyond his usual pallor and shaking his head ‘no’ to all offerings of juice, water, food, toys. He fell asleep on the rug midday and slept till late afternoon.
Glumly he sat in the highchair while I prepped dinner, not wanting to play or eat, and only occasionally opting for a few sips of juice and just part of a banana. Then Cayden exploded home and—opting to not find the neighborhood kids right away—pounced instead on Finn who immediately brightened.
Cayde set up a teepee in the living room for Finn and himself, a game of spy vs. spy afoot, and with the teepee as headquarters; Cayde doled out fedoras for the ruse, Cayde’s being sequined and Finn’s straw. They circuited the house until everyone involved was hot, and off came shirts and shoes, fedoras long discarded and there were contagious fits of laughter from behind Cayde’s closed bedroom door. Cayde bullied his way into the fridge proclaiming he was making dinner for Finn, which he did—grapes and cheese and turkey—and, just like that, Finn perked up.
It starts out ‘Do no harm’ (Epidemics, Book One, in the school of Hippocrates) and later there’s something about warmth outweighing the surgeon’s knife. And Cayden loves his brother like no one else, in which case there was not even a need for Tylenol, let alone anything resembling a lancet.
And to think I was making chicken soup.

Cayden · family · parenting

Last Night’s Yesterday.

“Hey, you,” and Mac appears at the food truck I’m considering outside of Thorn St.Brewery. She says she has to take a break–and quickly–so she offers up some of the french fries that the truck accidentally deposited in that styrofoam compartment within the styrofoam container. She’s my favorite pourer and a few times I’ve watched her trick too-gone patrons into session ales when, in fact, they had ordered the quadruppel.
It’s been a while, but I like the medium volume of TSB on the weekend and when I can take an hour or so to write. Mac used to work weekends, but now works Wednesdays, and I miss our rapport. With greasy fingers we high-five in parting, and she’s still chewing her sandwich on the way back to her post by the spigots. There’s a rush of patrons.
I love this neighborhood and, in walking back home, I take the south side of the street which has a cleverly manicured bougainvillea. It pours like a barrel-form wave over a picket fence. Someone had a good idea when training the unruly hedge. There are sepals and thorns overhead and it’s like passing through a botanical tunnel. When the light’s right, red.
I grounded Cayde this morning after a pre-work, pre-school battle of wills. Getting dressed is not that hard, right? But it’s a battle and Cayde had a loose tongue that he apologized for later when driving home from school. It was one of those wandering conversations with encased apologies. He didn’t seek to earn back screen time; we just talked. Nonetheless, there was a certain scheming when he asked, “So if I go next door and THEY’RE watching TV, I don’t have to come back home, do I?”
Kids are so blankingly transparent. I decide upon, ‘No, Cayden.That’d be alright.”
But he didn’t go next door tonight and instead decided he wanted to play guitar with Daddy. I tried to make a math lesson of it all because C-scale instruments are the epitome of math.
Thelonius Monk used to bang block chords to insinuate the space in between the keys, which was something outside of math. I just show Cayde how to tune a guitar, and use the rules of fives. We play, meaning I fret the chords having forgotten to wash the french fry oil off my hands, and Cayde uses a spare skewer to bang on mason jar collars and a half-empty beer bottle.
Cayde insists we have a band name, and following a mad lib game of suggestions, we settle on ‘Last Night’s Yesterday.’ I think that’s a remarkable name to have come from a seven year old. The alternative is ‘White-bearded Guitarist’ which is not so much an alternative in my book.
He has three more days of restriction, so I re-tune my guitar and he goes to bed.