On nostalgia

When I was a kid I used to love reading my grandparents' back issues of Country magazine. The glossy issues were mostly photographs sent in by subscribers, with the occasional article about twenty-first century barn raising or specialty pie crusts thrown in for good measure. More than anything the magazine celebrated nostalgia - think of those inspirational messages superimposed over kittens dangling from trees, those close-ups of basset hounds and babies in baskets. It was so sentimental, but the reason why it worked was because it was one hundred percent sincere. Try as I might, I could never find a hint of irony in those pages. Just puns, and American flags, and corn on the cob and Fourth of July.

I was reading these magazines in the Bush Sr. years and on into the Clinton era. It was really difficult to read these magazines come 2001 - by then the red, white and blue felt ironic in spite of itself.

For years I felt a similar pang of nostalgia when I thought about my hometown. How could you not? You grow up, you go away, you come back, and suddenly there are all the trees you grew up climbing, and there's the pond where you once caught tadpoles, and there's the Farmer's Market with all the vendors who know your first and last name. I was always reminded of the caption-writing contests in Country, and how, if I framed a scene with my fingers, I could name what happened there: where I learned to read. Where Josh built a skate ramp. Where we put on plays. All those quiet spaces where, on quiet evenings when the weather was right, you could reinvent yourself.

Coming back as an adult, as a graduate student, as a person with relationships and ties to other communities, has transformed, yet again, what my hometown is to me. It's a place intensely focused on school - a place where people come from around the world to study the crops, the law, medicine, science, writing. But it's just as much (if not more) what happens when school is not in session. Running 5ks, 10ks, half marathons. Local artists, local crafts, Flea Markets, farmers from around the valley, families on bikes, activists.

The last few years have taught me how to write, how to read, how to teach, how to cultivate and participate in a literary community, and perhaps more than all that, how to be an adult in the town I knew as a child. I get to hang out with my parents because they are my family and because they are my friends. I can reconnect with childhood friends beyond the superficial - I can really see what their adult lives are like. I can make my own decisions and judgments about the things I like and don't like about living in a small town.

In some ways leaving Davis a second time is giving me the chance to grow up again; to have a clearer idea of what I want from the world, of what I can contribute, of who I want with me along the way. This is not kittens hanging from trees or basset hounds in baskets. This is acknowledging that the world is imperfect, that sometimes bad shit happens, that the universe is not ruled on reason. And the best thing about being a writer is knowing that when things go wrong, you've got the vocabulary at your fingertips to put a name to it all. Name it, own it, make it art, move on.

And there, by the grace of whatever, go I...

You should know

There are a few things you should know about my grandma Alice. You should know that she and her sister once spent a summer working at Yosemite National Park in the the 1940s. You should know that she can ride a bicycle backwards--that is, with her body facing the back tire. You should know that she got up on waterskis the summer she turned 80. You should know that she routinely pulled in 140-pound halibut off the back of a fishing boat in Alaska. You should know that she completed a ropes course in Costa Rica in her 60s. You should know that she can play a mean game of pinochle, and that she has the purest poker face in the world. You should know that her pies are so good that my brother and his wife used her recipe for their wedding desserts.

You should know that, when I was a kid and terribly shy, she was one of the few adults in the world who really understood what that meant.

You should know that when I was little, she was the soft grandma, the quiet one with a knack for listening and an endless supply of stories. You should know that she and my grandfather came to nearly every Sacramento regatta I competed in. You should know that I still own the purple and white sweater she knitted for me when I was five years old. You should know that she and grandpa hosted Christmas every year until us grandkids grew too tall to all sleep before the fire, and while every subsequent Christmas has been lovely, they are different without my grandpa's shadow lurking in the kitchen, my grandma's various hidden cookie jars.

You should know that my grandma has dignity.

You should know that when I saw her today, recovering from a bad fall, tubes and machines whirring around her, I saw a person stronger than I have ever been, and who knows, might ever be.

You should know that with grandmas like her, that's a quality that never fades.

Broken Things are Just That - Things

I had the unbelievable fortune to spend New Year's Eve in Hawaii, with my brother, his girlfriend Shelby, and our two families. Shelby grew up in Honolulu, so we were greeted on the island by her amazing extended family, who felt familiar in the way that love just kind of spilled out the doors of their house. And yet, even a week in seeming paradise must have its moments.

Shortly after I got off the airplane on my first day, my dad, brother and I went bodysurfing at a local's beach. The waves were high, the sky gray, the water unpredictable. The water tugged and pulled at us as if we were the bait, and it was an immense blue fish. We heard the halting shouts of lifeguards, and I saw my mother beckoning us frantically to come in. I swam in just in time to see the expression on my mother's face darken. In the time it took for me to get to the beach, my father had crumpled beneath the power of a large wave, his hands over his head. When he rose out of the water, he was clutching a broken arm.

My mom, brother and I sprang to action. I walked him into shore, Josh got the lifeguard, Mom packed our stuff in the car. Josh and Dad left for the nearest hospital, and Mom and I drove to Shelby's house, where we arrived in wet bathing suits, sand still sticking to our foreheads. And there her family sat waiting, patient, kind, offering a beautiful dinner and reassuring words. Somehow the chaos settled us, as so many contradictions seem to do, and 2009 ended on a happy, if not ironic, note.

Fast-forward to a week after the Haiti earthquake, and the weather's not nearly so catastrophic in California, and yet weird things still happen. Two nights ago, my parents woke to a huge crash at midnight, only to find that their biggest kitchen cabinet, the one filled with all of their plates, bowls, and dining ware, had somehow become unstuck from the wall and crashed to the floor. I woke up early the next morning to the following picture in my email:

There are only three letters for this: W.T.F. And yet, when I spoke with my father, who has since had arm surgery, he said cheerfully: "It was all plates. Bowls. You, know, things. Besides, we've got two left."

There was just enough oil for eight nights of Hannukkah, and there were just enough plates for my parents to eat dinner. Chaos has its way of clarifying what's important.

Thanksgiving and the Best Photo (Family) in the World

Sometimes I have these moments when something strikes me with surprising emotional weight, a magnet that pulls me back to ground. One of those moments when I am completely derailed in the act of doing something. I was cleaning my room the other day and stumbled across this photo wedged between my desk and the wall. I soon lost track of time and space, lying with my legs splayed out across the floor I was trying to uncover.

My childhood is a series of stories too long and colorful for a single blog entry, with hidden languages and deeply rooted riddles. Mine isn't any more precious or important than anyone else's. But I have yet to find a photo that captures as much as this one.

Why? Well, the first obvious answer is tie dye. Matching tie dye, nonetheless. Handmade matching tie dye, with more drying tie dye in the background, in case the clothes we were posing in weren't colorful enough. If you squint, you can make out my little tie dye hat hanging on the back "wall." Handmade matching tie dye made that week at family camp. Tent 19: that was our little half-cabin half-tent, our home for a week each summer for eight (count 'em) years.

And then there's the Birkenstocks and velcro shoes. My mom had the same green Birkenstocks for most of the 1990s, those telltale comfort shoes that gave us away when we visited the East Coast.

But perhaps the most telling thing about this photo is the fact that I'm smiling. Not only smiling, but laughing openly. I was deeply, frustratingly shy for most of my childhood. In most photos pre-adolescence, I'm frowning, crying, looking desperately away from the camera, have my hands in front of my face, or am trying to hide behind someone else. That was never easy, as I was a big kid. But this photo is different: this photo shows an honesty I didn't realize I was capable of at six or seven years old. It was summer. We were at camp. We had goddamned matching tie dye outfits. Maybe I actually saw how lucky we were -- are.

And now, twenty years later, the only remnant of my tie dye life is a single pair of socks, a birthday present from my mother that I still wear with regularity. We are all taller, with darker, shorter hair, we are educated professionals, we live in different cities, we have witnessed a few murky political administrations, cheered over personal victories and bemoaned our own unforeseen stumbling blocks.

As well documented as my life has been, and still is, I can't find a recent photo of the four of us, all in the same place at the same time. It will happen soon, I'm sure, but somehow I doubt we'll be in matching shirts, sitting in a row on wooden planks.

This is for them, for Thanksgiving. For my brother, the high school science teacher, the one who writes poems with ketchup, surfs on 11 different boards, and taught me stick shift. For my father, my favorite running partner with the ponytail, my personal pharmacist, the man who knows instinctively when I need help and has never judged me for it. And my mother, the woman who has taught me more than anyone that being "multi" is an asset in life; multicultural, multipurpose, multifaceted. Happy Thanksgiving, Team HJ, with love from the girl who finally smiled.

Thanks for the Legs, Dad

The day started at 6:30 am.

In a fun, adult role-reversal, I had my parents over last night so I could finagle my father into a 10k run in Golden Gate Park today. The three of us slept in my V-shaped attic room and crashed down the stairs early to make chicken-apple sausages before the race. I wasn't expecting it to be such a clear day--it hardly feels like winter.

We got to 8th and Lincoln by 8:10. The race started adjacent to the recently renovated Academy of Sciences. Dad and I jogged straight to the starting line just as the announcer was winding down. We were told to line up according to our approximate mile splits.

"We can do 8:30," Dad said.

He's a seasoned runner, and my favorite running partner. We did the Bay to Breakers this year (my longest race, and my first B2B), plus a number of 10ks and a few Turkey Trots back in my hometown. This is the man who woke up with me four days a week to jog around the village green when I was an insecure eighth-grader, the same one who followed our racing shells after regattas to make sure my rowing team and I made it in okay off the Sacramento River. He's got a ponytail and usually runs in board shorts.

"Let's start at 9," I suggested. "We can always up it as we go."

The start was anticlimactic, as every race start is, requiring us to jog in place for a few minutes until the elite runners (I've always hated that word) left a clear spot for us to follow. The sunlight was clear, yellow; autumn light. We circled the 7th and Lincoln baseball field, the one where I've taken Kaplan Aspect soccer clubs, and looped out MLK drive all the way to the Panhandle.

Here's the reason I like to run with my father: because we are built the same, mostly legs and arms with long-twitch muscles that don't make us particularly fast, but do make us goddamn stubborn. Many times when we run together, there's no time or distance goal, but rather a personal challenge, usually involving an unknown fellow runner.

"See the guy with the obnoxious red-white-and-blue shirt? Yeah, the one about 100 yards ahead? We're gonna pass him. Now."

My dad is strong and powerful, and he had to take a brief hiatus from running this summer because of some particularly unruly vertebrae in his back. I signed us both up for the 10k a few weeks ago, somehow forgetting the 8 weeks this summer he spent off the track. And yet, today he was just as strong and determined--if not more so--than ever.

The real reason I am writing about running tonight is because it mirrors what I am thankful for. Quiet mornings with my family. Being outside. Functioning limbs. That sensation after exercise when one feels absolutely able-bodied. Whatever chemistry it is that brings friends together inside and outside, at all times of the year.

Dad and I both completed the 10k in good time, after cruising up above the Conservatory of Flowers and around Stow Lake. Mom was waiting for us at the finish line with our border collie Taj, and there was music, water, and goodies waiting for us between the de Young and the Academy of Science.

We weren't the fastest runners, nor were we the slowest. But we were the most goddamned stubborn. And thank goodness for that.