Sunday, May 9, 2010

Dreamers, We

I’m multi-tasking.

While I beckon the benevolent writer Gods to miraculously fund my quest to bag the day job in order to pursue the long-lost half-brother in California, provided he’s alive, AND the writingpalooza which would accompany that pivotal plot twist in this memoir, I am also taking care of a little “bidness.”

You know that “excess” business I talked about a few chapters back? That little muffin top from too many muffins? The Homer Simpson donut around my middle, which serves as a bumper guard between me and the probable unlimited supply of suitable suitors I might stand a chance of bumping into, if not for my anti-bump defense mechanism, which stands between me and a healthy self-image, even though I’m sure no woman on the planet has ever felt this way except me.

Well friends, it’s time for a little status report, with “little” being the operative word.

It’s the first week of May and so far I’ve lost a whopping 2.8 pounds on Weight Watchers ! At $39 per month for four months, divided by my 2.8 pound weight loss, it comes out to $55.71 per pound, give or take 2/10ths. Wow, I could have hired a personal trainer to kick my ass for the past four months and done better than this! What’s even more depressing or patently absurd, (I know, you’re detecting a pattern here...) is that if you look at the last four years, I’ve engaged in this process four times; full of conviction in January, falling off the wagon around St. Patrick’s Day, renewing my vows in early April for my birthday, then again the first week of May with the advent of Memorial Day and white pants, which we all know make our butts look bigger. Then somehow summer gets away from me and turns to fall and then it’s Thanksgiving and well, you get the picture. I have repeated this cycle now, four times, with an estimated investment of $1872 to date and STILL weigh just three pounds less than I did when I got on this amusement ride in 2006, which comes out to a staggering $624 per pound lost.

Now, that’s just plain stupid. I realize this. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but why stop now? I’ve already confessed that I was a love child, easy as a teenager, engaged in an illicit kiss with Arnie the salad chef with the wandering eye when I was married to Husband #1, did not suspect that something wasn’t right when Husband #2 put off having sex for the first six months we were dating by saying,“people in the newsroom will talk.” With all this empirical data to suggest that I don’t have the common sense of an earthworm, why hold back on admitting I have spent $624 per pound to achieve a three pound weight loss? $624 a pound! Hell, I should be imported, Argentinian aged beef!

Instead I'm just bull stubborn, despite the saying which I’ve read in every self-help book on the shelf, which says, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” Well, they may be right, I may be crazy.

Or a crazy dreamer.

I did not come by this naturally. My mother and step dad encouraged me to take the civil service entrance exam when I was ready to graduate from high school. This is not what I had in mind. I had dreams of being at attorney back then, but there were zero dollars in my college fund. My GPA didn’t help either. I had D’s and A’s-- D’s in Biology and Math, (if I was better at cipherin’ maybe I would have bailed on the $624 per pound weight loss plan a long time ago) but straight A’s in Drama, English and Speech. Go figure. Marie Hastings, the activities director at my school told me I had the lowest GPA of any commencement speaker in the history of Valley High School. You see, both the validictorian and the salutorian declined the opportunity to speak at our high school graduation, seeing as they were too worn out from making straight A's for four years, so that left it wide open to the rest of us average students to try out. I squeaked by the minimum 2.0 GPA requirement, with an A+ in tennis, auditioned before the speech committee, a jury of my peers, and by golly they liked me! Paul Montoya, a short, stubby jock, who did have the money to go to law school and subsequently became a lawyer, and I, were chosen as the class of 73’ commencement speakers.

My mother would later tell me she experienced a sympathetic panic attack, when she walked into the Albuquerque Civic Auditorium to see some 2500 people streaming in. This is what happens when you have 450 graduates, 65% of whom come from large Hispanic, Catholic families and there's unlimited seating at the event. Hell, there were 15 people in the Whatley-Garcia-Waddell-Shepherd clan who turned out to hear my big-ass speech, probably figuring this would be the pinnacle of my public career. I strode in, with a milder version of my mother’s sweaty palms, but exuding confidence, ready to poke my finger in the eye of academia, proving that average grades and above average bullshit can take a person to high places, when my pomp and circumstance was momentarily in peril. As Paul and I crossed the stage, arm-in-arm, the sleeve of my maroon graduation gown caught the edge of a giant floral spray and began pulling it over. I was oblivious, but Paul was nimble. He stopped and simply took a quick step backwards, pulling me with him, unhooked my sleeve from the damn gladiola, (those are for funerals anyway) and we walked on across the stage. My mother, being the only other person in the auditorium to notice, nearly fainted. I shook it off and delivered with aplomb my “Friends, I Will Remember You” speech, which now makes a liar out of me because God knows I don’t remember the vast majority of them. But I do remember feeling proud, exuberant, and relieved. It was one of the most challenging, yet proudest moments of my life, second only to the day I delivered my mother’s eulogy. No live reports on CNN, nor exclusive interviews with big shot politicians, not even covering the Pope, compares to the pride I felt when God gave me the words and the strength to honor my mother.

Despite her practical nature, I guess she had a lot of dreamer in her after all. A scrawny, little Oklahoma girl, who dropped out of high school after the 9th grade when her family moved to California, she was married and divorced already by the time she was 17, (she took a bus from California to Reno, got a waitressing job, staying there long enough to establish residency, got her divorce, then promptly came home on the bus and married the next guy) who eventually went to Western Union school, securing a good job as a teletype operator with the FAA. She worked in flight service stations for 20-years and took early retirement. She then dabbled - a Mexican furniture import store, a quilt shop, real estate, she was a PTA President, den leader, Democratic Precinct Chairman, painter, mother of five, grandmother to 10, great grandmother to five, paver of the path to citizenship for countless wetbacks in Albuquerque and was an all- round rabble rouser. It was standing room only at her funeral, after she passed at the age of 82, suffering a stroke just one day after she’d been manning the phone bank at the Bernalillo County Democratic headquarters. Close to 100 people packed the small chapel for her memorial, many of them standing through the entire service, among them the Mayor of Albuquerque and the New Mexico Lt. Governor, who also delivered a moving eulogy.

In a word, she was scrappy. She was rooted in more reality than most folks experience in a lifetime, not a Hallmark card kind of mom, more of a hard knocks kind of mom. The most amazing thing though, she never became bitter. She held on to a child like, borderline delusional belief, that every time the sun came up, it was a new day, a new chance for adventure, maybe even perfection.

“I’ve got to make some changes when I get home” she’d say every time she came to visit me over the years, even though I knew some things, like my little brother who was close to 40 at the time and still sleeping on her couch, would never change. Then she’d move on; new topic. “Doesn't this look like a million bucks?" she’d ask about whatever new outfit she’d gotten for the trip. Or she’d tell me about the cab driver who flirted with her or the service man who bought her a bagel at the airport.

Never give up. Don’t go around looking shabby. Flirt with the soldier. Hedge your bets.

Even though she told me to take the civil service entrance exam as a fall back when I was 18, my mother instinctively believed I was capable of bigger things, bigger dreams, a better life. And she, like me, was a master of creative financing. She borrowed against my life insurance policy, which she’d taken out when I was a child, to make a dent in my tuition at the only college I could get in to, the University of New Mexico. I borrowed the rest of it and majored in Journalism -- a solid career choice from which I knew I could make a living. This has fed my family for lo these many years.

But in my heart of hearts, I always wanted to be a writer, you know, a real writer. I’ve clung to this dream fervently for some 30 years and I pass this sickness on to my children. I’ve often wondered if this was a disservice. My mother was more grounded; take the civil service exam because you could make a good living, but, here’s $200 towards college because you might be able to do better.

Might” isn’t an option in our household. “Of course” is the expectation. “Of course you have the talent, of course you can make it, of course it will be hard, but of course you will succeed.” Like a cantor to the congregation, this is the responsorial psalm I’ve urged them to recite, good, bad or indifferent. If success can be measured in determination though, I am already seeing the fruits of my labor.

My eldest son is a screenwriter in Los Angeles, working hard for his first breakthrough. He’s headlong into what everybody knows is the brutal business of movie making. He’s in love and planning to wed a pretty, smart, sweet, southern girl who makes cartoons for a living. The year he graduated from film school in North Carolina, Nathan gave me a framed photograph of the Carolina coast, a pristine sand dune in the foreground, shimmering ocean as far as the lens could see, an iconic image of a beloved vacation spot the kids and I have visited for many years, our family tradition, no matter how scattered or broke we may be. On the card he wrote, “some day, I’ll buy you the house to go with this picture.” The card remains taped to the back of the photo. Yeah, he’s a dreamer.

Son, Patrick, he’s a dreamer too. As my plane made it’s final descent into LaGuardia last week, I marveled at Patrick, surviving in New York City, scraping by, tending bar, bussing tables at night, and during the day, working to produce his first independent film. Yeah, he went to film school too, no civil service wannabes in my house. They have bigger dreams in mind. We were walking through Central Park on a sunny December day, the first time I had visited Patrick in New York. I stopped for a moment.

“Paddy, I can’t believe you’re actually here, in New York City!

“It’s because of you, Mom” he said, looking at me matter-of-factly. Behind him, the gold and burgundy scraps of fall color still clung to the trees and lay sprinkled, like confetti on the ground. “You made me think this was possible.”

Lauren, the beautiful girl, and most pragmatic child, wants to parlay her life experiences, (not the least of which, like the rest of my kids, was having her father in prison for a third of her young life) Lauren wants to help other people, especially disadvantaged kids. She feels she can relate. Lauren, who, when she graduated from high school was scared to stray too far from home at first, ended up going all the way to London for a semester abroad and traveled last summer to a remote part of Belize to help build a school library, conquering her fear of spiders, snakes and pink lizards on the wall. She’s pretty fearless, in her pursuit of a sociology degree, then grad school, then, who knows, public policy? Running a non-profit? The world needs more Laurens who dream that life can be better --sometimes all you need to do is roll up your sleeves and haul cinder block.

And Seannie, the caboose, the biggest kid, the high school football player, now art college kid, (his talent surfacing when he was just 18 months old) who wants to use his artist’s eyes and hands and sensibilities to illuminate our human condition through photos and the voice of experience. He told me once, “I just wish sometimes I wasn’t so self-aware. It would be so much easier to go through life not thinking so much...” Well, you know what they say about a life unexamined. Sean studies real estate ads -- art studios with an apartment upstairs to come home to after he’s traveled the world as a photo journalist.

Dreamers, we.

My brother Garrett, was sanguine about it. He said, “there’s comes a point in time, when you accept that you’re probably not going to be a rock star or an Olympic athlete or an astronaut, but...those are the only three things I’ve crossed off my list.” God rest his sweet soul. He didn’t get to a slew of things he wanted to accomplish, but he did a hell of a lot in the 51 years he was with us, leaving behind a standing-room-only crowd of mourners at his funeral as well.

Dreamers, the lot of us.

My mother used to say, “two steps forward, one step back.” We inscribed a slightly edited version on her grave stone --

“One step forward, no steps back.”

Hells bells, man, I’d rather go out a dreamer than a cynic. If you always do what you’ve always done, you just might get what you want. I’m bound and determined to drive down this ridiculous cost per pound.