College Fund

My parents tried to teach my sisters and me the virtues of saving money while we were still quite young.  They would stuff bills and coins into a cookie jar on the shelf in the kitchen, or into an empty Maxwell House coffee can.  They started savings accounts for us when we were born, and as soon as we were old enough, they’d drive us over to the fortress that was the Dollar Savings Bank on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx to deposit our birthday money.  They took us to see Mary Poppins at the Loew’s Paradise and would sing us the song about “when you put tuppence in a bank account,” over and over again.

And what were we saving money for?


Even if we didn’t yet understand what college was, we understood the importance of going there.  After all, that’s what my parents were always doing.  Apparently it meant being away a lot, and when you’re home, being busy and having to be quiet so they could “concentrate.”  My father would be tip-tapping away at his master’s thesis on his manual Smith-Corona in the alcove behind the front door of our apartment.  He’d be taking classes during the day and driving a taxi at night.  Later on, after we moved to the suburbs, my parents were working as teachers and going to college one night a week and during the summer.

I learned that, to get anywhere in life, you had to have a college degree, and preferably several.  Eventually, my mother collected four.  I went on to earn two degrees myself, and I dearly hope to be able to work toward a third before too long.

Not only did college involve a lot of work — going to classes, studying, writing papers — but it also involved a lot of money.  And the only way to get enough money was to save your pennies, and to start early.

So when we learned that our 15 year old niece was pregnant, after the shock wore off one of the first things that I said was “she’s going to college!”  I informed my wife that we needed to start a college fund for her immediately.  She agreed, and we did.  We couldn’t add much to it during the year that I was unemployed, but even then we did our best to throw a few bucks into the fund whenever we could.

A couple of years have gone by, and now my niece is in her second year of college, setting a great example for her little one.  I am very proud of her efforts, which are made possible due to scholarships.  Her parents did not attend college; there was no planning for higher education while she was growing up.  She had no role models to show her the effects of college firsthand, nor did she have anyone to help her save money for college.

My goal is to make sure that things will be different for her daughter.  It is my hope that, by the time she graduates from high school, we will be able to pay for her college education.  She won’t have to work part-time while she is a student, nor will she be saddled with enormous student loans that continue to accrue interest for decades, with little hopes of ever getting out of debt.  One of the reasons we can do this, of course, is that we don’t have any children of our own to provide for.

Despite my good intentions, it recently came to my attention that I have gone woefully astray.  Establishing a college fund for my grandniece was a visceral reaction to her impending birth, something that came from my heart, not my head.  As it turns out, when I started this project two years ago, I set something in motion that has the potential to spiral out of control.  I knew not what I had wrought.

What never occurred to me was that my wife has other nieces and nephews in their twenties and thirties, and that they too will start having babies and might expect us to afford their offspring the same beneficence provided to our very first grandniece.  Uh-oh.

Well, it finally happened.  One of the nephews and his girlfriend recently celebrated the arrival of their first bundle of joy.  Initially, I thought nothing of it.  I am not at all close to this nephew; perhaps I see him once or twice per year, and he makes no effort to keep in touch with me.  But sure enough, I stuck my foot in my mouth by mentioning something about our first grandniece’s college fund in his presence, and now we have to establish similar savings for the second grandniece.

So what will happen if my wife’s other nieces and nephews start having children?  I suppose we will have to establish college funds for all of them as well.  With our limited ability to save, we may be doling out little bits to college funds for five or six (or more!) children.  A penny for you, a penny for you, a penny for you, and a penny for you.  I can’t imagine that any of these funds will add up to a hill of beans by the time the grandnieces and grandnephews are ready for college.

And this does not even begin to take into account the progeny of my sister-in-law’s blended family.  She has long since divorced her second husband, but we still keep in touch with his eight children and continue to act as their aunt and uncle.

What this shows, of course, is that I am a Class A Idiot.  I don’t think things through, talk about stuff that gets me in trouble, and have no hope of reaching any of my well-intentioned goals.

So, please, all you nieces and nephews, listen up!  Do not, I repeat, do not have any more children for a few years.  We want all of them to be able to attend college and, at this rate, I may never be able to retire.

NaBloPoMo 2014 Logo


When I’m 84


I’ve heard this before, and over the weekend I heard it again.

“I have to be good to my children because they’re the ones who will choose my nursing home.”

I suppose this statement is supposed to be funny, but really I find it rather sad.

Does this line of reasoning indicate that if we are “mean” to our children (or if they feel that we slighted them in some way when they were six years old), they will take their sweet revenge in our dotage by summarily shoving us into a subpar nursing facility paid for with discount coupons and MyPoints?  And does the expression of this sentiment summarily reject the possibility of adult children participating in the care of their elderly parents in favor of sloughing off such duties to institutional care?

I like to think that when I reach a place in life at which I am no longer able to fend for myself, I will still be in possession of sufficient mental faculties to make informed decisions as to my own care.  And I hope that among my options will be remaining in the comforts of home and being cared for by my nieces and nephews, because they want to even though they don’t have to.

The very concept of a “nursing home” is rather ghastly, despite good intentions.

So let’s say you have no family willing to care for you and therefore have no choice but to reside in a skilled care facility.  While I have never investigated the subject, I have no doubt that those with more money to spend are able to purchase better quality of care (or at least more frills and amenities) than those with fewer funds available.  Still, one would hope that our elected legislators and our taxpayer dollars would enforce at least a modicum of standards even upon the lower-cost facilities.  There might not be dancing, speakers and musical performances every evening, but we do expect regulatory protection from the worst ravages of neglect and malfeasance.

And, let’s face it, is there really any such thing as a “good” nursing home?  The very concept smacks of a pretty façade and a coat of paint concealing interior horrors.  Even in places with decent standards of care, with staff who are committed to providing quality of life, there are lights on 24 hours a day, medication being dispensed, people and carts moving up and down the hallways all day and all night and a constant cacophony of nurses, visitors and disoriented patients yelling and crying.

I will never forget my wife’s grandmother, who resided in one of the better assisted care facilities, begging over and over again to be brought home.  Eventually, we were able to grant her that wish.

Even if our children agree that we have been their guardian angels and generous to a fault, I don’t see how the attendant hazards of institutional care can be avoided.  Life in even the best facility can never be the same as living at home among loved ones.

There is, of course, the option of skipping the nursing facility altogether.  This means relying on adult children to assume the responsibility of caring for aging parents.  While anecdotal evidence indicates that this may have once been a more common state of affairs than it is today, the demands of the nuclear family frequently make such arrangements impractical, if not close to impossible.  Even in an “intact” family composed of two adults and minor children, chances are that both adults will need to be in the workforce to keep the family afloat economically.  Thus, even if adult children are inclined to take aging parents into their homes, there is often no one there to care for them during daytime hours without going to the expense of hiring skilled nursing care.

The fact is that only a small percentage of nuclear families are interested in pursuing such arrangements.  The “sandwich generation” often finds itself squeezed between caring for children and aging parents simultaneously with fewer resources to rely on (smaller homes and smaller incomes).  With decreases in American family size, there are fewer siblings among whom to distribute the responsibilities of caring for aging parents.  Thus, a couple with minor children may easily find itself in the untenable position of making arrangements for the care of two sets of parents, four elders with vastly different needs.

The breakdown of the nuclear family has only exacerbated matters.  How is a single mother, already stretching her meager resources to care for minor children, supposed to come up with the time and money to care for elderly parents when they are no longer capable of living on their own?

And what becomes of childless singles and couples when they require assistance with basic self-care in their so-called golden years?  While relieved of the consequence of vengeful adult children “sticking them in a home” (whew!), at best they may have a partner taxing his or her personal reserves of energy to continue to care for the loved one at home for as long as possible.  Where the senior in need is single, widowed or divorced, the option of staying at home or with immediate family vanishes more quickly than a dream upon awakening.

The only practical answer for the heavy responsibility of caring for aging parents with increasing care needs is the extended family.  While this was once status quo, when industry and then the service economy eliminated the need for many hands to participate in subsistence agriculture, large and multigenerational families became unfashionable in favor of many decades of American nuclear family worship.  As the stay-at-home-mother vanished and then the nuclear family began to disappear altogether, fewer and fewer resources were available to draw upon for the care of children and elders.  More recently, it seems, families are rediscovering the value of sticking together to share economic and emotional burdens and resources across generations and even among “non-blood” families of affiliation.  The old adage that “many hands make light work” was never more true.

The concept of caring for each other rather than depending on government and other institutions to take on this role is roughly parallel to the cost savings that businesses seek to achieve by squeezing every drop out of existing resources rather than spending money.  Many government entities have started recognizing the benefits of maintaining elders at home by providing some level of compensation to family members taking on care duties.  Ultimately, however, it’s not about money.  Maintaining the resource-pooling advantages of extended family requires a decrease in selfishness and an increase in selflessness, a willingness to forego a certain amount of freedom in exchange for giving and receiving security and a commitment to building bridges rather than burning them.

Part of the difficulty in achieving widespread acceptance of this model is the paradigm shift required:  Trading conditional love (do what I want or I’ll throw you in a nasty nursing home) for agape, the unconditional love (“love your neighbor as yourself”) that most faiths equate with God’s love for His people.

Clearly, we have a long way to go.  I can only hope that my nieces and nephews will care for my wife and me when the time comes.

But, if I am to be totally honest with myself, I am forced to admit that this is not something I can unequivocally count on.


Making Memories


So I’ve finally been called for a job interview.  This is only the second employer to have called me in.  The first one, back in September, was an utter disaster from start to finish.  (You can read about it here.)

From the get-go, I have the advantage of being a local this time around.  The last interview I attended was a 12 hour drive away.  That’s right:  We drove 24 hours round-trip for nothing.  This time, the prospective employer is 22 miles away.  Still a bit of a commute during rush hour, I’m told, but at least the job would not require me to move from one end of the state to the other.  Also, the other job was in a tiny town up in the mountains, while this one is in a semi-urban area just a mile or two from one of the largest shopping areas around.

Neither the position nor the salary is perfect, but two months of unemployment has a way of making you a bit less selective.

What surprises me is that the interview has been scheduled a month out.  That’s right:  It won’t occur until just before Christmas.  I figure this might be due to a lot of people having time off during the holiday season.  Either that or they’re not in any rush to hire anyone.  But it works out well for me.  As an inveterate worrier, it gives my vivid imagination nearly four weeks to dream up every disastrous scenario ever covered in a B-movie.

Well, an upcoming interview means I need to have an appropriate outfit for the big day.  I’ve had the pleasure of slouching about in pullovers and T-shirts for a while now.  But the occasion calls for pulling out a white dress shirt, jacket and tie.  This means crawling through all the boxes and Rubbermaid containers that have been sitting out in the storage room since our move.

The timing was auspicious, as we also needed to scare up some Christmas decorations.  So my wife and I spent part of this Saturday afternoon digging through the accumulated detritus of our lives.  I am amazed at how much we still have, considering that we sold or gave away about three-quarters of our possessions to avoid having to move them.

Most of the packing boxes had previously been used by my sister-in-law.  One side of a box would be prominently marked TOYS, while the adjacent side would be labelled Kitchen Utensils.  This proved to be a lot less confusing than one might think, as my wife’s fine handwriting is easily discernible from her sister’s thick outlined letters, with some of the characters filled in with stripes, spots and little stars.

The boxes were stacked high against every wall.  As we reached each box, my wife examined one item at a time, and we passed judgment as to whether we needed it enough to bring it into the house or whether it should remain in its cardboard purgatory until our next move.  Do we really need the pair of tongs?  No.  The potato peeler?  No.  The egg slicer?  No.  The ice pick?  No.

Eventually, we discovered a box marked Dress Shirts on one side (Games/Books on the other), which turned out to contain both the shirt and the tie I would need.  We have plenty of time to get them de-wrinkled.

The afternoon was highly successful.  Aside from the dress clothes, we snagged the kitchen towels and chip clips we’ve been missing, along with my winter jacket and my Scrabble set.  I plan to bring the latter to Thanksgiving at my parents’ house just a few days from now, as I’ve been put on notice that my teenaged nephew (flying in from Texas with his parents) wants to play board games.  I hear that he is bringing his Monopoly set on the plane.  I love board games and I’m excited to have a playing partner!

Later in the day, another nephew stopped by to visit, exhausted after his 12-hour shift loading trucks in a warehouse.  The poor guy was griping about his rental house and his unemployed roommate.  He’s learning to cook, and prepared antelope chili this week with the spoils of one of his friends’ hunting expeditions.  Of course he had to call his grandma first to ask whether the meat has to be cooked before adding it to the chili pot.

The problem with his house, he says, is that the washing machine is broken and you can’t run the microwave when the heater is going without blowing the power out.

Here’s a summary of what he had to say about his deadbeat roommate:  “I told him ‘you can’t light the incense anymore.  I’m sick of cleaning up the ashes and I’m sick of not being able to breathe.’  Nobody knows how to clean.  For a long time, he would take everything from the living room, I mean wrappers, cups, and shove it into his bedroom.  I couldn’t find my flat hat, it was in the fish tank in his room covered in dust because he took it out of the living room.  He cleans stuff with a rag and then leaves the rag on the counter with all the crap on it.  Dude, you don’t understand, we don’t have a working washer and dryer.  I ask him every time I go to my mom’s ‘you wanna go do some laundry?’ He always says no.  Then I see him wearing the same clothes again.  I don’t even know if he takes a shower every day.”

Ah, the joys of roommates.  How well I remember from my wild and wooly days.

In the evening, we headed over to my sister-in-law’s house for a wonderful taco dinner.  My niece, who has been in the holiday spirit since before Halloween, had the Christmas music on while she attempted to select spring semester classes, only to learn that many of the ones she wanted either had a waiting list or were closed entirely.  My little grandniece was still wearing her adorable holiday dress in which she had been photographed with Santa earlier in the day.  She has quit crawling altogether in the last couple of weeks, but she still walks tentatively, falling on her bottom often as she makes her rounds from one adult to another.

Willie Nelson sang “Blue Christmas” and Donald Duck duetted with Goofy on “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and as I sang along to our little princess, I was reminded of how important it is to soak in every precious moment today as we make the memories of tomorrow.


NaBloPoMo November 2013

Just Another Thursday in Paradise


November sunset, northern California

My little grandniece is dancing around the living room to Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra” on my wife’s iPhone.  Her mother is dancing next to her, but to a completely different song on her own phone over her ear buds.  As she sings along, I am introduced to Andy Mineo’s “In My City.”  Then she asks me about “Black Velvet” and “The Wanderer” and I explain that the currently popular versions are remakes from back in my era.

What a wonderful evening after a full day.

Our homeless friend came by this morning and Pastor Mom served him toast, sausage and coffee for breakfast.  His timing was good:  We were all just sitting around waiting for the exterminator to get here.  Ants, spiders, centipedes — we’ve got ‘em all.  The critters just love visiting us.

We hadn’t eaten yet, as our plan was for all of us to go out to breakfast with my niece and her baby when the bug man arrived.  We were told that we had to be out of the house for three hours after he sprayed.  Denny’s, here we come.  (We appreciate the 20% off coupons they email us periodically.)

Our friend has connected with an organization that helps hire ex-cons, so he’s trying to clear up a parole violation and scrape up enough money for a cell phone and a bicycle to allow him to apply for a job and, once hired, to get there.  We are hoping that perhaps we will be able to help him in his quest to get back on his feet, even if only by providing encouragement (and the occasional bag of snacks).

“Let’s see what I can find to do today,” he remarked to himself as he left.

I noticed a big black trash bag sitting on one of the old pews outside the church door.  It turns out that our friend had left his sleeping bag, some clothes and his wet socks in the church bathroom (he had probably washed them out in the sink).  As the exterminators would be spraying in there as well, Pastor Mom put everything in the trash bag and removed them to the pew.  If it rains, at least his sleeping bag won’t get wet.

At breakfast, I was so pleased that my niece was willing to talk a bit about her experience as a first-semester college student.  She is having a very hard time in math and, despite my efforts to assist, believes she is unlikely to pass.  I reminded her that she can always take it again.

Goodness, it seems that all of us need a shot of encouragement, from a struggling homeless guy to a struggling college student with a baby.  All of us are struggling with something.  Remember, a kind word costs nothing and goes a long way.

My niece decided she doesn’t want to go into nursing after all.  She doesn’t know what direction she wants her career to take.  Take your time, I recommended.  That’s what college is all about, an opportunity to try out all different subjects and find out what you fancy.

But she’s worried about her financial aid situation and how many years it will take her to earn a degree at this rate.  Take your time and do it at your own pace, I recommended.  I am so proud of her for giving it a go.

We couldn’t return to the parsonage with the baby due to the insect spraying.  My grandniece, age one, was wearing a heart monitor today.  She has been dealing with heart problems since the day she was born, but they are improving and she has been able to get off her meds.  The cardiologist has to keep checking, though.  Later, we’ll remove the electrodes from her little chest and bring the monitor back to the cardio place to be read.

But for now, we are killing time.  My wife’s sinuses are really bothering her, so we head over to my sister-in-law’s house so that she and my grandniece can take a nap.  While the house is quiet and my niece is off at classes, I take the opportunity to tell Pastor Mom all about my recent experiences with WordPress, the wonderful people whose acquaintances I have made in this medium, and my hopes to improve my writing.

Pastor Mom’s cell phone rings periodically.  A parishioner calls to report that her daughter is doing worse; her heart problems have put her in intensive care.  An elderly friend living out of the country calls to say that she is being abused by her son.  Then it’s a guy who will come over to look at the roof of the church social hall.  It’s not in good shape and may need to be replaced.  If the funds to pay for it can be found, that is.

Done with school for the day, my niece returns and we all head over to the parsonage to begin preparing dinner.  My niece wants to use her nana’s computer to work on a term paper.  The rest of us will take care of the baby for a bit.  While the others are eating steak tacos, the little one is sharing my veggie burgers, potato and broccoli, cut up in tiny pieces.  She seems to like my veggie food well enough.

In the kitchen, my niece moves on to another Andy Mineo tune, “Death Has Died.”  She belts it out with passion, laughing when she forgets some of the song’s many rap lyrics.  “Breakin’ down, breakin’ down, everything here is breaking down…”  References to the Sandy Hook massacre.  26 dead, 20 of them kids.  “You used to make me cry, but one day He’ll wipe every tear from our eyes.”  My talented niece raps away as the lyrics claw at my heart.

In the background, Steve Miller continues wailing “I wanna reach out and grab ya” from the living room.  My wife’s now abandoned phone has been repeating the song over and over.

Another niece calls on Face Time so that she can interact with my grandniece for a while.  The little one grabs the phone and dances over the kitchen tiles, grooving to the music and more or less ignoring my niece’s face.  The little one’s mother gets on the phone and I catch snatches of references to SnapChat and Instagram.  This is a foreign language to Uncle Guac, so I ask for an explanation.  Before I know it, both apps are loaded onto my phone.  Selfies, here I come!  My nieces, the one in the kitchen and the one whose face is on the phone, laugh at my use of the word “selfies.”  Thank you for keeping me current, Le Clown.  I owe you, dude!

We move into the living room, where the music and dancing makes me smile.  My sister-in-law comes by for a few minutes after her long commute from work.  She grabs hold of her daughter and they waltz around the room to the music.  Then my nephew comes by, grabs some of our leftovers, and spends time playing with the baby.  You can see how much she misses him.  He had been her day care provider for months until he got a new job and my wife took over those duties.

The little one has discovered a new game.  These are the rules:  Baby pulls the headphones out of Uncle’s laptop audio jack and begins sucking on it.  Uncle removes it from baby’s mouth and replaces it in the computer.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat 20 more times.

My grandniece has pulled out all of her toys and has them spread out on the carpet.  But she throws all her cars, dolls and musical toys aside.  What she really wants to play with is a lavender plastic colander from the kitchen.

The little bug is up and down off the couch, receiving attention from each of us.  She is an equal opportunity cuddler.  And she has a boundless supply of energy.  My niece and nephew begin duetting on a popular song that I have never heard of.

My nephew tells us that he’d really like to get out of California.  I tell him that I fully sympathize.  How I’d love to return to New England.  “But you know what?” I add.  “My family is in California, so I am, too.”

And it’s true.  For just at this moment, I know I wouldn’t trade being here for anything in the world.

It’s late in the evening.  My niece and grandniece have zonked out.  My nephew has gone home.  As I prepare to lock the doors, I step out into the cool night air.

And I see that our homeless friend’s black, stuffed-full trash bag is still sitting out on the pew.  I check the church bathroom, but he is nowhere to be found.


>NaBloPoMo November 2013

Lefty Loosey


This post brought to you by the letter W!

Water is a funny thing.  In some parts of the world, having an unlimited supply of clean water available is little more than a dream.  In North America, however, we pretty much take it for granted and rarely give it a second thought.  You just turn on the tap and, voilà, fill up that glass!

While water is freely available to most of us, it is not free of charge.  We either get that water bill in the mail or our water charges are included in our monthly rent.  Some of us pay a flat rate, while others have a meter to allow the local utility to monitor the amount of water used and charge accordingly.

We may have our water use restricted during the hot summers or on particular days of the week or during certain hours of the day.  But this mainly pertains to watering lawns, washing cars and the like.  We rarely have to worry about not being able to take a shower or make a cup of tea.

What I’ve discovered, however, is that there are many places right here in the United States where the water isn’t very potable.  For three years, we lived out in the middle of the desert and found that the tap water was so bad that we couldn’t drink it.  At first, we couldn’t figure out what was wrong.  My wife wondered whether she had forgotten how to make iced tea.  The taste and look of our tap water was somewhere between dirty dishwater and windshield washing fluid.  Sometimes it even stank.  That’s when we received a notice from the city government filled with gobbledygook and statistical information that featured the term parts per million and basically meant “don’t drink the water if you value your life.”

Wash your dishes in an electric dishwasher?  Those things are very convenient, to be sure.  We had one in the kitchen of our rental house.  The water was so hard that when the dishes came out of the dry cycle, they were covered with thick scum and had to be washed all over again, by hand.  There was no point in even bothering.  My wife hand-washed dishes until the skin on her hands turned scaly and cracked.

Wanting water that tasted decent and would not risk our health, we followed the lead of most people in town and contacted a water vendor.  They installed a 100 gallon tank in our pantry and, about once a month, would pull a huge water truck into our alley and drag the hose across the grass to our back door so they could fill ‘er up.  Now, finally, we had some really delicious water.  But it was an added expense, particularly during the seven-month desert summer in which the 110°F to 120°F temperatures would cause us to go through as much as three gallons of iced tea per day.

When we moved 600 miles away from the desert to northern California a month ago, I never dreamed that we’d once again find ourselves in a place where the water is undrinkable.  But here we are.  Repeating like a bad dream.  This time, we came up with a different solution.  Rather than depend on a water truck, we have a Britta pitcher that we use to filter the tap water before we turn it into iced tea.  As for drinking plain old water, we buy bottled water by the case and keep it cold in the refrigerator.  I don’t think I will ever take drinking water for granted again!

Whether or not you live in an extended family as we do, the washing machine is an essential element of daily household life.  But this is where I’ve run into yet another water conundrum.  It did not take me long to discover that taking a shower is not compatible with use of the washer.  More than once I’ve stepped into a nice hot shower, only to have it turn ice cold just as I’d shampooed my hair good and lathery.

Wait… there’s more!  One of the things I learned as a child was how to turn the water taps on and off.  It’s really rather basic, and an important skill to know when you are required to wash your hands all the time.  It usually doesn’t take long before you have the whole clockwise/ counterclockwise thing down and can do it without thinking.  When we arrived in the desert, however, I quickly discovered that our bath taps were (oh, Lord) backwards.  As I’d finish my shower, I’d have to remind myself how this works again to avoid scalding myself.  It didn’t take long before I came up with a valuable mnemonic.  All I had to do was sing a snippet of Beyoncé: To the left, to the left!

Well, now that we’re up north, I find that my three years with Beyoncé were all for naught.  We have decidedly normal water faucets here.  However, after all that time singing “Irreplaceable,” every day I now have to repeat the very useful phrase I learned from my nieces and nephews when they were little:  Righty tighty, lefty loosey!

Won’t you please leave a comment?  Tell me I’m a weirdo or a wiseacre or just plain wrong.

With baited breath I await your witty and wonderful wisdom.

>NaBloPoMo November 2013

All I can do… is be there for you


Your aunt and I drove over to the community college to pick you up yesterday afternoon.  You texted us:  You would be a little late because you were taking a test.  We ended up waiting a little bit in the lovely fall sunshine of northern California.  I grabbed my Starbucks soy latte and sat on a bench situated on one of the college’s expansive lawns.

When you appeared, I asked you about the test.  Was it math?  Yep.  Did you do okay?  Nope.

Alrighty, then.  I asked you whether you have the opportunity to take it again.  You said you think so, but I could detect a note of disgust creeping into your voice.  I asked whether you had the graded test with you and whether your errors were marked.  Yes.  I offered to go over the test with you and help you work the problems if you want to try it again.  Silence.

I get the message.  You really don’t want to talk about it.

I know.  I had a hell of a time with math in high school and college.

I’m not going to push.  I will be here if you want my help.  If not, that’s okay, too.

I have never stood in your shoes.  I never had a baby daughter to care for at the age of sixteen (or at any other age, for that matter).  I never had to take a full load of college courses and also work a zillion hours for minimum wage at a fast food restaurant filled with rude, ungrateful customers.

I had the privilege of going away to college and living in a dormitory with lots of friends and music and fun.  I ate to my heart’s content at the dining hall three times daily, without ever having to think about shopping and cooking and cleaning.  I got to stay up all night having ridiculous bull sessions without a thought as to what time the baby would wake up and who’s turn it is to watch her and am I running out of diapers and do I have a few bucks to put in the gas tank so I can get to school and work and do it all over again tomorrow and the next day and the next day.

My sisters were back at home, attending high school and being taken care of by my parents.  I never felt I had to give money to the brother who is unemployed and facing having his utilities shut off.  I never had to worry about the other brother who broke up with his long-time girlfriend but still has to live with her in a tiny trailer because neither of them can afford to move out.  I never had to worry about being grounded by my mother and having my car taken away from me because I didn’t put the laundry away or accidentally left the garage door open or let a few too many four-letter words fly out of my mouth in a fit of anger.

No, I never had to worry about any of these things.  College was a carefree time for me, as it should be for you.  And it hurts my heart, dear niece, that you are missing out on the experience of being young while you can still enjoy it.

So next Saturday, when I drive you two hours down the road to a group tour of Mills College, please keep your eyes and your ears and your mind open to the limitless possibilities that are open to you.  We have discussed on a number of occasions about the full-day child care program, the housing for mothers with children, the financial aid opportunities made possible by the college’s foundation grants.

I think I understand how much you rely on your extended family for emotional and financial support.  I know you depend on your aunt and your nana and your mom to help take care of that little sweetie.  I know you depend on your friends from high school to keep you sane and your brothers to remind you that you are loved.  And I know that, for these reasons, you are reluctant to leave the nest and cast your net out into the big, bad world.

I know it’s scary being the first.  The first in your extended family to pursue a four-year college degree.  But I also know that you are concerned about being able to support yourself and making a good life for your daughter.  And I know you are aware that there are no guarantees in life, not even with a B.A.  I only hope that I can set an example for you.  It’s not really fair for me to say “take my word for it, college is the way to go.”  But I am hopeful that you will give it a chance and figure this out for yourself.

I know you think it’s more than a little strange to get your education at an all-women’s school.  But I have reminded you that the Berkeley campus, filled with guys, is just a few miles away.  I know you’re afraid of living in Oakland with all its grime and crime.  I have tried to explain how the campus is a self-contained enclave, a port in a storm where the green surroundings can make you forget that you are in the midst of one of the nation’s largest urban areas.

I can refute your arguments and try to allay your fears, but only you can make the final decision.  I realize that we are playing a game of détente here.  Since your aunt and I moved to town a month ago, I have tried to forge a different type of relationship with you.  Not a long-distance relationship based on a visit every few months and an occasional phone call.  A relationship built on trust.  Trust and being there for you.  Because I am your biggest cheerleader and because, in the end, being there for you is all I can really offer.

And I will still be here for you, no matter what you decide.

Even if you need help with quadratic equations.  Even if you need someone to babysit because you have an exam coming up and you’re starting to lose it (or just because it’s Saturday night and you have a date).  Even if you just need someone to talk to.

Even if I have to jump in the car and drive two hours.

Because that’s what uncles do.


NaBloPoMo November 2013

Extended Family 101


Yesterday, I shared our daily bathroom follies with you.  But this is just one part of the paradigm shift associated with transitioning from a child-free nuclear family to an extended family living arrangement.  In the parsonage.  Right next to the church.  This has been a true learning experience.  The following describes just a few of the lessons in which I’ve been schooled of late.

Just because you hear the crunch of tires on gravel does not mean you have visitors.

200 years ago, Jane Austen wrote that the sound of coach wheels on gravel meant the party’s over and it’s time for everyone to go home.  And just like in the old days back in Hertfordshire, vehicles approaching our humble abode are announced by the crunching of gravel in the lot between the church and the parsonage.  Don’t get too excited about having company, though.  Likely as not, it’s just a couple of CalTrans workers on their lunch break snagging some quesadillas at the taqueria across the street.  We really need to erect a sign that reads:



                                       – GOD

No matter how thirsty or hungry you are, do not walk to the kitchen in your undies.

Why?  Because you never know who you’re going to run into.  I haven’t had so many people coming in and out of my living quarters since I resided in a college dormitory in the 1970s.  That’s right, welcome to Grand Central Station, where everybody knows your name (and they’re always glad you came, tra-la-la).  Even if you make it through the living room unscathed, and even though it’s three in the morning, there’s a good chance that yours truly is sitting silently in the kitchen, just waiting to scare the living daylights out of you when you come around the corner.  And just because the house sounds quiet doesn’t mean that a parishioner, one of your niece’s friends or the homeless guy who hangs out across the fence will not show up at the door at exactly the wrong moment.  Surprise!

It’s important to learn the names of the regulars.

I’m getting tired of mouthing to my wife “What’s her name again?” to avoid embarrassing myself.  Personally, I think too much Baby TV is making me soft in the head.  But, alas, my wife is probably right, I just don’t pay attention.

For example, my niece has two young friends, sisters close in age, who show up here on a regular basis.  Both of their given names begin with M, so my wife and I have taken to referring to them as M&M.  I’ve suggested calling them Plain & Peanut, but one of them heard me say that and now she knows what a buffoon I really am.  But I think I’ve got it straightened out now.  One has dark hair and braces and the other is a blonde with none.  Got it.

When you’re used to sleeping in a king-sized bed, and then you move and have to switch to a queen, be thankful that your wife doesn’t fling you out of bed on your head.

Let me start with a disclaimer here.  My wife has never flung me out of our bed onto my head or any other bodily part.  Okay, now that we have that straight, let’s move on to a picture of the realities of the situation.  My wife tends to luxuriate in our soft, comfy bed by spreading all the way out as if to say “aaaahhhh!”  Then she places a pillow under her right arm.  My wife refers to this state of affairs as “taking my half out of the middle.”

With my wife and that blasted pillow taking up most of the bed, I am left with about an inch and a half of space to curl up in.  One false move and gravity will have its way with me.  More than once I have clutched the side of the bed just in time to avoid going kerplop.  Oh, and by the way, I have learned the true meaning of the phrase “stick it in your ear.”  That’s right, with my wife’s arms spread out, her index finger is generally about 0.2 centimeters from probing my Eustachian tubes.  At least bring a Q-Tip, will ya?

Seriously, my wife is really a good egg.  She tells me to just wake her up and tell her to move.  I sure appreciate this, but let’s just say that waking up my wife is unwise.  But if I begin snoring too loudly or making any of the other weird noises I am prone to when in a somnolent state, I fully expect a poke in the ribs and a request to please turn over.

No problem, my dear.  And, uh, sweet dreams.

Now can I have my king-size bed back?

Be thankful and express your gratitude at all times.

In an extended family, there is never a lack of entertainment.  There are more people to cook, more people to shop, more people to babysit, more people to keep you company.  Every day is truly a gift.  No matter how much you buy, there is never enough milk, bread or potatoes, and just because you’ve already been to Wal-Mart once today doesn’t mean that you won’t have to go again.  Enjoy the warm fuzzies, and don’t forget to express your appreciation early and often.

So thank you, Pastor Mom, for making me spaghetti with fresh zucchini and mushroom sauce, and for the vegetarian stew and for the homemade beans and for the Sprite cake and for the chocolate pie . . .

Thank you, dear wife, for putting up with me while I am “between jobs.”  (I know I messed up when I blurted out that remark about vegetarian chili in Target the other day and I am truly sorry.)  Note to self:  Learn to control the mouth, dude.

And thank you, dear nieces, nephews, baby grandniece and assorted relatives, friends, neighbors and countrymen, for making me feel like a kid again and for reminding me what family really is for.

God bless you one and all.