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We got up early Sunday morning, before the sun, but not because we were pressed for time. Despite walking for more than four hours on Saturday, and going to sleep late, we’d had enough rest. A luxury. To be away from the million and one needful things that mire us at home to a million and one possibilities, what to do next? As is often the case, we chose art and nature.

This is Griffis Sculpture Park, more than 250 sculptures tucked away on 450 acres of parkland. It is art, in large part, that has to be earned, via curving backroads, pathways snarled with tree roots and rocks and twigs, up grassy slopes and under tree branches, a glimpse across a pond or a massive field of goldenrod, positively alive and singing with bees, crickets, cicadas, too.

It was a fine end to the weekend, and it got me thinking, about luxury and choices and how we arrive where we are. Our airbnb was beautifully utilitarian, with chipped edges, cracked tops, and strategically placed objects hiding all the worn out places. And yet, it was perfect and ever so lovely, not only for the inventiveness of our host’s decorating choices, we need not toss the imperfect aside, but for the fact that every comfort was considered. A fan next to the bed, nicely scented toiletries, a fantastic cast iron frying pan, a sweet kettle, boxes of tea, tins of coffee, a fine coffee pot, beautiful pottery from which to sip. Then there was the thoughtfully curated collection of books and art (many painted by our host), ever so much lining the walls. We don’t need new and shiny to feel luxury. We need love and care.

When we lived in Portland and had owned our Subaru wagon for more than a decade, friends kept asking us when we were going to replace it. It’s so old! Scratched! Dinged! But, we argued, it was a great color, long paid for, ran beautifully, and got great gas mileage. And, without a car payment, we had more money to spend on what matters to us, like travel.

The hubster and I are often gently reprimanded or told “it must be nice” to travel so frequently, and, to be quite honest, it really, really is. That being said, we’ve earned it! We save like the dickens and forgo a lot of expenses that many people deem necessary. We don’t have cable (but do have Netflix); own one car; don’t get manicures, pedicures, or color our hair (never have, and it’s getting very grey up there!); have a pay for what we use phone plan; don’t eat out a lot; don’t drink a lot (but it’s still plenty); and the biggest of all, chose not to have children. None of this feels burdensome or sacrificial, either. It feels right and good and perfect, actually. But if you start tallying expenses, say just for cable, even a cheap plan can run about $600 a year. That’s two weekends of travel for us, one if were splurging. It adds up!

Maybe it’s the fact that though I grew up poor, I rarely felt it. I never had a lot, but I always had enough. I kept clean (a bath every three days, whether I needed it or not!), had dolls and stuffed animals and a near-infinite collection of library books to keep me company, a tidy room, great food, a park to play in, and friends nearby. Yet there were people in my same position and even some who were better off who were perennially sullen and angry characters, cheated by their lot. They were constantly embarrassed, by their parents, their cars, the houses they lived in, their clothes, their shoes, all they did not possess. It was a terrible poverty of mind.

It never made sense to me, and it still doesn’t because I am of the mind that I’ve got the whole world, and if I don’t embrace it, I will never have more.

Flat out. Yeah. I’m going to talk about privilege and race.

I grew up mostly poor in a family of six. My Dad worked at Coors, driving a forklift, all the days I can remember of my childhood and well into my adulthood, too, graveyard then swing shift, weekends, holidays, sometimes even Christmas, double time and a half! My Mom stayed home to take care of us kids, running a tight ship of laundry, cooking, cleaning, and assigning chores. Everything was based on economy and thrift: the house kept cold, sharing baths and bath water, owning one car, and not dining out – save a precious few occasions I can count on one hand.

We bought only what we could afford and when we could afford it, never before. A trip to the grocery store was a serious endeavor, made every two weeks, shopping on my Dad’s pay day, with us watching like hawks for the mail truck to come trundling down our street before dashing off to the bank and hoping for candy from the teller, then heading to the store with our massive list. We had coupons for everything possible, shopped the King Soopers ad, bought off-brands and generics, compared prices (per ounce, per piece!), scrimped and saved, the cart unwieldy and piled high when we arrived at the checkout.

People tried to make us feel less than, making sure to whisper loud enough that they bet we used food stamps, my Mom eyeing them proudly when she wrote a check (which never bounced) for what is still an astonishing amount of money, usually around $200. I calculate now. Two hundred dollars, divided by fourteen days, divided by our household of six: $2.39 a day for each person, plus one cat. Hear those dollars s t r e t c h.

Yet there was always enough and sometimes more, for simple pleasures, mostly, homemade cookies and dessert, picnics and drives to the mountains, swimming in streams and the local pool; for discounted movie matinees, and three family vacations, all of us crammed in the car – to Missouri, to New Mexico, and grander than grand, Arizona and California just before I entered high school. Another source of more, and to whom I owe a sincere debt of gratitude, is my dearly departed and marvelously generous Great Aunt Mary, without whom there would hardly have been gifts at Christmas.

The moment I was old enough to work, I did. First babysitting, at age twelve, then fast food, bussing tables and waitressing, answering telephones. With the money I made, I bought my own car, paid my own insurance, and bought the majority of my clothes and essentials. Somehow I managed to be an honor student, too. My goodness, the fortitude of youth.

And yet, when I think about all I personally endured, all we managed to be and have and overcome as a family, we were very privileged: my dad had a steady job with insurance (though not enough to pay for braces, forcing me to wait until I was grown), enabling us to make choices, to have a house, to disguise our poverty with new school clothes. We could have been black or Latino or fresh from Laos and motherless, like my dear friend Sengfong, and there is no hiding that, unless you are a Wayans brother in a ridiculous fil-um.

What would have happened the time I was pulled over by the police, in my own neighborhood, for driving suspiciously (bored and slow was how I described it), were I a girl of a different skin color? Or my sister, caught drunk in seventh grade? How often would I have had police question me merely for walking down the street?

It saddens and frustrates me, especially when I think about people I know. The boy at my school, bright and funny and with the most dazzling smile, a darker brown than his sister, harassed for that mere fact. Another boy, tiny and ever so kind, born in Laos, picked on in the locker room, probably by people I called friends. I never found out. My gay friend, who had to pretend to like girls. My friend and perfectly upstanding citizen, who made more money than me, shadowed every time she shopped in department stores. Another friend whose father said she could never date a black boy. It simply was not done, ever. Tragic. Frustrating. Nonsensical.

I am grateful that I was not taught by my parents to hate or judge based strictly upon race, class, or appearance. But since I am human, I cannot claim to be without bias, or as Louis CK calls it, mildly racist (before going down a weird rabbit hole). Just like him, I wish I didn’t see the black man in a hoodie and notice a mutual nervousness before our fears dissolve in a smile.

I wish the bias didn’t go the other way, too. Like when people of color say they are surprised because I actually seem to care, or find it hard to believe that my parents weren’t wealthy and didn’t buy me my first car. Or black women who HATE white women who date black men but give a “You go girl!” to black women who date white men. What?! Also cringe worthy, when my friend, upon meeting the mother of a boy she knew, got the receiving end of a tirade that included, “I hate you white people!” Barack Obama talked about being offended by white people who locked their car doors because they saw him walking down the street and the commenter on NPR who assumes white women clutch their purse and move to the other side of the elevator when he enters solely because he is black. Gentlemen (and sometimes ladies), it’s not always that simple! My dad grew up poor in a bad neighborhood, and I have watched enough television and read enough fact and fiction to fill my head with every possible scenario, including being car jacked, robbed, raped, and mutilated while alone with a stranger in a soundproof box. I don’t care about skin color, what you look like, how friendly you are, or how you are dressed. I’m looking out for my own bad self because Ted Bundy!! Just sayin’.

Oh, and one last bit, on on the word thug. You are a thug if you wilfully harm an innocent person, especially while wearing a uniform. You are a thug if you rob or loot. You are a thug if you wilfully harm peaceful protesters. You are a thug if you wilfully destroy someone else’s property in anger or protest. You are a thug if you wilfully destroy property in celebration of your favorite sports team. Please don’t be a thug.

Instead, be the change you wish to see in the world, my friends. Be the change.

Flying High

Yesterday was 4/20. THE day for marijuana, for reasons I just learned. A Facebook friend in Colorado was lamenting people openly celebrating by illegally smoking in public and hoping 4/21 would suddenly become random drug test day. I could not disagree more and not because I am any type of pot head. Yes, I smoked AND inhaled. It was nothing to write home about, save that one time when I got so high that I hallucinated, and, much to my concern and dismay, awoke to find my brain still buzzing some sixteen hours later. There are people who envy this, but for me, it felt more like a burden. I was not myself, and I kind of like who I am. I am silly and crazy and goofy and fun. I do alright without outside help. And before you think to mention my great love for whiskey, being intoxicated by it isn’t my desire. The hubster laughs at me when I ask not for a drink, but to share a glass, just so I can savor a drop on my tongue and, best of all, smell it in between his sips, because that heady woody sweetness is truly divine.

As for our disagreement, I don’t believe smoking marijuana in public is any different than smoking cigarettes or consuming alcohol. All are destructive to the body in one fashion or another. All can be pretty vile. All can lead to people behaving badly.

So why not in public? Who are we protecting? Children? That doesn’t really fly. Kids can see people smoking cigarettes on just about every street corner in America, and especially in Pittsburgh. Yowza, this city has not gotten the Surgeon General’s memo. I am constantly baffled by the sheer number of smokers here. So what’s the difference if the smoke is from weed rather than tobacco? Neither is great for the lungs or air quality. And much to my surprise, neither can really give the passer-by a contact high.

Children can see people drinking just about anywhere, too. Sidewalk cafés, restaurants, concerts, sporting events, in their own homes. All of it is perfectly legal. So why the stigma? Growing up, I saw legal drinking and drunkenness on a scale that frightened me. Adults smashing beer bottles and brawling. Adults crawling because they were too drunk to stand on their own two feet. Adults vomiting on the neighbor’s lawn after a wild night of partying. And the absolute worst, adults driving children in their protection, wild, fast, and furious, hoping not to get stopped by the cops, while I watched in terror as the center line drifted to the left and the right.

But marijuana, it’s real trouble and should be kept hidden from the public eye. Sure. Tell yourself whatever you like.

Have you read the blog post by Revolva (a fiery vaudevillian, literally and figuratively), relaying her experience with an Oprah producer who asked her to perform for FREE on the The Life You Want Tour? To say that I was utterly deflated and depressed by it is an understatement. I mean, jeepers, Oprah is supposed to be the one who gets it; who understands the big picture; whose magazine is chock full of thoughtful insights and well curated quotations; Oprah, whose rags to riches tale is an inspiration to women everywhere. This same Oprah wants people to work for FREE? In the name of exposure? On a tour called The Life You Want? Bummer.

As someone who considers herself to be an artist, the life I want does not consist of working for free, though something in my nature must smack of it because that is about all I am offered. A million and one great opportunities by people unwilling to pay for my talent. And they’re so enthusiastic about it, too!

“Oh my goodness, your pictures and stories are so awesome! Could we reprint them? We’d give you credit!”

“We could really use someone with your vision, enthusiasm, and skill. Have you ever considered volunteering?”

Don’t get me wrong, volunteering can be pretty awesome, and I have done an awful lot of it for some pretty terrific organizations: serving meals to the homeless, helping distribute books to youth in juvenile detention, being a Big Sister (how I met sweet Solveig!), planting trees, stuffing envelopes, organizing files.

I’d also like to mention that I am as frugal as the next person, maybe even more so, but I do know the value of good work, and it is NOT nothing. So I asked the hubster how often he is asked to volunteer. The answer? NEVER. His LinkedIn profile is not littered with job “opportunities” for unpaid positions. He is, quite to the contrary, actually asked to apply for well paid jobs, because he is a skilled software engineer and deserves some respect, but someone who dances with flaming hula hoops (Revolva), tells stories, takes pictures, draws, or paints? That person apparently doesn’t deserve anything?

It is an interesting question.


I’ve been thinking a lot about success lately, and how to measure it. As is my wont, I vacillate between opposing poles, one moment intensely satisfied with my lot, and then, quite dreadfully, woefully disappointed by it. You do know that I’m a Gemini, right?

On the plus side, I have a successful marriage with the most stellar man I have ever known. We love each other kindly and profoundly. We rarely argue. We enjoy life, the loud spacious laughter, the soft quiet, the hours and days together and apart. It is all GOOD.

We bought this house together, shabby, peeling paint, flea ridden, dead car in the back and a garden with more weeds than any other growing thing. Now it is lovely and fine, each room its own special place, comfortable, welcoming; full of love and awe and beauty, with the sound of birdsong in the air. It is HOME.

I am healthy. My body is s t r o n g. I can speak two languages, almost three (Yes, oui, si!). My friends are the best, kindest, and brightest. I am a good cook and have a mostly green thumb. My love for this universe and her occupants is ENORMOUS.

And then, there are the moments where I cannot measure my success at all. My stories and poems go unread. My drawings are worthless scribbles. And financially, independently, well, I could not, at present, survive. Quite perplexed, I ask, “Where did I go wrong?” I do good work. I joyously sweat and toil at what I love. I want more for myself, to know I could survive by my own means. I wait for my time. Perhaps my train is slow to arrive, last to the station after an interminable day? Or maybe, like this quotation that so often floats about in my mind, it is never meant to come, and I must appreciate the work and my passion for it for its own sake. Not always easy. Sometimes plain WRETCHED.

I have no answers, but I plod forward, sometimes even skip(!), with as much grace and patience as I can muster.

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