January 27, 2011

Stella started preschool six weeks ago.

When we first visited the Little Lambs school, located in the back of a small house, we almost immediately fell in love. There is a small yard, no bigger than a postage stamp, filled with bits of grass and dirt that have been stomped on over the years. A one room detached garage had been converted into a playroom with a few old toys and tables scattered about. Some pictures of the alphabet and children's art hang on the wall. Adjacent to the playroom is a small patio with a long picnic table, covered by a makeshift tarp. Inside the back of the house is another small space where the kids eat their meals and sit in a circle to begin the day. There are no fancy toys or plush children's furniture or corporate style check-ins anywhere to be seen. It's all very urban and earthy, giving it an unpretentious and accessible feel.

As we toured the the school and asked Miss Alma our questions, Stella seemed to fall in love simultaneously with us. She roamed around, from one room to the next, exploring each little nook and cranny for what it had to offer. She spent a few minutes eyeing the kitchen, opening the oven and then closing it, as if taking mental notes on it's durability. She eyed the crayon drawings on the wall, perhaps imagining herself drawing something similar. She spent a minute or two running around the yard in circles, acting as if she was testing the ground's softness. I half wondered, as we were wrapping up to the tour, if she would wink at me and say, "This will do, Dad."

The first time we dropped her off, she was giddy with excitement. The tiny universe in which she only barely scratched the surface of exploring was back at her fingertips and she barely noticed us walking away. When Kari walked down the driveway four hours later to pick her up, she immediately began saying no and ran away. We were delighted. Miss Alma, her sweet yet strong teacher, was delighted. It seemed the day had only been hard for Kari and I. I voiced the obvious question to Kari, feeling a deep sense of pride. Is our daughter so fiercely independent that she's not going to have to adjust to preschool?

Two days later Stella and I turn the corner towards the school and I can see the questions marks shooting off in her head. Why are we back here? Is this going to be a regular thing? She seems bewildered, her eyes expressing confusion. I can see her apprehension growing as I slide the Element into a space along the street. It's school time buddy, I say happily. She immediately breaks down, whimpering as I open the door and take off her seat belt. No school, she says sadly. As I walk down the driveway to the back of the house, she wraps her limbs around me as tightly as ever, clinging to my waist and back and burying her head into my neck. I love and hate every second of it. We enter the back room optimistically, hoping Miss Alma can work her magic on my frightened little girl. Stella quickly scans the room and dives back into my neck, her tears rolling onto my shirt. Miss Alma looks at me with empathy and gently peals her away from me. I can hear cries as I walk back toward the car. I tell myself to be cool on repeat.

The next few weeks are no better. Monday and Wednesday school days. More tears, more clinging, more confusion.

Our Wednesday morning routine before preschool goes something like this: At 8:15am, I pack up her bag and get some breakfast going. At 8:30, I sneak into her room and snag a diaper and her outfit for the day and throw them on the living room rug. Then I walk back in and enjoy the brief few seconds of watching her sleep before she turns over and squints at me, her eyes adjusting to the light. Then we gather up all her animals and her blanket and sit together in the living room rocker. Then breakfast, then the car. Up to this point, she is as sweet and happy as can be. Then we start the drive down El Molino, towards school, which I have yet to mention. A week or two in, I began noticing something unusual about her mood in the back seat. Since my rear view mirror has been pointed at her ever since she started facing forward, I can track her mood, eyes and demeanor as we ride.

It suddenly dawns on me that she is moving through the five stages of grief as we ride south, moving back and forth through the stages with each new passing neighborhood. Initially, I can see her eyes recognize where we are going. Fear replaces an easiness that she exuded during breakfast and leaves her in denial. No school, she says, crying out. No school, no school, she says over and over, her voice getting softer and sadder as she repeats herself. I try and calm her with some tenderness and understanding, which only aggravates her further. She grows angry and begins shifting in her seat, doing everything in her power to break free from her straps, which may be her most hated enemy in twenty two months of living. She pulls at them and cries. I know it's hard buddy, offering her the empathy I already feel.

She immediately begins bargaining. Home, she says excitedly, as if it was the key to unlocking her from a day at preschool. House? Play? She offers them up with a smile, knowing exactly how happy it makes me when she uses her new found vocabulary. In that moment, she almost talks me into a trip home. I'm ready to throw in the towel, call off preschool, and turn the car around for home. Okay buddy, let's just play today, I want to say to her. But I keep driving, telling her that school isn't a choice. She has to go to school. I want to explain to her that Mommy and Daddy need some time together. We need to read books and have a two hour lunch and do some laundry. I want to tell her that this will be good for her too, after a little while. It will be good for all of us. But all I can muster, all I know she needs, is to tell her that school is a go today.

She sinks into a depression for the last few miles toward Miss Alma and the Little Lambs. Her eyes tell a story about the sadness that is sinking into her. She drops her head against the side of the car seat and blankly stares out the window. And for once in her life, she sits quietly, without making any sounds or movements. I feel much the same way.

Until yesterday, this is the way the last few weeks and preschool have gone for us. Stella moves through the first four stages of grief and we stay fixed on what we think, we hope, is something that will eventually be a good thing. But then yesterday something beautiful seemed to take place in the car as we drove towards school. Acceptance. The sadness she felt at breakfast when I told her it was a school day slowly gave way to a miraculous acceptance. There was a perk in her as she ate her peanut butter sandwich on the way to school. Her big blue eyes, though still not their usual fiery glow, seemed to reveal some level of understanding, as if she was thinking that school might just be okay. And as we started the long walk down the driveway, me briefing her on her show and tell, she took her head off my shoulder and flashed her perfect little smile. Yeah, I said to her, everything is going to be fine.

January 25, 2011

I'm not exactly sure when Kari and I started going to the movies. There was a time, early in our partnership, when we barely saw a few movies in the theater a year. Maybe it was because the movies we did drop the cash on were films like Just Married, Ashton Kutcher's epic masterpiece about opposites falling in love and honeymooning in Europe. But somewhere in Australia, in our loneliness and need to escape, going to the movies became a part of our lives. While we saw almost anything on our weekly Friday day off, it was in Sydney when we first started going to the arthouse theater for films that would eventually land on the Oscar list. I suppose this is when we really fell in love with film. And thus far, six years after boarding a plane and moving back home, we're still walking down the street to the movies. Thanks to the fact that we live with our friends and can monitor sit, we managed to see 27 movies in the theater in 2010, including most of the this morning's Oscar nominations. Here are my personal favorites (winners in bold).


The Kids Are All Right
The Social Network
The Kings Speech
Shutter Island
127 Hours
Winter's Bone


Juliane Moore [The Kids Are All Right]
Natalie Portman [Black Swan]
Leslie Manville [Another Year]
Helena Bonham Carter [The Kings Speech]
Annette Bening [The Kids Are All Right]
Jennifer Lawrence [Winter's Bone


Leonardo Dicaprio [Shutter Island]
James Franco [127 Hours] [lead actor]
Christian Bale [The Fighter] [supporting actor]
Barry Pepper [True Grit]
Colin Firth [The Kings Speech]
John Hawkes [Winter's Bone]
Andrew Garfield [The Social Network]
Geoffrey Rush [The Kings Speech]
Jackie Earle Haley [Shutter Island]


Danny Boyle [127 Hours]
David Fincher [The Social Network]
Martin Scorcese [Shutter Island]
Tom Hooper [The Kings Speech]
Christopher Nolan [Inception]
Darren Aronofsky [Black Swan]


The Social Network [Aaron Sorkin]
The Kings Speech [David Seidler]
127 Hours [Danny Boyle]
The Kids Are All Right [Stuart Blumberg]
Cyrus [Duplass Brothers]
Winter's Bone [Debra Granik]
Shutter Island [Laeta Kalogridis]

In the end, my favorite movie of the year was The King's Speech. Between the performances, directing, writing and cinematography, this film was the clear winner for me. The most fun I had at the movies was the Duplass Brothers', Cyrus, which made me laugh as much as any other movie this year (other favorite comedies included The Other Guys and Kick Ass). The biggest snub of the year - and I still can't believe it's not being mentioned - is Shutter Island. Maybe it was the early release, or the fact that Leo and Mr. Scorcese ALWAYS get nominated, but either way, I LOVED this film. The scene at the end still gives me goosebumps. "Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?"

January 21, 2011

After landing a beautiful piece of art from my talented friend Kate, I decided to make a frame for it out of our reclaimed wood scraps. With a saw, some glue and a router, it didn't take more than an hour to create the frame. I picked up some glass from our local stained glass shop for under $5.

The wood is from the Yorba Linda Regional Park in Orange County and after years of California weather, the Doug Fir has turned into a gorgeous silver rustic color.

The picture, Where We'll Be, shows an old cabin in the woods, among the trees. I envision it being somewhere far away, where a fire cracks and good food sits on the table. It's the exact kind of place Kari and I have ventured to over the years and I imagine it's where we'll be again.

To see more of Kate's amazing artwork, you can visit her Etsy store or her blog.

January 10, 2011

Our friend Mel B was in town this week and Stella decided to put on a small show. Her post-Christmas remembrances and new sister hello are a few of the highlights. It's long, but mostly worth it. Viewer discretion advised.

January 5, 2011

I keep having this vision. Part trite and part hopeful, it's vividness hasn't escaped me for some months now.

I'm seventy years old, laying on a rickety mattress somewhere in the world, holding Kari's ever increasingly dainty hand. We are close to the sea, perhaps in a beat up cabin off the coast somewhere. She is laying next to me and we're laughing, giggling actually, about who knows what. Our aged bodies are weak and I can feel the fragility of my bones as I lay in bed, doing my best not to cough while I laugh. We are staring at the worn ceiling, with its cracks and spots and rugged beauty. The wind blows in from the open windows, the ceiling fan spins in vein.

We have very little in terms of money, or property or even possessions. Our will is somewhat laughable, which is precisely what we may be giggling about. We seemed to have stripped our decades of life and homes and living room furniture and tools and cars and trips down to a few unglamorous belongings. There are the books of course, which I hold dear, clinging to the Steinbecks and Chabons for how they made me feel and what they taught me about life. There are the postcards and patches, those increasingly significant collections that have been slowly growing since my boyhood, since my first trip to the Astrodome and my inaugural passport stamp. They remind me of my Father and Mother, who quietly pushed me onto the earth's edge, telling me it was okay if I didn't look back. There are a few paper pictures, still attached to handmade frames, each nearly equal in significance. There is the one of my three sisters and I with our Father, sitting in front of a cabin, all wearing funny faces. There are several of Kari and I through the years, the picture always taken by my outstretched hand, camera looking down on our sheepish grins. There are too many of the kids, way too many, because neither of us have the guts to let go of them, each one carrying a memory of one kind or another. There are other pictures perhaps, my vision only taking me so far.

Our kids are grown and gone and I miss them dearly. We worked at letting them go from the time our first daughter took off across the park without looking back, as if she would cross the city before noticing. Even now, as they have their own lives, own families, own traditions, there own way of doing Christmas, letting go is no easy task. I ask myself where the time went, and I can't believe I have fallen so hard into cliche. The kids turned out exactly like I thought and nothing like I thought, another one of life's complications, which after all this time seems appropriate and inevitable.

I glance over at Kari, her hair thin and short, and feel our aloneness. Through decades of spending time with family, of friends dropping in an out, of moving from one home to the next, here we are. Just the two of us. Alone together in a small room, fifty years after first bumping into each other. I can suddenly feel the weight of this one decision, the act of throwing myself into this spirited and tender woman so many years ago.

My influence on the world around me, after decades of depositing here and there, is mostly insubstantial. I left no great mark, especially considering the mark I thought I was going to leave in my early twenties. Between family and work and friends and the occasional walk to the theater, there simply wasn't enough time to do something grand. Simplicity and widespread influence never seemed to mix very well for me.

As I lay there, hands now folded together and resting on my chest, contemplating my past, mulling over the joys and heartaches, considering my life as I remember it, I am suddenly overcome by a comforting thought.

I am content.