Category Archives: gratitude

delicious ambulando

how many tattoos do you have?

i kind of have 9, but 5 of them really go together to make 1. so 5 total? as of a few weeks ago, i have 11. or 10. or 6. or 7.

for a while i’ve been putting together plans for new tattoos – 2 that make up 1. on april 3rd, i brought it all to denise, my friend and tattoo artist, and she made them happen.

i’ll explain.

in middle school, my buddy robyn and i got pretty obsessed with the early days of saturday night live. we loved dan aykroyd, jane curtin, steve martin, buck henry, candice bergen, bill murray, andy kaufman.

and gilda radner. come one. i wanted to be gilda radner. she was funny and bold and adorable all at the same time.


soon after we discovered gilda, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. i watched her continue to live her life as funny and bold and adorable. she died on may 20th, 1989. i carried her obituary in my wallet for years.

robynlee and kristelee. on the verge of some delicious ambiguity.

robynlee and kristelee. women on the verge of some delicious ambiguity.

after my own medical drama i came upon a quote from her autobiography. “now i’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. delicious ambiguity.” with that, gilda explained to me how to continue to live my life after it was radically changed by my brain tumor. my recovery wouldn’t have been the same without her.

so for years I’ve been wanting to get a tattoo of that phrase, “delicious ambiguity.” my tattoos are all symmetrical along my midline – balance is a big problem for me in my body, so i guess i’m trying to not make it worse. i thought about where was left for a “delicious ambiguity” tattoo. below my clavicle was a spot that appealed to me. so while i googled clavicle tattoo images, i thought about what could go on the other side.

a clavicle tattoo i liked (ignore the birds)

a clavicle tattoo i liked (ignore the birds)

a few years back, i came upon the term “solvitur ambulando.” it’s latin for “it is solved by walking.” which made me think about the shift in how i think about walking. before my medical drama, i didn’t really walk. i grew up in southern california, so my instinct was to drive everywhere. i spent a lot of time in my car. then in 2009 i lost my ability to walk (and also drive). relearning how to walk took several years, a few great teachers, and a lot of practice.

dennis was my physical therapist during my stay in a phoenix nursing home. he spent a lot of time holding me up by a gait belt, making me look at myself in a mirror to convince my brain that, even though i felt like i was leaning way over to the right, i was in fact standing straight up.

the therapy folks at capri (that's dennis on the right) - they had never seen me stand up on my own

the therapy folks at capri (that’s dennis in the middle) – this was the first time they’d seen me stand up with a walker

anne was my home health physical therapist when i got back to corvallis. she taught me how to get in and out of my wheelchair, crawl around on the floor, and walk around my parents’ pool table as i held on for dear life. she got me back on my feet with a walker, but walking was hard and scary (i envisioned falling through the windows of shops as i walked by).

anne is remembering teaching me how to crawl

anne is remembering teaching me how to crawl

next was brian, the second brian to appear in my life at the exact moment when i desperately needed him.

the first brian

the first brian

brian wilson became my physical therapist after anne. i liked him right away – we laughed a lot (mainly at me) and i had a good time during my appointments. he started me walking with a cane right away – fyi, it’s terrifying to go from two-handed walking to one-handed. after i stopped seeing him in the clinic, we got together a few times for “therapy in the wild.” once we met up on a playground – he had always wanted to put me on a tire swing and turn me the opposite way from my vertigo to see if it would unwind my dizziness. it didn’t – but i was able to get on and off the swing without wiping out, so that was big progress. we played a little wallball with brian’s wife, brittany, and then he put me on a bike and ran around the playground pushing me like he was my dad.

good practice for when his new daughter, shelby, is ready to ride

good practice for when his new daughter, shelby, is ready to ride

to practice walking with a cane, every day i’d try to go for a walk that was a little longer than the day before – the “feeling stronger every day” plan. i remember exactly where i was when i realized that walking had gone from something that scared me to something i enjoyed. at the time, there wasn’t a lot that i enjoyed – generally, the things i did during the day were difficult and required a lot of concentration. but thanks to dennis and anne and brian, i had an outlet. walking became something that i did for fun, and when i had something on my mind. it was free, it didn’t require help, and i could do it wherever i was. i started exploring, and that was a huge part of my psychological return to the world.

b & b at t

brian and brittany at tumorfest

brian and brittany decided to move to montana, and i had dinner with them the night before they left. i was still carrying a cane but not using it – it was a marker that let people know that they needed to be careful around me, and brian really wanted me to stop. it was raining that evening, and since my left arm is too wonky to hold an umbrella, i had a choice to make – cane or umbrella. when i walked through the restaurant door, brian noticed right away that i didn’t have my cane, and he made a big deal about it. he realized that i had done a scary thing – his faith in me was the reason that i kept trying new things, kept trying to get rid of things that restricted me. he was the first friend i made who hadn’t known me before my medical drama, which made his faith in me matter even more – he was basing that faith in who i was after, which made me have more faith in myself. i really can’t describe how important he has been in my life.

so instead of trying to describe it, i asked him to write “solvitur ambulando” for my tattoo. it was an opportunity to take my unending gratitude and make it visible.

brian and robyn's drafts for my tattoo

brian and robyn’s drafts for my tattoo

when my buddy emily and i went to the bay area a few years back, i bought lovely california poppies letter-pressed notecards. i love my home state’s flower, and when i thought about these clavicle tattoos, i envisioned the poppies on one side. robyn’s side, since we grew up in california.

letterheadfor the other side, i wanted sweet peas (my favorite flower) in a similar craftsman style. i decided to put brian & the sweet peas under my left clavicle because my left side is the wonky one from my stroke.

i sent denise this drawing as inspiration

i sent denise this drawing as inspiration

i gave some thought to the color of the flowers, and since i love the orange of the poppies, i wanted the sweet peas to also be bright and vivid. i found this picture and knew that it was what i wanted the sweet peas to look like.


i brought all of these ingredients to denise and she combined them and improved them. getting the tattoos took a few hours, but mainly because we were chatting a lot. denise has been and continues to be a big player in my recovery. my tattoos are lovely – exactly what i wanted but so much more beautiful than that. they’re easily concealed, but they also reveal themselves differently depending on the neckline of the shirt i’m wearing. the way denise worked the words in is exquisite (robyn’s response).

morning after

this evening denise is going to touch up some leaves and darken the poppies.

my new tattoos are funny and bold and adorable. and i’m grateful for the people who are all woven together in them.






return to maycomb

this morning my friend jamie emailed me this article. soon after, my co-worker jason passed along another article and asked me how i feel about this development. and i’ve been thinking about that all day.


“one does not love breathing.” ~ harper lee


in favor

i love the finches, etc.

i miss scout. what kind of man did jem become? what’s going on with the radleys? what is atticus like as an old man – possibly a grandpa? and what about calpurnia? i can already feel the nourishment of spending time with those folks again.

jem, cal, and scout

jem, cal, and scout

the timeline

i am less afraid about this book because to kill a mockingbird is a prequel rather than go set a watchman being a sequel. the story arc started with these characters in GSAW included the events in TKAM. in education that’s called backwards design, start at the end and design from there. and i’m a big fan of backwards design, which makes me less worried about the quality than i would be if harper lee came at this from the other direction.

TKAM back in the spotlight

as part of a project i did with my 4th grade students a decade ago, i wrote harper lee a letter. i knew that she wouldn’t answer, but on the chance that she might read my letter, i wrote it anyway. i said thanks for putting into the world something that made it a better place. that i’m a better person for what i’ve learned about kindness and morality and empathy and courage from her book. so maybe this new book will inspire a few people to pick up TKAM for the first time.

or to watch the movie, which is one of the only times you’ll hear me say that. harper lee was very involved in the movie – the courthouse is an exact replica of the one in monroeville, alabama (her hometown). when gregory peck won an oscar for playing atticus, a character based on harper lee’s dad, he had her father’s pocket watch in his pocket, a gift from lee.

what would atticus do?



pulling a nicolas cage

nicolas cage was so damn good in raising arizona, and i wish he’d gone out on top and never made another movie. he’d just hang out, naming his kids after superman characters and being cool. but what about leaving las vegas? speaking of cool, how about tom hanks as ben sanderson? and i love moonstruck and con air as much as the next guy, but they just aren’t worth it. will go set a watchman be harper lee’s 8MM?


lee lore

i’ll admit that i’ve always loved the lee legend – young woman (34 when TKAM was published) writes the great american novel, lives to a ripe old age and never publishes another book. the literary equivalent of the “i am outta here” table flip. but now there’s another book, and the reclusive lee is back in the spotlight.



more truman capote intrigue

dill in TKAM is based on truman capote, harper lee’s childhood neighbor. how involved was lee in writing capote’s in cold blood? was capote the real author of to kill a mockingbird? get ready for more speculation diminishing lee as an author. a young woman can’t write the great american novel and then slide back out of the spotlight and enjoy her life in rural alabama? table flip.

why now?

i mean no disrespect, but harper lee is 88. she isn’t going to be around much longer. so why publish the novel now? in 2011 a friend quoted her reasons for not writing another book: “one, i wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity i went through with to kill a mockingbird for any amount of money. second, i have said what i wanted to say and i will not say it again.” say what? it would be more keeping with the lee lore if this “long lost” companion to TKAM was discovered after her death and published posthumously. is she broke? being blackmailed? is there some kind of elder abuse going on? she had a stoke in 2007 and lives in an assisted living facility. how involved is she?


my 2 favorite books are to kill a mockingbird and lafcadio: the lion who shot back by shel silverstein. these books made lifelong impacts on me and my development as a person. one thing i love about lafcadio is the end – you don’t know what happens to him. there isn’t lafcadio part two: return to the jungle. i would hate it if silverstein had ever written that book. gilda radner called it “delicious ambiguity.” The new york times article quotes harpercollins president michael morrison – “i, along with millions of others around the world, always wished that harper lee had written another book.” i’m not one of those millions. i don’t need to know what kind of adult scout became. i miss her like i miss an old friend who moved away and fell out of touch – i wish her well and am grateful to have known her. meeting her was a transformational thing in my life. as was meeting lafcadio.


lafcadio – my first tattoo


arrested development

when it was announced that there would be a 4th season of arrested development, i couched my fears by saying things like, “they wouldn’t risk making another season if it wasn’t going to be awesome.” and when i watched it, eh. it wasn’t awful and it was good to see those folks again, but i won’t ever choose to watch an episode from that season over the first 3 seasons. i didn’t hate it. it didn’t damage the credibility of the people involved, but it would have been ok, possibly better, if it didn’t exist.

i hope not to be saying that after i read go set a watchman.


those are my thoughts. i’m curious to hear yours if you’re thinking about this.


so how about it, seanbaker?

so how about it, seanbaker?


creative nonfiction

the pharmacy building is my favorite on the osu campus. i don’t know why. this is my view as i head back home from the coffee shop in the basement of the library.

i’m loving grad school – wonderfully busy. here’s the essay that was due today in my creative nonfiction class. the assignment was to write 1200-1500 words, with an episodic element.

If I Had a Million Dollars

“If I had a million dollars,

If I had a million dollars,

I’d buy you a house,

I would buy you a house.

If I had a million dollars,

If I had a million dollars,

I’d buy you furniture for your house,

Maybe a nice chesterfield or an ottoman.”

~ Barenaked Ladies

When the quick phone conversation with Dr. Benton ended, I wasn’t sure what to do next. It was about four in the afternoon, and he had just told me that the MRI I’d had at noon to rule out a brain tumor as the cause of my hearing loss had in fact revealed a very large tumor on the nerve connecting my ear to my brain. He suggested that I speak with a neurosurgeon within the next day or two. Conveniently, I already had one of those – my uncle Yancey. But before I called him, or called my parents, I felt like there was something else I should do next. Unfortunately, sorting through the things I’d learned so far in my thirty-six years of life revealed that I had never been told what you should do when you find out that you have a one-in-a-million brain tumor.

So I did the only logical thing I could think of.  I walked out my front door, across the street, and into 7-Eleven, where I bought myself a slurpee and a lottery ticket.

When I was a kid, my parents and I spent many weekends in a cabin two hours east of our home in a Los Angeles suburb. The cabin had no phone, no TV. It had a swing and decks of cards and bird feeders and trails in the “wilderness” down the driveway. In the nearby town of Big Bear, across the street from the Italian restaurant where about once a month we ate a 5-course meal with cheese and apples for dessert, there was an arcade. I traded in my allowance for tokens, passed by Ms. Pac Man and shooting games and the contraption that would flatten your penny and give it back to you with a bear where Lincoln had just been, and spent all my money on Skeeball. I waited all month to hear the sound of the wooden balls rolling down the chute after I put in my token and pulled the lever. The scuffed balls were the perfect fit for my hands, still a little sticky from garlic bread.

I didn’t play Skeeball for the blue tickets that folded out of the machine at my feet. I played for the thrill of watching the ball move away from me at just the right speed, just the right angle, to jump the concentric circles and disappear down the hole marked 50.

It is true that, in each house I’ve lived in since those days, I’ve set aside some space in my mental floorplan for the happy day when I become the owner of my very own Skeeball machine.

Since I sold my car a few years ago, I’ve become a frequent bus rider. The stop down the block from my old house has a shelter, and now I live a short walk from the Transit Center, where each bus line begins and ends with its own refuge from the rain. But this being the Pacific Northwest, in other parts of town I’m often soggy when the bus arrives. While riding bus 6 through my old neighborhood I’ve often admired a wooden shelter, clearly build by someone on the block. A few times I’ve gotten off at that stop just to spend thirty minutes sitting there in that safe haven until the next bus comes by and stops for me.

As I’m carried around town, with the freedom to gaze out the window that I didn’t had during my two decades as a driver, I imagine organizing residents and business owners to build shrines to public transportation at each stop along each route. In my mind I can see these sanctuaries most clearly when it’s raining.

My walk to the other side of downtown often leads me through my neighborhood used book store, usually in search of titles in the trashy paperback series I read to clear my literary palate. This summer I repeatedly found myself drawn to a hardback book with a book jacket the perfect shade of yellow, which I put back on the shelf because I couldn’t justify spending close to thirty dollars on a book when I had a bookcase at home filled with titles I’d yet to read.

The day before I headed out of town on an end of summer adventure with a friend, leaving behind a season of strained family relations and ushering in my triumphant return to a college campus, there I was back in the bookstore with the yellow book in my hands. I decided that this was the time to give in to temptation, so I bought it.

In my rhetoric class, I’ve learned that they call what happened kairos – the right place at the right time. My agnostic friend Jesse calls it synchronicity – paying attention to things that seem to happen for a reason without giving them any kind of divine meaning. This is How, by Augusten Burroughs, turned out to be exactly the book I needed to read on that very day. I never had to use the flap of the jacket as a bookmark because I read it straight through; I inhaled it. I immediately re-read it, loving its weight in my hands, thinking that it wouldn’t have meant quite as much without the security of its thick cover. On a trip that included time on three boats, it was just the anchor I needed.

I grew up in the suburbs – it was a steep walk to the black metal mailbox that tilted on a stand with four others at the end of my driveway. When I’d go with my parents to the post office to buy stamps, I was captivated by the orderly rows of tiny doors, each with their own small lock. I grew up to become an habitual letter-writer, and I still find myself fantasizing about adding a tiny key to my keychain, blithely filling out change-of-address forms in my imagination.

One of my pen pals, Meghan, is a friend from a summer I spent as an exchange student. Meghan lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where she minds a lighthouse and her two spirited sons, not to mention her recent reanimation of the tiny schoolhouse in her village. Just what I would expect from a woman with a 2-digit post-office box number.

Each autumn I send out dozens of Thanksgiving cards, with gratitude for the people who bring good into my life. In the last year I’ve become friends with Jessica, who lives in my same city. I asked her for her address, and when she responded with a two-digit PO Box number, I decided that the time had come for me to channel my envy into figuring out how to get one of my own. Maybe Jessica and Meghan can write letters of recommendation for my application.

I buy exactly two lottery tickets each year, and always on the anniversary of that cardinal MRI (my ‘Scanniversary’). One I include in a letter I write to Dr. Benton, with gratitude for saving my life. The other I allow myself to slowly scratch with a penny from my pocket, like Charlie peeling away the wrapper on his precious bar of chocolate.  He opened three Wonka bars before he found the golden ticket  – maybe I’ll allow myself two more lottery tickets next year.

oh man, i love this book.


on the occasion of my 3-year anniversary – 3 years since the day this picture was taken:

i thought i’d answer a few questions that might come to a new reader of my blog and possibly even a longtime reader.

where did the name “tumorfest” come from?

“tumorfest” is the name my friend madalaine gave to the drive that she, my mom, and i took from arizona to oregon. on the first anniversary of my tumor surgery, i was in hawaii and got my phoenix tattoo. for the second anniversary, i wanted to throw a party to get folks from different parts of my recovery together. tumorfest was the logical name. the second tumorfest was this last week. august 7th.

who made that rad tumorfest logo?

the logo came to me in a dream. i drew it and emailed it to my buddy noah (son of madalaine). he does graphic design, so he whipped up the logo. the colors are from my plaid rocking chair.

you used to have a lot of migraines. do you still?

gary, me, mike

i started getting migraines in elementary school. as a young adult, they became more frequent, and before my medical drama i was having 4 or 5 a month. they almost always were on my left side, behind my eye. which is where my tumor was/is. since my surgeries, i haven’t had a single migraine, not even a headache. a silver lining.

where were you when you had your stroke?

my stroke happened after the tumor surgery, so i was conveniently already in the hospital.

how did your stroke happen?

the tumor was too large to remove completely, so dr. spetzler de-massed it. the area where it was collapsed, which pulled on structures it was attached to – that was the bleed – a hemorrhagic stroke.

what is your secret chicanes wish?

my wish is that ellen will discover this blog and have me on her show to shower me with rad canes. this wish is complicated by the fact that i have no desire to be on television.

what are you going to be studying when you start at osu in the fall?

i’m starting a master of arts in interdisciplinary studies. i’ll be integrating three fields (mine are sociology, english, and speech communications) to create my own program of study. i’ll be looking at how writing personal narrative in a group can be used to heal trauma. basically the writing part of  digital storytelling.

do you still collect canes? how many do you have?

there are 14 canes in my hall tree. i inherited a few from my grandma when she died, and i’ll continue to keep a lookout for cool canes. you should, too.

now that you aren’t walking with a cane anymore, shouldn’t you change the name of this blog?

i named the blog “chicanes” because of a line from an ELO song (“can’t get it out of my head” – a little tumor humor). and i stand by my tagline – “if you have to walk with a cane, you might as well have some rad ones.” that’s just a fact.

it looks like your life is really good. should i go and have a stroke so that i can be cool like you?

yes, my life is really good. but i strongly suggest that you avoid having a stroke, if possible. pretty much everything i do is hard. but i don’t mind the hard work – “i’m just glad to be here, happy to be alive.” there has to be an easier way to have a cool life like me. to get started, i’d advise you to look for silver linings, to notice all of the things around you to be grateful for, and to put good into the universe – it comes back to you.

38 lessons from 38 years

my neurologist hipped me to this great blog called “zenhabits” and this post really spoke to me.  i’ve been 38 for a while now, and it got me thinking about what i’ve learned in those 38 years. i’ll be 39 in less than two weeks, so time to get crackin’.

it seems to me that my life falls into 4 sections, so i’ll break up the lessons that way.

kid –  birth to 17

1. fun is important

2. be as independent as possible

3. don’t let a kid win a game

growing up, we had a little cabin in the mountains east of los angeles. no tv. no phone. i played a lot of games with my parents. which means that i lost a lot of games to my parents. which also means that when i won a game, i really won it. when i was teaching, i loved to play wallball with kids during recess. i didn’t play to demolish them, but if i could get to the ball, i got to it. so they knew that when they beat me, they really did.

me with my folks in front of our cabin. 585 silvertip drive.

4. figure out how to be a good driver

5. neighbors matter

i first met the charnows when i moved across the street from them the summer before i started kindergarten. they’ve been my second family since then. in fact, i think that the definition of the word “charnow” is “noun: good neighbor” – look it up. i have fabulous neighbors where i live now. one of them is a two year-old who now bops into my apartment and makes herself at home. it feels really good.

young adult – 17-24

6. “cotton fields” by ccr is a great lullaby

7. it can be good to live someplace where nobody knows you

when i was 18 i moved from pasadena to arcata to go to humboldt state university. i didn’t know anyone there, and it occurred to me that this was an opportunity to change some things about myself. for instance, my sense of humor had a mean streak. but nobody expected that from me, so i was able to eliminate it.

the arcata plaza

8. larrupin sauce is delicious

9. raising arizona is an awesome movie

my college buddy hethir and i logged a lot of hours watching raising arizona. we ended up speaking a weird twin language based on dialogue from the movie. ah, the salad days…

we didn't even need to stop watching raising arizona to take this picture - self-timer off the top of the tv.

10. southern california is a super place to visit

teacher – 24-36

11. relationships are built on shared experiences

i remember a lot about my own elementary school experience. i remember which teachers liked me and liked being at school, and i remember the opposite. about 30 years after my time as a student at monte vista elementary school, it’s the moments of fun that we had in those classrooms that really stand out. i applied these memories to my own classrooms. i looked for opportunities for fun because those good times spent together are the way that you get through the hard times. looking back on the dozen years i spent teaching elementary school, i remember lots of good times. lots of laughs. and since former students find me on facebook, i know that they remember those times too.

a great thing about teaching is that you can pretty much play "i doubt it" whenever you want to.

12. you don’t have to like everybody (and they don’t have to like you), but you do have to get along with everybody

13. if you want to be a smartass you have to be smart or else you’re just an ass

14. elvis costello has a song for any mood you’re in

15. trying is everything

16. “i wrote it until it said ‘the end'”

you ask a stupid question… early in my teaching career i asked one of my students if his story was finished. that was his answer. he even pointed to the words “the end” clearly written at the bottom of his paper. he helped me improve my ability to talk with people about their writing, a skill that i still use to this day. so thank you, young man. you know who you are.

last day of school field trip to the beach

17. i learned a lot about how to be a good person from “to kill a mockingbird”

18. kids should know their teacher’s first name

19. bars can make great neighbors

20. a long commute isn’t bad if you use it well

21. the word “hamster” is always funny in a madlib

this fact was discovered when tyson used it as a plural noun in a madlib. it ended up saying, “tarzan was raised by hamsters.” this became a catchphrase in our classroom. and “hamster” was used in pretty much every madlib i’ve been a part of since then. go ahead and try to prove us wrong. i dare you.

"tyson is yelling at ms. york."

22. canvassing is fun

when i ventured out of my classroom, i got involved with the oregon bus project. i met a lot of great folks, and i discovered that i love canvassing – chatting with folks about what matters to them, checking out their yards, registering them to vote. i was once even given a popsicle on an especially hot day.

some really great people came into my life because of the bus project, including the gentleman in pink and his wonderful family.

stroke survivor – 36-38

23. people love to get mail

24. it’s amazing to still have people in your life who knew you when you were 5

i took this for granted, and through many conversations with friends i’ve realized how fortunate i am. i know some pretty cool people from way back when.

25. being alive is awesome

26. kindness matters

27. let people help you

28. thanksgiving is the best holiday

i’ve never been much of a holiday person, but man do i love thanksgiving now. and the plan is that this year i’ll host my first thanksgiving. we’ve been doing it at my parents’ house, and since my grandma florence was always a fixture of that meal, i thought that it was time to shake it up. we’ll be eating at the table that my grandma gave me, the anchor of my childhood thanksgivings. i was once invited to my friends ben and janet’s thanksgiving – they invited folks who couldn’t be with family for one reason or another. added card tables to their kitchen table, and did it as a potluck. it was such a good feeling to be a part of it – that’s how i’m going to do it this year. i have so much to be thankful for.

on the back of this picture, in my grandma's handwriting it says, "taken by mark thanksgiving 1979"

29. gratitude can save your life

30. jeff lynne is a genius

31. people who have grandparents are really lucky

for my entire childhood, i had 5 grandparents. incredible. my grandpa fred passed away about 10 years ago, and my grandma florence last month. my grandpa and step-grandma live in oklahoma, and my grandma betty lives here. i had breakfast with her on sunday. grandparents rock, and i’m a better person for having elders in my childhood and my adult life.

me and grandpa fred in what is now my chair

32. good nurses are the same kind of people as good teachers

33. oatmeal is delicious

34. getting tattooed (twice) with your mom is pretty cool

35. the universe is friendly and on my side

36. i took a lot for granted – things like walking carrying an umbrella, and buttering toast

37. what would elvis costello do?

through conversations with my friend bucko (a jimmy buffett fan) i’ve realized that one of the things i love about elvis is that he does what’s interesting to him. he doesn’t worry about what other people will say about it. for a while he got really into country. he did an album with burt bacharach. he’s in an american roots music phase right now. so what would elvis costello do? i think that he’d allow himself to pursue things that he finds interesting. and he’d encourage me to do the same. so that’s exactly what i’m doing. bucko is, too.

38. i will never enjoy wearing skirts/dresses

i’ve tried over the years, and i’m done. finished. and it’s a relief. i release myself.

i'm goofing off because i feel self-conscious

boy, i’ve learned a lot these last few years. this west coast woman will ring in 39 by dipping her feet in the atlantic ocean. seems like an excellent way to start my next trip around the sun.

gifts from my grandma

my grandma florence passed away this morning. she was 93.

my grandpa fred and grandma florence

grandma florence (sometimes known as gflo) gave me many gifts. these are some that come to mind.

my mom and aunt claire with g&g at their surprise 40th anniversary party

conversations at many tables

as a kid my parents and i regularly drove for an hour or so to my grandparents’ house in la mirada. we had many a thanksgiving and christmas meal there with my aunt claire and cousin mark. after my grandpa passed away almost 10 years ago, my grandma decided to move to corvallis, where my parents had moved a few years earlier. she sold the house on corley drive and downsized. i followed soon after. along with many other things, she gave me her dining room table. in corvallis we had many more meals together, on holidays and during my weekly lunch visits after she moved into an assisted living facility a year ago.

soon after she gave it to me, i put gflo to work polishing the dining room table.

my cousin mark

my cousin mark is an only child on his mom’s (my aunt claire) side, and i’m also an only child. our moms made sure that we spent a lot of time together at our grandparents’ place. grandma and grandpa mostly expected us to entertain ourselves. so we rode bikes and climbed trees and raced matchbox cars and watched the twilight zone on KTLA. sometimes grandma took us to thrifty’s to get an ice cream cone and a coloring book. mark usually got mad magazine. i realize now that she also gave me as close to a brother as i’ll ever have and could ever want.

mark and me in the olive tree in our grandparents' front yard

fantastic memories

here’s one. in my family the tradition is that on your birthday you get to choose a restaurant and we all go out to dinner. for her 93rd birthday, gflo wanted to go to papa’s pizza – a spot more frequently the host of 9 year-olds’ birthday parties. she had 2 pieces of pizza that night – more than i’d seen her eat in years.  while we waited for the pizza, mom opened up a pack of “birthday girl” conversation cards. gflo read the first one out loud:

her reply? “any man, straight to my bed.”

my grandma was pretty damn sassy. she usually played the straight man – she and grandpa had their routine down. she epitomized that quote that goes something like, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me.” i remember a time that she was on a gurney in the ER a few years back. my mom and i were worried about her until we heard some dramatic conversation from two people on the other side of the curtain and looked to see her perk up and turn in their direction. she liked to gossip about the other people in the dining rooms of the two places she lived in corvallis. she was well-loved by the staff members of those two spots. she liked to give them hell, and they’d give it right back. several of those folks came out of their way to give my mom and me hugs today.

my mom took me and gflo winetasting.

help buying my first house

my grandma and grandpa gave me a little chunk of money to help me put down a down payment on my first house.

juicy fruit

when i was a kid, i wasn’t allowed to chew “sugar gum.” my grandma would tuck a stick of juicy fruit into anything she mailed to me. she continued this tradition long into my adulthood – when i was in college there’d be an envelope from her pretty much every week. and in that envelope there’d be a stick of juicy fruit and a chatty note (now called a “juicy fruit letter” in my family) about the weather and who she’d run into at albertsons and the phone conversation she’d had with her sister. i’ve carried on her tradition, except i tend to tuck a pack of poprocks in my letter. just trying to keep things fresh.

me loving life in front of my grandma's rose garden

an appreciation for dessert

my grandma loved dessert. in the last few months, as she wasted away, grandma still cleaned her dessert plate. she kept chocolates stashed everywhere. i bet that 3/4ths of the current contents of her fridge is some kind of dessert. she couldn’t pass someone selling see’s candies or girl scout cookies without digging deep into her wallet. when i got out of the hospital, i had lost a lot of weight and needed to build it back up. i adopted my grandmother’s habit of always saying yes to dessert. i started making trifles – the perfect dessert for the non-cook because they’re about assembly, not cooking. now that i’m able to get to the gym, i say yes to whip cream on my latte. it’s what florence would do.

amazing that in my late 30s i shared many meals with my parents and both my grandmas.

unconditional love

even when i was a pain-in-the-butt teenager, my grandma loved me. even when i stole a miniature jar of peanut butter from her, she was disappointed but she still loved me. even when i slept with two pillows, which drove her crazy for some reason, she still loved me. she was a calm, firm, and consistent presence in the first 38 years of my life, and that’ll be part of her legacy.

a spotter

when i was working on relearning to walk, my mom and i would pay visits to my grandmother’s retirement lodge. the long hallways were equipped with excellent railings and if we avoided mealtimes they were usually empty. one time particularly stands out. i was just getting started walking with a walker (a loaner from gflo). mom held on to my gait belt, and gflo followed behind me pushing my wheelchair so i could sit down when i got tired.

my first tattoo

my grandma gave me a little bit of money for my 36th birthday. around that time, i realized that i’d wanted the same tattoo for half my life, which seemed like a long enough waiting period. i tucked the cash away, and when i got my tattoo in berkeley i used that to pay for it. i showed it to gflo when i got back, and told her the story about why i wanted that particular image, and she was delighted. so i told her that it was her birthday present for me. she got such a kick out of it. i remember we were sitting on her balcony, and she said, “when you’re an old lady you can tell people about the tattoo i gave you for your birthday.” and i absolutely will.

i sat for a long time with gflo on friday. that day she was fading pretty fast but was still able to sit in her chair. saturday she spent in her chair too, but when she was awake she wasn’t very lucid. sunday she spent in her bed, and monday she passed away. but on friday, my cousin mark called when she was sleeping. i filled him in on what was going on (he lives in arizona), and he said, “you should watch jeopardy with her.” leave it to mark to think of something great like that. and in a weird twist of fate, a guy i knew was a contestant that night. when she woke up i told her what mark said, and at 7:00 she was awake and we watched it together. 2 days later when i was holding her hand while she waited for morphine i told her how lucky mark and i are to have had her for our grandma. i’ll miss her but i’m so thankful for all of the years that our lives overlapped.

mark and kriste and their fabulous grandma florence

permanent accessories

i was about 18 when i decided that i wanted a tattoo from lafcadio, my favorite shel silverstein book.

as a kid i made my parents read lafcadio to me over and over. eventually i had it memorized and could “read” it myself. the tone and content of the book shaped me as a person. every school year it always the first book i read out loud to my class. i think that my tolerance for the unknown comes from this book. and a good chunk of my sense of humor.

when i turned 36, i realized that 36 is double-18, and that half my life was long enough to wait for a tattoo. i still wanted the same drawing from the book in the same spot on my back – seemed like a safe bet. my grandma florence gave me some money for my birthday. i decided to use it to get my lafcadio tattoo.

i was going to be in berkeley in june. my friend sandy lived in the east bay and he suggested a tattoo spot – sacred rose. i remember that after i got it i changed my facebook status to “i am not the same.”

thanks for the rad tattoo, grandma florence!

when i got back from my trip to the east bay, my mom greeted me with enthusiasm. and with a pile of information about tattoo parlors in corvallis. back when i was 18, she had responded to my desire to get a tattoo with an admission of her own desire to get one. she had a good story about what she wanted to get – her rattlesnake pendant on her ankle. i wanted to get the pocket watch from to kill a mockingbird, and we made plans to get them together on her 59th birthday that coming september.

but plans change. soon after, i was diagnosed with a brain tumor. my mom spent part of her 59th birthday visiting me in a nursing home.

after my medical drama i started to feel a strong need to have a more visible scar. my surgery scars aren’t easy to see, and i wanted something like a badge to mark what i’d been through and survived. i decided that i needed to get a tattoo of a phoenix, because the symbolism was too good to pass up. i certainly felt like a phoenix, and i wanted to represent all of the folks who’d been a part of my surgery and recovery. it turned out that i was going to be in hawaii on the 1-year anniversary of my surgery. i found a tattoo parlor in lahaina and met with rob there. i explained it all to him and he drew up some sketches. i wanted it to be round because i knew that i also wanted to get that pocket watch on my other calf and i wanted them to balance. rob’s sketches were great, so i picked one and walked myself over to his shop (maui atomic tattoo) on august 7, 2010. i wanted it on my left leg because that’s the weak side from my stroke.

that wasn’t the only tattoo i got that day. the other was inspired by my friend robyn. in a line down her calf she’s collecting small tattoos symbolizing important events in her life. i knew that i’d be collecting theme words and i wanted to do something special with them. robyn’s example gave me the idea to collect my theme words down my back. not wanting to miss the opportunity to customize things, i decided that i’d ask someone who was really involved in my theme word to write it for me and i’d get it tattooed on my back going down my spine. i asked emily to write “new” for me. she was a major part of my recovery and really helped me stay positive that first year.

my mom and i made plans to get tattooed together the day before she turned 60. we went to high priestess in corvallis – a friend had much praise to denise there. mom went first, and she agreed with my assessment that it hurts enough so you know you’re getting a tattoo. this time i wondered what it would feel like – i was getting the pocket watch on my right calf, and as a complication from the surgeries i have no temperature sensation on that side. the answer was that i could feel the needle vibrating but i didn’t feel any pain. since it didn’t hurt, denise zipped through my tattoo in record time.

i knew that i wanted to include a quote from to kill a mockingbird as part of my tattoo. when i was in the hospital, my mom read it to me and i had her mark lines that really spoke to me, so that i could choose one for my tattoo. the one that stood out the most was “one does not love breathing.” that part – when scout is afraid that she won’t be allowed to read with her dad anymore because her teacher doesn’t like that she already knows how to read – has always meant a lot to me. but that phrase has new meaning, because now i really do love breathing. i asked my dad to write it out for me – he’s always had really distinctive printing – and he reluctantly agreed. i had denise point the hands at the 7 and the 1 – my parents’ wedding anniversary is july 1st.

i love my pocket watch tattoo. i like it when people stop me and say, “can i read your tattoo?” but after spending some time with it, i decided that there was too much open space in the middle of it. my solution was to get denise to add the mockingbird from the cover of the paperback edition. so on the 2-year anniversary denise did just that.

august 7, 2011 was a busy day for tattoos in my family. my mom got a hibiscus on her other ankle – this had been her plan to represent the two sides of her personality with balanced tattoos.

i also got my word for year two – gratitude. i asked my friend vickie to write it – she’s been in my life for a decade now and has a lot to do with that word. a bonus is that she has lovely cursive.

i’ll crunch some numbers. i’ve been tattooed in 3 states and have 7 words tattooed on me in 3 people’s writing. 2 book tattoos. 2 bird tattoos. 1 gun tattoo.

in 2011 i’ll add another tattoo to my collection – “experience” – and the jury’s still out on who will write it. i don’t know how long i’ll collect theme words on my back. i think i’ll know when i’m finished.

i really love my tattoos. i feel like there are good stories about each of them – where i got them, who i was with, what they represent, their location on my body. now i find myself drawn to people who have tattoos. i want to hear the stories behind them.