I’m haunted by the face of an old boyfriend. I learned recently that he died. My sister heard through our hometown grapevine. My boyfriend was one of four brothers. My sister knew one and one of our girlfriends married another. In fact, that’s how my boyfriend and I met – walking down the aisle, bridesmaid and groomsman.

It was the summer before we both went off to different colleges. Only 100 miles apart, but far enough so that we only saw each other occasionally and dated others. I remember him as being kind and gentle and being there for me when my father had a heart attack at Christmas and recovered. He was also good-looking.

From the PastToward the end of the school year, he got more serious. But by then I had met the man I would marry. And he – unknown to him for eight and a half months – had gotten a woman pregnant. So we married others. We both had two sons. And lost touch.

I think I remember hearing that he eventually divorced, as did I. To be truthful, I didn’t think of him often. I had good memories of him, but he didn’t feel like the one who got away. It seems unbelievable now, looking back, that our paths never crossed again. He worked for Northrup as an engineer and I worked nearby for Xerox as a technical writer. We knew many of the same people and were circulating in our small community’s singles world – at least until a few years ago when I moved 100 miles south again.

So why does he haunt me now? Because his face came into my life again. He lives beyond death, thanks to the séance stalking of the Internet. I found his obituary and a video posted by his family. He was not old. Apparently had diabetes. He leaves behind two sons, three brothers, and a sister. No mention of wife or girlfriend. I didn’t recognize him at first in his online picture. He had gone bald and his once strong eyebrows were pale and his face puffy. But the video (In Loving Memory Of … ocean scenes, music, What a Wonderful Life, My Way …) included photos of him from birth to almost death. There he was as a cute little boy, a hunky surfer throwing back beers with buddies, in his brother’s wedding party, with his new bride, and then with his sons. His sons looked a lot like mine – blond mops of hair. Sailboats in the background. Near where I used to sail with my father.

Then the slightly heavier middle-aged engineer with thick glasses, an older son with hair gone darker as one of my son’s did. His brothers growing beards and paunches. A daughter-in-law and grandson. An attractive woman in a baseball cap – his sister?

At the end of the video, I was in tears, but his face now seemed familiar. It also seemed sad. Was he sad, or ill, or both? Was he surprised at how his life turned out? I wanted to reach back somehow and offer comfort. Should I have tried to find him 20 years ago? Would we have liked each other? If we had married a long time ago when we met, when our lives were still ahead of us, would we have been happy? Would we have had similar sons?

So, he haunts me – the fact that I’ll never know the answers and that the door is closed forever. Maybe he was the one who got away.


When Less is More, More or Less

I can’t tell you how annoyed I am at this woman, Debora Spar, for writing yet another advice book, but I am going to try.

Her book is called “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.” She is the president of Barnard College and her message is that women can’t have it all and that feminism has led us down the wrong, harried path by telling us we can. I’ve received a double whammy of her message in the past week, an interview on The News Hour and a review and interview in a women’s magazine called “More.”

She admits she is too young to have been a part of the ’70s wave of feminism from which she benefitted. She seems to equate feminism with having it all and persuing perfection. I wish she had been around then to see what most of us wanted – when we first read “The Feminine Mystique” and pulled together in consciousness-raising groups. Most of the women I knew then, including myself, were trying to figure out our lives and what we wanted. We were trying to cut through illusions that defined us, not erect delusions about perfect lives.

We didn’t know anyone who had it all.

Some of us had wonderful husbands but felt trapped at home. Some of us had great jobs but crappy husbands. Some of us had wonderful children, some had troubled children, and some had no children and wanted them.

We Can Do It!Some of us had ended bad marriages and entered the workforce after a few years away. We took jobs that were beneath our abilities and pushed to learn more. We often met with barriers, with closed doors. Women can’t write about technical stuff. Women can’t work safely past the fifth month of pregnancy. Women can’t wear pants to work. Oh wait, you can wear pants to work, but the tops must cover your butts. Mini-skirts are okay. Seriously! It seems hard to believe now, when girls wear shorts and flip-flops to school.

Those of us with close to perfect lives – content alone or with a mate, with or without children, interesting work and activities – knew we were lucky. In life, we never know what will happen.

What we wanted – and still want – is to be treated with respect, by men and women, and to have equal access to opportunities, including the opportunity to choose. We may decide to work full-time, part time or to devote our time to our children or a worthwhile cause. Not all of us can make this choice if we have to support ourselves or children as single parents. If we are working, it helps to be making the same wages for the same work as men do. This is not the same as “having it all.”

Ironically, Spar is a perfectionist who ignores her own advice! She seems driven and even her own daughter tells her she’s setting a bad example. On one particular day, her husband is having shoulder surgery, she has a meeting with her publisher, an interview about her book, and then three – yes, three – parties to attend in different parts of town. She chooses to do them all and not visit her husband. For all we know, he was okay with that and even encouraged her to do her thing, so I’m not necessarily criticizing her. Me, I know there’s no way I could do all that in one day and still be a pleasant person who could converse. If Spar wants to be a super-achiever, that’s okay with me, but why tell other women not to do it – or confuse it with feminism?

And “More” should have less of this claptrap.

The Laundry Room – Part 2

I am not much of a one for airing my dirty laundry in public. You won’t see me writing a dark memoir about ex-husbands and boyfriends, unless I can make it funny, which is possible.

However, I’m considering beating my clothes against the rocks in my garden, maybe even turning on the garden hose. If there were a riverbank nearby, I would carry down my basket on my head.woman at pond

Yes, doing my laundry outside is more appealing than inside my new laundry room. Technically, it’s not a room. More like a shed – or a shack. Obviously an afterthought, an add-on. “Oh yes, I have these rentals, tenants need a place to do their laundry.” Someone has erected two pieces of plywood into a corner of the carport, one with hinges, an ersatz door.

Opening this door isn’t easy, too close to a big SUV. To get in, I have to turn sideways and worse, tip the laundry basket sideways too, spilling my clothes and contorting myself farther to pick them up.

The inside of the shed/shack is barely big enough for a washer and dryer, a hot water heater, and a cupboard. It’s like standing in a closet with little room to turn around or bend down and put clothes in the dryer.

Outside we are backed up to a school playground, with children shrieking. I feel like I’m in a portable toilet at a parade or street fair or picnic, without the smell.

Fortunately, the machines work well and quickly.

There are no surfer posters. Maybe I should hang one? Would the other tenants like it?

The shack at Windansea
The shack at Windansea

There is a community bulletin board on which one tenant has reserved Thursday mornings for his laundry time. He’s also set up a schedule for taking the trash and recycle bins to the curb. He’s drawn a nice little illustration of all four apartments and a corresponding chart of showing which Sunday we each have to move the bins, and take them in on Monday morning.

Yes, if I’m going to be toiling in a shed/shack, then there should be be a picture of paradise inside.

The Laundry Room — Part 1

I just moved into a place with the strangest laundry room. While I gather my wits dealing with this weird, weird set-up, I am remembering happier laundry days and rooms.

Recently I shared a washer and dryer in the garage of my duplex. This was as close as it gets to having my own washer and dryer in my own home. Here was my car snuggled in close behind me and there were my shelves of paint cans and plastic storage bins.

I soon figured out that my neighbor LOVED to do laundry. What she was washing all the time I never figured out, but she had those machines chugging and clanking away three days a week – Saturday and Sunday and Wednesday, her mid-week day off. Luckily I work at home, so I was able to do my wash easily enough on any of the other days. During my eight years there, we had problems with men and family members, but never with laundry.

Laundry Room
Door on left with vent is laundry room.

Before that, I lived in a small complex of eight units near the beach. The washer and dryer were located in a small, very small, storage room at the back of the building with a door on the alley. It was funky, but for some reason, I enjoyed it. I found an early timeslot to slip into the little room. Not too difficult, since most of the tenants were young people often slept in.

This room inspired a poem, which appeared in “A Year in Ink, Vol. 1” published by San Diego Writers, Ink.

Not All Laundromats Are Sad

—Idea laundered from Stephen Dunn

Compared to the laundry room in my apartment building the neighborhood laundromat is shangri-la even though ours is covered with cracked posters of surfers on curling waves someone has put up to make it seem inviting so that when we’re stuffing smelly socks into the washer and pouring gooey blue soap over the top we can imagine ourselves at a beachside resort running through a few towels and a bikini easy to do here because we really are just a few hundred feet from the ocean and surfers often walk by in the sunshine as I’m digging out my quarters and pushing them in with a clunk and waiting for the rushing gushing sound of water that will soak away a week’s worth of sweat spills and grimy toil before the machine shudders to a stop and waits for my return holding its damp digested mass until I can pick it apart and throw it piece by piece into the dryer checking first to see if the previous user cleaned the lint screen which usually he or she has not but I really don’t mind because I enjoy plucking and rolling it off and even using it to wipe down the edges of the opening a blast furnace that will suck everything dry and then I enjoy the folding process the sense of completing something at least for another week easier than completing a poem and even though the little room is a sad neglected place compared to the one down on the corner which is clean and modern and bright and filled with beautiful people with beautiful bodies it suits me just fine with the tang of salt air and champion surfers for company.

Settling in with Ghosts

Settling in. Week number five now. It takes awhile to feel the spirit or spirits of a new place. At first, there is too much bumping into boxes, walls, door jams to hear the stories here being narrated by ghosts and choreographed by shadows.

I lie awake at night and listen to new noises. Which noises are normal and which are not? Gurgling of pipes, creaking, knocking, scratching of branches, flutter of wings against the window. During the day there are hummingbirds hovering over the purple-blue morning glories. Outside the window, the night sky is as inky dark as it gets and I cannot tell what is out there. Suddenly a light goes on. Is it an automatic light sensing an animal, or my neighbor lighting up his room or a car’s headlights from the street? Another neighbor takes a shower and the pipes shudder and shake the walls as he turns off the water.

Shadows on wall

My cats are restless. They rattle the blinds trying to see into the night, jump on and off my bed several times before finally settling in. Yes, settling in. It takes awhile.

I do not believe in ghosts or anything supernatural. Nevertheless, ghosts can exist in our imagination, especially when we move into new homes. They can be remnants of what we imagine happened here – or even what we know happened here. I happen to know that the last occupant lost her job and her dog. She also found a dead cat on this front lawn, which I saw too while out walking. Did her dreams of joy drift away and leave the ghosts of sadness?

Or the opposite. Did joyous people live here – circus performers, artists, singers, dancers, cooks? Their laughter and creativity remain.

Shadows on CurtainOr maybe my new house is purged of ghosts and I can bring my own. What is that dream taunting me outside the window after the sun goes down and before it comes up again? What is that shadow on the wall – branches and leaves reaching toward me with a warning, or an embrace?

Rules of the Road

It’s that time on the roadway of life again. Driver’s license renewal. The one requiring me to go into the Department of Motor Vehicles in person. No quick clicks online or mailing in a form. Not this time. No, it’s time for a new photo (instant aging, thanks a lot), a written test to make sure I understand the rules of the road and an eye exam to make sure I can see the road.

Damn! This notice comes at a terrible time, while I’m in the middle of moving. But they do give me a few weeks, until my birthday in September, so I figure I’ll take care of it after my move.

I probably should pick up a copy of the latest California Driving Handbook, so I stop by the local DMV on a Saturday morning while out running an errand. I know they are not open on Saturdays (that would be too convenient), but I hope beyond all hope they might have handbooks outside in a rack, like newspapers. No such luck.

I go online to see if I can order one. Only in large quantities, if I’m a teacher. I try calling the information line, but am told the wait will be long. I discover I can download and print the PDF version. It’s 108 pages, which my little printer will not like.

DMVI decide to drive back up to the DMV on a weekday and see if I can snag a copy. A long, snaking line of grumbling, fumbling people coils through the lobby. I look around for something, anything that might hold the handbooks – a rack, table, sign. No such luck. Also, there is no way to move inside to ask anyone without cutting the line. A second look at their faces tells me this would not go over well. A big display up above flashes the waiting time – 20 minutes.

I decide to come home and print out the manual, a few pages at a time, which takes two to three days and several paper jams. But finally I have the rules and guidelines to review and I also have the option of taking trial tests online. The DMV recommends making an appointment and I go online to do that. The first available appointment is a week after my birthday, when my license expires! What will I do? Drive for a week with an expired license or go before it expires and stand in line? I will go and stand in line this week.

This gives me time to review the driving handbook, which consists of laws and guidelines. And this is what I’ve learned so far.

Some guidelines.

It’s a good idea to have shoulder belts and air bags because if I collide at 30 miles per hour, my vehicle stops but I keep going until I hit something and this is the equivalent of hitting the ground from the top of a three-story building.

Watch out for problem (distracted or confused) drivers and pedestrians, such as tourists, those with maps or umbrellas in front of their faces and those driving slowly for no reason.

Don’t honk at a blind pedestrian.

To avoid aggressive driving and road rage:

Don’t cut off or tailgate.

Don’t make gestures.

Don’t honk unless it’s an emergency, like a big truck is about to drive into me.

Don’t make eye contact with an angry driver.

Some rules. It’s illegal for me to:

Follow a fire truck or ambulance for looky-loo sightseeing.

Tow more than one car or anything more than 6,000 pounds.

Let anyone ride on the outside or in the trunk of my car.

Shoot firearms on a highway or at traffic signs.

Well, I’m glad to know all this. I guess. After reading of all the dangers, from fog and ice to curving roads and tailgating texters, I wonder why I get in this little machine and hurtle down the road.

My postscript: I’m officially good to go for another few years. I look older in my photo (will not elaborate) but also wiser, passed the exam with no mistakes!

Obsessive Unpacking Disorder

I’m no longer suffering from Chronic Packing Syndrome. Nor am I betwixt and between two homes. I’ve landed safely on the other side.

But now I have a new affliction – Obsessive Unpacking Disorder. Not that I really have to rush through all 50 boxes. I’m not on a deadline the way I was packing.

I do have to unpack most of them, however, so that I can walk from one side of a room to another, and from one room to another without tripping and killing myself. I’ve been bumbling around for a week now and have the bruises to prove it.

UnpackingThe cats have already used up a few of their lives catapulting themselves from the box towers onto the fireplace mantle, unsteady bookcases and top shelves of closets. They’ve also risked my wrath running across the tops at three in the morning.

My one shy cat is a holdout. She has yet to venture out of the bedroom. I know how she feels, would like to stay in there myself, under the covers, and will all my possessions to put themselves away.

But if I’m ever to wear my beige bras again (forgot to keep one out), if I’m ever to wear more than one pair of shoes, if I’m ever to eat off real (not paper) plates again, using real (not plastic) silverware, in fact, if I’m ever going to prepare real (not takeout or microwave) food again – then I have to unpack boxes, boxes, and more boxes.Unpacking Zoe

I’m a pretty well-organized person, so most of my boxes are labeled by room with some clues as to what’s in them. But no matter how careful I was, it was so tempting to stuff things in at the last minute to fill spaces. Thus the tangle of bras end up mysteriously entwined with pots and pans or desk accessories. The walking shoes I added at the last minute to the box with the small bedside lamp, thinking I’d remember. Ha!

So I’ve become a bit obsessive, developing a disorder to help me feign some sense of order. Work in the morning (I carried my computer over by hand, so can’t make excuses), unpack in the afternoon, a few a day. Must meet my goal.

It’s like living in a maze that keeps changing. No sooner do I get used to navigating around a 5-foot stack in the bedroom when it’s gone and I trip on nothingness.

My bedroom scaredycat is finally poking her head into the hallway and I wave at her encouragingly from the living room, but of course she can’t see me over the boxes.

Unpacking Linda and Lily
Unpacking Linda and Lily

I feel disoriented outside too. My new home is only around the corner from my old one, but the right angle turn has thrown me off. When I go out the front door, do I turn left or right? Coming home, do I remember to stop at my door, or do I walk right on past? Yes, I do walk by, still on auto pilot to my old home. Do I forget that my car is now parked out back instead of downstairs in a garage? Yes, I do and so have to carry all my flattened cardboard boxes back around, up the long driveway, easier than the indoor maze. I stuff them all in my car and head for the recycle center, grateful I can now drive forward onto the street instead of backing out into traffic from my old garage. And I’m thrilled when I find the recycle center is quiet and empty and I can throw all the flattened boxes I’ve unpacked into the blue bin’s smiling, cavernous mouth.