Ohana Means Family

I grew up the daughter of a working-class, high-school educated, divorced mother of three. If I were being nice, I guess I'd call us lower middle class. My dad never missed a child support payment, and he even voluntarily increased the check as my sisters aged out. I know he helped my mom out financially, and yet we still lived paycheck to paycheck. Mom didn't earn much as a secretary, and what she did earn didn't last long. I love the woman, but she was terrible with money.

The funny thing about growing up poor is you don't know you're poor until the kids at school make fun of your clothes or snidely refer to your neighborhood as the barrio. I didn't feel poor, probably because I usually benefitted from Mom's irresponsible ways with money. Sure, we never had name-brand clothes or summer vacations, but Mom always found a way to spoil us on special occassions. There were elaborate baskets at Easter, ridiculously large, chocolate-fllled hearts for Valentine's Day, and Christmases where it took us the entire morning and a decent chunk of the afternoon just to open all the gifts.

Christmas was Mom's favorite — she wasn’t happy until piles of shiny packages filled all the available real estate beneath the tree, spilled out in a massive ring around it, and then stretched out to reach the wall on either side. Piles of gifts flanked the tree, the stacks soaring so high it was a wonder we weren’t all buried beneath a red and green avalanche each Christmas morning.

I’m sure Mom knew she was overdoing it, but that never stopped her. She was determined to give her kids a magical Christmas each year, even if she had to spend the next twelve months paying off Fingerhut and Swiss Colony and whoever else was greedy enough to extend her credit at revoltingly high interest rates.

It’s not hard to figure out where Mom’s annual hunger for the Most Incredible Christmas Ever originated. A ward of the state, she grew up in an orphanage and endured a string of abusive foster homes until the age of nine, when she was finally adopted by a strict German man who revered frugality above all other traits. Fun fact: Grandpa had a kitchen drawer filled with twist-ties he’d saved from every loaf of bread he’d purchased. Ever. He once yelled at me for tossing one in the garbage, and I struggled for a delicate way to say, “You’re 92 years old, and you already own seventeen-thousand twist-ties. How many more could you possibly need in your lifetime?” In the end, though, I fished the twist-tie from the trash and placated him.

Grandpa did not pass his thrifty ways on to Mom (although she did save twist-ties; I guess some habits die hard). Money poured through Mom’s hands like it was made of water. I think that being denied so much in her formative years made Mom crave the sort of instant gratification that comes from seeing something you want and just buying it. Not that she bought much for herself — she was generous to a fault and got way more pleasure from lavishing others with gifts she couldn’t afford. This practice of living beyond her meager means forced her to make several awkward calls to Grandpa or my dad throughout the years, asking for a loan so she could pay rent or get her old, broken-ass car repaired for the umpteenth time. I remember how uncomfortable those calls seemed to be … yet never uncomfortable enough to effect any long-term change in her behavior. To Mom, money was meant to be enjoyed, not saved.

Here's the thing: I’m not entirely sure her philosophy was wrong.

In August of 2002, my mom was living in Phoenix when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. The disease progressed rapidly, and the chemo soon rendered her too weak to work, or to do much of anything, really. I quit my job to help care for her, spending every other weekend with my husband back in Austin. By Christmas, she was a shadow of the gregarious, aggressively generous person I’d known all my life. She slept for much of the day, and when she was awake the cocktail of cancer drugs and painkillers she was taking left her only fleeting hours of lucidity. Still, my sisters and I were determined to give her the sort of Christmas she’d always given us. We loaded up the tree, just as Mom had taught us, with zero regard to the future. Unfortunately, this meant there wasn't enough money for my husband to fly out and join us for Christmas.

It was shortly after breaking this news to Mom that we watched the movie Lilo and Stitch. I’d seen it before, and I was eager to share and discuss the poignant sister dynamic portrayed in the movie with my own sisters. I knew Mom would sleep through it; at this point she practically lived in her recliner in the living room, but I doubted we'd disturb her. Although she was rarely alert enough to watch an entire movie with us, I think she liked having her girls near. I didn’t think she’d caught much of the show, and so I was surprised when she asked me to fetch her purse the moment it ended. I complied, and she pulled out the $200 she’d received for her birthday the previous month. Other than some loose change in a jar by her bed, that $200 represented the sum total of her life’s savings — and she thrust it into my hands with more energy than I’d seen her muster in days.

“Ohana means family,” she said, quoting the movie. “And family means no one gets left behind. Tell Markie to get his butt out here for Christmas.”

Thanks to Mom and her reckless ways with money, my husband was able to join us for the holiday that year. I wish I could say it was the Best Christmas Ever, but this is real life, not a fucking Disney movie. When Mom wasn’t sleeping in her recliner, she was fading in and out of conversations, often dropping off in mid-sentence. It was a bleak contrast to the frenzy of baking and chatting and last-minute gift-wrapping she’d normally be doing. But at least we were all together. That Christmas taught me that it was never about the mountains of gifts (or debt) for Mom — it was about making a memory that would last long after the final package was unwrapped.

Did she know that that would be our last Christmas together as a family? Did she know that she’d be gone less than a month later? Or did she just hate the thought of that money sitting there in her purse when she could be spending it on something that would bring us all joy?

I’ll never know. But I think, just maybe, it was all of the above.

Merry Christmas, y’all.


Welcome Back!

I recently returned to work after a long, child-rearing-focused absence, and I must admit it's both a relief and also demoralizing to see how little things have changed. After soaking up enough corporate culture to vomit buzzwords in my sleep, I decided to draw a comic strip to commemorate my triumphant return to the tech sector and corporate America.  

Yes, it's done entirely in PowerPoint, mostly because I suck at drawing but also because I'm too cheap to buy a real graphics program. And when it comes down to it, I doubt I could have found a better way to represent modern American business culture than using the wrong tools to create an inferior product which I will now market on the worst platform available. 

So here we are: the first stop on my path to COMPLETE INTERNET DOMINATION, MUAHAHA. The Oatmeal had better watch his back!



Careful ... They Bite!

Writers are weird. There's no way around it, no other way to say it. We're odd ducks. We prefer the people who live inside our heads to the vast majority of those we've met in the real world. It's a solitary profession, this weaving of ordinary threads into extraordinary tapestries. An isolation that is difficult to explain, even for those who live and interact with us daily.

But help is on the way.

Welcome to the first in a who-knows-how-many-part series on the proper care and maintenance of your typical writer, or scribus domesticus. We'll start with a handy guide on recognizing common behavioral problems. Look for future posts on grooming techniques, feeding requirements, and breeding tips.



How to Tell When the Writer in Your Life is Dying Inside at a Creative Roadblock


  • Their “To-Be-Read” pile of books no longer resembles a 1:4 scale model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
  • The DVR is less than 93% full for the first time in years, leaving nothing but eighteen episodes of Masterpiece Theater they’ll never watch but for some reason cannot delete.
  • They’ve become an overnight expert on current events, providing regular updates on Syria’s civil war, Iran’s nuclear threat, and whatever crazy shit Kim Jong-un is up to in North Korea. Your appreciation for their expanded worldview fades when they demand you play “Richard Engel meets Noori the Naughty Freedom Fighter” each night.
  • Dinner comes from the oven, not the delivery kid who spends so much time at your place he qualifies as a tax deduction. You're starting to miss him, too.
  • They mow your grass, trim your trees, prune your shrubs, and then replace all your fading annuals with perennials. Your apartment complex politely requests that, for liability purposes, they knock it the hell off.
  • They want an elliptical machine that you know will become an expensive storage device for dust and cat hair once they resume writing. (But you can’t say that without them accusing you of hoping they die young, probably so you’ll be free to sleep with that tramp from Accounting being unsupportive.)
  • The high-octane, double-espresso K-cups no longer disappear faster than fairy blood at a vampire convention. (Random shout-out to Charlaine Harris!).
  • You have trouble falling asleep, unaccustomed to them lying beside you any earlier than 3a.m. You long for the click-clack lullaby of their keyboard.

And the number one way to tell when the writer in your life is stuck?

  • They write stupid lists for their blog when they ought to be working on their novel.



I Don't Think That Means What You Think It Means

I spend a lot of time on the road, much of which is spent sitting in traffic. Having banned in-vehicle cell phone use after I nearly rear-ended someone while watching a Ricky Martin video (the irony, y’all!), I’ve been forced to entertain myself in other ways.

Mostly, I pass the time plotting deliciously fiendish ways to torture the characters in the books I ought to be writing. But every now and then I take a moment to observe my fellow drivers. And I've noticed that people who buy certain vehicles tend to have a very specific idea about the image they’re projecting. And in many cases, they’re dead wrong.

To combat this tragic case of perception-myopia, I’ve devised the following guide.

You’re welcome.


What You THINK Your Vehicle Says About You


What Your Vehicle ACTUALLY Says About You



What You Think It Says:

I love every minute of my crazy-busy life. Not only am I a star at work, but I also shoulder most of the responsibilities at home, thus allowing my spouse more freedom to crap up the garage with his latest haul of ridiculously overpriced homebrew equipment. I even find time to volunteer for the PTA and the food pantry. Whether it’s taking the kids to soccer practice or rushing to meet with one of my three book clubs, I know my vehicle reflects the sort of smart, reliable person I am.


What It Actually Says:

I am one divorce away from owning ten cats and starring in an episode of Hoarders.


"I tell ya what, Sheryl Sandberg: you lend me your nanny, and I'll lean in more."



What You Think It Says:

I’m a free spirit who loves the feel of the wind in my hair. When I'm behind the wheel, no road is too steep and no mountain too high. I love a good dare almost as much as I love being spontaneous. Off-road or in-town, I’m always ready for the next adventure!


What It Actually Says:

I have an STD.


Smells like freedom. And antibiotic ointment.




What You Think It Says:

I’ve been blessed with a large family and enough disposable income to blow fifty grand on a four-wheel drive mobile mammoth that spends most of its time idling in city traffic. The 4.1-mpg this baby gets doesn’t worry me at all, since I’ll be claimed by the Rapture long before we finish raping the Earth for fossil fuels.


What It Actually Says:

I vote Republican.


Suck it, Al Gore! 




What You Think It Says:

Everyone wants me — man or woman, straight or gay, young or old. Hell, even Fido does a double take when I stroll into a room. Remember when JT was bringing sexy back? Well, I’m the one who stole it, babe.


What It Actually Says:

I am the doucheyest douche in Doucheville.


 All aboard the Doucheville Express!




What You Think It Says:

Unlike love, you can’t buy class. My Jag gets me pretty close, though, from the handcrafted wood veneers and smooth metallic trim of its posh console to the leather headliner designed by renowned Italian furniture house Poltrona Frau. I added the limited-availability Portfolio Pack, because nothing says wealth and exclusivity like premium carpet mats. Jealous?


What It Actually Says:

I’m putting my mechanic’s children through college.


 You're only a douche if you pronounce "Jaguar" with three syllables. (I'm looking at you, England.)



What You Think It Says:

Labels and brand names aren’t important to me — I’m just looking for the maximum value I can get for every dollar I earn as an assistant manager at McDonald’s. Sure, a Kia’s resale value falls roughly between that of used sweatsocks and a Sony Discman, but by the time I’m ready to sell I’ll have won the lottery and it won’t matter anyway.


What It Actually Says:

My credit cards are all maxed out.


 Fifty-eight more payments, and she's mine!



BMW (all models)

What You Think It Says:

I appreciate the superior engineering and obvious devotion to quality that goes into manufacturing each and every BMW. My car is the perfect amalgam of sport and luxury, a product of that rare synergy found when obsession meets fanaticism (which isn’t a particularly new thing in Germany). Anyway, if it was good enough for Julia Roberts’ rich boyfriend in Mystic Pizza after she dumped fish in his Porsche, then it’s good enough for me!


What It Actually Says:

I was cool once. I think.


 Honk if this movie still makes you cry.




What You Think It Says:

I care deeply about the environment and the long-term effects our dependency on foreign oil will have on our future, both morally and geopolitically. I want to leave the smallest footprint possible, which is why I love how well my reusable grocery bags and drinking cups fit in the roomy(ish) hatchback. I truly believe that together we can make the world a better place.


What It Actually Says:

I don’t have sex very often.


 "Is this thing running, or not? Seriously, my vibrator makes more noise."




What You Think It Says:

I only listen to obscure indie bands, many of which I’ll trash on my hugely successful blog once they get too popular. I spend my days in coffee shops and my nights in art-house theaters, watching foreign films. I see myself as a modern-day Kerouac, a techno-age iconoclast raging against the very machine that makes my existence both possible and purposeful. I bought a Toyota to be ironic.


What It Actually Says:

My mom still does my laundry.


 "I only go to SXSW to lament the early days and snark about MySpace."




What You Think It Says:

I’m friendly and courteous, a hard-working, blue-collar guy who’s happy to help fix your flat tire. You ran out of gas? No problem — I carry a spare gallon in back. I’ll hold the door for you while you fetch it from the depths of the roomy cargo hold. Did I mention how pretty you are?


What It Actually Says:

There are assorted body parts buried in my backyard.


 Run away!!!!!!!!






Home Sweet Home

“How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again."

—   James Agee, A Death in the Family


You can never go home again.

That’s exactly what my mom told me when I asked why we had to leave Tuxedo, NY (a place to which we’d moved two years earlier, after leaving Harriman, a place to which we’d moved six months earlier, after leaving Georgetown, a place to which we’d moved a year earlier, after leaving…) Yeah.

Mom was a bit of a nomad.

Her two best friends were Rand and McNally. The road atlas was no mere map to Mom — it was a brochure for a golden future, rife with possibilities, and she studied it like a kid who’d just discovered the Sears toy catalog for the first time. She even dog-eared her favorite states: Montana, Oregon, West Virginia. Our next home was never more than a whim away. To this day, I still panic a little when I hear Willie Nelson telling me how much he just can’t wait to get on the road again. That song was Mom’s anthem for adventure — there was no turning back once she started singing it.

I was fifteen when we left New York (that time). To say I wasn’t a fan of leaving would be an understatement of epic size and scope, like saying Snooki is a few watts short of a light bulb or Charlie Sheen has a little image problem.

The point is I liked Tuxedo. I wanted to stay. I’d attended seven different schools by the time I’d entered seventh grade, and the one in Tuxedo had broken the record for The Longest Time at One School.

Two years and three months.

It was heaven. I had finally found a place where, even if I still didn’t quite fit in, at least I was no longer being ridiculed daily as the ugliest, fattest, poorest kid in class. I’d even stopped sneaking next door to the elementary school each day at lunch, just so I could pass the period huddled in a quiet stairwell, away from taunts and fear and the constant, overwhelming yearning to just … disappear. Another year or two, and I might have had friends.

But it wasn’t to be. Because you can’t go home again. And whatever had prompted Mom to return to her tri-state origins in the first place — whatever sense of “home” she thought she’d find — remained as elusive as Snooki’s membership to Mensa.

And so we hit the road, leaving behind the most beautiful place I had ever lived. I pouted and raged and silently vowed to get off the crazy-train as soon I was old enough, regardless of where it had stopped.

A couple years later, I met my future husband at a community college outside Phoenix (thus proving every cloud has a silver lining). We shared similar backgrounds and had both logged many years playing Pin The Tail On The Roadmap. We left Phoenix, a town in which neither of us had chosen to live, and settled in Austin. My father and stepmother let us stay with them, rent-free, so we could pad our savings. Six months later we bought our first home. I still remember lying in the middle of the living room floor after we’d signed the papers, floating on a cloud of contentment.

We were homeowners.

That little house was ours. No one could make us leave, so long as we paid the mortgage. At long last, we had ROOTS — and did we ever dig them in! Past the dirt, past all the rocks, way down where the earth is cold and heavy. Not even the strongest wind could shake us loose. We’d live there forever.

There was only one small problem — small being the key word. We had outgrown our little house even before adding to our family. Once our daughter was born, it felt like living inside a postage stamp. I’m not sure why an infant the size of a bowling ball needs a million onesies, much less two million burp cloths and seventeen million toys. I just know they do ... and I knew if we didn’t find something larger, our house would stretch like an overinflated beach-ball until it finally exploded, covering the neighborhood in a curious layer of stuffed-animal cats and half-naked Barbie dolls.

With the threat of Toddlermageddon looming, we looked for a new house. Amazingly, we found one nearly three times as large, twenty years younger, and far more energy efficient than the one in which we’d spent the past twelve years … all at a price too good to believe. We made an offer. Then we sat back and said, “Ruh-roh. What the hell were we thinking?”

We don’t deal well with change. It’s not from lack of experience — it’s the opposite, in fact. Familiarity breeds contempt. In my case, though, the word contempt is too mild. Terror is more like it.

Homegirl likes her sense of security. Bigtime.

We couldn’t bring ourselves to sell, even after we’d signed the papers to buy a second house. Turning the first into a rental property seemed like the perfect answer. We wouldn’t make any money, but neither would we lose too much. It was worth it to keep our options open. If we hated the new neighborhood, we could always move back. We weren’t really leaving this time. And now we were landlords. Again, there was only one small problem.

We sucked at being landlords.

We could have hired a management service, but then we would have lost a stupid amount of money. So we did everything ourselves.

It wasn’t fun. In fifteen months, rent was never paid on time and the simplest of transactions turned into massive headaches. When our tenants decided to break their lease two weeks before Christmas, the task of finding new ones, especially at that time of year, no longer seemed worth the effort. It was time to grow up and stop hedging our bets.

It was time to put the house on the market.

Ironically, it sold just three months before our daughter’s school announced its new, permanent location … two blocks away from our old house. Rather than driving over 40 miles a day (and paying $6 a day in tolls), I could have walked her to school. In five minutes.

Of course, that would have meant returning to the smaller house. And life should be lived moving forward, not backward. Also, you can never go home again.

Because of my daughter’s school, I now return to my old neighborhood several times each day. And I know you can’t go home again, and I know I wouldn’t move back into that house even if I could, and yet … I can’t get past this sense of nostalgia every time I see the place. My steering wheel tries to turn, and my fingers itch to pull over, to trim the too-low branches from the fan palm and sniff the blooms of the mimosa tree one more time. This melancholy is more pervasive than the nandina that still grows beside our old garage. I know it is not the structure for which I long so much as the memories and the history and the little piece of my soul I somehow forgot to pack.

Some day, I hope I’ll be able to drive by the house without feeling so damned nostalgic. But then I wonder if that won’t be the saddest day of all.

All this reminiscing reminds me of a story I wrote when we sold our little house on Mosley Lane. Perhaps it’s time to share it again.

I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you have the privilege of living in a house you love.


Goodbye, Mosley


I know it’s just a house. 

Just a shelter from the elements, a glorified box with windows and doors. To say it’s nothing more than bricks and mortar would be stretching the truth, since there’s only half a wall of masonry in front. Even that serves more for decoration than function. Simple lumber provides the only real support. Clearly, the architect cared more for cheap construction than design elements.

Once upon a time, there were rats in the attic. We set traps when we suspected this and quickly had proof: a dead rat, with a hollowed out skull where its head should have been. Presumably, the other rats had eaten its brain. Zombie rats ... who knew? Calls were made to pest control specialists. Contractors eventually replaced the siding and roofing, safeguarding us from the rodent version of Dawn of the Dead. We set more traps, loaded with peanut butter, in case any of the little freaks of nature were still inside. 

Zombie rats love peanut butter.

There are a thousand things I meant to do to this house. Now that it’s empty, they jump out at me: the gaps where the baseboards still need to be caulked; the gouges in the wall where I got a bit too zealous removing the wallpaper; the crack in the ceiling, along the drywall seam. 

If I look hard enough, I can just make out the holes in the wall where the baby-gate was attached. And that’s when it hits me.

These walls have seen more of my life than any others I’ve known. 

They held me up after my mother died, when the effort to walk was more than I could bear. They watched me bring my newborn daughter home from the hospital and set her tiny, sleeping body on the bed. They must have seen the terror on my face, must have realized how unprepared my husband and I were when I whispered, “What do we do now?” The house answered as best it could. The doors seemed to stick less when she was sleeping, and the needle-sharp holly outside her window quadrupled in size. No intruders would dare enter.

My baby outgrew her crib in this house. She became a child here. It feels so wrong to stand in her room now that it’s barren. Where is the Winnie the Pooh wallpaper border we hung when I was pregnant? Where are the Tinker Bell murals that brightened her playroom? 

The halls echo with my footsteps instead of her laughter. Safe, neutral tones have replaced the vibrant green walls and purple trim she loved so much. I know it had to be done — who would buy a house with such ludicrous colors? But it still feels like a betrayal, like I’ve destroyed a piece of her childhood. With paintbrush and putty knife, I have erased every trace of the giggling babe who once crawled these floors.

My little girl.

I’ll no longer be able to sneak into this room while she’s at school, or sit in the rocking chair and feel the phantom weight of her tiny body against my chest. The scent of baby lotion no longer lingers on the air. There’s only the sharp smell of fresh paint, and the bittersweet sting of remembering.

There are more memories waiting for me down the hall, in the bedroom my husband and I shared for so many years. Sleepy morning kisses and gentle rain pelting the windows. Candlelit nights and soft sighs. But these are private memories, best left unwritten. No one will know the games played in this room. The house will keep our secrets.

I walk to the living room and stare out the window. The patio looks so sterile without my jungle of houseplants crowding it. The ash tree will drop its seedpods soon, but someone else will have to sweep them up. I’m relieved, yet I can’t stop a stab of jealousy as I picture a stranger sitting beneath these branches. Will they wrap themselves in a blanket on chilly autumn mornings and sip their coffee, as I did? Will their eyes watch for the flash of red from the cardinal who winters in our yard? Will their spirits lift when they hear his song?

The image before me blurs, and I know it is time to leave. Time to say goodbye. 

Goodbye to pool parties and plentiful parking, to zany neighbors and crooked walls. Goodbye to an insanely large closet and an annoyingly small kitchen. Goodbye, messy tree and sweet, melodious cardinal. Goodbye, zombie rats. 

Goodbye, Mosley.

I turn my key in the lock for the last time and allow myself one look back. I see much more than an empty house. Behind the cracked, peeling paint of the front door I remember thirteen years of laughter and tears, thirteen years of fights and reconciliations, of highs and lows. Within this simple shell, there was the joy of birth and the sorrow of death. 

But above all, there was life.

I know it’s just a house. 

Just wood and nails that cannot see my tears or hear my whispered thanks. I offer both anyway. 

Thank you, Mosley. Thank you for being our home.