Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Police Log

The phone rang at five a.m. Eric answered but the San Francisco police wanted to speak to me. Please, please , please let it be one of the teenagers in trouble with the law - not something worse. Let it be a situation we could fix, not the end of everything as we knew it. Trembling, damn near hyperventilating, I spoke to the officer. They had a subject in custody and she was in possession of my credit card bill. Did I know this person? Was she authorized to have my mail? No and no, but why must they scare the crap out of me by calling so early? Couldn’t it wait until a reasonable hour? The officer, a lieutenant, explained that in order to hold and charge the person they needed my statement. Little did I know that this was but the first ripple after the pebble was tossed into the pond.

We live in a quiet suburb outside a major city. Our house is on a one block street leading nowhere. When these houses were built about sixty years ago each handsome, solid front door had a stylish brass mail slot. The mailman would drop our mail through the slot each day until about fourteen years ago when the carrier took issue with, and maced, our dog. This was followed by a suggestion that we install a mailbox at the end of our very short driveway if we still wanted home delivery. I can’t say that I blame the carrier. Even though our dog was sweet she learned from the Akita next door that when the mailman arrived it was time to join the bark-off. She got so into it that she started pulling the mail with her teeth, while growling and barking, as he was shoving it through the slot. It was actually quite funny to see, but since the carrier had just been bitten rather badly by the idiotic cockapoo who lived around the corner, he was probably justified.

We bought a sweet white, mailbox like you’d see on a country lane and duly installed it on a post at the end of the driveway. It was kind of fun for the kids to put the flag up when we had outgoing mail and people could drop things off for us in the box. Best of all, I no longer had to pick up all the mail that was scattered around the floor by the front door each day.

I’d heard about mail theft in our town for years, but I couldn’t really relate to it. It was always a row of mailboxes that were lined up away from houses and in a busy area on the way out to the beach. But on our little street? How could this be? Reading the police log in the weekly community paper gave me my answer. We don’t have much violent crime here, although there has been the random murder and the very sad occasion when a young mother smothered her little daughter in a local hotel. Most of the reports to the police are fairly benign and some downright amusing. Apparently, I’m not the only one who has noticed this because I recently saw a comedy show in the local plaza and the MC introduced the show by reading highlights from, you guessed it, the police log.

Peppered in with Party Complaints, Advice to Citizens, Juvenile Disturbances and Animal Incidents are the reports of thefts from UNLOCKED cars. You would not believe what people leave in their unlocked cars in this town. Cameras, iPods, iPhones, brief cases, passports, wallets, credit cards, laptops,checkbooks, jewelry, CASH and more CASH. Of course every petty criminal in the tri-county area comes here to steal from unlocked cars. It’s the mother lode. It’s so easy. You don’t even have to smash a window - just go through the neighborhood at night and pocket the goods. What surprises me is that, despite that fact that I’ve been tsk-tsking in amazement about this for years, people don’t really seem to learn. We are not that special, that insulated, that safe. Yes, it’s a wealthy community, and obviously it’s citizens can afford to replace what they’ve lost, but they don’t understand that by making it so easy for outsiders to get a haul of loot, they are making us all less safe. There are more strangers who have no reason, other than criminal, to be here.

Mail theft is apparently quite common as well as lucrative. My credit card number was going to be sold to some overseas operation. Lucky me. Of course it wasn’t just the credit card that was taken, but it took me months to discover what else I was missing and I’m sure I still don’t know about all of my stolen mail. It made me wonder about how many times it had happened and how it could have been done without someone seeing. My early morning phone call was followed up by several calls later that day from the Postal Service and San Francisco police explaining the process and asking for my cooperation in the criminal prosecution. At that point I was more than happy to help. That was before I became part of the arbitrary, inane, bureaucratic machine called the U.S. Postal service.

Our home delivery stopped immediately with no explanation. I went to the post office and stood in line so I could find out why we weren’t getting mail. I spoke to someone who was unfriendly to the point of meanness but finally got my mail. I was assured the delivery would resume. It did for one day. When I went back I was told I needed to spend several hundred dollars to purchase a locked mailbox. They would no longer deliver to the mailbox that we had because there had been theft. I suggested they put the mail through the slot like they used to but that was not an option. Even though mail had been delivered to that door for over fifty years it was no longer possible because when we got the mailbox, at their request, the route was redesigned and it was now designed around the time it took for the carrier to put the mail in the mailbox, not walk up the walk to the house. Even though the houses on both sides of us and almost the entire street had the mail brought right to the front door. Once there has been a change in the route in favor of the post office you can never go back.

I got very agitated with the manager. I could literally feel myself "going postal". I grabbed the mail and left in a fury. There went cute.There went my idea of the sweet country lane. This was the new reality of my suburbs. I refused to buy the box and they refused to deliver. We removed the mail box and knocked the post out with a sledge hammer. I had my lawyer husband talk to the woman in charge of the criminal investigation who spoke to the mean manager. The postal regulations were on his side and they did not have to alter the route. It was explained that I was cooperating with the criminal investigation. It seemed to go unnoticed that I was the victim of the crime. An agreement was made. If we would make the door slot bigger the post office would start to deliver again. Apparently the door slot was too narrow and it took too much time for the carrier to push the mail through. It wasn’t too small before the post office asked us to install the mail box but it was now. My husband said we would capitulate and the mail arrived for several days and stopped again. When I called the manager he said that delivery had ceased because we hadn’t done the retrofit. I explained that it had only been a couple days, we both work and we are not carpenters. We would have to hire someone.

Finally my brother came to the rescue after I begged him. It made me sad to have to cut the door and not be able to use the original brass slot, but he did a nice job and just in time. My husband had decided to get started on it since my brother was late. I texted frantically urging him to hurry. Eric is absolutely brilliant, but he’s not a woodworker. He once asked his cousin, a fine carpenter, how long it would take him to get good at building and the answer was, "Three generations."

The day after Thanksgiving I was showing property to clients when I was pulled over by the cops, flashing lights and all. Mortifying. I didn’t have a current registration sticker. I’d sent it in on time back in August, but it obviously had been stolen with my other mail. Another ripple. I had to go to the DMV, stand in line and pay for a new sticker. More fun. The whole postal incident is pretty much behind me. I was sent some information about how to track the criminal investigation online but I couldn’t understand the instructions and gave up. Other than having to pick up the clutter off the floor by the front door everyday, life is pretty much back to normal.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Divorce Blood

Is there something in the blood that causes people to divorce? Is it nature or is it nurture? I wonder. I have been married three times and I come from a line of the multiple married. There have been so many marriages in my family that it is almost impossible to understand. Maybe it’s not just that we are divorcers, but as my father’s cousin put it, ”You Partridges, you’re marriers.” The resultant progeny does not even bear explaining. Throughout my life I’ve had two brothers, one step-brother and a half brother younger than my firstborn. After one murder, one accident and one estrangement, I have one brother left as well as two sisters and an ex-stepsister.

When people ask me how many siblings I have it confounds me. We started out as five and three weeks after my little sister was born my oldest brother was hit by a car and killed. My father left my mother for another woman a couple years later and married someone with two children. Five minus one plus two. My step-brother was killed and shortly thereafter my father left my step-mother. There is a pattern here. I met the half-brother he had with his third wife a few times, but way too much damage had been done and I became estranged from my father, step-mother and little brother when he was three years old. Ironically, after my father got lung cancer and started chemotherapy his third wife kicked him out and he died alone. I can’t say it was an undeserving end for someone who had never been there when anyone needed him.

I made my choices in life and ended up having had three husbands. Three distinct men, intelligent and charming in their own way. There was a musician, a lawyer/surfer/musician and a tennis playing lawyer who surfed in his youth. Divorce is awkward and the transition from one husband to the next has been inconvenient for many, with misplaced friends and ex-in laws all over the place. I could have made better choices, but at the time I didn’t really see how.

Since my maternal grandparents were divorced as well as my parents, there was a certain bounty that resulted. At one point in time I had five living grandmothers. My parents each had a mother and my mother had a step-mother. Both my parents had remarried and their new spouses had mothers. I had my mother’s mother, my father’s mother, my mother’s step-mother, my step-mother’s mother and my step-father’s mother. They had a fine assortment of names too: Alice, Mim, Grandma Dot, Mommy Vining and Edna. Christmas was good at our house.

The numbers really started ratcheting up when I married someone whose parents had also been divorced, as I did in my second marriage. Around this time both of my parents were on their third marriages. I was losing grandmothers by death and divorce and the new ones never really matriculated. My husband’s mother was married three times (twice to my husband’s father) and his father was on his fourth marriage, having married and divorced my husbands’s mother twice. I will explain. My former in-laws married and had three children and then got a divorce. They each married someone else and my husband’s mother had another child. They both got divorced and remarried each other for a few years. It did not last and they divorced again. My ex-father-in-law married a fourth time while his ex-wife (twice over) remained single until she died in her early nineties.

My second husband and I realized that the marriage tally between our four parents totaled thirteen. Three for each of my parents, three for his mother and four for his father. That’s a very odd statistic and rather damning about the long term aspects of the institution, but then something even more unlikely happened.

I ended up having two ex-husbands who married the same woman twice. My first husband was a long term boyfriend, completely unsuitable for marriage or parenthood. Ignoring the many warning signs, young and senselessly optimistic, I believed that love was enough. Once we had a child it became immediately apparent. Love is not nearly enough. Not even close. Some years after we split up my ex-husband married a woman who had put her Mexican prayer doll under the pillow and prayed for a man who had already had a child and didn’t want anymore. Voila. She met Ben who’d had a child with me and that had been a stretch. They got married. I don’t know the details, but they were not married very long when they had it annulled. Not much more time elapsed before they remarried and remain so twenty years later but they don't seem very happy.

My second ex-husband had been married at an early age to the love of his life. Things went seriously awry and they divorced acrimoniously. When they sold the house and divided up their possessions she said she never wanted to have any contact with him. He was devastated and moped around for ages. I met him a couple years later when he was recovering from another mini-heartbreak but claimed he still wasn’t over his wife. Like all the other warning signs, I cast this one aside. I was a waitress, a single Mom with a one year old and he was steady as a rock. We met in the nightclub where we both worked, him still thinking he could avoid being a lawyer, but the realities of family life soon negated that idea. He adopted my daughter and we went on to have two more girls. We had a good life for ten years. The second ten years we were just going through the motions.

Our marriage unraveled for all the usual reasons when our kids were almost grown. After we split up I met Eric playing tennis and we got married two years later. I gained a step-daughter six months older than my youngest daughter. My ex husband found his ex-wife via the internet after twenty something years and discovered she was also in the process of divorcing. When they started dating again her two children, who were in high school and college, had no idea she’d been married before, let alone to her new boyfriend. Some explaining was required. They recently remarried and all seems to be well. My girls really like their step-mother and new “siblings”. For their sake, I hope history does not repeat itself.

All of these changes have made me think a lot about my kids and wonder about this fractured legacy they’ve been handed. It would have been so much better for me to have the right start in life but I didn’t. I had some advantages; an educated family, loving grandparents and nice places to live, but not nearly enough of what I needed. Things were said that should not have been said. Things were done that should not have been done. There were numerous losses. I moved out when I was fifteen. I had to take care of myself when I was way too young. I want so much more for my children and I think they’ve mostly gotten the stability and childhoods they’ve deserved.

None of my daughters has married and my eldest daughter is twenty-seven. By the time I was her age I’d gone down that road twice. This gives me great hope for her. She’s getting ready to meet someone and settle in with them for a domestic life. My wish is for her to meet a true love who is enough of everything that she wants, not just part of it. My relationships have served certain purposes. I went from wild and fun to calm and steady to great love with someone who also had a traumatic childhood. We’ve helped each other deal with our broken places. He gets me like noone ever has. We want to grow old together. This divorce stuff is not in the blood. It is not hereditary or inevitable. My sister is on her second go around but my brother and my other sister are still with their original spouses. So far, in this generation, it’s fifty-fifty. My mother has been with her third husband for thirty years.

Being married is so much more difficult than it appears. When I got married the last time it was to someone so different from my previous partner, yet, certain problems and unhealthy dynamics ended up being remarkably similar. How could this be possible? This led to a sickening realization. Maybe it’s not the ex. Maybe it’s me.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Going Public To be Green

When I was born, in the late fifties, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, times were very different. My birth certificate was different. My tiny feet were dipped in ink and footprints were put right on my birth certificate. I’m not sure why-maybe if the infant wandered off she could be identified by her little feet? Fingerprinting the mother made sense. Right thumb. Left thumb. If Mom slipped away she could be identified and hauled back to do her job, but the baby prints must have been done just for cuteness. My prints are less than three inches long, already showing signs of wideness and very high arches. More than half a century later footprints have taken on another meaning-carbon footprints.

Much of what we do now has some meaning, ecologically. Keep the footprint small. Plant trees. Recycle. Reuse. Carry your own bag into stores. Don’t waste. Don’t drink water from plastic bottles which may have been shipped by truck for miles or even worse, flown from a far flung spring. Combine errands. Conserve. Save the planet. Buy carbon offsets to ease your guilt. If we don’t have “green” fatigue, we soon will.

I recently overheard a young mother with two preschoolers talking about the schools she was looking into for her son who will be starting kindergarten soon. She mentioned several private schools that are in towns some distance from our town. Our wealthy, suburban town with award winning public schools. It made me think about the environmental consequences of commuting five year olds. These otherwise green families are driving their SUV’s right by several perfectly good neighborhood schools to crisscross the county for something better. Our town has a choice of five elementary schools. You’d think there would be something for everyone.

The little one is going out on the freeway, possibly getting stuck in traffic, every day in order to attend school. It’s not just the two trips a day one hundred eighty days a year. It’s all extra-curricular activities, meet the teacher nights, concerts and other evening programs. It’s whenever Mom or Dad volunteers in the classroom or drives on a field trip. The child makes friends who live in other communities and there are play dates and birthday parties on the weekends. Does it not, at some point, eclipse the meaning of living in a sweet, small town where you know people and are known by them?

When my children were little and out riding bikes or playing with their friends they knew they couldn’t get away with anything. There was always someone I knew looking after them. I would hear about it if they rode without helmets or took stupid risks. People would tell me about it and I would reciprocate, notifying my friends if I saw their kids do something wrong. My daughters acted like they hated it, but I don’t think they really did .We belonged in our community and there was such an easy spontaneity for them when they rode bikes together and ended up at each other’s houses after school without having to plan it around a car pool schedule.

Wealth has it's privileges. One of the privileges that money affords is choice. I’ve been trying to figure out what drives that choice. One trend I’ve noticed is that as property values here increased substantially more new families buying homes have been employed in the finance sector. These guys are investment bankers, stock and bond traders and private equity investors. Money people. Until recently there was no question that they could afford private school tuition, yet, it seems to go deeper than that. It’s some kind of equation with money that maybe takes a money person to really understand. It’s almost as if it must be worth more because it costs. You get what you pay for? Even though you’ve paid a premium for your house and your property taxes, you are paying tuition for elementary school because you are buying something for your child that will make their way in the world better and the purchase of the that life experience begins at year one.

This could be the flawed reasoning that comes from the darkest fears of parenting. If you control your child’s destiny through these types of choices then he or she will become more than they would have if you’d just rolled along with the tide. As a young parent you just don’t know how little control you have over what lies ahead. Or maybe you have some inkling, and think if you throw money at the problem it will lessen your chances for it all to go wrong. Further along in parenting you realize that the influences on your child, for good and evil, aren’t what you expected them to be. Several coaches and a wonderful babysitter had lasting power. I would beg my kids to drink more water when they were practicing their sport. They waved me away like I knew nothing. Then one day the swim coach told them to hydrate more and it was the law - gospel. The girls had a babysitter who made them promise to never, ever smoke cigarettes. They never did and still talk about the pact they made and how she put the fear of God in them.

There were lots of families with money who chose public schools when my kids were little. The girls had friends whose parents were eminent plastic surgeons, entrepreneurs and real estate investors as well as lawyers and even a few blue collar workers. The insecurity about getting the kids on the right path didn’t seem to start until much later, closer to SAT time. The kids were kids and they went to school and played their sports and didn’t seem to be on a track that would lead them straight to Harvard or Stanford or Columbia, but in fact it did. These products of the local high school are predominantly extremely successful. A number of my daughter’s friends have become doctors, one works for Genentech, someone else for Google. There are some teachers and business people.

I frequently get into conversations with people who have decided that the local high school isn’t good enough for their child, doesn’t have the best curriculum and won’t lead to the better colleges. I cite all my usual anecdotes but recently a father I was talking to just wouldn’t give an inch. About twenty minutes later we converged at the bar while waiting for orders and got to talking again. Somehow it came out that he was trying to get a photography job for a web project at a prominent company. Coincidentally, my daughter is working on that project. My daughter, who went to the not good enough local, public high school, and then to a liberal arts college on The East coast from which she graduated and became immediately employed in the field of her choice. My twenty-seven year old daughter who works for a world-renowned advertising company and makes about twenty percent less than my husband who’s a professional with an advanced degree. The guy was practically begging for her contact information so she could help him out. Even though the irony was completely lost on him, I loved it.

Not everyone will fit at a particular school. Certain students have needs better suited to private school. I understand that. What I don’t understand is rejecting out of hand what you’ve never tried because somehow you’ll be safer, better insulated from the dangers. It’s a perilous journey no matter what, especially for adolescents, and fortunately most of us end up being very lucky, despite our choices.