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What Lies Below (#187)

I live in Los Angeles and there’s something under my house.

Don’t freak out.

It’s just a crawl space.

But this dirty, cobwebbed, not even two-feet high den of darkness is disconcerting. Especially for a person who grew up in Washington, D.C., where we had basements. In places with cold winters, basements have to be built below the frost line – otherwise soils can heave and push foundation walls in and there goes your house. Extremely cold places like New Hampshire even have signs warning drivers about buckled asphalt:

Frost Heaves

When I first house-sat for an exec in Los Angeles, I opened a lot of closet and bathroom doors while hunting for the non-existent basement. (Don’t judge – if you grew up in a family like mine, you’d always want to know where all the exits were, too.)

After house sitting gig #3, I finally figured out that houses in sunny southern California don’t need basements. Instead, a vented crawl space between the dirt (or slab) and the floorboards of the house allows ocean breezes to circulate and cool the air under the house in warm weather. The ventilation reduces the potential for mold, too.

Even better, the crawl space allows access to the plumbing, cable, and electrical systems without tearing up the floors.

You just have to pay someone to brave the cave.

My husband grew up in Hawaii. He’s used to the crawl space. He’s also cheap. Andy had no problem belly crawling under our new home himself when he wanted to install surround sound. All I had to do was grab cables and pound on the floor to direct him to the correct spots.

Andy eventually emerged, dirty and cobwebbed, but victorious.

I asked, “So, um, you didn’t see anything down there, did you?”

“Like what?”

“Like mice. Rats. Cannibalistic human under dwellers.”

“Funny, honey.”

“Hey, it’s not like the crawl space is secure! There’s just a cheap screen in a wooden frame to keep creatures out.”

“It took me a day to make that!”

“Yes, you’re very talented. But a weak human or a strong raccoon could pry that screen off and lurk below us and we’d never know it.”

Andy rolled his eyes at me. “We might not, but the dog sure would. And he’d want to go get it.”

“Only to play with it. He’d be easy prey.”

“He’s ninety pounds and he’d alert us. Stop freaking out. There’s nothing there.”

Andy had a point. Woofie was absurdly social and an “only dog” at the time. He lived to escape in search of new playmates. We’d just replaced our third gate in the hopes of curtailing his escapades.

Apparently in vain. Woofie disappeared from the backyard that very afternoon. Andy grabbed one leash, I grabbed another, and we split up to case the neighborhood for our Houdini dog. Usually, we found Woofie within minutes, either in science class at the local middle school, or joyfully leaping around any dog and owner walking around our block. I once found Woofie trying to play with an irate cyclist.

But not that day. We walked for miles. We knocked on doors. No one had seen Woofie.

Despondent, we went home to make “Lost Dog” flyers.

As the printer roared to life, I heard scratching. Under my desk. No, under the flooring under my desk. Followed by moaning.

“I told you!” I shrieked. “I told you there was something under the house!”

“There’s nothing under the house!” Andy argued. Then, in unison, as the light bulb went off over our heads –

“WOOFIE!”

We ran outside. Sure enough, Andy had forgotten to replace the screen for the crawl space. He crawled back under the house. After a few minutes of scuffling, Andy dragged out our dirt-coated and utterly unrepentant mutt.

“He was belly up and having a ball,” Andy reported. “Kicking his legs in the air and doing that growly-moan thing he does when he’s wiggling on dirt and rocks to scratch his back.”

I sighed. “His claws must’ve scratched the floorboards. God, dog, that’s twice today you’ve scared me to death.”

As I retaliated by giving Woofie a bath, Andy asked, “Now that Woofie’s investigated, will you just admit I’m right?”

It took an effort, but, yes, I admitted that my husband was right. There was nothing under our house.

That time.

Chocolate Thievery (#186)

A big family and not quite enough food can mess you up for life. My sisters and I learned to eat fast, hunching protectively over our plates. But no matter how fast we ate, Big Brother would finish first. Then he’d inevitably loom over us, asking, “Are you gonna eat that?”

If our mouths were too full to answer, he’d take that as a no.

Fork duels ensued.

Once we got high school jobs, we stashed food in our rooms. My size eleven boots could hold a lot of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and none of my siblings – not even my crafty older sister – found them.

Then my father got a chocolate Labrador Retriever. Like many Labs, Toffee had no off switch when it came to food. Any unattended comestible was fair game. Cooling apple pies disappeared from the kitchen island. Whole batches of chocolate chip cookies were lost. Pizzas, too.

The Naval Academy was soon responsible for feeding Big Brother, but my other siblings and I had to guard our food from the dog. And not just in the kitchen.

Toffee busted into my closet. She ate my entire stash of Reese’s.

Yes, chocolate is bad for dogs, but Reese’s is barely chocolate and Toffee was ninety pounds.

She not only suffered no ill-effects, she lived to be seventeen.

The same cannot be said of my boots.

*****

Fast forward a decade or two. Baby Brother came to visit. As a twenty-something single guy on his own in NYC, he was living on ramen. My husband and I weren’t surprised when Baby Brother haunted the kitchen, scarfing down everything that came out of the oven. He was appreciative of every scrap of food, and he ate it like he was afraid someone was going to rip it out of his hands.

He especially adored the devil’s food cake with ganache frosting that takes me six hours to make. But when he disappeared in the middle of his third helping, things got weird.

I looked around and asked Andy, “Hey, where’s Baby Brother?”

“In the bathroom.”

“But…he was eating cake. Where’s the cake?” (One of the residual impacts of childhood food scarcity is unconsciously keeping tabs on how much food is being eaten and knowing exactly who is eating it and if they are exceeding their allotted share.)

“Huh. I don’t know.” We searched the kitchen and the living room. Nothing.

I eyed our rescue mutt Woofie. Woofie was part chocolate Lab and therefore a champion counter-surfer. The dog stole everything from pot stickers to loaves of bread. He laid on the floor, snoring. I shook my head. “If Woofie had eaten it, he’d still be licking his chops. And there would be a plate, licked clean.”

“Maybe not,” Andy answered. “Remember how Woofie ate that rock?”

We considered our dog’s oversized maw until Baby Brother came out of the bathroom.

He held a plate with one bite of cake left.

I said, “You DID NOT seriously take your cake into the bathroom.”

Baby Brother said, “What? What’s wrong with that?”

“I just…I don’t…I can’t even – SO MUCH! Andy, tell him!”

Andy was laughing too hard to be of assistance.

Unfazed, Baby Brother ate his last bite. “It’s good cake.”

*****

A year or two later, Big Brother had a conference in Los Angeles. He stopped in for dinner. (My family used to come visit for Disneyland, now they only come for conferences.) We had Andy’s pot stickers and hot and sour soup. Even though there were still pot stickers in the serving dish, Big Brother leaned over when he finished. He pointed at my plate and asked, “Hey, you gonna eat that?”

I mimed stabbing him with a chopstick.

Andy, confused, offered the serving tongs to Big Brother, saying, “Plenty more pot stickers here and in the kitchen. Plus Autumn made cookies for dessert.”

“Cookies! Yum!” After finishing off a few more pot stickers, we took napkins of cookies into the living room. We wound up talking about gardening. Like most guests from D.C., Big Brother expressed orange tree envy. Within minutes, we were out in the backyard so Big Brother could pick his own orange. He carried it proudly back to the living room.

Only to yell, “Hey! What happened to my cookies?!”

His napkin lay on the coffee table. Empty.

Woofie, licking his chops, slunk hurriedly out of the living room.

So maybe I owe Baby Brother an apology.

Maybe taking your cake to the bathroom is the way to go after all.

Winner, Winner, Olive Dinner (#185)

My Chinese-American husband and I live in Los Angeles. Since my husband is an excellent cook, we don’t go out that often. But when we do go out? There’s always a new Japanese, Indian, or farm-to-table restaurant to try. Andy’s up for anything, which is nice. Most of my white girlfriends won’t even consider sushi. And my friend JM will only go to one restaurant — the Corner Bakery.

When my in-laws visited, my husband and I cooked for them for weeks. Near the end of their visit, Sunny announced that they would take us out to dinner.

I cheered. “Yay! What kind of food would you guys like? A new bistro opened in the Village, or you could try our favorite sushiya in San Pedro.”

Sunny said, “Is there an Olive Garden nearby?”

I sighed. “Of course.”

The Olive Garden was packed. We had to wait to be seated, but our waiter immediately offered us a free sample of white wine. I declined, as did Andy and his father Jay.

Sunny took a sip and grimaced. “Too sweet!”

Mr. Waiter apologized, offering to get her another sample. Sunny graciously accepted. As soon as he ran off, Sunny downed the remainder in her glass, saying, “It’s not so bad.”

Mr. Waiter arrived with red wine. Another horrendous Sunny face led to an offer of a different sample. Poor Mr. Waiter went through this ritual three more time times. I used up my yearly allotment of cringing, because I have a mental block about even using coupons to get free stuff.

Every time Mr. Waiter departed to procure a different vintage, Sunny pressed the leftover samples on us: “It’s free! Drink some!”

Eventually, Sunny deemed the Shiraz acceptable. She declined to actually purchase a glass, however, giggling that there was no need to buy any wine now – she was already drunk!

As soon as we ordered appetizers, Mr. Waiter told us he’d had to pass our table off to Waiter #2, because his shift was over.

I spotted Mr. Waiter later, serving wine on the other side of the restaurant. He spotted me. Hard to say which of us was more mortified. We looked away and pretended it never happened.

The main course almost passed without incident. Almost.

Andy and I were still eating when Jay began hailing every passing busboy, manager, and waiter that passed by our table. He insisted on the check, ignoring our insistence on dessert. When Waiter #2 hurried over with the check, I explained that we wanted to split the tiramisu. As soon as Waiter #2 departed with our order, the harried manager arrived – also with the check. Amidst this confusion, Sunny complained (and not quietly). The manager apologized profusely. I hid my face behind my hand as the manager offered to remove the dessert from our bill.

When beleaguered Waiter #2 arrived with the tiramisu that Jay had declined, my father-in-law took the plate.

AND BEGAN EATING IT ALL BY HIMSELF.

Now, my in-laws could (and did) embarrass me relentlessly in Costco. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t respond to criticism about my house, my dogs, or my cooking.

But no one takes my dessert.

I reached across the table, snatching the tiramisu away. Jay’s mouth opened into an “O” of shock.

I ate a bite. And another.

Then Jay stood up, brandished his fork, and went after the tiramisu.

I moved it to the edge of the table and took another bite. Around that mouthful, I said, “YOU said you didn’t want any, Jay! YOU said you wanted the check!”

I offered a bite to Andy. He was busy burying his laughter into his napkin and waved it off. As did Sunny. So I ate that bite, too.

“Aiyah!” Outraged, Jay stabbed at the tiramisu again. Other diners turned to stare.

I didn’t care. I stood, holding the plate out of Jay’s reach. There are advantages to an Amazonian physique. (Also to knowing you were too embarrassed to ever return to a particular restaurant.)

“Sit down, sit down,” Sunny scolded Jay. “We can get another one. Maybe also for free!”

My little white soul cringed one last time at the thought of more “free food!” shenanigans. I caved and handed Jay the plate.

There was only one bite left, anyway.

*****

After my in-laws finally flew home, my friend JM insisted on taking me to dinner. As I climbed in her car, she squealed, “Yay! I haven’t seen you in ages! I can’t wait to hear about your in-law’s visit!”

“I dunno if I wanna talk about it. I’m trying to forget.”

“Huh. Sounds like you need a drink.”

“You know I’m not a drinker and also they don’t serve alcohol at the Corner Bakery.”

“To celebrate your freedom, we’re gonna go somewhere different!”

“Really? Finally?!”

“Yeah! To a place with alcohol in case you change your mind!”

She took me to the Olive Garden.

But Can You Do the Math? (#184)

My older sister never lets any of her siblings forget that she succeeded at the most prestigious – and most difficult – profession in America.

She’s a doctor.

In college, I told her I was going for three majors in three years and summa cum laude. She responded with, “Well, of course you can do that with liberal arts.”

When our younger sister went to law school, she said, “You know what the difference between law students and medical students is? When a law professor says, ‘Good morning class,’ the students respond with ‘Good morning.’ When a doctor tells his class, ‘Good morning,’ med students write it down.”

When my Big Brother bemoaned only getting an eight-hour sleep shift on submarines, Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister scoffed, “Ha! Eight whole hours? What a luxury! Two hours of sleep, that’s what I get when I’m on call. If I’m lucky.”

After winning Medical School, spending several years as an intern, and then several years as a resident, Dr. Sis eventually became the head of an oncology department at a prestigious university. She’s still in surgery several times a week. She works on cancer research. She terrifies her residents. She saves lives, too.

Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister is awe-inspiring. Most people recognize that she is at the pinnacle of the most prestigious profession in the United States.

As a bonus, after all those years of sleep-deprivation, Doctor Sis can sleep anywhere – including in the middle seat on a plane between two large men. She doesn’t even recline her seat or put her head on her neighbor’s shoulder. She sleeps sitting straight up.

Freaky napping abilities aside, I’ve always thought of a successful doctor like my sister as every parent’s dream child.

And then I met my Chinese-American in-laws.

*****

My father-in-law is a retired civil engineer. My husband followed in his father’s footsteps, getting a Masters of Electrical Engineering.

When my Baby Brother visited at the same time as my in-laws, my mother-in-law, Sunny, quizzed him about his career. He explained that he had a B.S. in Computer Science, and had just wrapped up his Masters in Finance at NYU.

Sunny was impressed. “So you have to be good at math, then.”

Baby Brother gave me an inquiring look. I sighed and told him, “Go ahead. Tell her all about your perfect math SAT scores.”

“Really? Perfect?”

“Yup.”

“So you are really, really good at math! So smart!” Sunny gave a delighted chuckle. “Just like my husband! And my son!”

Baby Brother attempted modesty, saying, “Well, I don’t know if I’m as good at math as Andy.”

“Do you think Calculus is easy?” I asked.

“Well, it’s not easy, but it’s not that hard.”

“Then you aren’t as good at math as Andy.”

“Oh, Calculus,” said Sunny, shaking her head. “Andy’s sister Maddy, she had a hard time with Calculus. She was going to be an engineer, but it’s so sad. She just wasn’t as smart. She couldn’t do the math like Andy. She couldn’t be an engineer after all.”

Baby Brother asked, “So what happened to Maddy?”

Sunny heaved a mournful sigh and said, “Poor Maddy. She could only be a doctor.”

Baby Brother and I stared, jaws slack, as Sunny left the kitchen (and a thousand WASP and Jewish mothers rolled in their graves).

After Baby Brother and I had finished crying silent tears of suppressed mirth, he whispered, “Next Christmas, I call dibs on telling Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister how she was too stupid to make it as an engineer.”

I waved a threatening spatula. “Oh, hell, no, little brother.

Line starts after me.”

An Atheist on Easter (#183)

Back when I was in high school in Virginia, an atheist was an anomaly. Christians were always asking me how I could possibly be an atheist. I had two flippant answers.

  1. “I was born on Black Saturday – you know, the day between Christ’s death and his resurrection. I’m doomed to be shut away from God’s light. It’s easier not to fight it.”
  2. “Well, my family used to be Catholic, but my great-grandfather was excommunicated.”

My snarky answers were easier than diving into a dissertation about how the more I learned about science and history, the more impossible it became to reconcile knowledge with religion — especially Christianity.

But both answers were technically true, although some people refer to Black Saturday as Holy Saturday, (which doesn’t make any sense, really, because nothing holy happened until Sunday).

And yes, my great-grandfather was indeed excommunicated. It was a huge scandal, because Great-grandfather’s family wasn’t just a little Catholic. They were so very, very Catholic that I had a great-great-aunt who was the Mother Superior of a convent. She even gave one of my sisters a little nun action figure. Except the nun’s hands were welded together in prayer, which was pretty limiting when it came to action. And don’t be quoting crap like, “Prayer is the greatest action there is!” at me. Because I’ve seen pious Republicans sending out endless prayers to the victims of gun violence, and that’s done fuck all to end school shootings in the United States. Until those sanctimonious bastards pull their hands apart and write some actual legislation to keep guns out of the hands of white male conservatives and domestic abusers, nothing will change.

But I digress. Back to the happy story of my ancestor being cast out of church.

In his youth, Great-grandfather got into an argument with a priest, which escalated into a battle with a bishop. My grandmother once theorized that it had something to do with the priest being a pedophile, but her father might also have been ticked off by the Jesuit embrace of American nationalism. Whatever the reason, the bishop formally excommunicated Great-grandfather. Great-grandfather left Catholicism without a backwards glance. Even on his deathbed, with his siblings – including Mother Superior — begging him to repent and a priest standing by, Great-Grandfather yelled, “You didn’t want me when I was fifteen, I’ll be damned if I’m coming back now!”

Obviously, Grandmother grew up without religion. She happily married a man who was barely a token Methodist. In fact, none of my grandparents ever spouted scripture at me. Neither did my parents. Mom’s family was technically  Episcopalian, but we only went to church for Christmas, Easter, or weddings. I spent a year going to a Baptist church and Bible study next to my mother’s house in Virginia, but that was only so I could be baptized and therefore drink the grape juice on Sundays. (And, hey, “judge not lest you be judged.” When you’re perpetually hungry and only nine, free grape juice is a big motivator.)

Church avoidance reigned until Dad married First Stepmother. Suddenly, there was church every Sunday. Attendance was mandatory.

My full siblings and I hated it, especially once in middle school and high school. Screw our damned souls, we wanted to sleep in on weekends. One church even assigned homework, for Christ’s sake (haha, you didn’t think I was gonna miss that pun, did you?). We had to complete worksheets or essays on a God none of us believed in – including my father.

We argued with Dad. We insisted we were atheists and we deserved freedom from religion. “You’re going,” he told us. “If you don’t believe, you’re gonna at least know what you don’t believe in.”

But that was a bullshit rationalization. Dad didn’t believe. The real reason he went was to make his First Stepmother happy. Always an early riser, getting up at 8 AM and driving to church at 9 AM was no hardship for HIM.

Despite being an atheist, Dad firmly believed in “spare the rod, spoil the child.” With the threat of that rod hanging over our heads, we went to church. We read scripture at Christmas Eve services, we lit advent candles, and we even spent summers rebuilding houses – and outhouses – in Appalachia with our youth group.

I escaped church by way of out-of-state college. Dad then ditched Ex-Stepmother for Next Stepmother. The Era of Church was gone. The irony remained.

Despite all those years of church, religion didn’t take. We’re mostly atheists. Some are like Big Brother. He rarely mentions religion, letting the denizens of his rich, white, southern suburb assume he’s as Christian as they are. Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister is more obvious. She drives around the Bible Belt with a Darwin fish on her car, which is like waving a red flag at an arena of bulls. Christians can’t resist. They leave all kinds of messages on her vehicle, insisting that she repent, because Darwin won’t save her soul.

“Which,” she once told me, “shows how they’re really missing the point. I believe in science, not souls.”

“So different from LA,” I told her. “No one there would ever presume to lecture you on religion. Or even presume you had it!”

“Yeah, it’s not easy here. Especially not for my daughter. Can you believe, there are kindergarteners proselytizing to her already?”

“What? In class?!”

“Yeah. But she’ll be six soon, so we’re almost there.”

“What happens when she’s six? Private school?”

“Oh, hell, no, I’m not paying for that. No, kids can’t be brainwashed into unquestioning belief in God after they’re six.”

“Really?”

“Yep.” Then Doctor Sis launched into a highly technical description on the human brain’s development, none of which I remember, mainly because I was thinking about the only two siblings I have who aren’t atheists.

Both are Ex-Stepmother’s children. Boyfriend-Stealing Baby Sister is a Methodist, and Pretty Space Cadet Sister is a Wiccan (though she’s not as devout as she was, and we older siblings still hold out hope that she will return to damnation fold central).

My little sisters went to Sunday School way before they were six. They continued going to church with their mother long after their heathen half-siblings had left home and their atheist father had left the state.

I share half my DNA with my religious sisters. We shared the same environment. The only difference was the age at which we received weekly religious indoctrination.

The Baptists talk a lot about “soul freedom” — the right and duty of each individual to follow the dictates of their conscience without compulsion from authority. The Catholics are huge proponents of man’s free will. Yet by bringing children to church well before the before age six, religions circumvent soul freedom and free will. A child’s brain is a sponge at that age, not a scale capable of weighing the pros and cons of particular theologies. Maybe, if I’d lived next door to the grape juice Baptists when I was five, that second baptism would have taken.

Or maybe my flippant high school answer was correct. Maybe I am an atheist because my Great-grandfather saw something ugly in the incense and refused to look away. His stand cost him his religion, but it gained so much more for most of  his descendants — the ability to avoid childhood indoctrination and make a mature choice on religion. Or lack thereof.

Good job, Great-grandfather.

And Happy Black Saturday to all.

Gossip Gets a Bad Rap (#182)

Back in college, if I found a guy interesting, I asked around until I found someone who knew him well. (This was back before social media enabled anonymous stalking, youngsters. Back then, we had to have actual conversations.) Once I found a reference, they usually enjoyed sharing their expert opinions on my potential love interest.

“Well, if you like D&D, you might have a shot.”

“If you like open relationships, you might have a shot.”

“If you have a yacht, you might have a shot.”

“Oh, honey, no – he’s way too sexually advanced for you.”

I only got stonewalled once. When I learned my roommate’s friend knew a particular clarinet player, I sat next to her at lunch. After the pleasantries were over, I asked her if she could tell me about Mr. Clarinet.

“What about him?”

“Well, are there any unsavory rumors?”

“Are you…asking me to gossip?”

“It’s really more like helping me with research.”

“I don’t gossip,” she said. “’A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.’ Proverbs, 11:13.”

“So…if small animals disappeared into Mr. Clarinet’s dorm room and never came out, you seriously wouldn’t tell anyone? Because Proverbs?”

She left in a sanctimonious huff, proclaiming, “The Bible says that women are to be worthy of respect, and not malicious talkers.”

I called after her, “Does this mean it’s okay for men to be malicious talkers?”

She never answered.

But society did. Or at least Patricia Spacks did in her study Gossip. In history, literature, and the media, gossips are overwhelmingly portrayed as females. Religious men have attempted to silence women for centuries, with sermons, scripture, and shame.

German Scold’s bridle — The Science Museum, UK

There was even one medieval torture device created just to punish gossiping women called a Scold’s Bridle.

There’s no male equivalent.

Men even made rules in the U.S. Congress about how a Senator cannot insult another Senator. Yet the ONLY time the rule was invoked was to silence a female Senator. Male Senators that called each other “cancerous” and “idiots” and liars were not silenced; Senator Elizabeth Warren’s reading of a letter from Coretta Scott King was.

And a lot of women – like Little Miss Proverbs in college – have bought into the “gossip is bad” mindset. My Most Religious Stepmother told me repeatedly how Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”

To which I will now say, “bullshit.” First of all, Eleanor never said that. (If she had, it might have been because she was sick of people telling her about her husband’s affair with his cousin, though.)

Second, gossip is useful — possibly even critical – for social groups. It prevents people from getting away with all kinds of antisocial acts. (Including a few of my ex-boyfriends.) Had more women at Fox News shared all their information about the abusive behavior of Bill O’Reilly, he — and the network — might have been discredited before helping elect a groping orange pustule president. But since the Scold’s bridle is now illegal and the First Amendment protects everyone except female Senators, Fox used another tactic. They bribed the women not to gossip, and O’Reilly stayed.

Trump himself used a similar tactic to silence his first wife’s accusations of abuse — a gag order. (There may also have been a little bribery, or at least the threats of withholding alimony.)

So you know what gossip made a bigger impact during the election cycle instead? Fake gossip – or, as it has come to be called, “Fake News.” Russian trolls, possibly paid by the Russian government, infiltrated social media and spread fictitious stories about Hillary Clinton murdering her rivals and arming ISIS. Men lapped it up – especially white men – and voted for Trump.

Silly men. The first rule of gossip collection is to find multiple sources and their agendas. If your source is a former friend still bearing a grudge, don’t swallow their negativity whole. If your source is an Internet Provider in Veles, Macedonia, maybe ask yourself how a random dude found out Hillary funded ISIS when all Republicans got after 11 hearings and thousands of hacked emails was a risotto recipe.

It’s too bad white Americans weren’t more discerning with their cyber gossip. Because, as Jonathan Haidt explains in The Happiness Hypothesis, gossiping about a person is a method of policing — and teaching — others in our ultra social society. Those who are kind and honest in their dealings will get kindness in return, plus more work as word spreads and their positive reputation grows. Those who are cruel and dishonest will get a poor reputation (and hopefully starve).

Although, sadly, that is not what happened to the dishonest Donald Trump. But there’s still hope. So keep talking, beleaguered White House Staffers. Keep leaking Pentagon, State Department, EPA, and National Parks. And if you’re not sure how, well, here’s a handy guide from my favorite Congressman, Ted Lieu.

Because as Haidt says, “Gossip paired with reciprocity allows karma to work here on earth, not in the next life.”

Which sounds far better than Proverbs.

When the Cavalry Sucks (#181)

You know those big, dysfunctional but lovable white families you used to see in television and film? They were all about siblings being super shitty to each other. Yet when one member of the family was threatened, the family closed ranks and fended off the attacker.

I grew up in a huge, white, broken, dysfunctional family.

I thought those stories were bullshit.

When someone in our family had a train wreck of a relationship, my full siblings and I would kick back with popcorn and armchair quarterback:

“HA! What did she expect? I mean, he used her to cheat on his fiancée. She had to know that was coming around.”

“Seriously, a criminal record, and an illegitimate kid already? You don’t even get warning signs that good for a fallen overpass!”

“Can you really be shocked when your ex at an intelligence agency tracks you down? Shoulda used a little intelligence of your own, dude.”

Because we grew up in competition for scraps of parental attention, we didn’t close ranks. No, we secretly rooted for each other to screw up so we could win (or just enjoy someone else’s life devolving into a soap opera).

We mellowed as our half-siblings grew up decades later, though. Our mom had died, and our father had run off to the mountains of Utah with Wife #Whatever. We were much kinder to our baby siblings than we were to each other. I took them all to Disneyland. Big Brother let them tour his submarines. Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister even helped Baby Brother find a decent girlfriend.

When Baby Brother told me he was flying from NYC to LA for a conference, we worked it out so he’d arrive early and spend a few days with us. Our house is small, but we had a guest room.

And then my visiting  in-laws decided to skip Vegas. Their visit would now overlap Baby Brother’s. Baby Brother said no problem, he’d sleep on the couch. I rejoiced. My Chinese-American in-laws had spent weeks criticizing everything from my dogs to my desserts. They’d cracked my windshield and nearly burned down my house, all without a single apology.

Now, though, after weeks of being outnumbered and on the defensive, white reinforcements were coming. And not just any reinforcements — it was the sweeter, less judgmental branch of the cavalry. Here was my chance for a real-life, feel-good, family movie. Finally.

*****

When I picked Baby Brother up at LAX, he was all smiles and hugs. “Is this your new car? It’s nice!”

“You mean it was nice,” I corrected him, pointing at the new crack in the windshield. “Until my in-laws insisted on going to a Tribal Gaming Casino today, during rush hour. A truck kicked up a rock.” I sighed heavily and awaited an outpouring of sympathy.

Sympathy was forthcoming – for my in-laws. “That’s awful! Because, you know, you gotta gamble! I mean, I was ready to bail out of the plane when I saw the lights of Las Vegas. Hey, how far away is this Indian gaming place?”

“Really far,” I told him. “And we have a ton of people coming tomorrow.” I wondered if I had misjudged my reinforcements.

I dismissed this idea when we got home. Baby Brother was all boyish enthusiasm the second we walked into the backyard. “This is awesome! It’s a totally private courtyard! Are those real grapefruits? A peach tree? An orange tree? This is great!”

The air was as thick with compliments as it was with orange blossoms. I didn’t realize how stingy my in-laws were with their praise until Baby Brother showered it upon my domicile.

He loved the dogs, too – even the one that loved him too much. When Woofie humped his leg, Baby Brother merely laughed and cheered him on.

Jay and Sunny greeted Baby Brother with big smiles — never mind that when they last saw him at our wedding, he was thoroughly drunk or hung over. My guests spent the rest of the evening chatting about the joys of gambling.

As I made up Baby Brother’s bed on the couch, he said, “You know, your in-laws are nothing like your emails! I think they’re great!”

“I think you got free drinks on the plane.”

“I think you might be right. Which way is the bathroom?”

I gave Baby Brother directions. An hour later, I showed him the way again. And once more in the middle of the night. Even though our house is less than 1200 square feet, Baby Brother could not find his way to the bathroom.

The cavalry had arrived, indeed. Drunk.

*****

The cavalry slept until midmorning, when I began baking the last bunch of desserts. Baby Brother decided leftover cheesecake frosting would be great for breakfast. Sunny and Jay join him at the kitchen table. Baby Brother entertained my in-laws while I worked. I was pleased.

Until he disappeared to take a shower.

“Such a gentleman,” Sunny gushed. “Your brother is very smart, and very nice.”

Jay nodded. “Not mean like you.”

I turned on the Kitchen Aid. “Sorry, can’t hear you!” But Jay’s indictment echoed in my ears as I creamed butter and sugar. I had waited on my in-laws hand and foot for weeks, and all they did was complain. Yet in less than twelve hours, they put my Baby Brother up on a pedestal.

Time to knock him down. Strictly in the name of justice, of course. I shut off the Kitchen Aid, musing aloud, “Yeah, the cops in New Orleans definitely thought he was a gentleman when they stuck him in their Paddy Wagon last year.”

“No!” exclaimed Sunny.

“Yes.”

As I said, our house was small. Sunny was loud. Baby Brother stuck his head out of the bathroom. “You just had to tell them that story, didn’t you?”

“What was the charge?” I asked sweetly. “Obstruction of justice?”

“Oh, please, they couldn’t get me for that,” Baby Brother scoffed. “Drunk and disorderly.” Baby Brother spun a sob story about how he was just watching a fight when the evil police in New Orleans picked on poor little him. As soon as Sunny finished lapping it up, he disappeared back into the bathroom.

“See?!” Sunny said. “Your brother would never start a fight. He is gentle, and sweet.”

“He’s a lot wilder than you think. Ask him to show you his pierced tongue.”

“What?! No! I don’t believe it. How can he eat?”

After a flurry of Cantonese, even Jay shook his head. I crowed silently. Ha! Baby Brother was off his thoroughly undeserved pedestal.

Baby Brother finished his shower, returning to the kitchen – and intense scrutiny.

“What’s up?” he asked. “Are there beaters to be licked yet?”

“Show me your tongue,” Sunny demanded.

Without hesitation, Baby Brother stuck out his tongue.

THE STUD WAS GONE.

Sunny shot me an accusatory look. “I don’t see any pierced tongue!”

Baby Brother grinned and said, “No, no pierced tongue. Is that what Autumn told you?” He shook his head. “Sometimes she makes up stories. You gotta watch her.” Turning his back to Sunny, Baby Brother had the audacity to stick his stud-less tongue out at me.

I sputtered, “But – you – ugh!” before giving up. I had been outflanked. There was no point in protest.

Sunny and Jay soon left the kitchen, mumbling to each other in Cantonese. Undoubtedly their conversation consisted of phrases such as “Are her delusions common?” and “Is it congenital?”

As I scooped cookie batter on baking sheets, Baby Brother helped himself to a beater. He cheerfully copped to the fate of his tongue stud. “I was watching TV and eating Cheetos, and the stud was kinda hollow like a Cheeto and I didn’t even notice, but I must’ve eaten it, too. Then I was just too lazy to replace it, ya know?”

“And you couldn’t just SAY that?! Now my in-laws think I’m insane.”

“Hahahaha, yeah, they do, it’s hilarious. Hey, can I lick the sides?” He reached for the bowl.

I snatched it away with a, “Hell, no.” I gave the mixing bowl to Woofie.

As my father-in-law says, I’m mean.

Must be genetic.

I guess all the oranges don’t fall far from the tree. Or the compost pile.

Lucky (#180)

Once upon a time, Andy headed off to Las Vegas for a bachelor party. When he came back, I asked how many strip clubs they’d hit.

He said, “None.”

I said, “Liar.”

He said, “No, really,” and handed me some expensive chocolates.

I said, “Exhibit A! Chocolates wrapped in guilt!”

He laughed and said, “You don’t want them?”

“What? Of course I want them. Guilt chocolate tastes the same as regular chocolate.”

Andy handed me another gift — golden earrings. I gasped and said, “What, were there full on hookers?”

He laughed some more. “It wasn’t that kind of party. There was only one white guy.”

“I’m scared to ask what the hell kind of party it WAS! How come you’re giving me all these presents, if not out of guilt?”

Andy shrugged. “I won a lot at the craps table.”

“What? You mean you guys went to Vegas and all you did was GAMBLE? I’ve never heard of such a thing!”

“You haven’t been hanging out with enough Chinese people, then.”

*****

I did a little research on gambling while Chinese. Not because I was suspicious, of course, but because I’d never heard about the Chinese gambling issue.

Apparently, I live under a rock. Chinese gambling is huge – and a huge problem. Psychologists theorize that cultural emphasis on numerology, superstition, and luck make gambling especially popular. Games such as Mahjong are an attractive social activity…and possibly gambling’s gateway to casino action.

In Chinese-American immigrants, gambling is even more prevalent. Dr. Timothy Fong, co-director of UCLA’s Gambling Studies Program, explains, “Folks who come here to take a chance and come to America are more likely to gamble because immigrating to America from your homeland is a huge gamble in and of itself.”

1-2% of the population in the United States has a gambling addiction. Problem gambling in the Asian-American population ranges from 6-60%.

Las Vegas recently opened a huge new casino – the Lucky Dragon – to cater to the Chinese gambler. The Lucky Dragon has no high-end bars or nightclubs. There are no shows. The swimming pool is tiny. This casino is all about the gaming, and their Mandarin-speaking staff aim to get their guests to the table with as few distractions as possible.

Within months of opening, the Lucky Dragon turned one of its few restaurants into a VIP gaming room. None of their guests cared about something as trivial as food – they wanted tables for baccarat instead. And they got them.

When my in-laws originally announced their visit, they planned to visit Vegas. I crossed my fingers, hoping they wouldn’t lose their retirement savings and have to move in with us some day.

They changed their minds and decided to spend their entire visit at our small house in Los Angeles.

I figured they’d realized the house always wins and wanted to save money.

I was half wrong. Sunny and Jay saved money by avoiding hotel and airfare to Vegas. But that was only because they had another plan.

My in-laws had discovered, through the wonders of the internet, California Tribal Gaming. Because American Indian Tribes are technically sovereign, they aren’t subject to state laws regulating gambling. Some of their casinos are within driving distance of LA.

They wanted me to drive them there and back again.

I refused. I have no interest in gambling. I loathe casinos, where the desperation is as tangible as the cigarette smoke. I would have no part in the bankrupting of my in-laws and – more importantly — no part of the I-10 Freeway during rush hour.

I told them this in no uncertain terms, of course: “Sorry Jay, Sorry, Sunny, there’s just…no way I can leave the dogs that long.”

Dogs are almost as good at providing excuses as they are at farting.

Sunny and Jay never take no for an answer, of course. They told me the dogs could hold their pee, or be left in the yard.

I countered with stories of Woofie’s bottomless holes.

Sunny told me to get a pet-sitter. I told her how expensive pet-sitters are.

She told me she would win more than enough money to pay the sitter.

“You can’t,” I argued. “It’s simple math. Even craps offers the house a .8% edge.”

“That’s why I play the slot machines.”

“What?! Sunny, that’s so much worse! The house has something like a 17% edge!”

“Not for me. I am lucky!”

I don’t know about lucky, but my mother-in-law was determined. By the end of the evening, she and Jay had convinced Andy to take them gambling. On the Friday before the family barbeque. This meant I’d have to do most of the prep work. But since was my only chance to be alone in weeks, I sent them on their way with a cheerful wave.

Then I spent all day baking desserts and cleaning.

Well, not all day. At 5:30 PM I got a blissful half-hour on our backyard swing in the sunshine. I even allowed Woofie on the swing with me. We smelled the orange blossoms, enjoyed the singing birds, and thought life was good.

Until I heard the doors of our brand new, less-than-a-month-old car slam. Sunny yelled, “Did Andy tell you?! It’s not good!”

“No! What? Is everything okay?” I asked. “Did he re-injure his knee? Is he okay?!”

Sunny’s next words do nothing to alleviate my concerns.

“Not good, not good!”

Not helpful, not helpful! I was running for the car when Andy appeared. He looks miserable.

“What’s wrong, are you okay?!”

Andy shook his head. “A rock hit the windshield on the interstate.”

“Oh, crap. How bad?”

“Not good!” Sunny interrupted. “I see the rock coming, I tell him swerve, but he doesn’t! The rock hit the glass. Not good!” She shook her head. Obviously, this could all have been avoided if her son had only listened to her.

Andy’s jaw clenched, but he said nothing. He knew it was useless to tell Sunny that if he had swerved on the freeway at over 75 mph, none of them would be standing there. His parents didn’t grow up driving cars. They have never driven a car over 45 mph, in fact. (This is possible in Hawaii, where the only highway has a speed limit of 50 mph.)

I led Andy to the swing, put my arms around him, and told him to smell the orange tree.

Sunny wandered around the yard, telling the dogs and the birds that it is, “Not good! Not good! Very bad.”

I’d had enough. “So, Sunny, how much money did you win?”

“Oh, well, you know, that casino is no good.”

“Really? Sunny, did you lose money? But you said you were so lucky, you would win money!”

Sunny edged away. “I’m lucky. Just a bad casino. But only lost a little money.”

In my white world, you never ask about money. But my in-laws had such scruples and I was on a mission of vengeance. So I did the unthinkable. “How much money did you lose, Sunny?”

“Just a little,” Sunny mumbled, then fled into the house.

We sat in silence and orange fragrance for a few minutes. Then my husband told me how much money his parents lost.

“Gah!” I sputtered. “There’s no ‘little’ about THAT. And there’s no ‘lucky,’ either!”

But later, looking at the sider-webbing crack in our new windshield, I realized that a minor incident could have been much worse.

The rock could have been much bigger.

Andy could have listened to his mother.

The rock might have been tossed at another car. That driver might have panicked, swerved, hit the brakes, and caused a massive accident.

Maybe Sunny was pretty lucky after all.

Hostess with the Mostess…Dysfunction (#179)

I’ve had a lot of comments from incredulous readers over the last few months. Apparently, no one believes that I have not lost my shit yet with my provocative Chinese-American in-laws. Not even when they nearly burned down the house and never apologized.

Spoiler alert: I have, indeed, lost my shit. In as spectacular fashion as any of you could want. It just wasn’t on my in-law’s first visit, the one I’m blogging about now. (Yes, my reward for surviving the first visit was a second visit! Whoo-hoo!) If you’re waiting on the East Dates West version of The Real Housewives, check back in a few months.

But for those of you who can’t believe it took me years to blow my stack, a little background:

In the White Anglo Saxon Protestant culture of my youth, girls did not make scenes. From day one, girls learned to be kind, to share, to not make people uncomfortable. Teachers rewarded us for being forgiving, no matter how many times Entitled Dickhead Donnie jerked our pigtails around, pretending they were motorcycle handlebars. We laughed along with everyone else in the class, being a good sport, because “You know boys! They’re so silly and they don’t know any better. Not like you girls!” We preened, and congratulated ourselves for being doormats.

Our mothers trained us to be good hostesses, downplaying any awkwardness or discomfort. We were also expected to be good guests, bringing wine and hostess gifts. If someone forgot a gift for us, we never said a word, lest we make them feel bad.

Many men wonder why women don’t immediately report sexual assaults, especially when we know the perpetrators.

I don’t. I know how hard it is to break training, to be confrontational. No one wants to be the bitch who wrecks everyone’s good time or a ruin the life of “a nice boy who just didn’t know any better.” We’re trained to endure our own discomfort, not to stand up for ourselves. We worry about ourselves last.

My Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister sees the “me last” patient all the time in her oncology rounds. These are the mothers and grandmothers who ignore their ovarian cancer symptoms to shuttle kids to sports practice or help out with someone’s new baby. By the time their pain is not ignorable, their cancer is usually terminal.

Some women avoid or escape the “good girl/ me last” dynamic, thanks to therapy, or enlightened parents, or more progressive schools.

On the plus side, I now have mad vacuuming skills.

For those of us from overcrowded families and critical parents, though, the cycle worsens as we try ever harder to win increasingly elusive approval. When my mother, in the midst of a divorce, lashed out at me for making a mess, I vacuumed the house. She smiled for the first time that day and told me I was a good girl.

I was six.

Sometimes a romantic partner or dance partner steps into that dynamic, with devastating results.

Sometimes the good girl becomes good student, taking extra credits and extra majors. The good graduate becomes excellent executive assistant, coming in early, working late, anticipating every need.

And when that excellent executive assistant marries into a family with demanding Chinese in-laws?

Does she smartly say, “It’s 4 AM, get your own damned tea, I’m going to bed because normal people are sleeping now,”?

No. She thinks, “I can do this! Not only will I make them tea, I will make sure they have toast and oh, they needed raspberry jelly? Nothing’s open except…Denny’s! It’s only five minutes away and I’m sure they’ll let me buy some jelly packets, won’t that be clever and impressive and oh, my in-laws will be so happy and they’ll tell me how glad they are that Andy married me and I will be the first white woman to win the Best Chinese Daughter-In-Law Award!”

In reality, of course, I only win a few grunts of acknowledgment and dishes to wash. (I’m sure my in-law’s praise would have been effusive if Denny’s carried raspberry jelly, but strawberry was all they had.)

Normal people would decide that their in-laws are impossible to please. Normal people would stop trying.

I am not normal. I am easily sucked into Over-Hostessing Syndrome.

After the jam setback, I decide I will impress my guests with my culinary skills.

I spend several hours making Spicy Thai Tofu with Fish Sauce Noodles and homemade chocolate pudding (this recipe is on page 1019 of “The Joy of Cooking” and I heartily recommend it over mixes).

My dinner prep is repeatedly interrupted. First by The Farting Dog Episode.

Then by my impatient father-in-law. Jay wants to know when dinner will be ready. I tell him 6.

“No! Dinner is at 5:30!”

“But probably Andy won’t get home until at least 6.”

“5:30!”

5:30 it is. I don’t boil the pudding quite as long as usual, but it’s in the fridge, chilling, when dinner is ready at 5:25. I give myself mental bonus points for seeing to my father-in-law’s ridiculous demands the comfort of my guest.

At 5:30, Jay appears and announces, “It’s time to eat. Where is Andy?”

I check Andy’s location on my phone. “Still at work. It’ll be at least another half-hour.”

I’m wrong. It’s 45 minutes. A very loooong 45 minutes, peppered with repeated questions from Jay:

“When are we eating?”

“Where’s my son?”

“Why aren’t we eating?”

“Is Andy home yet?”

“Check your phone again.”

When Andy finally arrives, Jay is at the table, fork in hand. But now his wife is on the phone with her sister. Jay yells at her in Cantonese. She yells over him at Yee-mah in Cantonese. Andy sits down and starts eating.

I grab his hand. “You can’t start! We have to wait for your mom!”

“Forget that, I’m starving,” Andy shoves a bite into his mouth. “This is great, honey, thanks for cooking dinner.”

Jay eats, too. I give up and dig in. Sunny eventually joins us, and, wonder of wonders, my in-laws have no complaints and no criticisms. BOTH have seconds.

I’m sure I’m finally destined for the Best Daughter-In-Law Award, because I know my pudding is awesome (also made with expensive bittersweet chocolate). I even serve it with freshly whipped cream.

Jay has two bites before making his pronouncement: “It’s too watery!”

I say, “Really? You think it’s watery?” through gritted teeth.

“No, no, it’s not watery, honey, it’s perfect!” says Andy.

“Apparently not. Your dad says it is WATERY.”

Jay nods. “Yeah, too much water.” He has another bite.

I tap my fingers on the table and fume, wishing I hadn’t hurried the pudding’s boil. Maybe it is a tiny bit more watery than usual.

Jay devours his supposedly sub par pudding. He scrapes the dish with the spoon to get every bit of chocolate.

“Wow, Jay, that must have really sucked, that watery pudding,” I tell him triumphantly as he deposits the empty serving glass on my plate. I’ll pry some praise out him if it kills me.

Or not.

“It’s very dry here. Not like Hawaii. I need to drink lots water,” Jay explains as he leaves the dining room.

Despite my best efforts, there was no Best Daughter-In-Law Award bestowed that evening. There was no praise at all.

My only reward was dirty dishes.

But for those of you also recovering from Over-Hostessing Syndrome, take heart.

I left those dishes for my husband.

We Are Not Water on the Floor (#178)

Would you throw this vase at the patriarchy? What if the patriarchy is your father-in-law?

I was fortunate enough to grow up with parents who didn’t have double standards for girls. No telling how much of this was due to feminism and how much was due to fact that the child labor pool in our house was only ¼ male (sometimes less). Big Brother had to do dishes. My sisters and I had to mow the lawn.

Our value was no less because we were female. Continue reading We Are Not Water on the Floor (#178)