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This was the hand-written message at the bottom of a Christmas letter from my Great-Aunt. It brought tears of gratitude to my eyes.

This was the hand-written message at the bottom of a Christmas letter from my Great-Aunt. Look how she first wrote “her,” then used white-out and wrote “them” instead. It brought tears of gratitude to my eyes.

Being transgender does not mean what I thought it meant. It doesn’t mean today what it meant when my kid first taught me. In fact, the definition is probably changing right now as I write this, incorporating more ideas, sharpening the concept. I’m going to share with you my rough understanding of it, from my perspective as a parent.

The media coverage I’ve seen on the challenges transgender people face did not prepare me for the challenges their parents face. That process has been an ordeal. It’s a swim through an emotional stew, dipping into and out of the murky grey sea of sex and gender, pride and shame, loss and reward. I have to face all of the hard and icky feelings to get at the good stuff that comes with it.

Thank the gods I became a parent. The best, best, best thing I ever did to help my own education as a human being was to have a child. I’m sure I would have learned more if I had more children, but this only child has helped me grow much closer to the person I always wanted to be.

Tara is the one who is teaching me what it means to be transgender, and how to treat a transgender person. It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever learned in life. I was raised by a religious mother and a conservative father in tiny, rural communities. This type of upbringing around the world tends not to be supportive of alternate definitions of love, family, sex, and gender. And while my people are good people, I did not have the opportunity to learn about these topics. I am deeply ashamed to admit that when I was 18, as Tara is now, I was outspoken about how homosexuality didn’t make sense in nature, and so shouldn’t be taken seriously. I had never even heard of transgender people then, and I’m certain I would not have been accepting of them.

The most common questions I get when I say that my child is transgender, are “Female to male, or male to female?” and “Has your child had an operation yet?”

Just like them, I yearn to place people into simple categories, binary if possible, and assign distinct characteristics to them, so I can know where I stand and then move on to the next category. Categorizing people was probably really handy 3 million years ago on the African savanna when humans were only recently upright and spent most of the day surviving. But in the 21st century it gets in the way. It got in the way when Tara finally told me they are transgender.

Strangely, rather than the day when we talked about what it means to be lesbian, it was the day Tara talked to me about being transgender that finally forced me to consider that this was not a phase. Instead of exploring the idea of homosexuality for a couple of years, then drifting back to heterosexuality as I expected, Tara just kept going farther from the norm. Not that I was actively insisting that my kid was heterosexual, I just hadn’t given it any serious thought. I had decided everything would ‘work out’ in the end to something that would make sense to me, and in the meantime it wasn’t important enough to dwell upon.

About two years before our talk about being transgender, middle-schooler Tara had asked, in tears, in an apprehensive voice, “What if I’m a lesbian, Mom? What does that mean about me?” This question didn’t scare me because the categories were easy: females and love. Those are two words I am used to defining. I told Tara to stay away from a label like “lesbian,” and just stick with the facts. “You like girls, that’s all it means about you. And liking girls doesn’t change who you are.” The girl-crush thing persisted, and I wondered whether it was my fault for making my kid that way, because I can never seem to find the right man for myself.

But see what I was doing there? I was judging Tara, doing exactly what I had done as a teenager: dismissing the preposterous idea, assuming it was a phase, assuming it was not important, assuming it was something I could have caused, waiting for Tara to turn out ‘normal.’ What kind of subconscious unsupportive messages was I sending to my own child? I am appalled at my own behavior.

The day of The Talk, I sat on Tara’s bed while they explained that a dictionary definition of “transgender” is a person whose gender identity does not correspond to that person’s biological sex assigned at birth. It can mean a person born a boy feels like a girl, or vice versa, but does not necessarily mean that.

Gender is a person’s individual awareness or identity or role that they fill. Sex is a person’s physical anatomy. Tara was born with female anatomy, but explained they did not feel female. And the startling part: they do not feel male either. Tara asked me on that day to stop using the pronouns “she” and “her,” and to use “they” and “their” instead. They do not even feel as though their gender is fixed, but that it moves from day to day.

“Think of a spectrum in the shape of a triangle,” Tara told me with wisdom, clarity, and calm that belied their 16 years of life. “On one point is a concentration of female qualities, one is male, and one is no gender. As you go toward the middle of the triangle, you move away from one gender and take up parts of the others. I am somewhere in the middle, and on some days I feel more female, some days more male, and some days I don’t feel either. I cannot predict how I’m going to feel, but usually I can tell when I wake up in the morning.”

I asked how this is different from what everyone feels. Doesn’t every person feel a little female some days, a little male some days? Tara was certain that it is not the same thing, but had a hard time clearly explaining the difference. For a time we settled on this concept of change, of “fluid gender,” and later we used “gender neutral.” I asked if they thought their gender would always be in a state of flux, or if the changes are a part of trying to figure out who they are. Tara said they didn’t know yet. There was a period where Tara got completely fed up with both male and female, and began identifying as “agendered,” meaning neither male nor female. Even within the very tolerant community that Tara has built around themself, there was pushback. People simply hate vagueness.

Tara’s current preference is “non-binary gender,” to emphasize the fact that gender is not either-or. But I still struggle to grasp the real meaning of Tara’s identity. They say that it is hurtful to be thought of as female or male. “Each time a person calls me ‘she’ isn’t that bad, but what happens is that after a series of people thinking of me as a girl, all day long, it becomes very painful. So uncomfortable that it hurts.” I asked, “How is it different from when, for example, people make incorrect assumptions of me because they see me as female,” I asked. “They think I am not smart enough or strong enough to handle something. How is what you feel different from that kind of pain?” Tara answered that they can’t really explain the difference, except that when it happens, they feel two distinct reactions. One is that the person wrongly assumes they are female, and two is that the person wrongly assumes they aren’t smart enough or strong enough. “They aren’t the same reaction, they aren’t the same kind of hurt.”

It was over two years ago, The Talk, and the trauma of it lingers. I won’t kid you: I was stunned. I was so confused that I couldn’t even begin to respond to Tara. My questions along the lines of “Aren’t you simply giving a high-falutin’ name to what everybody feels?” were based not in love, but in denial. I was trying to flush out the proof that it was not real. I was mostly in shock, but at least able to recognize that this was a pivotal moment in my child’s life. The only thing I could do was to help Tara get it out and to feel safe talking to me. I said,  “Tell me more about that,” when I wasn’t sure I could handle hearing much more. The more Tara talked, the more I felt part of my world breaking apart and falling out from under my feet. Out of loss.

I don’t know if I can explain it, but my love, respect, and appreciation for Tara never wavered. In fact, I was a bit in awe of the kid for having the presence of mind to initiate this conversation with me, and to stick with it while I was so obviously gobsmacked. But I was flooded with a profound sense of loss. It felt like I lost my child that day. I lost my daughter. The one I had constructed in my mind because…well, how was I supposed to know I had to keep my mind open to something else? I just assigned “girl category,” and filled in all the rest.

For the next few days I was in a deep depression and I experienced a very real grieving process. I felt sorry for myself. I cried and cried. It was so hard to explain it to friends, “I have to give up who I thought my child was, and give up the future dreams, like marriage and children. There will be no giggling over boyfriends, not ever. Well, of course Tara can still get married and raise children, but every bit of it will be different than what I had imagined.  Not that it’s bad…it’s just…confusing. And unexpected.” My friends, bless their hearts, gave me hugs and didn’t quite understand what I believed I was giving up.

My own child was not who I thought. Sixteen years of a relationship based on misconceptions. It really, really hurt to face that.

“I can be physically attracted to just about anyone,” Tara corrects me today. “I could easily have a boyfriend one day and children. It’s just another vagueness of my future I am not sure of. My non-traditional identification stems from gender and sex, and also how I choose to appear and how I define my romantic relationships.” Just for context, Tara’s been in a relationship with another transgender person for three years, so the boyfriend comment is more to make a point. “Brynnen are you Tara’s boyfriend?” I asked, “Yes,” they answered without hesitation. And it was a relief to laugh.

Two years later, we are the same tight team we have always been, and – get this! – I am actually not assigning Tara into a gender category in my mind so much anymore. I didn’t realize it was possible, but with time, I am able to give up “female.” I am getting much better at using the difficult pronouns, which for a somewhat OCD grammar-freak, is extremely difficult when I’m constantly using a plural pronoun to describe an individual person. I am doing better at using “them/they” at work and with relatives and acquaintances. Without exasperation or anxiety, I can respond to their confused questions, calmly explaining that I am only talking about one person, and Tara prefers that I use those pronouns.

I am not over it. I hate it that I am not. Who knew I would so stubbornly cling to my traditional upbringing when I have made it a point most of my life to be as open-minded and tolerant as I can possibly be?

But I am not sorry for myself anymore, which allows me to give more of the emotional validation that my kid needs from me. I’m on board, and I actually get irritated when I fill out forms and have to check a box to identify myself as male or for female. These days, I often check male, to be difficult, because I’m finally starting to understand how frustrating it could be to live in a binary world. And I’m done thinking of it as a phase. This person who has been right next to me all these years, is actually way more genuine and brave than the one I gave up.

My Tara and me, September 2014

My Tara and me, September 2014

Not my adulthood, of course. Tara turned 18 years old on Sunday. My baby is a legal adult now, and – just like 18-year-olds everywhere – remains part child even though they are now part adult.

It’s a really exciting time for us both. Tara has more fear about it than me. With all my adult years of experience, I can see that Tara is ready to take on the world. My child is not so sure I’m right about that, but I have confidence based in years of watching Tara meet challenges and come out victorious.

The new status doesn’t make me feel old, but does make me nostalgic. I still can’t believe that hollering, impatient, needy infant is already packing bags to leave home. Wow, how did that happen so fast? And only a month ago (wasn’t it only a month?) my index finger was being squeezed by a tiny, damp, chubby hand of someone very small learning to walk. Last week my heart thumped every time that little person ran on unsteady feet, and then the next day…off they went on their bike.

I taught Tara how to cross the street without me. How to watch the lights, and the traffic, and to think of how heavy and dangerous a car can be. And I stood on the sidewalk and held my breath till they arrived safely on the other side. Then with the glee of freedom without the weight of responsibility, Tara watched the lights and the cars, and when it was safe, came hurtling back to me. And I didn’t tell their dad for a long time, about what I had done.

And then we practiced taking the bus to ballet lessons. The #15 went right from our house to the studio. I rode with Tara the first time, telling them what to look for, what to listen for. We rode together a second time, and I waited for my child to give me instructions. We missed the stop. It was ok. And after that, Tara made the busses, the streetcars, the lightrail their own territory, and off they went again. Off to ballet, off to school, off to the mall and to a friend’s house on the other side of the city. Gone far away to return to me much later, always to the relief of my pounding heart. Always putting away the nightmares of the headlines that could read, “Reckless mother teaches child to be independent in the heart of the city.”

I took notes in the Tokyo Narita airport when I went through, and then emailed them to Tara a couple months later, so Tara could make the same trip, alone, to come visit me while I lived in Japan. “Keep your passport on you, and handy, and never never set it down. There are signs in English when you get off the plane. After you pick up your luggage, you’ll have to go through customs, and hand them your forms. Then find the terminal for domestic flights. If you don’t know where to go, follow the other people. If you get scared, ask for help.” I actually cried with relief when my 15-year-old walked into the tiny Hiroshima terminal from the plane.

And look what I’ve done to myself: ensured that this beautiful, strong, smart, brave, amazing used-to-be-child is ready to leave again. We were talking about last week’s college orientation the other night, and about Tara’s move to Corvallis when school starts. Tara says, not in an angry way at all, but matter-of-factly, “I’m sure you’re as sick of living with me as I am sick of living with you.” And you have to understand our relationship to know that it wasn’t a hurtful comment in it’s delivery or receipt: we are two very strong and independent people who respect each other enough to be honest.

Much as I am sad about the separation that will happen this Fall when it’s time to go to University, I see that I have done my job properly.

Tara checking out their Oregon State University dormitory room during orientation last week.

Tara checking out their Oregon State University dormitory room during orientation last week.

There used to be a

There used to be a “No Hunting or Trespassing” sign on a tree by the lake. Tara has it in hand, after replacing it with a different sign.

Yes, this sign suits us much better.

Yes, this sign suits us much better.

A, T, and Tara on the right, on the gorgeous Oregon State University campus

A, T, and Tara on the right, together making the Oregon State University campus even more attractive. 😉

Colleges have been on our minds for awhile, but the pitch and volume are increasing. We’re mostly past the application period, as deadlines for most colleges and universities have come and gone. Still in the nail-biting period of not having heard from any of them whether Tara has been accepted.

I said “we’re,” and it’s a little inappropriate to say it was a joint effort, as Tara has done most of the work. However, Mom has done a bucketload of essay support and editing, which involves not only the writing part, and having to recall the exact date of ACT testing and volunteer work at the Buddhist temple, but the morale and emotional support of keeping a freaked out teen full of hormones from totally wigging out and having a nervous breakdown after the 27th time of clicking word count and finding that the essay is still 12 words over the limit. It has been a super great exercise for me in being an editor, in that when I manage to keep my suggestions out of it, Tara has written some unbelievably good stuff. Really good. As in, I’m wondering if the people in Admissions who read Tara’s essays are going to believe that all I did was point out run-on sentences and changes in tense. How good are teen writers these days? Well, if Admissions will only condescend to an interview, they’ll find out in 2 minutes that Tara is as eloquent and wise beyond their years as the essays seem to imply.

In Boston, over Halloween, we checked out my Alma mater, Brandeis University, as well as UMass Boston and Harvard when our friends showed us around the other campuses. “Why do you guys want me to go to school in Boston?” Tara asked of R. He replied with a smile, “Because if you go to school here, we get your mother.” It’s nice to be loved.

My brother in Seattle has been pestering me for a year to get Tara up there to visit the University of Washington campus, particularly since it’s a school that offers an environmental program that Tara is interested in. It’ll be our next stop for sure, along with Western Washington University, right next door to UW.

Lovely lawns and buildings of the OSU campus.

Lovely lawns and buildings of the OSU campus.

While Tara initially insisted that no Oregon or California school would even be considered, due to the proximity to parents coinciding with a deep and abiding desire to get away from parents….we discovered that one of the best Forestry programs in the whole world is 1 1/2 hours south, in Corvallis, Oregon at Oregon State University. Tara has wanted to study Forestry since about 5th grade. After some agonizing over the implications of being in the same state as Mom, Tara gave in and applied. Once that hurdle was crossed, the applications to Portland State University, University of Oregon, UC Davis, Humboldt State University (in the same town Tara’s dad lives in California) and Stanford followed. I’m relieved that the potential for in-state tuition now exists. I consider it absolutely unfair that I have to contemplate helping Tara with student loans while I’m still paying my own. And trust me, FAFSA does not give a flying pig about whether parents are paying student loans, when calculating the expected family contribution.

Six stories of books! What prospective student wouldn't get a little excited about this?

Six stories of books! What prospective student wouldn’t get a little excited about this?

Sixth floor of the library. Shhhh! Students are studying here.

Sixth floor of the library. Shhhh! Students are studying here.

After telling other parents which schools Tara applied to, a comment I’ve heard frequently is something along the lines of, “Wow, Tara must be brilliant to be able to apply to those schools!” I know what they’re thinking, and no, my kid does not have straight A’s. Tara gets pretty good grades – that’s the best I can say about it. The thing is, colleges and universities – particularly the very best ones – do NOT want carbon copies of straight-A automatons filling their Freshman classes.

I was the first person in my family to get a college degree, and I figured out why that is a big deal. Because I know things that I can teach Tara that my parents were not able to teach me. For one thing, there is absolutely no reason to limit yourself when thinking about college. Someone pushed me until I learned that lesson, so I was able to do it for my own child. What schools actually want is to know how a potential student will contribute to their college. So the ability to get good grades is definitely important, but so are creativity, involvement, motivation, diversity of perspective. This is what I was able to tell my kid: you are more than your grades, and yes, these colleges know that and they are dying to see it in your applications.

It took nudging and some psychological gymnastics, but I got Tara to apply to tons of schools covering a wide range of school cultures and reputations and donor levels and numbers of (and lack of) famous alumni. Public and Private. Easily affordable and ridiculously expensive. And now my kid is out there in the world. I got Tara to visualize being the kind of student who could apply to Stanford, and have a decent chance of being considered. Now THAT was my goal. Academic program and Financial package are the two main things that should determine where Tara goes to school. “Am I good enough?” cannot be one of the factors.

In my opinion, any college with a view of a volcano is worth considering. Mt. Jefferson rises in the distance.

Any college with a view of a volcano is worth considering. Mt. Jefferson rises in the distance.

Home of the Beavers! OSU and UO are sports rivals, as nearby Universities always are.

Home of the Beavers! OSU and UO are sports rivals, as neighboring Universities always are.

President’s Day I took my kid and besties A and T down to visit the OSU campus. We showed up with 535 other registered visitors that day and we filled the auditorium for the 8:30 am welcome. We were then shuttled off to a briefing just for students interested in the College of Forestry, and heard that OSU is ranked 7th in the world for Agriculture and Forestry studies. We learned that there is an 11,500 acre demonstration forest a few miles away that is considered part of the campus, and that students attend many classes there learning silviculture and preservation and identification and a hundred other things.

Oregon State University has a gorgeous campus. Tara got pretty excited about the six-story library, so we went inside and took an elevator to the sixth -and silent!- floor to look around. Apparently there are some Nobel prizes displayed in the library, but we were already getting ready to head to the next campus when we heard about them, so we did not go back and look.

These UO campus buildings remind me of the Harvard campus.

These UO campus buildings remind me of the Harvard campus.

Pink blossoms didn't show up well in the shade and on my phone camera.

Pink blossoms didn’t show up well in the shade and on my phone camera.

UO does a better job with branding. The signature "O" is everywhere.

UO does a better job with branding. The signature “O” is everywhere.

Thirty minutes down I-5 is the University of Oregon – home of the Ducks. We were not registered to visit here, so there was no planned itinerary. We just walked around and soaked up the atmosphere, and there’s something to be said for that. Kids were sprawled everywhere in the warm sunshine. Groups sat all over the grass, laughing and studying. There were pick-up basketball games, frisbee, and hackey sack. Music was playing. It was definitely a place a kid would want to spend 4 years. It made the focused and subdued OSU students seem rather uninteresting, I have to say.

I was glad for the big Jeep being large enough to haul the kids in comfort. They wanted to sit together in the back seat, so we filled the front passenger seat with jackets and backpacks and gluten-free snacks and maps and college brochures. Sometimes….yes, sometimes I’m ok with fitting the image of a suburban Mom.

Basketball game in the courtyard.

Basketball game in the courtyard.

Very cool glass building at UO.

Very cool glass building at UO.

University of Oregon has much more apparent involvement of the American Indian community, including a longhouse on campus.

University of Oregon has much more apparent involvement of the American Indian community, including a longhouse on campus.

Thinking about the future can be exhausting.

Thinking about the future can be exhausting.

Eric K. Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Eric K. Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

America, you piss me off sometimes. I feel like a parent who knows how much greatness her kid is capable of, and yet must watch while that kid takes the lazy, irresponsible route.

I work for VA. Not in a position of any influence, I work amongst thousands of other anonymous civil servants who take our responsibilities seriously. We endure the often ridiculous demands of the D.C. Central Office of the Department of Veterans Affairs, because when we are able to contort ourselves into their expectations of us, they leave us alone to do our jobs. If we check the boxes and count the beans the way Central Office wants it, the end result is that we get to serve, and educate, and literally change lives for the better for our favourite group in the whole world: U.S. Veterans.

Until yesterday, the Department of Veterans Affairs had a good leader in Eric Shinseki. Not a perfect man. I’ll tell you from experience that under his watch we were worked very hard while under enormous pressure. I am not kidding when I say at times I wavered between fearing I would get fired and plotting how I would quit. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some stressed out VA employees who cheer his departure. Shinseki is direct, and sincere, with high expectations, and he makes decisions and then follows through. It was usually hard to comply, but in 5 years we did some impressive things in VA. Improvements I am proud of.

The fiasco regarding VA medical facility waitlists that has shocked the nation has been identified – by Shinseki himself! – as systemic. That is ugly to hear. Painful to consider. Embarrassing. Inexcusable.

What I found most interesting about this whole ordeal was that my strongest reaction has been to feel deep regret that the employees of VA medical facilities have been under so much pressure that they had to lie to save their jobs. See, what makes my reaction different from a lot of you is that I’m not instantly thinking of the vets. I give the better part of my life to vets, I *am* a vet, I don’t need to prove my patriotism to anyone.  The story I see is one of oppression in the workplace.

I think Secretary Shinseki would have been the man to get to the bottom of the problem. The work he already did to begin addressing wait list problems was lightning fast (by government standards). He knows the Agency, he knows how we keep it running, he knows what we’re up against. Now that he knows that some parts of it are infected with lies, he would have been ALL over that. Dr. Foote, now known as the whistle blower, also felt that Shinseki should stay onbronze side

HOW will forcing his resignation and bringing on someone who doesn’t know what’s going on fix anything? How will Sloan Gibson merge into this breakneck pressure we’re already negotiating within? The pressure of eliminating the backlog of disability claims. The pressure of getting veterans quick appointments. The pressure of constant media disdain and misleading news headlines.

You bastards, whoever you are. Go ahead and pat yourselves on the back for forcing Shinseki to resign. By implying that this could be a partisan issue, and by directing your fury at the Secretary, you have successfully allowed the public NOT to have a discussion about how to fix the problems. You have hurt veterans more than you know.  Your demands should have been to insist that the Secretary fix the problem, not for him to leave. Now the sheep among us will think something was done to address the problem, and that the problems are as good as fixed.

We missed our opportunity to do the only thing that really would have helped the situation, which is to have public outrage centered on how we got into this mess. Members of our U.S. House and Senate were screaming to take down Shinseki, but they cleverly did not clamor to hold themselves responsible for providing the funding to increase VA medical facility size and staffing to fix this problem.

Just think about it sensibly. The reason why a hospital can’t bring in a patient is either because there is no room, or there is no doctor available to see the patient. Can’t you see that firing people is not going to fix the problem? Isn’t that obvious to anyone but me?

That’s why I feel such empathy for the employees at the medical facilities identified. I can imagine how dreadfully stressful their jobs must have been up to this point. And now some of them have been fired, adding insult to injury.

Possibly the first person to attempt to change things at the Phoenix VA facility was Dr. Katherine Mitchell, who contends that after confiding in hospital director Sharon Helman, she was subsequently disciplined and transferred. She then tried to confidentially complain again, this time to the Inspector General, but instead of being touted a hero, was put on administrative leave and threatened that she may be held accountable for violating patient privacy by her allegations. The one who finally got this recent ball rolling is Dr. Sam Foote, who first retired, then took on the role of whistle-blower. These are only two people, but the environment is made very clear to me: if doctors – the power elite  of hospitals – if doctors’ complaints are met with disciplinary action, then there is no hope that a complaint will be taken seriously from the scheduling clerk who answers the phone and handles appointments. In fact, it’s pretty clear that anyone who resists the system can expect to get fired.

Have you been spouting off about the integrity of those VA employees? Well ask yourself if you’re willing to get fired today. Are you? It is another example of asking the victim to be the one responsible for changing their environment.

When this nation found out what was happening to our veterans, having to wait so long for an appointment that they missed critical care, and in some cases may have died while still waiting, we were right to be astonished and offended by the news. Our next step should have been an outpouring of support to the hospitals, asking them “What can we do for you? How can we help?” And most of all, we should have all apologized for ignorantly allowing them to suffer for so long. Newspapers and television networks could have used their fabulous investigative skills to root out VA facilities that were finding ways to succeed without lying, and to identify proposals to improve the system that no one was taking seriously yet. Reporters could have spun the story so that the American public learned that our representatives in Washington, D.C. had been the source of the edict to get vets into facilities in two weeks or less, but had not provided the financial support necessary to make it happen. We could have begun campaigns to let Congress know that we love our vets so much, we want them to approve a VA hospital budget that will actually allow us to take care of them the way they deserve to be taken care of.

When faced with a critical decision to make, our country’s leaders copped out and picked a scapegoat on whom to blame their problems. American citizens, we are bad parents of our government. They will never learn to live up to their potential if we don’t teach it to them.

Gramilda, Pulek, and me, at her home in Nampa

I told Arno not too long ago that I believe I live in such a way that I invite drama into my life. Not drama in a negative sense, but more along the lines of Big Happenings. I live with my mind open and my eyes open, and while all the normal crazy things in life happen to me (as they do with everyone else), a whole bunch of other things happen too. I create this sort of “happening” energy around me, where pistons are firing on all cylinders all the time.

To make it more chaotic, I choose to engage with everything that comes along. I feel all the requisite emotions (and then some), I participate whenever possible, and you guessed it: I am often exhausted.

Recently I have had to endure the stresses associated with loss of loved ones (something I can’t control) as well as the stress of getting ready to live in another country (something I can control), and all the little adventures in between!

As I have recently talked about here, my mother died in December, very unexpectedly. Her mother, whom I call Gramilda (Grandma + her name, Armilda), took the blow severely. Gramilda has been suffering from poor health for several years. Now she had the death of her firstborn child to grieve, and it was too much for her to overcome.

Gramilda died Thursday night.

I talked to her a week ago Sunday. At the time, she knew she was going to die, and she sounded at peace with it. She said we were not allowed to be sorry or feel bad about it. That she is happy she doesn’t have to be old anymore, because she was sick of it. Gramilda said she refused to let another one of her children go before her, and thus was willing her own passing. Achingly poignant.

I can’t exactly grieve for her, because my heart is still all walled off from trying to avoid grieving for my mother. (She says, tongue-in-cheek) But seriously, I am not emotionally prepared to process another loss. Especially during a time when I have have had limited communications with the outside world.

HP guts (and my green toenail polish!)

My computer quit on me almost two weeks ago. Everything fine, then… blip! Nothing. I went 5 days with nothing at all except work computers, and about went mad. I had spent all my savings on Tara’s plane ticket to Japan (more on that later), and a new computer for Tara, whose own laptop had finally kicked the bucket just last month. Totally broke, my knight, Arno, saved me and bought me a new laptop.

The great thing is that only the hardware gave it up. All my saved files and documents and photos and spreadsheets are just fine. I got all the old stuff transferred from the old hard drive onto the new computer, and I’m back in business finally.

Our tent on the sand of the Sandy River, near Mt. Hood

This is Mother’s Day weekend, the one I had planned as my Tara Weekend prior to departure. Next weekend is Arno’s Weekend prior to departure. The weekend after that, I fly to Hiroshima, Japan, and then take the shuttle to Iwakuni. My choice for how to spend the weekend with my daughter was to go camping. So we set up a tent and a campfire on the beach on Friday night.

She looks great in a tuxedo!

It’s important to spend this time together, but not even Mother’s Day and Mom-Daughter time overrides the constant flow of activities in our lives. We had to break right in the middle for Prom.

Tara is only a Freshman, but was invited by her Senior friend to go to the big Junior-Senior event of the year. She is just daring enough to decide to wear a tux instead of a dress. She called me at work Wednesday, “Hey! Prom is this weekend! I need a tux!” Which is, if you are a parent, often the way things get brought to your attention. I had the luxury of three whole days to prepare. We picked up the tux without any trouble aside from the bill: $190! Luckily they gave us a $50 off coupon for first-time customers.

And so now, thoughts turn more and more toward Japan. I was selected for a temporary position with my employer, the Department of Veterans Affairs, to work for 4 1/2 months in Japan to explain VA benefits to soldiers separating from military service. I’ll be responsible for three bases on the mainland. A Marine base in Iwakuni, Air Force base in Misawa, and a Navy base in Sasebo.

Many things have been happening during April and May, but as you can see…very little evidence of it has appeared on my blog. Well, the most telling sign of all that I am extremely occupied (and have a dead computer): no posts! Rest assured, I will blog again.

Very soon, you will be hearing what it’s like for me to live in Japan. Sadly, my home will be on a U.S. base and not in the community, which would be my preference. But I am learning the language with Pimsleur audio lessons, and I plan to leave the military base as often as I can fit it into my schedule!

Newly painted wall in Tara's room

I finished painting my daughter’s room. Dark grey. I protested, not a little. She stood firm (ooh, I raised an independent girl. A fact which bites me in the butt sometimes). It wasn’t until I got all the way around with the first coat, and could see it more or less in a complete state, that I realized it looks nice. Tara said, “I like how you called it ‘my cave’ Mom, because it is! It’s my cave!”

Grey. What a color.

I want to know her desperately. And, she shares a lot, but she is also very private. I think it is the time when I will begin to be left out of a significant portion of her life inside her head. I don’t want to let her get that far away from me. I think she is such an incredible person who is so different from me and so interesting and amazing, I just want the inside scoop forever. But now she has a cave, and it’s her space. Not mine.

My beautiful and mysteriously talented daughter

What is it with my kid and her cell phone?

Miss T causes some kind of magnetic rift in the Force that governs cell phones. Or else, she’s a total dingbat. Personally, I like the idea that she messes with the ebb and flow of invisible forces in the way solar flares do. That theory matches my frustration level better. It’s more validating.

She also managed to ruin her iPod, just to make sure she had the concept figured out and was properly able to apply her disruptive technique. After a long, joyful swim in the ship’s pool in January of 2010, when we were floating down the Nile, she went back to the room to change into dry clothes. As she stripped off her wet shorts, her eyes got big and her mouth formed a nice round “o.”

“My iPod!” she gasped.

“Yes?” I asked, pretty much figuring out what she had just discovered.

“It got wet! Do you think it’s ruined?” she asked as she frantically poked buttons and tapped on it and shook it… to no avail.

Yes. The iPod was ruined. We did get lots of great suggestions for how to cure it though. My fave was: place it in a paper bag of dry rice for three days. The rice will wick out all the moisture and Viola! Good as new! But no, swimming in a pool for an hour with an electronic device will kill your device. Don’t try it; just take my word for it.

At the time of her swim in the pool, she was on her second cell phone, an electronic device slowly gasping its way to inevitable death (the Force, already at work?). The first had been one of four her dad purchased for the family, as well as a family plan. A flip phone with no keyboard and no camera. It was stolen from her locker at school in no time. Soon after, her step-mom gave T the identical phone that she had been using, and took that opportunity to upgrade.

At the time we were in Egypt, phone number two had been periodically turning itself off when it was in the mood to do so. This began occurring about once a month, then weekly, and progressed to 4 or 5 times a day. It just turned itself off, whether the batteries were charged or not, and usually right when I was trying to contact her. It is the most maddening thing to be a parent at work, trying to contact the kid to check on her, or tell her I’d be late, or just reassure myself that the house wasn’t burning down, only to be dumped into voicemail the instant my phone connected with hers.

Equally frustrating for her, as she explained, “I had to remember to keep checking it so I could turn it back on in case 911 called and said my mom died.”

Admittedly, I was eager for her to have a new phone. The gasping one was finally put out of its misery and replace with a new blue phone. That one was accidentally dropped at the mall. It had been open when dropped, so the inside screen cracked in a “Y” pattern. As T explains, “The right side of the Y was gone, inside the Y was fuzzy, and the left side clear. I couldn’t read any texts, see pictures, or identify who was on the caller ID.” This phone had a tiny screen on the outside, that she could use to click Enter, and answer incoming calls. She couldn’t send a long text or she would get a message to “Please open phone.” She also couldn’t read a long text, for the same reason. Nothing would appear except “Please open phone.”

Over the summer, Dad got her a really nice sliding phone with a great camera. There were no problems, she said. It had nice texting capabilities, and a nice sized keyboard. It also had a small screen on the front she could use, as well as the inside slider screen. She left it at the beach during surf camp.

She had left the phone inside her lunch bag on top of a rock. She contacted me on facebook, freaking out about what her dad was going to say when he found out. When he got home from work later in the evening, they raced back to the beach and the rock, and there it was!  Hallelujah! Scoldings were apparently not very effective, because two days later, she left it on the beach during surf camp again. She had again left the phone in the lunch bag, but this time laid it right on the sand. When they returned to the beach after her dad got off work, the sand was wet where the phone had been. She went up and down the shore, hoping to find it lodged against a rock somewhere, but did not find it. “I only found seaweed. I guess the phone went out to sea,” she said wistfully.

Her current phone is ok. Not as cool as the last one. It’s got a poor camera and poor sound quality she complains. “We pretty much got the cheapest one we could find.”

I like this one because it has resurrected twice.  While camping at Fort Stevens on the Oregon coastline, T was at Coffenbury Lake and couldn’t resist herself. She took a run off the dock and plunged in – clothes and everything. Halfway back to camp on her bike, she remembered her phone was in her pocket. I received a call from her. I answered, heard her voice talking others nearby, but she couldn’t hear me. When the kids returned, she was in tears and freaking out again. “Dad is going to kill me!”

Well, I nearly took care of that for him. After we both calmed down, we took a look at the phone. She had pulled all its components apart and spread them out on the picnic table. At first she said, the screen was white, but things still happened when she pressed buttons. That’s when she called me. She couldn’t get it to turn off unless she pulled the battery out. She agonized for the whole camping trip about having to tell her dad when she got back home. We were going to postpone telling him as long as possible, in hopes that it would dry out and come back to life. Instead, the moment she got home and turned on her computer, dad called in on Skype. Poor little kid, she confessed in tears immediately, and then suffered his response.

But this one, without the help of rice, DID come back to life three days later. Almost as good as new, except that the space bar no longer works when she’s texting. Her first attempt to deal with the problem had been to capitalize the first letter of each word, but that had been too tedious. Now when she sends a text, which is frequently, each word is separated with a period. She joyously called her dad to share the news.

Only one week later, it was stolen from her locker at school. Now, she has learned about locking lockers by this time, but it was stolen from the gym locker, where her teacher assured the class that no one can get in except people in the class, so they do not let the kids lock the gym lockers. When she returned to the shower room after gym class, her phone and student ID were gone, but the backpack had been left alone.

I can’t tell you the agony of this poor child when she came home from school that day and told me what happened. She was crumpled. She said she would turn over all her savings to buy the next phone. It was awful to witness. She couldn’t bring herself to tell her dad yet. She had looked all over to see if someone would have turned it in somewhere, the library, the gym (even looked in the locker again, just in case she was crazy), asked the gym teacher. Nothing. The next day, she tried at the office again, and they had the phone and the ID. Miraculously, someone had turned them in. The people in the office told her, “Don’t ever lose these again because you are very lucky this time. People never turn things in.”

As I wrote this blog, I had been asking her to help me remember the history of all her phones. In jest, I asked her at the end, “Did you lose any other electronic devices?” And she dropped her head onto a pillow in front of her. “The iPod Touch!” she wailed, reminding me of her dad’s birthday gift to her. Her muffled voice came from inside the pillow, “$300 and 36 gigabytes! I can’t find it. I’ve looked and looked. Dad is going to be so mad! He’s gonna kill me. Don’t tell him.”

Check out this video from Hawai’i last month. In the last few seconds of playing in the surf, you can actually witness her remembering phones in her pockets. This time, no damage.

New dress and fancy shoes

My little girl is now out of Middle School and on her way toward being a high-schooler. Very cool, a little scary, and a recipe for adventure. Life is so full of doors of potential. All around us, doors stand in their frames, just waiting for our inquisitive minds to try the handle and see what it’s like to walk through. Nothing brings that thought to mind lately, more than my thoughts about Miss Tara graduating from the 8thgrade. How often I wonder where her life will take her, and how eager I am to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and watch her leap into it!

me, my girl, my mother

Last month we attended the Portland Title VII Indian Education graduation ceremony. Tuesday’s ceremony was at her own school with her classmates. It was really fun to be there with all that Eighth-grader energy and with their proud family and friends. I tease Tara, tongue in cheek, that I’ve got Gypsy blood, and always on the edge of being blown into the next town with a change in the winds. Contrary to my natural instincts, I’ve allowed societal and psychiatric pressure to coerce me into holding still for awhile for her sake. It paid off when I watched her classmates graduate and knew half their names and could tell you something special about almost as many of them. Holding still helps me connect to my community, and that’s a beautiful thing.

goofing around in the cafeteria

She’s a cultural minority at Harrison Park School, like all of her classmates there. It’s probably the first time I’ve experienced a clearly demarcated group that has no obvious physical qualities that make up the majority. The group is so unlike her very white upper middle class elementary school in Beaverton (on the other side of town). Sorry Beaverton, but over here we SO have it going on! The students beaming as they crossed the stage were descendants of families hailing from places as diverse as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Nigeria, Mexico, and, uh, Oregon. There were American Indians, Muslims in their headscarves, tall and dark, short with red hair, loud, quiet, smart, popular, shy, and all obviously loved by not only one or two who might be related to them, by also by supporters throughout the auditorium. There were cheers, yelps, clapping, and whistles scattered amongst us all when a new student made their way into the spotlight to collect their certificate of promotion.

My neighbor, Herbert, also the parent of a graduate

It was obvious when a student was popular: sometimes the place would erupt in a roar of appreciation. And I often could guess why: they cheered for the sweet-natured but fierce team player on the volleyball team, the beautiful chess champ, the tall traveling athlete who cherishes friends, the pianist, the scholarship winner, and the one who makes everyone laugh. What a great group they are. I am proud of my girl and proud of her classmates. I’m so glad to have witnessed their last three years together.

My mother sewed a dress for Miss T, who had chosen the design and the fabrics. (She also sewed her own dress that you see in the photo above.) Tara felt like a beauty in her lovely dress. I was delighted to see my tomboy in GIRL clothes! She thought at first she wanted to wear my old combat boots with her dress. It was a way for her to match the dress code and retain her individuality. She wasn’t ready to make a clean break from her typical fashion preference (ripped jeans, Vans, and a hoodie) to satin and tulle. But… after twenty minutes in front of a mirror in the dress, she was rummaging through my closet and pulled out my Kenneth Cole sandals. It was a sweet moment. It’s not always easy to accept growing up gracefully, and I understood the small steps she was taking to try on a new role.

happy graduates

All the graduates ended up in the cafeteria where we gathered for photos and hellos to old friends and goodbyes to dear teachers. The graduates were bursting with high spirits and joyous celebration. They decided to gather at Jonah’s house for ice cream afterward, so Mom, and Aunt Eireanne, and I went home and left T with her friends to celebrate their special evening together.

wearing my own letterman's jacket

As an aside… The following night my girl was getting ready to head out to Cirque de Soleil with ex-boyfriend Mark. Looking through the hall closet for something warm to wear, she pulled out my old high school jacket. Talk about bringing it full circle. I wore that jacket not too long ago. Let’s see, it was about 6 weeks ago. No, more like a year or two ago. Well, actually – now that I think about it – that was 23 years ago. She wore the jacket and I reminisced. I can’t believe I’m the mother of a Freshman.

I am fortunate to be raising a good kid. She’s yet 13, and has her “moments,” but for the most part she is honest with me, does not talk back, and is generally a person I can count on. It has to be this way, because I am a single, working mom and there are times when she has to be home by herself. This weekend she is going through one of those “moments.” It smacks of hormone surge because of the sudden shift in personality.

Trying on her new pointe shoes

All week long Miss T has come straight home from school, made herself a healthy snack, and then finished her homework before I got home from work. Tues and Thurs she has ballet, so she collected change for the bus, got herself off to class, and got herself home with no fuss at all and not even a call begging for a ride home as she sometimes does. I received one of those automated phone calls one night, saying that my student was marked absent in the afternoon, and that I needed to call the office and explain why. Miss T said she was not absent. I called the school the next day and was reassured that it was a mistake. They know her by name at the office and assured me that she was at school and they would correct the records right away. See? Good kid.

Friday she had been granted a gift in return for her conformity to the well-behaved child I expect her to be. I gave her permission to go to the movies with her girlfriends. It was to start at 5:00pm, so I gave the movie two hours, then started carrying the phone on my person to make sure I didn’t miss the text or phone call. No text or phone call came. At 10 minutes to 8:00, I texted her: “Where are you? I’m worried.” I didn’t hear a thing till 8:20 when she called me. No, it was not even a check in. She had run around with her friends for the past hour, then checked her phone right before she got to the house. As we were speaking, I heard her walk in the door. Needless to say, my anger outweighed the relief of having her home safe. But I didn’t flip out. I calmly told her that the way things had panned out that evening were not acceptable, and I repeated what she already knows about what I expect from her in the future.

Talking is not enough.

Saturday she was a bratty teen from the moment she opened her eyes. She committed small failures mostly: taking liberties without asking, lying about getting her chores done, deciding it was ok to leave the house while I was gone and could not be asked. I called her, told her to get her butt home, and set her to work on more chores and then supervised to make sure they got done right. She had permission to go back to the park if she could get everything done before it was time for ballet practice for the June performance. She got everything done and had about 45 minutes to spare. She was hopping-eager to get out of the house and away from me, but I made her talk about getting home in time for ballet practice. I told her to think about how much time she had to play, when she wanted to get home so we could get to practice on time. “Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ll be here,” was her snooty answer. I let her go.

She missed ballet entirely. I had wavered in my head for awhile about whether to call her and remind her, and then drive over and get her because I knew it was a long walk… and I realized that the whole problem is that she’s expecting me to cover for her. Ballet is a privilege (and an expensive one). She loves participating and is proud to tell others about it. Missing practice is a blow to her, not to me. So… I watched the minutes tick by and waited while she missed practice. Her frantic phone call came too late.

When she got home, she didn’t have a word to say for herself. I made her call the instructor and apologize for missing her class. As soon as she hung up, she announced that she was hungry and wanted a snack even though it was obvious I was in the middle of preparing dinner. “No, you can wait. And while you’re waiting, you can put your clean clothes away,” I said, handing her a stack of laundry. Miss T turned on her laptop as she passed it, hoping to return when the clothes were put away. I turned off the computer and when she came back I explained something to her.

“Some of what I do for you is my job, and some of what I do is favors. I do a lot of favors for you. It’s common human decency that when someone does something nice for you, you pay them back. For example, I do favors like let you bend the rules sometimes and give you treats. I don’t have to do that.”

“I know!” she says, humbly. “I know you do a lot for me.”

“My job is to keep you safe, and to keep you healthy. You never, ever, ever owe me for that. But when I do something special for you, you need to pay me back. You must do more than your regular job as a kid. You need to show me respect for what I have done, by being extra polite, checking in with more texts, asking permission at all times, look for ways to help around the house, clean your room without being asked, that kind of thing. Because you didn’t respect me, you can’t touch your computer for the rest of the weekend.”

That’s worse than any other kind of punishment. She would rather starve than be deprived of the Internet. It’s what I should have done in the beginning, on Friday. Then I would have had my good girl back already.

Beaver

big Beaver

I’m on the Beavers’ call list. I think it’s because I was calling them last year to ask for donations to our employee morale organization. In any case, they offered me a deal I couldn’t refuse: $5 for opening night tickets.

Tara and I caught the game tonight. It was a fun girls night out. She is a delight to watch as she grows into her emerging self. Twelve years old is very mature and very immature together. She is a marvel and I adore her – snippy retorts and all.

She wound her long hair into a braid so the blue hair wove through the natural blonde and showed along the length of the braid. Wore her black, oversized Humboldt sweatshirt, and knee socks different colours with her blue cargo capris. Also her new Converse all-stars with comic strip excerpts on the sides. Crazy mix.

We parked under a church, that apparently charges for evening parking. …cuz no one’s at church then! Ha! What a good idea for a money-maker. Walked several blocks to the park and got there in time for the fireworks.

PGE Park

PGE Park

The Sacramento River Cats jumped ahead in the top of the second, and we stayed through the 5th inning, but never saw the Portland Beavers score a run. Too bad. They seemed to have a pretty good pitcher, but the River Cats had some darn good hitters. It got cold and the girlie got tired and she asked a few times if I wanted to go home before she eventually confessed that she wanted to go home.

Planning ahead, I had purchased an extra Widmer’s Hefeweisen that remained untouched at that point. I turned to the group behind me and offered my beer. I tried to explain that I had an extra beer and asked if any of them wanted it. After the third explanation and not getting through to the patriarch of the family, I picked up my beer and showed it to him. He took it gratefully with a smile. Ahhh, to much effort with the words sometimes, when words aren’t even necessary.

Girlie

Girlie

The girlie and I had a lovely drive home, oooohing and aaaaahing over the bright lights and tall buildings all decked out for the evening. “This could easily be a sidestreet in New York,” she said. “You know, in the poorer part of town.” I knew what she meant, not the poor part of town, but the less glitzy part of town that we had seen. True, Portland is no Times Square – thank god.

It’s a bit of a pleasure to me that my kid can compare her home city to Manhattan. I want to give her SO MUCH. I want to give her Life. And Experience. I am not wealthy, but I am bullheaded, so that makes up for a lot. Nothing will get in the way of my goals. I simply refuse.

We came home and after she brushed her braces, I tucked her into bed and as she turned back from 16 to 12 years old again… we sang all the Disney songs from Alice in Wonderland that we could remember.

I give myself very good advice
But I very seldom follow it
That explains the trouble that I’m always in

{just then, one of the neighbor cats down below her bedroom window began yowling}

Be Patient is very good advice
But the waiting makes me curious
Will I ever learn to do the things I should?

I take my man to the airport in the morning. He’s going home to Boston to comfort his mother this weekend. She is feeling the stress of trying to care for and protect her sister’s family while she tries to have a full life and support herself as well. She has no one to lean on except Mark. He’s going to be a shoulder for his mom, which is a very sweet thing for a man to do. He’ll be home Tuesday.

That means Saturday I have to take Tara to her first volleyball game of the Spring season by myself. At least I know the gym we’ll be playing at; I like her coach; and Tara loves volleyball. That’s better than the recently completed basketball season, which Tara was only partially convinced she liked playing.

Busy busy weekend for me. Should I plan rest time? Nope! I think I’ll plan a trip to visit my 90 year old Grandma Trulove in Sandy. That should pack things up nicely. If the sun ever shines again, I will work in my yard.

One of my many guises

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