Monday, June 29, 2015



Jaclyn and the giraffe

Jaclyn is the only woman I can tolerate hearing my husband’s admiration for, the only girl I know to touch the head of a giraffe, and the a girl who helps protect our financial interests no matter where she is or what time it is.

We met when I was twenty nine, when we first moved to Sacramento.  Mario had taken the afternoon off to attain car and home insurance for us, and came home to announce that I had to meet our new insurance agent. 

“She’s a kick in the pants,” he gushed, smiling.  I was already jealous.  Mario has always been relatively clueless about the power he has over women. 

“Really?” I asked him, raising my eyebrows.  He looked at me and held up his hands. 
“Just meet her, then tell me she isn’t going to be one of our best friends ever.”

He was right. 

Jaclyn’s office wasn’t exactly traditional.  It was in a Victorian house in old Elk Grove, where the oak trees were massive and the streets still had hanging stoplights.  I walked in and she was smiling right at me. 

“You must be Janet,” she said.  “He said he’d bring you back and I didn’t believe him!”  The chairs in front of her desk were covered with her stuff.  An open computer bag, piles of files, a sweater.  She laughed and picked up a pile and transferred it to another chair.  “Have a seat!”

I liked her immediately.  We left about twenty minutes later, after we talked about everything but insurance.  We managed to set up a date for coffee.  She recommended a couple of good restaurants.
Jaclyn saw us through years of different cars, including the ones we bought for our kids when they first drove.  She helped us negotiate great prices, but even more than that – she was the epitome of what a good business person should be.  She knew us, liked us and wanted to help- and she was a kick in the pants.

Years after that first meeting in old Elk Grove, Jaclyn came to visit us in South Africa.  We reconnected quickly and she stayed for a couple of weeks, where we visited every place we swore we would when we first arrived.  She even went with me to a small business meeting in Diepsloot, where she offered business advice to two young entrepreneurs.  She met our friends, got to know our schedule, and… touched the head of a giraffe.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to get that close,” I laughed.  Instead of batting her away, the giraffe basically cuddled up against her, like a friendly horse.  It was the sweetest thing I’d ever seen.  The giraffe was genuinely a good judge of character. 

Jaclyn is a good friend – still is a bright star in our lives.  We call her our ninja, because she can do anything, anywhere in a stealth manner.  Afterwards, she acts like it’s no big deal.

Happy Birthday, Jaclyn.  You really are an incredible friend.  We are so glad that we know you – this world needs more kick-in-the-pants-ninjas. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Physiological response to stress (fight or flight)

Keeping my proverbial head above water during the summer school session has been a feat of note.  I’m not much of a multi-tasker and (by my own admission) I have only recently learned how to study for a college exam.  Summer school is a combination of speed and endurance – with a little bit of crazy thrown in.

I have to say that my favorite class so far is Health Education 300 (HEED 300), where we have already tackled subjects such as disease, stress, psychological health, sex, pregnancy, childbirth, contraception, and drug abuse. 

There is always class participation.

My fellow students are diverse in age, background and academic majors.  Most of them like to ask questions and participate.  I laugh out loud almost every class; it’s so much fun.

These are some things I have learned while I have been enrolled in HEED 300:

·         Wellness is different from health.  Health typically refers to the absence of disease or physical injury.  Wellness ( a relatively new concept) refers to the happiness and quality of a person’s life.  We experience wellness in physical, emotional, spiritual, interpersonal, financial, and intellectual ways.  Americans who form relationships on all of these fronts have a better chance at being WELL, not just healthy. 

·         Americans live a lot longer than we used to.  According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Americans today are living longer and healthier. Life expectancy in the United States has jumped from 47 years in 1900 to 78 years as reported in 2009.  Disability in people over age 65 has dropped dramatically in the past 3 decades. In recent years, nationwide rates of new diagnoses and deaths from all cancers combined have fallen significantly.

·         Chronic disease has replaced infectious disease in the USA.  At the turn of the century, it was not unusual for someone to die from the flu; now the flu (even H1N1) has a harder time killing people.  We know how to boost our immune systems, increase our fluid intake, rest  and stay away from people when we are contagious. Yet, we surround ourselves with toxins: alcohol, tobacco, fast food, drugs, etc. that increase our chances of contracting disease.  As a former smoker, drinker, partier, and McDonald’s French-fries addict, I have to fight the urge to stand on my chair and shout “YEAH!!  Preach it, sister!!” at my teacher.  I look around and see faces like mine, having heard it all before… and ready to go out and do it all over again. 

·         Stress can kill you.  Not just figuratively, stress is a killer: it increases our chances of heart attacks and strokes and actually causes our systems to shut down – at least temporarily.  Americans experience stress at work more than any other place, but they bring that stress home with them.  To relieve stress many Americans go home and unwind by watching TV, drinking alcohol and eating “comfort foods” – all of which can kill you if stress doesn’t.

·         I know where to get a bookmark with different colored condoms on the front.  It wouldn’t be a health class if we didn’t get an obligatory visit from a “family planning clinic”. We had a guest speaker from Planned Parenthood who actually passed out bookmarks with colored condoms on the front.  I laughed out loud -then took a picture.  I doubt that anyone who actually reads books will take one of these, I thought.  The bookmark had a long list of all the services that Planned Parenthood provides.  In between rolling my eyes at the way she phrased things, I realized that she was a person who deserved a modicum of my respect.  Once I got over myself, I was able to smile and join in.  I even helped her to remember some HIV/AIDS facts that she had forgotten.  I resisted the urge to ask for equal time from a Crisis Pregnancy Center. 

If you think you know everything about health, you’d love this class.  Really, it has been eye-opening on many levels for me.  It has been the class that champions participation, and with extremely diverse opinions the conversations can get intense.  It is only week three and the class activities force getting to know one another, so I have met a lot of my fellow classmates… and loved each one. 

My kind of class.  


Thursday, June 18, 2015


Mario grew his beard back this year...

For some reason, I have been given a husband so wonderful and stable that I  have had to discipline myself not to think of him as my savior.  Our relationship has always been a combination of romance and friendship, one that began as the greatest surprise of my life.

From the moment Mario saw me, he was able to recognize the diamond in the rough; the princess beneath the layers of insecurity and doubt.  He was able to provide me with  much needed love and acceptance, after years of deprivation in a (self-inflicted) cold world.  He was handsome, financially stable, loved my son and made all my bells and whistles go off like a smoke alarm.   I was a twenty-five year-old young woman desperate for attention and starving for love - a proverbial catastrophe waiting to happen.  Instead of taking advantage of my vulnerable state, Mario loved me.

He loved me.

The thought still brings tears to my eyes.  His love was real and genuine and the stuff that legends are made of.  He didn’t manufacture it – it came naturally.  I received this love suspiciously, waiting for him to come to his senses and figure out I was just me.  

He stayed. 

Today Mario is sixty one and he is still in love with me - after twenty-eight years.  I look at him and still wonder why this guy who was light years out of my league saw into my soul and fell in love.  I am married to the best guy I know.

God has mercy on the humble; this mercy in my life has translated to Mario.  If a person has been kissed by God, they have noticeable imprints of that love that He has the mercy to leave on them.  I thank God for this mercy – because I know I don’t deserve it.

Happy Birthday, babe.  You really are the best thing I have in my life – and my life is overflowing with good things.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


Angus, the boy who loved food

Once upon a time, dear Laurel, in the beautiful but crowded city of Glasgow, Scotland, lived a Dad, a Mum and their eight children.  Their family name was McKinnon, but by the late 1800’s there were so many McKinnons in Scotland that they were referred to as the Old and Young McKinnons.  Eventually, the family name became Young and there was no way to change it back after the computers took over.

But that is another story.

Back to the Young Family – and their eight children.  They lived in Glasgow, a city known for its rain and clouds -and a band that Abuela used to like, called the Bay City Rollers.  I keep getting distracted. 

The Youngs had eight kids and lived in a cramped apartment, next to the MacFarlans and MacFies who also had a lot of children.  They played in the streets with sticks and balls, and the kids knew who their friends were; the kids knew who their enemies were.  The apartments were on a street of four-storey tenement blocks, which were very high and very poor at the same time.  Pa Young actually helped build apartments just like them, as he was very gifted at laying concrete brick and worked alongside friends.   

On  some days, in just the right light, the clouds would separate and the Young children would stand on the balcony and look into the distance, where the green hills were spotted with white purple heather and sheep feeding in flocks.   The Young children asked their parents if it would be possible if they might one day visit the hills and touch a sheep, but Pa and Ma would not make promises they could not keep.

With eight children, there was plenty of hunger but not a lot of food.   Ma used to take in other people’s laundry, and wash it by hand for extra money when things were very bad.  Pa would always find out she was doing this and hang his head, ashamed that he could not make enough money to support his family.  He finally told her: “Margaret, do not exhaust yourself! You have eight children, ranging from eighteen to five years old!”  Pa would shake his head and look at the children, who would pretend not to hear the conversation. 

“I wish I could say that I can keep up,” Ma would say, wringing her hands.  “The children need to eat.  I wish I could say I gave birth to children who didn’t like food, but they all love it so.”  

“And the youngest of all our children loves it the most,” Pa said, looking over at Angus, a mass of curls, freckles and short pants.

It was true.  The Young children loved food and ate anything that was available to eat.  Alex, George and Michael were the fastest of the eaters, devouring their food and then watching their siblings eat.  Since Angus was the youngest of the Youngs, his mother always took pity on him and tried not to deprive him of any morsel.  Many times, he ate the fatty portions of meat, or the gristled part of the steak, only because he was the last plate served. 

“One day,” Angus thought to himself, “I will eat to my heart’s content!” 

The dreams of food followed him to school, and he tried to concentrate on his studies, but never could. 

When Angus was eight, Pa Young made an announcement to the family: they were moving to Australia.

“I have an opportunity to work there,” he said.  The Young children watched him, doubtful that the move could be good.

“Do I have to move?” Alex, the eldest, asked him.  “I’ll be eighteen in a few weeks.”

Ma Young gasped and clutched her hand to her chest.  “My son!” she cried.  Pa rose to his feet and walked back and forth on the worn carpet. 

“You want to stay here?” Pa asked Alex as the other Young children watched.  “Go ahead.  Good bloody luck!”

It was a painful move, and Alex did indeed stay in Scotland.  It took Ma five hours to stop crying on the plane, and the only reason she did was that she went to sleep.  Angus sat next to her and watched as she faded off, tears streaming down her cheeks at the thought of leaving her son behind.  Once he was sure Ma was asleep, Angus took the uneaten food from her tray and ate it.  He was sure Ma would not notice.

Lauren, so many things happen for a reason, and I am sure that Alex was very pleased that he stayed behind in Glasgow, even though his family was half a world away.  He eventually moved to London to start his own rock and roll band, one he called Grapefruit.  Believe it or not, they were fabulous and wildly successful.  Almost as talented as those Bay City Rollers that Abuela told you about earlier.

Alex made enough money to send his parents some,  and they were so delighted that they split it seven ways and gave it to the children.  Angus, who by that time was fifteen years old, took his share of the money and bought an old guitar, a Gibson with devil horns on it.  When he brought it home, Ma forbade him to bring it into the house and warned him not to start a rock band like his brother. 

So, Angus put that guitar down and studied hard to become a chef because he liked food so much.

Wait a second… that’s not true.  Angus brought the guitar inside and learned to play and became a band leader, just like his brother.  Only the band HE started became wildly famous, and Abuela used to listen to their music, too.  Alright, I’ll be honest.  Sometimes I still listen to their music – it’s a little wild, but what can you expect from the youngest of eight children who had to fight for their food?

I guess I can say that Angus still loves food – and he doesn’t drink alcohol, which surprises people.  He’s actually still in that band - and wears his school uniform when he is on stage.  Don’t believe me?  Ask your parents.

I love you, granddaughter.  Remember that the baby of the family always carries such special talent.  Let your light shine!

Angus Young of AC/DC
Public Domain Image 

Thursday, June 11, 2015


1/2 of the Minerals Tray 

I started summer school on Monday at American River.  The campus is relatively sparse, in comparison to the spring semester. 

As a kid, I loved summer school and used to beg my parents to go.  I attended Catholic school from autumn to spring, but summer school was my opportunity to go and rub elbows with the wild hooligans that populated the public schools in Tracy.  This is where I met a lot of my childhood friends.  They didn’t know me as a girl who struggled with academics, sports, or social status.  These fresh new public-school faces met me and instantly proclaimed me as pretty and funny.  You have to understand that I have never placed first in any contest, but the anonymity of summer school brought out the best in me.

Here I am – 52 and returning to summer school – and this time it’s all business.  I am attending  for the same reason everyone else is: to pick up extra credits that I need for a degree.  Normally, the Los Rios Community College district allows summer school students to take 8 credits for an eight-week semester.  Classes move at a faster pace, so 8 credits is a full plate. Before I left the spring semester I petitioned the school to take an extra class –I am taking 10 credits.

Geology 300 – Physical Geology – 3 credits
Geology 301 – Geology Lab – 1 Credit
Business Tech 350 – Virtual Workplaces – 3 Credits
Health Education  300 – 3 Credits

After carrying a full load in the spring, which included two honors courses, I thought I’d be ready for the heavy load at triple pace.  I think I was wrong…

Dr. Teerlink lectures about the Rock Cycle

Geology  is technical stuff and I thought I'd enjoy this branch of science.  To fulfill a science requirement (and all students do to earn any degree) I must take a lecture with a lab companion.   
I used to love Geology as a kid, so I decided on placing this as my first choice for science - and I got in.  The truth is, most students in class (and our class is FULL!!) have taken biology and chemistry and knew how many tectonic plates were crashing into each other or moving apart from each other...before they walked in.  I didn't.  I was the girl in the back of the class with tears welling up in her eyes as she shook her head.  I guess I didn't have a “working knowledge” by any means.  

"Yeah," Mario sympathized when I got home.  "You'll have to study like crazy." So I have been.  My text (which is massive) is already getting a workout.  I will not get left behind.

On Monday we were given a tray of rocks and told that we would be identifying each one (and their chemical makeup) in three days for a test.  There was no time to say “WTF?” or cry.  We all sat down and started identifying.  My lab partners were so helpful to me…  The test was today and I think I did pretty well.  Geology Lecture/Lab  is from 4:30 – 10:30 Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.  Health Ed is from 11:00- 2:50 Tuesday and Thursday.  On Tuesdays I stay in school twelve hours.


That’s how summer school students describe the pace for summer school.  It's almost two in the morning and I have Health Ed in a few hours.  I almost didn’t blog, but I have to - this is important stuff to chronicle.  I remember what my nineteen-year-old classmate told me on the second day of school:

“They have that 8 unit rule in summer school for a reason.”

Out of the mouth of babes....

Saturday, June 6, 2015


Portia posing under Bonnie's "Ivy Cave" last year.

Once upon a time, I met a quiet bride who loved God, her husband and children so much that she glowed. 

Her name was Portia. 

I think she was twenty-five, a baby by my standards.  I had just arrived in South Africa and her husband, Thembe, was one of the elders in our new church, The Junction.  Two years later, Thembe would pass away to heaven, leaving Portia a single mother of two boys.  The transition made her rely even more on God.

By the time I left South Africa, she was my best friend there.  She had a gift for living in the grace of God, no matter what.  I wanted to be like her, and the thought made her laugh.  After all, I was old enough to be her mother. 

With me in America and Portia in South Africa, we communicate via SKYPE and whatsapp – the best app on my phone.  Skype and whatsapp are the two things that validate the reality that we live in a big world – and we need to communicate in creative ways. 

My whatsapp messages were all lost at the beginning of last month after I traded in my phone for a new one.  I lost all of Portia’s encouraging messages.  I lost messages of hope, hurt, and friendship.  I lost the recorded account of Cynthia getting sick, and then dying.  All of it was gone, surrendered when I upgraded for a newer model.  It affected me deeply.

I used to read Portia’s messages when I felt lonely, insecure, lost or strange in my own country. 
Today Portia turns thirty-five. 

I just got to talk to her – freezing in Johannesburg. A recent cold front has made getting out of bed an incredibly chilling experience.   Her home has no central heat or running water, but I have never known her to complain.  The boys were still in bed when I called, Saturday morning under the covers with no schedule.  

The sound of her voice reassures me that no distance can come  between us – it is like we are both together, enduring the bitter cold of Johannesburg.  Instead, I type this in shorts and a tee shirt, my ceiling fan cooling the room down as much as it can.

Portia’s birthday wish is to own a home, which I pray will happen.  She works hard and has a good job, but raising her kids alone does take most of her resources.  Darrel and Ebi go to a very good school, and Portia gladly pays the tuition, knowing that education is the gift that will benefit them the most. 

I will pray this year for the perfect home for  Portia– a home that she can call her own.  Won’t you pray with me?  It will be like we are all friends together –across the miles.
Happy Birthday, Portia.  Halala ngosuku lokuzalwa, my friend.  

Thursday, June 4, 2015


Stephen Rodriguez - NYC 2006

When you love someone, really love someone, every piece of them is precious and important.  You begin to examine each piece and love it as much as the total person – you might even reason that these pieces have chiseled this person into the one who you love.

When I met Mario he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen.  What made him especially breathtaking was that he didn’t know it.  Later, when we became friends, I discovered he was among those who are gorgeous now, but grew up homely. 

“I used to have ears that stuck out like this,” he told me, pushing his lobes straight out.  “I was skinny and scared and wouldn’t talk to anyone.”  It was hard for me to believe that this confident (and buff) man could ever be this way.  Then he’d cap off the story by saying, “My brother Stephen was the outgoing one.  He was the one everyone noticed.”

I had never met Stephen.  Mario and I have now been married for twenty-seven years and I have never met Stephen.  I, who actively sought to know every piece of Mario -the one who dug through his old journals, his old pictures, his high school yearbooks- had never met his older brother.

Stephen (standing)
Anthony and Mario
Not long after Chev left for New York

Stephen, Mario and Anthony were born (in that order) to Angelo and Cynthia Rodriguez, one right after the other.  By the time Anthony was two, Angelo decided enough was enough with the nine-to-five jobs and pursued his career as a stage actor.  He was successful enough to live in New York City and travel the world.  While he lived his dream (and changed his name to Chev Rogers), he met Alice, his soul-mate.  

Cynthia remained in California and began the task of raising three boys on her own.  After meeting a man named Al Warias at her work, Cynthia decided to remarry in 1964; Al became the German step-father who came in and “whipped the boys into shape” as Mario told me. 

It didn’t work for the eldest son, Stephen.

Stephen had a will of iron and refused to be disciplined.  Even worse, nothing seemed to motivate Stephen to play by the rules.  He was always the kid jumping the fence, taking the illegal shortcuts, getting in fights, and cutting school.

Learning about Stephen was like watching a documentary.  I had only stories, told to me by Cynthia, Mario, and Anthony.  I had pictures, but they weren’t Stephen.  I longed to hear his side of the story.  I longed to meet him and see the man who was the missing piece of my husband’s puzzle.  In truth, there was also another something: the more I knew of Stephen, the more he reminded me of myself. 

The most memorable and longest-lasting reminder of Stephen is the scars on Mario’s hands and face from being burned by a floor grate.  On impulse, Stephen had pushed a nine-year-old Mario against a floor heater and held him down, searing the mesh into his skin.  It was Cynthia who heard the scuffle – then smelled the flesh burning.  She came running and literally pulled Stephen off Mario.  Cynthia told me the story of her horror – not about the fight, but that Stephen showed no remorse.  He didn’t understand why his brother was “being such a baby”.  It took two weeks for Mario's wounds to heal - the scars are still there.

The more Al and Cynthia tried to rein Stephen in, the more he rebelled.  In an effort to recruit Mario over to his side, Stephen invited him to go and “burgle the school” one night.  Stephen’s sense of excitement matched Mario’s complete fear. 

“I told him no,” Mario said.  “I asked him not to go.  I told him he’d get caught – but he went anyway.”

The next morning, Al woke Mario up and told him that Stephen had been arrested and was in Juvenile Hall.  In an attempt at tough love, Al left him in there for two days.  Mario and Anthony were horrified and worried; after all, Stephen was their brother.

After this, Stephen was sent to live with Chev and Alice in New York.  Two years later, Stephen left them to live with a family in Portugal.  As the boys grew, so did the ocean of separation between them.  By the time I came along, it was all stories.  Memories.  Old pictures. 
Chev (in costume), Stephen and Alice 1968

Stephen was the missing puzzle piece. 

Fast forward several years ahead.  As Chev lay dying in a VA hospital just outside of New York City, he reminded Alice that he had THREE sons, not just two; he charged Anthony, the detective, to find Stephen.  Chev died a few days later.  

After thorough searching, Anthony found Stephen in the Midwest.  He was divorced, but had two daughters.  He seemed glad to be found and agreed to come and meet Mario and Anthony – at Alice’s apartment in New York City. 

“I’m coming with you,” I told Mario, completely determined to meet this enigmatic part of the family. 

Mario’s face told me another story: “It’s just us, babe,” he said.  “It’s a time for us to reconnect as brothers.”

He flew to NYC to meet up with his brothers to discuss Chev, their Mom, the family... and where Stephen has been for the last thirty years.  

Anthony, Mario and Stephen
New York City, 2006

Mario called me from Alice’s apartment and I became green with envy the moment he told me that Stephen brought his daughter, Anita.

“I thought you said it was a time for just you brothers!”


“Why does she get to be there and not me?”

Mario took a deep breath.  “She says she came because she doesn’t know her father.  She wants to know him, and this is the only way she could do it.”  My envy dissolved into sympathy.  The same could be said for me, but Stephen was not my father.  How much longing did she have in her own heart to know him?

“You won’t believe this,” Mario told me.  “She looks just like my mom.” 

In a few minutes, Anita’s picture was in my inbox – and she was glowing with the same kind of translucent blonde beauty that Cynthia used to have.  Later, she and Alice called me.

Alice with Anita
(who bears a striking resemblance to Cynthia, her grandmother)

A few months after Chev’s death, Stephen “went underground” again.  Our contact with him became less and less, mainly facebook messaging.  Once, when I posted a picture of a young Mario sitting on a split-rail fence, I captioned it: “Mario 1964.  Just two years after Janet was born.”

Stephen commented: “Hey Mario.  I recognize that fence.  Who is Janet.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

It was Anita who inboxed me last week, congratulating me on the birth of Harvey, our newest grandson.  She also informed us that Stephen had just gone through a multiple bypass surgery on his heart and his kidneys were failing.  Things did not look good, but she was hopeful that her father would get better.

Yesterday morning, Anita’s husband, John, called Mario to tell him that Stephen had died.  Anita was too broken to come to the phone.  It was a terrible feeling to lose Stephen.  My first thought was that I would never meet him.

Alice and (our daughter) Alicia cried upon hearing the news.  They had a connection with him that I never did – for that I was envious.  Shirley called from vacation in China; we reconnected with nieces and nephews on Mario’s side of the family.  Who were we?  How can we grieve as a family?
Stephen was a private person and didn’t want a memorial service.  Because of this, we are left to grieve in a disjointed and separate fashion; much like we related to Stephen. 

My brother-in-law was an enigmatic man who I knew felt misunderstood by his family.  I loved him for helping making Mario who he is today; but any more than that I did not know him. 

For this I grieve; for him I grieve.  

Stephen and Mario on the split rail fence