Tuesday, August 30, 2016


When you have a grandchild, the world changes.  Most people say that they feel a genuine sense of awe that that new life has come from their own child.  This was definitely true for us.
The day that my first grandchild was born changed my life.

Laila Willow Rodriguez was born in Kansas City, to my step-son, David, and his wife, Lennae.  We heard from David after the event was completely over and Mother and baby were doing well. It was a very intimate birth—our first grandchild was delivered in a hot tub with the help of a midwife.  An unconventional birth delivered an unconventional child.

I remember turning to Mario and asking, “What is today?”

 “August 30.”

We hugged and I whispered that we were now Grandparents, a title that filled me with new purpose.    Not only was Laila’s birth unconventional, her name definitely was.  “Laila Willow Rodriguez,” I kept saying to myself over and over and over.  I was hoping that one day it would just roll off my tongue.  One day it did –I learned to love her name.
Laila's bold haircut last year

Today, that grandchild of mine -the one who made me a grandmother in the first place, turns 13 years old.  There have been a lot of changes this year—changes that have been private and almost protected.  

On a trip to Kansas at the beginning of the year, David and Lennae told us, very carefully, that Laila confided to them that she was gay.  We were a little surprised, but not too worried.  After all, Laila was very young.  Could she really know for sure if she was gay?

Almost instantly, I realized that the answer was yes.  My gay friends tell me that knew they were gay from a young age.  Why would Laila be different?

“What should we do?” I asked David.  “What should we say?”

“I don’t know if the subject will come up,” he said.  “I’m telling you just in case it does.”

Our New Year’s visit, like so many others, included spoiling our grandchildren.  We took Laila, Lilli, and Lauren places that they wanted to go, bought them things they didn’t need, and celebrated with each other over large family dinners.  As always, Laila was herself.  She didn’t seem too different from the grandchild I related to before, and she never brought up the subject of sexual identity or preference. 

During my spring semester, I called Lennae to check in.  I wanted to see how the girls were doing and ask what Lauren wanted for her birthday.  After some discussion, Lennae told me that Laila was going through a different kind of metamorphosis.  She had cut off her hair, changed her name to Max, and told her parents that she identified more as a boy.  I swallowed hard.

I had just learned that my granddaughter was gay.  Now I would have to accept that Laila was uncomfortable in her assigned gender.  This felt like a very large pill to swallow, and I prayed hard, asking God for direction.  How can I reach out with His love?  What do I do?  What should I say?

It occurred to me that God is the same God for Laila as He is for Max.  There is nothing that surprises God –because He knows this person intimately.

How would things be different between us if Laila became Max?  Wouldn’t I always love my grandchild?  Wouldn’t I always want relationship with this person?  Wouldn’t there always be time for discussion and sharing –if I were safe enough to discuss this with?  

I was able to spend some time with the kids last month when David and Lennae went on a cruise for their anniversary.  Cathy and the kids picked me up at the airport, where Max –formerly Laila –looked different, but not so different that I didn’t recognize him.  

Cathy, Lauren and I last month

I wanted a picture with all of us together, but Max yelled out, “No pictures!  This is my awkward, transitional phase!”  

There was a rustling in the back seats, and soon only Cathy, Lauren and I were in the frame.  I shrugged, and snapped it.

Over the next few hours, I could see that things had definitely changed.  Max was now wanting to be called Max – not Laila—with “him” and “he” – not “her” and “she”.   I tried to remember his new name in my speech and change personal pronouns, but I kept forgetting.  My brain knew only Laila, and as much as I wanted to support Max, I still had my habits and language that, I could tell, caused hurt. 

I was ready to learn and Max was ready to help me.  We did have a few private discussions, and many opportunities to affirm one another.  I think that Max wanted to know that I was still Abuela, the grandmother that loved without condition, without limits, and without boundaries.  For that reason, it was relatively easy to live up to what was expected of me.

Max fanning the flame of the Smithy - Mahaffie Farm
We visited the famous Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop & Farm while I was there, where the kids fanned the flame of the blacksmith, fed the pigs and goats, and took a stage coach ride with me.  The working farm is meant to remind its visitors of a simpler time, when things were not so instant.  

Things took time to process, and community was very important.  Before we left, I wanted a picture of all of us in front of a delicious, irresistible boot that guarded the entrance.

“No pictures!”  Max repeated.  “I don’t want to remember this part of my life!”  Max waved his hand in front of his face in a circle, summing up his appearance with dissatisfaction.

 I turned to look into the beautiful face of my grandchild and smiled.  “You are beautiful!  Don’t you think that most thirteen-year-olds think this about themselves? Now I’m you’re Abuela and I want a picture with you!”

Before the boot - Max, Lili, and Lauren (seated)
The obliging docent snapped a few, with Max objecting and acquiescing at the same time.  I am grateful we have them—it is my only snapshot with Max during my visit.

Before I left the house, Max and I spent some time picking out a birthday present from us.  Max chose bow-ties, an accessory that he really wanted for the beginning of school.  Just a few days ago, for the first day of school, Lennae snapped an action shot of Max getting ready to leave the house.  Looking cool and collected, I could see the bow-tie around my grandchild’s neck.  I smiled.  He was finding his unique sense of fashion.

1st Day of school- 2016

“What am I going to write this year on your birthday?” I asked him, before I said goodbye.  “For your birthday blog?  Every year, it is my chance to tell your story….”  My voice trailed off. 

I didn’t say, “Every year I look forward to writing a blog about how unique and special you are.  Every year I tell the story of how I grew to love your name, Laila Willow.  Every year I talk about what a strong person you are and how important you are in our family…” 

I didn’t say those things, but Max could hear me say them anyway.  “This year, you’ll write a blog called Max.”

And so I did.  I have permission to share these things (from everyone) and we hope it conveys love, especially for families who may be struggling.

This is the story of our family as we begin to navigate uncharted waters.  Swimming way out ahead is my grandchild, Max, a unique and wonderful person with a heart that I have always admired.   As scary as this life change is, Max feels confident.  He also takes comfort that we have his back. 

Today is a celebration.  Thirteen years ago, this person came into the world and changed my life, a person who I love beyond measure.  I still I have a genuine sense of awe that the baby who was born in a hot tub became this person – this unique, special, multi-faceted, complicated person. 

Happy Birthday, Max!  Today and always we love you.  

Sunday, August 28, 2016


It is the eve of my return to school.  I bought a new rolling backpack to replace the one that was stolen from my garage last May.  I have started to pack it, but I have the familiar insecurities that plagued me when I first started at my beloved American River college.

I am not a conventional student – I am well into my fifties—and on most days I live like I am ignorant of my age.  The days it does matter is on my first day of school.  I catch even the most politically correct students, the ones who champion diversity, look at me like I don’t belong next to them.  I learned how to ignore them, or better yet, let them fuel my competitive spirit.

Tomorrow is my first day at California State University, Sacramento –the home of seven academic colleges, offering 58 undergraduate majors to more than twenty-eight thousand students.  The green, tree-filled campus stretches over 300 acres and still manages to feel crowded.  I will be part of the College of Arts and Letters, as an English major with a Creative Writing emphasis.  I will also focus quite a bit on Spanish, hopefully enough to have a minor.

Mario, as always, is the rock of support he usually is.  He tells me over and over that I will do well.  My nervous jitters are probably a precursor to intense involvement with homework.  My energy will be funneled into the second-half of my degree, the intensive involvement with language, literature and writing.  I am honored and privileged to have this chance and I know it.

I practice gratitude breaths as I walk across campus.  Breathe in gratitude, breathe out negativity.  Breathe in love and respect, breathe out poison.  It may sound corny, but it really helps me.  Focusing on a goal comes with a hundred little tricks. 

Tonight will be a tricky night’s sleep!

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Saturday, August 20, 2016


The day I met Adam he played the theme from Veggie Tales in my living room -on a tuba.

Wrap your head around that. 

We all have those friends who bring color and vibrancy to our lives.  Adam is a friend who lights up and encourages everyone around with love, sincerity and an infectious belief that he can do anything.

Two years ago, right after we returned from Africa, he ran for Sacramento City Council and printed business cards with his face in the foreground and the American flag in the background.

I smiled.

We walked precincts for his campaign.  Only Adam can motivate me, at 53, to walk precincts!
 Adam epitomizes everything that is good about America.

Adam also belongs to our church and is on the worship team.  Not only does he have an incredible voice, he also plays harmonica with soul-felt passion that can make you weep.  He is also the guy who shows up early on Sunday to set up the signs that direct newcomers in.  He attends small group regularly and is usually in a good mood, even when he’s had a bad day.  He loves God and believes that God is who He says He is.

Adam performs on stage at community theaters and is quite good.  Since Broadway is in Mario’s genes, we started going to Adam’s plays as soon as we returned from Africa and I am happy to say that we haven’t missed one.With his encouragement, Mario auditioned for Man of La Mancha at Davis Community Theater and played a muleteer to Adam’s Sancho Panza. 

Tonight Davis Musical Theater had a send-off potluck for Adam, who has decided to pursue the dream of going to be a full-time actor.  Doing this requires a complete life change; it means moving to Los Angeles.

“I will get an agent once I’m there,” he told us over dinner one night.  “It’s too hard to do things like that long distance.”

The Jewish mother in me rose up.  I wanted to warn him not to go without having representation.  The world of the performing arts is littered with the bodies of those who “almost made it” and I didn’t want Adam to be one of those.

“What will you do once you’re there?” I asked. 

“I will go to calls and auditions,” he said, with his typical, jovial confidence. “It will be hard work at first, but I’m up for the challenge.”

It occurred to me, over dinner, that it doesn’t matter if Adam “makes it” or “hits the big time” –he is pursuing a dream.  Just like I am.

“Adam, what will we do without you?” I asked him.  He laughed.

“That’s what Skype is for!  Besides, I’m only a text away!”

We did not go to Adam’s send off at DMTC.  I am horrible with goodbyes and I never look forward to them.  I have messed up every goodbye that I have ever done. 

After Adam's last performance at DMTC (Music Man)
The truth is, we will suffer his loss greatly – his ever-present optimism and joy are things I have taken for granted.  I guess I assumed Adam would always be there, and now he’s off to the big city.

It would be just like God to hand Adam a role in the pilot of a show that has serious success.  Or give him a great voice-over character, with his Brooklyn accent or  silly laughter. 


This is how you know you love people –when you miss them before they leave.

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Sunday, August 7, 2016


Harmony and Alannah 

My granddaughter, Alannah, sings, dances, and blows soap bubbles in her front yard often.  She and her sister Harmony like to pretend my car can talk.  Alannah jumps up through sprinklers even when she’s in her best dress; she leaps for joy when something fun is happening; she lights up the room with her smile.  Every time she sees me she jumps up and down and says “Is it Friday?” (I watch the girls every Friday).  She embodies love and innocence and she makes me wish she would stay this age forever. 
Alannah runs through the fountains - Downtown Chico Plaza

Today Alannah turns the magical age of five—the gateway to the elementary years that are so crucial to the child’s development.  She can’t wait to start kindergarten, which will take place in only a few short weeks.

Alannah one day old -
I had to catch a plane back to Johannesburg
I remember the day she was born.  My daughter, Alicia, expected to deliver her baby a week earlier, but Alannah stayed put where she was safe and warm.  As much as I didn't want to rush things, I knew I had two weeks in America -- I thought it would be one week before the birth and one week after.

Alannah came on August 8, after Alicia labored for nearly thirty-four hours.   She had lost a lot of blood and the doctors were watching her carefully, but as soon as she saw her daughter, the light in her eyes was restored.  Alannah was born beautiful, big, and healthy and we all breathed a lot easier.  But because she came two weeks late, I had to go back to South Africa the very next day.  

In her hospital room the very next day, I kissed Alicia goodbye and left to catch a plane.  I had held Alannah only two days before I had to leave. On the plane ride home, I wept, feeling the powerful ache to be on the same continent as our daughter and her babies.  I felt like an amputee who still feels the phantom pain of a severed limb.  I asked God for wisdom and direction - and grace to get through this.

A grandchild is God’s gift to you, a grace that comes after years of raising your own children.  It is an interesting paradox that while I expected a lot from my own children, I expect nothing from my grandkids.  Their lives are miracles, unfolding before me day by day – and because those days in Africa were not so long ago – I do not take any time we have together as a family for granted. 

“Grandma, are we going to the Yo-yo museum?” Alannah will ask me on most Fridays.  “Can we go have Jon and Bon’s? Can we go play with the Calico Critters, just for a short time?”  I will do anything she says, even go to an Ice Cream store when I no longer eat sugar. 

“What do you want for your birthday?” I asked her a few weeks ago.  We were in Bird in Hand, a beautiful store in downtown Chico that sells high-end toys made in America and Europe. 

“I want this whole store!” she said, gleefully.  "I really want a birthday party, where everyone will sing Happy Birthday to me!”  She hugged herself and glowed with the same emotional glitter that her Mama possessed at that age.  It make s me sigh and shake my head, pleased that she is Alannah and I get to love her.  

I can do nothing but acquiesce, since Alannah brings our the joy in everyone she meets.  

Happy Birthday, Alannah!  You are the joy that makes life effervescent.

Alannah getting ready to go out and have Mexican Food

Thursday, August 4, 2016


My friend, Frank Stephens is a political consultant who knows a lot more about the electoral college than I do. As a favor, he allowed me to to reprint the following -- because of such a strong reaction to my last blog. Thanks, as always, for reading!!

Photo Credit

What’s an Electoral College and why Are Some

Calling to Abolish It?

By Frank Stephens
Is our way of electing the President of the United States fair?

Assemblyman Tom Umberg, the chair of California’s Assembly Election and Redistricting Committee said, “When you're in first grade, if the person who got the second-most votes became class leader, the kids would recognize that this is not a fair system.” So, why is it fair in presidential elections?
Umberg, taking his grade school analogy to an extreme, is advocating a bill (AB 2948) to enter California into a compact with other states to cast all their electoral votes for the presidential candidate receiving the most popular vote nationwide. This end-run around our Constitution is being pushed by National Popular Vote, and, according to news coverage, by folks still upset that George W. Bush is president instead of Al Gore.
Very few Americans, and we should include Assemblyman Umberg here, even know how we elect our president. What is the Electoral College and why did the Founding Fathers create one? They faced the daunting question of how to elect a president in a nation that:

1. was composed of thirteen large and small States very jealous to protect their own rights and powers and suspicious of any national government;
2. had only 4,000,000 people thinly spread up and down nearly one thousand miles of Atlantic coastlands without good roads or communication;
3. believed that political parties were harmful if not downright evil;
4. felt that a true gentleman should not campaign for public office. The saying was that “The office should seek the man, the man should not seek the office.”

Today some call for an abolishment of the Electoral College. Following Al Gore’s loss to George Bush the pundits argued, it was “undemocratic” to deny the presidency to the man who received the most votes.
This argument is hostile to the Constitution, however, which expressly established the United States as a constitutionally limited republic and not a direct democracy. The Founding Fathers sought to protect certain fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of speech, against the changing whims of popular opinion. Similarly, they created the Electoral College to guard against majority tyranny in federal elections. The president was to be elected by the 13 (now 50) states rather than the American people directly, to ensure that less populated states had a voice in national elections. This is why they blended Electoral College votes between U.S. House seats, which are based on population, and U.S. Senate seats, which are accorded equally to each state. The goal was to balance the inherent tension between majority will and majority tyranny. Those who wish to abolish the Electoral College because it’s not purely democratic should also argue that less populated states like Rhode Island or Wyoming don’t deserve two senators, but they conveniently overlook that fact.
A presidential campaign in a purely democratic system would look very strange. That’s because any rational candidate would focus only on a few big population centers and a few big states. A candidate receiving a large percentage of the popular vote in California, Texas, Florida, and New York, for example, could win the presidency with very little support in dozens of other states. Moreover, a popular vote system would only intensify political pandering, as national candidates would face even greater pressure than today to take empty, middle-of-the-road, poll-tested, mainstream positions. Direct democracy in national politics would further dilute regional differences of opinion on issues, further narrow voter choices, and further weaken what’s left of political courage in our parties.
Consider that those who call for the abolition of the Electoral College are actually hostile to liberty. Not surprisingly, most advocates of abolition are statist elites concentrated largely on the east and west coasts. These political, economic, academic, media, and legal elitists overwhelmingly favor a strong centralized federal government, and express contempt for the federalist concept of states’ rights. They believe in omnipotent federal power, wherein states are reduced to acting as mere glorified federal counties carrying out commands from Washington. Is this what we want for our states?
The Electoral College threatens the imperial aims of these elites because it allows the individual states to elect the president, and in many states the majority of voters still believe in limited government and the Constitution. Voters in southern, mid-western, and western states (we rudely refer to them as “flyover” country) tend to value family, religion, individual liberty, property rights, and gun rights. Washington elites abhor these values, and they hate that middle and rural America hold any political power whatsoever. Their efforts to discredit the Electoral College system are an open attack on the voting power of the pro-liberty states.
Sadly, we have forgotten that states created the federal government, not the other way around. The Electoral College system represents an attempt by our Founding Fathers to limit federal power and preserve states’ rights. It is an essential part of our federalist balance. It also represents a reminder that pure democracy, or mob rule, is incompatible with preserving liberty.
Frank R. Stephens is government affairs director for construction trade associations in Sacramento and Republican county central committee member, CRA 1st Vice Chair. He may be reached at frstephens@msn.com

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Tuesday, August 2, 2016


Voting used to be one of the best things about being American.

In school, we learned that John F. Kennedy, one of our most influential, heroic and genuine presidents, beat Richard Nixon by a margin of one vote per district.  If Kennedy hadn't canvassed neighborhoods to get out the vote, he would have lost to Nixon.  This, as we learned from our history, would not have been a good thing.

Electing presidents has changed since the days I was a girl sitting in a classroom, learning about voting districts and canvassing.  Not that the election process has changed, but the electoral system has been exposed as a system that is failing our republic.

Elections today are scientifically assessed, strategized, and flooded with candidates who have speech writers (we call them spin-doctors).  Few voters have the confidence in the system that they did twenty years ago.  The Electoral System I have given my children and will soon give to my grandchildren is a sorry, sad thing that frustrates me.


When Americans go to the polls to vote for a chief executive, we actually vote for a particular slate of electors. Each state has as many "electors" in the Electoral College as it has Representatives and Senators in the United States Congress (District of Columbia has three electors). The electors meet in their respective states forty-one days after the popular election. There, they cast a ballot for president and a second for vice president. Each candidate must receive a majority of electoral votes to be elected president.  As the 2000 election proved, the Electoral College does make it possible for a candidate to win the popular vote and still not become president. We do not elect presidents on individual votes, despite the stories we have heard.

If you don’t like the Electoral System, you can blame James Madison.  He worried (loudly) in 1788, about what he called "factions," or groups of citizens who have a common interest in something that could violate the rights of the nation as a whole.  Madison’s fear was real – he saw it everywhere around him.  Alexis de Tocqueville described this as  "the tyranny of the majority" – when a faction would grow to become more than half of the US population.   Madison had a solution for tyranny of the majority: "A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking."

With this, the Electoral College was born. 

Alexander Hamilton, one of the brilliant writers of "The Federalist Papers," said that the Constitution is designed to ensure "that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man [or woman?] who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications."

We have lived to see that the electoral college can indeed be hijacked by money, factions, and a bit of corruption, just like a majority vote.  We have also seen that the office of the president can indeed fall to a man or a woman who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. 

We have also seen the system producing quite a bit of broken friendships.  We were raised that our vote counts, and now we see that this may or may not be true.  What matters are the votes and endorsements of moneyed companies and individuals who want a piece of American government.  We have even learned this week that this is for sale.

If I ask the majority of my friends and acquaintances if we are living in a democracy, they will answer yes.  We are indeed a democracy.  The truth is, the United States is (and has always been) a Republic.  We are a nation of electors voting for electors.

What’s the good news?  We are a Republic.  Our Electoral System may be broken, but its citizens are not.  If you want the system to change, you can exercise your voice at the state and national level.  A good read is the 2013 U.S. News and World Report article, Should the U.S. Get Rid of theElectoral College?  It points out how easy (and how probable) the system can be gamed and manipulated.

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