A care package, of sorts – part one

I recently got a package in the mail from my grandmother.  It was actually just an envelope, but it was stuffed with so many things I feel justified in calling it a package.  The contents aren’t what you might expect when you think “care package” and “grandma” in the same sentence, though.  I tore into the envelope as soon as I saw it because there is no mail I like getting better than mail from my grandma.  When I was younger, she sent me things a bit more frequently, but she doesn’t get out as much these days, so there are fewer opportunities for her to find the oddities she used to.

I’ve lived in California since 1995, and even after just a year here, I can say with conviction that I did not feel like a tourist.  For some reason that isn’t totally clear to me, my grandmother began to send me anything that had anything to do with California after I moved here.  I have probably received a dozen cookbooks that had some kind of California theme – the best are those from the 60s and 70s, complete with handwritten notes in the margins from whomever tried to tweak that recipe for Peach Waldorf Salad.

If it said San Francisco, there was no chance she would pass it up.  My grandma is a thrift store shopper.  If there were thrift store shopper jobs, she’d have made a very successful career of it.  Before she retired, she worked in Downtown Sheboygan, within walking distance of three different thrift stores.  She visited each one weekly during her lunch hour – St. Vincent’s on Monday, Goodwill on Tuesday, and so on.  Between the downtown stores and a couple she’d hit on her way home after work, she went to one thrift store a day, every day of every week.  When I was a kid, we occasionally donated clothes to Goodwill.  We soon realized we needed to tell Grandma ahead of time, though, or she would buy back the things we’d just donated and they’d be waiting for us the next time we visited her.

I had a small ceramic planter in the shape of a cable car, a book or two about Alcatraz (in fact, if I remember right, even an Alcatraz cookbook), a set of coasters with pictures of famous San Francisco scenes – Lombard Street, The Painted Ladies, the Golden Gate Bridge.  She sent small wooden cable car Christmas ornaments painted garish shades of red and green, a copy of Tales of the City, and the occasional San Francisco or Yosemite calendar, and a cribbage board with a picture of the Golden Gate.

In the past few years, I’ve also started to receive obituaries – a zillion of them.  The genealogy bug bit me a couple of years ago, and Grandma is the biggest fan of my detective work.  I have traced her ancestors that emigrated from Germany to Wisconsin, and found her 3rd great-grandfather living in an insane asylum in the 1910 census.  She is always eager to hear any random tidbit of news I find, and I just wish I had more time to spend on research now that I know how much she enjoys it.

The latest package, which prompted this post, was all about my genealogy research – well, almost.  First was an article about an upcoming PBS series about genealogy, then came two horrific stories from the local paper about a relative that attacked his wife because she wouldn’t give him cigarettes and the garage door remote control.  As I said, not your typical care package from Grandma, but since I started all the genealogy work – the family dirty laundry is no longer left hidden…  Finally, there were four obituaries, each with a hand-written sticky note attached.

Any key points of interest in the obits are highlighted in yellow to aid me in following who these people might be.  The note attached to one obituary for a woman whose last name I didn’t recognize, read “Louis is brother to Grandma Emma.”  It took me a second to find Louis highlighted in the newspaper clipping and then I recognized his last name as the maiden name of my grandma’s maternal grandmother.  Another obituary was for someone who was related by marriage, and the note read, “Robert – Married to cousin of Grandpa – Jake & Clara daughter.”  Another was for the wife of a cousin to my great-grandmother.  The one I like the best, though, is for a woman whose married name appears heavily in our ancestry.  The note reads “Don’t know if Walter is family.”

Oh, I almost forgot – she also slipped in a recipe for crab-stuffed portobello mushrooms.

Random strangers

There are two random strangers that I see practically every day.  They are part of my life, though they remain random strangers.  Even if I exchange a word or two with them, their stranger status doesn’t change.  It’s just that I see them so often I am obliged to say, “Hey,” every now and then, lest the alternative, acting like they are invisible when really I’m trying to pretend I’m invisible, offends them.  Frankly, I doubt they’d care one way or the other, but that’s besides the point.  These two strangers strike me as unusual.  More odd than most strangers I notice, and my wallflower nature gives me lots of opportunities to notice.

Stranger One:  A very old Asian man lives in my neighborhood.  I don’t know exactly where, but I suspect he lives somewhere on my square block – not on my street, but nearby.  He walks around the block over and over and over and over and over.  I wouldn’t be able to type ‘over and over’ enough times to capture how often he slowly makes his way around the block.  It is as though he is compelled to move constantly, albeit at his age-inhibited pace.  He walks, rain or shine.  He wears an old-fashioned brown hat with a brim and has heavy dark-framed glasses.  He carries a string of beads.  I imagine they are Tibetan prayer beads, but the could just as easily be Catholic rosary beads.  I’m not sure he speaks English.  He seems to say “Hi,” now and then, but the sound comes out more as a grunt than a word, so it’s hard to say.  I’m not the best judge of age, but if I had to guess, I’d put him around 90.  It amazes me that he walks so constantly, and I wonder whether he lives alone or has family that watches over him – people that tell him not to leave the block, but let him walk for hours because he can’t help himself.  I wonder what goes through his mind on his endless journey around the block.  Whatever it is, there is something oddly comforting in seeing him pass by the house dozens of times a week.

Stranger Two:  A tall-ish woman with long-ish dishwater, light brown, hair, generally tied messily up at the back of her neck, works in an office in the same office building that I work in.  She drives a small maroon Toyota pick-up truck.  She has removed the leading ‘to,’ and trailing ‘ta,’ so the back of the truck loudly says, ‘YO.’  She wears jeans that are too big, and sag down on her hips, not quite so far as the ridiculous kids that wear their jeans half way down their asses, but approaching that level.  Her black t-shirts are in the multiple ‘XL’ range, which probably helps hide just how far her jeans are sliding down.  When she’s walking up to the building, she always cuts through the ‘garden,’ inste
ad of walking up the sidewalk, and when I’m outside she feels the need to say she’s working on taking the appropriate route instead of walking through the plants.  Now for the exciting part, though.  This woman has a large parrot that is always with her, sometimes perched on its owners hand, other times on her shoulder.  When the bird sits on her shoulder, it bobs its head up and down dramatically with each step the woman takes.

So far, I’m not a fiction writer, but if I someday decide to give it a shot, I imagine my observations of random strangers like this will help me when it comes to character-building.

The micro-climate of my office

Not long after I started my new job, I wrote a post on a few other new guys that started soon after I did.  The techie-from-a-cave guy works from another city, so I haven’t seen him since that first week.  The small guy with strong glasses, though, works in my office and I see him every day – well, almost every day.  Sometimes it’s hard to find him because he moves around a lot.  It seems that every cubicle he’s tried has some climate issue associated with it. He gets cold very easily.  None of the rest of us has this problem.  It’s not to say we don’t notice the temperature fluctuations.  We do.  In fact, my office seems to be a tiny indoor representation of the Bay Area climate.  You need to dress in layers because it goes from warm to cool to too warm to a little too cool.  Layers don’t work for the small new guy with the strong, large glasses, though.  In addition to moving his location frequently, trying to find just the right cubicle that doesn’t come with a draft, he’s taken to climbing up onto desks and taping papers and manila folders over the air ducts in the ceiling near whichever cubicle he is trying out.  One day last week I realized he wasn’t in the office – not because I didn’t hear him or see him in a meeting, but because I never saw him climbing around taping things onto the ceiling.  I see him as a little library mouse gopher-man now.  He’s small, and he scurries around climbing on furniture, wearing his strong glasses that make his eyes look larger than they should.  One day I suggested he bring an extra sweatshirt or sweater to work to help when it gets a little chilly, and he continued past me, muttering under his breath that another shirt wouldn’t help because it’s his bald head that’s the problem – he loses all his heat from there.  I thought about suggesting a hat, but thought I might be crossing a line, so I just watched him wander away looking for the perfect place to sit.


If I ever want to get anything done, I have to have a list.  I actually have a list all the time, but sometimes it finds a temporary home in a stack of things to ignore.  When I’m ignoring my list, my days ramble.  It’s not that I don’t accomplish anything – I do (I have many obsessions, and one of them is being productive), but my life becomes reactive.  That said, I never let it get too far out of hand.  Often enough, I kick myself in the butt and realize it’s time to resurrect the list.  When I get into list mode, I go a little overboard.

First, I rewrite the list on a new, clean sheet of paper, carrying over only the things that didn’t get done last time.  Somehow this makes it seem fresh and like I will do all the things that are on the list.  Sometimes I have to do this more than once, because I obsess over organizing items on the list in some way that seems sensible to me in the moment, but then I realize it’s not, or I have to add something and there’s no room in the section I created for things of that type.    Sometimes I write things on the list that are already done just so I can mark them off.

I’ve been in ‘ignore list’ mode for a while, now, and I’m just on the cusp of switching back into ‘pay attention to list’ mode.  I have a memoir in progress that I’ve been ignoring in order to get some perspective, and I think it’s really starting to pay off.  I have more than 350 pages – and, I am starting to see I probably only need half that.  When I started writing, I was writing from a list – a list of topics that represented my life.  It covered mostly my growing up years, but it was a laundry list, and the resulting full story seems a bit like a big pot of spaghetti.  Perhaps the biggest issue with where I left off is that my story had no ending, and I’ve come to believe that’s because it had no central theme.

So, as I get ready to resurrect my list, it will have a significantly different focus than it did the last time around.  It was incredibly helpful to do a brain dump of all the things I wrote about, but now I am excited to start to sift through it, make decisions about what is important and what isn’t, and find the real story within all the writing.  For those of you that have done memoir or creative non-fiction writing, what does your process look like?