Flaws meet faith at a family wedding

A family wedding lets us reconnect with relatives, revisit memories, and reflect on the bond that draws families together.

That’s what I did last weekend, when I attended the wedding of my husband’s cousin’s son. While neither of us knew the groom well and had never met the bride, we were happy to visit with so many relatives gathered in one place.

Goin’ to the Chapel

The wedding itself was a suburban Los Angeles affair. Held at a wedding chapel on a trafficked boulevard, the event was relaxed but efficient, a bit impersonal although personalized. The “chapel” had a front room with wooden folding chairs and stained glass windows. Adjacent to it was the dining room, where guests retired immediately for the reception and dancing with a DJ.

Like any wedding, this one had its “moments.” Face it: planning (and paying for!) a wedding is hard. For example, it’s tough to find a bridesmaid dress that suits the array of figure types most weddings entail. Selecting soloists can also be tricky — there were three long minutes last weekend when I focused on the carpet design and thought about serious things in order to keep from giggling. But that was me. Most likely there was a reason behind choice they made.

Weddings can be particularly dicey occasions nowadays, when multiple sets of parents and blended families are the norm. This event was no different, as the groom’s parents divorced years ago. Both halves of his family, plus the bride’s relatives, spent several hours in the same building, but we barely interacted. Photos and table assignments gave us individual versions of a communal event.

This wedding was a notable day for our family, an unforgettable one for the bride and groom. No matter whether the setting is a wedding chapel in California, a cathedral in London, a courthouse in San Francisco or

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New match. Love-all.

Maybe it was as simple as sunlight deficiency during the winter months, but I was on the verge of quitting tennis after a few disastrous performances earlier this year.  “Performances” – that’s the key word.  As if a bunch of people were watching me play a ladies match that counted for nothing, that would not be recorded in the USTA’s computers or anywhere else.  I had let tennis become all about me and how I was doing, whether I was playing well and what others would think of my abilities.  Narcissism was killing my game, and it was certainly killing the fun others might receive from including me in their games.

Not surprisingly, I also couldn’t get going with my writing projects.  I had nothing worthwhile to say.  I’d type out a few sentences, then backspace over them to delete most of what I’d written.  My feelings were similar to those I experienced on the tennis court.  I feared my writer friends might judge me as eddying, stuck in the same essay — while at the same time they were progressing from one chapter to the next in their books.

So something had to change.  Fortunately the days got longer, which for me seems to make a big difference.  Don’t forget the iPhone weather app icon, 73 degrees and sunny, was created in Northern California.  But I also decided that, if I couldn’t enjoy tennis and writing, I would have to find other activities.  After all, no one was forcing me to do these things – they were luxuries I supposedly chose to pursue.

So I made two big changes.  In tennis, I started to focus on singles.  At first I did this because I figured other people were getting sick of partnering with me, but then I started to like it.  It was simple: just me, my opponent and the ball.  I could concentrate better, I didn’t need to worry about interpersonal dynamics on my court, and I didn’t need to stress about letting my partner down if I missed a shot.  Perhaps it’s the ultimate expression of narcissism, in that singles means every ball is mine, but I’m no longer worried about my performance.  I’m just playing the game.

In writing, I started to check into things I thought would be fun.  It’s a subtle change, but while I had enrolled in a creative writing program with the goal of writing a non-fiction book because that’s what the syllabus said I was supposed to do, now I’m thinking about heading in a different direction.  What I like is the intersection of writing, social media, podcasting, video and the interaction with readers – in other words, forming an online community.  There’s so much to learn here, and that’s why I enjoy it.

So I’m augmenting my traditional writing classes with others on internet publishing in all its forms.  I hope to change my blog posts to be shorter but more frequent, and to add podcasts in the future.  So stay tuned.  It’s a new game.

Legacy of a life well-lived

My father died on April 8 at age 84.  His obituary gives facts about his life, but the truth of a person’s legacy lies in his character.  The following post is the text of the eulogy I gave at his memorial service on April 16.

Our father was the fourth of six children, the last of his siblings to depart this earth.  He attributed his “thrifty” (some might say “cheapskate”) behavior to being, as he called it, “a child of the Depression.”  His father owned a small meatpacking company — so while the Hamners had to scrimp on things like clothes, they always ate well.

Because tuberculosis had weakened my grandfather’s lungs, they moved to the edge of town, where he could breathe fresh country air.  Bob’s father liked horses, and he bought a pony the kids named Polecat (on account of his ornery personality), plus three more horses they called Peter Pan, Ping Pong and Popeye.  Dad’s older brother, Jack, was a champion rider, and Dad went along to horse shows as Jack’s “groom.”  But not everyone in the family enjoyed the horses.  The eldest sister, Elizabeth, saw them as examples of her father’s chauvinistic preference for spending money on silly things like livestock rather than on higher education for his female offspring.  She nicknamed them Vassar, Wellesley and Smith. Their mother would grow angry when the horses got out of their pasture and munched on her rosebushes.  Our father used to laugh about how she went out in frustration after the horses ruined several of her rose plants one day, and she pulled up the rest of them as though they were weeds, just so the horses couldn’t eat them, too.  I think having a strong-willed mother probably prepared Bob for fifty-three years of marriage to Donna!

 

Our father’s career as a Southern Baptist minister began in a tiny church on the Mexican border, in the town of Eagle Pass, Texas.  He spent nine years there and made close friends, both Americans and Mexicans.  These years undoubtedly shaped his attitude of tolerance for different types of people and viewpoints, as well as his theology.But what about Donna, the love of Bob’s life?  Well, the two of them were set up in 1958 by a mutual friend.  Actually, Bob (who was 31 years old) initially refused to go out with Donna because, when he asked how old this potential date was, his friend confessed she was not quite 20.  After he said “no thanks,” their friend had to get crafty: she waited a couple of weeks, then simply told Bob she had someone she thought he’d like to meet.  He asked how old this girl was, and the friend replied, “She’s old enough.”  Bob, who was still living on the Mexican border, took Donna out the next time he came to San Antonio.  For him, it was love at first sight.  By their second date, when they celebrated Donna’s birthday and Bob learned she was only 20, he realized his friend had tricked him.  But it was too late — he was already smitten!  Donna, however, needed a bit more time.  Thanks to Dad’s persistence and Mom’s eventually realizing he was the right man for her, they were married in June 1959 and moved soon thereafter to San Antonio.

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Of poverty and prescription meds

Neither story was new news, but seeing both of them on yesterday morning’s front pages made me stop and ask, what is wrong with our country, and what is wrong with me?

First the San Jose Mercury warned, “Poverty Rate at 18-Year High,” with an article that largely recounted census data already known, such as 27% of African-Americans and Hispanics have incomes below the poverty line, and the hardest-hit among us are children and young adults.  But it also offered some personal vignettes to make the numbers seem more real.  For example, the author, Matt O’Brien, highlighted a single mother of two children who has moved in with her grandmother after losing her own apartment, but is in fact now moving from place to place since her grandma’s home is in foreclosure.

Stories like this woman’s are repeated all too often among the 46.2 million people who live in poverty in the U.S., officially earning less than $22,113 for a family of four.  It’s hard to wrap my mind around the numbers, but we’re talking about more than 15 percent of our population.

Then I turned to the New York Times on my iPad (yes, I acknowledge the irony), and one of the featured stories was about a clinic in rural Kentucky that has decided to stop issuing new prescriptions for Xanax and its generic equivalent, as well as to wean current patients off the drug because of concern over its abuse.  According to the article by Abby Goodnough, “While Kentucky and other states have focused largely on narcotic painkiller addiction, experts say that benzodiazepines, the class of sedatives that includes Xanax, are also widely misused or abused, often with grim consequences.”

I’ll be honest: my initial reaction was less than charitable. At first I thought, well, it seems like a drastic step to cut off all Xanax prescriptions, but maybe people in rural Kentucky just don’t know what’s best for them.  My judgmental attitude was only heightened by a quote from a disappointed clinic patient whose style of speech indicated a lack of education.  Referring to how her panic attacks had increased after switching off Xanax to its generic counterpart, she said, “But if this ain’t doing it, something’s got to change.”

Then I stopped myself.  You know, this lady was speaking the truth.  Something does need to change.  Why has this clinic and others like it experienced so much drug abuse among its patients in the first place?  Why do people in Appalachia and other rural areas suffer from panic attacks and depression?  I would guess it has a lot to do with the other story I happened to read about burgeoning poverty in America.  It’s hard to feel optimistic about the future when you’ve lost your job, haven’t been able to find another one and don’t know how you’re going to feed your family.  So changing my mind, I began to despair about the state of our economy and society, where people can’t find “honest work,” but somehow are able to get free or reduced-price prescriptions that help them deal with the stress of not being able to pay the bills — that dull the pain when they lose hope.  Not unlike the use of street drugs in poor urban settings, prescription drug abuse of the type seen at this Kentucky clinic goes hand in hand with rural poverty.

My reaction to problems that loom so large they seem unsolvable is, regrettably, one of distancing and distracting myself.  Other than writing checks to support organizations that assist the poor, or greeting a homeless “friend” I encounter regularly, I have little personal interaction with the poverty that exists right in front of me.  As for prescription meds, I wholeheartedly support using them to alleviate pain, anxiety and depression.  But my knowledge of prescription drug abuse is limited to things like the TV show “House,” where although the main character is an irascible Vicodin addict, he is nonetheless brilliant and, in his own way, lovable.  So in short, I know nothing of true poverty or real abuse of prescription drugs.  And I’m fine keeping it that way.  [Read more…]

Porta potties and plans, dumpsters and dreams

For the better part of a year, the view from my kitchen has been a porta potty, a dumpster and a messy construction site.  While I don’t blame the new neighbors who bought the house across the street and are making substantial improvements, it just happens to be my luck that I am living in a construction zone.

It’s a common phenomenon in Northern California and other areas where there’s no bare land left in the most desirable neighborhoods – those with good schools and close to jobs.  Here, it makes sense to buy an older home and either raze it to build a new house, or make significant upgrades to it.  So most people experience construction on their streets at one time or another, and many themselves have undertaken remodeling projects.  We appreciate that our neighbors’ upgrades are likely to benefit our own property values, and we accept construction as inevitable, especially when long-time owners sell their homes to young families.

Even though neighbors of a home under construction don’t suffer the stress that owners experience with unforeseen difficulties and delays, we endure “construction spillover”  that grates on one’s nerves nonetheless.  So for example, my quiet cul-de-sac has become chaotic, especially since a home farther down the block recently completed a two-year renovation.  Tranquility has been overtaken by trucks, jackhammers, roofing hammers, contractors hollering to each other, table saws in the yard, musica ranchera on the radio, or rock hits on 107.7 “The Bone.”

There has been a steady stream of workers, although very few dogs – I’m thankful there aren’t more subs with pit bulls on this job.  While some days are noisy and others less so, the thing that plagues me most is the increased volume of traffic on our street.  Although the owners have tried to get workers to park in front of their house, there are simply too many vehicles to fit over there.  On many days, it seems that laborers with the oldest, dirtiest trucks like to park directly in front of my home.  Inevitably, guys return to their vehicles to eat lunch or make phone calls, and I get to pick up stray napkins and food wrappers after they’re gone for the day.  [Read more…]