This is breakfast by candelight. Yesterday was the third brutally hot day and for the second night in the row the electricity blew. We woke up to no clocks, no computers, no phone, no light (hence this breakfast photo) no air conditioning, and no way to get Jonathan's car out of the garage.
The quiet was nice. The heat was oppressive. But the boys loved the breakfast. And it was a reminder that the world itself provides drama and excitement. We are so insulated from the natural world at this point it barely penetrates our consciousness in anything but the most extreme circumstances. But it is unforgettable. Fun. An adventure. And it teaches you respect for the world, for nature, and for its power. We are not invincible. We cannot control everything.
I was not imagining things. Yesterday was the hottest day EVER recorded in Los Angeles. It was so hot in downtown Los Angeles that the thermometer broke when it hit 113 degrees. They sent a technician from the National Weather Service in Oxnard to fix it but the hottest minutes had passed.
I happened to be driving through downtown at 12:15, when the official thermometer melted down. My car thermometer, a Volvo thermometer of uncanny accuracy, read 114 degrees under the underpass. Later that afternoon I drove by a bank by the Grove at Fairfax and Third. It read 116 degrees.
Today is cooler but still awful. When Theo stepped out the front door at 7:15 a.m. he said: "It feels like a warm bathtub."
It is 114 degrees in Hollywood. I am melting. I am insane. This might be the apocalypse. It is so hot that when I drive in my car with the air-conditioning on full blast I can feel the heat radiating through the side of the car. Don't let me near a knife or a gun. I feel crazy.
My father didn't die and my brother kicked my ass. I swam sans wetsuit and my shoulder didn't give out. Here we are after the race.
This is my amazing family, post-race.
Just looking at this picture makes me proud. I come from some extreme sports stock. There are my Aunt Judy and Uncle John, co-founders of the Iron Man triathlon. They have had crazy adventures that inspired me from afar for as long as I can remember. They were always swimming and biking and coming up with crazy challenges. They rode bikes up into the Sierras with their kids when their kids were still little, eating salami and soda. They rode cross country on motorcycles when I was in high school, and my uncle gave me a ride on the back of his bike that thrilled me, until my father yelled at him to never, ever do that again. That only whet my appetite more. Then they bought a sailboat and sailed off into the sunset on grand adventures. I have lost track. I think they sailed to Scotland. Then they started from Coronado on a quest to sail round the world. They only made it as far as Panama, where they still live half the year, but the adventures they had! They knew people held up by pirates and hung out with indigenous tribes. They were just so cool!
My cousins Kristin and Michael are supersonic athletes who are do not even train, They just do triathlons when they feel the inclination, do marathons at the drop of a hat, drive around the country in vans on 17 hour treks and take it all in stride. My cousin Kristin was one of the first women to go to the Naval Academy, learned to fly a helicopter, and even now, when she learns to scuba dive, does not just learn to go down and look at coral--she gets wreck certified!!!
Then I had other cousins I never saw when I was growing up. They are the Santa Cruz cousins. Older, the children of my father's half-brother Michael, we never knew them when we were growing up. I didn't meet most of them until I was 30. They are another variation on the extreme sports DNA. The cousins all surf. All the time. One of their children did tow-in surfing in Hawaii, until he got bored. He's over it now.
Those cousins swam Alcatraz so fast we never even saw them. They don't even think of themselves as competitive swimmers. They are just fast and strong and used to cold water--like seals.
We all did it. My cousins Ian MacGregor and Mike Wells were across the Bay in no time. My brother flew in, fast and in skin. My cousin finished with me. My father swam with a wetsuit, didn't get hypothermia, and his hands and ankles were only bright red for a few hours after the race. My cousin Kristin swam with her parents and carried a camera around her waist to shoot pictures in the water during the swim. And my aunt and uncle swam together the whole way, walking out of the water together, holding hands as they crossed the finish line. How romantic! In an extreme way!
That night we gathered for dinner in Santa Cruz and ate lasagna. It was all of us who swam, and everyone else, too. Twenty two MacGregors under one roof. I wondered what it was like for my sons to see the genetic strands unfurling in that room. They saw every variation of MacGregor face and nose and chin. They saw red hair and freckles and a lot of tall people. They saw that the Celtic blood lives on, with people singing and playing instruments in every direction.
But most of all they saw crazy extreme sports people, whose idea of a good time is to get together and escape from Alcatraz.
I am jealous. I would have loved to have met so much family.
But I love watching the effect.
Already Theo, 7, has a goal.
"I will swim from Alcatraz when I am 11," he said. "In a wetsuit."
So when I got to San Francisco, when I stuck my little pinkie toe in the water, it was cold.
About 60 degrees cold. Or less.
But my brother and I had already swum in 60 degree water. In Santa Monica.
And my brother is hard-core.
So the next morning, when we drove down to the South End Rowing Club, for the actual Alcatraz swim, he said, "You want to swim without wetsuits?"
The seed was planted, the dare was dared.
Then my cousin Michael said he remembered a certain journalist who had written a story last year about her Alcatraz swim, swearing that if she did it again she was going "skin."
But you see, I never expected to DO Alcatraz again.
My cousin Kristin needed a wetsuit, because she is sleek and fast and she was going to swim with her parents, and if she swam their speed she would chill. (She is an amazing swimmer who inspiired me to swim when I was little, and went to the Olympic Trials in butterfly. I wanted to be her when I was little. I would part my hair like her and beg her mother to convince my mother to let me be on a swim team, the Sub Base Barracudas. It worked.)
That felt like a sign. So I offered my wetsuit, which was really her own mother's Ironman wetsuit. In the end she wore a different wet suit, but by then I had sworn off the wetsuit and Michael and Ian and I had made a pact: We were going skin.
It was insane. And colder than 60 degrees. More like 58. Which, when you are that cold, and in the water for 41 minutes, makes a difference.
It was so cold that when I got out of the water my tongue was numb on the right hand side, from breathing on the left, and my tongue hitting the water. I am not kidding!!!
I got another notch on my stick, tho, even if it wasn't as fun as doing it with a wetsuit.
So I guess I do feel pretty cool.
Even if all I can really remember about the race is that it was really, really cold. And I just wanted it to end.
Here I am.
Notice everyone else in wetsuits.
I am the crazy one.
(My wetsuit-less little brother finished before me, in a whopping 38 minutes, and my wetsuitless cousin came in right beside me, not pictured here.)
OK. Confession. My husband read the last post and was hurt. He really meant it. He DID like my dinner. He was not being fake. He liked the salmon, the squash and the kale. His cool tools put-up came from the heart.
Which brings me to one more point. It is important to give compliments both to learn to give them, but also to teach others to believe them, and to accept graciously.
Compliments, true compliments with no undercurrent of meanness or no hidden insult, were so rare in my family growing up that when you heard them you believed you had misheard. Or you replayed them over and over to find where the mean comment was hidden. No compliment was ever just a compliment.
As a result I am wary of compliments. I can barely hear them, can rarely feel them, and, truth be told, they make me uncomfortable--even though I crave them like a hunk of Tcho dark chocolate.
So maybe if I had worked with the cool tools as a kindergartener I would be familiar with both giving and receiving compliments and not trash my poor husband on my blog.
I wrote about this system of emotional learning when Theo started school and now Benji is learning it, too. This is the second time around, but I am still bowled over by its power, and relevance for older people, like me.
In this system kids learn about put-ups and put-downs. (Compliments and insults) They learn that it takes about five compliments to undo one well-aimed insult. (Because we all know the insults stay with you longer.) They learn that it is not just words that load what you say with emotion, but also HOW you say those words. What is the emotion behind the words. Is it HOT and RED? (fiery and angry) or cool and blue (calm and less emotional).
Seriously, I think every adult could benefit from a week of working with the cool tools. They could introduce this system to employers, CEOs, husbands, wives, therapists and teachers. The system could change the world.
But here is the funny thing. Yesterday we were reviewing how it works with Benji over dinner. Jonathan said, "What is an example of a put-up, Benji?" Benji couldn't think of one. Jonathan tried to give me one. "Wow, this is a really good dinner, Hilary." Even in the moment it sounded fake. Artificial. Obsequious.
Then Benji chimed in. "A put-down is, 'Stupidhead.'" Jonathan encouraged him to do a put-up again. But Benji was on a roll with the put-downs. "Mad-crazy!" "Dumb!" he shouted out. He would have kept going.
A few hours later I was sitting in a tiny chair for back to school night as his teacher explained the system.
"I decided not to reinforce the put-downs so I did not write any of those down," she said with a smile. Too late. They are locked in my son's brain. He loves his new vocabulary of put-downs. As for his put-ups, I still have not heard one come out of his mouth.
Isn't it funny what our brains hold onto? Is it just human nature? Is it so hard to compliment? Does it just feel dull and fake? Do insults just feel sharper, smarter and more creative? Or do the real compliments always go hand in hand with jealousy, making them so hard to say? Or is that just what we are afraid will happen-that they will be perceived that way? It is always hardest to compliment those we know well who are most like us. Those are already established greats, no problem. those who are safely below us, easy to give a kind word to. But what about those who need it most, just our friends and those we see every day, who need a lift or a kind word from those who know them best.
It made me wonder.
But to all of my readers, I just wanted to say: You rock! You really do!
Some people make me feel good every time I see them. They are just good spirits. I feel uplifted, and better after an interaction. It is not that they are always chipper, or upbeat. Often they are people with a streak of sadness in them.
Other people always leave me with an aftertaste a little bad. I want to like them. I cannot analyze WHY they do not make me feel good, why I walk away feeling a little down, or off. It is just true.
Because I am me, I always spend too much time trying to figure it out.
Some of it is just how people are--are they present? do they listen? do they have some larger ulterior motive for being your friend (or not) and I am feeling that in a given moment?
Some of it may be deep rooted compatibility.
But more and more I find myself sorting on some deep level: who will come through? who will not? who would stand by me? who would not? who is genuine? who is not?
I am trying to let that deep intuition guide more of who I spend my time with. I am trying to not overlook the quiet, steady, loyal people who make my life rich.
Two years ago my older son Theo suddenly became annoying. He was still his sweet self, but he was just experimenting. He would just kick my seat when I was driving, torture his brother when I wasn't looking, and whatever else he could think of. I was sad. I thought, "Oh, No. I love him. But genetically he has a little strand of DNA that delights in irritating people. I will work it out of him like a master, but I regret this, and I have a lot of work to do."
And I did. And now he is a sweet boy, who helps his brother, helps me, volunteers to carry groceries up the stairs, is friendly to younger children and polite to adults. I am not saying this is fail-proof, but by and large he is a great boy, and the annoying qualities have disappeared.
Two years later it is my second son, my sweet Benji, who is suddenly insanely annoying. At 5 he is now the one kicking my seat, torturing Theo when I am not looking, refusing to obey me, and doing whatever else he can think of to annoy everyone in sight--man, woman, child, dog.
Which brought Jonathan and I to ask a question: Is being annoying an actual developmental stage?
Perhaps it is a way of asserting self. I am here. I can annoy you. I can do something that makes everyone notice me. Even bigger people and more powerful people.
Or, Jonatathan suggested, perhaps it is a stage of mental growth that precedes reading, when your brain is so ripe and ready to go and you know that there is this ocean of knowledge out there all around you filled with floating letters, but you cannot understand it yet, and everyone you know can. Perhaps this desire to be irritating is just his frustration that he is the only one in the family that cannot dive into books and newspapers and cereal boxes and know what it going on.
He keeps asking, "When will I know how to read, Mommy? Will I learn this week?"
I should spend more time with him. He read a book in day last spring, but then forgot how because I let it go.
Anyway, this also makes me think on a larger scale: Are annoying adults just children who got stuck at some developmental stage ready to learn something new, but they didn't/couldn't and they were just frozen in some place, irritating and annoying????
What do you think?
Any Child Development people out there willing to weigh in?
It was terrifying, exhilarating, and WOW did it stir up a lot of weird issues for me.
I arrived clutching my papers in my hand--unsure if I would read or drop the papers and talk. I had scrawled BREATHE across the top, just as my actor/writer friend Lee had advised, and worked out really really hard, too, so I would have no energy leftover to be nervous.
But there is always more energy to be nervous--secret reserves hidden away. I walked away and immediately I was terrified. The other performers/readers were world class improv people who had trained at Second City, or had their own show at Bang on other nights, or were just hilarious as soon as you saw them--you know the types, riveting, hilarious faces with deep voices and big noses. The kind of people you know are going to make you laugh before they open their mouth, and then they do, and every single thing that comes out, even in conversation, is the funniest thing you have heard in a year.
I drank a coke, kept breathing, and madly texted Jonathan for words of comfort.
Aliza (who directed the show) walked out in a super cool saunter to the chords of "Bad to the Bone."
I should add that my anxiety levels were so high in the afternoon that I thought I might faint or destroy my marriage.
Performing, and I guess, telling a true story that is slightly shameful, on stage brought up huge issues for me. It was one of the most powerful therapeutic experiences I have done. Telling those stories on stage in that way got right to the core of what is holding me up in life.
By an hour before the show Jonathan was looking deep in my eyes and saying, "THIS is why you cannot write your novel. You feel too guilty to tell your story. You are still scared. This is really really important."
And it was.
I came out and there was a row of my wonderful friends--all actors at one time or another, mostly writers, and to a person thoughtful, sensitive, creative and wise. I saw their faces and I knew I would be OK.
When people laughed I was so thrown I didn't know what to do.
But I did it. And my fellow performers blew my mind with their honesty, hilarity and talent.
The show packed a punch in terms of emotional power. Truth-telling is always compelling.
Meanwhile, over on Wilshire Blvd., the sixth and seventh grade students from Larchmont (the original Larchmont, to whom we owe our existence) are staking out a new site for their junior high school.
Larchmont has taken over the top two floors of an old Episcopalian school that stands in the shadow of the controversial, astronomically expensive, shiny, new $578 million Robert Kennedy High School.
The building is church gothic and feels like a tired, classic school in New York City.
The gym is on the top floor, and there is more space on the roof.
The rooms are cool, with old fireplaces at each end, and rippled, 1920's panes in the leaded windows, but also old.
A week before class was about to start at a Board Meeting last week the school looked woefully unprepared. We heard parents had been painting madly for a week but it was hard to tell.
It was a reminder that no matter how much the LCW parents gripe, or feel, at moments, forgotten or overlooked by Larchmont and its Board, we are deeply indebted to that school and its founding parents. They are always, always the pioneers. They started the original school at St. Ambrose, and took that risk. They staked out the property at Hollygrove, and transformed it, making one set of second graders learn all alone one year to hold that space. And now they are sending their kids to the heart of Koreatown for a new experiment--a Larchmont Charter Junior High School.
They have hired a cool new guy who looks like Juno Diaz and came from a charter school in South LA. He is young, cool and Latino.
Some parents are bailing and sending their kids to private school or magnet schools or the local public schools. It is just too much of a chance. As the kids get older the academic stakes are higher. They will need to pull in more kids from other schools which will mean a bumpy period of integration as kids educated under different philosophies meld.
I wondered what I would do if Theo were in seventh grade. Would I send him?
I want to say yes, but I don't know.
The place is a thrill for sixth and seventh graders. It is highly urban and you can ride a bus or subway to school. It feels like an adventure. Kids like feeling like pioneers. It is us old fogies who crave a guarantee.
Anyway, I am taking a moment to thank all those Larchmont parents who are the trailblazers in this crazy start up school experiment, willing to submit their kids to a new school they hope will work. Failure is not an option.
After three years of moving, all the students are on one campus, and the campus is ALL ours. We don't share with Larchmont Charter, and we don't share with Rosewood. We don't have to tiptoe around and make other principals happy and pretend it is not a big deal. And all of our students can be on one campus--with noone squeezed into a divided classroom.
We can paint the way we want to, set up our library the way we want to, and grow our garden the way we want to. Our school now starts at conventional hours and we make our own rules.
I always felt blessed to be at LCW, but what a huge difference it makes to have a place of your own.
Psychologically it feels like now Kristin (our amazing principle) can settle in and really hone the vision, work on the education, think only about the students.
Of course this is just an illusion.
At this moment our current campus is at capacity. We fit K through 3. Next year, when we add the new kindergarten we will be K through 4, and then what?
But here is the most fascinating thing. In three years the school has gone from being a pioneering experiment that drew parents willing to take a wild chance on a start-up, to an established and desirable school with hundreds of people in the lottery praying they will get in. The teachers are set, the curriculum is set, some test scores are in (yes! the constructivist education currriculum with an eye to academics and an acceptance of state testing is really working! wow!).
And already the vibe of the school is shifting from the homesteader/pioneer mindset to the safer, I just want a good school for my kid, mindset. Both are important. And it is good to have a rest. It is exhilarating, but also tiring, to always be a pioneer.
Besides, come January, the crazy scramble for site will begin again.
I think I am the last woman in Los Angeles to find out about this place, but if you haven't gone, GO!
This is a real honest-to-goodness Korean spa (no natural hot springs, alas) on Olympic Blvd., run by a huge tribe of Korean women dressed in green robes and conservative black underwear.
For $15 you can go in and soak and steam and roast and lie wrapped in big institutional quilts on a radiant heat floor for as long as you want to hide from the world. On my first visit I stayed for three hours.
My friend Jill Tanner took me and I was already happy as I cruised down a new neighborhood on Olympic--in Koreatown--in search of urban adventure. That is the glorious thing about L.A..--you just never know what you are going to find.
And there, under an ugly looking sign, is a non-descript building that houses the spa. In back there is free valet parking. You get a towel, a robe, a little towel, and I bought a little scrubby wash cloth to scrape all the dead skin off.
The place is not pretty. It is functional and very Asian, with attempts at luxury, like a lot of marble and ugly faux leather couches.
But that does not matter. It is the Japanese bath house, brought to L.A.. There is a hot tub, a even hotter tub of mugwort (which promises to improve your menstrual cycle, give you energy, boost your immune sysem, make you smarter, and make you rich.) You can steep in there like a human tea bag, and feel the stress seeping out of your body. I swear. There is a cold tub, too. But not that cold--the temperature hovers around that of the ocean in June.
Then there are the hot rooms: the steam room, the sauna, and best of all a Korean hot room, with black volcanic rock stuck into the ceiling, stone walls, and mats made of circles of bamboo on the floor. You rest your head on a wooden pillow and zone out. It sounds austere, but the effect is fabulous.
Between soaks and steams you can lie on the big hot floor in a quilt, or drink barley tea, or get one of the myriad treatments in the warren of rooms upstairs. If you get hungry you can go into the kitchen and eat semi-naked in your green robe--a fabulous Korean meal made by women dressed just like you. Then you can go and detox all the kimchee right back out of your system.
You can also get your skin scraped and treated on big tables in a communal area by the pools, where other women walk by and watch as you are scrubbed like a new born baby.
Jill and I got the reflexology foot massage. Just do it. That is all I can say.
I love Beverly Hot Springs--also in Koreatown--with a real hot spring. But the rules there are so strict it is almost no fun. Here, too, there are signs saying stay quiet, don't jump in pools, etc., but you can talk to your friend and move around without feeling like you will be escorted out if you break a rule.
I am sorry gentleman, this place is only for women, and somehow that makes it better.
Jill said the Capital Spa down the street offers all the same services for men, plus an urban driving range.
But if you are feeling down, out, up, down, or just want to curl up naked in a big flesh-colored quilt and read a book in a place where no one can find you, GO!!! This can be your three hour trip to Seoul, and you can be home for dinner.
Warning: To my favorite readers under 10--this material may be inappropriate. But I will have a post soon JUST for YOU!
When I quit my job (almost) four years ago, I made a choice: I was leaving full employ to devote myself to my kids. So much has happened. And I have achieved so much that matters to no one but me. I have gained invaluable perspective, confidence, and I have stretched myself in ways that have no price.
In three days Benji will enter kindergarten and I will have two children in school. I know, I know--most people have their children in what amounts to full time school from the time they are three. But we chose our co-op with its limited hours and we have lived with old school (til noon) preschool hours til now. So this is a HUGE change.
I will have hours free every day to myself. I will begin (I hope) to begin to contribute to household income again. I will be able to go grocery shopping without children surfing the aisles and hanging off the cart. I will be able to do multiple errands at high speed not worrying of there will be tantrums in the aisles, falling mannequins as children play hide and seek in the women's dept., or that someone will fall asleep before we get to where we are going. I will be able to have uninterrupted thoughts!
I have spent more time with my children than anyone I know. (This is not said with an air virtuousity!) We cut out all child care for financial reasons. People with less money would have their kids in child care so they could work, people with more would have a nanny. I am in the middle, opting for some old fashioned model--one, that I might add, did not lead to happiness for my mother or Jonathan's.
I think it paid off. At this exact moment in time I love how my boys have turned out. But no resting on laurels--I may be cursing the Gods and rushing to therapy next week to talk about failures in mothering. Kids never freeze. Your job is never done.
But here I am--really on the cusp of massive change--no matter how tectonic it may be--and I am wondering if I am going to make it the last three days.
My patience is wearing thin. I am yelling at my boys more than I have in a long time. I am tired of bickering, dangerous sword fights and always saying "Careful" and "No." That is a huge part of being a mama in the city, and I don't really dig it.
I am constantly shepherding people--like a big, drooling good-natured sheepdog. And like a sheepdog--if I am not well exercised or mentally challenged I start to get a little crazy and neurotic.
I will add that I drank a little too much red wine last night to celebrate the end of a perfect summer in our little green outdoor dining room. So I am paying this morning with the darkness that comes with too much drink.
But man, I pray I do not kill a child before Tuesday.
I need a break from them, and they need a break from me. I love them, but I need a little space. I need to rejuvenate. I need to take care of myself.
So now, with three days left (this is like the last mile of the marathon) the end is in sight, and I seriously wonder if I am going to make it. My mind and will are giving out early and I am in trouble!
Does this ever happen to you?
All you mama readers, do you have any wise words for me?
I am an ex-journalist and a mother of two boys. I live in Los Angeles. I am a traveler, an adventurer, a writer. These are my philosophical investigations -- from the kitchen, the playground, and the streets of LA.