August 2008


I am on vacation.  While sitting at the Benito Juarez International Airport last Wednesday I read that a once close acquaintance had passed away. That sounds strange – “a once close acquaintaince” – but sometimes a person can share a moment in your life that is so personal that it never leaves you, and yet you do not know each other well enough to call yourselves friends.

When I knew Gene Upshaw in 1978, he was still a guard with the Oakland Raiders, but he had already stepped forward in the National Football League Players’ Association and was recognized for his leadership skills both on and off the field.  In that year, during the Raiders’ first residence in Oakland, California, I often attended after-game parties with my girlfriend who worked in the Raiders office.  That was how I met Gene, and several of the other team and office members – dancing, partying, celebrating – it was a carefree time in my 20-something life and these boisterous young men and overgrown boys were dance partners and drinking buddies.

Then one afternoon, just short of the Hegenberger Road exit on my way to the Raider offices to see my friend, the radio announced a most devastating event.  It was November 27, 1978, and the beloved mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, had been shot and killed.  The next five minutes was a blur of tears and I pulled into the Raider parking lot in a daze.  As I stepped out of my car, another vehicle pulled in next to me.  It was Gene, and when our eyes met I knew that he’d heard the news, too.  We crossed the meager yards between us and I opened my arms to comfort this hulk of a man.  He fell against me and sobbed.  Not a word was spoken.  When we were both all cried out, we each took a deep breath and walked hand in hand into the office.

I saw Gene only a few times after that.  We never spoke of it again, but even if we just passed each other at a party or on the dance floor, a silent tilt of the head or squeeze of the hand reminded us of the comfort shared between casual acquaintances in a moment of trauma.

Whatever Gene Upshaw’s public popularity might or might not have been when he died on August 20, 2008, Gene will always be for me the embodiment of the tough guy with a tender heart, unafraid to share – or maybe afraid and sharing anyway – the tears that come with deep loss, and a symbol of the lasting impression that a simple touch can create when we reach out to comfort another human being.

I belong to an online poets group sponsored by the Whidbey Island Writers Association.  We have a new member whose writing I really enjoy.  He has a blog on LiveJournal.  He said that to be able to read the stuff he considers worth publishing I would have to sign up for my own LifeJournal account.  So I did. 

I haven’t been able to figure out how to get to those special pages, but I did decide that since I’d created my own LiveJournal account I might as well treat it like a journal.  So I started writing.  Stuff I wouldn’t publish here.  It will be my real “journal style” writing.  If you want to hear about my new cake recipes or burned pecan pie, please, freel free to check it out – http://achaessa.livejournal.com/.  Mood – uncertain.

Okay, I confess, a crappy month at work and the cynic in me takes the wheel (and drives around bitching about the traffic).  But today is a new month and I was thinking more about Randy Pausch and his list of childhood dreams (all but one accomplished) and my list which just pointed out that I’m a frustrated artist trapped in the corporate world.  But there are things that I wanted to do as a child that I have accomplished, though not in the same straight-line way as Randy.

For instance, I loved reading National Geographic and wanted to travel in the wilderness and live the outdoor life.  I also wanted to be a psychologist.  When I was 30, I spent a year doing wilderness expeditions with disruptive adolescents.  It was one of the most amazing times of my life and a perfect combination of those two childhood dreams.  We spent 3 weeks in the high-desert of south-central Idaho with each group of kids, teaching them how to live off the land, make fire without matches, navigate with topographical maps, and be self-sufficient, while leading them through a brief curriculum designed to stimulate their self-analysis.  It’s amazing the effect such training has on the self-esteem of a bored and rebellious teenager.  Or on the self-esteem of a bored and frustrated 30 year old.  Knowing that I can walk into the wilds and make fire, find food, and live an interesting life – when most people would panic or focus on complaining – gives me a rare insight into my inner strength and resourcefulness.

I also wanted to be Perry Mason.  His style of investigative advocay just thrilled me.  I worked at my first law firm when I was 19 and got a taste of the real lawyering world.  I even completed a year of law school.  But by then I knew the downside of lawyering – lawfirm politics, long associate hours, high production stress, no recognition for anyone but the partners (ohmygosh, I just realized that the corporate world is my nightmare version of the legal world) – and I decided not to complete my law degree.  Then in 1995, I was introduced to the King County CASA organization and became a guardian ad litem for abused and neglected children.  I did child advocacy work for six years and helped to change many lives for the better.  I specialized in the federal Indian Child Welfare Act and gave workshops across the US on advocating for Indian children and working with Indian families on parenting issues.  I learned even more about my own half-breed heritage and I met people that enriched my life. 

I also wanted to be a translator at the United Nations.  I love languages and how they intersect and evolve around one another.  Of course, I wanted to speak French – it had such a sexy air about it, but when language classes came up in school, my mother said, “You live in California, nobody here speaks French.  Spanish will be useful.”  (But she said it in a way that sounded like “Spanish or nothing.”)  So I, of course, said, “Then it will be nothing.”  And wouldn’t you know that at 41 I became fluent in Spanish without ever having taken formal schooling – and now I live in Mexico and speak Spanish every day.  It’s not quite the United Nations, but I never wanted to live in New York City because of the traffic and rude people (ohmygosh, I just realized that Mexico City is my nightmare version of NYC).  And, yes, my mother was right – Spanish turned out to be very useful for me.

So, there are four childhood dreams that I can mark with a * if not an X.  Maybe I will get to do something with my artwork someday.