How Did I Get Here?

I’m lying on my back looking up at the fluorescent lights and the acoustic tile ceiling at the gym (seriously, do they purposely make the lighting that bad so you look horrible and keep returning in the vain hope that one day you’ll catch sight of your reflection and appear normal?) when it hits me. I’ve been in this room, in some permutation, since I was 16 years old.

That was when the gym was a TJ Maxx. It was the only place within reasonable walking distance—a mile—and I applied there regularly for six months to a year before they hired me. The reason, the manager said, was because I was persistent.

Anyway, I always thought I’d move far far away from San Diego, never to return. I hated high school. I found the area to be dull. My family has no particular ties to the area, my dad being from the east coast. Growing up, we didn’t socialize with other families. We didn’t do community stuff. My roots were shallow. I always thought, One day I’ll move somewhere and it will feel like home. Because this area never did.

So as I’m lying in the gym, I wondered if I’d betrayed my 16 year old self by not moving away for good.

How did I get here?

I married my husband.

The Dilloways are fairly well-known in the area. Even now, when I whip out my credit card to pay for something, the cashier might say, “Dilloway? I know a Dilloway…” and if they know a Dilloway from San Diego, then chances are excellent that I’m related to them. Or maybe even 100%.

Those Dilloways were always doing community work. Coaching Little League, umping Little League, leading the local Scouts, showing up at community council meetings.

And their roots go back even further. My MIL grew up in El Cajon, back when it was farm country and she took the trolley to school at age 4. She and her brother had horses and shotguns.

Both my parents-in-law went to local high schools and SDSU. They’ve attended the same church for over 30 years.

Their roots run deep.

The other day, my husband and I were leaving my inlaws’ house and an SUV stopped going the opposite way, the driver waving frantically. He rolled down the window. It was a guy from one of the Little League teams, in town, who remembered my inlaws and wanted to come by and say hi. My husband hadn’t heard from him since high school. They swapped memories for a few minutes.

This kind of thing happens fairly frequently. People coming back to say hello, to say, “I wanted to tell you how much you meant to me and how much fun I had with you guys.” Sometimes, to my MIL, “I wanted to thank you for forcing me to be polite in your house and take off my hat because I got a job/impressed my girlfriend’s parents.” Because those roots, that sense of community, affected people in ways the Dilloways never knew about.

So now we live just a couple miles away from where I grew up. A couple miles away from the rest of the family. My kids attend the same high school where I went.

And somehow this place has turned into home.

Now I meet people in the stores who recognize me from places in our shared past, not just from my name.

And I’m still going back to TJ Maxx, in its new life.


Reasons I’m Glad I Had My Kids Young

One of the biggest decisions you’ll make as a woman, if you want kids, is when exactly you ought to reproduce. Straight outta college? After a career is established? In our community, I am on the younger side for having a 16 -year-old, so obviously I fall on the younger. I had my first at the grand old age of 25- on purpose.

  1. Having kids young means you’re too naive to know all the things that could wrong, and that makes you as brave as a gung-ho young man volunteering for war. Things go awry with jobs, with health, with everything. I count this as a good thing, because if I knew what I know now, at age 41, I might not have ever had kids. I’d be too scared.
  2. I was already used to being poor. Having a baby is costly, and so is going down to one income, even temporarily. If we had time to get used to solo vacations and buying everything we wanted all the time, it would have been mighty hard to get used to not having those perks. Besides, since I was already a struggling young mother, it was pretty easy to become a struggling writer.
  3. People think my daughter and I are sisters. And they think my husband might be my father or my sugar daddy. (Actually that was only one person who thought that about my husband, but it was pretty entertaining. For me, anyway. My husband wasn’t particularly amused).
  4. Middle age makes you tired. I’m 41 and I honestly don’t know how my friends with babies do it. I can barely muster the energy to tell my 16-year-old to drive to Starbucks and get me a latte.
  5. “Having it all” is a myth anyway. Every path requires compromise and sacrifice.
  6. It would have been physically impossible for me to get pregnant in my mid-30s, according to my OB/GYN. And this family heart condition can make pregnancy unstable. So if I hadn’t have had my kids young, it is highly likely that I would have no kids at all. And my kids are pretty awesome, and I’m not just saying that because I want them to take care of me in my golden years.

So when should you have babies? Nobody can decide for you. I’m not you. But I guess there’s one thing I’ve always known, from when I was little. Tomorrow is not guaranteed for anyone. There’s never a “perfect” time.

The Absolutely Definitive Answer to How Many Children You Should Have

The Absolutely Definitive Answer to How Many Children You Should Have

Have you been wondering how many kids you should have?

Have you read article after article telling you you’re selfish if you have one, you’re crazy if you have more than two?

Have you been spotting endless Dear Abbys and Dear Prudences asking HOW MANY SHOULD I HAVE? and then letting the whole world weigh in?

Have you just been hopin’ and waitin’ and wishin’ that somebody would just TELL YOU WHAT TO DO?

Here’s the answer.


It’s nobody’s damn business but yours and the person with whom you’re raising the kid.

I hear you. Dilloway, you low-down dirty double-crosser. That title was nothing but click bait! Something to get you on this page! That’s no real answer! WHERE ARE MY PARENT VS NON PARENT WARS? THE LONELY ONLYS VS ONE AND DONES? All the other manufactured debates about parenting invented to get your eyeballs onto pages and to whip up froths of parenting controversy?

Okay. Let’s talk about this a bit more.

How about this?


Are you a selfish person if you don’t personally experience the joys of parenthood?


There are already too many people in this world who have kids they don’t have any interest in raising. Too many who thought, “Eh, I SHOULD have a kid b/c that’s sort of the most socially acceptable thing to do” but they really don’t want one.

However, if you don’t want a kid, then you shouldn’t be joined with someone who does. And vice-versa. That’s just not fair. If your partner says, “I never want kids,” then don’t think, “Okay, I’m going to marry this person anyway,and then change him!” NONONO. Give me your best friend’s phone number, so I can tell him or her to slap you. Lovingly.


Having had 1 kid, do people always ask you when you’re having another? And you’re considering it, just because you think you *ought* to? Do people say stuff like, “Oh, only children are always spoiled” or “so lonely” blahblahblah?

Don’t do it.

Only have two if you really want two. If you can sustain, emotionally and financially, two.

I know lots of only children who are perfectly fine.


That is a discussion not for me but for you and your partner.

After you have two kids and they’re out of diapers, do you really want to get up all over again and do all the diapering/preschool/etc AGAIN?

Are you and your partner strong enough to take on three? Do you have enough SUPPORT? Do you have enough money?

The reason we had her is because we were always feeling like there was someone missing. I’d set the table and look at seat three and wonder, do I need to set three places? No?


Cadillac, the youngest of four, wanted four originally. “That way we can have even numbers at Disneyland,” he said. Totally legit reason for having another human being, right? Well, that got kiboshed quickly. Me+pregnancy=not pretty. I think I might honestly die if I got pregnant again. Like, literally for real. Not just metaphorically. ]

Plus, the third did us the f in, in a big way. Like, you feel all energetic and stuff with two, and you’re in a groove, and handling things, and then THREE hits, and it’s like being flattened by a boulder. I have heard the same from others. Obviously not from everyone, because I know families with four and six and eight children who seem to have it more together.


Again, beyond my experience. Therefore, it’s up to you. You can have as many as you like, provided that you don’t hire them out for reality TV. I think that’s a pretty good clause in the unspoken parenting contract.

The bottom line is, there are pros and cons to everything. An only child might have more chances to do more stuff because he has more resources spent on him, but a kid with siblings has different experiences. No one answer is right for every single family or person on earth.

Do what’s right for you, and don’t pay any attention to anyone who tells you how many kids you “should” have.

After I had Little Girl, I ran into a woman I knew at a preschool event. She looked at my kids and shook her head and said, “Three? You’re crazy, girl.” And let me tell you, that was an incredibly helpful statement to make after, you know, I ALREADY HAD THREE KIDS.

So the final piece of advice: if you think X should have Y number of kids, please. Keep your mouth shut about it.


Introvert Parent, Extrovert Kid

I’m a writer, with naturally introverted tendencies. Sure, I can call out my extrovert once in a while when I’m speaking in public (which I actually enjoy!) or whatnot. But generally, I fritz out when there’s too much activity.

Right now, my kids are at three different schools, and just driving and doing the basics of maintenance are about all I can handle.

Luckily, or so I thought, I’d gotten away with all of my kids being more or less introverted.

Eldest likes acting, but many stage people are introverted (Audrey Hepburn, Harrison Ford, Meryl Streep– all introverts). My son wants to be a computer programmer and happy to be on his own. IF somebody invites him to do something he’s usually glad to go do it, but he’s also glad to be a homebody.

Little Girl was the wild card. She was awfully shy at school, but crazy at home. She provides a running commentary on everything and anything. All of the dog’s thoughts. What she did at school. The dreams she had last night. The play she’s working on (costumes, sponsors, dialogue!). Her plans to go to Hawaii with her friends (she dreams big, that one). And of course looking over my shoulder at the computer screen and asking questions.

So we always wondered– is she an introvert yearning to be an extrovert? Or an extrovert plagued with unwanted shyness?

Turns out it was the latter.

This year, softball and Scouts and maturity all conspired to bust her out of her shell. The more activities she has, the better. She’s always ready to go.

And– suddenly her verbal skills bloomed, too. She’s just as snarky as her daddy and her older brother and sister. (If you know my husband, you will realize that this means they’re all trying to out-snark and out-joke each other all day long. Which is entertaining but also chaotic.) This weekend, she had three big events on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Each would take 2-4 hours.She especially likes to exercise this skill with her sister’s friends (mean age of 16) who will then gleefully say, “OWNED by the little Dilloway!”

When I told Little Girl about this weekend’s schedule, the only thing she said was, “And then what?”

“What do you mean?” I asked her.

“What are we doing AFTER?” she said. “Is that ALL?”

Dear Lord.

I am going to DIE this summer.

I remembered my friend Leah Singer had written an “>article about how she deals with her extroverted kid.

And I do tell her that she needs to just chill out and play sometimes. And if she says, “What NEXT?” I give her some chores to do. There are always plenty of those.

The good news is, my husband doesn’t mind driving around and doing stuff with her. His Meyers-Briggs personality type is The Field Marshal (ENTJ), but he’s just as happy hanging out quietly as he is doing stuff. So he can swing both ways, so to speak.

As for this summer: camp. Lots of camps.

An Introduction to Grief

This is an essay I wrote a few years ago. My then-editor and I had talked about finding it a home someplace, so she asked me to pull it from my blog, but nothing came of it. I saw it in my “unpublished” folder and decided to re-publish it today.

My husband cannot cry.

I say he must be able to, because his eyes have not dried up and fallen out; but he says ever since he got hit by a car when he was 11 and his skull cracked, he has been unable to shed tears. He says he wants to, wishes he could.

We are getting ready to say good-bye to his sister. She is just fourteen months older than he is and the sibling he is closest to.

Deb’s third kidney transplant has been failing for a while. This decline is not entirely unexpected. How can it be, for someone who has been sick her entire life? Yet it still comes as a shock. She will not go on dialysis again. She doesn’t want to. It hurts too much, and she will likely never get another transplant. She’s had this kidney for about two years.

Three hospice workers sit around my in-laws’ dining room table. Two of the hospice workers are warm and businesslike, mirroring my mother-in-law, who goes over the pile of paperwork with a calm, even cheerful attitude. This is what you need to get through this—to concentrate on the business at hand, I think. They tell me grief counselors will be available for the kids, give me hand-outs. But the third worker, the ride-along newbie, has an expression of sympathy that cracks me, and I excuse myself to the bathroom. On the way back into the living room, I burst into tears again. My mother-in-law hugs me and all I can think is I should be the one hugging her.

Deborah does not want us to feel bad for her.

She’s stubborn like that, always has been. You need to be to survive dialysis for over a decade, like she did before her last transplant.

She went to live in Kansas after college, got a job at a chemical company, then as a chemistry teacher. She got a Master’s Degree in Chemistry, volunteered at the Royals every single season as an usher, went on trips around the country visiting ballparks. During college, she toured Europe, worked at Mount Rushmore. Over the years she’s been all over the U.S.
She visited us in Hawaii after her transplant and went hiking up Diamond Head, snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, touring at Pearl Harbor and Punchbowl. I was way more exhausted than she was. Every year, at the beginning of baseball season, she’d sent all of us her picks for the year. Cadillac would laugh at her picks, always hopeful, never realistic to him.

We moved to San Diego around the same time Deb decided to move home from Kansas last year. She inspired the main character in my new book (THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS). That scientific way of thinking, that no-nonsense way of talking to people. Mostly, the kidney stuff. I interviewed her about her kidney problems, and she told me everything. I’d known some of it, but not all the grueling details. She told me about a doctor who thought an allergy to IVP dye was psychosomatic. She showed me the plastic tubes, the grafts, permanently implanted in her leg and arm. The veins so collapsed they could not draw blood any longer.

When I was done writing, I had her read it. She enjoyed it. There was a rose genealogy chart I made up in the book. The editorial staff said it didn’t make sense and asked me to change it. Deb said, “It’s based on me, so it made perfect sense to me!”

More important, I just liked her. She was the one who got me. Who sat with me at family gatherings and laughed at my jokes. When Cadillac was going to be out of town and I wanted to go do something, I thought to call her.

After never living in the same town, Deb took special interest in our kids. She took each on special outings. Eldest went to lots of science programs at the Fleet, where Deb volunteered. (She also ushered at the Padres and tutored students). My son got to eat crickets because of her. Little Girl went to the Safari Park with her. They baked cookies together. She tutored Eldest in math, a subject that used to make her cry, so she started pulling A’s. Over Thanksgiving, Aunt Deb hosted a Star Wars marathon. The kids spent the whole weekend with her, watching the movies and eating a huge host of snacks. At the end, they played a Star Wars trivia game, which Deb won. She gave the prize to the runner up, Son– a Star Wars poster.

Little Girl was at first wary of Deb. Deb didn’t look like other adults. She was small, under five feet. She had lots of scars on her arms from all the places she’d had to have IV over the years, scars everywhere, in fact, from various other procedures. But before long, it was Little Girl who became especially close to her aunt. She’d save up drawings to show, stuff to tell Aunt Deb, for days before we visited. “I’m going to tell Aunt Deb that there’s ICE CREAM at the Safari Park, and she will say, ‘Ooooh, ice cream! I love ice cream!’ and then we will buy some!” One of their bonds was the fact they both had blonde hair. “Aunt Deb is not just my aunt. She’s my friend,” she told me more than once.

These outings made the kids feel important. Special. It didn’t matter what they did. It only mattered that they got to be singled out for a day. It only mattered that they got to spend time with Aunt Deb.

It is Friday afternoon. We haven’t told the kids yet. We go pick up the kids from school. We are taking them to see her.

There have been easier parenting moments.

Right now, the kids are happy and high from sugar. It’s the last day of school before winter break, and they had class parties. In the parking lot by the junior high, where we pick up our oldest, Cadillac and I turn to face the kids. We have to tell them here, because we are going directly to see her. I take a breath. “We have something to tell you,” I say. My voice breaks. I can see them brace themselves. “It’s not good.”

My husband tells them.

They understand, I see, before he finishes the sentence. Like us, they have known about this possibility. They have seen her go into the hospital for infections and deal with dozens of other ailments. Our youngest bursts into tears, covers her face. The oldest blinks, hard.

Our son looks stricken, silent for a moment. He stares out the window. Outside the car, the middle schoolers romp, wearing Santa hats and waving candy canes. “Then, we will cheer her up,” he says.

We drive over to see her. Today she has moved from her bed, where she had spent the previous day, into her chair in the family room, looking so normal the kids aren’t afraid, or concerned. She is alert and nearly normal-looking. As normal as she has been recently.

They remember their aunt is worried about their reaction. They tell her about their Christmas parties, some science mini-series, social studies class. Little Girl gives her treats from class: a polar bear sticker, a stained-glass drawing. Aunt Deborah says, “Oooh.” They make her smile. She jokes with them.

There are no good-bye speeches. Deb doesn’t want to hear it. We don’t have to say these things aloud. She knows. We know. All we can do is offer some company.

Instead, we start watching The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Little Girl sits next to her aunt, peppering her with questions about what is going on. Like, “Why are they going in the closet? What are all the coats doing in there? Why is it winter? Who is that lady? What is her name?” Deborah answers all of them. Sometimes she hacks, sometimes she vomits. Green. She hasn’t eaten in two days, only had water. It’s something to do with the liver and kidney failing. Cadillac and his parents take turns helping her.

The kids look concerned each time. I wonder if they will say, “Ick!” or run away, or ask to go home; but they say nothing. They glance at her, they are quiet, they watch the movie.

In the middle of the movie, we have to pause because the notary has arrived to witness the Power of Attorney signing. I take the kids into the other room.

We finish watching the film. When the lion, Aslan, is killed on the stone table, Little Girl says, “This is too scary.”

Deb says, “Now, this ought to look familiar to you.”

The kids stare blankly at her.

“Who else got killed and came back to life?” she prompts. “What are they teaching you in CCD?”

“About God,” Little Girl answers.

“What about Easter?” I ask.

“You mean the Easter bunny?” Little Girl says, then giggles. She knows the answer. She is playing. “Jesus died and came back to lifeAn i,” she says.

“So don’t worry,” Deb says. “Watch. The lion will be okay.”

After the movie, more people arrive. We bow out to go track down dinner. The kids say good-bye.

“Thanks for coming,” Deb says.

“We’ll see you tomorrow,” the kids promise.

But it’s the last time she’s conscious.

Dear Ally, a Story. Chapter 1

Dear Ally, a Story

My daughter is a fairly prolific writer for an 8 year old. Here’s the first chapter of a book she wrote last fall, called Dear Ally. ( Ally is supposed to be read as “allie.”) It’s about a girl named Emily who moves to Arizona and writes to her friend from her old town, Ally, about all her new adventures.

I just added spaces to make it more readable.

She’d be super pleased if you left a comment for her:)

I just hope you’ll listen to all my adventures. All of them are going to be awesome!! I think… anyway, I’m moving to Arizona and I think it’s really hot there, is it? I know what you’re thinking, Emily, I’ve been there before and you’re saying HOT?! YOU’RE CRAZY!!! IT’S BURNING HOT THERE!!Yeah, well, its winter there and it’s just hot. BA~BOOM!!!

FYI, I’m at Arizona right now. OMG!! We just got a puppy. I just love puppies, don’t you?! Uh… 100 divided by 10. Lol. I just did 5th grade math in front of a 3rd grader! Anyway, we named the dog Gatsby, and he seems always happy! He’s yellow, sometimes crazy, and licks me all the time! My little brother, Ted, (age of 7 and in 2nd grade,) went crazy in our hotel room! Mom and Dad sleep in a room next to us, but attached.


I said, “Calm down! Sponge Bob is ok!’’ then he started to cry.

Mom busted in! She said, “WHAT’S GOING ON?! IS THERE A PROBLEM?!”

I said, ‘’ Mom, Ted’s going crazy because of Sponge bob falling for squid ward’s trick.”

Mom said, ‘’oh, Ted, sponge bob will be ok. See? Squid ward is crying now sponge bob~ ‘’

‘’Whaaaaa!!!’’ Ted rudely interrupted.

Then I got a call. Ring ring ring! It was my friend, Mia. ‘’ Hi, Emily! I haven’t while. Seen you in a What’s up? What’s going on in Arizona? I’m doing fine in San Diego. Wait, I can hear your brother throwing a fit. What’s his problem?’’

I said, ‘’ I’m fine, Mia. Anyway, my brother is throwing a fit because sponge bob is falling for squid ward’s trick.’’

She said, ‘’ what, girl?!’’

I said, ‘’ It’s a REALLY LONG story. (giggles)’’.

She said, ‘’ OOHH. Sponge bob, right? My little sister, Sarah, she likes it too. What, mom? Oh come on!!” Mia sighed. “Sorry Emily, I have to do the dishes. FYI, good luck!! Bye!’’

I said, ‘’ Bye, Mia!’’ then my dog JUMPED TO MY PHONE AND ATE IT!!!

Then I fainted. No, really, FAINTED!!

Then I saw my dog lick my face about at 12:00 pm. At the time I fainted, it was about 7:00 pm. I fainted for 5 hours!!! Can you believe it?! 5 HOURS!!! Then I called Mia on my emergencery~ cell~phone~ thingy.

‘’ Hi~ WHOOPS! I called my crush, Brandon.

‘’I~I~’’ he said, ‘’ Who is this?! It’s 12:00am!’’

I said, ‘’ Oh, I’m sorry! I was trying to call Mia, you know, from school. Oh yeah, I’m Emily, your BFI (best friend infinity.)’’

He said, ‘’ Oh, umm, hi, then. Anyway, be er umm careful because I use to live there, and, are you going to CatKing middle school because there’s a major bully there, Mackenzie Orville.’’

I said, ‘’ Well, er… I’m going to CatKing middle school, so I’ll be real careful.’’

He said, ‘’Ok! Uh, that’s good. Bye!’’

I said, ‘’ Bye, Brandon!’’ and went to bed.

Then I got woken up at about 4:44 am by Ted. He said, ‘’ Emily, Emily, wake up! Sponge bob came in our hotel room and showed me how to do 100X122!!!’’

I shouted, ‘’ Yeah, IN YOUR HEAD, NOW GET IN BED!!’’

He said, ‘’Ok, that rhymes! (giggles)’’ then he and I went back to bed. 2 hours later, at 6:05, I was woken up (again) by mom this time.

She said, ‘’ time to go to school!’’ I got ready for school and went to school. (I walked.) Then I meet someone new. A girl name Abbey Key. She has brown, shiny, hair.(which I’m pretty sure she’s
the great, great, great, great, great granddaughter of Elvis.) Anyway, we’re BFFI now!

There was a “student store” at our school. Everything costs about $1.00 or 50 cents. I bought a really cute kola eraser for 50 cents. All I had in my pockets were a dollar coin and 50 cents. Now I have just a dollar coin. When I went to class, I saw I am going to sit next to a girl name Mackenzie.

Looking for Bruce Lee’s Grave

Looking for Bruce Lee’s Grave

ON the first birthday I celebrated with Cadillac, I turned 24. He was in the Army up at Fort Lewis Washington, in the Ranger battalion. I think it was right before I started working at a weekly paper, which means I was just temping at a series of truly horrible office jobs, not yet arriving at the job which would turn into my first pro writing job, at a weekly newspaper. I’d been with him since the previous February, shortly after Valentine’s Day, and we had gotten married by the Justice of the Peace in October, the ink barely dry on the divorce papers from my first early ill-advised marriage that I never talk about, and it was now early February again and my birthday.

Life in the Army was strange. A life contracted. He had a degree in Classics but he wanted to try this out and then get a job with federal law enforcement. So he was 27, and the average age of the other lower enlisted guys was 19. Had he met me before he enlisted, he told me, he would have changed his plans. Probably I distracted him a great deal.
He spent a lot of time gone at training, for days or weeks at a time, leaving me solo. When he was home, he was so low on the totem pole he did a lot of cruddy work that required more duty time.
My life felt put on hold. Lonely. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, and I’d chosen to be here with him, but I couldn’t make peace with it. I spent a lot of time looking forward to the day he would get out of the military. And a lot of time feeling resentful.

The only place we ate out, besides fast food, was a classy joint that had a 10 pound burger that was free if you ate the whole thing. We did not know of many restaurants, nor did the people we knew, few of whom were from the area, and all of them having as little money as we did.

For my birthday, he promised to take me out. I said I would like a romantic dinner, and he said he knew of a place someone had talked about.

But first, he had a surprise for me in the afternoon. “You’ll love it,” he said, and we drove up to Seattle. I wondered where he was taking me. The Space Needle? We’d only walked around the outside. We could be going anywhere. There were so many places we hadn’t been.

Instead, we drove through a residential area, around and around a neighborhood called Capitol Hill. Then, around and around and around some more. “We’re close,” he said a few dozen times. “It’s around here someplace.”

“Where are we going?” I asked, thinking I could help spot a sign.

“You’ll like it,” he said. “I’m taking you to see Bruce Lee’s grave.”

I was silent for a moment. Genuine confusion and concerns raced through my head. A grave? On my birthday? And Bruce Lee’s?

What the ever loving–?

“You brought it up once,” he said. “I remembered.”

Maybe I had brought it up once, one of those random facts one reads sometimes. Bruce Lee’s grave is in Seattle. Maybe I’d seen it on Jeopardy!. I could not recall. I spouted a lot of random things I’d knew. That was probably one of the few facts I’d read about the area.

“You’re a fan,” he said. Stated. Like a fact.

“Um, no,” I said, sitting upright, my face heating. “That’s my brother.” My brother, with whom Cadillac was friends. My brother. “Do you think I’m my brother?” I said.

“Of course not. But you like Bruce Lee too,” he said.

“Why? Because I’m also half-Asian?” My fingers gripped the handle above the door. Who was this person? Why would anybody in his right mind think a woman in her early twenties would want to go see somebody’s grave? On her birthday? Only a very strange woman.

“No. Because you brought him up.” He drove faster now.

I sank down in my seat, realizing that I could not longer casually spout out some odd thing I’d heard, lest Cadillac think I was secretly hinting at my heart’s desire. If I told him about the World’s Ugliest Dog contest, he would think I’d want to get an ugly mutt. If I told him that the cost of living was low in the Sudan, he’d think I’d want to live there. “I bring up a lot of different shit. It doesn’t mean I love it all.”

“What else are we going to do in Seattle?” He was angry now too. “I thought you would like seeing Bruce Lee’s grave.”

“Well I don’t want to see anybody’s grave,” I yelled. “Why are you in love with my brother?”

“I’m not,” he yelled back. “You like Bruce Lee.”

Bruce Lee’s actual grave, next to his son’s

“I do not!” I said. “I have no opinion on Bruce Lee. I’ve seen maybe one movie and then not even the whole thing. But seriously. Even if I was a fan, who wants to go to look at dead people on her birthday?”

“Fine,” he said. “You’re right. I am sorry.”

I heard the apology, but I still stewed. All the way back to the south Sound, a trip theoretically taking 45 minutes but took about two hours with traffic. A double realization knocked me back. First, I had an awful, panicky fear. He had no idea of who I was, what I liked, what my heart’s desires were. And I’d thought we were soul mates. We were already married. Married too fast, against all better judgment and advice and in the face of all the signs to slow down—and now we were going to have to lie in the bed we made. But the fact was, we were unknown to each other. I was unknown to him. A true stranger, I thought. He was a being entirely different than me– I’d known that, of course– but the extent of how different he was freaked me out.

Second—and this had to do with me alone, so it was harder to admit to myself–that I immediately pushed the thought back down when it briefly surfaced—that I was hopelessly, irretrievably, shamefully shallow. At least he thought of something to do. At least he didn’t just throw a card at me and call it a day. He’d tried, right? Honestly, he was in the Army, making just above the cut-off point for food stamps (the jump pay for jumping out of airplanes pushed us over the limit). He couldn’t take me someplace fancy. Probably not even into a museum. This thought depressed me further, of how a trip to someplace I’d taken for granted, like a museum, would have to be carefully planned and budgeted for. If this was being grown-up, I didn’t like it.

But I had chosen him, I had chosen to be here. I knew he had no money. Why did I expect him to sweep me off my feet, as if he was some dot-com billionaire instead of an enlisted soldier? I wept like the little girl I was. Not sobbing, just silent, pouty tears.

“You’ll like where I’m taking you to dinner, though,” he said. “It’s supposed to be a great place.”

“It better be,” I mumbled. An ominous princess.

A bit later in the evening, we arrived at Mama Stortini’s in Tacoma. “He said they have meatballs as big as your fist!” Cadillac said.

I walked in, expecting to see low lights. Candles. White tablecloths.

I saw picnic tables covered with plastic red gingham cloths in what I recall being a vinyl-walled patio area. The tables were pushed together so you ate elbow-to-elbow with strangers.
Two basic truths. One: if an Army dude whose chow hall diet normally consists of like forty different starches tells you that someplace is great, you ought to ask a few specific questions. Two: a place that has anything “as big as your fist” might not provide the kind of romantic atmosphere you’re seeking.

We stood in the doorway and took it all in for a minute. “We can go somewhere else if you want,” he said. “I thought it would be nicer.” (You see how HARD things were in the days before smart phones and Yelp and Google Maps?)

“Nah,” I said. “Let’s just eat here.”

Here, my first instinct was to sugarcoat this for you. To tie up this story with a warm and fuzzy realization: Then she realized—even though he’d weirdly tried to take her to see a grave on her birthday, she’d been kind of a bitch. The important thing was that they were together. She hugged him, and they happily ate dinner.

No. I can’t pretend that happened. That kind of self-awareness did not come until later. It went more like this, We sat down and ate because we were starving, saying little to each other, chewing through a fog of dim resentment and heavy starches.

To his credit, Cadillac has planned other birthdays well: a surprise hot air balloon ride, horseback tour, dinners out, all varying according to our budget and time allowance. But he’s never taken me to see a grave on my birthday again. It’s entirely possible he’d refuse, even if I asked nicely.

2014: In Which Margaret Dilloway is Rebuilt. Better, Stronger, Faster.

2014: In which Margaret Dilloway is Rebuilt. Better, Stronger, Faster

If you follow me on Facebook, you’ll notice I’ve had a rather unfortunate spate of having to go see doctors lately. Well, hopefully it will all be fortunate in the end; in the meantime, it’s just visit after visit with new visits added (dog spraining wrist, for example). I fear my doctors think I’m a hypochondriac. The truth is, I’ve had a few minor problems, that have only now worsened enough for me to do something about them. You know how it is. You’re too busy to take care of things.

I had an endoscopy to see if I have Celiac’s Disease and to address stomach pain and reflux, for which I took a drug called Dexilant, which had stopped working so well. The doc found pretty significant reflux that affects both passageways, larynx and esphogeal (so that’s why I sound hoarse when I sing! Not that I was ever fabulous), and generalized tummy irritation.

During this procedure, my heart was doing something wonky. PVCs, they’re called, on the EKG (premature ventricular contractions) which they also called extra heartbeats. It freaked out my GI doc, who used to be a cardiologist, and during my groggy recovery period right after the endoscopy (luckily, husband was there listening), he told me to make an appointment with the heart doc.

The doctors all got very excited and nervous about this, because there’s this heart thing in my family that I potentially will develop. It’s called noncompaction cardiomyopathy, and basically your heart walls are spongy instead of smooth. Sometimes this morphs into an irregular heartbeat, which causes your heart to enlarge and not work well. It’s what ultimately killed my mother and her sister, so every year I get an echocardiogram to make sure they catch any changes very early, and of course there are other treatment options available now that were not available 20+ years ago.

I’d been noticing an irregular heartbeat sometimes and a really low pulse. Usually 44, every time I go into the doctor’s office. Now, I’d say I’m in moderately good shape—but there’s no WAY my pulse should be that low. That’s like endurance athlete low.

The cardiologist said that the monitor could only pick up every other beat if my heart was doing an extra beat, hence on the EKGs my heartrate was around 88 instead. He ordered a nuclear stress test, a Holter monitor (which you wear for 24 hours) and another echo.

The GI doc said he found no evidence of celiac’s (he said I have wheat intolerance and to continue avoiding it) but he was still worried about some other symptoms I’d been having and wants to do a colonoscopy to see if I have colitis or cancer or precancer or whatever. Yay. (waves pompoms). Sounds like fun. I mean, I know you’re supposed to start having them at some point, but I was hoping to wait until the minimum recommended age. Oh well. At least my insides will be spic n span. I’m glad they’re being thorough, because it would suck if I found out there was something really wrong with me a few months down the road.

During this time, I also finally got a referral approved to go see an oral surgeon about my jaw. I was born with a crooked mouth, as you might have noticed from the pictures or video of me. I don’t know if it’s due to nerve damage (which would be called asymmetrical crying facies, I think, based on my highly accurate Google research) or if it’s entirely bone-related, but basically my jaw has gotten more crooked over the years, pushed by the overcompensating muscles in my face. This led to the total demise of the cartilage in the right side of my jaw, which, as you can imagine, is not pleasant. I’ve had ear pain for years and various other issues that can be traced back to the jaw (my face actually starts aching if I speak for too long—by too long, I mean for more than 5 minutes, the time it takes to read a picture book. Really. It’s annoying). Some teeth are also hitting soft tissue and I keep getting cuts in my mouth. Finally, I went to see an orthodontist (once, I had these “braces” which were actually removable braces attached to retainers, which did not address anything structural) and he found out about the missing cartilage when he did an X-ray, and also that the jaws are different lengths, and told me I had to address my jaw before he did anything. So I am actually excited to see this specialist. (And if you ask me why I’m not smiling, well, now you know. It hurts.)

Back to the heart. I went to the cardiologist’s to get some tests. The most interesting was the nuclear test, in which they shot some radioactive substance into my veins. Then I had to wait for 20 minutes, hoping to turn into the Hulk. Sadly, nothing happened, and then I had to lie down and have my heart scanned by a machine for 12 minutes, during which time I fell asleep, because the nurse gave me a warm blanket, and what else is there to do?

After that, I got on a treadmill in a room where the nurses played Good Cop, Bad Cop.

Bad Cop worked the treadmill machine while Good Cop watched with great concern. “Faster?” Bad Cop would yell, and turn up the speed and angle. “You’re doing GREAT.”

“Yep,” I’d say. At first, boldly. Bring it on, I thought. Good Cop stood right by me, obviously concerned I’d fall off the machine.

“MORE!” Bad Cop yelled. He amped it up, again and again. “Just a bit faster.”

“Not too much,” Good Cop said.

“Don’t worry. She’s doing fine,” he said, pressing the PLUS key. He did “just a bit” until I was running. “Try not to run,” he said.

“I can’t not run,” I said. I guess I could have done a fast walk, but it was easier to run. He made the angle mountain-steep. It seemed to go on forever. My lungs felt like they were going to burst. “Ungh,” I said.

Good Cop put her hands on my arm. “Do you want to stop, hon?”


“Stop, she wants to get off,” Good Cop shouted.

“Just a bit more,” Bad Cop said.

“I think you should turn it off,” Good Cop said.

“Do you want to stop?” Bad Cop asked. “You’re doing very well.”

“Yeah, yeah, I want to stop,” I said, and abruptly Bad Cop switched off the machine. I was actually expecting to do a cool down walk, so this, combined with the fact they don’t want you to eat prior, just about knocked me out. My ears rang, and then my hearing went muffled. I had to bend over, fearing I’d pass out. Good Cop felt my arms and pronounced them clammy and then I felt sick, so I was made to lie down. Good Cop looked at Bad Cop accusingly. “She needs to rest.”

I was convinced that Bad Cop was like the Dad who thought his kids could do the non-bunny slope on the first ski run, and Good Cop was the worrying mom who knew they’d crash.

I had to take a break of 30-40 minutes, and was allowed coffee and food, then had to lie in the machine again. I got to see my heart in glorious Technicolor.

IMG_20140311_141635_094 (1)

The images taken before and after the treadmill (the first two rows of large pics) are supposed to look the same when you compare them. If there is a blockage or something off, the color patterns will be different. These look pretty much the same.

The Holter is an EKG machine you wear for 24 hours. I had adhesive on me for 2 weeks—it just would not scrub off. I tried telling people I’d been in an accident and was now the Bionic Woman, but only one believed me. I was also afraid someone would think I was wearing a bomb, but nothing dramatic happened, and most people didn’t look twice at all the wires.

Anyway, the ultimate result of everything was that my heart is great. Better than normal. In fact, the Holter showed that I had fewer PVCs than I did 4 years ago, when I had the test before. Any discomfort I had during the nuclear stress test was due to my cardiovascular shape, which can be conditioned. Admittedly, I haven’t always pushed myself that hard, always afraid that my heart will rebel. But now I don’t have to worry. Drat. The cardiologist said that nobody knew what caused these irregular heartbeats, but that they were not clinically significant.

Then the cardiologist and I had a discussion about the meds that I take. Three of them, one for allergies, can actually cause some irregular heartbeats. The Dexilant, for example, can lower magnesium, which can cause this. Nobody checked my magnesium. Luckily, I got switched off of Dexilant already (which can also cause calcium loss, if taken for too long).

Now I think that these medications are all actually irritating my stomach and that I need to stop taking them as much as possible, which will hopefully eliminate a lot of the acid issues and the irregular heartbeats. I’ve always had a sensitive stomach, and whether that’s due to colitis, or if it’s worsened in my adulthood because of meds, remains to be seen. It may just be a case of one doctor prescribing a medication for a symptom caused by another medication.

So, by the end of this year, I fully expect to be a highly functioning machine who will still hopefully be able to have coffee and alcohol, in moderation. The other possibility is that stopping coffee and alcohol completely will just cure me of everything. But let’s hope for the best.

10 Things to Know by Age 40

I have always known
That at last I would
Take this road, but yesterday
I did not know that it would be today.

Narihira, 9th century

I wrote, “Mom’s 29th birthday” on the calendar for today, but some ungrateful kid crossed it out and put, “40th.” Et tu, brute? I think the youngest did it on orders from the oldest.

Anyway, I am happy to be 40. You know why? You have two choices: get older, or die.

And things are just getting interesting! 40 feels like a wiser more Zen space than 20. I’ve already had my children, we’re much more financially stable, and I think I am actually more intelligent than I was twenty years ago.

So I did a little self-assessment of my life at age 40:

Body: not nearly as decrepit as I thought it’d be, back when I was 20 thinking ahead to 40.
Wrinkles: fairly negligible (thanks, Japanese mom!)
Husband: attentive. Still love hanging out with him.
Kids: Mostly well-behaved. Diligent workers. Still funny.
House: Purchased
Career: going well
Life: good

This is me now:

still life with black fan
I know what you’re thinking when you look at this photo. Why on earth does she have a white carpet? Because it was on sale for really cheap.

This is me in 20 years (I’m pretty sure her DNA will be available for sale on eBay soon):

I also thought about some things I’ve learned by now and tried to write them down.

1. To not care about what other people think about me.

I’m not talking about when people express concern for really important life-and-death things, like, It concerns me that you have worn the same sweatsuit for three weeks and haven’t showered in four.

No, I’m talking about the peanut gallery, the cacophony of folks, who may be friends/relatives or strangers on the Internets, who love to chime in and tell you that you’re crap at your job/motherhood/writing/cooking/whatever, or you should be doing X instead of Y.

But it’s hard to ignore people! Especially for women, who are conditioned to monitor others’ feelings and worry and fret over them as if they were seedlings, and feel BAD badbad when we don’t please someone.

This is a fact. Ready?

Some people—strangers or family members— will never be pleased with you, no matter what you do or how perfect and wonderful you are. These are not people whose opinions should matter to you.

If you please everyone, you will get some kind of really big trophy because you will be the only person in all of space and time to do it.


Do you hate my language? My looks? My books? My opinions? (I could turn this into a Dr. Seuss rhyme.) Clears throat.

Do you hate how I write?
You can just go fly a kite.
Am I as ugly as can be?
Please feel free to climb a tree.
I do not care. I do not care. I do not care here, or anywhere.
You’re not worth the breath it takes
To give my head two big shakes
You’re the poo beneath my shoe
You can’t even spell the word “knew”
I do not care. I do not care.
Now take your comments
And go somewhere
Or I’ll punch you in the throat
I swear.

I’m so proud! I literally just made that up (Um, I totally can’t tell, say my wonderful lying friends).

2. To be grateful.

I am grateful when I wake up in my bed in my own house with my family snug inside it. Yes, the house is in various states of remodeling even though somebody (not naming names) swore that he would do 100% of one project before moving onto the next. But it’s our house (or it will be in like 30 years).

Every time I go to Costco, I feel thankful that I can get almost whatever I like to eat there PLUS a full tank of gas. (Not that I should get everything I like there, that’s just crazy). Yes, the trip still annoys me– I hate having to shove aside elderly ladies to get to the ultra-important pigs-in-a-blanket samples– but I feel damn grateful about the opportunity to slam my cart into theirs.

3. To let go of anger
Ok, unnecessary anger.
OK, some unnecessary anger.

Like every Irishman, I am what you might call hot-blooded. But, lately it’s been an easier emotion to turn around. (unless it’s super serious. Then watch out!). Like last night, Cadillac and I had a huge blowout (read: minor) over a saucepan. I was making dinner and needed a pan to cook noodles in (Item 3a: Have TWO large pans big enough for spaghetti noodles, not one). He wanted to cook long spaghetti noodles in a little saucepan, because the big pan was dirty with the asparagus I’d burned the previous night (to be fair, he said he’d clean the pan, but it was really bad and we didn’t have any Brillo pads, so it’d been soaking). Anyway, he’d nearly finished cleaning the big pan and said he was going to use the little saucepan NO MATTER WHAT. I said we should use the big pan and he said no. “I can make it work. Step back and watch my magic,” he said.

Well, these are quinoa noodles and they get sticky fast. If they were in a small pan, they’d be a big lump. I said it wouldn’t work and explained why, and he said yes it would, and I said no, and he said YES IT WOULD BACK OFF, and I said, I’M COOKING HERE, YOU BACK OFF, and he said no. I thought of the most dramatic thing I could say. “If you use that pan,”I said, “I’m throwing this box of pasta away.”

Mexican stand-off.

Admittedly, some people (us in the past) might have rather died than lose this battle royale.

He thought for a moment, I assume about the high probability I was making an empty threat. He was swishing water in the pan like a miner panning for gold and something about that struck me as funny. So I laughed and he laughed and I cooked the noodles how I wanted and they were perfect.

Of course when transgressions are bigger than noodles (hmmm that sounds slightly Freudian) forgiving is easier said than done. If someone has done something egregiously wrong, I might technically forgive them, understand the circumstances leading up to it, even cop to my part in it all—but it’s hard to forget it. Then if I happen to remember the incident, the feeling I had when I was hurt keeps bubbling up, just as fresh as when it first happened.

What do you then?

I let myself experience that feeling, then…I let it go. Instead of obsessing about it and thus wasting the next 1000 hours of my life. Try it first with something small, work your way up.

4. To eat healthy

I wish I’d done it earlier.

Eating well is easy after you’ve done it for a couple of weeks and you realize, “Holy shit, I don’t feel like shit anymore!” And if you’re a conspiracy theorist like me, you’ll be avoiding all those hardcore addictive chemicals that food manufacturers put in their “food,” and then suddenly you’re like, “Hmm, I’m eating things because I’m hungry and I don’t need as much food as I used to. Maybe there’s something to this!”

Don’t tell me you can’t do it or whine that it’s too hard. I will for real punch you in the throat for real! (Apparently 40 also = violent tendencies.)

5. Choose goals that seem too ambitious

I always choose the harder goal when possible. Some people might think that’s stupid, but it works for me. That way, if I fall short of my big goal, I tend to fall at least in the middle. This is how you do it:

  • Choose lofty goal
  • Write smaller goals that lead up to big goal
  • Write steps to accomplish first small goal
  • Start doing the first steps

Warning: this type of ambitious attitude may cause people to say, Who do you think you are? You’ll never do that. You’re not talented or smart enough.
If this happens, go back to number one.

6. Being pretty has less to do with actual features than with your attitude.

So cliché, right? Isn’t that what your parents tried to tell you, but you stopped believing them and believed the magazines who told you you needed moreMOREMORE?

But it’s absolutely true. I never believed it before.

Do this experiment.

Make yourself up really really nice and go out someplace public. Don’t make eye contact or try to talk to anyone. Do not smile. Count how many people smile at you. Take your picture while thinking about nothing.

You will, I bet, not find yourself attractive in that photo. You will see every line and every weird quirk that you hate about your face right there.

Now, dress in the same clothes. Go out with a spring in your step (a smile in your heart, whatever) and be warm to people. Smile a lot. Look for nice things in the people you meet, and mention them aloud. How many people smile at you? How many people respond warmly?

Take a photo of yourself, thinking of the warmest, happiest laugh-out-loud memory you can.

I bet you’ll like that one.

Without fail, if I am in a positive good mood and make an effort to treat people well, they respond in kind (unless there is something gravely wrong with them). When I was younger, I was too self-conscious about too many things to realize that. And yes, ohmygod, sometimes that takes some work for me, and sometimes I don’t do it. Because like Mr. Bates, I tend to be a brooder, a brooders brood. I actually like skulking around and thinking my deep thoughts. It’s my entertainment. But sometimes that leads into a darker mood, which leads into a really darker mood, which is harder to shake.

Bonus: it makes it easier to manipulate people into doing your bidding, so you can take over the world!

7. To have friends who will watch your back, and friends to do stuff with

Cadillac says in man-world, men can be friends even if they never talk about anything but football. I think in woman-world it’s different, at least for me. I didn’t count someone as a friend unless we can talk about non-small-talk things and be real with each other.

I’ve learned how to call more people friends– people with whom I only do certain activities with, maybe business-related or maybe just knitting or whatever. Which is fine. But you also want a core group, the ones who will help you when you need them the same way you’d help them. Which is not always easy to find.

8. To worry less about being a “good parent.”

Everyone wants their kids to grow up right. We worry and watch over their every little fart and morsel of food and parse every word they say for hidden trama. But–you had a rough day. You’re tired, you’ve driven literally 100 miles schlepping kids around and to and from work. Is it okay to have cereal for dinner?

Damn right it is. (If it’s good enough for breakfast, it’s good enough for dinner. I’ve told that to at least two people so far)

Sometimes, you gotta do what it takes to power through until bedtime. Sometimes, it’s okay to have stacks of clean clothes baskets lining the hallways and giant dustbunnies under the coffee table. The world will not end. Trust me—I already would have caused it to end.

9. To like my body

Hey, body. I’m sorry I was so mean to you when I was younger. I’m sorry that I thought I was too fat to wear a bikini when I was about thirty pounds lighter than I am now. I’m sorry that I ate so little that my head looked like a giant lollipop on a stick. I’m sorry I was too lazy to put you through your paces until after I had kids. Now you’re kind of scarred up from said kids and not everything works the same, and things look a bit different; but I’m different now too. I like you. I mean, love you. I love how you got me through that six mile hike the other day though I was growing some pretty big blisters. Arms, I love how you didn’t let me down, even when my hands and elbows tingled from nerve compression after driving all day. I like your health. I like your curves and your muscles. From now on, I promise, we’ll have a caring relationship.

10. To enjoy everything in the here and now

Without doubt, this is the busiest point of our lives. We are busy from sunup to sundown. It is easy to feel stressed and to feel like you’re never going to put away the 12 baskets of laundry and get all your other tasks done.

So take a breath and stop thinking ahead to Task #152. Be present in the task at hand– something as mundane as folding laundry can be like a meditation. Talk to the people you care about.

Because this– all this we have right now, good and bad– won’t last.

This life of ours would not cause you sorrow
if you thought of it as like
the mountain cherry blossoms
which bloom and fade in a day.