Sunday, September 12, 2010

Yesterday Once More

Growing up, my sisters and I loved to ask our parents about college. Where'd you go? What was it like? Did you drink beer there? My father had one consistent answer to the question, "Where did you go to college?"

"Long Beach State, the Greatest School on the West Coast."

He answered it so matter-of-fact that it wasn't before Christy and I were into our teens that we learned 'the Greatest School on the West Coast' isn't a part of the school's name.

When we asked him where mom went to college, he answered "some other private school in LA where the rich kids go."

My dad was friends with The Carpenters during college – Karen and Richard Carpenter of the famous brother/sister singing duo. They also attended Long Beach State. My dad described Karen as sweet and kind – a real ‘good girl’ – with a magical songbird voice.

We’d then ask mom who her friends were in college, and she’d talk proudly of her days being the number 1 ‘bleacher cheerleader’ for the track & field boys. My mom was a straight-A student, a rising feminist, a sometime-hippie (on nights like, Halloween), and something of a groupie! Years later, I would take after my mom's pursuit of good grades and sweaty athletes in college.

Nancy attended every track & field meet while at USC because she had a good friend named Orenthal who supplemented his Heisman-trophy-winning football skills by running track in the off season. He would go on to become a star NFL football player, an actor who starred with Leslie Nielsen in the Naked Gun franchise, and later, a murderer!

When we saw on the news O.J. driving his white Ford Bronco down the 405 freeway in that infamous police chase back in 1994, my stunned sisters and I turned to Nancy, whose jaw was on the floor:

“Didn’t you used to date him, Mom?”
Silence. Followed by a, "Hell, no!" from her.

But my parents ran in important circles during their university days.

My dad had a scrappy, Catholic upbringing in Downey, California, also the suburb where the Carpenters were raised. Today, his old stomping grounds of Downey and Southgate are becoming increasingly similar to their neighborhood-cousin to the south, Compton, worldwide headquarters to the Crips gang.

When he was a child, my dad wanted to be a pilot when he grew up. I never heard the full story, but at some point in his adolescence he received the hard news that his poor eyesight would prevent his dream from coming true. It kind of breaks my heart, because he would have been a top-notch pilot: Captain J.T.

My dad’s nickname is JT, but it came to him later in life after failing for years to get people to call him Jack. (That’s where Jackie’s name comes from). But he was always Jon, Jon Thomas. He didn’t look brute enough to be a Jack. So somewhere, one of my sister’s ex-boyfriends started calling him JT. He took a shine to it. So if you ever want my dad to like you, just call him JT.

With aeronautical school off the table, Dad would go on to be a healer. He majored in physical therapy at Long Beach State, took an internship at a hospital, moved up north to Napa, met my mom Nancy, got married at a wedding down in Southern California (that my dad’s mom planned), took a hippie honeymoon in Sun Valley, Idaho, moved to Stockton, then (thankfully!) got the heck out of Stockton and put down roots in Sacramento.

I was a newborn baby and my Dad was 30 years old when his dad died. Grandpa Leonard. I don’t remember him, but I know I would have loved him. I’ve seen pictures of him holding Christy and me, and I could see the kindness in his eyes. He was gentle, quiet, thoughtful and wonderful. The cancer killed him quickly – he died within 2 months of the diagnosis. Both of my grandpas died of lung cancer.

One day, I’ll have the courage to sit my dad JT down and ask him all about grandpa Leonard. He’s shared bits and pieces, but I want to know more – I think somewhere he holds the secret to my father.

You see, my father is an enigma. I can’t elaborate why; but his stories hold some clues.

A few months back, I asked Anne Louise, who was my family’s Danish au pair back in 1987-1988, what she thought of my family when she lived with us at the age of 19. She went through all of us, one by one, “You, Cammy, were very short and small, but you had big attitude.” “Christy was happy and quite busy for a kid.” “Allyson was loving and always needed attention”... “Jackie wanted 8 baths a day and could change her own diaper”... “Your mom would cry in sympathy if I got a paper cut.” And “Your dad....” Hmmmm. “Your dad, would run.”

I suppose a house with: 4 pre-pubescent girls, 3 female cats, 1 PMS'ing Danish au pair, and an over-worked, stressed-out wife will drive a man to run. And he did. Everyday. And he still does.

All he had to do was enter our backyard, wind around the lawn, dodge a few sprinklers, pass the swimming pool, open the latch of our fence, and enter a gorgeous stretch of public land: a city-run ‘national forest’ called the Jedediah Smith National Recreation Trail. I think the nature is why my parents chose Sacramento; the recreational possibilities and the landscapes are breathtaking. Just 10 meters from our house is an immaculate bike-path that parallels the graceful, flowing American River, which is dotted with endless oak trees, sunflowers and wildflowers, deer running around, wild coyotes, snakes and sunshine. This was my dad’s Secret Garden. Slipping out the back door would be his refuge from the madness and hormones. Who knew that having four daughters would be the key to keeping a man in such great shape?

He’s logged millions of miles, he has a box full of marathon medals. The centerpiece of his racing calendar is the yearly Eppie’s Great Race Triathlon, which he has raced annually for 30 years. Two days after my mom gave birth to Jackie on July 10th my dad corraled the family, planted us at strategic spots along the raceway, and had us fulfill our ‘spectator duties’ like handing him Gatorade, frozen bandanas to wear around his neck, his bicycle helmet, or a kayak.

My dad keeps getting faster and faster. This year at Eppie’s, he took 3rd place in his division. His diligent training is an inspiration to me, and a huge part of why I started running and racing triathlons in my 20s. My dad and I would run together – and it was the first time in my adult life that we could have some easy, quality time together. He’s the perfect running partner because he doesn’t talk much. Like him, I like to ‘relax’ when I run.

I ran my first race with my dad when I was 10 years old. Christy, age 12, had been teasing me that I was too short and bony to be able to run the “Tahoe Fun Run” that she’d signed up to race with her older friend Heidi, age 14. I started training the day before. Panicked, I asked my dad if he thought I could seriously run the 2.3 mile race down the beach and up to the Hyatt, where the race ended. He gave me a serious, quiet nod. “Just stick with me. You’ll beat them.”

Christy and Heidi went out of the gate at lightning speed, but I hung back with Dad. “Slow and steady wins the day” has always been his mantra. I passed them at mile 1. And finished the race in about 19 minutes, way ahead of my bossy big sister. I probably stuck my tongue out at her, when she crossed the finish line. 10 minutes after me.

Running is in the Thomas blood.

There is one other quirky habit, other than running, that helps keep my dad sane and at peace (and my sisters and me in stitches). And that is his romantic-comedy habit.

I discovered that my dad was a sucker for romance stories when, on a Hawaiian vacation, we were at the beach and he proudly pulled out his book and told me he was reading an important novel about the Vietnam War. Called “Message from Nam.” By Danielle Steele.
You won’t find a Kirsten Dunst-, Alicia Silverstone-, Colin Firth-, Hugh Grant-film that my father hasn’t seen. And watched on loop.

He went through a “Bring it On” phase, a “Clueless” phase and a “Love Actually” phase that has actually never ended. His fondness for air-heady female protagonist starlets isn’t in the lecherous spirit it may sound like. Rather, I think stories about girls like his daughters crack him up. It puts a perspective on his life, and he can better process ‘love and life’ in our changing world. And the parade of boys, men, relationships, friends, drama, engagements and tears that have entered the Thomas home, on account of having four bombshell Thomas offspring. :)

I love my dad for embracing his softer side through a cinematic outlet.

My dad is a good, kind, quiet, respectful and decent man who has done the absolute best he can to raise four happy, healthy, okay daughters. Who do their best. I wish I could give him more than this thank you.
He isn’t perfect - no father is – sometimes he can be a real stinker. He poops out early, he cuts vacations short, he doesn’t always let you in, and he hated cheesy father/daughter high-school dances

so much that he never attended one with me. But he was man enough – when it mattered most – to pay for my therapy with Beverly Hill’s finest shrink who let me boo-hoo on his sofa for a few sessions before smacking me with his thick, Yiddish accent and saying, “You have a good family – you’re cu-urred.”

My father has given me: clothes, shoes, bikes, good values, swimming lessons, cars, his deep sensitivity, a strong work ethic, country club memberships, exotic vacations, stuffed animals, trips to Space Camp, tap shoes, encouragement to become a pilot, support when I said no, shopping sprees on Rodeo Drive (sorry!), and the space, love, patience and quiet support I would need to find my own way in this world.

Today, my dad turns 63 years old! In honor of his birthday, I’ve posted his favorite Carpenters song below. It's actually my favorite Carpenters song, but in the spirit of my dad -- who always said, "Look Cammy, this is your favorite: _______ fill in the blank [children's book about sports! / favorite football team / favorite ice cream flavor] when he's actually presenting his favorite something, today I'm playing his game.
I want to say: Dad, I love you and I apologize for those times when I signed your birthday card “Best regards, Cammy.”

You’re a good dad and a good man. Grandpa Leonard would be proud.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Danish Taxi-cab Confessions

Cabs are an institution in Denmark.

Okay, that might be an exaggeration. They are way too expensive to be a common form of transportation. Mostly, everyone travels by bike, bus, the subway train or Metro.

Did I mention that taxis are way too expensive?

Yet somehow within my first 6 months of living in Denmark, when I was caught at a nightclub at 5 am, too drunk to bike the 8 miles home to Hellerup, and a safe and hyggelig Mercedez Benz taxi escorted me to my doorsteps, I fell in love with taxis.

All taxis in Denmark are Mercedez Benz. With leather interior, and automatic shifting. I think it’s the law.

I’ve established a taxi budget. When I was living in LA and cultivating an expensive pinot noir hobby, I had a wine budget. In my busy “state government” political days, working for Gov. Schwarzenegger, I had an ample Starbuck’s budget.

Today, in Copenhagen, I’ve abandoned Starbucks (because we don’t have it here). Wine, I get in ample supply at work, oddly enough. But the savings I accumulate from not buying pinots and lattes help fortify my taxi budget.

There are many reasons who I love to hoof it by taxi.

Mostly it’s because I then don’t have to bike.

You see, I used to be a skillful and talented bike rider. I raced bikes. I trained on the bike saddle for seven hours every Saturday, without fail, for many mnany years.

When I biked for exercise, I had endless road space to roam. There are no other bikers on the road in California, so drivers give you a wide berth.

But I’ve grown tired of biking. My butt is sore.

Danes are impressive bike handlers, mind you. They’ve been riding bikes since they were 3-and-a-half. The traffic in the bike lane is littered with an aggressive, "take-no-prisoners" style of riding that leaves newbie’s like myself (who are not used to this thing called “biking for transportation”) freaked out.


Ten months into my stay in Denmark, I took a bad spill on the bike after an ill-timed decision to make a right turn onto the sidewalk curb, in the rain, so that I could pop into 7-11 and buy a Rittersport. My rear wheel slipped and the full force of my body and bike went down on my right shoulder. My shoulder bone splintered in two pieces – a breakage that went undiagnosed by the Danish medical system for 2 months.

It took me a while to get back on my horse. The whole event was a debacle. In moments of rage and weakness, I blamed my stupid Dutch bike for the accident; I blamed my lousy doctors for not ordering x-rays and sending me home with 2 Tylenol and instructions to ‘go away.’ I blamed the rainy Danish summer for making me fall. I blamed the Danes who stared at me on the ground, and pedaled away, embarrassed. Mostly, I blamed myself and my lard-ass tendency to stop for late night nougats.

After healing, I retired my zippy Dutch racing-bike in favor of a snappy, pink Danish city-bike. I like my pink city-bike for short trips around town. I always wear a helmet – I wasn’t the day I crashed. I shudder to think if it had been my skull that had cracked.

I ride, but I don’t really enjoy it. You often see on the evening news stories about cycling Danish girls getting crunched under right-turning trucks at intersections. The truck drivers, “Never saw ’em coming.” And I don’t like riding my bike in the snow. Two feet of snow on the ground won’t stop the fearless Danes from plowing through it on their bikes. They have places to go, groceries to fetch, kids to drop off at day-care.

Last winter, I suffered a bad bout with pneumonia and went through a few rounds of hard core antibiotics, augmented by opium-laced cough syrup. Even when I was healing, I was still sick. But I was bored staying at home and dying to get back to work, so I laced up my furry winter boots, put on the thickest, furry parka I own, hopped on my pink bike and pedaled to work in two feet of snow; with pneumonia, in minus-10 degrees weather. Icicles hung from my nose as I shivered into the office. And I only live 7 minutes from my work.

When I told my mother that I was biking to work, in the snow, with pneumonia, she was aghast.

“Cammy, you must take a taxi!”

I told Bastian and he laughed.

“We live 10 seconds from your work; you’re not taking a taxi!”

I didn’t listen to him. For a few weeks, while my pneumatic cough still lingered, I took at taxi to the office. I told no one at my job.

My mother was proud.

And I got to know many lovely Danish taxi drivers.

Which leads me to the third and final reason why I love taking taxis. The most important reason of all: most of the drivers are foreigners, like me.


I enter a cab and breathe a sigh of relief. They have accents when speaking Danish, like I do. They are chatty. They come from Serbia and Pakistan and Zimbabwe. They want to know where I’m from. I’ve met lawyers, bodybuilders, chefs and teachers. Most of them have gigs on the side.

It’s amazing how much you can get to know a person over an 18-minute car ride across town. Usually, even on a tight schedule, I don’t mind sitting in traffic in a taxi. I met a Swedish bloke named Klaus, who was a bodybuilder and said his biggest hero in life was Arnold Schwarzenegger. I let him do the talking that ride; didn’t mention that I knew him.

The most fascinating conversation I’ve ever had in a taxi took place about a month ago. I was headed to my doctor’s office where he was going to run a few tests, so I justified not biking to the appointment, because I was going to the doctor. My taxi driver was black, and he was native at Danish. He picked up on my American accent and told me with a fair amount of pride, that his dad was American, and his mom was Danish.

He added that he had lived in Denmark most of his life.

“I have much more Danishness in me, than anything else.”

I seized on his words. Or one word, in particular. So I asked him to clarify.

“So what does that mean? To be Danish, and have ‘the Danishness?”’

He smiled, gave a sheepish laugh.

“That’s a good question. I wasn’t expecting it.”

He couldn’t find an answer he was happy with, so he started asking the questions.

“Do you like living in Denmark?” he asked.


“What is the hardest part about living in Denmark?”

“The fact that there’s this list describing what Danishness is. And I’ll never qualify.”

We went on and on before he pulled up to the medical building in Christianshavn. I didn’t want to get out of the car, our discussion was that riveting.

He probed further before I exited the taxi, and I’ll never forget his question as long as I live.

“If you could tell us – the Danes – one thing that we could work on, what would it be?”

A question like that would normally throw a person off, but I was on a roll that day and had an answer before he’d finished formulating the question.

Here is what I told my new taxi-driving friend.

To all the Danish people out there, I would say this: "To the fullest extent possible, open your mind. Deep in the Danish core, this seems difficult for some people. Foreigners can sense this. It makes life harder. And sadder. My biggest gripe about living in Denmark is how there's this prescribed list of "Danishness" and unless you're born and raised in the country, you have no possibility of qualifying. You see, we don't have the Danishness, try as we might. We may learn Danish, we may achieve 'full integration' but as long as there's this list of what it means to be Danish that is so exclusionary, you're going to have struggling foreigners in your country. We’d rather fit in, but we don’t know how."


I believe Danishness is like a box. It has thick borders and sharp edges, and can only carry a set amount of weight. It buckles under the pressure of new or evolving concepts, ideas or descriptions, skintones and cultures. You’re either in the box, or you’re out, but don’t ever think of changing what goes in or out. It’s already been decided.

I remember Governor Schwarzenegger responding, when asked to look at government agencies more creatively, “I don’t want to think outside the box. I want to blow up the box.”

I do too.

For Danes to help immigrants and expats in Denmark, first they have to help themselves. They need to see Danishness as a work in progress, subject to change and evolution. Hopefully the evolution is for the better.

Thank you for having me, Denmark, and for asking me these delicious questions.

Next month's blog: what can us foreigners do for you, Denmark?