Greg Bardsley



Blowing a set from Sinjin Smith

I don’t kid myself; I know my athletic limitations. At my worst, I am indecisive and awkward. At my best, I can surprise myself with a rare moment of grace. But when it comes to my signature sport, I can be a bit confident.

Well, until eight days ago.

What happened was, I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I swear. You see, my sons and I were just playing around at an impromptu “volleyball clinic” hosted by retired pro-beach stud-machine Sinjin Smith. It was during an intermission of the AVP’s pro-beach tournament in San Francisco. Spectators were simply playing “king of the court” in which everyone gets a chance to knock the other team off the court with one play. Sinjin was simply there to shake hands, pose for photos and offer basic coaching tips. But when Jack (6), Dylan (3) and Daddy (40) stepped onto the sand, Sinjin could see we’d need help.

He joined us.

My heart was pounding. Nearly 20 years ago, when I played club at Chico and spent the rest of my free time on nearby sand and grass courts, no one was bigger than Sinjin Smith. Now here I was with the genuine article. I might as well been asked to run a route for Raiders legend Jim Plunkett.

I looked around. Nancy was pointing the camera at us. Dylan and Jack were getting into position. Sinjin waited to help.

Holy shit, I can’t screw this up.

My serve cleared the net, one of the 12-year-old girls on the other side spiked the ball back over the net, I dug it up with a nice pass to the middle, Sinjin stepped up and laid down a perfect bump-set right where I love it — right where I could cream it. I approached from the left side, thinking …

Those girls are 12. I can’t kill this ball.

Dylan is running around like a crazy boy. I can’t plow into him.

The classy thing to do is just “dink” it over the net.

Oh, shit. My timing is off — way off.

Greg up in the air. .. People cheering. … Sinjin, Jack and Dylan watching. … Nancy clicking the camera. … Greg landing in the sand without touching the ball. … Greg finally reaching out and dinking the ball straight into the net. … Awkward silence ensues. … Sinjin looks at Greg like he’s wearing a tutu.

“You started way too far back off the net,” he says.

“I know, I just-”

“You gotta be much closer.”

“I know. I blew it.” Greg tries to look cool. “C’mon boys. We gotta get off the court.”

Waiting on the side was Nancy, who shows us the photo of Daddy and the boys in action with Sinjin Smith. I squint at the tiny screen and realize that I am completely out of the picture. So is the ball. “Hey, what can I say?” Nancy says. “I was focused on the boys.”

Just as well.

My new love affair … with the chile relleno

All those years, and I never gave the chile relleno a real look. All those years, I was enamored with carnitas and huevos rancheros and tamales. All those years, I was missing out on the wonders of my brand new love — the cheesy, plump and complex chile relleno.

Suddenly, I can’t get enough of her.

In my family, Mexican food always has been serious business. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of things like my grandmother, Maria Cristina, making hand-made tortillas in our kitchen, my mom passing her guacamole secrets down to me, and my family driving into Oakland to buy hand-made tortillas from one restaurant on East 14th so we could have them at another restaurant around the corner. Back then, I found the chile relleno to be a too little exotic; the fact we were talking about a big pepper dipped in egg batter and smothered with a mysterious sauce didn’t help with my picky adolescent sensibilities. Decades went by, and I continued to look right through the chile relleno.

Then something strange happened: By pure chance this past spring, I bumped into her, grabbed a hold for a stolen moment and realized I didn’t want to let go. One thing led to another, and just like that, I have become addicted to her, lidding my eyes at the wonderful sequence of senses unfurling in my mouth — first the extreme softness of it all, then the mild tomato sauce with the Mexican kick, then the pronounced statement of the poblano chile pepper, and finally the creamy comfort of the melted queso Oaxaca cheese, the cheese that had been stuffed inside and was now arresting my brain in pure taste-bud pleasure.

So now here I am, completely enamored with the chile relleno, kind of blown away, thinking of this wonderful dish at unusual hours. As for why, maybe my sensibilities have matured. Maybe my physiology has changed in some mysterious way that advantages the chile relleno. Maybe I am simply in the right frame of mind — finally — to enjoy what the chile relleno has been offering all along. And that’s frightening — terrifying, in fact. What else have I been missing out on?

Six years ago today

Six years ago today
I am a new daddy. Forty-eight hours after Jack’s birth, I am still overcome with joy. When my wife and son sleep, I can’t stop crying. My family is safe, my son Jack is here, my life will never be the same. I am experiencing instant love, and it is the most beautiful thing on earth. I find myself asking, What did I ever do to deserve this?

Three years and three days ago
It is less than an hour after Dylan’s birth. I am a new daddy again, and I am overcome with joy. I look down at him, and he is beautiful. I am still staring at him when a newly minted doctor slips into our room with a grim look on her face. She tells us our new son has a massive tumor in his abdominal cavity. In an instant, our world darkens and swirls and tilts. This can’t be happening. The doc leads me to another room and shows me the x-ray of Dylan’s tiny stomach — on one side, all you see is solid white. I stand there and nod back. I can’t speak.

That night, I cry on the phone with my friend Greg. I hold Nancy’s hand until she falls asleep. I pace the hospital floors until the wee hours. I stare at the walls. I stare at Dylan — he is so beautiful.

Three years and two days ago
A platoon of doctors comes in and tells us that it was all an awful misdiagnosis, that it all was wrong, that the white mass in that x-ray was, in fact, an air pocket, that our Baby Dylan is perfect. A trip to radiology confirms it. I am numb. My family is safe, Dylan actually is healthy — in fact, uncommonly strong. It takes us a long time to truly believe the doctors — months and months.

Ten days ago
Tomorrow is a big day. Tomorrow Dylan will have his own birthday party. And tonight, all is silent. Twenty-four cupcakes are fresh out of the oven, cooling on a “cupcake tree.” The boys are in their jammies enjoying the final minutes of “Walking with Prehistoric Beasts.” Nancy is in the back room. I’m in the backyard setting up the chairs.

And then: “Oh my God, no. …No … No … VENUS!”

We all meet in the kitchen, where Nancy is staring at the cupcake tree — it is empty, except for two cupcakes. I scan the counter, then the floor. No crumbs anywhere. No paper wrappers anywhere. The cupcake tree remains upright. Venus, our Golden Retriever, sits on her giant pillow, her eyes extra large, but not quite apologetic. She knows she has a sickness, and she knows she’ll never stop. Dylan runs over, lowers his brows and squats in front of her. “Bad Venus,” he shouts, and slaps his knee. “No more cupcakes.”

Around 10pm, I’m in line at Albertson’s with two more boxes of Betty Crocker. The pregnant lady behind me is buying just one item — a two-gallon jug of prune juice. She looks at my Betty Crocker, I glance at her prune juice, and we nod in silent affirmation. You don’t go to Albertson’s at 10pm unless you’re in trouble.

It’s Jack’s first day of first-grade. He’s smiling and joking with his classmates. Mrs. Stapleton sits them down and leads them in a sweet song about friendly faces, and Nancy fights back tears. I look at Jack and think of all the times I slept beside his bassinet with my fingertips on his chest, worried he’d stop breathing, all the times I changed his diapers, all the times he needed to be rocked, all the times I had to put a favorite toy in “Daddy Jail,” all the times he cried out in the night and we’d come padding down the hallway, all the times he needed Mommy and no one else would do, all the firsts — the first steps, the first words, the first day in big-boy underwear, the first haircut, the first rush to the hospital, the first time he saw something that truly ignited his imagination, the first time he insisted that his mysterious and elusive friend, “Abey Dabey Cabey,” was real and so very complex.

Now I look at my son, who’s ready for this new adventure, and I think back on that first day in the maternity ward, when Mommy and Baby Jack were both asleep, when I stared at him and imagined a time way off in the future, a time when this child would be running and jumping and laughing and discovering, a time when his laughter would fill our house, a time when he’d run off to new adventures all on his own.

Just like today.


An aside: My wife Nancy started her own blog, and I’m loving it. My favorite post so far is Tantrums 101. Be sure to check it all out at 40 Something.

I’ve been fooling myself

The past few years, I’ve been cocky about two things: my ability to sleep-train a baby and my success with homemade guacamole.

Last night, I came plunging back to reality. Last night, I realized I wasn’t quite the man I thought I was. Last night, my guacamole delusions shattered into a thousand little green globs.

You see, I’ve made a big deal about my guacamole. I’ve puffed my chest and sighed contentedly. I’ve nodded in silence as friends and family tasted my guac and widened their eyes in delight.

But now, I’m questioning all that. Maybe people have been humoring me. Maybe friends and family have been too kind to tell me the truth, too kind to tell me my guacamole isn’t really that special after all. Maybe I’m just a big joke.

It all happened last night. I came home, and my wife mentioned casually that she’d whipped up some guacamole. On any other day, this would have been a blatant attempt to strip me of my power, akin to her saying, “Honey, I think there’s a leak in the bathroom, so why don’t you stay here with the boys while I go crawl under the house?” But on this night, I was starving. I was thrilled to see the guac sitting there on the kitchen table.

And let me tell you, it was phenomenal. My eyelids lowered. My brain melted in pleasure. My mouth was on drugs. And I wanted more — more more more. Nancy smiled to herself and went about her business.

Then I realized. I realized Nancy’s guac was better than anything I’ve made in a long time — maybe better than anything I’ve ever made. Hers had the personality that I love in good guac, but it wasn’t trying too hard. It contained nearly all of my secret ingredients (don’t ask, because I won’t tell you). But there was a light-touch sophistication that my guacamole has lacked. This guac was like a symphony, and mine suddenly seemed like a one-man band on “America’s Got Talent,” some needy freak with eight different instruments attached to his torso.

“This is beyond anything I’ve ever accomplished,” I said, taking a pull off my Tecate.

Nancy was at the counter with her back facing me. She adopted the gentle, motherly tone she’ll use with the boys at critical moments. “Well,” she soothed, “I just think the best thing about guacamole is the avacado.”

You see, Nancy likes my guacamole. And she likes my ingredients. But she has told me over the years that maybe I need to take it down a little. Maybe I don’t need to put so much of “this” and so much of “that” in my guacamole. I agree with her, but at the end of the day, when I’m there at the counter and I’m doing my thing, and the Latin Jazz is playing and my can of Tecate is open, and I’m having a grand old time there slicing and mashing and sipping, I can let it go too far. I lose myself.

Thinking about it last night, I wondered if there were any parallels between my guacamole and my writing. After all, isn’t it funny that I have learned that sometimes it’s better to tone down my fiction, that a little “personality” goes a long way? I shuddered at the thought. How deep does this problem go?


Coalinga Convection

This past Sunday on Interstate 5

“Are you okay?”

“Just got this fly my leg. It’s driving me crazy.”

“Stop doing that. You’re gonna get us killed.”

“Then what the hell am I supposed to do?”

“Just try to rustle it up,” Nancy says, “then open the windows. It’ll get blown out.”

“Fine fine.” I jiggle my leg, see the fly buzz around my lap and open all windows as we speed southbound on Interstate 5. Suddenly, it feels like we’ve opened a convection oven and stuck our heads inside — only, in this case, the hot air is hitting us at 80 mph.

Papers go airborne.

Manure fumes overtake the car.

The boys squint and scream in delight.

“Okay,” Nancy hollers over the din, “roll ’em up, roll ’em up.”

The windows go up, and now it feels like we’re in a sweat lodge. Eventually, the air conditioning kicks in and we’re comfortable.

Ten minutes later.

“What’s your problem?”

I cuss under my breath. “Damn fly’s crawling up my leg.”

“Mommy,” Dylan says, “I want juice.”

Jack asks, “Daddy, is this Disneyland?”

“No, sweetie. It’s Coalinga.”

Nancy says, “Jiggle your leg and open the windows.”

Leg jiggles, fly takes flight, windows open. Oppressive wind and heat come in. This time a percussive whomp whomp whomp assaults the eardrums.

Nancy’s hair is stuck at an 80-degree angle.

My eyes turn to slits.

The boys holler and laugh and stomp their feet.

“Okay,” Nancy yells over the din, “roll ’em up.”

A few miles later, AC battles the overwhelming Central Valley heat, at which point I feel the fly on my calf.

“Roll ’em down,” I holler.

“No, just your window this time. It’ll create better suction.”

Extreme wind and heat on the side of my face. A McDonalds napkin covers the speedometer.

“Roll it up, roll it up.”

Fifty miles later.

Whispering through gritted teeth, “This fuckin’ fly.”

“Daddy, is this Disneyland?”

“Let’s leave all the windows down for a minute. That’ll do it.”

Extended wind and heat.

“Okay, roll ’em up, roll ’em up.”

Seventy miles later.

“I’m gonna kill this fly.”

“Here,” Nancy says, “I’ll stir it up, then you open your window.”

Mayhem ensues.

I get swatted.

The boys point at us and laugh.

Hot air blows through the car in a circular pattern.

“Roll it up, roll it up.”

Fifty miles later, we’ve gotten over the Grapevine. Now we’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic near Saugus.

“Daddy, is this Disneyland?”

“No, honey. Not yet.”

I feel the fly crawling up my leg. I roll the windows down and rustle my leg. The fly whizzes in two tight circles and exits through my window.

A deafening roar overtakes a Toyota Highlander on southbound Interstate 5 near Saugus.

Let the vacation begin.

“I bring Jack”

ME: Dylan, aren’t you excited?

Uh-huh. I am.

ME: You’re almost three. You’re gonna be a big boy.

DYLAN: Uh-huh. I am.

ME: And you’re gonna go to preschool this fall.

DYLAN: Uh-huh. I am.

ME: And you’re gonna meet all these new boys and girls.

[Long pause as Dylan looks at me, thinking about it]

ME: Just imagine all the new friends you’ll make at Holy Cross.

[Long pause]

DYLAN: Daddy … Jack be my friend at Holy Cross. … I bring Jack.

ME: Well, that’d be nice, but your brother will be at White Oaks. He’s gonna be a first-grader. You know that.

[Long pause]

DYLAN: No, I bring Jack. I bring Jack to Holy Cross.

ME: No, honey, Jack will be at White Oaks.

DYLAN: Daddy … [Lower lip out] … I bring Jack.

Four days later

ME: I know you guys are having fun, but I want you to stop it.

JACK: But Daddy, he’s laughing

ME: Guys, no more open-tackles on the cement. I mean it.

JACK: But Daddy, I’m the velociraptor, and he’s the herbivore.

ME: I don’t care.

JACK: [Protesting] But someone has to be the prey.

Three days later

JACK: …. which just goes to show you, Daddy …

DYLAN: [Serious face] goes show you, Daddy …

JACK: … that a terrabird could never survive–

DYLAN: tare-bird never survive …

JACK: [Glancing down at Dylan] … an attack by a pack of sabertooth tigers, because–

DYLAN: ‘tack by packa sabertooth tiger, because–

JACK: [Screaming] Stop it! … Stop copying me!!!

DYLAN: [Looks away] I not copying you.

MOMMY: Jack, he’s just doing it because he wants to be like you. He loves you.

JACK: That’s not the point. I want him to listen.


ME: Time to wake up, Dee-Dee.

DYLAN: [Groggy. Eyes opening] Where’s Jack?

ME: He’s still with Mommy. He’ll be home soon.

DYLAN: [To himself] Jack be home soon.

Two hours later

MOMMY: Okay, Dylan. Now tell Jack.

DYLAN: I missed you, Jack.

JACK: [Eyes closed as he eats. Happy] Do you love me?

DYLAN: I love you, Jack.

JACK: How much do you love me?

DYLAN: Bigger’n the whole worl’.

JACK: [Eyes closed, chin up] And for how long?

DYLAN: For ever an’ ever.

JACK: I love you, too, Dee-Dee.

[Long embrace slowly turns into wrestling match]


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