Life’s obvious lessons or it’s amazing what you can get done when…

I’m writing because I told myself to write this morning. After all, I’m between full-time gigs and was supposed to use January and February to 1.) finish my novel; 2.) surf every day; 3.) whip the yard and garden into shape; 4.) do all the house projects that I’ve been too busy to do while working 40-plus hours per week. And read and work out and go for hikes and make sure I’m carving out enough family time and couple time and maybe take that tango class we’ve been promising ourselves we’d take for years.

Yeah, sometimes I tend to overestimate my ability to accomplish – although to be fair, the days when I am disciplined about my time often end with a small glow of satisfaction warming my brain. One of my favorite scenes in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues was when Denzel Washington’s character, Bleek Gilliam, explains to one of his girlfriends that you have to do the same thing at the same time each day because that’s how shit gets done. (At least, that’s how I remember it.) Less exciting forms of research reinforce that concept: Routine is good for accomplishment.

The other key, courtesy of my friend Niki Bezzant and a mantra I’ve uttered approximately one gazillion times over the past decade (including on this blog, I’m sure), is this: “It’s amazing what you can get done when you don’t arse around.” (Or as we say in America, “… when you don’t fuck around.”)

So here I am, writing because I told myself I should write first thing in the morning while the house is quiet and the sky is too dark for a surf adventure. Sure, I’m running behind already – the sun came up an hour ago – and the house’s silence has been broken by my husband clomping downstairs and into the kitchen where he’s putting water on for coffee – the water whooshes out of the faucet, the gas clicks on, the kettle clanks down, the flame whooshes to life like I wish my imagination would. Nonetheless, I persevere. (If you’re reading this, I can’t promise it will get any better. Please feel free to go admire my lovely rainbow photo on Facebook instead – none of the thousand or so words I will write here will come close to matching the beauty of that moment. If only perfect prose was as easy to stumble upon as the right combination of sun and rain.)

Now my husband is blowing his nose and I want to kill him. It is hell being married to a writer. Or a wannabe writer. Or maybe just me.

What I thought I would write about going in was transition. And value. Transition because the past several months have encompassed so much change and value because that was the concurrent theme.

I’m now wondering if I can lift the rest of the post up from the preceding deadening sentence.

It’s not that I didn’t know the job would come to an end. But my coworker and I had just found out our funders planned to continue supporting our work. We’d high-fived at a conference in Southern California – “Havin’ a job! Yeah!” – which made the call from my boss a week later surprising. Regret tinged her voice as she went down the list of talking points concerning the organizational layoffs, which included the elimination of my position (and my coworker’s). She sounded sad enough that I made a joke in an attempt to reassure her I was okay. After we hung up, tears came. This job had been the palace ball and I’d been Cinderella – except, this being real life, no Prince Charming would be swooping in to collect me (and pay my bills) after the fact*. On the upside, I had six months to figure out a next step. On the downside, even when you know it’s not personal, being told you’re no longer valuable enough to the organization to be kept on can mess up a person’s self-perception.

Looking outside of Humboldt reinforced what I already knew: I have neither the educational background nor the big world experience to score a serious job. This triggered a lot of what-the-hell-have-I-done-with-my-life thinking. For a while I couldn’t imagine being hired by anyone for anything. Maybe waitressing. At some point, I’m embarrassed to say, a certain bitterness settled in. I am good at some things, damn it. But, my thinking went, those things aren’t valued by the stupid people in this stupid world that we live in. Why isn’t the ability to put words together in a semi-pleasing way with a minimum of typos a job that pays a living wage? Why isn’t being able to get along and find commonality with all different folks an existing job I could apply for? Why do incompetent douchebaggery types still have jobs and I don’t? How come people don’t come courting me if I’m as rich in talent as my performance reviews – and supportive friends – suggest?

This is not a productive way to think – and I am all about productive – but pulling up from the self-esteem nosedive isn’t easy. Because some truth exists to it, right? If the question asked is, “Why don’t people want me?” then potential answers inevitably include, “Because you suck.” This is where I started getting hung up on value, predominantly my own worth (as measured by what people were willing to pay me to do), but also what I elevate to importance in my own life and how that relates to the greater world.

As all this was happening, my youngest kid graduated high school, my middle kid moved away to Santa Cruz, my oldest continued her own adult life down in Long Beach. With only one kid in the house, my husband and I took over the upstairs – the master bedroom and a small room I’ve turned into a walk-in closet/project space. Although I worry as much (or more) than ever, our hands-on parenting days are over. For a couple that never lived together before having kids, this new chapter is without precedent and raises a whole bunch of questions. If parenting is inherently valuable and we’ve focused on that to the detriment of our careers, what happens now? Who will we be without parental obligations defining us? How will we relate to each other without the children’s needs being the center around which we revolved? With the breathing room to consider the future, what did we see? And, more importantly, did we see it together?

Here are some things I learned, in no particular order because time is short and the keyboard battery is low:

  • You can’t make people value you. Your kids, your coworkers, the people you wish would hire you, the people you wish would love you. All you can do is do what you love doing, work hard, strive to do it well. Maybe someone will pay you to do this thing for a living someday. Maybe someone you look up to will turn to you and say, “Hey, this is real good.” But you have to do it for the love of doing it, because you believe in the fundamental value of what you’re doing. If you build it, they might come – but if they don’t, you sure as hell better enjoy stretching out in the sunshine admiring the clear, blue sky.
  • Life isn’t fair – hardly a new concept, sure, but still, a hard one to swallow when you’re considering unemployment while people who are obviously far more horrible than you are whistling while they work. The problem with brooding on the world’s unfairness is twofold: you might forget all the ways in which you yourself have been lucky and you put yourself at risk for turning into a grudge-bearing asshole. I’ve been guilty on both counts in the past. (But I have SO MUCH character at this point!)
  • Booze does not help. It’s the worst in fact.
  • How to get over yourself: Express appreciation, daily, to people you love and admire, especially those who’ve tolerated your self-pitying behavior. Distract yourself from freaking out about your life by engaging in it. Take the goddamn tango class with your spouse already. Invite those gracious, kind, fun friends of yours over for brunch. Read books that take your brain to another place. Go new places, whether restaurants or hiking trails, together or alone. Get the fuck away from the computer.
  • Take more walks on the beach and fling yourself more often into the ocean (metaphorically if necessary). Nothing – and I mean nothing – like being out in the fresh air in this place of beauty to give you perspective and kick you into a more positive gear. Bitter? Insecure? Hike or bike until your legs give out. Rent a kayak and paddle the hell out of the bay. Whatever. Push yourself physically until your mind turns that corner.

Which is a good note upon which to end. It’s another (drought-riddled) glorious day out there and I’ve got a beach calling.

*The way things went, the folks who fund my conservation work still wanted to fund it, enabling me to find a job with a different environmental organization, thus making them a suitable stand-in for the prince. Rejoicing commenced.

insomnia #21 aka 2013 Year in Review

If I were to make a list of things I’d most like to leave behind in 2013, insomnia would be up there. I blame the evening’s red wine this time, but the cause could just as easily be falling asleep too early with too much on my mind. It’s a horrible thing, thinking.

My arsenal of sleep aids – herbal teas and tonics, Tylenol PM, relaxation apps – are failing to do the trick tonight. Rather than lie in bed kicking my husband every time he nears snoring, I’m here in front of the computer, writing.

It seemed potentially more productive. New Year’s Eve. Why not take stock?

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January: Our sweet dog died, my younger daughter was detained in London en route to Ireland, I wrote my first Five Things, and a friend and I attended the Presidential inauguration.

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February: My older daughter turned 23, my husband and I relived the ’90s by seeing Soundgarden in Oakland’s Fox Theater, I moved into The Link and I went on an epic surf-work trip to Central Cali, the first of many excursions I’d take with my dear friend Casey.

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March: Spent another week along the central coast, my younger daughter turned 19 and I wrote my first (and so far only) cover story for the North Coast Journal.

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April: My first Five Things column ran in the NCJ, I tripped to Sacramento and Santa Cruz, and I helped coordinate a memorial service and paddle out for John “Moose” Mason, a man whose sudden death brought forth such beautiful tribute from so many people that I found myself thinking, “We should all be so loved” – and that we should all be so kind and good as Moose.

May: Some idiots filming an ad at Moonstone high-centered a Dodge truck on a rock, launching me into Surfrider mode and ending with me being named a “Humboldtian of the Week” on Facebook, a work trip took me to D.C., we attended my fabulous brother’s fabulous wedding in San Francisco, where I stayed on for a conference after – four hotels in 10 days.

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June: Traveled to Long Beach for work and some time with my older daughter, stepped in as the NCJ’s music columnist, spent Summer Solstice at Shelter Cove, wrote about the dead whale that washed up on my beach and was given a six-month layoff heads up.

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July: Played cornhole and bocce ball for the first times and failed at neither, took a vacation to Seattle that included a whale watching tour through the Puget Sound and a stop in Portland on the way back that included visiting a friend with whom I shared a room when we were 18 – and all the required reminiscing that implies, and wrote my favorite Five Things so far.

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August: Threw a most excellent birthday party for my husband’s 50th, was hired on to do part-time outreach for Humboldt Baykeeper and moved my younger daughter to Santa Cruz.

September: Played a small role in Humboldt Made’s big premier, guested on Sherae O’Shaughnessy’s Late Night gig, traveled with Casey to San Diego for the annual Surfrider conference, helped cover the arrest of alleged crossbow killers in Manila, helped clean up around a homeless camp for Coastal Cleanup Day and wrote about it.

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October: My kickball team raised $2,697 for Six Rivers Planned Parenthood and came in second in the annual tournament, Casey and Kj joined me for my second excursion to a foreign country, this one a long-anticipated trip to Manzanillo, Mexico, where we spent six days surfing, swimming, reading, drinking and eating tacos – best vacation ever – followed by a closer-to-home excursion to track gray whales and see humpbacks, a transcendent experience.

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November: My son turned 18, my friend Grant and I took off to New York for a week, where I stayed with my brother and his wife and celebrated my own birthday – 44! – at The Comedy Cellar, and upon returning home, my husband and I moved into the upstairs master bedroom after 11 years of downstairs living.

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December: Held what was likely my favorite Ocean Night ever, wrapped up my job with Ocean Conservancy, made plans for a next chapter with the Northcoast Environmental Center, tripped down to Santa Cruz to visit our younger daughter, reminisced about a time I almost died, and trekked up to Crescent City for an especially memorable surf safari due to cramming five people in a Honda CRV, finding fun waves under endless sunshine, a rescue by me of a person drifting out to sea, stinky sea lions, piles of fish and chips and hours of excellent conversation.

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In between and throughout all that, a million photos of sunsets, sunrises and various bodies of water. Also, surfing. My wonderful writers’ group. Parties. Music. Books. Movies. Food. The requisite ups-and-downs and various heartbreaks involved in being a human people who spends time with people. Most importantly, a ton of love and good best friends. I aim to transform this list of things done into something larger and life-useful at some point, but for now, what a reminder that I am a lucky, lucky girl.

A worst thing

There are many worsts in life. This was one of them.

I would never hurt a dog. I found myself repeating that fact out loud. To my children. To the guys who pulled over to help. To myself. I would never hurt a dog.

Seconds before the impact, we’d been glowing from an evening surf, Nick, Kaylee and I, waves and weather conspiring to keep us in the water through dusk. One more, just one more as the sky flared pink and orange, and the ocean shimmered in the sun’s last rays. We’d been raving about the session – So fun! – the three of us smushed in the cab of the truck, what a great surf that had been. We hadn’t all surfed together in months, schedules and temperaments not often aligned.

From the jetty to home is all of ten minutes, a sprint up the spit with a single stop sign interrupting the journey. I don’t speed – even if I were inclined, my truck trundles along on the slow side. But the limit is 55, far too fast to stop in time when two dogs bolt out of the darkness onto the road directly in front of you. I tried. I saw the silhouettes, the kids shouted, “Mom!,” I hit the brakes, I swerved. All these actions piled on top of each other so quickly it was as if they were the same moment. And then the thunk. I pulled over and we ran to the dog I’d hit as Kaylee called 911. The other dog had raced away.

Nick implored me to keep Kaylee away from the dog I’d  hit, but I had no chance. She ran over to it, hoping somehow it would be okay despite that horrible sound. I wanted a miracle as well – in my mind, as I caught up to her, we were already loading the animal into the truck, racing to the emergency vet. But the animal had been killed on impact.

I killed a dog.

I would never hurt a dog. Never.

Nick went off to search for the other one. Kaylee cried and said we had to move the body out of the road so no one else would hit the poor thing. The dog was larger than our old yellow lab we’d lost in January and black in a stretch of street with little light. The thought of picking up the lifeless body, dead weight like a sandbag in my hands, blood, there would be blood, horrified me almost as much as the vision of a car ramrodding over the corpse, splattering the insides across the lane.

And then the responsibility for the aftermath ceased to be mine. A couple guys from Samoa Fire pulled over to see what was happening. Through tears, we explained. They were concerned about my son’s safety – he had not yet returned, but as we spoke, he emerged from the darkness. No luck finding the other dog, he said. He expressed his worry about Kaylee again, frustrated that I’d let her experience the dead dog up close. I couldn’t stop her, I cried. I couldn’t stop.

The volunteers tugged the dog’s body to the side of the road. They reassured me. No way to avoid it, miss. I wanted them to be right. I wanted to think that I could have done nothing else, that underneath the circumstances, the outcome was inevitable. I replay the moment – dogs! brakes! swerve! – over and over.

I would never hurt a dog.

I love dogs. We had a dog for 14 years and I miss her almost every day. My son grew up with her. They were practically littermates. For all his concern over his sister, I know he’s horrified at what I’ve done. What I’ve done. In an instant I went from cool surfer mom to mom-who-killed-a-dog. That the collision was unavoidable is of scant comfort. We lose our children’s idolization bit by bit as they grow older and discover our flaws, learn to their great disappointment that their parents are merely human. We long to be superheroes. A superhero would’ve somehow brilliantly avoided disaster. A superhero would have managed to save the dogs, not kill one of them, scare the other off. I have taken an animal’s life, by accident. Someone, somewhere will miss this dog and I am so, so sorry. I miss the moment ten minutes ago, when life was perfect and hopes high.

A sheriff’s deputy shows up. We explain, again. He reassures, again. He hands me the front license plate he’d picked up from the road – the impact had knocked it off the truck. We shiver in our wetsuits. The men agree nothing remains for me to do. I should take the kids, go home, don’t feel bad. It was an accident. These things happen. There was nothing I could have done.

On a birthday: regrets and reflections, belatedly

I’m in New York. Specifically, I’m in Brooklyn, folded into a comfy armchair. I refuse to move despite the sun’s upward shift causing moments of blindness when I lean back. Every so often I close my eyes for respite and realize I could slip back into sleep. A head cold has kept me up the last few nights and even the trucks chugging by every minute would not keep me from drifting off. This patch of sun inside is warm. The air outside hovers near freezing, one of the reasons I’m spending my birthday hunkered down and lazy.

I’m 44 today. How I’ve celebrated my birthdays this decade has varied. For my 40th birthday, I threw a big party at the Jambalaya. I heard it was fun, but an excessive number of vodka gimlets prevents me from remembering much – I have favorite blue dangly earrings from that night without a clue as to the gift-giver.

Turning 41 was both quieter and more profound. I was in Taiwan on my first international trip surrounded by people I didn’t know who spoke languages I do not speak. I’d never been gone from my family so long. The adventure excited me enough without an awkward, obligatory toast, so I kept my birthday tucked away. I’d think about it later, being 41 and discovering, as I circumnavigated the island, that I like myself. A few weeks ago I used my passport for the second time, a warm water surf vacation to Mexico. I wonder if I should have traveled more in my 20s – I mean, of course I should have, I always longed to explore, but imagining how that would have worked, three kids and no money, exceeds my ability to suspend disbelief.

I threw another big party at the Jam for my 42nd birthday. The evening culminated with Full Moon Fever performing all my favorite Tom Petty songs, a fine, fine time.

My 43rd was slightly more restrained – or was meant to be until the ATL put a “Happy Birthday” announcement on their marquee (a wonderful gesture that I’m sure marked the zenith of my popularity). What can I say? I like to go places and I like to celebrate and I’m good at throwing parties: these are three things I’ve learned in my life. Of course, I wish I’d learned some more useful skills, too – sewing, perhaps, or speaking Spanish. When modern society collapses, my only hope is convincing people to feed me now so I can plan the annual harvest celebration later. (“But, guys! We need to have something to look forward to now more than ever! Don’t let dystopia get you down! Look, I’ll pull together a party for all the survivors. It’ll be great! And, um, can I have some of those acorns?”)

Another talent I wish I’d acquired sooner: being good with money. If I’d arrived at adulthood armed with that knowledge, many of the pitfalls I encountered would have been inconveniences instead of catastrophes or could have been avoided altogether. (“Overdraft charges, late fees? What are those?”) But those of us with a reckless streak insist on learning the hard way how to conserve our resources: money, time, a willingness to love.

I would also have liked to have mastered the art of communicating feelings by now – something my family refrained from so strongly that I blanched even typing that – and been less quick to anger. I let frustration with my children manifest in yelling too many times, even spanking on occasion, despite a firm opposition to both. The number of times I lashed out at the kids due to other troubles – how to pay the water bill in time, the morning’s argument with my husband, exhaustion from working late, trying to find my way around a new town and being confused when H Street turned into Campton. We’d been in Humboldt all of nine days, desperate to find housing, and I was supposed to meet the property manager at a promising place, but the directions were to take H to Walnut, which didn’t make sense. This was pre-smartphone, so I had no way to pull over and get my bearings. My oldest complained about something and, already on the verge of panic, I lost my mind, screamed at her to shut up and lashed out with my hand. I wish that birthing a child into this world brought along an infusion of patience and grace, that those attributes had come in with the same abundance as my milk.

In Jess Walters’ book Beautiful Ruins, the theme of want – of the way “we want what we want” even when we claim otherwise due to obligations and a sense of what’s proper – runs through the novel. The closer what you want is to what is right, a main character’s mother tells him, the more likely you are to be happy. When the thing you desire is different than what’s ethically best, in other words, your odds shift in favor of misery. (And thus is the plot of a thousand movies launched.) When you’re married, when you have children, immediately much of your world is divided into right and wrong. And, as a mom, what is “right” is always the thing that requires the most self-sacrifice. At least it seems that way in the beginning.

But then comes the unavoidable truth that you still want the things you want: adventure, love, joy, friends, success, to embrace as much of the world’s offerings as possible. And sometimes you skip making pancakes because you’ve learned to surf at 30 after a lifetime of wanting to surf and this morning has brought the sort of small, clean swell perfect for you and the tide is now so you leave out the granola and milk and a note saying you’ll be back in time to take everyone to school, but the waves are so good that by the time you drag your exhausted self out of the ocean, you’re running late and when you get home, your family is in a world of stress and it’s your fault because you were selfish.

And sometimes wanting to surf takes other forms: working late because your career excites you in a way that doing laundry never will, taking college classes because you fear your brain is atrophying, social engagements with childless adults instead of planning school events with the PTA moms – you’ve volunteered, you have, you served nachos every Friday for an entire school year, and your appreciation for the tireless efforts of more dedicated mothers is tangible, but at some point you just want to talk film and literature and politics with people who get you, and so you give in, again, to that selfishness. But you are not quite happy because in the back of your mind, you are aware that the life you want is not exactly the life you have and try as you might to reconcile the two, there are times when you choose what you want over what is virtuous. Predictably, people are disappointed and the guilt you feel for letting down the people you love makes you regret, makes you wonder if you’ll ever figure out how to do life right.

But enough cataloging of regrets.

Here I am, lounging about in my brother’s apartment. I could have spent the money I’ve spent here on something more practical. I could have brought a kid with me for his continued cultural edification. I could refused my brother’s offer of a birthday ticket to New York and stayed home to care for my people, my house, eschewed vacation to get more work done. But I didn’t want to. I wanted some time alone, some time to lie on the couch, the ability to do what I wanted, go bowling or to a comedy club or the Tenement Museum, without arguing with anyone about it – a heretical state of mind for a wife and mother, to be sure. But typically my selfishness is mild, a pedicure here, a surfboard there, a penchant for cocktails.

Other, older, women tell you, as you’re turning 40, that your 40s will be “awesome!” (They say the same thing when you’re turning 30. Or 50.) For me, that’s been true. The past four years have been awesome. Partly because the older I get, the less patience I have for bullshit, and that will improve anyone’s life. Partly for all the reasons earlier decades were good: children relatively healthy, living close to the beach, a slew of solid friends. But mostly because I’ve had a job that not only challenged and rewarded me, but pays enough that I can cover the bills, donate to some causes, treat folks to dinner once in a while, take a trip on occasion and afford to do validating work as a freelancer. Good job and good friends equal happiness in my world. And that kind of happiness equals confidence. And confidence is sexy! So yeah, my 40s have definitely been a sexy time — just like those other, older, women said they would!

All this reflection! I sound like I’ve turned 94 instead of 44. Quickly, some things I do not regret: saying yes to life, cultivating the best possible friends, dedicating the majority of my adult life thus far to my family. Having a dog. Moving to Humboldt. Striving, repeatedly, to be kind, to be kind, to be kind.

So, 2013, yada yada yada, Mexico

It’s been a while.

Between Facebook and once again writing regularly for the North Coast Journal, I don’t turn here as often as I once did. And since my children have – for the most part – grown too old to use as fodder and since I am no longer chronicling my surf sessions, well, what would I write about?

It’s been quite a year.

But aren’t all years? Not one year of my life has passed after which I thought, Oh, wow, what a nice, dull time. This one started with our wonderful yellow mutt reaching the end of her 14 years. The following month marked the termination of a decade-long friendship. An important family relationship turned inexplicably distant. My youngest child graduated from high school, the middle one moved on to Santa Cruz and college. In June, I received notice that my beloved job will officially cease to exist as of Dec. 31. Another friendship fell apart. The endodontist says I need two root canals and the dentist found nine cavities in my son’s mouth and I have no idea how I’m going to take care of all this when the insurance only covers a percentage in the first place and time before losing what little coverage I have is running out.

Insert obligatory #firstworldproblems acknowledgment.

Of course, a stream of good things happened, too – they always do, preventing me from sinking too far into self-pity. Foremost, my children are alive and relatively well. I reconnected with old friends during one visit to Long Beach, another to Portland and yet another to San Diego. We reminisced, as people do, about the crazy things we did – that trip to Ensenada where she ended up in the closet with my future husband’s roommate and I broke the top off a Cherry 7Up bottle in my desperation to quench my hangover-induced thirst. That time I was super stoned and pulled what I thought were eyedrops out of my purse, but it was lotion and I didn’t realize it until I’d squeezed globs on top of both eyeballs – a story that apparently never gets old in the retelling. Those days we stayed past close in the bar, too blown away by some great band that had played to stop drinking – or because we needed to vent about how shitty the band was and how annoying the NA crowd could be with their ceaseless demands for coffee refills and emptied ashtrays.

Despite differing political and social views, visits with family members were lovely and free of debate. My previous writers’ group stopped meeting years ago due to the demands of children, husbands, jobs, life, but the women who made it up continue to be on the other end of late night/early morning emails most notable for being pleas of Help! How do I cope with this crisis? How do I get through another day fraught with too much to do and people going nuts? They always have answers – or for the unanswerable, comfort. I needed a lot of that this year. My new writers’ group delights me. Who am I to deserve such an abundance of smart, kind, funny, creative people populating my world?

From the people I work with – at all my various endeavors – to the people who showed up for my husband’s ridiculously fun 50th birthday, I am, for lack of a less hackneyed word, blessed. (Thoughts on friendship distilled here.) My job, albeit ending, has provided a leg up in the world and experiences I never expected: Taiwan, for example, adventures in D.C., even more intimate knowledge of our coastline, a hand in creating concrete protection for it. Health care. Experiencing what being able to pay one’s bills is like. I’ll miss it desperately, sure, but future opportunities are promising and for the time being I’m still privileged to write, occasionally, for both the Lost Coast Outpost and the NCJ. Those days when keeping all the magic going threatens to send me sobbing into anxiety-riddled nervous breakdown, I can still walk out my front door to the beach. Life is so very much work and yet continually proves to be worth it.

And I’m leaving for Mexico tomorrow.

This trip will be only my second out of the country (not counting ill-fated teenage trips to Baja), made possible by the generosity of a friend with a house there and judicious use of frequent flyer miles. To say I’m excited is to say a hummingbird is bit of a speedy creature – my heart is beating faster than those wings with anticipation. I wanted my husband to come so that we could have a shared adventure, celebrate this dawning new phase of our lives in which our children are grown, but alas, his desire to avoid flying supersedes his desire to trip along with me to exotic locales. The consolation option is no less wonderful, however – lieu of romance, I have two of my best girlfriends accompanying me, both so easygoing that my only concern is now I’m in danger of being the uptight one. I’ve wanted to travel forever. And I’m leaving both cell phone and laptop behind, so ready to disconnect that keeping focus through the day seems nearly impossible. I have a stack of books. Oh, to read novels again!

I fear I’m too happy about this.

Sometimes I’m compelled to reiterate, it’s not easy, this life. It’s much easier now that I’m not working 60 hours a week between two jobs that still didn’t pay enough to cover life’s expenses, fun as they were. A living wage directly improves one’s world, no question. But a lot of struggling and stress existed between finding myself pregnant at 19 and finding myself landing a dream job 20 years later. (I’m always finding myself!) Even under ideal circumstances, raising children challenges the most patient of adults. Our circumstances were far from ideal, lacking in both family support and cash, our son diagnosed with an as-yet incurable disease. And I am not patient. But – to get hackneyed again – love keeps getting us through.

So I can’t write about my kids very much because they’re adults or very nearly. (Also – disclaimer – because I hope to contribute a column to the NCJ’s new “Offsprung” series, so I can’t go on too much about how, despite what a vast number of well-intentioned people say, having adult children does not, in fact, make a parent “done.”) The nearly-adult status of my son also means I can’t write about my son’s diabetes like I used to. For the record, it’s still scary. Scarier in some ways because he’s opted to take on more responsibility for his care. He now inserts his own sets, checks his blood sugar on his own even in the early morning hours. I have not stuck a needle in the kid for months. Hardly a thing to miss – but like all aspects of letting go of controlling a child’s life, one that brings anxiety along with the relief. Who will take care of him if not me?

And since, for the first time since I began surfing, I’ve stopped counting my yearly surf sessions, I have no obligation to chronicle them here – by permitting myself the freedom from tracking, I inadvertently did away with a steady writing prompt. Alas. I have surfed and not surfed. Weeks pass and I freak out and suddenly I’m zipping down the spit, truck loaded, blood racing, my need to be in the water as primal as hunger. I don’t do things for a while and then worry I’ve forgotten how to do them. Surf. Make pancakes. Read. Write a blog post.

Thanks for bearing with me.

Launching a child

TAKE ONE

I’m stretched out on a guest bed in a Santa Cruz home, bits of sand still clinging to my feet, contacts dry against my eyeballs, belly full of Brie and strawberries, asparagus and mojitos. The sun worked me over today, bright heat radiating off the pavement as I trailed my daughter and her friend down the sidewalks. Sweat slicked my body, gathered in the small of my back. Where was my ocean breeze? We’d started the day shrugging on jackets when the morning coolness caught us unaware, then spent hours complaining about the heat — I believe it topped out in the low 80s, at least 10 degrees warmer than our Humboldt-acclimated bodies can handle.

TAKE TWO

Duty called in the form of work (needed to write the Hum), sleeping (required), socializing (coffee with my generous hosts) and getting on with the day (showering and meeting up with Kaylee). Thirty-six hours later, I’m back, tucked up on a motel bed, fan cranking to cool off this too-warm room, fat and gross from eating lousy Italian food last night, already concerned about the inevitable hitting of traffic on the drive home.

But my larger concern remains finding her a place to live. Possibilities exist more tangibly now that we’ve trekked down. Searching a competitive and expensive market from 350 miles away wasn’t working. I’m glad we’re here. I’ve also been able to introduce her to friends we have in the area, my way of saying, Here is a small safety net.

With so much to attend to on a practical level — Where will she live? With who? How will we get her stuff down here? Will she need a toaster? — the emotional reaction to relocating my darling daughter to another part of the state lingers untapped for the moment. My older daughter, Chelsea, left home several years ago, returned, left again, has been happy in Long Beach for the past year-and-a-half. Kaylee spent three months in Italy and another in New York and Los Angeles — it’s not as if I haven’t said hard goodbyes before. A few weeks ago I passed through SFO’s international area, walked past the gate where I’d waved goodbye at K as she went through security, Italy-bound. My heart lurched at the memory.

Being a parent is visceral. Love and worry manifest as kicks to the gut, a punch in the face, the sensation of not being able to breathe. I get so busy and then something reminds me they are a part of me, and I fall to the floor, pulse pounding, head bursting. Not literally, of course; I have things to do and must get through the day like a responsible adult, but a part of me flees to some sort of internal panic room until it’s safe to come back out.

I am more proud than worried, thrilled to have her take responsibility for her own life, understanding that her dad and I are increasingly background on the stage of her life. But I have been a parent my entire adult life. Bobby and I have never lived alone without children. Nick is also out of high school as of June and about to start CR. He’ll be at home for a while, but the idea that some day Bobby and I may have the house to ourselves is startlingly real. And odd. Our own grand adventure. The thought dizzies me. So much transition!

Time is short, so dwelling on these changes is not something I can do. I just wanted to write enough down to remember. Now I need to roust the girl, get on with the day, focus on more practical and immediate demands. Housing. Driving. Staying up on work. Figuring out where to eat. Connecting with another friend.

By the end of today, we’ll be back on the road, aiming for Humboldt, fingers crossed against traffic jams. A week from now, I’ll be making the same drive back, only alone. That will be the one for tears.

Beyond Facebook sharing: On George Zimmerman Found Not Guilty in the Death of Trayvon Martin, in which I attempt to discuss race

I’m with friends, heading back from a perfect day at the river, the kind of day that opens blue and holds steady through the afternoon, hot enough to nudge a person into the water several times, but mild enough to allow stretching out along the sandy bank for an hour, snacking on chips and guac, sipping sweet iced raspberry tea, catching up on gossip and more serious matters until the water calls for diving in once again, the coolness pure pleasure – oh, to swim! That temporary escape of gravity’s hold, the sun, the river, the breeze, the smooth rock providing a launching pad for diving – fire, water, air, earth, all the elements combining to spill joy out across the scene.

And then, the ride back, laughing as the iPod shuffles Katy Perry, Cake, the Be Good Tanyas, the Dixie Chicks and Flight of the Conchords into a soundtrack by turns silly and sentimental. It was into this moment, passing through the brief cell service window in Willow Creek, that my phone lit up with a New York Times alert about George Zimmerman Found Not Guilty in the Death of Trayvon Martin. The words dulled my happiness for a moment, but before I could tap for more, we’d traveled out of service again and so I set the information on the back burner of my mind.

At home, I opened Facebook and Twitter, assuming links to the most relevant writings would be filling up my news feed. They were, along with the outrage – opinions pouring forth into the gaps between funny videos, weekend hilarity, Tim Lincecum’s no-hitter. I sought out Ta-Nahesi Coates, of course.

I read the smart stuff, the pieces that elegantly analyzed why we are still where we are when we are. I read re-posted tweets from Trayvon’s dad, quotes from his mother and thought about my own 17-year-old son, a white boy in a white town in a white part of California, whiter than anywhere I ever lived before – we have our own sort of lawlessness, a result of being rural, remote and economically dependent on an illegal product, but of all the things I worry about my son getting into trouble over, being targeted for the color of his skin has never been one of them.

I confess, I was once one of those people who said ignorant things like, “I don’t pay attention to what color people are! We’re all people!” In my defense, I was trying to find a way to separate myself from the casual racists of my hometown. At least I was a step ahead of the people who started sentences with, “I’m not a racist, but….” One year a race riot broke out at my high school. Some white boys, the story went, had jumped a black girl in the cemetery adjacent to the school, had carved the word “nigger” on her stomach. How much of that was true never came out, but what did emerge was fury and a desire for retribution, all of it erupting into lunchtime chaos violent enough to make the newspaper and cause the school to shorten the lunch hour and increase security.

I escaped that town to Long Beach, where folks of all different backgrounds, sexual preferences and ethnicities lived on top of each other. I didn’t have to teach my daughter about how “We’re all people!” because we lived it, bound together by geography and class. I still didn’t have a clue about exactly how insidiously racism pervades the lives of those targeted by it – and then the L.A. riots happened.

My neighborhood bordered the line between the “good” and “bad” parts of town. We didn’t see much firsthand, but a store a block away suffered vandalism and rioters burned the Long Beach DMV down. I couldn’t go to work because I worked at a bar and a city-wide curfew forced closures of late night businesses. Tension suffocated the city. Those few days following were the only time in my life when I had a conscious gut reaction to brown skin. I’m a girl – I’ve had many instances of instinctive fear of men and, sure, inadvertently walking through a bad area has concerned me, but this was a different beast, this fear.

I was on the bus two days after the riots. Three unsmiling young black men climbed aboard. Blacks and whites had just been at war and even though I was a conscientious objector to that battle, nervousness shot through me. Were they going to do something? They didn’t, of course, and I recall that feeling with shame that my good intentions were so easily dismantled – and I wonder if that’s how racists feel all the time.

When we, reluctantly, moved back to the desert, a temporary stop on the path to a better life, a prison had just opened on the outskirts of town, bringing an influx of black families with it. I waitressed at a diner in a neighborhood that, as my customers complained, “had gotten pretty goddamned dark.” I was poor, had three kids to feed, needed the tips, so I didn’t always speak up – I never indulged racist jokes or slurs, but I didn’t climb up on the soapbox as often as I could have either, didn’t initiate conversations about why the unfairness of our legal system has created a situation in which a disproportionate amount of those serving time in prison are of African-American descent.

They were old, these guys, and in bad health from living on chicken fried steak, so mostly I just looked forward to the day when all the racists (and misogynists and homophobes, etc., etc.) would die off and tolerance would bloom across the land.

Finally, in a Native American studies class at College of the Redwoods, an epiphany – or at least the beginning of one: the ignorance of saying color doesn’t matter. Like saying gender doesn’t matter. Notes on the culture of assimilation. That if I really wanted to do right by all people, especially those who’d been traditionally oppressed, abused and/or maligned, then I needed to listen to their stories, understand how our experiences differed, where they matched up, ditch the white guilt for something deeper, more useful. I still don’t have it figured out. Race issues are complicated ones, especially since issues and aspects overlap – race, gender, class, context, history.

But what I do know is that racism, overt or subtle, is always wrong. People with guns creating situations that lead to killing someone is wrong. A 17-year-old boy was killed by a man whose actions sprang from a place of prejudice and fear combined with too power in the form of a gun and the misguided “Stand Your Ground” law. Because someone opted to deliberately ignore common sense, common decency – instead channeled racism, vigilantism, accusation, violence, all the bad things combining until blood spilled out across the scene.

In the New Yorker, Jaleni Cobb writes, “Trayvon Martin’s death is an American tragedy, but it will mainly be understood as an African-American one.”

So what do we do? As individuals, as Americans? How do I, as a 43-year-old white chick, do more to eradicate these entrenched ways of thinking? Besides clicking “Share” and “Retweet”? Write Five Things To Know Before You Neighborhood Watch A Black Kid in a Hoodie? Is it presumptuous to even write this? I’m thinking out loud because I don’t know what else to do – and my heart demands something to be done.

I have no elegant ending.

On being done. And not.

I fell in love with the south wind again today. I stretched my arms overhead as it teased down the back of my neck, all warm, electric and promising.

We need the rain, everyone says, or the rivers will run too low to protect the life within, sustain the world without. I’ve yet to find myself at the river this season, sprawled alongside, book in hand, sunshine heat permeating my body, cell phone useless. I like to read until the heat makes me so dizzy the words swim and then I must, too, the shock of the cold water bringing me back into myself, reminding me how joyous it is to be alive.

I’ve been longing for a river moment the way I like to breathe and need to eat. The past few weeks, months, years – how do I say “have been hard” artfully and in a way that does not fall into complaining? Whenever I start, the awareness of how simultaneously lucky I am and how much worse so many people have it kicks in. Gratitude inhibits my ability to express myself. Like moms who haven’t yet learned to say, “Some days my kids make me crazy,” without adding, always, “but, of course, being a mom is the best thing in the world.” But being a mom is only sometimes the best thing in the world and some days I just want to stomp my feet and say, “Universe! Give me a fucking break!” Except the problems are mostly of my own making – overdrawn again?! – which is almost worse since I have only myself to blame and definitely better because at least with blame comes hope for change.

We are hard on ourselves, mothers. People keep congratulating me on being “done” because my youngest just graduated high school. As if I can straighten up, brush off my hands and say, “Yep, aced that.” I wish I could. The thing about “done” and parenthood, however, is you’re not. Sure, some things are easier. I never have to do that manic breakfast-get-your-stuff-together race to get there on time. Hallelujah!

When children grow into successful adults, we’re grateful to have wound up with such fine, mature decision-makers. When they struggle to find their way, every mistake we made over the years flares up in our memories. “If only I’d… instead.” And the thing about being “done” is all opportunity is lost. Whatever bad days I had can no longer be compensated for with cupcakes or a trip to the zoo. At this point, all I can say is, I tried. But I wanted to be perfect. I wanted to ace it.

I think my children will be fine. They’re smart, kind, funny and interested in the world. (And too old for me to write in detail any more.) But one of the frustrations of parenting is, you already have a road map. You’re like a crazy person on the side of the road waving this dog-eared and creased piece of paper. “Don’t go that way!” you’re yelling, as they zoom past you, intent on finding their own way, heedless of the roadblocks and dead ends that you’re trying to spare them. I already made all those mistakes, I say, but no one listens. At the end of the day, the only person who is going to learn from my life is me.

And so melancholy sneaks in. A few weeks ago, I spent time with my oldest daughter in Long Beach, where we lived together from the time she was six months old till she was almost four. She spent a week in the hospital there, riddled with croup. We’d trip around downtown for the free concerts and farmers’ markets. I’d take her to work with me during the day – I helped out the talent booker at a live music club while my daughter took markers to the backs of flyers and pulled gum off the bottoms of the tables when I wasn’t looking. But the club is long gone, razed to make way for a Best Buy. The interior design school that brought me to Long Beach, closed down. The Italian restaurant where I waitressed, pregnant with my second, an empty structure in which all traces of existence have been erased.

But the coffeehouse survived, as did our favorite café. Downtown renovation brought in a discouraging number of chain stores, but the up-and-coming artsy areas have solidified into something cool. My daughter has to find her own path, but her legs are strong and my love for her never yields.

I haven’t been to the river yet. But I did find myself in Shelter Cove yesterday with friends new and old, bright sky and sunshine warming up the beach so sweetly the girls wore bikinis and the guys trunked it on their surfboards. The waves rolled in all of waist-high on the best sets, but the best sets were also perfect and blue and beautiful. I caught a set wave and rode it to shore, where I flopped into the churning shallows to the entertainment of my friends. The remnants of the wave carried my board forth, parked it on the pebbly beach. I wiped sand off my face and dug it out of my ears, a gritty reminder that made me laugh.

I’ve been struggling to write, too many adjectives and no sense of story. I’ve been struggling, period, between the good times – the vagueness makes me crazy. What happens when I let the words out, however, is the thoughts streamline, the negative dissipates and my apparently innate optimism once again takes root. Hence, this.

Now I’m ready for the rain.

on surfing and quitting

It’s hopeless, I had decided. I was obviously never going to surf again, never going to surf enough. Every time someone identified me as a surfer, I cringed. How can I be a surfer when I never surf? Also, from never surfing, I suck.

With this attitude cemented into my brain, I pondered selling my boards. You know, to someone who would actually use them. Because clearly, I wasn’t ever going to. Surfing would never be enough of a priority – otherwise, I’d be doing it. Which I wasn’t. I also wasn’t writing enough or advancing enough or losing that 10 pounds that would make me a better surfer – not that I was ever going to surf again, so why not eat a giant plate of French fries followed up by a chocolate bar?

Sure, I loved surfing. But since when does loving something make a difference? Loving surfing wasn’t going to make me a more dedicated surfer just like loving my kids wasn’t going to stop me from making a million fucking mistakes as a mother. Love might keep me from driving off a cliff on particularly dark days, but it wasn’t going to propel me back out into the ocean, not when so much stood in the way – like mucking about on Facebook or scheduled back-to-back social events or taking a leisurely lunch instead of working through the noon hour so I might get out to the beach in time to suit up and catch some waves.

People have real problems. I have bigger problems of my own. Maybe I should pay attention to them instead of whining about not surfing. If I just quit surfing, I’ll no longer have a reason to whine about not going, I pointed out.

The best decisions are flavored with equal parts bitterness and spite.

And then I went surfing. Not here, not locally, but in Santa Cruz. The first session did nothing to convince me to keep going, but the second, well, some waves were caught. And the third, well, Pleasure Point lived up to its name. I may have grinned. More than once. Some of the ugly weighting me down may have been replaced by renewed faith in beauty. Two weeks later, I traveled again. Not too far, just down to Ocean Beach where I have a couple surfer friends. Friends who would laugh at me if I said I was giving up surfing. I had to go. So I did. And there was sunshine and dolphins and goddamn it if I didn’t fall in love all over again. And I fell back in love with love and decided maybe it did matter after all, maybe even though it can’t sustain us, it colors life and our decisions in such a way that we are drawn to make more of what we have, to get up after we fall down, to return to that which returns us to ourselves. Has anyone ever had such an epiphany?!

Oh, right. The poets.

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

– Edna St. Vincent Millay

So, I’m not quitting surfing. I’m starting off the days assuming I’ll surf, hitting up friends for reports, suggesting we go surfing together. Stoke begets stoke. I’m still not very good and probably won’t ever be. What is good, though, is the sky. The clouds. The way the sunrise colors everything pink and magic. Watching better surfers draw lines across wave faces, ephemeral artists on an ever-changing canvas. Stepping away from the virtual world into the physical one – and I am lucky, because the ocean is the subject matter of both for me.

There may be some hope.

(What I am quitting, at least for this year, is counting my sessions. For the first time since 2000, I’m just going to go, not worry about how many times I’ve gone out, using numbers to know whether or not I’m surfing “enough.” I’ll know by the lightness of my spirit and the quickness of my feet. Besides, I’m out of ways to describe, in new ways, the sensation of paddling into a wave, catching it, riding it successfully. Just go watch a pelican glide along the curving ocean. Like that. How that looks is how surfing feels.)

 

Travel Misadventures or Why Waiting to Get Gas is a Bad Idea

Some disasters are but a split second in the making. A word slips from the lips, an item slips from the hand – in my case, I slipped through Crescent City without stopping for gas. Waiting to fill up across the Oregon border seemed clever; gas is cheaper and this trip to the presidential inauguration needs to impact my family’s finances as little as possible.

What I didn’t understand was how far up the 199 we’d have to go to reach the border, much less arrive at an open gas station. We’d just blown through Gasquet when the car spluttered and died. My traveling companion didn’t realize what had happened at first – we still had momentum and he was deep into Marc Maron’s podcast with Dave Grohl. My phrasing didn’t help.

“Hey, Andrew, I need to get gas.”

“It’s a long way to the next gas station.”

“Well, I’m running out. I mean, I just ran out.”

“Wait – this is happening now?”

I cruised into a turnout in answer.

After exhausting every possible way of apologizing for being so stupid, so very stupid, oh my god I’m so sorry for being so very stupid, I took the next step of getting us out of this mess,  to the side of the road, where I waved my arms overhead in the universal signal for “Please stop and save me!”

The car stopped, backed up. Two women agreed to give us a lift to the nearest northerly gas station. A long lift – Goff was right. The miles passed slowly in the backseat, my concern growing in proportion to the distance we were leaving the car behind. The car, in which I’d left everything except my wallet.

Including, I realized as I patted my pocket, my keys.

I tried to squelch the panic. Goff glumly watched our progress on a map — even without cell service, you can GPS yourself, apparently. The women chainsmoked and played teeth-grinding music – although I like to think they’d chosen songs with a hopeful message on purpose. For us. “Everything’s gonna be fiii-yiii-yiiine…” They flicked their cigarette butts out the window.I refrained from sharing the fact that cigarette butts are the number one contributor to garbage on the beach. That the butts don’t decompose, but end up in the rivers and creeks, where they get washed out to sea and kill sea babies who mistake them for food. Nope, I quietly looked at the snow outside the window and thought about the news stories reporting about how some foolish travelers ran out of gas and ended up stuck in the snow and dying or losing limbs or eating each other. While I didn’t think Goff and I had been in danger of cannibalism, the knowledge that I was now one of those “What were they thinking?!” morons added embarrassment to the practical problems needing solving.

The sun set. Things looked dark.

We ended up in O’Brien, a tiny town over the border and about 25 miles north of my Civic. The O’Brien Country Store clerks graciously let me use the phone – cell coverage had gone from nonexistent to still not good enough. I called Triple A. Twenty minutes and multiple service representatives later, we had a plan to meet their driver at the car. How to get to the car remained a problem. Since it was in California and we were in Oregon, the driver would not be coming to get us. I hit up the store clerks. “Um, do you guys know anyone who would be willing to drive us 20 miles south? I have cash. I can pay for gas.”

Welcome to Irony Town, Savage.

They asked the sole customer, a portly, 50-ish fellow with a 12-pack of beer and a shaggy head of hair. He reacted with regret. He’d had too much to drink already, see, and shouldn’t drive. I understood, of course, and appreciated his offer to go to the bar across the street and ask around for us.

O’Brien is a store, a post office and a bar. Our odds weren’t looking good. Goff had vanished to the outside, roaming the perimeter in hopes of scoring cell coverage. I believe he also had hopes he’d reach a friend in Crescent City who would come rescue him from this ill-fated venture.

“You know, we have good people around here,” the older clerk mused. “If I see someone I know, I’ll ask for you.” He went out to the porch, presumably to look for some of these good people. I followed him out. The parking lot was empty.

“I guess I could try to flag someone down.” My breath frosted white as I spoke.

“Well, you could…” my friend answered. His tone suggested that what he meant was, “That’s a hell of an idea,” and by “hell of” he meant, “one that will end up with you shot and dumped down a river bank.”

He paused and followed up with, “We do have a lot of methheads around here, but you can usually tell them by their cars.”

I contemplated that for a moment and in that moment, a truck’s lights came on across the street. The driver exited the bar parking lot, eased into the street and pulled into the store parking lot.

Please please please be someone who will help us.

“Joe*? That you?” the clerk called out.

Joe looked leery of answering. He must have known he was about to commit to something. Maybe the earnestness on the clerk’s face. Maybe the puppy dog look on mine.

“This little lady needs some help.”

Situation explained, Joe acquiesced. I rounded up Goff and we set out for the car. A little ways down the road, Joe mentioned he was about three beers in and, “If you get scared, one of you’ll have to drive.”

He also shared how much he hates California. He really hates California. Grew up in Morro Bay area, got the hell out as soon as he could. Hates, hates, hates California. O’Brien may have its inbreds – “literally” – and methheads, but it’s “paradise” compared to the California’s gangbanging, Mexicans and taxes.

Joe is also not a guy who “bends over and takes it,” he’ll tell you. That’s why he hates unions. He’s also a commercial fishermen who hates regulations. When he got around to asking what Goff and I do, I opted to not share my identity as an ocean protection advocate and instead answered, “Oh, we work for the local paper.” Technically, I am on a freelance assignment, so it wasn’t a total lie. I also didn’t mention we were on our way to the Obama inauguration.

We needed a ride and Joe provided.

Arrived at the car, where I’d left the keys in the ignition and the door unlocked to no harm. All contents accounted for. A few minutes later, the Triple A driver arrived, poured some wonderful, life-saving gas into my tank and we were back in business. Looking at a long and much-later drive to Portland than anticipated, but nobody froze to death or resorted to gnawing off body parts. I’d gotten us into this mess and out. Everything was going to be A-OK.

Goff even started speaking to me again… sometime around Grant’s Pass.

* Not his real name.

(Official adventures to be reported in this week’s North Coast Journal!)

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