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.

5 Things to Know Before You See Soundgarden at the Fox Theater in Oakland

1. Through a misunderstanding when purchasing tickets, you will find yourself at the top of the back of the balcony in the seats farthest from the stage while your husband is on the floor, but it will be okay because the gilded majesty of the Fox Theater awes you and Chris Cornell has the voice of a god and from this vantage point you can observe the crowd and think about what you want to write.

2. You will observe that, yes, like you, most of the crowd appears to have settled into their 40s, but you will be pleased to see younger generations represented, reassuring you that rock hasn’t fossilized just yet. The best is a parent and child decked out in matching hand-painted “Soundgarden” shirts. When you see them, another wave of love will erode the wall of cynicism surrounding your soul. Also, not everyone is white and male, so you will know you’re not at a Rush concert. (The guy in front of you in the drink line will announce, while waiting, “I know that I will never, ever, ever see a show as good as the Rush show I saw, for the rest of my life. And I just have to live with that.” If you and your husband were to break up, you think, you would never, ever, ever date this man. For the rest of your life. And you can live with that.)

3. Chris Cornell’s voice is the reason you love the band so much, but seeing the entire band live will remind you that you need to better appreciate the contributions of the other members. You will vow to learn their names.

4. Wear jeans and comfy boots. It’s Soundgarden. You don’t need to rock a dress. You just need to rock.

5. During “Outshined,” a song even 20 zillion radio plays couldn’t ruin for you, when your favorite line, one of your favorite lines from any song ever, right up there with, “There must be some kind of way out of here/said the joker…” — when it happens, when Cornell wails out, “looking California and feeling Minnesota,” and the other 1,199 people at the Fox simultaneously mouth the words and their faces light up holy, this moment, this moment is when you will realize there is no special. That transcendence happens all the time, that people nothing like you are moved by the same words, sounds, feelings, sights. That anything you believe is uniquely yours — not that you thought that line, that oft-cited line, conveyed meaning unique to you, but still the realization that everyone claims it as their own — you are reminded that we own nothing, that songs are not sung for us, books are not written for us, love is not a birthright, all parents would die for their children and sex only matters until it’s over. This epiphany will not leave you hopeless, however, for in this new understanding, this new freedom from caring, you can make your own special. Nothing is inherent, nothing is implied, but you can infuse meaning, or not, as you choose.

Bonus: On a more practical note, drink beforehand to avoid paying $9 for a plastic cup of whiskey, stay at the Washington Inn because it’s relatively cheap and within walking distance, and know that despite closing at 11 p.m., the pizza joints on Broadway will deliver till 3 a.m., so that’s how you get your husband’s post-gig munchies addressed satisfactorily.


5 Things to Know Before You Go Out Dancing

1. What do you mean, you don’t go out dancing? That’s crazy! Dancing is fun, fun, fun! And good for you – bumps up the ol’heartrate, increases physical endurance and provides the social contact necessary for maintaining a positive outlook in this messed-up world. If you’re a guy, know this: women prefer a man who can get his groove on. (I think we all know why that’s true, but just in case, allow George Bernard Shaw to explain, “Dancing: The vertical expression of a horizontal desire legalized by music.” Mmmhmm!)

2. However, you men people, also know this: No one wants your creepy ass rubbing up against her thigh, butt or any other body part. What makes you have a creepy ass,  you ask? Because you’re rubbing up against some woman who does not want you to do that! No means no means no and a woman is far more likely to like you if you stay on the side of fun that includes respect. Having to point this out seems ridiculous, but I spent part of last month’s 100mph Soul Party running interference between some skeevy dude and my girlfriends.

3. Also in the stating-the-obvious column: wear shoes you can wear all night long. No, not your gym shoes – unless you’re going to bust out your best Electric Boogaloo moves – because sexy is good, but if you’ve strapped in and your pinky toes are going numb before you’ve even finished applying your lipstick, that’s not a good sign. Dazzle people with your confidence and they’ll never notice what’s on your feet.

4. The best dance parties aren’t always the most popular ones. Sold out shows mean wall-to-wall people, which means you can’t move and also that you’ve become a C & C Sweat Factory. Weeknights offer more than you might think: for example, you can get your skank on this Monday at the Jam; rock out to some country soul on Tuesday at Hum Brews; Wednesday, Nocturnum goes all Whomp Whomp with “Dubstep/Dnb/Glitch/HipHop/BadassBassDriven/LazerFilled/WaistMotivating/FootTapping”; Cherae Heights throws back to the ’80s and ’90s on Thursday; you’ve got barn dancin’ at the Bayside Grange on Friday, where they will even teach you to dance; and Saturday’s list of body-moving possibilities presents you with so much choice you might stress out about which dance party to attend! But you know what’s a great antidote to stress? Dancing! You can also rally a bunch of friends and take over any place with floor space and a decent jukebox. Hell, have a slumber party and Spotify up all your old faves – Madonna’s “Physical Attraction” and AC/DC’s “TNT” being two on my all-time list.

5. Don’t overdo the booze. You might think you need to get drunk to loosen up, but the difference between dancing and flailing can often be traced back to an unfortunate decision to answer, “Yeah! I’ll have another!” Figure out the pace that works to keep you happy on the floor without being on the floor and stick to it. Drink lots of water! Don’t do shots. (In fact, unless you’re toasting the dead, don’t ever do shots.)

Bonus: Still unsure? Find some inspiration listening to Mike Dronkers’ Midday Dance Party every Friday at noon on KHUM 104.3/104.7. You can bop around the office or in the privacy of your own home! If you absolutely need to take some lessons first – or you’re ready to step up to actual steps – you’re in luck! We live somewhere people love to dance! Here’s a beginning look at what’s offered, but check out other publications and flyers around town.

5 things on my mind

I’m aching to write and also achingly tired. Here’s a list:

1. Chelsea’s birthday is tomorrow: 22!

2. Nick’s having a surgical procedure tomorrow. We have to be at St. Joe’s at 6 a.m. The surgery isn’t a major one, but he’ll be under anesthesia and also the diabetes factor complicates even minor operations. Since he has to fast, we need to ensure his blood sugar doesn’t drop into the low range – if it does, he’ll have to eat, which means the surgery can’t happen. But we don’t want his glucose level to be too high, especially since his A1C level was still elevated at his last doctor’s appointment. So I need to stay up late enough to make sure he’s in a good place, then get up early enough to get him to the hospital on time. I expect we’ll be there for hours.

3. I need to record a surf session. Only one, sadly, but a fun one, nonetheless. Thinking maybe I need to get myself up to Patrick’s Point soon. Am I brave enough?

4. A couple weeks ago, I ended up hiking through the dune forest and took a wrong fork. Given that I could see the power lines stretching north-south and glimpse the highway from time-to-time, I wasn’t exactly lost, but when the trail I was on ended and the sun was going down, I began to fear I wouldn’t get home before dark. Plus the trees are scary when they’re in the shadows. And it’s all Blair Witchy. And maybe a hobo tweeker might jump out at me. But, clearly, I survived.

5. Looking forward. Setting goals. Striving.

I just finished writing something for work about a new “No Discharge Zone” to help curb cruise ship pollution. Maybe I should consider creating a similar zone in which I will not spew my random thoughts. This here, though, this poor blog is stuck being a dumping ground.

insomnia #19 (which is a lot like insomnia #18… and insomnia #17… and… )

On the upside, Nick’s blood sugar is 118 – a perfect 3 a.m. number. So that’s good. On the downside, I can’t get back to sleep. The dog was twitching in her sleep, nails scraping on the floor. I finally rolled out from under the covers, unable to bear the sound, crouched down next to her. For a moment I worried she was having a seizure. She’s old. Maybe she was dying right in front of me. The beginnings of panic bloomed. “Sandy!” I whispered, rubbing her side. “Wake up!” After a moment, she lifted her head, gave me a groggy look, then rolled to her side for a belly rub. Her legs stopped spasming. She’d been chasing rabbits in her sleep after all, not running into the afterlife. (more…)

insomnia #18, in which our protagonist is dismayed that self-improvement is still on the to-do list

“So at what point do people get to stop trying to improve themselves and just accept their flaws as the way they are?”

I asked my friend this question over lunch, stealing some of his fries while waiting for his answer.

“Never,” he said. “I don’t think you ever stop trying to be better.”

Damn. In that case, I shouldn’t have eaten those fries. Really, I’d hoped for something more along the lines of, “Oh, usually around 42.” Something that would let me off the hook. A response that would allow me to give up the so-far unfulfilled promises to myself to shed the remaining irresponsible behaviors keeping me grounded at pretty good instead of soaring at great. Alas, apparently I must redouble my efforts towards progress instead.

On the upside, having struggled with the same (boring, childish) bad habits for, oh, my entire adult life (small strides, though, small strides!), at least I can refer back to an old post and not have to write everything out again.

Or perhaps a simple lobotomy would help

The throbbing in my head won’t let up. Partly, I’m experiencing ocean withdrawal. Partly, the teenage experience makes me want to flee from parenting in a way I haven’t felt since they were infants incessantly crying because teeth were coming in. Partly, I’m stunned that no matter how much I work, how much I make – so lucky in these times to be working at all – life insists on upping its costs. I’ve surfed once in two weeks, walked on the beach maybe twice. When I went outside to pull a weed that had smushed up against the window, I realized I haven’t been in my own lovely backyard in nearly a month. All this fine weather and I haven’t taken 10 minutes to sit on the deck with a glass of ice tea and marvel at all the world has provided me. Meanwhile arguing over chores and curfews keeps me so agitated I forget to do things like bring the new insurance card when I go to pick up insulin, fail to realize we’ve used up all the syringes. So fortunate to have insurance, but I fear (again) what that means for the diabetes coverage. Meanwhile the car desperately needs a tune-up from all the summer driving. It rattles as if it might fly apart when I hit one of the unavoidable potholes in Arcata. But I’m still recovering from all the expense of those summer travels – and random stupid costs like the bill I paid in cash, a rare occurrence, the one I can’t find the receipt for, also unusual, the one that of course now they’re saying they show no record of payment. So there’s another $100 evaporating into zilch. I add up everything that’s due, add up every scrap of income I can imagine after combing the shelves for books to sell, if we don’t have any extra expenses, we’ll possibly catch up. If I read enough parenting advise, meditate, remember my own tumultuous youth, I may find finally figure out how to channel that longed-for maternal grace. If I remember to kick myself away from the computer, breathe in the salt air at the side of the sea, haul myself out into the ocean more often, I may yet retain my sanity. If I don’t make any mistakes, if life doesn’t serve up any more surprises – ha! on both counts – it just might all work out.

Oh, it will all work out – I know it will. I think it will. But that sliver of belief missing between “know” and “think” is what makes relaxing about it all impossible.

Seeking perfection, settling for oatmeal

A friend of mine works with special needs kids, has children of her own, provides support for her similarly hard-working husband and also bakes cookies, organizes fundraisers and pitches in for whatever other volunteer demands the school asks of its parents. Like me, she wonders, Do I do enough? I think she’s crazy. Actually, I think she’s a saint and I often look to her for advice on how to handle life’s complex challenges with more grace than tantrum-throwing, but the fact that she imagines she’s somehow lacking in commitment shows how much we expect of ourselves. I see this with women I know more so than men, which makes sense given that women – at least those with children – have long been expected to do both the home thing and the career thing without compromising either.

I grew up thinking anything less than perfection was failure. It’s a hard mindset to shake. But I’m so imperfect – it’s either figure out how to accept these flaws or go lie down on the highway. So difficult. A friend of mine likes to quote, “Do one thing and do it well.” A nice idea, but doing “one” thing has never been an option. I want to do everything well.

So far this morning, the only thing I’ve done well is make oatmeal (2 parts apple juice, 1 part oats, cinnamon to taste, a pinch of salt and a splash of vanilla soymilk in the bowl). The 48-degree water temp and general exhaustion deterred me from surfing – WUSS – and these recent blog posts are certainly no indication of writing skills. I rather hate this sort of feelings-based confessional spewings. Or maybe I’m leery of sounding all Oprah-esque when what I really long to do is string together tight little adjective-free sentences so deep readers feel their own thoughts echoing along in understanding. Or at least interest.

Until then, as always, clearing the thoughts out of my head and onto the page (screen, whatev) lightens my mental load. Makes room for cheery optimism. Hey! This could be the day I get everything all figured out! Catching up on work aside, the weekend looms large with promise of sunshine, social awesomeness and even a baseball game. Soon, these shitty first-draft posts might evolve into something worth reading. Right now, paperwork to wrap up, weeds to pull. So it goes.

Failure is not an option

Today was one of those days that reminded me how little room for error exists in my life. An inherent risk of balancing a big fat full-time job, a part-time job, family obligations and my own insistent need to incorporate  none-of-the-above in all-the-above. Most of my life people have said something along the lines of, “I don’t know how you do it,” regarding the variety of stuff that I do and yet, from my vantage point, I still feel like I don’t do enough. Some people work even more jobs, have even more children, accumulate multiple degrees and make time to volunteer at the soup kitchen on a weekly basis. Finish novels. Compared to that, I fall short. And today, wow, the number of important things I didn’t get done far outweighs the few minor things I did accomplish.

On the upside, this sensation of having seriously misallotted my time today is an unusual one, so that must mean I usually utilize better judgment. I wouldn’t be this troubled if I didn’t normally juggle obligations with more success. Right? And I did have some nice moments. But it does mean a more work-filled Saturday tomorrow than usual – lucky to have work, though, especially in this era of unemployment, and stunningly fortunate to have a serious job I love and a side job too fun to give up. And importance of time management duly reinforced. So there: Stress to gratitude in 238 words.

Besides, the entire week prior consisted of traveling to Sacramento and Folsom pitching ocean protection and enjoying warm sunshine in the evenings – when you spend hours talking about how the practice of slicing the fins off sharks is a bad idea – and you have to talk about how it’s a bad idea for humans because of all the mercury in the fins and the potential economic impact of removing a top predator from the seafood chain because, you know, it’s not just inherently bad enough – well, you need those couple blocks walking from the Capitol to the hotel, sun shining down, fruit trees bursting with blossoms, flowers fragranting the ebbing breeze, because it’s those moments that remind you, that’s the world you’re trying to save.

Monday thoughts

Last week dizzied me, left my brain as worn out as my arms after two hours of battling current at the Jetty.

I don’t write about work much for all the same reasons I don’t write about the intimacies of my marriage and the personal lives of my children: We live in a small town and inviting a certain type of judgment rarely goes well; creating entertainment out of my own flaws works for me, but using other people for discussion fodder becomes invasive. A certain audience hungry for local gossip exists, but I doubt the people who employ me would appreciate me sharing behind-the-scenes moments.

Of course, my main gig for the past year hasn’t been purely local – although in a way the work I’ve done has been the most important to the North Coast community. All this is a roundabout way of saying, I took a job a year ago that I knew would be politically loaded and personally challenging. Fighting for environmental protection has never been easy. Wanting to do it in such a way that avoided polarizing the community that I love being part of – well, that mattered greatly to me. Sure didn’t make things any easier; however, this past week, I managed to help get us to what I think is the best possible place we could be. It was huge. I’m pleased and so very grateful that everyone I work for is amazingly smart and supportive, and everyone I’ve been working with has been solid, decent people. I’ve learned so much over the past year, thrived on the new challenges and remain grateful to have somehow wound up in this position. (Dare I think all those years of hard work actually paid off?)

Here I am, 40 years old, a new chapter in my life unfolding – assuming I survive the next few years, that the teenagers don’t send me over the edge. If so, well, please come visit me. I’ll be the one in the courtyard, drooling. I put so much aside attempting to be a good mom. Like sleep. Finding fulfillment solely through the domestic scene didn’t quite happen, but I always made sure I was the person spending the most time with the kids. I worked early or worked late, balanced college classes against elementary school schedules. In a way, my maternal drive reawakened my personal ambition. I needed to be a good mom, which meant I had to be the kind of person I would want my kids to admire. I have done this in a very imperfect manner – hopefully they’ll remember the hard work and love, the fun we’ve had and that they had parents who always showed up.

So what comes next? My job seems more secure than expected, at least for a while yet. Where will it lead? When will I return to writing? It waits like a lover from long ago – jeez, that’s corny, plus I suddenly realized that with Facebook, no one’s ever really lost to the past any more. Maybe more like a faithful pet? Argos ever ready to greet Odysseus home? I read and read and read these days – an even better tool than booze to quiet my ever-buzzing brain – find myself still turned on by a twist of words, a beautiful phrase, a story so engrossing that the characters merge into my own memories more real than the real people I used to know. And I know I could do the same if I insisted on the time, found the discipline. I don’t need to write a novel now or even in the next few years, but I hold out that some chapter down the line does include that accomplishment.

I feel so hopeful today. I can trace a path through the decisions made, the sacrifices given, the small achievements, the ongoing struggles, the growing rewards – rocky terrain and disorienting detours along the journey, for sure, but pull back and from the larger perspective, I’ve moved ever upward. No hubris – god forbid I set myself up for a fall – clearly a long, long way to go yet – but I see where I’ve been and where I am and I have faith that I might still get to where I want to go.

(And on a where-am-I-going note: Taiwan in November. Crazy, yes?)

Vague and cliché? I am not sure this passes as good writing today, but today all I wanted was words on a page, shitty first draft as it may be.


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