20 Steps to Bike Commuting for the First Time in Months


1. Inspired by Bike-To-Work Month, decide today is a perfect day to recommit to the whole biking-to-work thing.

2. Start answering emails instead of getting ready to leave.

3. Realize how much time you’ve spent answering emails instead of getting ready to leave and wonder if you should just drive.

4. Scold yourself for even thinking that.

5. Shower, put on extra antiperspirant, blow dry your hair, then flat iron it as a defense against helmet head.

6. Look for your bike pants. Not with your workout clothes, not with your pjs. Strange. Find them in a heap in the closet corner, along with the suitable-for-lap-swimming-at-82 Speedo.

7. Wonder what to bring to change into for work. It’s only 5.5 miles. Do you need a whole change of clothes or can you bring jeans and ride out the day in a slightly sweaty T-shirt and sports bra? Recall it’s questions like this that made bike commuting so impossible before.

8. Seek out panniers. Find one. Find bike shoes inside. Feel triumphant. Grow concerned when the other one doesn’t appear. Where could it be? It’s too expensive to replace. Decide to worry about it later.

9. Pack laptop on top of jeans in pannier. Toss in earrings, lip balm and notebook. Decide that’s probably everything you’ll need, especially as it’s already noon.

10. Wheel bike off deck. Curse the amount of stuff currently stored on the porch. Note potential Instagramability of both dying bee and cross-set kayaks. Stop. Take photos. Upload. Like your friends’ photos while you’re at it.

11. Click shoes into pedals and head up the driveway hill. Almost fall over since you’re not even going one mile an hour yet. Free foot in time to save yourself.

12. Make it half a block before realizing you forgot your sunglasses.

13. Go back.

14. Might as well get a water bottle while you’re at it. You only have metal ones, so tuck it into a beer cozy left over from a friend’s bachelorette party so it won’t bang while you ride. A jaunty “Gettin’ Our Drink On!” is emblazoned across the cozy.

15. Leave again.

16. Realize you forgot to lock the door. Ignore it, even though your husband and son are away for the night, so probably someone will be hiding inside when you get home and kill you.

17. Realize you forgot your sandals, which means you will either have to walk around the office barefoot (gross) or in sweaty socks (gross). Since you work for a nonprofit environmental agency that likely has a long history of stinky-footed hippies, decide you’ll make do and continue pedaling.

18. Make it half-a-mile before your cell phone rings. Your coworker can’t bring the supplies for tonight’s event after all. You will need your truck.

19. Pedal back home.

20. Lug your bike back up the porch, chuck all your stuff on the couch, consider making a Bloody Mary, but don’t, of course, because you still have to work and do an event and set a good example, for whom you’re unclear at this point, but someone, somewhere, needs to know that we can all persevere toward the right things even when the going gets ridiculous.


How to Surf When Your Knees Go Bad

Look at the bright side: At least now you have a legitimate reason for not being out in the water. Before the doctor ordered you to take a few weeks off, what was your excuse? Too much work, too many social commitments? Sure, you do suffer from both of those, but let’s be real: None of your excuses are valid. You have security with regards to food and shelter and therefore there are no valid excuses for not doing what you love.

You could have been surfing almost every day and the days you weren’t surfing, you could have walked on the beach. You live right next to it. But no, you forgot that you need to get up at 5 a.m. and started loitering in bed until 7 – which is a disaster for a person like you. You have a lot to get done. Multiple jobs and many friends. You are lucky for this. But you need to get up early to make it all work. Minutes in the morning are worth hours in the afternoon. You’ve blown it.

It doesn’t help that instead of checking the swell, you’ve more often checked Facebook. Something to do while shoveling oatmeal into your mouth and waiting for the Earl Grey to kick in. Liking stuff on autopilot, then distracted by the funny, the terrible, the tragic. Oh, look at the time, you’d realize. The window has closed, has been closed, and now you’re running late for the rest of life. 

Your surfboards became things you walked past instead of used.

You’re out of wax because you surf so little that you never remember to pick any up. In fact, you can’t remember the last time you went into a surf shop.

Now your knees hurt. Almost all the time. An afternoon of Frisbee turns into a morning of being crippled into tears and immobility. So you go to the doctor. The one you started going to when you landed your former job. You’re relieved she’s taking Covered California patients so you don’t have to wait to get in. She pokes your knees, asks if you feel any pain. “A little,” you say. “Some,” you say. “Ow!” you scream as your body bucks an inch off the table. She explains about cartilage and Baker’s cyst. Gross, you think. Then you get in your poor rusty truck that hasn’t driven on sand in weeks and the NPR folks are interviewing Boston Marathon bombing survivors. You’re a jerk. At least you still have your knees. Maybe you can even fix them.

So you stay out of the water – as if you weren’t doing that anyway – and gobble ibuprofen and rub in arnica and drink too much wine while you wait to see a physical therapist, who may or may not be covered by your new insurance. It’s confusing and you’re too busy to figure it out. But you get in. The PT guy gives you a rundown similar to the doctor’s, has some suggestions for reducing the pain. Stretching. Ibuprofen. Possibly taping your kneecap into a different position. You imagine your body like your poor rusty truck, like an old piece of machinery held together by duct tape. You promise to do the stretches. He tells you to work on your butt muscles. You’re a bit indignant – you work on your butt muscles all the time thankyouverymuch. Now you feel fat. Now you feel guilty about feeling fat. Look at all these poor old people doing tiny exercises around you. He reassures you that you’re fit. 

“What about the stuff I can’t do?” you ask or, some might say, whine. 

“Like what?”

“Surfing and hiking,” you tell him. “The doctor told me not to for at least a couple weeks.”

He shrugs. “You can do whatever you want. You might be in pain for the next 40 years or maybe I can help you. But you can’t give up the shit that brings you peace of mind.”

You love him.

Er, appropriately.

So the next day you fling your wetsuit into your tub, slide your longboard into your truck, drive down the spit like you have 1,000 times before. No one is out. The foghorn blares its beautiful call. The waves look small and a bit bumpy. You shake an earwig off your wetsuit and pull it on. You remember being cold is good sometimes because it makes you appreciate warmth. You panic for five minutes because the stupid zipper isn’t working and you’re about to call disaster when suddenly it catches. 

You paddle past the rocks and feel the same way as when you’re heading north on 101, passing through Piercy, the Humboldt County sign about to welcome you home. On your first wave, you’re too anxious, too far up, end up pearling in a maneuver so kooky you almost give up right then. But you’ve been here before. Calm down. Look at that gray whale coming up for air right off the end of the jetty. Seriously. 

You breathe and start catching waves for real. Your knees don’t hurt at all. A mix of adrenaline and cold water, you suppose, and your dedication to the ibuprofen god. And then some guy paddles out. He strikes up conversation. You agree that it’s fun. You think it’s getting better, you say. He tells you, yes, it’s been much better on this tide than that one and explains that he surfs here all the time. Like you’re some random person who just happens to be out on his wave. And you have no retort, because even though it’s your wave, you haven’t been using it. Goddamn it. So you shut up and catch some more waves until you’re tired, which happens too soon, but you did it. 

And later your knees do hurt like hell, but your mind, your mind feels so good.

Things for which I am grateful


You know that exercise in which you write down three things you’re grateful for and how they came about?

Here’s today’s:

  1. I was able to write and post a column relating to things ocean on Lost Coast Outpost – and being able to write as part of my job which is protecting the ocean is two things I love smushed into one wonderful way to spend a couple hours. I find myself in this fortunate place due to habitually answering opportunity’s knock, which has involved flinging myself into local media and picking up the reins at Surfrider when needed. Circumstances conspired. I am here.
  2. I experienced my first physical therapy appointment today. What a first world problem, to have to go to PT because my knees have been acting up. Fortunately I have a semi-first world solution: Obamacare aka Covered California aka Anthem Blue Shomething or other. (A real first world solution would be universal built-in health care, but misguided Republicans et al ruined that for America.) Anyway, the good news is, I was able to see a doctor and a physical therapist and this exile from surfing and hiking is theoretically over, although the PT guy did say, “You might just be in pain for the next 40 years.” If I do the things he recommends, however, I might not. And, as he said, “You don’t want to give up the shit that gives you peace of mind.” No, man, I do not. So thank you, Affordable Care Act, for making sure people like me can get our dumb knees fixed so we can do our thing. I should make a donation to an organization working on AIDS or helping Syrian refugees in gratitude.
  3. I caught the post-sunset sky. All I ever wanted was to live at the beach. And I do. The road led to Humboldt. I followed.

writing exercise #45: three prompts

Tall things that vibrate with life

Krista emerged from the subway exit into the sunlight. Noon in New York. Sunlight battered her into a crevice between doorways, just enough shadow falling across her phone so she could read the map. Two blocks that way. But which way was that way?

She stepped out, squinting in the glare. Why did she not have sunglasses? She did not have sunglasses because she was visiting from a land of fog, where one didn’t need shades unless driving inland from the coast and why would she do that except to visit the river and if she were visiting the river, she’d have her wide-brimmed sunhat on, the one her girlfriend had bought her at that cute boutique on the Plaza, one of those stores she never went into because she knew she couldn’t afford anything inside. But her friend was wealthy and kind and able to give expensive gifts without making her feel small.

Sometimes they hiked together, marveling at the mushrooms sprouting through the forest floor and even more at the birds fluttering the upper branches of the redwoods. “I wish we could climb them,” Lisa said. “I’ve read stories about all the life up there in the canopy, what a whole nother world it is. Seeing it would be amazing.”

The skyscrapers towering above Krista would have dwarfed those redwoods, she thought. The life that teemed within intrigrued her in a different way than the birds, the salamanders. She imagined thin women in black pencil skirts, high heels and perfect hair. The sort of women that would look her up and down, note she was no threat and then take her under their collective wing, teach her how to handle the boss, how to demand equal pay, maybe set her up with their pathetically artsy friend. She inhaled, the scent of Lisa and the forest faint. Her brain abuzz with honking horns, screeching brakes and the scent of fresh bagels wafting from the storefront nearby, Krista set off, watching as the blue dot on her smartphone map app launched its way toward her new life.

Habitual things that create triggers for lifelong happiness

“Eight things super successful people do before 8 a.m.”

Krista squinted over her coffee cup, shifted it to her left hand so her right could scroll down.

1. Exercise. Krista set her mug down on the desk, stood up, stretched. Sighed her way into lunges, four on each side, which didn’t seem like a lot, so she did 10 squats and 10, no 8, no seven pushups, then stayed in plank position for what very well could have been 30 seconds. Settled back into her desk with her coffee.

2. Map out your day. Easy enough. She looked at the time. Noon. Shit. Each lunch. Look for job. Go to library. The New York Public Library was amazing! Go to Grand Central Station. Wonder if the people trying the whispering wall were whispering something romantic. Shrug it off. Meet her roommate for happy hour. Spend more than she had. Go home. Pass out.

3. Eat a healthy breakfast. Krista looked at the sad banana on the counter. Brown spots. Pass.

4. Visualization. Wasn’t that the same as mapping out the day? Krista reached for the banana. Peeled it. Took a bite. Too soft, ugh, she thought as she chewed, swallowed, scrolled.

5. Make your day top heavy. What the fuck? she thought. Oh, do what you least enjoy first to get it out of the way. Okay, she thought, here goes. She picked up the phone, started to text, deleted it. Dialed. “Hello?” the voice on the other end hesitated. “Hi,” Krista confirmed.

Painful things that aren’t as devastating as the horrifying things with which others contend

They’d agreed to meet for lunch. Cliché, Krista thought, having to meet on neutral ground, but for the best. “I don’t want to see your apartment,” Lisa had said. “I’ll only find things to hate about it.” Krista had nodded, the thickness in her throat impeding speech. “So,” Lisa had said, “can we just meet somewhere easy for lunch?” Krista had murmured assent. Easy turned out to be a block from Grand Central, a bagel joint, because New York and bagels, Lisa had to try them, Krista insisted. There she was, Lisa, wool beanie and battered peacoat standing strong against the spring wind.

“Hi,” Krista said. One look at Lisa’s face and she kept her arms at her sides.

“Hey,” Lisa said. “So, should we order?” She glanced inside. “It seems kind of intense.”

“You just have to be commanding,” Krista said. “And you want an onion bagel with lox and cream cheese, toasted.”

“Oh, I do?” Lisa raised an eyebrow.

Krista started to say, Yes, I know you, but Lisa had already turned, marched inside. The line moved quickly. “French toast bagel, walnut cream cheese, not toasted,” Lisa asserted.

Krista sighed, ordered the onion with lox and cream cheese. They squeezed into seats at the counter. Lisa unfolded her napkin, then folded it. Then unfolded it.

“Are you okay?” Krista asked.

Lisa turned to lock eyes with Krista. “Seriously?”

Krista looked away. “I’m sorry.  I know it’s been hard.”

“Hard?” Lisa said. “No. Being a Syrian refugee is hard. Losing your job and your home is hard. Finding out you have cancer is hard. Your best friend moving away without warning, well, that’s just an inconvenience.” She glared at Krista.

“Here,” Krista dug an envelope out of her purse and thrust it at Lisa. “My half of the rent I owe you. Sorry for sticking you with the lease. I just,” she paused. “I just had to leave.”

Lisa took the envelope, looked away. “Thanks,” she said. “I miss you.” She stood up. “I can’t eat this bagel,” she said. “I hate all the sweetness.”

“I know,” Krista said. She pushed her untouched bagel at Lisa. “Take mine.”

They regarded each other.

“I got it for you,” Krista pleaded.

Krista watched as Lisa glanced around absorbing the move-move-move of the bagel shop, the sunlight beating the air outside into submission, the newspapers trumpeting death tolls and political betrayals, then gathered the bagel, fat with lox and cream cheese, into a napkin.

Lisa left without looking back.

Only fair, Krista thought.

writing exercise #44: A deli technician and the too-long to-do list

(I’m falling behind in posting!)



“What is a deli technician?” Marlene asked Sean.

“A person who works at a deli, I guess,” Sean answered.

Marlene twisted her mouth to the side and gave Sean The Look. He was digging around in the fridge and failed to notice. She frowned. “Sean!”

“What?” he turned to her, soy milk in one hand, yogurt in the other. “Do you think the expiration date really matters when it comes to yogurt?” he asked.

“Omigod, Sean.”


Marlene narrowed her eyes and gave him another look.

He elbowed the fridge shut and took a step backward.

“What?!” he said.

“Nevermind,” she sighed and returned to scrolling through help wanted ads.



“Sean!” Marlene barged through the door.

“Marlene!” Sean yelled from the couch, four feet away. He pushed the bag of Sriracha-flavored Kettle Chips aside to make room for her. “Sit!” Sean said. “I’m on my fifth episode of Louie. You’re just in time.”

“Sean!” Marlene flung her purse on the couch. “Listen!” She stomped her feet.

“Oh, fine,” Sean said. He punched the remote and the TV went dark. He pulled the bag of chips to his lap, stuck his hand inside. “Yes?”

Marlene rolled her eyes, then flopped over the chair arm, landing next to Sean. “Chip me,” she ordered as she leaned into him.

Sean pulled out two chips and placed them in Marlene’s open mouth. “There you go, little bird.”

“So,” Marlene crunched, “Hang on.”

“No worries,” Sean said. “I have all the time in the world.” He placed his feet on the combination of plywood and milk crates they used as a coffee table, leaned back and started whistling.

Marlene swallowed. “Do we have any beer?” she asked.

“Um,” Sean answered.


“I’ll go to the store, fine.” He swung off the couch, stood up.

“Wait!” Marlene said. “Guess what?”

“You’re not pregnant?” Sean hazarded.

Marlene reeled back. “What? Why would I be pregnant? Are you insane?”

Sean shrugged. “Who knows anything with you?”

“Sean, that’s not even funny.”

Sean laughed. “What is it already?” He leaned down and grabbed her shoulders. “Tell me!”

Marlene laughed and pushed him off. “I have a job interview! The deli technician!”

“Hooray!” Sean jumped in circles around the apartment, then stopped. “What is a deli technician?”

“I don’t really know,” shrugged Marlene.



“Hello?” Marlene eased through the door of the Stay and Shake Delicatessen. Four bare bulbs cast a bluish light from above. Four white tables with two silver chairs each lined the plate glass windows. From the deli case, color burst forth. Various cuts of raw meat stood draped into piles, dark greens arranged at their base, the green emphasizing the orange-red of the, what was it? Marlene thought, leaning closer. Oh, pepperoni, of course. She identified the chorizo and salami, figured the whiter meat had to be chicken. But the other six, no seven, no nine other meats, some pink, some almost purple, those she could not define.

“Hello?” she called again. The bottom of the deli case held cheeses. Cheddar, swiss, pepper jack, fresh mozzarella balls. Flowers, too. Orange and yellow blooms floated in shallow glass bowls.

Next to the deli case, a counter held the cash register, a stack of menus, an almost empty bottle of sangria-flavored soda. “Hello?” Marlene called again. Behind the counter, a door marked “Employees Only” was closed. Marlene pulled the corners of her mouth down, wrapped her cardigan more tightly around her polka-dot blouse. She stepped around the counter and knocked on the door. It swung slightly open from the pressure. No handle, she noted. Nothing to hold it in place. “Hello?” she called, softly.

Through the inch of space the door had opened, she could see the edge of a desk, papers, the soft glow of a lamp. She swallowed and pressed the door open further. “Hello?” she whispered, leaning forward. Now she could see the entirety of the room. Bookshelves lined one wall, floor to ceiling. Filing cabinets another. Then the wall with the desk, on which stood a lamp, green and brass, illuminating little but the papers strewn about. Marlene pushed the door open as far as it would go and stepped in.

The topmost paper on the desk, she couldn’t help but see as the handwritten title was two-inches tall and in Sharpie, read “To-Do.”

She picked it up.


decide on wording for deli technician job

place ad on Craigslist

interview applicants

hire the best candidate (or a cute girl)

train technician

get money from safe deposit box

buy plane ticket

ditch car

set house on fire

leave country

make YouTube video laughing at them all

write autobiography

jump out and surprise cute girl applying for job”

Marlene shrieked as the hands landed on her waist.



Why you might want to back BOLDT Grain to Bottle Spirits by Alchemy Distillery (a testimonial)

This started as a Facebook post, but the more I thought about all the reasons to support Steve and Amy Bohner’s new business, the more obvious it became that I would need more room to write. So here I am, doing something I haven’t done in a long time: Suggesting what people do with their money.

The quick version is the Bohners are great people who’ve been successful at what they’ve done, now want to do more – “more” being their own distillery – are seeking backers via Kickstarter, and you can get in on this action.

The longer version goes like this:

My social and professional worlds have overlapped with the Bohners since 2002, when Steve’s business was fledgling, Amy was sewing rock’n’roll pillows and they were fixtures on the local music scene. I’ve admired much about them, starting with how hard they’ve worked. Despite the late nights playing gigs at the Alibi, Steve put 10-hour days and most weekends into Alchemy Construction, which specializes in energy-efficient building, primarily through solar and radiant heat elements.

Why the green focus? Steve said to me a long time ago that he figured it was better to do things right if you were going to do them. Even then, the Bohners were always thinking ahead – and giving back, both in the form of Amy’s work at Humboldt Women for Shelter and The County’s Healthy Moms Program, and the Alchemy’s unflagging support of local nonprofits including Humboldt Roller Derby, the Kinetic Grand Championship, the Humboldt Crabs, Arcata Little League, KHSU and the Rampart Skateboard Facility. They’ve also kicked down every time I’ve hit them up for one of my Planned Parenthood teams. Their business success impresses – Alchemy Construction has scored many notable projects – but it’s Steve and Amy’s dedication to this Humboldt community that most garners my appreciation.

Now, I’ve heard some folks grumble, isn’t Kickstarter just a way of asking for handouts? Well, no. It’s a way to bypass the middlemen and invest directly in people who only make Humboldt better economically, socially and culturally – and you receive cool schwag! I also enjoy a fine whiskey on occasion and would be thrilled to have that spirit crafted right here in my beloved Humboldt. Especially by people I know will do it the way they do everything else: with skill and passion.

Speaking of passion, here’s a small aside. I’ve been married for almost 22 years and, as most married folks know, partnership isn’t always an easy thing. I’ve often considered the Bohners an example of how to do it right. Take their weekly date nights. I remember wondering, back in those early days, why childless people bothered with date night – isn’t every night date night if you don’t have kids? But later I came to realize that, children or not, date night is a way to affirm the worth of your relationship, keeping connection a priority, reminding each other how much you matter. The Bohners got this from the start. I imagine their dinner conversations have involved the sharing of dreams and then delight as those dreams manifest. It makes me happy to get in on those dreams in my small way.

That’s my story. About their story. So if you are also a fan of big dreams, bigger accomplishments and you have some spending money, here’s a way to make Humboldt’s future that much more promising.


writing exercise #43: “She was starting to believe in God, but for all the wrong reasons.”

She was starting to believe in God, but for all the wrong reasons. The foray into faith began with the toaster. No matter what setting she twisted the knob to, her toast came out crispy. She didn’t like crispy toast. She preferred the slightest browning, just enough time to transform the bread to toast and then stop! and softened butter because cold butter would tear the bread, or toast, rather, and a smidge of jam, a thin layer, membrane-like, of sweetness. The delicacy appealed to her, the gentle blend of flavors, the way a crisp bite would yield to softness

But now the toaster turned every slice of bread into a hard brown square that even a half-inch thick smear of jam could not fix. Because she could not bear wasting food, she had to eat it. The process invoked suffering. Each reluctant bite followed by dutiful chews until finally the wafer-like hunk could be swallowed, digested.

As she chewed, she pondered what had led to this. The obvious connection was how she had recently burned her best friend by applying for the same job and getting it. They’d pretended the competition was friendly. It had been friendly on her part, she was sure. Of course, being friendly about competition came easier when you had the advantage. She pulled her fingers through her artfully tousled hair and swallowed.

It wasn’t just the toaster, of course. A lifelong dedication to atheism couldn’t be undone by a standard household appliance. Her potential conversion to belief was also triggered by the car, which, despite being only two years old, had started having problems after she’d passed the hitchhiker. She never stopped for hitchhikers – the rule had been embedded into her womanly psyche early on. She didn’t stop for hitchhikers, she didn’t walk alone to her car late at night and she didn’t write letters to incarcerated men. These were basic guidelines all women should live by. But this one particular hitchhiker. He stood at the base of the bridge, his long locks blowing Jesus-like – she actually thought this at the time – “Jesus-like” – and his smile encompassing his eyes, unlike most hitchhikers who barely smiled and seemed more menacing when they did – this guy, his smile lit up the air like sunbeams through a raincloud. She had smiled back and was still grinning when their eyes met. Her foot eased on the gas and her hands on the steering wheel shifted slightly to the right before she shook herself back into enough awareness to reapply the gas, keep going. No matter how appealing, she thought, one should not pick up hitchhikers. She knew this to be true and yet. And yet. A certain guilt settled onto her shoulders and his imagined face appeared before her, disappointed.

The next day her car overheated. Redlined a block from her house. She waited, tried to drive again, cranked the heater full blast in hopes of staving off the damage. Five minutes later, she was back on the side of the road, calling Triple A. While she waited, she could’ve sworn she saw the hitchhiker go by, comfortably ensconced in the passenger seat of a Nissan Armada, his eyes connecting with hers in the millisecond between rain drops. Of course it was raining. She had shivered. She had waited. She had convinced the tow truck driver to stop at the grocery store – they were passing right by it, after all – so she could run in and grab a bottle of cheap red wine. “Please?” she’d cajoled. “I mean, after all” – giggle – “what a crazy day! Am I right?” She’d twisted her fingers around a lock of hair. “I’d love to buy you a six-pack as a tip.”

The driver had laughed and declined, but he had laughed, so she’d known she’d had him. She kept up the chatter the rest of the way home, a way of thanking him.

The final blow, or inspiration, depending on one’s perspective, arrived in the mail. A parking ticket. For her no-longer working car, which had been working long enough for her to illegally park long enough to sneak into a bar and have two quick cocktails before taking a sauna that, she hoped, would detox her into perfect sobriety before her volunteer shift at the twins’ Animal Action night. Actually that wasn’t the final blow. The final blow, or inspiration, depending on one’s perspective, was the pregnancy test. The one she’d taken after an impossible one-night-stand with, Mary swore, a guy named Joe. She was sure that was his name. And the thing was, they hadn’t even quite had sex. Bringing someone home was not something she did – don’t pick up hitchhikers, the mantra repeated in her head. But the twins had been having their first sleepover at a friend’s and in the rush of freedom, she’d gone dancing – dancing! – and one thing and then another and suddenly she and Joe were on her bed and her skirt was up and his pants were down and then – oh! – he’d made a mess between her thighs before she could even ask about a condom. Jesus Christ, she’d said, not meaning to embarrass him further, but shocked, who wouldn’t be caught off guard. And apparently she hadn’t cleaned up fast enough.

So here was God, she had determined, punishing her for not being generous enough, for being vain, for lustfulness. She was pretty sure these were at least some of the deadly sins. She thought about the others as she scrolled through the list of churches in town. One of them would have to take her in.

writing exercise #42

PROMPT: The problem with puppets – and dolls and ventriloquist dummies – is that they occupy what’s called the uncanny valley. That’s the valley between alive and not alive, real and fake.

* * *

When she first arrived, he admired her eyebrows. It sounds strange to the uninitiated, but eyebrows challenge even the best designers. Too bushy and their woolly presence distracts. Too sparse and the artifice becomes obvious. This was true, too, of actual human women. His ex-wife would pluck to near oblivion, bleach the surviving hairs, then draw her version of what a woman’s eyebrows should look like using a makeup pencil more expensive than the ones he used for storyboarding. Which was saying something. But at least his work had brought in income. Still brought in income. Much of which went to his ex-wife. So it goes.

The puppet laid on her back, eyes unblinking beneath her perfect brows. If she could have seen, which, of course, she could not, she would have noticed the way the man’s lip twitched on the right side every time he raised his hand to make a note on the paper-laden clipboard he carried. How archaic, she might have thought, to use paper. She would have also noticed his thinning hair and the way his own eyebrows unfurled as though desperate to escape his face. Although, being a puppet, she may not have thought in such poetic terms.

And what of his eyebrows? If they could speak for themselves, perhaps they would confirm their desire to flee a face such as they’d been consigned to. After all, the sweaty forehead, the broken blood vessels strewn across the nose and upper cheeks – these were not signs of success. Neither was the wax built up and flaking from the ears. If the eyebrows could determine their own fate, they might choose more wisely. Plenty of successful men had unruly eyebrows and, truth be know and if were to come to this, they would not resent sacrificing a few strays for the sake of grooming if it were to mean greater peace for the many.

He lifted her from the box, tugged her dress smooth across her chest, settled her onto his knee. As he shifted her, her eyelids fell, rose, fell, rose again. “Hello!” he said.

“Hello!” she said, or rather, he said in a falsetto voice.

“How’s it going?” he asked. He immediately regretted opening with such a clichéd question. He’d read recently that asking someone how it was going was evidence that one had failed to pay attention. What a person should be able to do, the blog post – titled 7 Ways to Cultivate Charisma – explained, is ask specifics. Such as “How was your trip to Zimbabwe?” or “Did Susie’s surgery take care of things as you’d hoped?” or “Did your daughter get that scholarship to ABSuccess Preschool?” What the post failed to explain was how, especially if you were the sort of person who could barely retain the name of the person you actually knew, how you were also supposed to remember the names of their respective people and those people’s goings-ons. If he could be that charismatic one-on-one, he thought, would he have turned to the stage?

She wanted to answer him. Or rather, she would have wanted to answer him if she’d been real. But of course, she was not. If she was, however, what she would have said would have been, “I’m elated! Despite the fact that a strange man has his hand up my dress, haha, I’m happy to be out of that box!” And then he might laugh and ask if he was really so strange and then she would say, “Have you looked in the mirror lately? Are those eyebrows or confused caterpillars?” Which was not the best joke, she knew, but what did they want from her? She was new to this world, to this role, and had only the input of her masters to work from.

The box, if it was sentient, might have resented her quick dismissal. Had it not cradled her safely from an outpost in China, across the sea, over the dull patchwork of the Midwest to this relative palace? She thought her role was limited, the box might have thought if boxes could think, which of course, they cannot, but if they could, the box might have pointed out, rather petulantly, that it was to live but a brief life, mashed into being, rudely shipped away, soon to be flung on the fire.

He turned her toward him. “I’m sorry, that’s a stupid question,” he said. “Let me rephrase. Are you tired from your long journey?”

She smiled, although since her lips were frozen into the expression they’d given her, she was always smiling, so telling the difference was impossible. “I am tired!” she said, he said. “But I’m so pleased to be here and make your acquaintance.”

 He smiled back at her. “Would you like a tour of your new home?”

 “Yes!” they said.

He walked her through the house, pointing out the art, the hot-water-on-demand, the bathroom window he left open because the salt air wafting in from the ocean was too sweet to shut out. “I’m sorry,” he stuttered. “I don’t suppose you understand.”

 She wanted – if a puppet could want – to reassure him. Maybe she couldn’t smell things, technically, but she liked the idea of it.

 “It’s fine!” she, he enthused.

They continued the tour in companionable silence. When they reached the bedroom, he tucked her in before changing into his pajamas. Normally he slept naked, but with her, dummy that she was, being naked felt inappropriate.

If she was real, she would have thanked him. The eyebrows were bad enough.

The eyebrows, if they had eyes of their own, would have rolled them. “Really?” they would have said. At least we’re real. At least, they would have said, we’re real.

insomnia #22 aka “I Want to Know What Love Is”

It worries me that the songs most often stuck in my head are by Foreigner. 1.) I’m not that old. 2.) Foreigner, really? Why not The Cure or Violent Femmes or Concrete Blonde or Elvis Costello or Nirvana or PJ Harvey? Bands that seeped into my adolescence, bands that soundtracked me into adulthood. Bands that meant something to me. I’d welcome something recent – I do listen to new music daily, after all – anything decent, something to reassure me I’m neither obsolete nor lacking in taste.

But, no. It’s all “Jukebox Hero” and “Cold as Ice” and “Urgent” bouncing around in my skull as I’m lying in bed at 3 a.m. unable to sleep. That, as much as the inability to stop the concurrent roil of thoughts, forced me out of bed.

Let’s talk about surfing instead. As ever, I don’t surf enough – there is no enough – but I did get out for a session earlier this week, scored a few fast, head-high rights in a friendly crowd before the wave shut down like our time had run out. (“Put another quarter in!” we joke, those of us familiar with quarter-driven mechanical animal rides.) The wind accelerated as we paddled around in search of that one more, one more, one more that would finally take us in to the beach. I need a new wetsuit (again) and the breeze on top of the cold water had me shivering – by the time I managed to pick off a left, my calfs were cramping and my knees stiff.

But, still. Surfing was better than not surfing. The current never relented and my shoulders ached the next day from all the paddling – “It should be called ‘paddling,’ not ‘surfing,'” one of my friends regularly jokes – and the ache made me happy.

I should read something and I think I will soon. When did the habit become always to turn to the computer? Alison Bechdel’s marvelous Fun Home waits to be finished, New Yorkers pile up alongside Mental Floss and The Atlantic as if our living room is a waiting room, only I never find myself sitting down, killing time until someone is ready for me. Instead, I am the person people are waiting for as I finish the dishes, fold the laundry, pay the bills, complain that the bathroom needs cleaning, announce for the millionth time, “I have so much to do.” Last year, I practiced making Sundays a no-screen, no-car day with the only exception being to look up the swell and/or drive to the waves. It was lovely to lie on the couch, book in hand, or jaunt out to the beach sans phone, and I think I will try it again.

Does everyone obsess about improving themselves? We absorb endless messages about how to be smarter, happier, more successful. Thinner. (Always thinner.) In between the “22 Things Happy People Do Differently” and “8 Facts Will Make You More Productive” (both of which I have bookmarked, along with “5 Things Super Successful People Do Before 8 a.m.” and “5 Scientific Secrets to High Performance“) – in between these manifestos on How To Be Better are treatises on the importance of self-acceptance. I often wonder at what point we’re allowed to stop striving and say instead, “Look, this is how I am.”

Because I know a lot of people who wear their faults without regret, embrace their curmudgeonly or messy selves or, more likely, just get on with the business of living as if part of them isn’t hovering above, watching and judging their behavior without pause. Oblivion to one’s effect on others has drawbacks, but sometimes I would appreciate a break from so much worry.

I was reading an advice column – partly because I enjoy advice and good writing, and partly because I’m a human who does things and has people, so I can usually relate in some way to what’s happening (unless it’s Savage Love, which, perhaps sadly, offers problems more exciting than my own) – when a line in a letter from a frustrated former employee regarding an open position at her prior workplace resonated: “I don’t think I actually want the job; I’m well aware of the frustrations and challenges of that particular role. What I want is for them to want me.”

Oh, yeah. I know that one. Even if I don’t want to come to your party, I will be hurt if you don’t invite me.

And then it was as columnist Heather Havrilesky climbed into my brain with her response:

“…So you wanted someone to show you that they noticed all of this hard work. You wanted to feel wanted. Instead, they said ‘Sorry, we just can’t promote you.’ Here’s what they DIDN’T say: ‘Sorry, you’re not good enough.’ That’s what you HEARD, but that’s not what they actually said.

“…And maybe you’ve never seen a therapist. Maybe… you return to old slights as if there’s some important mystery to be solved there, as if the more you dig up buried disappointments, the more you’ll learn about what you did wrong. You figure you fucked up something, or maybe there’s something off about the people involved, and if you look really hard at the mess you left behind, you might figure it all out.

“…I will work tirelessly to be understood. I will explain and re-explain. And at some level, I am absolutely certain that, with enough explaining, I will be understood and embraced—at long last!”

That last one, seriously. My friends laugh (at least I hope they laugh) about how prone I am to following up conversations with emails elaborating on “What I actually meant in case I wasn’t clear” or “I didn’t mean to be a jerk when I said such-and-such.” Havrilesky’s lengthy response could have been aimed at – or written by – me. Which is kind of crazy, right? Because I’m not lacking in validation or (I think) confidence. But we take the good feedback for granted sometimes, weight the criticism as if it means more, then spend our efforts trying to prove ourselves to the wrong people. (Please note how I switched to third person there. Because it’s not just me… right?)

Which is why the advice in the final paragraph should be taken to heart:

“Some workplaces, some bosses, some friends, some relatives, some exes will never want you, and will never appreciate all of the amazing qualities you bring to the table. It has nothing to do with you. Forget them. Build those parts of you that make you feel peaceful and accepting and satisfied and soft and vulnerable. Make a religion out of letting go. You do great work, and everyone knows it. Don’t fixate on the indifferent. Keep yourself surrounded by people who look you in the eye, listen closely, and really seem interested in you as a person. Try to do the same for your friends. Stop working so goddamn hard for once in your life. You are already good enough.”

Look, this is how I am.



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.


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