beyond insomnia (or, how even ancient praise can continue to inspire)

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It’s not really insomnia if I roll out of bed at 5:51 a.m., even if I haven’t slept much, even if I want to throttle the neighbor’s rooster whose biological imperative drives him to begin crowing at 4 a.m. and continue into the afternoon. But the rooster’s not the primary impediment to sleep – that would be the ongoing pain in my shoulder or maybe the wine I drank celebrating a friend’s visit or perhaps the inability to sleep relates to the anxiety that nightly condenses in my brain.

Some things help. For years I tossed a couple Tylenol PMs down my throat, but a person can only imbibe so many pharmaceuticals before growing weary. I attempt less medicinal solutions, read before bed instead of watching a movie. The shift in attention from screen to page helps. At the very least, I fall asleep absorbed in someone else’s life. Like many similarly aged ladyfriends, I’ve switched from red wine to white – and soon, I fear, will abandon wine altogether for the promise of “Golden Slumber” tea. (The next step, clearly, being wheeled into a home to await physical death as all the pleasures of life will have had to be denied.)

The best advice I’ve encountered regarding insomnia came from the pages of Beth Lisick’s Helping Me Help Myself and involves rewinding through your day. I lie in bed, left arm tucked under the pillow, curled into a semi-fetal position, a foot sticking out from under the covers, and think backwards about all I did during the day. Typically, I’ll fall back asleep before I get to the part where I woke up. But sometimes my mind wanders too much and I find myself yanked sideways, worrying about the children, the bills, work, the future.

I wish that damn rooster would shut up.

When the clock notes we’ve passed the 5 a.m. mark, I figure I might as well get up. Downstairs the cats mew for food, so I feed them, at least the three that are around. I’m afraid to leave food in an untended bowl lest the other cats chow down before the fourth arrives. Too many cats. They all have their fine qualities, but really – too many cats. Two of them are family cats and the other two belong to my older daughter, who has left them here while she sorts out her life hither and yon. She’ll be back soon, then leave again, maybe taking the cats with her, maybe sending for them later. Keeping them here is truly only a small inconvenience, I remind myself, and an easy way to help her out. The kitten, a tuxedo’d thing as big as the full-grown felines, curls up on the couch, sated.

I stir turmeric and honey together, pour boiling water overtop, mix in soy milk. This is supposed to help the inflammation in my shoulder, as is the arnica, the cannabis tincture, the cannabis salve. Some combination of these healing efforts has reduced the pain from the tear-inducing waves of a few weeks ago, but I found myself tying my flannel into a sling Sunday while walking on the beach, the weight of my arm being enough to trigger more ache than I could ignore. I wonder if I’ll ever surf again. The past few days have offered small, user-friendly waves under plenty of sunshine and no wind of note. I should have tried. But I’m afraid. Scared I’ll hurt myself further, concerned my attempts to push off my board will radiate awkwardness, leave me stumbling, be an exercise in embarrassment. I am unsure which is worse: the sadness of not paddling out or the heartache of paddling into failure. (Insert surf-cliché as life metaphor: Is it better to have gone for the wave and wiped out than to never have surfed at all?)

So, yes. Poor me. Turmeric downed, I wait for the Earl Grey Creme to steep. The sky glows lavender. I page through a book I ordered special from Northtown a few weeks ago. Breeder: Real-Life Stories from the New Generation of Mothers. It’s an older book, published in 2001, an anthology curated by the editors of Hip Mama magazine and foreworded by Dan Savage. I had a copy once, but apparently loaned it out at some point and my shelves haven’t seen the book since. I wanted another copy because I’m published in it, the only book I’m published in so far – not counting the surf guide that ganked an excerpt from my Arcata Eye report on witnessing a shark attack – and I have no copy of the essay within.

My tea steeps and I flip to my chapter. I laugh at how much I sound like me. Fourteen years has not changed my habit of writing action, action and action. I do this and then I do that and then I do another thing, hoping the reader gleans from these verbs all that is too important to leave to mere adjectives. I’m pleased to still be pleased. To have had one essay in an independent anthology nearly a decade-and-a-half ago is hardly proof that I’m destined to be a writer, but that triumph affirmed my path at a time when my roles as wife, mother, student, writer sometimes conflicted badly, often left me unsure which way to go.

The book garnered only mixed reviews. Publisher’s Weekly opined “this collection of essays by Gen-X writers proves that motherhood is much the same no matter what generation one is from.” But that same review also said, “Among the exceptions is ‘Learning to Surf,’ in which Jennifer Savage thoughtfully recounts her journey from being 22-year-old single mom and punk rocker to a married mother of three learning to surf.” That line, for better or worse, has sustained me through times of wondering what the hell I think I’m doing with all these words and stuff.

Encouragement can make all the difference in what one pursues.

(I should note, too, that I met my friend and Humboldt native Peri Escarda through Breeder. The Amazon review says of her essay, “And we can all be grateful to Peri Escarda for helping us find the ‘Perfect Name’ to offer a daughter when she points between her legs and asks, ‘What’s dat?'”)

I write.

when the house stays clean and every night is date night

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We sleep with the blinds up and so can see to the east and south from our bed. I often wake to the sunrise framed like a painting. Sometimes I’ll nudge Bobby, “Look! Look at the sky,” and he will raise his head, mumble, “Pretty,” and roll back into slumber. Today I watched as the slashes of cloud lit up, brilliant pink against the pale green-yellow of the twilight sky – that odd, inexplicable color – then faded to the standby white-on-blue as the day settled in. The pretty lingered in my heart, however. I love this house.

We only moved upstairs a bit over a year ago, after the girls had moved out and Nick had graduated. For over 15 years, through two houses, Bobby and I have taken the downstairs bedroom and the children have lived upstairs – we preferred the kids grouped together and ourselves a line of defense in case of break-ins. Also, the mess stayed somewhat contained.

In our first house, up in Ridgewood Heights, the upstairs rooms had been smaller, the downstairs one the largest of the three. Here in Manila, the main upstairs bedroom is the master one, complete with arched doorway, skylight and clawfoot bathtub – our landlords, who lived here first, are romantics. The other upstairs “bedroom” isn’t one, technically. It’s six-by-nine-feet and lacks a closet. For the first seven years we lived here, it also lacked a window. When I’d been looking for a place to rent, the listing had described “two bedrooms plus office.” I hadn’t expected the house to work, hadn’t expected to show up and discover the sort of house I’d dreamed of, wonderful light and wood floors, redwood deck and easy walk to the beach, salt in the air and the ocean steady in my ears – two steps in and I didn’t care how we had to make it work, I knew we’d make it work and that this was where we should be.

Fortunately my soon-to-be landlords felt the same way.

Since we had three kids to divide between two rooms, the deal struck was either you shared the big room or you had a room, albeit tiny, to yourself. It worked out for a long while. Once Chelsea left, Kaylee took total command of the master room, creating disparity, but when she moved out, Nick had the entire second floor as his domain. Bobby had already started pushing for us to move upstairs – we’d been in the unassuming downstairs bedroom for a decade – but I insisted we wait till Nick was done with high school. Navigating the rapid changes, drama and expectations teenagers suffer had exhausted me too much to further risk destabilizing our world. Letting Nick keep the upstairs through graduation was a way I could be nice at a time when so many efforts to be kind backfired.

When we asserted control of the upstairs and shifted Nick to the downstairs bedroom, he shrugged. Not a big deal. Bobby repainted the upstairs, making one of the walls a gorgeous blue. I gushed and asked, “Why didn’t we do this years ago?”

We’re still doing a bit of a kid shuffle – Chelsea moved in shortly before Nick moved out – so we’re not quite yet having the house to ourselves. What we do have is a growing understanding of the upside of losing parental control over our progeny.

To be clear, we worry as much as ever and we still do what we can to support and celebrate them all, whether responding to long distance laundry emergencies via texts or going over the FAFSA together at the dining table. We applaud good choices and attempt (emphasis on attempt) to refrain from criticizing the bad ones – telling someone what they’re doing wrong is one of the least effective ways to encourage change. It’s been a long time since we could “make” them do anything. When they were teenagers engaging in actions likely to result in bad consequences, we still tried, because as parents, you always have to try. Now that they’re adults, we must acknowledge they are very clearly their own people. (Good luck, kids.) And so after a lifetime of relating to each other primarily through shared parenting of these demanding, joyous creatures, we’re finding ourselves focusing on us. Soon, we think, the house will stay clean and every night will be date night.

We’ve never lived together without children!

We worry as much as ever.

We still do what we can to support and celebrate them all.

But the responsibility has lessened – whether we wanted it to or not – and with this lightening comes a little bit of freedom. And a view.

any belief will do

Once, when Chelsea was two, she wandered off. We lived in Long Beach at the time and were hanging out at a lazy afternoon barbecue in a mid-upscale neighborhood a couple blocks from the beach. Bougainvillea cascaded down beachy bungalows, more statuesque houses boasted manicured lawns bordered by well-kept flowers of all sorts. So at least we lost her in a nice place.

The guys stood around on the driveway, making jokes about one thing or another, while we wives and girlfriends laughed with each other about how silly the guys were and Chelsea giggled at the adults. I’d stepped into the house to collect our things. Scooping up my purse and the diaper bag took only a minute. When I walked back outside, Chelsea was gone. Nobody had noticed. We all panicked, teamed up and set off in different directions. My heart had stopped. My baby. Alone! Someone would grab her, pull her into a car, speed away. I would never see her again. I’d lost my child.

We called for her, looked between houses, asked people on porches. Hours passed – no, not hours, but each second extended an eternity. I had fallen off a cliff. The salty air crushed my lungs. My stomach twisted. What sort of awful mother loses her child like this?

I put one foot in front of the other, eyes searching. And then we saw her. On a porch with a couple adults whose concern manifested in scolding me as I arrived in front of them, out of breath from racing to my daughter. I burst into tears as I hugged Chelsea to me. These people were right. I was the worst.

When your children are small, you are supposed to know where they are. And you usually do. At the end of your arm. Singing in a circle at school. Warming up with catch at baseball practice. Staying over at a friend’s house. Sleeping, teddy bears tucked under an arm.

Then the teddy bears give way to boyfriends and girlfriends at some point, and you know they’re “out,” but not always where. Field trips to Ashland are replaced by exchange programs in Germany. You know the name of the town she’s in, the names of the people she’s staying with, but you have little idea of where the day takes her.

They move out, move back, move out again. Sometimes you only know they’re in town because they call to say they need to do laundry, to shower. Your son rolls his eyes at you, tells you to stop sending texts asking if he’s alive. “Why don’t you just wait for a phone call saying I’m dead?” he lobs, walking out the door, as if it’s a joke, this naming of your worst fear out loud for God and all to hear.

Not that you believe in God, because why would you? You weren’t raised in church and you’re fine with that because although you love stories – you read out loud to your children until they were teenagers – you prefer science and the kind of magic you can see, touch, breathe. The wonder of the redwoods. The undulation of the ocean. A particularly stirring sunrise.

But you understand when one girlfriend tells you she prays nightly for her children’s safety and another describes how she envisions her children wrapped in cloaks of golden, angelic protection. For if man had not already invented God as a way to explain the world, mothers would have done so in hopes of safeguarding their children within it.

my life in hospitals

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When I was six years old, I had my tonsils out. My parents had given me a teddy bear nearly half my size to keep me company during the procedure. The doctor and nurses pretended that Jon-Jon, as I’d named him, would also be having his tonsils removed. A nurse tucked him into a hospital gown and cap, and as the anesthesiologist put me under, Jon-Jon was cuddled against me. They moved him away during the operation, but returned him before I awoke. I remember being happy he was okay. We ate lots of ice cream.

I wouldn’t go back to the hospital until 1990, when I was 20 and in labor. The movement toward women having ownership of their birth experience hadn’t reached Lancaster yet – the hospital’s procedure involved starting a woman in the labor room, moving her to the birth room, then moving her to the recovery room and the nurses were very much boss. My own shift into taking charge of my self-esteem also hadn’t yet occurred. I believed the people who thought I was an idiot for getting pregnant at 19. I had no idea how to assert myself. Labor hurt. They gave me an epidural, which eased the pain, but slowed down my ability to push. After Chelsea, perfect little creature, had emerged, the anesthesiologist shot me full of painkillers. “You’re my favorite doctor,” I told him. When we arrived home, I noted how huge the world was and how small my new baby. I hugged her tight to me.

We’d return to the hospital six months later after moving to Long Beach. Chelsea woke us with a horrible and continuous cough, so we bundled her into Bobby’s convertible 1967 Skylark – seriously bundled her as the top didn’t work, so we had to ride with it down – and raced to the ER. The hospital we landed at directed us via ambulance to another hospital, the one where our insurance would work, and within an hour, our baby’s barking seal noises were identified as “the croup” and she was admitted. Chelsea spent a week there, sleeping underneath an oxygen tent, an IV in her tiny wrist. I stayed the entire time, occasionally ducking out to the fire exit for fresh air and an unimpeded view of the sky. When the nurses first attempted the IV, they booted me out of the room. I paced the hall, listening to my baby scream in pain as the nurses failed to hit the vein. They raised their voices to better gossip with each other and that’s when motherly rage swept over me for the first time. I demanded they stop. I demanded to see the doctor. I demanded they not touch my baby again. The head nurse showed up, talked me down. She asked if I would allow her to try, just once, to do the IV. If it didn’t work, she’d get the doctor immediately. I gave her permission, but stayed in the room. She poked the needle into Chelsea’s arm, right spot, first time. We moved on.

My second child’s birth, in 1994, was at the UCI birth center, not a hospital – I’d found some confidence and a friend who introduced me to her midwife. Visits to the birth center reenforced that what I wanted mattered. Life, as it does, ignored my plans – we were in Lancaster when my water broke 16 days early. Bobby navigated the two-hour freeway drive while I clenched my hands in the passenger seat and tried to not scare Chelsea, wide-eyed in the back, with my groans. At the birth center, they ushered me into a warm tub, then set Bobby and I up in a bed with Chelsea in a room nearby. A group of students peered in, on tour. At some point, one of the midwives gently suggested I focus my energy “inward” as a younger woman down the hall was alarmed by my wailing. From water breakage to Kaylee’s birth was about four hours. We stayed the night, then high on postpartum adrenaline, charged out into the world the next morning. The rush lasted through dinner that night – we took our 24-hour old baby out for Thai food. The waiter laughed and said she looked like Tweety Bird, all big-eyed and bald and darling.

We would again rush from Lancaster when Kaylee was four months old. We’d moved back to the desert and in with Bobby’s mom, who did not believe in running the air conditioning, even when it was 100 degrees – or more – outside. Over the course of a week, K had been increasingly fussy, nursing less, looking unwell. When our pediatrician saw her, she ordered blood tests, then called to tell us, “You need to take her to Children’s Hospital in L.A. right away.” The heat had caused my infant to sweat so profusely that she’d become severely dehydrated. I have a photo of K that I took before we left, still all eyes but even more so on her shrunken frame – she’d dropped from 12 lbs. to nine in just 72 hours. By her second day in the hospital, an IV had plumped her back up and she’d started nursing again. I stayed at her side, wincing at the coughing children in the ward, worried we’d leave with tuberculosis. Her full stay in the hospital lasted six days. When we returned to Bobby’s mother’s house, the air conditioner was on.

In 1995, I gave birth to Nick in the same hospital where Chelsea had been born. Time had changed some things – fewer room transfers – and not others – the nurses were still condescending. I’d arrived already dilated to 10 centimeters, a mere hour after contractions had started. Barely a moment existed between one wave of pain and the next. My obstetrician broke my water and boom! there was Nick. He looked like a little old man, like his grandpa, exactly. We stayed the night, argued with the nurses about breastfeeding, took him home the next day.

His week-long stay wouldn’t come until he was 11 years old, after several weeks of feeling generally unwell and having to pee constantly culminated in a night of vomiting. At the time, I had no idea what was wrong, had pondered he might have a UTI, but with three kids someone had to be bleeding or something broken for me to believe it was serious. Nick had already been to the ER twice for staples and stitches, and this spate of lethargy didn’t rise to that level – so I thought. The reality was much worse and dropped on me by an urgent care nurse who smelled his breath and said, “Oh, he’s got diabetes,” as if she were remarking on something negligible. Her tone would have been appropriate if she’d been telling me I had something in my teeth. Life thus changed and Nick desperately ill, the next move was to airlift him to UCSF’s medical center. I accompanied him on the plane, a speedy red deal the size of an ambulance but sleek and cool. I was so troubled that Nick could enjoy neither this Hot Wheels of a plane nor the amazing view – my mind finding small things to worry about because the large concern was far too big. Once he was well enough to eat, I would leave the hospital only to buy better food for us down on Irving Street, then rush back. A week was long enough to get Nick back to health and to absorb a crash course in Type 1 diabetes, but not nearly long enough to understand the impact this disease would have. That would take – is still taking.

The years before and after this were punctuated with ER runs, notably the aforementioned stitches and staples, plus a series of visits when Kaylee was 10 and suffering from a mysterious stomach ailment that ended up with her on morphine at one point. Nick’s diabetes continues to necessitate occasional emergency care as recently as Christmas break.

But the next week of actual hospitalization would involve Bobby and a lung infection. Before we knew it was a lung infection, the doctors kept telling us cancer. Cancer, cancer, cancer. He was still on a gurney in the overcrowded ER hallway when the first doctor broke the news. After the doctor walked away, Bobby and I spilled out 20 years of apologies and explanations and I-love-yous to each other because we didn’t know what would happen. Three days and many tests later, another doctor who’d tossed the cancer verdict in Bobby’s direction looked up from his chart, puzzled. Not cancer, he said. Relief competed with frustration they’d put us through so much worry, but mostly the release from anxiety carried the day. Still, he’d been quite sick, dropping 20 lbs. in a month – the infection had nearly wiped him out – so further stay was necessary. I spent days at the side of his bed, bringing him food and an iPod full of music and books. St. Joe’s was undergoing construction at the time, so nights were full of clanging and banging in addition to the constant beeps and alarms. The nurses spoke kindly to us, however, and friends and family stepped up to help out – we were loved very much during this spring of 2010. (Bobby has been healthy since, but still refuses to go to the doctor when I tell him to.)

I have spent less time in hospitals than some.

I am grateful the hospital stays have coincided with the times we’ve had Medi-Cal or health insurance. I am grateful we’ve had access to decent doctors and well-trained staff. I am grateful, ever grateful, that all of the hospitals stays have ended with everyone leaving alive and whole.

surf session #2

Well, that was a bummer. The swell rolled in nicely, head-high or so, lots of closeouts, but a shoulder here and there. Only a few people were out, friends and groms. The sky was doing its Michelangelo thing. It should’ve been a magical evening – but apparently the magic that was keeping my knee wonkiness at bay in the water has evaporated. Every time I went to pop up, something went wrong. Wrong as in I fell over. Now, I’m a competent catcher of waves at best, but I’m normally at least competent. This was one of those sessions that I ended embarrassed and frustrated. I’m telling myself that the combination of not going to the gym, two days of running and diving on the sand, and all the accompanying stiffness is responsible – and that with a week or two of getting back into my regimen, thing will get better. It’s a drag when your body lets you down.

But hey, it was still a lovely evening.

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2014 in books (reviews, recommendations)

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Starting a new list to go with the new year and need to put last year’s somewhere. Since I’m forever complaining I never read any more, seeing that I did manage several books reassures me “never” might be an overstatement. I appreciated this tweet by Austin Kleon (minus the “Throw your phone in the ocean” bit, of course.) The rest is excellent advice if you’re longing to spend more time with a book in hand. On that note, here’s what I read in 2014 – a short list by reader standards – and a few thoughts about whether or not the book was worth it.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart – It was super sad! And funny! And brilliant. This is my favorite of his I’ve read (excluding his blurbs, a world unto themselves). Reading work by someone whose style is so different from mine inspires me to play around more with my own writing and, more importantly, I’m not consumed with envy or despair at the end. As in, “Oh my god, this is exactly what I want to do and I’ll never do it this well so why even bother ever writing again since the world has enough books in it anyway and who I am to think I’m worthy of adding another and jesus why is this bottle of wine already empty? Life is horrible.” So, yeah. With Shteyngart, I don’t get that. (And that how Super Sad True Love story is about me.) Super satisfying.

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño – A rather sweet noir and one of the slimmest of Bolaño’s books. He’s an author whose works I fell into a few years ago, beginning with hauling The Savage Detectives around Taiwan for two weeks, which was not the ideal way to consume dense and complex storytelling. But the fault is mine – his writing is fantastic. Some books need to be approached with the understanding that there will be time and commitment involved. If I attempt to rush through them, it’s not good for either of us. Where was I? Yes, Monsieur Pain. A relatively quick read that I was happy to have experienced.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell – I started to write “delicious short stories infused with magical realism” and immediately realized how idiotic that sounded. This is why I rarely review things. Anyway, loved this. She also wrote Swamplandia, which is on my list of all-time favorite novels.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt – Happened upon this for a song at Green Apple and dug it. Do note that I am a sucker for Western noirs. They turn into movies in my head, all starring Viggo Mortensen.

Switch by Chip and Dan Heath – Nonfiction! This book is about how to change. Things. People. The world to some extent. Breezy, occasionally surprising, seemed spot on. I’ll report back on how effective the advice is as soon as I’m done changing everything.

The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings – Hadn’t seen the movie, wasn’t sure what to expect, enjoyed the dramatic unfolding of family dynamics. Classic beach or airplane read.

Cain by José Saramago – Another random find at Green Apple. Devoured it. Described as “wickedly funny” and I can’t improve on that succinct description. Satire, sex, sideways cleverness. Reminded me of what I like about Vonnegut. Because of this book, when I saw another by Saramago on sale at Northtown, I snagged it. Looking forward to more.

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This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz – Collection of short stories, probably my favorite read of the year. I can’t do justice to Diaz and will have to hope that saying what I like about his writing is “it’s perfect” suffices. By which I mean, the words are put together in such a way as to enrapture the reader into following character after character without even considering stopping and that the telling is done by relaying details, dialogue, actions in such a way that understanding, sympathy, longing are all elicited without ever having been banged over the head with Here Is The Meaning and How You Should Feel like so many authors are prone to doing. You could give this book to someone to show them what writing is supposed to be.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay – Couldn’t put this down, mostly because the subject matter is horrific and I didn’t want to leave off until I knew whether things would be okay or not. The balance between messaging and storytelling was tilted a bit too far toward the former for me to love this book unconditionally, but not much wrong with it either.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – I made it about four-fifths of the way through this one and then couldn’t be bothered to finish. Much of it I enjoyed. Ultimately I wearied of characters as the ratio of effort to reward shifted unfortunately.

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta – Totally readable, but I confess to adoring Election so much that I’ve never been able to be infatuated with any of Perrotta’s other books. Usually, I would rather have just re-read Election than whichever other one I’ve gone through.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by ZsuZsi Gartner – This! Another short story collection. Fantastic. It delivered the kind of reading in which I was simultaneously wholly caught up in the stories and at the same time part of my brain was whooping, “Now, yes! This! This is writing!” Very cool.

As the Great World Spins by Colum McCann – This is a book already celebrated in zillions of reviews as amazing and marvelous and more. I completely agree. I knew nothing about it going in – I acquired it when I hosted a book swap at my house – and had no idea where it was going, found myself immersed nightly, looked forward to returning to it during the day, was fully satisfied with it at the end.

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All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews – Here’s what I said about this book on Facebook: “You know when you absorb a story so completely that the characters are as real in your thoughts as people you actually know? That.” The other potential favorite. If I were to pick a favorite. Who knew a book about a suicidal sister could be hilarious? I also cried a whole bunch. And yeah, the people in this book will hang in my memory more vividly than much of my “real” life.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman – The other book I didn’t finish. I was horribly disappointed in this book! Partly because based on all the rave reviews, I gave it to a (extremely picky) friend as a birthday present years ago. How embarrassing. The other reason is because it starts out well enough, but spirals into an increasingly boring read as character vignettes are interspersed with italicized narrative. Look, I love character vignettes – in fact, the format of this book is rather exactly the way in which I write – but ugh, the characters grew less interesting with each turn and at some point it felt like Rachman stopped even trying to adhere to the fine advice that writers show, not tell and just went, “Oh here, here’s the story” instead of actually writing a story anyone would want to read. I don’t understand why this novel rated such admiration. Boo.

surf session #1 (hello, 2015!)

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I decided last month to start chronicling my surf sessions again in hopes of a.) better remembering them and b.) being nudged to surf more. Which is crazy, right? That I would have to encourage myself to do more of this thing I love? We are strange people, those of us who repeatedly let the mundane preempt joy despite knowing better. Sure, life demands we fulfill certain obligations, but what strange part of our brain compels us to spend time that could be spent immersed in the wonder of the world in front of a computer or cleaning out a closet instead? I wonder these things.

Maybe 2015 will be the year I solve this riddle. In any case, I hope it is a year of many waves caught. Unfortunately, my motivation to paddle out yesterday – New Year’s surf is mandatory! – was not accompanied by any actual skill or wave savvy. Quite humbling, this stupid sport is. In my defense, I arrived exhausted from an hour prior of intense Frisbee-flinging with the accompanying running, leaping and diving across the sand. And I hadn’t slept much from our New Year’s Eve crawl. Also, a shorter board with a little rocker would’ve helped with the late drops. I’d expected smaller waves and only brought my longboard. Still. Excuses! None justify my clumsiness. I look forward to redemption in a future session.

On the upside: the sky glowed all the colors necessary for a spectacular sunset; several friendly faces greeted me in the line-up; to be in the ocean was as life-affirming (if ego-crushing) as usual. Also, I still revel in the good fortune of owning a 4WD truck that allows me to cruise right out to the beach and stay till dark chasing crumbs of swell until I am forced to admit that pretty as the moon’s glitter is, I can no longer see. I drive home in my wetsuit because the few miles to my house are faster than tugging it off and why strip down on the beach when I can do in a hot shower so nearby? It is a dream at times, this life. I marvel it is real.

2014: the good

January

Started working at the Northcoast Environmental Center, which meant I not only continued to have a job after being laid off by Ocean Conservancy, but was able to stay in the Greenway (aka “old Yakima”) Building, which boasts fantastic people, an office garden, sweet loaner bikes and an atmosphere of optimism.

February

My older daughter turned 24. Kj and I escaped for a day hiking through the redwoods and an evening spend at Benbow Inn, where C surprised us by having a gift certificate delivered. Love abounded. I used the word “motherfucker” in a Five Things column about not stiffing your server and people wrote in, offended, which caused the word to be repeated, repeatedly. I stood on top of the tallest building between San Francisco and Portland and reveled in local, coastal environmental progress.

March

My younger daughter turned 20. My writers’ group continued to meet, write, inspire. I began a love affair with the Humboldt Bay Tourism Center – oysters! wine! kombucha! excellent lighting! beautiful design! cheese! My friend Heidi Walters unfolded the story of the Wiyot tribe’s long overdue “Renewal.” My pal Ryan Burns wrote one of his best stories yet, an examination of a smear campaign against Shannon Miranda. A Sacramento trip provided reconnection with some of the ocean people who most illustrate success, who remind me of what I aspire to. I took Isla to the zoo.

April 

I helped judge a drag war. I helped my friends Steve and Amy Bohner build a distillery. I helped return a phone. I helped our NEC work study student understand Sacramento: inner workings, outer show and that sometimes in a fancy restaurant the waiter will place your napkin on your lap for you and yes, it’s ridiculous. I helped myself to friendship by accepting invitations to Easter, to brunch. I reveled in beauty, expressed gratitude.

May

A road trip to Bandon, Oregon with colleagues and co-workers led to bonding over mosquitos, flea markets and the wonder of turning beach trash into art. Bobby and I continued on to Portland, where we stayed with one of my dearest, most long-time friends, a woman I shared a room with one magical San Diego summer when I was 18, working at Gold’s Gym, seeing bands at the Casbah and falling in love with Bobby. A woman who will tell stories about that time we went to Ensenada. (Or better, won’t.) What a thing, to have a friend who has known you so well and forever. And then we visited more friends, a wife and husband with a baby and toddler, and we had the pleasure of their company, of helping out, of going eating, drinking, seeing bands. My knees went bad, but provided some writing fodder. Mother’s Day at the beach. Kayaking on the bay. Bike commuting. Tidepooling with Redwood Coast Montessori and Friends of the Dunes. Bobby did amazing art. Twenty-two years ago, Bobby and I married each other.

June

My younger daughter departed for Europe. I wrote about sending her off for the Journal, the editors of which continue to invite me to write more. I was grateful for small things. My cool genius brother Tag Savage went to the White House as part of a Tumblr gig. I toured on the Madaket, I traveled to Crescent City, I played impromptu pool at Hum Brews, I assisted in the creation of a sand sculpture – “The NESea Monster,” get it? – what a life! I kept writing. I made cookies with Isla. I decamped for the Bay Area, a week bouncing between San Francisco and Oakland, excellent friends and fine food and a rush to finish a grant report that found me sitting in Commonweath Oakland during a World Cup game, the entire pub staring at the TV high in the corner, under which was the only open table. There I sat, filling in grant deliverables and project outcomes while the crowd roared around me. Bobby, Nick and I attended our friends’ wedding in Half Moon Bay, a humble, adorable, romantic ceremony on the beach under a driftwood arch. Love abounded.

July

New York! Visited my cool genius brother and his brilliant wife in their new Park Slope digs. Bicycled to the Rockaways. Surfed Long Beach. Biked over the Brooklyn Bridge and wrote about it for Lost Coast Outpost. (Did not succeed in disconnecting.) Infatuated with this poem. Surfing and writing and Crabs games and Humboldt Folklife Fest and summer.

August

Insomnia is relentless. Outside Lands is fabulous. Drinking is dangerous. Writing is life (is sanity). Linda Stansberry is brilliant. Bobby is 51 and still loves me. The month ends with a beginning as Andy and Alanna, two of the sweetest people, make official their commitment in a ceremony that has attendees alternately weeping and laughing and weeping some more and laughing again. They won weddings and I remain honored to have witnessed the triumph. Love abounds.

September

Humboldt’s busiest month? HSU’s volunteer fair, political fundraisers, Coastal Cleanup Day, North Country Fair – the latter included street theater organized by my boss (who gets annoyed when I refer to him as “my boss”) Dan Ehresman, whose flair for dramatic messaging proved as humble as it was brilliant. Also brilliant, my friend Malcolm’s Coastal Cleanup Day video, which featured even more friends casually confirming that we live in a beautiful place among beautiful people. (Further elaborated upon as my stint in the Insider continued.) Somewhere in there, I traveled to Ventura for the Surfrider California Chapters conference, an annual motivational experience heightened by a keynote speech by Shaun Thompson. This month’s takeaway: “Commit.” To the drop, to the world.

October

Isla and I attended the circus. I discovered Mark Manson. I wrote emotionally, confessionally, embarrassingly. One of our NEC interns joined me for a trip to Mendocino, where we paddled Big River Estuary – a marine conservation area! – and I tried to convince her that Manhattans were preferable to froofy cocktails, because while the information I have to impart to the youth is minimal, it is still useful and true. We then traveled to Oakland, where a glorious birthday party unfolded along Lake Merritt’s shoreside. The birthday party in question belonged to one-year-old Viva, precocious daughter of friends Lila and Ian, more talented, beautiful people who inexplicably allow me to share their life from time to time. Blessings counted. From there we launched into the Treasure Island Music Fest. I was a million years older than everyone, bands included, and I didn’t care at all. I siphoned the energy of the youth and drank of their enthusiasm. (That is my secret, friends.) I drove all the way to Long Beach in a day, stayed up drinking margaritas with Deric, whom I met when he was a lad shoveling ice cream at Bon Boniere and I was a shiny new scene editor at the Arcata Eye. Now he’s a veteran of foreign affairs and my older daughter is older than he was when we first discussed the local music scene over mint chip. I am realizing that 2014 was The Year of the Friend in many ways and Deric and his wife Megan are some of my favorites. I collected my older daughter, her dog and two cats in the morning and drove the entire length home. More friends, more dinners, more parties. (Thank you.) The Giants won the World Series! I worried about things.

November

My son turned 19. I voted. Kept writing: fiction with my fellow writers, music for the Journal, ocean for LoCO. I turned 45, planned nothing, was spoiled all week by friends taking me to lunch, dinner, drinks. For the first time, my age disconcerted me. I think about that sometimes. Then shrug. What can a girl do? Just try to be her best, always. And work hard and be kind. And forgive herself when she stumbles. Those things remain true. And attempt to answer questions intelligently when your journalist friend interviews you about trails and Humboldt Bay. Friends invited me to picnic at Luffenholtz and I paddled out between the rocks for the hell of it. Nick moved to Isla Vista.

December

My Facebook habit ebbed. My friendships did not. I stood on a stage and told the story of how the Marine Life Protection Act came to the North Coast and people did not fall asleep (as far as I know). OK, I nailed it. I did! I wanted to. It meant a lot to me. I knew I’d do fine, but I wanted to hit all the right notes and look confident doing it and I stood up there and delivered my talk and said everything I’d planned and walked off mentally fist-pumping the whole way. I worked out. We attended multiple holiday parties. I drove to Point Reyes, all the way to the end of the peninsula for a retirement party, a celebration of ocean heroes. It was dark when I finally found the bunkhouse and dark when I drove away in the early morning. The drive took six hours each way. I dodged a landslide, cows, deer, slowed to a crawl due to heavy rain. It was worth it to be counted among people I admire. Who also know how to throw a party. Kaylee and Nick arrived for Christmas. This was the first time the whole family had been in the same place at the same time in three years. (And all that that implies.) Everything came together – gifts, meals, Bananagrams. Things were imperfect and successful. People responded, mostly well, to my thoughts on forgiveness. Isla and I watched Frozen. New Year’s Eve consisted of impromptu bowling, happy hour at the Carter House, dancing at the Logger Bar, rocking out at the Palm Lounge. The year ended much like it was lived: among friends, with joy. Love abounded.

photo (6)

2014: the bad, the ugly

Scanning headlines the past few weeks has made two things clear:

  1. There are more “Best Of” lists than there were actual best things.
  2. 2014, it is generally agreed, was a horrible year.

I can’t welcome 2015 properly without a nod to last year, which, while full of marvelous experiences, wasn’t one of my favorites. The year, it felt, was to be endured. I utterly failed at moving through certain challenges with grace, particularly one with which many people in Humboldt must already be familiar: the painfulness of sharing small town social circles with someone who has hurt you.

I’m going to revisit this for a moment.

Not pressing charges at the time will remain one of my bigger regrets. Partly because men should be more often held accountable for grabbing, jabbing and otherwise treating a woman’s body as if that body is theirs to abuse. Partly because then the line defining right from wrong would have been more clearly drawn – one of the disappointing revelations of this year was (again) realizing that some people will shrug off sexual assault, especially if the man involved is charismatic and skilled at entertaining. And I get that to some degree. How many movies or stories feature a bad guy who is nonetheless appealing? We’re suckers for charming rogues. We want to like people who display qualities we find attractive, especially when they make it easy for us.

But understanding the appeal of a fictional antihero doesn’t do much to assuage the sense of betrayal when your friends share giggles with a guy, your own former friend, who laughed in your face when you begged him to stop. Jezebel’s Sara Benincasa responded nicely in her advice column regarding a similar situation:

Some of my close male and female work friends are still really chummy with my former friend and industry colleague who sexually harassed me a lot. Back when it all happened, I told my mutual friends about his behavior and they agreed he was out of line. They even said they’d tried to intervene and get him to knock it off (BTW he has a really great wife who is also our friend). They suggested I confront him in a direct, professional manner, and I did. He and I are no longer friends and merely acknowledge one another in public at industry functions. But it’s like my buddies think it’s totally okay for them to party with him and post fun pics on Facebook so long as they don’t invite me along, too. What should I do?

Here’s how I see your situation: you gave your friends information about the way in which a particular fellow acted towards you. They chose to support you in your decision to part ways with him. But they also chose to continue to support him as a friend. They have different relationships with each of you, and perhaps they have never experienced his creepy, gross, awful side… Now, I do not believe that the enemy of my friend needs to be my enemy, as well… I know it is entirely possible to love two different friends who can’t stand each other.

However, this isn’t just about two buddies who don’t get along. In this case, the man did something predatory and disturbing. I want you to ask yourself honestly if you need to maintain anything more than friendly working relationships with these colleagues. If the answer is yes, and you cherish any of these friendships on a deep level, speak to these friends one on one. Without any expectations, tell each person, “I care about you and I want to be honest with you about something. Your friendship with Douchebag worries me very much. He really hurt me and scared me, and I just don’t understand why you would continue to spend time with someone who did those things.” Listen to their rationale and judge for yourself if their arguments have merit (spoiler alert: they probably won’t).

So, yeah. The unfortunately defining circumstance of my 2014. After 16 years rooted in this beautiful place, I felt like Humboldt was no longer safe.

What turned out to be excellent, however, the proverbial silver lining, was the number of friends who immediately stepped up to support me, to reassure me, to let me know they had my back and continued to do so through all my inelegant struggles to navigate my way to some sort of peace. I express my gratitude toward them repeatedly (most lately by remembering to talk about everything else in life) and hope they know what a gift I consider their friendship to be.

And the others? I’m trying to be generous and gracious and remind myself of the bigness and complexity of people’s lives, that we’re often in different places and on our own journeys and all that. To note the goodness when it exists and remember, “…you are so much more than a victim. Life offers so much more than this one shitty act. The beach. The forest. Skinny-dipping. Goat cheese-stuffed dates drizzled with hot pepper oil. Frisbee.” I lost a lot of time, energy and tears struggling with this last year. I’m ready to leave it behind.

how to make your son crepes before he moves 600 miles away

1. Sit down with him earlier in the week so you can make a list of things needing to be done before he leaves: stock up on insulin, test strips, etc., call about switching Medi-Cal providers, call UCSF about moving, new pharmacy, write down new address for parents, get boxes for packing, pack.

2. Buy a mattress cover and new sheets because you don’t know where that used mattress he’s acquiring has been and just because.

3. Two days later, remind him about “the stuff on that list.”

4. His last day at home, rise early to whip up some crepe batter – it’s best if the batter has at least 30 minutes to rest before cooking. (1 cup flour, 1 cup milk, 1/2 cup water, 4 eggs, 1/4 cup melted butter, 3 T sugar, dash salt: blend well)

5. Prep for your upcoming conference, work on your freelance column and otherwise do as much work as you can while everyone is sleeping so you’ll have the most time possible with the family on this momentous day.

6. Knock on his door, stick your head in, suggest he get up soon because there’s so much to do. Like pack. And eat. (Don’t mention the list.)

7. Do not be bothered by how unenthused he is.

8. Do be concerned that his blood sugar level is awry, especially since last night he mentioned needing to do a set change and wanting to wait till morning so would you just give him a shot?

9. Bug him again about getting up.

10. Bite your tongue when he snaps at you.

11. When he calls you, a few minutes later, from bed, to ask if you would inject another round of insulin for him, ask him what his blood sugar is.

12. When he says he knows it’s high and the number doesn’t matter, explain that it does. Obviously. We’ve been doing this for years.

13. Be grateful when he does check and matter-of-fact about the fact that it’s over 460 and try to stay patient when he says he’ll just do the shot himself.

14. Try to not think about how he’s moving 600 miles away tomorrow and who is going to watch out for him?

15. When he continues to be stomp around and then mumbles something in your direction, don’t snap, “What? Can you speak so I can understand you?”

16. When he responds by saying, “Go fuck yourself,” walking away, and slamming the door, remember that hyperglycemia messes a guy up.

17. Don’t take it personally.

18. Remember the two surf sessions earlier in the week, all grins and gratitude.

19. Don’t cry.

20. Tell yourself it’ll be fine later, when he feels better.

21. Chop up an apple, sauté it in butter with dash of salt, splash of almond extract, handful of sliced almonds.

22. Place a nonstick or seasoned crepe pan over medium heat with a little unsalted butter. 

23. Stir the batter and pour about 2 tablespoons into the pan, lifting the pan off the heat and tilting and rotating it so that the batter forms an even, very thin layer.

24. Cook until the top is set and the underside is golden.

25. Turn the crepe over, using a spatula or your fingers and cook until the second side is lightly browned.

26. Slide it onto a plate and top with apple mixture, then roll it up.

27. Drizzle heavy whipping cream on top.

28. Stand in the kitchen, alone, and eat.

29. Even if what should be delicious is hard to get past the lump in your throat.

30. Don’t cry.

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Epilogue

There was an apology. Much later. And I made cookies, but the crepe batter still sits in the fridge. We leave tomorrow morning at 7:30 a.m. I will drop him off in Willow Creek and hope he and his friend make it safely to Santa Barbara from there. And hope the world is kind and that his best self, the kind and funny and hard-working self, has occasion to rise. And that he remembers how much better proactively managing his diabetes is. But I am terrified. This letting go feels like my insides are being yanked out. I would convince myself God existed if I thought praying would do any good. Alas, I am bereft of faith and have only my inherent optimism and the wise words of others to cling to. “You have raised him well,” they say. “He’s a smart kid, ” they say. “You can tell what a good, solid guy he is – he’s going to be fine,” they say. So I hope. So I hope.

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