Sacramomentum

IMG_8284The front desk assures me that the wifi is working. My laptop and phone say otherwise. I remember I don’t need wifi to write, in fact wifi likely impedes writing as being online offers so many shiny distractions. One glance at Facebook and I’m clicking to see exactly how I’ve been cooking rice the wrong way all these years.

Several hours ago, I’d considered climbing out of the nest I’d made of pillows – big, fluffy hotel pillows tucked around me just so – unable to sleep despite being comfy, despite being tired. Another insomnia post unspooled in my head and I thought I might write. But instead, I rearranged myself and tried to meditate. This is a thing I am trying to do. Technically, all I’m trying to do is not think for a few minutes – I don’t sit up and pretzel my legs into a lotus position, I just get as comfortable as I can and, following the directions of the latest how-to article, try to focus on my breathing and only on my breathing. And then I try again. And again. Shut up, brain. And again. I don’t know that I’m achieving much, but the effort at least distracts me from the ceaseless worrying that caroms around my skull at 3 a.m. most mornings. Eventually I fell back asleep. Soon I will get on the road back to Humboldt, to home.

Yesterday was an excellent day. I’m in Sacramento because yesterday was Ocean Day, an annual opportunity to talk to legislators and their staff about coastal health, marine protected areas, sea level rise and trash policy, among other issues. Maybe it sounds boring phrased that way, but the passion, energy and – notably – intelligence of my fellow colleagues not only renews my own enthusiasm, but makes me even more grateful for the people who grok the science, wade through the policy, take the time to help others understand the what and the why and the how, and have the vision and dedication to keep trying to make bad things better and good things great.

I arrived in this world late to the game – not for lack of belief or smarts, but because I was busy having babies and figuring out that part of life instead of going to college and grad school and interning on amazing projects in other countries. Sometimes the awareness that I’m older and less accomplished than my professional peers unbalances me a bit. But mostly it’s okay. Yesterday, I didn’t think about it at all. I ended up leading our team when the assigned person couldn’t make it at the last minute – but I use the term lightly because what our planning actually looked like was four people together making suggestions, creating a plan that complemented each person’s strengths and knowledge and then launching into the Capitol to unleash upon our elected officials. And by “unleash,” I mean, “respectfully inform.” And by our “elected officials,” I mean, “mostly their staff.” Nonetheless, I feel some good was done and any that wasn’t, was not for lack of effort. This work, it matters.

I’m tired. I wish I could curl back up in bed and sleep for a few hours instead of packing up and hitting the road. I wish I could unpack the energy from yesterday. As it is, I’m savoring this liminal space in which the hotel room allows me to exist. My Sacramento goals have been met, but the moment I exit, all the other to-dos, all the worries held at bay, will rush upon me. Since I’ll be driving, not-thinking isn’t an option, but maybe the grandeur of the view will help me breathe.

surf sessions #6, #7

#6: Wow, it’s crowded.

#7: At least it’s not crowded.

surf sessions #3, #4 and #5 aka the return of bliss brain

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#3: Eight weeks. That’s how long since I’d surfed. The most time I’d spent out of the water since I started surfing in 2000. Longer than when I’d fractured my ankle. Dumb shoulder. But the combination of turmeric, acupuncture, massage, salve and trying to be smart about how I was using my arm had reduced the pain from excruciating back to a tolerable soreness, which made me think that a little session would be an okay thing. I had to go to Crescent City for work anyway… and needed to take the truck because I had to deliver signage that wouldn’t fit in my car… so, why not toss in my surfboard and wettie, just in case something fun was happening at South Beach?

It was. Waist-to-chest high sets, lovely little lefts and the occasional right, groomed by the offshore breeze. The sun shone overhead. About a dozen surfers were out. I tugged my wetsuit on, worried that the effort of getting all the neoprene onto all the right parts might strain my shoulder before I even made it to the water (a good argument for moving somewhere tropical!). I survived the pulling, yanking and stretching, however, and lugged my longboard down to the beach. The infusion of cold water into my booties and through my seams reminded me how much I need new versions of each, but the happiness of being in the ocean overwhelmed the discomfort. I remembered this.

I only caught five, six waves. Small, easy, some shoulders, a couple closeouts. My pop-up lacked grace, my turns were not smooth. Whatever. I slid along the sun-sparkled waves and smiled.

#4: I had to go out again, just to go, to keep momentum. Nevermind that the swell had dropped and the waves, if you could call them that, had shrunk to barely more than ankle-biters. I paddled around until something energetic enough came along, caught it, stood up, rode to the sand, called it a morning.

#5: This, this is what I needed. South Beach had been a gentle reintroduction and this, at my favorite spot, was just enough more to be perfect. Sunshine – the new normal – and just the lightest southeast wind. Steady sets, shoulder-high, peeling right and left, wave after wave. For some folks, these conditions would not induce the necessary adrenaline rush, but for me, the conditions were like a red carpet being rolled out. And the crowd! My friends! My people. The first wave I paddled for, I completely kooked out – naturally – and pearled, but all the others – like seeing old friends and the way recognition floods your heart. Once, I would have surfed till my arms were noodles, made myself late for the day’s work. But I’m trying to not hurt myself, so I let a long left take me to shore and clambered out, awash in joy.

The thrill lingered all day. I was so blissed out I could scarcely think – I felt like the silliest surfer cliché. Everything was all good.

So good.

Need want more.

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.

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