Notes on New Orleans

IMG_8551It started out simple enough.

“Hey, I’m going to a conference in New Orleans,” my friend Deidre said. “There’s an extra bed in the hotel room. Want to come?

“Yes,” I said. A free place to stay has inspired almost all my travels, and exploring the music, history and vibe of New Orleans certainly appealed.

As the departure grew closer, a Sacramento meeting cropped up, then one in Point Arena. Also, my daughter Kaylee opted to tag along during her spring break, but would need a ride to San Francisco from Santa Cruz.

And then my other daughter, Chelsea, needed to come back to Humboldt to regroup and prepare for her next chapter. She and her dog would be in Santa Barbara awaiting pickup.

Bobby and I worked it out.

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It should be noted that I was working from the road, stressed to the gills, up until Kaylee and I Ubered our way to SFO. Grant report? Check. Weight off shoulders? Check.

Tuesday

St. LawrenceOh, yum. Also, not altogether unlike being in San Francisco: “Our kitchen prides itself on creating simple, thoughtful dishes that showcase the fresh, local and regional produce that serves as the divine crux of our ever evolving menu. We offer a chef-driven, respectfully playful take on Southern and New Orleans classics with an international flair.” Gouda grits!

Bourbon Street. Here’s what I imagined: burlesque and booze and jazz for blocks. Here’s what it was: strip clubs and big-ass beers and terrible cover bands. For blocks. I anticipated historical decadence, not a Spring Break cliché. Live, learn.

IMG_8550Maison Jazz: You could mostly hear the jazz trio over the sound of the partying outside, although every so often, the sounds of “Don’t Stop Believing” or “Psychokiller” bashed their way in from the surrounding clubs. But Maison Jazz provided the first example of what I thought New Orleans would look, sound and taste like. (Rye with bitters.)

The Swamp: Good grief. Do we want three terrible beers for the price of one? No, just no. What we wanted was a balcony. But not like this.

Wednesday

Daylight brought the view. Sometimes I stay in hotels that are nicer than I am. I wish I’d remembered a swimsuit.

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Commerce: Came recommended, but was closed due to a movie being filmed. (Al Pacino. Indie flick. That’s all I remember. Deidre took notes.)

Dress It: Omni hotel café, where, instead of menus, they hand you order forms and you build your sandwich or omelette. Like a deli counter at your table. It was fine.

City Park: They say it’s bigger than New York’s Central. It didn’t feel that way, but I didn’t measure. Ponds, a botanical garden, sculptures, an art museum, the usual accruements. The street car ride leading to the park had passed through nondescript urban zones. Where was New Orleans’ personality? I wondered.

Meanwhile, my friend Ryan sent me a photo of the new Journal. Oh, wow. Suddenly, instead of being sad that I was missing the cover story I’d worked so hard on, I was relieved. This would have been too weird, so much me, all over town.

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Green Goddess: Being a vegetarian in New Orleans limits one’s options. I inhale sea food, but Kaylee is strict – this place, with it’s “uninhibited cuisine and spirits” offered beyond the usual mac’n’cheese options. Like this: “Burutta Pane Grigliato – 1/4 pound of Burutta cheese over fresh made grill bread, topped with pesto and a red gravy both garnished with xtra virgin olive oil, served with a nice arugula salad with fresh local assorted greens, roasted beets, lemon and Sicilian orange oil dressing.” See? Very happymaking. Also, again, like being in California. I was not sinking my teeth into the New Orleans food experience yet… Nonetheless, authenticity-seeking aside, when offered French toast stuffed with dark chocolate and gouda, say yes.

Magnolia Praline Company: Oh, god. The sugar. The nuts. Yes. And a taste legit to the South. A turning point.

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French Quarter, beyond Bourbon Street: Walking around Decatur and Royal and Jackson Square better acquainted us with who New Orleans is. Flowering balconies. Charming buskers. Classier bars – to-go cocktails still available in a plastic cup, of course, but at least the ratio of fine cocktails to hurricanes had increased.

The Sazerac Bar: We put on our fancy clothes. Worth a drink, although at $14 a pop, not necessarily two.

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The famous Cafe Du Monde: Earlier in the day, the line stretched around the block, the expansive patio bursting at the seams. But at 11 p.m., plenty of seating! Decaf chicory coffee and beignets that lived up to the hype. (The “hype,” of course, being that fried dough covered in sugar is going to trip all your deepest pre-evolution wires.)

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Thursday

EnVie Espresso: This exists: “Rumchata,” which is exactly what it sounds like, horchata-flavored rum. If you add Earl Grey tea to it, you will find yourself drinking a “NoLa fog,” which is a perfectly reasonable way to start the day in New Orleans.

(Booze is always an option in New Orleans.)

Carousel Bar: My brother Tag and his wife, who is also named Jen, had flown down from New York. This place was their idea and it was brilliant, like the bar itself, a very merry-go-round, especially with a French 75 in hand.

Frenchmen Street: This is the street you should be on instead of Bourbon.

We took the streetcar to the cemeteries.IMG_8644

IMG_8646Wandering through the crypts and mausoleums may cause you to wonder about your own burial. Advertisements in the restrooms, then, are admittedly well-placed.

tumblr_nm70nbN9EU1qzp87ao2_1280(Via my brother’s Tumblr.)

Bamboulas: Say you’re hungry and thirsty from strolling cemeteries. You want a nice place to sit with some music and cocktails and fried pickles. This would be an extremely suitable choice.

Bywater: If Bywater were in New York, it would be Brooklyn. If it were in Los Angeles, it would be Silverlake. If it were in Texas, Austin. Which is to say, dining, drinking and coffee options are attractive and plentiful. I can’t figure out if the locals are friendly or not. The waiters speak with that honeyed molasses drawl that I want to eat up and the waitresses call us, “baby” and “y’all,” but pass someone on the street and a “good evening” is rare. (Except the older gents. But older gents always say hello or mention how beautiful you are or, as one fine fellow dancing alone to music blaring from his car did, offer to help you with anything you might need.)

We went to a crazy thrift store.

Sbisa: My favorite of all the bars we went to. In addition to tasty cocktails and a pretty balcony, when searching for the restrooms, we discovered that the building apparently goes on forever, with all kinds of staircases and endless nooks.

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Bourbon House: Here is where you will order a flight of rye whiskey and discover you enjoy the Smooth Ambler best.

(Good) Friday

Huck Finn’s: Tried for Commerce again, but it was closed for Good Friday, so we ended up here, served by a 20-something waiter with the aforementioned sweet accent to die for. I wanted to record him, but that seemed a little too weird. And not in a good, New Orleans-weird, kinda way.

Honey Island Swamp Tour: We did see a mama alligator and a baby alligator. I could not get a decent photo of either. The tour included pickup from the hotel and a discourse by the driver on the damage done by Katrina – I couldn’t hear as well as I’d’ve liked, but we passed through areas where the damage had been extensive. (I need to watch that Spike Lee joint.) We also happened to pass by a Good Friday celebration that included three live men tied to crosses. That was a thing.

Jimmy J’s: From the outside, looks touristy. OK, it is touristy, but also boasts an excellent eggplant sandwich and serves breakfast all day. Do not, however, ask the waiter if they happen to have soy milk. You will never quite recover from the eye-rolling. We had some bonus drama when a woman parked just outside backed her SUV into a scooter, knocking it over and flooding the street with gas. (Unlike California, gasoline on the street does not trigger the appearance of a Hazmat crew.)

Royal Street is fun. Especially with people you like.

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Back to Frenchmen Street…

Snug Harbor: Welcoming, hopping little spot. We met up with Deidre and her compatriots from the conference, Olga from the Ukraine/Kansas and Pierre from France (obv). Managed to score the entire front section of the bar, which lent well to long discussions about academia, culture, travel and the sort of related discussions that happen when you’re all drinking whiskey into the night.

Dat Dog: A veggie dog option made me happy because a veggie dog piled with sauerkraut and cheese serves so well as a late night alcohol-absorbing snack. We sat on the balcony and applauded our extremely patient waiter. We decided waiting on drunks is very much like parenting – you need a lot of patience dealing with irrational and easily distracted people.

Saturday

Freret Street Festival: Rollicking brass bands, garlic fries, praline balls, arts and crafts made as if someone cares, strawberry-basil margaritas. I bought Bobby a super-soft T-shirt that says, “I want to be Bayou.” 

From there, the Garden District by way of Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 and No. 1.
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We also took a jazz boat tour.

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This was our last night all together. Some people thought Hand Grenades were a must-have. Another person opted for the more sensible Maker’s on the rocks. Guess who was the least hungover in the morning? Not the people who had to catch a 5 a.m. shuttle to the airport!

Sunday

Everyone else left. I shifted locations to the Faubourg-Marigny district, hunkered down in a little studio rented through Air BnB and spent most of the day writing – because that’s what writers do, even if they are in New Orleans, yes? – except when I put on my blue-and-white dress, the most Easter-y dress I’d brought with me, and ventured out to Tableau (per my host’s suggestion) for a ginger lemonade and fingerling potatoes breakfast and then to Preservation Hall, where the mostly a cappella tunes of St. Cecilia’s Asylum Chorus moved me to tears – an unexpected loneliness had pervaded upon the departure of friends and family.

Later, stomach growling, I forced myself to take a break and tripped back out to the highly recommended Verti Marte for a BBQ shrimp po’boy. Along the way, the New Orleans Gay Easter Parade took me by surprise.

Monday

The Country Club: The morning’s mugginess had me dripping with sweat by the time I arrived, but a cool bowl of gazpacho and watermelon salad on the veranda quickly refreshed. And then I bought a pass to the pool in the back and spent hours alternately swimming, sunbathing, dipping in the hot tub, drinking Bywater Sunrises and reflecting on what good fortune brought me here.

surf session #8

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This is the difference between a surfer and me: A surfer would have brought her board and wetsuit to Point Arena, no second thought about it. The board and tub would have been the first things to the car. In contrast, I worried about how much more complicated hauling stuff down would make an already logistically challenging trip. My car isn’t set up for loading a board and we didn’t have enough room for a surf tub. Given that Bobby was dropping me off in San Francisco, then driving to Santa Barbara before heading back to Humboldt, how would it work to drag a board along? Oh, forget it. The waves will probably be too heavy anyway.

They were not too heavy. What it was, was overhead rights with an easy takeoff – my idea of perfect fun. I watched from the end of the pier, my disappointment in myself magnifying with each enviable ride. Later, other entertainment would distract me – the usual food and wine and whiskey mixed in with shooting pool (badly) and sliding dollars into the jukebox (expertly).

We left for Bolinas in the morning and it was in that odd mix of a town that I was offered a bit of redemption in the form of a borrowed longboard and a rented wetsuit.

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Bolinas reminded me of North County San Diego – cute and beachy and everyone surfs – if you took some rural Oregon town full of grizzled, cranky oldtimers – and smushed the two places together. Half the people look ready for a bar fight and the other half probably had probiotic yogurt for breakfast. (Note: I love the yogurt. Also, bars.) My friend Leila took me to 2 Mile Surf Shop, where the owner said, No more rentals today, trying to get out of here.

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What? No! You have to rent me a suit, I said. What if I bring it back in the morning?

Sure, he said. Booties, too?

Yes, please.

IMG_8455Twenty-five dollars and twenty minutes later, we were paddling out. From the surf shop, the road slopes down to the sand, Stinson Beach to the south, crumbling sea walls and bluffs to the north. Graffiti adorns nearly all the concrete surfaces – most of it is charming, celebratory of Bolinas’ uniqueness, with an overall theme of, Be Cool. A twist of the neck revealed San Francisco’s Twin Peaks tower standing tall in the distance.

About a million surfers dotted the water and yet, somehow, enough room existed for everyone. The waves were waist-to-chest high and mushy, at least user-friendly if not thrilling, and being in the water felt, as it does, like coming home.

Leila said, Maybe a couple more waves, then she’d probably go in.

I nodded, Sure. We’d been out for over an hour and I am supposed to be babying my shoulder – not that these easy waves and near-effortless paddle-out were straining it much. A set came, one of the nicest of the day, and I happened to be positioned just right. The wave took me to the beach, a few-hundred yards of gleeful maneuvering down the face, sunshine in my hair, in my heart.

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.

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things that scare me

Things that scare me:

1. Being unable to protect my children from bad people, risky behavior, terrible decisions and freak accidents.

When you bring a baby into the world, that mama bear love overwhelms you. You hug the tiny person close and swear you’ll never let anything hurt the unbearably precious creature. And you mean it, but it’s an unkeepable promise because – unless you live in a remote, armed, stocked fortress, which I totally support – eventually bullies will push your kid around on the playground and men will grope your daughters and bad drivers will crash into them and politicians will make shitty policies and if those are the worst things that happen, you are still lucky.

The news is filled daily with stories you can’t even think about, the kind that involve children going missing, being gunned down – and these events are rare enough, you try to find some comfort or maybe stop reading the news, but then the children themselves toddle into the street, into parties, into cars, into dysfunctional relationships and you realize it might be easier to protect them from the world than from themselves. You’d hoped they would learn from your own experiences – someone should, right? – but no. They will go down the wrong path, sometimes willfully, sometimes innocently, and all you can do is pray to the God you don’t believe in that they come back intact.

2. Drowning.

3. Living too long. It sounds exhausting.

4. That when I hurriedly tug on my surf bootie I’ll immediately feel bugs writhing all over against my feet and it will take at least a minute to get it off because you have to tug hard and then a hundred sow bugs will tumble out because I guess leaving my booties on the deck for a week wasn’t a good idea and I’ll never be able to put them on again without thinking wiggling bugs trapped against my foot flesh.

5. That sexual harassment, assault, rape will never stop because not enough men care enough to stop it.

6. Related: That stupidity will emerge victorious. (See Idiocracy, anonymous commenting, no one giving a fuck.)

7. Heights.

8. People jumping out at me from behind doors. Or shower curtains.

9. That I won’t realize my own foolishness in time.

10. Drivers who don’t bother moving over or slowing down when passing me riding my bike on the highway or over the bridges. I envision myself tumbling broken into bramble or over the concrete barrier into the bay. This is not how I want to go out.

 

Things that don’t scare me:

1. Spiders.

2. Taking a stand.

3. People acting like jerks because they don’t like your opinion or because they devalue your experiences. Take your friendship and go, jerk.

4. Diplomacy and compromise. Which is different than kowtowing and caving. We’ve all got to get along in this world, more or less, and although letting one’s defenses down enough to find that common ground can be frightening – Oh my god, I’ve got things in common with that person?! – it’s less scary than living an us vs. them life.

5. Public speaking. (Usually.)

6. Tsunamis.

7. Traveling alone.

8. The threat of eternal damnation.

9. Gay marriage.

10. Committing to the drop. Wait! I am often scared when paddling into a wave outside my comfort zone, big and steep and fast and gut clenches up and I have to yell at myself in my head to paddle, goddamn it, and go! But I’m trying.

From Pancakes to Parting: On Being Mom

Like the bed, this chair is not quite comfortable. I’ve stayed here before. It’s one of the many Santa Cruz motels retro-beach themed. I enjoy the throwback font on the sign and the place is clean enough, but it’s the price that lands me here. Upscale hotel rooms with their fluffy pillows, non-polyester bedspreads and fancy toiletries please me. A guilty pleasure. But I’m aiming for thrifty on this trip. I packed food. I did not order a glass of wine at dinner. My funds need to go toward ensuring K has everything she needs that I can provide before she jets off to Europe for the summer. That’s why I’m here. To spend time with her before thousands of miles separate us and to be Mom.

It’s strange how my mothering role has changed with the girls off in the world and Nick having one foot out the door. After two decades of almost always having a kid or three attached to me, I now move through the days almost wholly myself. People I’ve met in the last few years know I have children, but they’ve never known me as “Mom!” – I’m just Jen. They’ve never heard me bubble over with pride after a Little League game, never heard the panic in my voice when I called to say one kid or another needing rushing to the hospital, have no idea how good I am at making pancakes or that I spent a year as a “nacho mom” when Chelsea was in fourth grade. I appreciate that I never let my identity disappear into motherhood, but to see me without it is incomplete.

“You had Chelsea when you were my age,” K noted recently. She’s 20.

“Yes, and I had you when I was Chelsea’s age.” I rejoined. Chelsea’s 24.

It’s strange.

I was pregnant at 19. In my entire life as an adult, I was never not a mother. In the past year, Bobby and I have grown used to being the only people in the house. We cook less. Once a treat so rare we couldn’t even relax into it, now a night home just the two of us is commonplace – Nick crashes at his friends’ places often. The house stays clean, more or less. Especially since we buried our dog last year.

I miss certain things: reading out loud, giggle-filled hikes out to the beach, making pancakes. I do not miss the rebellious teenage years, the endless running late places, the laundry. I’m enjoying feeling myself emerge more wholly these past few years, although rediscovering and redefining oneself is not as simple as a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. This era might feel a bit like I’m finally having the twenties I never had – and I confess, I envy certain freedoms younger women have gained, the confidence they have in their right to expect better from men, from careers, from their parents, the ability to be their own ass-kicking selves without apology, but it’s not like I need to suddenly get my party on.

Because I am most definitely not 20-something and I worked in bars through much of that decade anyway, so it’s not as if I missed out on going out. I saw bands. I had (still have) good times. I’ve always been rich in friends. I just had to accept certain types of responsibility faster because I had small people I loved depending on me to take care of them. That fact defined my life. It also defined my marriage, as did the ways in which our families judged us, as did the struggle to bring in enough money, to make a life with so few resources.

We persevered, Bobby and I, recently celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary, 26 years together in all. Not every moment is quiet and peaceful. We still argue about bills sometimes. Or whether or not too much stuff is accumulating. (It is!) But overall, this new chapter has been quite agreeable for us – it’s an odd thing when the kids are no longer the focal point. A couple might discover they have nothing else in common. They might not know each other. They might not like each other – and without the distraction of who’s driving the kids, making dinner, planning the family’s vacations, with nothing to do except hang out, well, sometimes people end up going their separate ways. I’m relieved Bobby still makes me laugh, that I love his cooking and his happiness in his garden. That we look forward to going to bed together.

Oh, but the worry! The children may no longer be children, but I spend no less time squelching the fears of losing them. Since I brought Chelsea out of the hospital, realized how small and vulnerable my new baby was in the light of this huge, terrifying world, a part of my brain has been dedicated to making sure I never, ever forget the grip they have on my heart and all the ways in which they could be wrenched from me. Every news story involving children stokes the potential narratives. I am here in Santa Cruz because K is off to Europe for the summer between semesters. I’m thrilled for her – education and travel being things I did arrive late to – but the distance, thinking of how many miles will lie between her and us hits like something physical.

The children are part of me and now those parts are scattered. It’s impossible to feel whole. But I’ll help K find some boots and keep sending Chelsea texts and cards, and pester Nick with questions like, “Are you alive?” when he hasn’t come home by midnight. I will take K to the airport on Wednesday, hug her hard and wave goodbye as she goes through security.

I will drive away in tears, my heart asunder, make my way back up the 101 to home, where I’ll share the news that, “She’s off!” and people will smile and say, “Wow! That’s so great!” And I’ll agree. It is.

insomnia #21 aka 2013 Year in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mexico: Departure

Of course, it wasn’t quite over. In between dropping Kj off at the airport and cleaning the house, Casey and I squeezed a final surf in at Santiago Bay, picking off waves between local kids flinging themselves into the head-high barrels with abandon. And then we were done.

That would have been an elegant way to end, but at the airport I discovered I’d lost my immigration paper, which meant I couldn’t board the plane. They held it for me – thanks to Casey’s quick thinking – as I scrambled to pay the fine required to replace it. This was the second time an important piece of paper had gone missing while I was with Casey – the first was in a San Diego security line when we finally got to the front and I abruptly had no boarding pass – so her patience with the situation was especially commendable.

And then we were done.

Mexico: Day Four

I rose late, a nearby midnight drum session having interfered with my sleep – so late that Casey had to get me up, a situation greatly reversed from the norm! We headed straight to Paraiso, where I was determined to try the hollow waves on my rented board. The waves rolled in a few feet overhead, steep and pitching. A better surfer would’ve been barrelled for days, but for me, I was stoked to make the drops, repeatedly pushing myself into another and another.

We then ate the best tacos in the world. I scarfed down two chile con queso while Casey moved in on a third. Antonio and I teased her. La Nina es La Gorda! Off to Pasquales, an internationally known spot and the only place we saw other tourists. If you enjoy hammocks, a pool, well-muscled Australians and epic barrels, I highly recommend this place. The waves were bigger here, the surfing pro level. I hung out on the edge of things with a paunchy Canadian, finally caught a wave and called it a day, in part due to the fact that my board was de-waxing in the heat as I watched.

Back home, we made more silly Vines and dinner. I’d found a bottle of citrus liquor and made what I thought would be amazing margaritas. I should have made a test one first – the look of polite disgust on both Kj and Casey’s faces suggested “amazing” was not the taste they were experiencing. I sipped mine. Oh, puke. We returned to the tequila-Fresca combination that’d been working much, much better.

“Tomorrow’s the last day!” – Kj

“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” – Me

Mexico: Day Three

We looked and looked and looked for waves. Santiago Bay, then through Manzanillo’s Centrale Historicale district to the power plant, the jetties. The heat oppressed us. I wanted to get in the water so badly, but everywhere was closing out. We took a break for tacos pescado and were restored. After, Antonio pulled over without telling us why. As we climbed out of the car, he pointed into the trees. Iguanas! We then walked inside this place that was part zoo, part iguana sanctuary. An exhibit of raccoons made me laugh – bastards used to show up on my porch every night and they get their own space here? The other critters made me sad – a pig tied to a tree, birds in tiny cages. But the iguanas roamed free. As I held up my phone taking video of the dozens of iguanas, one detached from the group and marched at me so quickly I backed up, tripping over a mound of dirt behind me and falling on my ass. That would have made an even better video, but the moment will have to live on in only my and Casey’s memories.

Having given up somewhat on the surf, we trekked over to La Boquita for some snorkeling. Ah, the blessed relief of bath water temperature ocean on a baking hot day! A shipwreck lies not too far offshore, so we loaded up the snorkels and goggles on the boards, then paddled over to where a rusty beam protruded from the water. Now, maybe it was my two recent rounds of X-rays at the dentist, but I found the snorkel mouth bit disconcerting. Wasn’t sure I could relax and get used to it. Nonetheless, I swam around the edge of the shipwreck peering through the cloudy water as the tide pushed and pulled. Suddenly, the visibility improved. Brightly striped tropical fish exploded into my vision. I gasped like a little kid and kicked closer. The experience repeated as I stroked across the top of the wrecked ship – silvery fish twinkled, sunlit under the water. More clown fish, so many others I didn’t know. I forgot everything in my delight.

After, I drug out the longboard and caught some peeling ankle-biters for a while. So far I’d surfed every day.

Later, we drank wine and tequila and read outside as a tropical storm brought a few hours of rain. I scrawled this in my journal:

“I am sitting on a patio in Mexico, half drunk in a thunderstorm, reading Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder while two of my best girlfriends sit drinking margaritas reading Jess Walters’ Beautiful Ruins and the thunder cracks and the rain falls into the pool and the wine sits on the table and we’re tired from swimming and snorkeling over a fish-riddled shipwreck and all the sun that came before the rain and has life ever been so wonderful?”

Mexico: Day Two

We searched around Santiago Bay, ended up at Boca de Iguanas luxuriating in the heat, delighting in the ocean. Antonio helped Kj overcome her hesitation at giving surfing a go. Casey played on the small closeouts while I opted to swim. At some point a fish leapt out of the water near me. I laughed and said a thanks for providing such delight. Antonio took us to another taco shop. I opted for the scallops a la Diabla. Mexican food in Mexico is the best.

We also took in the crocodiles. The place, which consisted of elevated walkways over the river, was closed for the day, so we walked along the chain-link fence instead, oohing and eeking at the sharp-toothed reptiles separated from us by such a flimsy barrier. One of the walkways was accessible and led us on a swinging bridge over the river. On the other side, the fence stopped near the river mouth and only yellow caution tape haphazardly slung between two poles suggested something dangerous was going on.

The strangeness continued with a stop at Antonio’s friend’s shop, an arcade/surfboard repair place located in an old theatre. In front, quarter mechanical horse rides. Inside, Guitar Hero and pinball. In the back, boards sprawled out on sawhorses and a stage upon which a carousel horse leaned, detached. Light filtered through broken windows. Within that surreal scene, I found a board more suited to me than the longboard I’d been using. We hung out, marveled, negotiated, then moved on to Barra de Navidad. I caught some waves on the new board and took a million photos while Kj and Casey read their own copies of Beautiful Ruins.

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