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.

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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