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Dear Henry, let’s talk chickens

I’ve been reading about writing lately, which is not as good as actually writing, but some days it’s the best I can do.

And I keep being reminded, over and over, that the only way to be a writer is to actually sit down and write. Duh. This sounds easier than it is. Butt in chair is surprisingly difficult. At least it is for me, right now.

Stephen King says, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

He also said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” which is awesome and true, but that’s a topic for a whole ‘nother post.

He’s actually got quite a few good quotes about how sitting down to do the work is the hardest part, but I’m too lazy to go look them up right now.

When I was journalism school, my favorite professor was a crotchety old adman named Henry Hager. He was of the 3-martini-lunch generation who didn’t cotton to the newfangled sensibility that it wasn’t a good idea to get hammered halfway through the work day. He bought me my first martini, Henry did, that next year when I went from being his student to being his teaching assistant.

One of the exercises he had us do was write him a letter each week. One page, double-spaced. It could be about anything we wanted. It was an exercise in sitting down and just letting the words flow. It was my favorite homework ever, even the weeks when I struggled to find something worthwhile to write. He read every single one of our letters, leaving comments about the writing or the content or both. I treasured them. At the end of the term, we were to choose our favorite ten, print them out and bind them, and hand them in. He gave us a grade that didn’t really matter in the scheme of the semester, and handed it back. I still have staple-bound packet, and it’s one of my most treasured possessions. A snapshot into my life as an undergrad journalism student dating a cute engineer who lived hundreds of miles away. Now, as a crotchety old person myself, I understand that the whole point of our turning in our ten favorites as a collection was that it gave us something to hold on to, a package. I may have all those loose letters somewhere, but I doubt it. I only have the packet because he made me make it.

I should get back into that routine of writing whatever I want, stream of consciousness, regularly. I can write to Henry. He’s pushing up daisies now; I cried when I read his obituary in my alumni magazine a few years ago. But I could still write to him, or at least to the idea of him. I imagine he’d get a kick out of it, even if I’m as far away from Hemingway as you can get.

Dear Henry,

I have two friends who are amazing and who keep me laughing and who keep me grounded. Well, I have more friends who do that than just two, but for this letter we’re talking about these two phenomenal women. We call ourselves The Chickens, mainly because of many experiences and jokes that all stem from a Jenny Lawson blog post. We didn’t start out calling ourselves The Chickens, but we ended up there and now our husbands call us that and, apparently, so do our children.

It’s incredible how well our children know us, despite the front we try to present to them. “Oh, hey, I’m your super-cool, awesome mom who always has her act together, who loves you more than you could ever imagine” is what we like to think we are. Instead, my kid is all, “Oh, hey, you’re my mom who tries really hard and who is innately human and therefore makes plenty of mistakes, and who loves me more than I could ever imagine but sometimes just needs some beer and a good cry.”

We were taking Zoe to camp on Sunday and I was doing my whole Woe-is-Me routine about how I was going to miss her and how she was going to have all the fun while I had to go to work every day. I lamented, “What will I do without you?” And she deadpanned, “You’ll get together with The Chickens and drink wine.”

Touché.

Just for your information, I haven’t seen my chickens at all this week. This is my busy season at work (well, busier season…there’s never really a slow season) and I’ve been putting in long hours. And I got my hair cut last night. Which, come to think of it, is a lame excuse for not getting together with friends. But still, what I’m trying to say is that I don’t just get together with my friends and drink wine, although I do that sometimes and with enough regularity that my daughter has lodged it in her head, and therefore knows when she grows up and becomes a busy mom that it’s important to have chickens. And wine.

So maybe I’m doing okay at this mothering thing after all.

IMG_5532Today’s pretty picture is from Sunday’s sunset. We dropped the kiddo off at camp and picked up the car with only two seats and went for a Sunday drive.

Love Notes (or…What Really Sticks)

IMG_5444Our family has a tradition of leaving love notes on post-its scattered around the house, especially when one of us parental units is leaving to go out of town. We stick them on doors and bathroom mirrors, on (and in) the mudroom shoe rack, on cookie boxes in the pantry, under her morning cereal bowl. They go in her piano and in her school books and backpack and pencil case and under her pillow. It eases our guilt when we have to leave her, and she pesters us over the phone the whole time we’re gone, wanting to know how many we left and wondering if she should keep looking. We’ve gotten pretty creative, hoping to stretch the search out over the time we’re gone and, in turn, keeping ourselves relevant even in our absence.

She collects them on her door, and her door is nearly full now, a neatly-gridded, brightly-colored collection of notes that tell her to behave and to have a good time at this function or that event and practice piano and don’t eat too many cookies and remind her that we love her and to take care of the parent staying home. Some have little inside jokes on them. M’s are sweet, while mine tend to be punny. The week she gave her Mozart presentation I left a note on her Mozart poster that said, “Mommy loves Mozart and Zoe. She loves Zoe more. Sorry, Mozart.” She still laughs at that one. She also still has the one I stuck in her mitten that says, “I gLOVE you!” and another from her shoe that says, “Peeee-yew!”

But she’s growing up and for her birthday this year we are redecorating her bedroom to bring it up to middle-school standards and so she’s looking at everything with the critical eye of a discerning almost-eleven-year-old. Thankfully, she has inherited from her parents the chuckit gene. After two weekends of both of us working on her room, I took four bags of clothes and six bags of toys to St. Vincent de Paul, and we have a few special items pulled out for hand-me-downs for family. Her room is open and clean and ready for its make-over, which will consist of new bedding, a lamp or two, throw rugs, possibly a new overhead light, and a tetraptych of Space Needle images she made with her iPhone when we were in Seattle over spring break (her idea, which I think is awesome). It’s a bit disconcerting to me, this “new” room. Even without the new stuff yet, it looks so different. The clutter is gone. The little-girl detritus that surrounds all grade-schoolers was bagged and donated or throw out. Her room already looks different, more grown-up. I’m simultaneously proud of her and sad for the ending of that phase, because it means she is also growing up.

In The Great Purge, she decided to clean the post-its off her door. My heart shattered but I said nothing, because it’s her room and her decision and I have to let go because that’s what we’re supposed to do when our children are gaining independence and learning to live as their own people. Then she said she wants to get a book to keep all her notes and my mama-heart instantly mended itself and I acted like my allergies were flaring up and wipedIMG_5445 away the tears and gave her a bear hug and danced her around the great room while she laughed at the ridiculous of her mother. I love that she wants to keep the love notes. Sweet girl. And then later, in our bathroom, she saw the two notes on my mirror from M to me, and the two notes on M’s mirror from me to him, and she graciously determined, “Just because I’m taking my notes down doesn’t mean you have to. You can keep yours!”

When I’m old(er) and gray(er) I’ll be able to read this and laugh all over at her precociousness, her willingness to indulge my whims and to reassure me that I can, indeed, make my own choices.

Clearly, she’s letting me grow up.

Regulation 1: Good Conduct

Over spring break, on our magnificent train trip out west, we visited Alcatraz. The island has been on my bucket list for many years, and it did not disappoint. Here and there, the parks department had posted signs and placards with tidbits from the United States Penitentiary Rules & Regulations book that every inmate was issued upon entering his cell for the first time. The more rules I read, the more I realized that these rules are actually pretty good for those of us who aren’t incarcerated for committing heinous crimes. At the end of the tour, when we were dumped into the gift shop (as all tours now tend to end), I felt compelled to purchase a book of 24 Rules & Regulations postcards so I could remember them.

Regulation 1, for instance, says:

Good conduct means conducting yourself in a quiet and orderly manner
and keeping your cell neat, clean, and free from contraband.

That first part is what I’d like the girls in my scout troop to learn. They don’t do anything quietly or in an orderly fashion. Ever. In fact, I think they go out of their way to be loud and disorderly. We had to implement rules and regulations for our inmates scouts that, upon reflection, may have worked well at Alcatraz, too: no shrieking, no cartwheels, and keep your shoes on. Although the administrators who put together the USP Rules & Regulations book probably classified cartwheels under being orderly in general, we found we had to be quite specific. “No gymnastics” could be interpreted, by some, as “cartwheels are okay because even girls not taking gymnastics lessons do those, so they aren’t really gymnastics.” They are wily, those scouts.

When I worked in a cube farm, I would have very much appreciated if my cubemates kept their desks neat, clean, and free from contraband. Contraband mostly being the stinky remnants of their fishy lunches. I would have liked if they didn’t cut and file their nails there, too. Ew.

Really, the person I would most like to apply these rules to is my child. She could use some good, old-fashioned, penitentiary-style raisin’. She is mostly quiet and orderly (save when she gets around a gaggle of her peers), but she most definitely does not keep her cell neat and clean, and she relishes her giant collection of contraband.

I had no idea how much kid contraband is out in the world until I got one myself. A kid, that is. Then the crap level in my home exploded exponentially. There are bits and pieces – her stuff – everywhere, all the time. Right now, without even being home, I can guarantee that there is a pair of sky-blue slippers, size 4, sitting on the floor of the great room somewhere in the vicinity of the couches. I don’t know that she ever actually wears them, although I sort of suspect that she might as they do move around. They never move into her room, though. They always hang out by the couches, and are usually lurking in places where I will trip over them. At any given time, the kitchen counter is home to: sunglasses, piano music, pencils, bookmarks, earrings, books, Hoot, candy, water bottles, school or camp papers, and a variety of bags in which she carries all of the above in random combinations. After weeks of clutter, I finally cleared the entire island counter the other night. There wasn’t a thing on it. It shocked me every time I walked by or looked that way. The great expanse. A huge plane of blessed emptiness. It lasted less than an hour, basically until she came out of her room again.

I don’t even want to look in her closet. That closet is the nexus of the contraband universe. We (meaning: me and I) go in and clean it out every few years, and she’s decently good at letting me get rid of stuff. She is not as good as her mother who would take the entire contents of said closet and stuff them into garbage bags for trash pickup Monday morning, but she does let stuff go. I have cleaned out Valentine’s from last year and countless trinkets gathered at the annual school picnic that she is thrilled about winning that day and then forgets she ever laid eyes on by the next morning. Plastic slinkies and googly-eye glasses and tiny prism kaleidoscopes and flags and capes and a flamingo hat that she can wear for only five minutes at a time because it makes her head hot. There are enough stuffed animals to staff an army of fur. Most of her bears have wardrobes far more extensive than my own. She does not have a food stash, probably because her militant parents have threatened her with solitary if they ever catch food in her room. And also because she doesn’t have siblings who steal her candy, so she can keep it in the giant candy bag in the pantry that also requires a good clean-out every year or so.

Right now, it is time to do that most dreaded task of mothers everywhere: cleaning out her clothes. Her drawers are stuffed full of clothing ranging in size from 8 to 12 (except for that one bizarrely large size 4 tie-dyed t-shirt she got at a preschool friend’s birthday party and won’t part with because it’s the softest shirt she owns) and for all seasons. Looking for her special Independence Day shirt the other day, we tore every shirt she owns out of the drawers. Both of us were close to melting down and I left the situation in M’s capable hands. He engineered the problem (because that is what he does, which is one of the many, many reasons I married him all those years ago, and because he kills bugs). He found that her drawers were so over-stuffed that, “she had a whole wardrobe of clothes that had been shoved out the back of the drawer and had fallen into the no-man’s land under the bottom drawer.” He found the desired shirt and rescued Fourth of July, and I took that as my cue to suck it up and clean out her damn drawers again. This is a job that takes half a day, infinite patience, and a bottle of wine. The patience is required to argue with the inmate over keeping a tie-dyed t-shirt that is finally too small.

This rule about contraband applies to my child’s parents, though, too. I’ll admit that there is something appealing about the idea of living a life that is neat, clean, and free from contraband. Monks actively choose this life, giving up their worldly possessions in return for room and board and life of prayer and good, honest work. Their rooms are even called cells. The cells in the monastery where I work are a good size, not tiny but not large, either. They are austere. It takes only minutes to straighten up your space if there’s not much in it. The inmates at Alcatraz had a bed, a small table and chair, a toilet, a sink, and two shelves. They were allowed only 12 books at a time. My cell, personally, must have wifi, and I could probably get around the 12-book rule with a properly stocked Kindle. But then I think I wouldn’t need much else. Not really. Neither monks nor inmates have extensive wardrobes; both essentially wear the same thing every day. There is no need to root around under the bottom drawer to find a missing garment. There is no need to argue with your inmate over whether these shorts from last year are suitable or have risen into hoochie-mama territory with a year’s growth of leg. (And, by extension, there is then no need to explain to your inmate what a hoochie-mama is.)

We have things in our house that bring me joy when I see them. This is the rule, right? Only keep what brings you joy. It’s the theory behind the tidiness movement. I have objects that bring me joy. The small pottery bird I found in Ireland when I went on my graduation trip with my father. The clay saki jar given to M by the owner of a small restaurant when he visited on two consecutive trips to Japan. A tiny black Squamish eagle acquired when we toured an aboriginal sweat lodge atop a mountain in Vancouver. These things spark wonderful memories when we see them, and bouts of cursing when I have to pick them up, dust them, and dust around them. I don’t know if I would remember that night in the Squamish lodge without the bird, or if M would ever think about that restaurant without seeing the saki jar. Do I need the rusted buffalo sculpture to recall our first Corvette trip out west, or the train that circled our wedding cake to remember the day we married? Are these items necessary memory totems, or are they just more clutter in lives already overly-bombarded by sensory inputs?

I think a human’s natural inclination is to collect, to gather. That’s why it’s so powerful that the monks choose to relinquish their possessions, and why it’s such a punishment that inmates aren’t allowed to keep theirs. There is a relatively new tiny-house movement that appeals to so many of us. It appeals to me, too. (Except for the composting toilet part. No way am I giving up the conveniences and cleanliness of modern plumbing.) With tiny houses, it’s the idea of freedom that is appealing. Because with possession comes responsibility. With possession comes commitment. A grounding. Roots in one place. I have to stay here, because here is where all my stuff stays. I have too much to leave behind. When I reflect on this, I have to fight the urge to take everything I own to Goodwill.

Here is what I think, though. Ultimately, I don’t want my daughter to always be quiet and orderly. Sometimes it’s necessary to raise hell, to speak out, to shout, even. It’s necessary to do these things to stand up for yourself, and to stand up for others. Sometimes, it’s good to shake things up with a cartwheel. I want to keep the small clay bird that makes my heart sing when I hold it, cool and heavy, in my hands. I smell the damp peat of an Irish October when I hold it, and feel the wind at the Cliffs of Moher all over again. I want to keep things that, when I look at them, flood me with feelings and memories from the places we’ve been, the things we’ve seen, the experiences we have shared. Our home may be cluttered at times, but it’s not cluttered with the latest home decorating trends. It’s filled with evidence of lives well lived. We have done a good job of being very conscious about our purchases. Do we have a place for it? Will this evoke a memory? Does this bring us joy?

And so, I will sometimes raise hell and I will keep my beloved belongings.

I can probably get rid of most of the crap on the counter, though.

Thursdays

Thursdays have been my Monday lately. Thursdays used to be my Saturday, but for the past month-plus, they are definitely Mondays.

Thursdays used to be my favorite day because of doughnuts, dress downs, and patty melts. I am a simple woman with simple pleasures. And then Thursdays consistently blew up.

It was Thursday when I found out my dad had lung cancer.

It was Thursday when I blew up my family.

It was Thursday when I realized that a week after surgery to treat the lung cancer, Daddy was still in the ICU and I still hadn’t heard him speak or laugh.

It was Thursday when the doctors did an MRI on his brain and found “something.”

I know these Thursdays because of how you remember exactly where you are when catastrophe strikes. My mother remembers (well, she used to remember) where she was when Kennedy was shot. I remember where I was when Challenger blew up, and when the twin towers fell down. I remember who was around me, how I felt, how other people reacted.

Every Thursday night I’m with my writing group. This small band of diverse people gather each week to write, to bounce ideas off each other, to celebrate victories (submissions, acceptances, the finishing of first drafts, new story ideas)…to be writerly. I was thrilled when one of them invited me to join, as this is the sort of group I’ve been longing for my whole writing life. What I didn’t realize was that this little band of writers are now much more than just the people who give me good synonyms and encourage me to keep writing.

They give me real support, the kind that goes well beyond writing.

I know this because when my life blows up each Thursday night, I am with them. And they immediately give me hugs. There is no judgment, there are no questions. Just loving concern. I sit at my computer and then I start crying and they kindly ignore me until I look up, shaking, and make eye contact and they realize I’m about ready to bolt or lose my shit or, quite possibly, both at the same time.

The hugs are the good kind. The kind that are tight and long and unrelenting. The kind that say, “I have you. You are safe, at least for this moment. I get it.”

The first time this happened I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t prepared for these people to give so much of themselves, so much of their own humanity. Our conversations around the writing table are typically pretty light-hearted. I inevitably end up laughing and feeling so thankful that I was invited into this little community where the topics are wide-ranging and I learn something new each week. I considered this group my friends, definitely, but they were segmented into my “writing friends” group. Not my “cry my heart out friends” group. (I have those, too, but I don’t get to see them the same night each week, although I should because that would be awesome.)

Then one Thursday night all my fears and emotions about my mother’s Alzheimer’s came tumbling out, manifesting themselves awkwardly in public through my tear ducts. I stood up to bolt, because no one wants to bawl their eyes out in the local coffee house. I was cramming my belongings back into my backpack when one of my writer friends stood up, too, and wrapped me in a giant bear hug. All he said was, “I know.” And I remembered that his mother has Alzheimer’s and that he cared for her until he couldn’t anymore and that he visits her all the time in the facility that now cares for her better than he can. And I knew that he knows exactly how I feel and that I am not alone, despite feeling that way most of the time. Why do I forget I’m not the only person to go through this? Why do I think that I should hide my feelings about this because no one would understand? That’s the sort of garbage thinking that derails me completely. Left to its own devices, my brain will spin and spin, gaining in speed and destruction. It takes someone who has been there, reaching out to stop the escalation and still the spin, to get me back on track. It takes someone who knows the wide range of ever-changing emotions that comes with having a loved one with Alzheimer’s. It takes someone who can say only, “I know” and have it mean worlds. Only then can I slow down, stop, and remember that I am not alone, that there is a path through. It may not be the same path, but it’s a journey that none of us has to take alone.

I’ve written a lot over the past couple of weeks, and it has helped me feel better even though I know it’ll never be published anywhere. It’s been too dark here, though, even though the dark is sometimes comforting. I need my presence here, even while I want to hide under the covers.

Daddy’s surgery was almost two weeks ago. The surgery went fine. All the stuff after – the stuff that’s supposed to be the recovery – hasn’t gone well. At all. It took over a week and half to hear him talk. I miss his laugh. I miss his ever-present concern over our well being. Instead, I’ve seen him in conditions that I will never forget, and that will always make me cry.

They don’t know what’s going on. At first, he was aggressive when they feathered off his sedation. They don’t know why he woke up once and, even with restraints, managed to yank out his IV, his NG tube, and his chest tube. The nurses finally got him subdued and tightened his restraints and, I imagine, gave him something that knocked him on his ass for his own good.

It’s not supposed to be going like this. He’s actually supposed to be home now, grouchy but whole. He’s supposed to be grimacing as he sits up and doing his breathing exercises and setting up follow-up appointments. He’s not supposed to be still incoherent at best, and unconscious at worst.

Mom knows what’s going on, generally. She doesn’t understand why he’s not home yet, which is perfectly normal because we don’t understand, either. She forgets that she’s already been to see him today. She cries because she misses him. We all cry because we miss him.

I think perhaps the hardest part is the unknown. We don’t know what’s wrong. So we don’t know how to fix it. We don’t know when it’ll be right again.

Sometimes I’m able to step outside my reality, and look at it objectively. That’s the woman whose dad is in critical condition. That’s the woman whose father has been in the surgical ICU for almost two weeks. How sad that must be for her. I wonder what’s going to happen? I wonder how she’s dealing with that? I think I’m able to do this mostly because some part of me just can’t believe that this is what is actually happening. At work, one day last week, colleagues started showing up in my office. “I’m so sorry about your dad and mom. I had no idea.” Over and over. I realized that someone must have sent out an email. It was touching and weird all at the same time, because I have been on those emails, have felt bad for the subject of those emails, have wondered how that person is coping with so much tragedy all at once. That’s when I could step outside my reality and look at myself clinically, as someone else. That poor woman whose world is crashing around her.

My sister and I take turns breaking down and building each other up. We text and email a lot during the day. She calls me with updates after she talks to the ICU nurses. She tells me over and over that I can call them myself and get updates, but I don’t know what to say to the nurses, or how to understand what they tell me. She has the medical background. She asks questions in that special code of medical language that I can’t decipher, the code that tells her volumes through data. She gets his temperature (the highs and lows). She checks on his oxygen, on his heart rate. She knows what all the different medications are that they’re trying, and what their dosages mean. She knows which is a sedative and which is for fever and which are his normal medications that he takes on a daily basis. She takes in all those terms, all those numbers and knows if he’s doing better today than he was yesterday. I say only, “What’s going on? Is he better? Have you fixed him? Why can’t you fix him?”

When the nurses answer my sister, they speak in that shared, common language. When the nurses speak with me, they speak in the dumbed-down language that they reserve for the Muggles of the medical world. “He’s doing a bit better today! Just wait, one of these days it’ll be like flipping a switch and he’ll be back to himself!” They are kind and professional and caring to both of us.

He has started coming back to us, slowly. He started speaking yesterday. When I visited him this afternoon, I couldn’t understand much of what he was saying. He wasn’t too responsive to me, and I realized that I wasn’t speaking loud enough. The nurse bustled around, belting out questions and getting crisp responses from him. I went to leave and spoke loudly, like she did. It felt like shouting to me. “Daddy! I’m leaving now but I will be back tomorrow. I love you!” He opened his eyes, puckered his lips, and gave me a kiss. He said, “I love you.” My heart soared and everything inside stilled and the universe tilted a little bit back towards center. And I realized that I will never again take it for granted when he says, “I love you.” I will remember when he asks me, for the fifth time, “Did you lock your doors? Did you close the garage?” he is really saying, “I want you to be safe because I love you.”

This Thursday was good. I am moved into a new office at work and today felt settled there. (Maintenance hung my pictures yesterday, which always makes it feel like home.) I had a wonderful end-of-the-year lunch with colleagues after an end-of-the-year plenary faculty meeting where five of my peers were recognized for being amazing people. There were doughnuts in the faculty lounge this morning. The rain stopped and the sun came out and Daddy said, “I love you.”

I’m sitting here with a group of writers, some of us writing and some of us talking about writing, and nothing is blowing up. When I arrived tonight, anxious because of how the past Thursdays have gone, two of my writer friends immediately looked me in the eye and asked how things are going. I relaxed, and said, “Much better, thanks.”

And then I sat down and started writing.

I’ll just put this out here…

My mother has stage six Alzheimer’s.

My daddy has a tumor in his lung.

And a girl with heavy, kohl eyeliner challenged my myopia tonight.

I keep trying to write here, and I keep getting nowhere. I’ve started and stopped, and started again. Over and over. Each post seems whiny and definitely not funny at all. I try to find humor every single day, and at the moment it eludes me. So I just don’t post anything. I go dark, and admittedly have found some solace there.

I’m not saying I don’t laugh at all. I do. People at work are funny and they say things in passing that make me laugh. Zoe regularly cracks me up, as does M. But I don’t have sustained, gut-busting, tear-inducing, therapeutic laughter. I haven’t had the kind of experiences lately that make me think, “Now that’s a funny blog post.” Instead, I’m feeling battered. I’m dodging curveballs and continually assessing and adjusting, and I’m so exhausted I can’t even imagine what might be coming next. I’m day-to-day right now. A friend told me that’s how I’ll get through this, and I know she’s right. I’m starting to truly understand that day-to-day is another way to say survival. I remind myself that this is where I am right now. I am going through this, but that’s the beauty of it…I are going through it. I am not standing still. I will come out the other side. Bruised but whole. Stronger in the broken parts. Hopefully.

I went to open mic tonight, having in mind one piece to read (which started as a short story but has largely just been an extended character study so far) and wound up changing at the last minute to something more light-hearted. The only thing I’ve written with any humor in it lately, largely inspired by half a bottle of wine. It was okay. It got a few laughs. People came up after and told me they liked it and I ran out of business cards, which is not as impressive as it sounds after I admit that I only carry three at a time. I was asked to join a critique group, which both thrills me and makes me wonder if I can handle adding anything else right now, even if it’s something I desperately want and need to continue to improve my craft. The critique group may have to wait. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it can’t. I’ll have to see when I get to that day. It’s on the fifteenth, I think. That’s a million miles away.

I woke up at 3 a.m. one morning last week and wondered how in the hell can I be a mother. I feel so lost, so unmoored…how can I be raising a child? If I don’t know what I’m doing, how can I guide her? It was unsettling, and kept me up. That one might fester for awhile.

I’ve been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast, on the recommendation of a dear friend who knows me to my soul and always seems to point me in exactly the right direction when I’m wandering lost. The podcast, perfect lengths for a commute to and from work, is like a little bit of oxygen in a starved environment. It helps me remember that I’m not alone, that other people are struggling to create (music, writing, paintings), too. Everyone has some sort of struggle. One woman Ms. Gilbert interviewed has found herself creatively stuck after losing her sister two years ago. I could hear her grief, which sounded as fresh as if she had lost her sister yesterday. And I am grateful, for at the very least, despite everything else I’ve got going on, I still have mine. (I tried like hell to lose her last week, but we persisted and she’s stuck with me and I know that even when we fight it’s because we love so very much.)

I cry a lot now. I’m all for a good cry every now and then. It releases everything, leaves the heart clear, fresh and shining like the world after a good storm. My crying, though, hasn’t been the good, clearing kind. It’s been the kind that comes unexpectedly when someone looks at me – really looks at me – and asks, “How are you doing?” Yesterday it was my monk who triggered my tears; he who contains whole worlds in his eyes. His students swear he can see into your very soul when he looks at you. I understand why they think that.

There is a group of women – mothers – where I work who have offered to help me, to help my family. They are offering to bring us meals. I received an email from one of them and burst into tears. Their kindness stunned me into speechlessness. I couldn’t even write back immediately. I waited until the next morning. I explained everything that is going on. She wrote back and said I know. She said I know exactly where you are. She said My dad had Alzheimer’s. I cried again and my heart broke for her and for me and I found comfort in this awful, shared experience.

I went to open mic tonight and when a girl with kohl eyeliner stood up and belted out two powerful poems, I was transported out of my world and into hers, just for the briefest of moments. It felt good to be challenged, to be reminded that there are so many other experiences happening every minute of every day. Some are just as painful as mine, if not more. Some are joyous and full of delight and wonder. The former gives me strength; the latter gives me hope.

When Nora Ephron’s mother was on her deathbed, she told her daughter, “Take notes.” She had also told her, over and over again, “Everything is copy.” I believe that, and because I believe that I write through it all, good and bad. So I’ve decided to just put this out there, and you all can see where I am right now. It’s not a happy-fun place. It’s nothing that will make you laugh. It’s simply where I am, who I am right now: raw and battered, red-eyed and exhausted, and definitely not funny. My mother has Alzheimer’s. My daddy has a tumor in his lung. As painful as this is, it’s my reality. Maybe you’ll find some strand of shared experience, something that makes you think, “Me, too” and realize you aren’t alone, either. Maybe you won’t, but you’ll get a glimpse into a life different than your own and learn something new. Maybe you’ll say, “Bah. I liked it better when she wrote funny.” Me, too, friend. Me, too.

The gift

I read a business book years ago called A Complaint is a Gift. The premise is that businesses should look at customer service not as a wearisome task that needs to be dealt with, but as an opportunity to better your organization while potentially creating brand ambassadors. The concept is so stunningly simple that it’s amazing more companies don’t adhere to it. Listen to your customers, admit your error, and graciously fix what’s wrong. This happens so little these days that when it does, customers are blown away and won over, often leaving even more happy with the company than if they’d never had an issue to begin with. “I will stick with this company, because they stuck by me.” What seems like should be a basic human value – treating others well – still clearly needs to be outlined in a business book. It’s a good reminder for all of us, though.

The book was interesting in that it gave statistics to back up why it’s so important to listen to people and resolve their issues. You know, just in case you need proof that you should be a decent human being. For every one person that calls (or emails) to complain, there are seven more who are just as unhappy but who choose to stop doing business with your company. For the silent seven, their resolution of choice is departure, which is not what any company wants, and telling everyone they know about their horrible experience, which every company dreads.

On the heels of reading this book, the president of the organization I was working for proposed a new policy that virtually guaranteed an unhappy customer base. I saw it coming a mile away, and counseled (loudly and persistently) against it. I was overruled, the policy was implemented, and I watched, horrified, the revenue carnage that ensued. After a few weeks of tracking complaints, I took a report in to the president. She leaned back in her chair, crossed her arms, and replied, “If they’re unhappy, they can go somewhere else.” Well, they did. Sales tanked. Cash flow slowed to a crawl. It was like watching a car accident happen in slow motion.

After a year, remembering the book I read about complaints, I conducted another analysis mostly just out of curiosity. I took the complaints that I had tracked (number of calls, emails, and in-person complaints), and multiplied by seven based on the book’s statistic. This gave me a total number of unhappy customers, if the book’s premise held true. I then took the total number of unhappy customers and multiplied it by our average sale amount, and I’ll be darned if it didn’t come out to almost exactly the amount of sales decline over the prior year. I was stunned. I took my statistical proof to the president, and suggested that our customers had indeed done exactly what she challenged them to. They left. She waved me off, the policy stayed, and I eventually departed like so many of those unhappy customers.

Now, I’m sure there were many other variables that contributed to the decline in sales. But still, those numbers were pretty compelling. And it taught me, again, that when someone tells you you’ve done something wrong, you should listen and apologize and learn and change. Because I think this is a good thing for people to do, not just companies, I try to apply it to my own life.

This week, someone told me I did something wrong. It’s one of you, dear readers. The concern was expressed anonymously, which doesn’t lessen the validity of the complaint in the slightest. The fact is, I messed up. I own my mistakes, all of them, because they all teach me something. I won’t get into the details of how I messed up or how I tried to fix it (because who wants to blast their own imperfections out to the internets…especially if one is mortified, as I happen to be), but I do want to acknowledge to myself (and maybe to the reader, if I haven’t lost him or her, and maybe to the seven others who didn’t complain but felt the same way) that I am still growing and learning and figuring things out. I am so grateful that someone had the courage to point out to me what I had done wrong, otherwise I’d have never known. How many of us can easily see our own faults?

I receive gifts every single day. My family, friends, and colleagues make me laugh, which is a huge gift. People show me love and support through their words, their hugs, and sometimes a bottle of beer. My daughter snuggles with me and tells me she loves me. My husband insists that I don’t skip writing group, knowing that this time is so important to me. My photography friends share their beautiful images, and my writing friends share their beautiful words. My extended family shares their lives with me. And I have people in my life who help me be a better person by pointing out ways I can improve. I am rich in an abundance of gifts of all kinds. This is what I must remember when life feels hard, when in addition to the gifts I receive bad news, as I did last week (also not willing to disclose). (At least not yet.)

I am grateful for these gifts. All of them.

The lesson of Boaty McBoatface

I received three bits of disturbing news today. My best friend from 7th grade is back in the hospital with a headache from hell that will not go away, my dad had to have some testing done for a potential health issue, and the U.K.’s science minister announced that despite overwhelming polls to the contrary, he will most likely not allow the country’s new research vessel to be named Boaty McBoatface.

Let’s dig into that last one, shall we?

The National Environment Research Council (NERC) in Britain conducted an online poll to name their new $300 million research ship, due to launch in 2019. They accepted nominations from everyone. After Englishman James Hand jokingly suggested Boaty McBoatface, the internet did what it’s best at and pandemonium ensued. Thousands, then tens of thousands, then over a hundred thousand people voted, and Boaty McBoatface won in a landslide. It received 120,000 votes, four times the number of the next entry. There were so many voters that at one point the site crashed.

This, my friends, is awesome, and a great lesson in “How to ask a question so you get the answer you want.” Also known as, “That time an open-ended, online poll bit me in the rear end.” Someone at NERC was asleep at the wheel when this promotion was launched. Or NERC decided that no one knows what the heck they do anyway and so only nerds geeking out on oceanic exploration would bother to nominate names, and only names of worthy deceased explorers or forgotten politicians who supported exploration or other Important People no one has heard of. Regardless, the outcome is not what they wanted.

My guess is, as the numbers started ticking up and Boaty McBoatface took off in a run-away landslide blowout of epic proportions, the NERC folks started breathing in paper bags. “No no no, Nigel! This is not how it was supposed to go!”

That’s the way it went, though, and then the internets did what it’s second-best at and the story went viral. I’m generally not the most plugged-in kind of person (yet another sign of my advancing age…darn whippersnappers) and even I knew about it. So that unequivocally means it went viral. The more I read about Boaty McBoatface, the more I laughed. In fact, I pretty much haven’t stopped laughing about it since I first read the words “Boaty McBoatface.” I mean, c’mon. That’s just funny. I told M about it last night and he started laughing, and then promptly texted the Brit who works for him and gave him nine kinds of hell. Richard’s response was something along the lines of “I’ll take Boaty McBoatface shenanigans over Trump any day. Wanker.”

And then today I read that the science minister (which is a cool title, I’ll give him that) announced that Boaty McBoatface is in fact most certainly not funny and that no, NERC will most likely not be naming their hoity-toity research ship that and will indeed select a most proper name. All delivered, I’m sure, in a snotty British accent. (He’s British, after all, so that’s to be expected.)

He’s quoted as saying, “I think we were clear when launching the competition that we were looking for a name that would be in keeping with the mission.” He then sniffed with disdain.

I think he’s making a mistake. I mean, sure, the poll didn’t go the way they planned. It went way better. This is a public relations dream. I’m going to hazard a guess that the vast majority of people who voted for Boaty McBoatface hadn’t even heard of NERC and their mission before this poll. And if they had, they didn’t give a rip. Boaty McBoatface gave them a reason to invest, to be involved, to care. And care they did, in record numbers.

If NERC had a PR professional worth her salt (like, you know, if they had me), they’d be full steam ahead with naming their ship in accordance with what the people want. Think of the fan base they would engender. So many people would follow the adventures of Boaty McBoatface way more than they’d ever pay attention to what’s happening on the HMS Simon Smythingtonshireham. The marketing opportunities are endless. The educational potential – enchanting children on a level that appeals to them – blows my mind. This is the chance for NERC to really engage the public on polar research and climate change. It’s like in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy’s world in Kansas is in sepia and then she steps through her tornado-blown doorway into a Technicolor world. Who wants to view vibrant marine life in black and white?

Science minister Johnson instead said, “You want a name that fits the gravity and the importance of the subjects that this boat is going to be doing science into.” Seriously, this man should not be allowed to talk to reporters, much less make boat-naming decisions, but I digress.

I posit that there is too much gravity in this world. There are too many serious subjects, and after awhile, most people tune them out despite their importance. The sheer volume of data flying in our faces means that unless it’s catchy or super-intriguing, it’s gonna be gone without a second thought in moments. If it even lasts that long.

My recommendation, as a PR professional, would be to keep “Boaty McBoatface.” Exploit it. Use it to your advantage and leverage the heck out of it. Match the quirky moniker with real education, good information, facts about our planet. Make science actually fun and appealing. Sneak in some learnin’ while people are having a good time.

My prediction, as a PR professional, is that “propriety” will rule. The ship will be named something no one will remember, and it’ll steam off to do its work in boring ambiguity without fanfare, without good press, and without the interest of anyone not actually on the boat.

As for me, after years of wondering what I’d name my boat if I ever got one, well, I think I know my answer.

Finding my way back

I wrote and wrote and wrote for a third installment on the train trip. And then I went back to read it and discovered that in an attempt to avoid the whole, “My vacation is awesome” refrain and a detailed listing of all the tourist places we landed along with everyone else that goes to Seattle, I had instead devolved into a huge crabfest which really didn’t accurately portray our trip at all. What a waste of 2,655 words!

So I will instead attempt to pull out some of the more humorous anecdotes, because there were a few scattered around in there. I think.

The aquarium in Seattle has a huge touch pool, where Zoe and I were able to “pet” sea anemones, urchins, star fish, and sea cucumbers. We petted them all. One of the anemones is a fraidy cat and sucks in all its fronds at the gentlest of touches. Zoe loved that and “scared” three of them. I was amazed at how different star fish can each feel. M stood nearby and watched, trying to hide the look of horror on his face that his two girls were touching sea monsters.

Close quarters on the train means that embarrassing situations can happen. Like when the guy didn’t pay attention to the compartment numbers and whipped open the curtain on mine, thinking it was his. He about fell all over himself apologizing and desperately trying to fix the curtain with one hand while not spilling his coffee, and I congratulated myself for keeping the compartment door closed and locked until I was dressed. I had just been fixing my head scarf, so it wasn’t like he got a good view of anything, but it scared the heck out of both of us, I think. I bet he never yanks open another compartment curtain without checking the number first.

On the Coast Starlight route, when we had coach seats, I went downstairs to use a bathroom. The bathrooms on Amtrak trains have light indicators for when the lavatories are occupied. If the light is on, the potty is populated. Easy peasy. I marched downstairs and yanked open a door without a glowing light, only to find myself face to face with a petite Asian woman who I could tell was just as startled as me. She pulled the door back as I slammed it closed and stammered my apologies, and I moved less assuredly to the next bathroom. This time I tapped on it and listened for a moment even though the light was off. It was open, so in I went. As I sat there congratulating myself on my superior intellect for using the door lock and preventing something like that happening to me, a man yanked open my door. It appears that the door locks can be tricky on these trains, leading to all sorts of surprises and fun, unexpected get-to-know-your-neighbors visits. Later, on the Empire Builder, I learned that no matter how securely you close the door and latch the lock on the upstairs lav of our sleeper car, the gentle jostling of the train discreetly unlocks the door regularly. Now I was paying attention as I sat there doing my business, having been surprised twice now by men I don’t know, and watched as my locked door unlocked itself three times with the quietest of clicks. I think they’re out to get me, these doors. I’m hyper-aware now. You won’t catch me with my pants down again, potties.

The steward for our sleeper car on the Empire Builder route is named Rodgie. He has been with Amtrak over 20 years and is funny, efficient, and knowledgeable. Everything you’d want in a steward. He informs every group of new passengers that this car requires smiles. If you lose your smile, just find Rodgie and he will replace it. He peppered most stops with rhymes and limericks, and you could hear people up and down the corridor laughing. Amtrak should make Rodgie their poster boy for riding the rails.

I enjoyed wine on our train trip, and M enjoyed beer. However, one passenger began his libations before boarding in Seattle and then continued, to the point where he was not only ejected from the train in Wenatchee, Washington in the middle of the night, he was also arrested. Rodgie told us that he hadn’t been playing nice with the other passengers, but wouldn’t go into detail because the man is a professional and because telling us what some drunken sot did wasn’t guaranteed to put smiles on our faces. M and I agreed, and Rodgie confirmed, that Wenatchee, Washington, probably isn’t the best place to get kicked off the train. Google tells me that it is the largest city and county state of Chelan County, and offers Wenatchee Valley College and Academy of Hair Design as its institutions of higher learning. I didn’t look, but I’m sure that Western Union has an office there if your wife has to wire bail money to get you out of the pokey after being thrown off the Empire Builder.

At lunch our final day, we sat with a young Indian man earning his PhD in food safety in Fargo, North Dakota. His name is Ashish, “Like hashish without the H,” he explained. Ashish and M had a wonderful conversation about Indian cuisine, and about driving in India, and about how there are many different languages in India, and countless dialects. He told me about Holi, the festival of color in India, and made me want to go there even more now. He was traveling to Chicago to meet his cousin for a Pink Floyd concert. Ashish is a pretty cool dude.

I may think of more later, but those are the standout ones right now. It was a wonderful trip and we all had a blast, etc. I highly recommend train travel if you have the time and if you don’t mind forced relaxation.

Sunday afternoon

Right now I’m sitting in my home office/writing studio/photography den/room of her own trying to write and being largely unsuccessful. I have gotten too much out of the habit, I think. I didn’t write nearly as much as I expected on the train, probably because I was far too busy watching the ever-changing scenery out the window. At night I felt too tired, although in hindsight I probably should have just forced myself. The past week I’ve been busy getting back into the routine of things at home (cooking and cleaning and laundry and bills) and the routine of work (writing, editing, proofing, photographing). It has felt good, this return to the work of daily life. I do love travel and experiencing new things, but just as much I love the feeling of being home. (I’m only saying this because right now dinner is in the oven, the house was cleaned yesterday, laundry is going, and bills are paid. So I’m feeling fairly on top of things.) Zoe is outside with M, working on her softball skills. She’s batting in rubber rain boots.

It’s now 5:35 a.m. Tuesday morning. I dragged my sorry butt out of bed to write. Mostly because I had a little nutty last night and melted down over absolutely nothing, and afterwards, with a lot of thought, figured out it’s because I’m not very happy. And I’m not happy because I’m not writing. I wrote a bit on our vacation, but not as much as expected. Then we returned and the first Thursday night, my normal writing night with my writing group, we had to go see the tax lady. Tonight is Open Mic, which usually gets me writing, but a Girl Scout meeting for troop leaders to figure out where the hell we’re going to go after being kicked out of the parish was scheduled, and I need to be there. So no Open Mic. This Thursday I was invited to a fun party which I wouldn’t miss for the world, so no writing group again, making it a month since I’ve been. Apparently I need these scheduled writing prompts or I don’t write, because instead of writing I’ve been very good about getting laundry done and the house clean and the taxes pulled together and the bills paid and good, healthy meals made and grocery shopping done.  I’ve been very good about doing everything but writing. Which is great for everyone else and terrible for me.

I was tired and had a throbbing headache after my nutty last night, so I set my alarm for earlier than normal and gave up the day. Just gave it up and went to sleep. When the alarm went off this morning I was in the middle of a vivid dream about being with my Girl Scouts and drawing pictures based on Little House on the Prairie, and I was determining whether I was going to draw the tiny stone-fronted soddy they lived in when they first left the Big Woods and went to the prairie, before Walnut Grove, or if I’d draw a log cabin that Pa built. Clearly I’ve been thinking too much about Girl Scouts and we’ve been watching too much Little House. I was having a good time with the girls in my dream, though, and turned off the alarm without getting up. Then I remembered melting down and knew I had to get up.

So this is my new endeavor, to keep peace with myself and ensure my family doesn’t end up having me committed. I used to get up early and write, and then fell off the wagon for whatever reason.

Although I will admit that just after I typed that, I spotted a stack of checks on my desk that need to be deposited, and realized that this morning would be good because I don’t have to be at work early. So I sorted those. And then one of the cats came in and meowed and used the litter box just outside my studio door, so I got up and cleaned the box.

Clearly I have some work to do with this whole notion of shutting out the world and writing.

I’m going to post this to the blog now, even though the whole thing is a mish-mash of bad writing and disjointed thoughts, because, well, that’s just where I am right now and it’s been too long since I posted and I’ve always been honest here.

The second cat just stalked in, yowling. I give up for the day. Tomorrow I know to start with a clean desk and a closed door.

Dispatch from the Rails (#2)

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This has been written over a few days. I maxed out my data plan on my cell phone, which is what I use for wifi on my laptop when there’s no true wifi around. My photos piled up on my phone because I couldn’t post, and my essay here just kept growing. Took me two days of pestering to get M to grant me hotspot access on his cell phone, and I didn’t dare take the time to post to the blog. As it was, just pushing some photos through, he asked me every 30 seconds, “Are you finished yet?” We’re at a hotel in Seattle now, so at least in the evenings when we are back in our room I’ll have wifi, plus my data plan billing cycle starts anew tomorrow. Freedom!

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I slept far better the second night on the train. It may be that I was finally used to the train’s motion. Or that Zoe slept in M’s compartment, which opened up mine above my berth. Not that I’m claustrophobic, but it is a little weird to be sleeping in a bunk bed at the age of 42. Or maybe it was that we had only one stop, in Elko, Nevada, at 3:03 a.m., so there weren’t the stops and starts of the first night. I woke up once, around midnight, to use the bathroom, and fell right back asleep. And then at 6:20 a.m. local, I was awake. I laid there for a few minutes, confused as to whether I needed to get up.

I have, for most of my life, been a night owl. I do my best work late at night. I’m wide awake while the rest of the world sleeps. This means, naturally, that mornings are hard. When M and I were first married, I loved weekends because I could sleep in until 10. This pattern has been intact for years, since high school. I adored the weekend ritual of sleeping in.

Lately, though, I’ve annoyed myself by habitually waking up early. I can no longer sleep in, even when I stubbornly try. This probably has something to do with trying to ensure I get an appropriate amount of sleep for health reasons I consciously lay down to go to sleep earlier, and that with my busy schedule I’m tired and actually ready for bed at a reasonable hour.

That morning, when my eyes opened and I “ran out of sleep” as my Uncle Cloyd says, I didn’t fight it. I didn’t try to go back to sleep. I finally realized that I ran out of sleep because I had slept enough. My body was telling me, “Okay, we’re good! Time to get up and start the day!” I sat up, watched the beautiful sunrise for the second morning in a row, and was quiet with my thoughts for a few minutes. Then I changed out of my pajamas, got Zoe’s clothes ready for the day, organized our compartment bag, put our seats back in order, and fetched a cup of coffee. I was writing by 6:45 a.m. This is a revelation for me, and I’m loving it. M has had this habit for years. I think he’s on to something.

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Readying our compartment for sleep and then for the day is a fairly easy process. We could, of course, push the attendant call button and ask Derrick, Car 531’s steward, to come do it for us. We did that the first night, only to discover that everyone else in Car 531 wants to go to sleep at the same time. Poor Derrick was running all over the place, and we waited patiently for our turn while the minutes clicked by. We watched while he did it, so we were ready to handle it ourselves the second night. (On our first train trip years ago, our steward made up the beds when we were at a late dinner or hanging out in the observation car, so we never saw him do it. He was like a bit of Disney magic on Amtrak.)

There are two seats facing each other in an Amtrak roomette. They are far enough apart for two adults with long legs (i.e. M and I) to sit comfortably together. The seats also recline a bit, if you want to lean back and enjoy the view. When the seats are reclined, they are at a perfect distance for M and I to rest our feet on the other seat, which is easy to do since the seats are crazy wide. To turn them into the lower bunk, you press a small, stainless steel pedal under the seat and pull out base with the lower cushion. Or push down on the upper cushion. The seats glide down and meet in the middle, forming a bed that spans the width of the cabin. The pallet mattress and sheet set are stored in the upper bunk, which during the day is securely latched against the top of the compartment. There’s a stainless steel handle that you press to lower the bunk down into the flat position for sleeping. Its pallet mattress stays there, and there is webbing you can attach to the ceiling that ensures the occupant won’t tumble out in the middle of the night. Each mattress has a fitted sheet and a flat sheet, and comes with one blue Amtrak blanket that is some sort of space-age technology because it’s the thinnest blanket I have ever seen and yet is completely warm and perfect for sleeping in a cabin with the heat turned off. (That’s another thing that has changed for me: I used to be perennially cold, and now I get so hot that I can hardly sleep with any covers at all.) Just in case, Derrick steward gave us each extra blankets. We haven’t needed them.

In the morning, you simply reverse the process. The lower bunk mattress is stowed in the upper bunk and folded against the ceiling, and the the seats glide back into their upright positions. It’s ingenious how well this small space works for both day and night inhabitants. More houses should be designed this way, like boats and ships. Every space useful and, hopefully, beautiful.

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And now for the segment where I try to gross out my readers as much as possible. Seriously, if you are of weak stomach, either grab a bucket or skip to the next section. I won’t mind either way. Go ahead, I’ll wait…still with me? Okay. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

A couple days before we left, in the early morning when we snuggle before starting our hectic day, I discovered a huge growth on the side of Zoe’s left pinky finger. I was messing with her hands when I felt it, said, “What in the heck is that?” and switched on the light to discover a horrifying lump. It looked disgusting. I called the doctor as soon as the office opened that morning and he saw her at 11, where we learned that she had an enormous wart she’s been growing (and hiding from us) since December. This wart was bad; it made her pinky finger about twice its normal size. Ew. She also had a small infection from a hangnail, so he prescribed an antibiotic and instructed me to get Compound W. I did all that, and we began treatment immediately. The pediatrician also told me that after a few days of the Compound W, a hard white shell would form over the wart and that I was to, um, remove it. I nearly barfed right there. I also realized immediately that I would be the one doing this as M gets squeamish over tears and boogers, and downright suicidal over vomit. I’m pretty sure if he was told he had to do this task he would run away and we wouldn’t see him again for years.

Fast-forward a couple of days and sure enough, the hard white shell had formed. I had been messing with it on and off, since I was the official parental caretaker of the wart, and knew that this day, Holy Saturday, was D-Day. Or W-Day, to be more precise. I grabbed some tissues, cornered her in our compartment, and started in on the wart. M heard the crying (from Zoe, not from me…I was silently grimacing and telling myself over and over again that it had to be done and to not throw up), came over, turned green, and promptly stopped watching what I was doing. He grabbed yet another tissue, wadded it up, and dabbed at the tears streaming down Zoe’s face, because God forbid he should actually touch a tear while I extracted a freaking wart.

Extraction is exactly what it was. There was no pulling it off so much as pulling it out, leaving a gaping hole in my child’s finger that promptly filled with blood. Zoe, by this point, is nearly melting down and M is right behind her. “Oh my God. Is it supposed to look like that? Did the doctor tell you to do this?” If I hadn’t had my hands full with wart, blood, and tissues I’d have clocked him. Even Zoe tearfully told him yes, the doctor said to do that.

The good news is that her finger is doing great, and is nearly back to its normal shape and size, and is pain-free. She is thrilled that the wart, which we had named Warty because that’s what we do, is gone. M has reached the point where he can finally look at her finger without gagging, and after I render my verdict of, “This is looking great! Lots better!” he renders his, “Oh, yeah, Zo. Your finger is looking a lot better!”

Wart extraction on a moving train. I’m like a regular Hawkeye Pierce.

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We went to Easter Vigil at St. Patrick’s in the financial district of San Francisco. M had done a boatload of research and found that both the time and location were perfect for us. We could easily walk there after dinner near our hotel. (Dinner, by the way, was at a place called Thai Stick, which M found using Trip Advisor, and which was the best darn Thai food we’ve ever eaten.) What his research didn’t tell him was that the old and traditional St. Patrick’s Church now houses a large, warm, and welcoming Chinese population. We entered, genuflected, prayed, and sat back. I looked around, and realized quickly that we were three of the very few Caucasian people in attendance. There were four priests concelebrating the Mass: two Asian, one black, and one an ancient white dude. The two Chinese priests did most of the work, and the Mass was beautiful. The homily was fantastic, too. What an incredible experience.

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Zoe crashed pretty hard after Mass, which was good because the Easter Bunny had work to do. What was somewhat surprising (okay, not really) was that M crashed pretty hard, too, leaving the Easter Bunny on his own to get everything done. Not that he was tired himself or anything. Not that he was exhausted from three days on the train and packing and unpacking and removing warts. But the Easter Bunny doesn’t complain. Easter Bunny just gets the job done, yo. He’ll hide eggs in room 1708 of the San Francisco Hilton at midnight. He’s crazy magical like that.

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Easter Sunday was spectacular in its oddity. We certainly broke tradition this year. There was no family brunch, no making the rounds. Instead, there was a boat trip to Angel Island and a tram tour, then a boat trip to Alcatraz Island and a walking tour, then a boat trip back to Fisherman’s Wharf. On that middle boat trip we saw a humpback whale surface twice in San Francisco Bay. Our captain assured us this is a rare sighting. We also saw several seagulls who were intensely curious about what the people on our boat may or may not have been eating, and we may have laughed at the terror of others when it came to the gulls. I know that’s not very Christian, but darn it was funny.

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Angel Island is a best-kept secret in San Francisco. Most tourists that end up there only go because the Alcatraz-only tickets were sold out and the package was the only way left to get to the old federal penitentiary. M found the package before we ever left and we thought that Angel Island sounded pretty cool, too. We didn’t know the half of it. It’s extraordinary, and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting S.F.

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Before our Angel Island tram tour left, the driver instructed anyone who might need to use the restroom to do so immediately, as the tour takes about an hour and there are no bathroom breaks along the way. By the time the three of us visited the facilities, we were in the last tram group. I had pointed out a cool, old blue tram from the 1950s to M that was parked practically in the bushes alongside the road, well behind the modern trams pulled up to the loading space. We laughed and figured they were keeping it around just because it looks cool. Imagine our surprise when the two, full modern trams pulled away and we saw our driver climb aboard the retro one and struggle to get it started. The Miss Caroline rumbled up and we all loaded in, M and I eyeing each other skeptically. The tram’s engine seemed solid once she was finally started, but her transmission was a whole other matter. We jerked and bucked up every single hill, and I honestly thought we weren’t going to make it a couple times. Okay, every time. But still, the tour was wonderful and we were afforded stunning views of the bay from all sides of the island. Miss Caroline and our trusty driver got us around and back to the dock in time for lunch before boarding for the trip to Alcatraz.

My favorite part was the smell of eucalyptus. The island had been deforested by loggers when the military took it over early last century. To “help,” they planted all sorts of non-native species which still thrive there today. The California Park Service is slowly culling those back to designated areas and trying to repopulate the island with native species, but they’ve got years of work ahead of them. To my benefit, we drove right through several eucalyptus groves, and for the first time in my life I got to smell my favorite smell live. I have always loved eucalyptus candles and lotions, but the actual real smell is so much better. I was inhaling deeply, over and over, before our tour guide finally told me what it was. I think she thought I was hyperventilating. It makes me want to go home and plant eucalyptus trees all around the house, but I don’t think they’d thrive in Missouri’s environment and I’m pretty sure M will kill me if I plant anything but grass. He is staunchly anti-tree, having been the one to clean up their droppings every fall. The story of Angel Island is pretty cool, too, but I’ll leave you to google that for yourself. At one point on the tour, M was worried that Zoe was bored. She was sitting quietly in the window seat of the bucking Miss Caroline, taking it all in. I asked if she was okay, and she responded, “Yeah. This is just so relaxing!” She’s a kid of many flavors.

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Alcatraz Island is stunning on so many levels. The island itself is beautiful. The architecture is interesting. The history is intriguing. I didn’t know that before it was a federal penitentiary it was a military installation. I didn’t know that many of the children of prison employees grew up on Alcatraz, ferrying into San Francisco each morning to go to school. I didn’t know that an attempted prison-break resulted in the U.S. military bombing the cell block – with uninvolved prisoners and guards still inside – to get it under control. Our tour included an audio package, which was brilliant in both the scope and depth of what it covered. Even Zoe was fascinated. She wasn’t too thrilled when I made her stand in a cell so she could get her picture made behind bars. Good. Nothing like teaching her early that crime doesn’t pay.

My best find there was a small book with a series of quotes from the Rules and Regulations of the Federal Penitentiary on Alcatraz. There are some real gems in there that I plan to share with you all later. The book is packed in one of our stowed suitcases, and I’m typing this on the way to Seattle. I’m too lazy to go downstairs and root around in the bag to find it. Suffice it to say that it astounds me how many of the rules and regulations are applicable to our lives. More to come on that.

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After dinner on Fisherman’s Wharf, we took Zoe to find a cable car. M figured out the map and we went to the beginning of the line, where there’s a turntable to get the cars facing forward again. We waited forever, because cable cars are in no hurry or are on a timeframe that no one knows but the operators, and they ain’t talking. It didn’t help that we waited behind a large Indian family with a strong matriarch who was more excited to show the cable cars to her son Krish than Krish was to see them. I made a video of one of the cars coming down to the turntable, and I’ll have to figure out how to lay a music bed over it because the natural sound includes a woman screaming, “Krish! Krish! The cable car! It’s coming, Krish! Krish, turn around so I can get a picture of you facing the cable car! No, Krish, you need to smile! Krish! Turn around and smile so I can get the cable car behind you! Krish! It’s coming Krish! IT’S COMING KRISH IT’S COMING HERE COMES THE CABLE CAR KRISH!” What you don’t see on my video is a bored 9-year-old boy who is barely humoring his mother, while his two teenage sisters stand nearby and roll their eyes and his father stares at the ground and says nothing. The next cable car that came was terminating in Chinatown, about halfway to the end, so we didn’t take that one. Poor Krish climbed aboard with his mother still screaming in his ear and telling him how excited he was over this whole experience. They pulled away, and we were happy to wait a bit longer for a quieter ride. Finally, it was our turn, and I took a seat on the bench while M and Zoe hung off the side. Zoe grinned nearly the entire time, and was beaming with joy. We rode the entire length of the line, and loitered a few moments at the end to get some pictures. Our conductor invited Zoe back into the cable car to ring the bell, teaching her the proper technique to get both tone and frequency. I think it was the highlight of her day, even though she won’t admit it because she’s too polite to say, “I can’t believe you dragged me to a prison and put me in a jail cell, but the cable car ride made up for it!”

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After a quick stop at the hotel to pick up our bags and change back into our train-traveling clothes (i.e. athletic wear, or athleisure, or yoga pants, or “softie pants” as Zoe calls them, or sweat pants as we used to call them back in the day), we summoned a friendly Uber driver. I’ll call him Mohammad, because that’s what his name is. (We were driven around San Francisco by Omar, Tim from Hong Kong who has been in this country longer than I have, and Mohammad, and we celebrated Mass with the Chinese…this has been an awesome multi-cultural experience!) We asked Mohammad for a special favor that we were, of course, willing to pay for: would he drive us down Lombard Street before taking us to the train station in Emeryville? After several minutes of confusion – Mohammad kept calling it “the block with the flowers” because he didn’t know for sure that the name was Lombard and M didn’t remember any landscaping and could only say that the name is Lombard and I finally put them both on the same page because a.) I’m an international interpreter and b.) I know that Lombard Street has spectacular flowers and c.) I can also remove warts when needed, by the way – we were on our way. Zoe thinks it’s the craziest street in America, and I think she might be right. Down we went, while she giggled and wondered why anyone in the world would build a street like this and I wondered at what a great country we live in where we can so easily arrange to go down a squiggly street in the back of our new friend Mohammad’s Corolla. God bless America.

We have become spoiled with our train travel. In this whole trip, we had one night – and one night only – in coach class. The seats are extra wide and they recline like crazy, plus there are two outlets for every pair of seats and giant windows to gaze out. I had brought two blankets and my Irish cloak, because Amtrak trains are notoriously cold, so we were set. That is, until the two adults on this trip made fatal errors. M didn’t realize I had planned on using my cloak as a blanket, so when I offered him a blanket as we were going to sleep, he declined. He knew we had two blankets, and he was chivalrous and left them for his girls. He froze the entire night. I, in mama bear mode, placed Zoe in the window seat while I took the aisle. She’s small enough to curl up on the seat and make herself comfortable, while an adult really should use the side of the train (the window) to lean on to get really comfortable. For most of the night I tossed and turned, trying to find a way to sleep without my head bopping all over the place. Finally, early in the morning, she woke enough where I could switch positions with her. She snuggled into my arms, I leaned on the window, and we both fell asleep. None of us slept as well as we do when we have beds in the rooms, so clearly we are now train snobs and completely spoiled rotten. Also, I realized just how much I appreciate the privacy afforded by having rooms. Out here in coach we are at the whim of the people around us, and people can be pretty freaking annoying. Like the dude behind Zoe and I who wouldn’t shut up even after the conductor announced we were now in Quiet Hours and that people who wished to continue their stupid conversations should move to the observation car, you idiot. Also, I’m not quite so embarrassed when I fall asleep and then jerk myself awake with a start and a snort if I’m in a private room. We have rooms on our long Seattle-Chicago trip, and we’re all looking forward to them.

More animals we have seen on our trip: lizards, a sea lion sunning itself on a bay buoy, a humpback whale, cheeky seagulls, a cat in the lobby of our San Francisco Hilton, and the jerks who sat behind us on the Angel Island tram who kept talking loudly over the recorded tour despite our guide repeatedly telling them to shut up already.

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We went to sleep late last night somewhere around Davis, California and woke up in Oregon, well on the way to Klamath Falls. The sunrise, as usual on this trip, was breathtaking. I can really get used to this whole early-riser thing. Oregon, it turns out, is just as beautiful as the rest of this country. Amazing. In this one state we experienced sunshine and dry land, gorgeous pine forests full of freshly fallen snow, rain, and dry land again. We saw Klamath Lake and a huge water reservoir and two waterfalls and a string of paper mills that was beautiful in its own right as industrial decay. (If you dig that sort of thing. I do.) As I type, we are now in the great state of Washington. It’s pretty here, too. Picturesque mile after picturesque mile. I’m about ready to lead this whole coach car in a rendition of “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.” I don’t think the foreign guy behind me knows the lyrics, though, and I don’t want to make him feel bad so I’ll hold off for now.

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We crammed a lot into our 24 hours in San Francisco, and will move at a slower pace in Seattle. Tonight’s agenda includes only checking in to our hotel, dinner, and unpacking. Zoe opted for pizza delivery to the hotel, and noshing in the room. She wanted to dine “just the three of us, together.” I love that girl.

Since I’m celebrating being connected again, ya’all got pictures in this post. You’re welcome.

Tomorrow brings new adventures!

Dispatch from the Rails (#1)

I’m having trouble starting this essay. Do I begin with Zoe’s request to “sleep on a train,” or do I talk about my own feelings on this journey, or do I just start with the trip itself? I have started the same sentence over and over. I think because this trip is so big, so grand, that it’s hard to know where exactly to start.

Traveling by train is unlike any other form of travel, for the simple reason that when you’re on the train, the journey itself is the vacation. Flying is a necessary evil. Driving offers flexibility, but also exhaustion and the inability, for the driver at least, to take in much of the surroundings.

I have found it hard to unplug. The relaxing is good. I sit and watch and wonder at how lucky I am to get to see places that many people never will. I make photographs. I let my mind wander.

And then my stupid mind wanders and wonders, “How many likes are there now on that last image I posted?” And then I get frustrated because my phone says, yet again, “NO SERVICE.”

No service is a blessing. I know this. I get this. I understand the value of disconnecting. However, like any addiction, it’s hard to just walk away, to flip the switch and be okay without your vice. So this trip has shown me, unequivocally, that I am not only addicted to social media, but that my ego feeds upon it like it’s an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. For years, I have told myself that I don’t photograph for money, because that would be like selling my soul to the devil and turning my art over to others. I’d be selling out. I’d worry more about what my clients want, need and like, more than what I do. It would cease to be art and become a j-o-b.

And yet here I am, practically begging for likes on Facebook and hearts on Instagram. I do not like this about myself. It is uncomfortable to see what’s reflected in NO SERVICE. I will have to work on this.

At the Glenwood Springs, Colorado stop, after people had stretched their legs and gotten back on board and others departed for good, the conductor made an announcement. He called a woman by name, first and last, and with humor in his voice told her that this was her stop and she needed to get off the train. Her friend was waiting for her. He made this announcement twice, before a woman took over and also good naturedly asked her to please depart the train so we could leave the station. I wondered if she had already disembarked and perhaps had gotten past her friend and was waiting in the front of the station by the road. Soon, the announcements lost their friendly tone. “ANN ____. YOU NEED TO GET OFF THE TRAIN NOW.” The public address system on the train is loud and very clear. There is no mistaking that the woman could not hear the announcement no matter where she was sitting. I started hearing nervous laughter up and down the train as the announcements got more impatient. Finally, about ten minutes after the first announcement was made, we started rolling again. I wondered if Ann had gotten off the train.

Zoe and I overheard a conductor and a couple of stewards talking about it. Her friend finally boarded the train to find her and escort her off. Someone said she claimed she didn’t know the announcement was for her, despite the conductor giving her a five-minute warning before pulling into the station. She said that the name in the announcement was Ann and not Annie, so she didn’t know it was for her, despite her last name also being used in every announcement. She was not elderly and confused. Our steward estimated she is in her 20s.

I had so many story ideas fly into my head around this.

  • Annie is autistic, and this solo train journey was an attempt to find some independence.
  • Annie is a victim of domestic violence, who was debating whether she really wanted to get off the train and go back to her abusive husband after the trip home to see her sister.
  • Annie has finally recovered from a nasty divorce, and met her soul mate in the seat next to her; they were so engrossed in conversation that neither of them heard the repeated announcements.
  • Annie is blonde, and is the reason for all the blonde jokes ever created. Blondes everywhere hate her for what she’s done.

I’ll never know the real reason Annie’s friend had to drag her off the train. But I bet it’s a good story.

Speaking of stories, I have a couple of gems from our dining adventures on the train. The tables in the dining car seat four each, and since there are quite a few passengers who wish to eat in the dining car (versus the café car that serves cup o’ noodles, packaged sandwiches, microwaved pizzas, and the like) the dining car staff fills every table at every seating. When M and I did our trip a few years ago, we were always seated with other couples. We had a lovely time meeting people from all over the U.S. and even the world. Now, as a trio, we are always seated with singles. Our first night at dinner was nice; about halfway through an IT consultant traveling back home from visiting his granddaughters sat with us. The two meals since…not so lucky. The experiences make for great stories, though.

I sat next to a woman at breakfast this morning who immediately took it upon herself to invade my personal space. I wondered if it was just me being weird, but after the meal M confirmed that yes, she was pretty much in my lap. After five minutes of small talk, she convinced herself that we had met on the California Zephyr five years ago. She then gave me a brief rundown of her personal statistics to help me remember her. She has six children. She works as an American Sign Language interpreter. She was on the California Zephyr five years ago and every time I say something she thinks it’s déjà vu. She had forgotten her glasses and couldn’t read the menu, only she took the opposite approach of everyone else I have ever seen who needs cheaters (including myself on occasion now, though I am loathe to admit it). Instead of moving the menu further away, she held it about an inch from her face. It looked painful, so I gave her a brief rundown to help her through. She wondered if she could order the children’s scrambled eggs as she wanted only one, and I thought that she probably could but that it definitely didn’t hurt to ask. Before the attendant could return to take our orders she dispatched hers to me and bolted for the bathroom. And to retrieve her glasses and medication. Clearly she had come to the dining car completely prepared. Before leaving, she thrust her bag at me and instructed me to watch it carefully. “All my money is in there.” And then she second-guessed telling a complete stranger that information (she hadn’t yet figured out that we knew each other from five years ago), laughed nervously, and said, “Um. Just kidding. There’s only enough in there for lunch. I mean breakfast.” And she was off. Later, as she was jabbering about something or another – I had tuned out by this point – she asked the attendant if there was any way he could heat up the inch or so of coffee left in her paper cup. He fetched the coffee pot and refilled her cup while she prattled on to me. As he was turning to leave, she noticed that her cup was full and announced that no, she didn’t want all that coffee and that she should have been paying more attention and now she’d have to dump some of it out. Without hesitating, she reached across my plate to my nearly empty plastic soda cup and, an inch away from grabbing it, finally thought to ask me if she could have it. I nodded, dumbstruck by her audacity. She then proceeded to pour hot coffee into a plastic cup while the attendant stuttered that she really shouldn’t do that because it’s a plastic cup. She poured out almost the entire cup of coffee and handed it to him. “There. That’s better!” There was an inch of coffee left, but now it was hot again.

At lunch I sat next to a woman who clutched her enormous handbag on her lap throughout the meal, forcing her elbow up and right into my space. I gave up trying to use my left arm at all, hunched against the window, and awkwardly ate a hamburger with one pinned right arm. The burger was excellent. The woman was a little nutty. When I would turn to look out the window – we were rolling through some spectacular scenery – she would comment, “Oh, I’ll stop talking. You’d rather look out the window.” I saw no reason we couldn’t do both, but evidently she was exercising some passive-aggressive muscles. She had various reasons why should couldn’t order anything off the lunch menu, the first and foremost being that she was experiencing stomach issues. This is exactly what one wants to hear from a woman sitting practically on top of one. She asked, “Do you think apple juice is okay when I have stomach trouble?” No, I think it’s pretty acidic. “What about cranberry juice?” Same thing. I dispensed advice my mother had given me when I was a kid, and she ordered white soda. It seemed to do the trick, as near the end of the meal she thanked me for the excellent advice. She also offered me her potato chips as she can’t digest gluten. I declined.

M has watched all this roll out through the last two meals, and when Zoe announced that she was ordering the steak for dinner, he immediately said, “I’ll sit with her, so I can cut up her steak.” He’s not fooling anyone.

Update: M sat next to Zoe at dinner tonight, and I sat next to a wonderfully funny Brit named Mark. He’s a lecturer, and he speaks on media and politics. I discovered this after he and M had a decades-long conversation about football and American football and Stan Kroenke, during which Zoe and I amused ourselves by making faces at each other across the table. Right now, Mark is co-writing a piece about media and politics and celebrity, so you can imagine where the conversation went. We aren’t the only country with divisive politics: Britain is currently facing a referendum to remove itself from the European Union, and the debate has divided their conservative political party much as ours is currently cannibalizing itself. It was a good dinner. I had the lasagna. Delicious, but the steak and baked potato are better.

Our compartments are lovely. We are almost directly across the hall from each other, which has worked beautifully. We can see out both sides of the train, and there is enough space for all three of us to be comfortable. Both M and I get the more spacious bottom bunk in each compartment, and Zoe was thrilled to scramble up to the top bunk in mine last night. She slept well her first night on the train, which didn’t surprise me as she can sleep through just about anything and she was exhausted from getting up at 3 o’clock that morning. She, being 10, is not quite as enthralled with the scenery as we are, but I’m still glad she is experiencing this. She will appreciate it later. This morning she snapped a few pictures, saying she was going to show this one to Mrs. D as they had just learned about the Rocky Mountains in social studies, and that one to Mrs. M as they had learned about mountain environments in science. After awhile, she asked, “Can I get a picture printed?” I told her of course, we can get all of her pictures printed. She went to town after that. I think she’s snapped at least 200 pictures. I am thankful that Walgreens is inexpensive, especially when you can find a good coupon.

In an attempt to curate her independence, I let her pack her own rolling bag. I did caution her that it was her bag, so whatever she loaded into it she was responsible for carting around. She packed some games (Uno, a deck of cards, Farkle, Bananagrams) and Hootie, of course. She also packed her retainer case and two pairs of sunglasses. I did not check her bag before we left, and was surprised to find several journals and notebooks and her pencil case when we were waiting in Chicago’s Union Station. She has written in several of them already, and up until I pulled out my laptop this afternoon she had done far more writing than I. I envy her ability to jump right in. I needed time to decompress first.

We have played games, coming out even in Farkle and Uno. A game of war was begun and abandoned when we pulled into a station long enough to take a fresh air break. We haven’t tackled Bananagrams yet as we need a full table in the busy observation car and have chosen instead to enjoy the quiet privacy of our compartments.

M has spent time getting to know his new work computer. After years of being staunchly pro-PC, he finally caved and requested a MacBook. He’s got a bit of a learning curve, but I think he’s enjoying it. I’m glad he has this time to mess with it; being under pressure at work would make learning a new platform stressful.

As we rolled through Illinois farmland and small towns, I was intrigued by the number of people with hoarding problems who live close to railroad tracks. Is it a requisite to live there? Is being that close to the tracks some kind of economic indicator, and is that financial status endemic to never throwing anything away? Yard after yard full of junk, mounds and heaps of old children’s toys and rusted cars and pieces of boats and trailers. Crap everywhere. Some people had taken time to erect temporary structures from fencing material and tarps to protect their belongings, but then abandoned them to deteriorate over time and weather. They were like mini-dumps, and I was fascinated. So many stories there, I’m sure. Iowa was better; the land started to open up and I saw less trash discarded by the tracks. We rolled through Nebraska in the dark, emerging into Colorado with the sunrise and the open skies and the redemption of America. No matter how much we’ve messed things up (whether it’s physical trash or political trash), coming out here always gives me hope.

Or maybe it’s because I’ve been disconnected for 24 hours now, unable to check the news. I’ve quickly scrolled through Facebook and Instagram when we roll through a town and our phones start pinging with incoming text messages that have built up, and have seen nothing of great importance posted. Facebook is how I learned David Bowie died, and that there was a terrorist attack in Brussels, so if people aren’t posting big news like that, I know nothing major has happened. This method keeps me off the major news sites, where I would go right down the rabbit hole and be depressed every day over the bad-news click-bait continually posted. M loves the news sites, which I find funny given how much he wrinkles up his nose over my Facebook habit. Same addiction, different drug, my friend. He was on a kick lately with watching nature videos, one of which included a panther tearing up a baby wildebeest. He was rooting for the mama wildebeest, who was nearby and getting involved when she could, to tear up the panther. After several minutes, I had to ask him to mute his iPad as I couldn’t bear to listen to the baby wildebeest’s cries any more. Yesterday it was a shark attack on a huge marlin. By the time it was all over, the fisherman had barely a head left to show for his struggles. M gleefully showed me the bloody footage, “Look! There’s virtually nothing left! Can you imagine?” No, I don’t have to imagine, thanks to you, your iPad, and CNN.com, it’s all there in gruesome color.

There is a small child in a compartment down the hall from ours who has been crying most of the day. The parent(s) have stayed locked up in the room with the child, and I can’t imagine what their stress level must be. It’s not loud enough to be annoying to us because the rooms are incredibly well insulated, but it’s loud enough to know that it’s ear-splitting in that little compartment. The baby must be teething or ill, or simply doesn’t appreciate the view. Perhaps he or she has had terrible dining companions and can’t take it any more. Dinner hour is nearly upon us, after all.

Our train is set up like this: Engine-Engine-Baggage Car-Coach-Coach-Coach-Observation Car-Dining Car-Sleeper-Sleeper-Sleeper. This is the perfect set-up. On one of our routes last time, the sleeper cars were up front, close to the engines. We got the diesel fumes and a grimy coating that resembles coal dust, plus we clearly heard every whistle at every crossing. The train crosses a lot of roads in the middle of the night. This time, we can barely hear the whistle, and overall I feel a lot cleaner. I heard a woman asking the steward why we are in the back. He shrugged and said he didn’t know, and I mentioned all the reasons I was happy to be last. She nodded thoughtfully, and no longer felt slighted to be the caboose. You’re welcome, Amtrak.

I learned that the reason we have two engines is this: the first engine pulls us along, and the second one supplies all our power. Much like a good marriage.

At work before I left, several of us were talking about the west, and what it’s like out here. Someone hadn’t ever been, and another person wrinkled up his nose and said, “Oh, it’s awful.” I was surprised, as I think it’s beautiful. M and I just talked about it. He would move out here in a heartbeat. There is a beauty to the desolation, the rugged rocks and scrappy sage indicate life lived hard. I enjoy visiting, but think I would tire of the beige after awhile. I like color. I like green and flowers and tall trees that provide welcome shade in the summer and spectacular firework foliage in the fall and spidery webs against bleak skies in the winter. I like the variety, and would grow resentful of the sameness. But coming out here, where I feel small under the big sky and insignificant in the face of mountains formed over thousands of years, everything is placed into proper perspective. The deserts and the mountains and the Colorado River will still be here no matter who is elected president.

Animals we have seen so far: wild turkeys, bald eagle, horses, cattle, sheep (including some black, my favorite), elk, ducks, geese, dogs, ponies, miniature ponies. Also, two children at the table behind us during dinner tonight, one of whom alternated between raucous laughter and sobbing, and both of whom threw salad dressing packets at each other for fun.

I had no idea what to write when I started today. Looks like I figured it out. Good night from Provo, Utah! (Where I have a blessed signal and can get this posted.)