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Goodbye, 2016. Hello, 2017.

On the face of it, 2016 stunk it up, and so many of us are happy to see it go. 2016 brought a torrent of cultural and political pain from which the country is still reeling. On a personal level, it wasn’t exactly a banner year, either. As I reflected on the past year over the past week, I found myself scowling and angry, and frightened for what’s to come.

The year dealt multiple blows; we lost: Harper Lee, Bowie, Prince, George, Rickman, Wiesel, Cohen, Wilder, Ifill, Frey, Glenn, Ali, and more. The year dropped trou with a flourish by taking Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds back-to-back at the end, an enormous hand gesture to America that’s too crude to type here. The political scene was chaos and pandemonium, and most of us sat horrified and watched it unroll before our eyes, not believing that what was happening was actually happening. I don’t know whom to blame for that. The media? Nah. Russia? Naw. I think we have only ourselves to blame. And I think recovery is impossible until we admit that.

Personally, this year brought turmoil, too. A lung cancer diagnosis for my father sent my family into a tailspin. In addition to the fear for his health, we were forced to face some hard truths about what it takes to care for my mother, whose posterior cortical atrophy/Alzheimer’s continues to wreak havoc. His recovery was hard and scary, and everyone was pushed to the limits in multiple ways.

The foundation of our three-year-old home cracked and water poured into our finished basement. We ripped out drywall and baseboards and the front porch and, eventually, the entire front yard. Jury is still out on whether it’s completely fixed, but needless to say this wasn’t something we expected to have to do in a three-year-old home.

A dear friend at work learned that instead of launching into a new and exciting academic year he had to instead start fighting leukemia three days before the school year began.

A beloved family member on M’s side was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

We lost our parish, a huge blow from which I’m not sure I will ever fully recover. Thankfully we did not lose the community we’ve built there.

2016 gave me, at the end, the awful cold/flu crud that’s been going around. I was down for almost three weeks and had fought my way back to 99% when it slammed in again two nights before Zoe’s already-much-delayed birthday party. I self-medicated with caffeine and DayQuil, and forged ahead. A visit to the ENT the morning of New Year’s Eve confirmed that I needed antibiotics, nasal spray, rest, and quarantine from everyone. This made me crabby and hate 2016 even more.

Clearly, I was happy to see 2016 come to a close. Even with the uncertainty 2017 promises, I was just ready for the year to end. I spent the last six months praying that nothing happens to Tom Petty before he gets to St. Louis on tour again, because even though he’s been here a thousand times I’ve always had a conflict. He’s coming May 12. Hold on, Tom!

While sleeping half the day on NYE and grousing that I felt so crummy when I was conscious, I realized that I needed to flip my thinking. 2016 wasn’t all terrible, despite the fact that with little prompting I can reel off a litany of crap. So I made myself find 16 things that didn’t suck in 2016. Here we go.

  1. Zoe applied to, was accepted, and started at a new school that is challenging her in so many ways that we are continually reminded that we made a good, if tough, decision. She transitioned beautifully, made new friends easily, and is excelling academically. I cry when I think of the new worlds opened to her with this move. We made new friends through her new school, too. Our horizons are widened by these unique experiences and backgrounds, and the perspective gained is invaluable.
  2. I launched a new book project, a non-fiction work that I am still so excited about even while feeling bummed that life got in the way this year. It’s still there, waiting for me, which gives me hope and motivation. I hope to re-tackle in 2017 and get it moving again.
  3. The three of us enjoyed a mega-vacation that involved sleeping multiple nights on a train (one of Zoe’s most ardent desires) and experiencing San Francisco and Seattle. It was an amazing trip that gave us time together and memories I will cherish forever. M did an incredible amount of work planning this trip (mad props to him), and we all had a wonderful time.
  4. I got off my butt and started walking. I walked and walked and walked – almost 300 miles starting in the fall – and left nearly 30 pounds behind. I feel better and have retired a significant part of my wardrobe (significant both in size and in quantity). Better health led me to sign up for two fun runs late this year: the Girl Scouts Run for the Cookies and the Hot Chocolate 5K. We ran these as a family, creating more memories.
  5. I became more active in a private Facebook group for writers. This amazing group of people from all around the world is inspiring and motivating and supportive. We are collaborating on an anthology and I committed to writing a piece. It was hard, but I wrote it and gave it to two friends to beta read and edited it and submitted it and am so glad I did. Now I have to work on my bio, which I think may actually be harder to write than the original piece. I’m toying with, “Amy Zlatic lives, writes, photographs, mothers, wifes, plays and works in St. Louis, Missouri. She owns a cat that sneezes constantly. She likes pickles.”
  6. Because M retired the Christmas display, we were able to do the fun runs and more together. We decorated our tree as a family. We spent a Saturday in St. Charles to support a friend’s book launch and enjoyed the kick-off for the holiday season on Main Street. We’ve done Wild Lights at the Zoo and Way of Lights at Our Lady of the Snows. Never in my marriage have I had so much access to my husband before and even during the holidays. When people ask if I miss the display I am honest. No, I do not miss it. I spent too many years missing my husband. I’ve fallen in love all over again, with him and with the season.
  7. I won my second NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), this time finishing the middle grade novel I began last year. I haven’t brought myself to print the entire thing out yet to start editing (and oh boy does it need editing) but that’s on the 2017 to-do list. Word says it’s 323 pages. Not sure I’m ready to kill a tree yet, but I know it’s inevitable. It’s too hard to edit properly on-screen. I need hard copy and a red pen. And lots of coffee.
  8. I grew closer to two wonderful women who support me and love me and accept me and make me feel not so crazy. These women inspire me and motivate me every single day to try to be a better person. I love them and their families, and feel so grateful they have fully embraced me and my family. One of them actually happens to be extended family, which is just icing on the cake. (She can’t get rid of me, ever!) They taught me patience and the insanely valuable lesson of “Always respond in love.”
  9. We road-tripped to Cincinnati and enjoyed a jam-packed weekend full of fun and family. I don’t think we could have crammed more into that weekend, which included a Cardinals-Reds game, a big family bike ride, shopping, and a Labor Day party complete with fireworks and Boom! I love our Cincy family so much my heart hurts when I think about how much I miss them.
  10. Zoe participated in two piano competitions and earned highest marks in each. She continues to stun us with her talent, and I continue to marvel at the fact that I get to regularly cook dinner and clean the house to live piano music. At the second competition, she exited in tears, convinced that her errors had tanked her score. There was a lot of snuggling and reassurances and discussion over what to do to not feel that way ever again (more practice!). She was shocked to later learn she had received highest marks, and her teacher told her, “It’s not about the mistakes. It’s about how you recover, how you keep going.” What a great lesson for us all.
  11. I read so many good books. So, so many, including two books by writers of color which reshaped my world view. The last book I read in 2016 was “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’ll be chewing on that one for a long, long time. I highly recommend, but offer this caveat if you are not a reader of color: you absolutely must go into it with an openness to accept that your point of view can be – and should be – challenged.
  12. My dad recovered from lung cancer and surgery. My colleague is in the final stages of chemo and has beaten leukemia. Our cousin had successful surgery and appears to be doing remarkably well. For all of this, I am grateful and relieved. They’re all staying on the daily prayer list, though. Just to be sure.
  13. For the first time in my life, I voted for a president who looks like me. Even though she didn’t win, I have a new sense of purpose and resolve. I never again want to feel like I felt on November 9, when I was overwhelmed with feelings of, “I could have done more.” I am now exploring involvement with She Should Run and EMILY’S List.
  14. When my work friend was diagnosed with leukemia, I volunteered to take his advisory until he recovered. I had no idea what I was getting into, taking on nine boys freshman through senior. It’s way more work than I anticipated, but the rewards far outstrip the work. I was also asked tasked with the position of faculty moderator for the yearbook, overseeing four seniors who are the editors. I have grown very fond of all of these students, and find myself worrying about them and championing them like a mother hen. It has been my privilege to take all of this on, and I’ve received far more than I’ve given. They make me laugh every day, and they challenge me in the best possible way. This has injected a new passion into my professional life.
  15. I rode a camel. I think that’s pretty self-explanatory.
  16. When I couldn’t attend the big NYE family bash, I sent my family on without me. My husband, who shall be henceforth known as The Greatest Husband in the World, came back home to check on me and bring me food from the party. He sat and watched Parenthood with me while I sniffled and wheezed on the couch. When he was at the party, he texted and called me, so I didn’t feel quite so alone. And right before midnight, he and Zoe returned and made Sprite and orange juice mocktails so we could ring in the new year together. It was pretty damn special.

Come to think of it, there are a helluva lot more than 16 things to be grateful for last year. Happy New Year, my friends. Hang on, because I think 2017 will be a wild ride.

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.)