That’s the name the natives had for it when Lewis and Clark asked, according to one source. Kinda has some appeal, doesn’t it?
More than a challenge, it’s a seductive side dish to my life. What, exactly, do I have to lose?
I knew the Salmon River’s main fork would mean a trip to northish, centralish Idaho. But so distant from my Montana upbringing had I become that I knew not which side of the continental divide it ran. East or West? But it was a river trip invitation from a friend I like a lot.
I had the brains enough to say “yes.” Whew.
But six months later, before I finished packing my car—in that moment when your subconscious searches for an excuse to quit the physical labor—I found myself staring at my computer screen, searching for the put-in, a creek named “Corn.” Where exactly was I going?
We were going to float from eastern Idaho to western Idaho on the most lovely section of river I’ve seen in these many days.
In short, booby prize, this was not.
Overwhelmed with private business reorganization, property transfers, kids in college, you know the scene. I had just sent a check to someone to make sure I made the roster when suddenly, it was time to load up the car and get there.
Sure I’ll pick up Kathy in Salmon, Idaho. What does she look like?
Where is the turnoff for the put-in?
What is the name of the shuttle company?
Dessert for how many?
Then suddenly, we were all there. All 24 of us. A campground on a hill, sloping elegantly toward a loud, beautiful river, clear and strong. I pulled some shampoo out of a ziplock bag, a towel from the drying place on top of my pile of gear and headed downhill. I looked sideways—everyone was busy.
I hadn’t read the rules. I didn’t know nudity was a no-no. I didn’t know I was supposed to distribute my wastewater from my hairwash up on the hill. I was operating on Grand Canyon rules out of habit. I found a beautiful stream and just upriver, a large rock on which to perch my towel and clothes.
It’s amazing how quickly I can bathe when the water is the temperature of a bitter divorcee.
I swear, ranger, I was out in under 1.5 seconds.
But boy did I feel ready-for-anything afterward.
And it’s a good thing.
Because Dick Peterson is not your ordinary river trip leader. He’s 75 and missing a few toes. He speaks infrequently, when he has something important to say. And most importantly perhaps, he knows when to move aside and let his 18-year-old grandson row the rapid for him.
I had sent out some emails, unanswered, about this eve-of –launch dinner. Everyone knew but me. “It’s a thing,” Alex had said. “We do it night before launch every time.”
Someone had pulled an inflated boat off a trailer and someone had then covered said trailer with butcher paper, connecting the strips with duct tape. People were beginning to set up chairs around it as though it were a giant table.
When I finished combing out my wet hair, I approached this scene with some shyness, nay, trepidation. I spoke softly to a man stirring something at the stove. He told me that dinner was almost ready. I watched as he and a couple others stirred giant pots of broth. As I stood there idle, he naturally enlisted me to help. As a team, we strained the contents of two large (like 10 gals each?) pots and dumped them on the papered trailers. We pulled crab legs, sausages, corn-on-the-cob and laid them onto the butcher paper on the trailer. It was brilliant.
I soon realized I was the newbie to this gig. I remembered the trip leader had sent out a list of chores, asking for volunteers. I didn’t know what “pearl diver” meant and on every trip I’d been on I knew people just jumped in and got ‘er done. I volunteered to be the ‘whatever needs to be done I’ll do it person.’ On this trip I always got beat to the dishwashing lineup; I always had hands offering to help peel fruit or carry heavy things–to the point I looked at my flabby legs and wondered if I LOOKED helpless.
But no, over the next five days I learned this group of two dozen people made a tribe, everyone knew their place, everyone fit into the cogs to make everything work. And it was all designed by simple love. Not complicated love, like I’ve seen on other trips, where people sleep with the wrong people or worse. Kathy told me during our introductory one-hour ride to the put-in that Steve has been her best friend since forever. I asked Steve how he knew her and he said “she’s my sister.” The two are not related.
On costume night my friend known here as Alex donned a pink wig and tutu. We called him Ruby as he danced around the firepit. And Alex came up with costumes for the two federal government types who had not brought costumes, both named “Ed.” When Alex was through Montana Ed looked like a sniper with willow branches stuck in his hat and charcoal blackening his skin. He crept up behind chairs and played the part. The other Ed had a large straight piece of driftwood strapped to his torso. “Morning Woody,” Alex announced. The quiet shy former FDA inspector wore it well.
And then there was the neonatologist (newborn baby doctor.) The lone hardshell kayaker, this guy couldn’t sit still. You’d think after dealing with screaming babies 50 weeks a year (I’m sure he doesn’t get to hang with the quiet ones) he’d take a break and relax. But no. After playing safety at every rapid (hanging out in the eddy downstream to assist in case of trouble) he hauled gear up steep beaches, washed dishes, explored the everything around camp (he’s the one who, despite having watched the bear at the edge of camp all evening, camped next to its apple tree and had to move his tent in the middle of the night.) He hiked everywhere and on one memorable evening, swam across the river from camp to jump off a high rock. This after paddling all day.
When we got to our shuttled cars and trucks at the take out, we discovered the shuttle team had forgotten one set of keys. We tried calling, we looked in every other vehicle … and eventually broke in through a small window, stuffed Sabina, the skinniest among us, in to unlock the doors. Someone found the keys in a seat pocket … but no one left until this was accomplished. We had become a tribe and I thrilled to be part of it.
Maybe by “River of No Return,” the native tribes meant that we would not want to return from it or that we would in no way become our old selves again.
Each name carries a specific image but they are all public meeting places. Where disputes come to a head, ideas are stretched and tested, friends look into each other’s eyes to gauge their friend’s okayness.
And people imbibe.
They relax, giggle, open their souls a little … and maybe say a little too much.
It’s what makes a village.
I first walked into The Kelsey Creek Brewery in Kelseyville, California many years ago to meet a friend. As so often occurs when men and women become friends in a small town, rumors had been building about the intimacy of our relationship so my friend said, ‘why not just meet at the brewpub? If something were going on between us, we wouldn’t meet in such a public place, right?’ Let me not be unclear: my friend is entirely gray and 15 years my elder. Neither of us could remotely be considered “hot items.” But rumors will occur where conversations lack content, where no higher purposes arise. And I’ve been tempted to fuel rumors with slight innuendo just to see whether, like the game of telephone from our youth, the message will return full circle and if so, what form it will have morphed into. Sure enough I was soon informed by my second cousin’s wife that I’d been sleeping with the guy. Amazing. Cue Bonnie Raitt’s “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About.”
If you do not bring your own, intimacy is just what you’ll be served at the Kelsey Creek Brewery.
Guards are dropped, hair is ruffled, bar stools are rocked back a notch so people can talk to the next guy over, people lean on their elbows, revealing just how flabby their arms have become. Not much can be hidden by the second round. And that honesty is what I crave. I’m a no-makeup, rarely hair-brushed, feet on the floor kind of person. I generally tell the bitter truth and I can deal with the consequences.
And I don’t care if the bartender wants to wear a tight t-shirt with a neckline dropped precisely to the point of no return. It’s not my business. She can be whoever she wants to be.
When the Brewery in bustling downtown Kelseyville changed hands, feathers were ruffled. People are change averse. But I soon became a great admirer of the new owners.
An Irish woman of serious demeanor whose sense of humor dares past that point of no return and her pony-tailed partner of some considerable beer-making talent welcome all equally. And no fake smiles come from the woman we’ll call “Caroline.” You have to earn them. And when you do, everyone at the bar roars with delight.
And her assistant, who we’ll call “Holly” carries a certain spirit all her own too. Recently Holly got carried away betting with a patron, an accented fellow we’ll call “Xavier,” over a sports team. That was why, she explained while washing a glass, she was wearing a Dodgers jersey.
She didn’t learn her lesson. Next time I went in she had died her hair blue. And Xavier wore a huge grin.
I never imagined I’d become a barfly. But when the kids went off to college and I realized my husband, who was gone more than half the time on business overseas, wasn’t really present anymore, I decided to move back west–at least part time. And living alone is not something I’d done for 30 years. Loneliness and a weakness for India Pale Ale takes me to the brewpub with a regularity strong enough that I know someone every time I go in. And when the brewmaster, who we’ll call “Jason,” makes a new IPA that Caroline thinks I’ll like, she has poured a taste for me before I’ve chosen my barstool. And she can tell who I’m going to sit next to too. If the guy we’ll call “Shorty” is there, I’m likely to sit next to him. She knows I like his voice.
If it’s Paul or Xavier or Rick or Jim or Tim or Tom or Scott or Pat … I like every one of those guys too. Maybe not Paul so much—he brought in a fart machine one time and teased me with it for 15 minutes before I caught on.
One time Shorty (who is 6’10”) and I were talking about hair and he leaned back to better evaluate then commented, “You have gray hair.”
I love that kind of honesty. I entered a discussion about it. “No, it’s actually turning white.” I leaned my ear forward to show him the edges of my face where it is snow-like.
He looked at me for a beat.
“No,” he annunciated. “I said ‘You have GREAT hair.’”
But my favorites are the women. Kim and Julie and Jess only laugh if I am actually funny. And they sure don’t care if my cleavage is or is not showing; or whether my hair has leaves in it; or whether I have clay on my nose from the pottery studio.
If it weren’t for these watering holes, where would we go to confer? Churches? God forbid!
And what better antidote to conflict than alcohol? It relaxes everyone AND it reduces their ability to function. That is just what war needs.
The pub is a deliberately casual place with peanut shells on the floor. The bar is dotted with baskets of peanuts and popcorn. But they’re not over-salted as I’ve seen other establishments practice–in order to make people thirstier.
Dogs dragging requisite leashes wander among customers. Especially customers who bring in food—burritos, pizza, sandwiches. The Brew pub takes ‘casual’ right up to the line the health department has drawn in the sand. Bring your own food, but can you share it? I can see Caroline’s smile flatline. “No comment.”
These people are so down-to-dirt honest that when their marquee had a spelling error, they made fun of themselves on instagram with it. “BEER, the perfect tempoary solution to any problem,” one day’s chalkboard read. The caption included “#drinkup! … #welovebeer … #spellcheck” These people are so friendly they didn’t re-order their serving glassware that bears the name of the town –misspelled. In fact, someone suggested changing the name of the town to match the glasses. “Let’s just change it to Kesleyville.”
One time I straggled in for a refresher after working outside all day in the California high summer heat. I was wiped. I didn’t want to sit too close to anyone because I didn’t think I smelled too good. I couldn’t find a dry place on my t-shirt to dry the sweat that had dripped onto my glasses. But Tim wouldn’t say hello without his signature bear hug. “You’re one of us,” he said simply. Whether I had a choice I don’t know; my village had found me.
Here in northern California the heat is rising. You heard about the biggest fire in California history. But you might not have heard what those of us who watched that fire and it’s thunderclouds of smoke from our back porches felt. My own emotions surprised me.
Do we have a choice about our emotions? How we react to crisis? I think we do. But only insofar as we recognize those emotions, acknowledge them, process them. And for those who have lost what they value most—their possessions—and those others of us more ethereal, our peace, that process doesn’t feel controllable.
When fire, dramatic in every physical sense, comes through, we feel we are not participating in our lives; something else is running the show. We have to leave the places we know, sometimes in a very great hurry. We have to move on whether we like it or not. So I think we should just decide to like it, decide to see the half-fulness. It makes it a lot easier. Like fussiness. It’s much more fun to be not fussy.
Last Friday fires took off from locations in Mendocino County, which lies west of my forest cabin, not far from the Pacific Ocean. One started near Hopland’s Old River Road and One near Potter Valley’s Ranch Road. Both grew fast. The fires are named after the roads nearest their starting points. As we watched the source of smoke move slowly across our northern horizon in Lake County from west to east all week, we thought about those we know closest to the front lines.
We texted them, we Facebook-messaged them, we left them voicemail:
“You have a place to stay here;”
“Hey, come stay with us — dogs and cats welcome;”
“I can take one friendly horse;”
“I have room for your chickens.”
Ultimately we used all forms of social media, knowing our friends were on the move, unable to answer. “Has anyone heard from Denise? Did she get out?”
“Where is Cornelia staying? Did she take her giant puppy with her?”
When the first fires moved through Lake County, California in 2015, people thousands of miles away found themselves scouring the internet for lost pets hoping to connect people with the found pets they didn’t have time or internet access to link with owners. Someone set up a page calling it simply “Lake County Fires Petfind.”
Photos of lost goats, pigs, peacocks, chickens, horses were outnumbered by cats and dogs. Posts often included emotional verbiage about the wonderfulness of lost pets. Found or “spotted” posts often feature elusive animals someone couldn’t catch but were compelled to report seen trotting down the road in one memorable example. My favorite photo features a small Toyota pickup loaded with two cowering horses. The bed had to have been hitting the tires. But dang it, they gotten ‘em out.
Others merely opened their gates and let their horses free.
This was not an exercise. The Valley Fire roared through Middletown in September, 2015 destroying 1500 homes. In an area whose population is about three times that, the impact is … well, it’s an impact.
Like some mutation involving déjà vu and ptsd, these last few weeks everyone in this community of Lake County was either evacuated or was hosting evacuees. Everyone I know here was involved. And in a small town everyone knows everyone.
I am a few hundred yards from the mandatory evacuation zone so I hosted. Here’s where the term “Evacu-cation” comes in.
My guests included wine-grape growers, a tech-savvy internet consultant, a professional chef, two retired appraisers and four dogs. Yes, that adds up to a party. An Evacuation Vacation.
The term “Evacu-cation” was the brainchild of a young woman named Katie Riley. She stopped our stuttering. Thank you.
The winegrape growers brought a case of wine, the tech-savvy friend brought cigarettes and kept the air traffic scanner on all day so we could hear the conversations of pilots dropping water and fire retardant. And the professional chef, having sent home a campful of kids, brought lots and lots of sandwich supplies and a larderful of smoky pulled pork. Yum.
I sat on the couch and answered questions about where to find the forks (to the right of the sink … should I move the silverware to the other side of the sink?) and whether to let loose the dogs (“don’t. there’s a skunk living under the porch”) and also how to turn on the shower; which closet houses towels; where to put the fish tank.
I also had to explain to one 70-something sister that by “fish” her younger sister did not mean to challenge her decision to cook ribs for dinner. By “bringing fish,” she meant “Oscar,” her goldfish. She is bringing her goldfish, not a food item.
The foodies took over the kitchen, others did the dishes and I sat back and watched with delight.
Who knew that Suzy and Stan’s dogs like to sit on each other (Yes, this is the sister who brought her pet fish: Oscar, tank, water, everything.)
Meanwhile Chef Steve posted a selfie in my hot tub with a glass of rye.
And who the heck knew that you could listen to the conversations of those helicopter pilots dragging bags of water over the mountains?
It was a vacation for all of us, a giant slumber party.
Except for my cousin, who we’ll call “Xian.” This cousin was having none of the evacuation advisories. He had just started sanding the living room floor in the home my grandmother grew up in 100 years ago. When he heard about the mandatory evacuations and closures of all businesses, roads etc within the lines of demarcation, his response was simply, “Oh good, I get to keep the sander for one more day.”
His mom and sister and one of the dogs slept in my guest bedroom ten miles south of the family homestead.
My tech friend kept all informed by posting maps of cool sites like windy.com that shows an interactive map of wind directions and speeds with a slider for altitude. She reposted the Calfire updates and links to maps, maps, maps. Some maps are based on satellite temp readings, others show historic fire lines. Still others show real-time (updated every 30 minutes) current fire progression. She reposted dramatic footage shot by firefighters and professional photogs who sneaked inside the lines. She linked people to shelters in their areas and reposted requests for food, housing for pets, you name it. She was addicted. In a very helpful way.
Everyone found a niche, a way to help. And in our little corner of evacucation-land, crisis was turned into sheer pleasure.
Let’s go wine tasting.
How many times have I heard that and wondered, “what exactly is the attraction?”
It’s the norm for those of us in wine country. We know what to expect. Get a little buzzed, learn a little more than you wanted to learn about the other people there tasting…and maybe have a small revelation about that flavor you have on your tongue—is it really ‘hints of chocolate?’ why yes, yes it is… how does that happen with zinfandel?
But after having wine-tasted with friends, family, cousins, neighbors, the dog next door as well as the actual wine maker buying my grapes, my standards are now clearly defined. Don’t get me wrong, I love wine-tasting. But I do not have what is described in the biz as “a cultivated palate.” However, I think my palate is sophisticated and discriminating.
When I taste wine I’ve been taught to extend my proboscis straight into the glass farther than a normal person would. Yes, stick your noggin right in there. And breathe.
If you don’t pass out, the wine is not opening up yet. “Let the wine open up,” you’ll be told.
But normally the sensory perception you are feeling at this point is called ‘the nose.’ Then when you actually put some of the stuff in your mouth by sipping it, that’s a whole ‘nother thing. You can evaluate the residual sugars, the body, the mouth feel…and you can decide whether the acids are balanced or the wine is too heavy or light or dark or complex or whatever your still-sober brain decides. Then you can discuss these things using adjectives as creative or noncreative (someone drew up a flavor wheel that can help those less imaginative—or preoccupied instead with what this is going to cost.) Then you can swish the stuff around in your glass, which essentially aerates it—and the results can be amazing. Just like if you go running and aerate your body. Feels totally different, hopefully better.
Then usually the person carefully pouring exactly one ounce for you (and if they are more generous than that, it is not because THEY are stupid…remember, alcohol is not only scientifically proven to reduce your inhibitions, it gives your judgment a break too so that $40 bottle of zinfandel suddenly might seem like the best date you’ve had in a decade.)
So the question I like to ask myself is ‘does this taste good?’
Then I take it one huge step farther.
And this is where most wine-tasting venues dare not tread. How does this wine make you feel? I know that sounds very pseudopsychoanalytic but really, where is this conversation going from here?
And that guy at the other end of the bar? How is he looking right now?
I have reached the age of midlife crisis—you know, where women start wearing purple and forgetting what their cars look like. We also shed a whole lot of crap that has not served us well like tight-fitting clothing, pancake makeup, high heels, politesse … and we stop inviting people over for dinner whom we don’t really like.
So apply this syndrome to wine and what you get is a pretty damn great barometer of whether the wine is any good or not.
I recently tasted a cabernet from Lake County sold under the label “Dancing Crow.” I suddenly remembered a guy from my journalism school undergrad—he was a grad student—and he was sitting next to me on the bank of a river, his bicycle—which we had both ridden to the location– tossed against some trees up the hill. On our ride over I had gotten very close to his golden curls and watched shamelessly as his gluteus maximi worked the pedals propelling us toward the river.
And we had been talking about whether obituaries actually are news stories—or should be. Should the world know what killed your loved one? At the time it was a huge issue. It was gay people predominantly who were dying from AIDS. To the extent that if you died of AIDS, it was probably because you were gay. And families didn’t want the world to know that their kids/spouses/siblings were gay.
But, I argued, the community has a right—and legitimate reason to know—what is killing its members. My friend agreed.
But what I really wanted to know was whether my friend was gay. And I couldn’t figure that out. Turns out he wasn’t but I had missed that boat. We had not been drinking that cab so he never released his real self so I went home alone not knowing …
So what in that sip of wine called up that memory? What is it in the wine that defines its value?
I conclude that the conversation elicited by the wine is the best indicator of its worth. What do people say when they drink this wine? Do they spout clichés? Do they talk about nose and body and mouth feel? Or are their imaginations emancipated so that they start telling you about whether if Trump, should he not be incarcerated until November, might be replaced by someone with some sanity. Do people start talking about lost loves? Solutions to the world’s problems?
If after sipping that zinfandel someone says “mmmm, this takes me back to cherry blossoms in my backyard in Colorado back in the sixties …and the body is so rich and inviting I want to make love to this wine …” well then you know you have a certain level of uh … stimulation.
But if you taste a zinfandel and you find yourself saying, “If we elect enough democrats into the house of representatives then the speaker of the house replacing Pence will be a democrat and maybe we won’t lose our national parks to corporate greed … ” then we are dealing with a different level of wine.
That, my friends, is what you should expect from your wine. It should give you hope and vision and love and creativity. It should make you come alive.
Tradition makes life easier because you don’t have to think. You just do what others before you would have done.
But when your kid is a music student in Miami and you are visiting from California and he wants to go to his Russian girlfriend’s poetry reading, what do you do?
“Can I come?” I ask.
I am thrilled when mom is approved.
I had installed Uber on my phone but hadn’t used it. I needed someone to hold my hand. So my 20-year-old known here as “Seth,” shows up at my hotel room on his bicycle, and he does just that.
Pretty soon the white Ford explorer will pull up, Seth says, looking upstream at the river of headlights pouring down Ponce de Leon Boulevard.
“Hello, Victor,” I say as we climb aboard. This is an Uber, my son stares into me. You don’t actually have to talk to the driver. But I am a middle-aged woman and my type just apparently can’t shut up, even if Victor’s dashboard is rapping as loud as my headache. But I try, for both the kids’ sake. Wait. Neither Seth nor Victor are kids. I pretty much abandon talk with the driver and instead chatter at Seth, who is an amiable and patient adult.
Kendrick Lamar comes on. Seth is shocked – and thrilled I suspect—that I recognize him. Then I mention that he won a Pulitzer this week. This is what it takes to unembarrass my music-student son. “The first non-jazz or -classical musician to win it,” he adds. I don’t mention that if I hadn’t heard about it on NPR I wouldn’t have recognized him…and probably I would have identified ANY rapper as Kendrick Lamar …
Victor is polite and says nothing—it’s not HIS mom. When we arrive at coffeehouse in strip mall several miles from campus just $12.59 later, I want to hand Victor two crimped sweaty dollar bills. I don’t know the etiquette –am chastised by Victor when I try to hand him the cash. And by Seth who says quietly that tips can be done online. But I know neither can do much if I leave a couple bucks on the seat.
Victor asks if we’d like him to pull forward 30 feet where another car is pulling out right in front of our destination.
“No, no, no, of course not.” I’m not that old.
I expected rows of chairs and a podium with a microphone.
But no, it is three tables pushed together with 12 neat white folding chairs around it … two of which are empty. As though we were expected. A tall rosy-cheeked young man is reading a rap with clever rhymes and alliteration. I don’t think he notices us as we struggle to not scrape our chairs out.
Then it becomes clear that a woman my age is in some way conducting this, what appears to be a class. She tries to get the woman we will call “Lina” to read. But Lina, hiding a little behind her brilliant turquoise hair and a light, lilting Russian accent, is not ready and demurs.
Another young woman is very ready to share so we listen as she confidently reads from her phone. I don’t actually remember much of it. But it is lovely and touching. I slowly realize just how confident my kid must be to allow his mom to go to his girlfriend’s poetry reading.
Then Lina shakes her hair out of the way and pokes her chin forward. This is what she says:
I Dyed My Hair Blue
I dyed my hair blue.
Since then, people always ask me one question:
“Why did you dye your hair blue?”
I always give everyone the same response: “Because I wanted to.”
But for some reason my answer doesn’t satisfy them.
For some reason they don’t think
that my own desire is powerful enough to make such a change.
They silence my voice with their laughter,
their smile penetrates into my identity,
ruining what I love,
what I preserve,
with their disbelief.
And sometimes they don’t even say the word ‘blue’,
they just ask: “Why did you dye your hair this color?”
I mean… Man, is your sky also “this color”?
How about water? How about your mom’s eyes?
What the fuck is wrong with the word “blue”?
Nothing, apparently. People are just not used to seeing it on my head.
They are still not used to this and blame me for being blue.
People say I dyed my hair blue
because I wanted attention, because I wanted to stand out.
I stand out because I’m smart, I stand out because I don’t draw my eyebrows,
I stand out because I’m Russian, I stand out because I’m a woman.
I don’t stand out because I have blue hair.
Well… maybe a little – my friends don’t lose me in the crowd anymore, which is nice, I guess.
I’m accused of being different by attention-seekers.
They live in their square boxes of stereotypes,
crunch cardboard cookies of jealousy
and drink soda, as all expired people do.
They don’t see my face behind my blue hair,
they don’t realize that I’m still the same me.
My own self is like an iPhone – you need to back it up or you’re screwed if you lose it.
So I backed up myself because I wanted to be safe,
because I finally
finally finally finally
wanted to do what I want.
So, I think, today is the day when I finally get up
and tell them that I’m not responsible for their narrow-mindedness,
I’m not responsible if they divide the world into brunettes and blondes
because MY world is blue, my world is red, pink, green, purple,
my world is goddamn rainbow.
I wear blue color like a crown, I’m proud of it, it’s a part of who I am,
and my reflection in the mirror has never,
I dyed my hair blue because I wanted to.
You should try it.
Lina moves her head in a final motion signifying the end of her poem in a gesture I decide is distinctly European.
My tongue is dry. I exchange a look with my son.
“Right??” his eyebrows seemed to agree.
This blue-haired woman is a gift to us. Just a huge gift.
Soon we are on the sidewalk, the young rosy-cheeked man having bagged and backpacked the remaining pastries, the chairs and tables restored to café-configuration by many hands.
My son calls the Uber this time. We stand on the sidewalk, the teacher and I united by our age – and possibly our pride and glee at Lina’s words, her smile.
Seth watches a tiny red car on his screen go by the dot that is us. We both look up and down the street. “Julio” is nowhere in sight. Then we watch the little red car on the screen turn right and go around the block. Julio is coming our way, it is time to say good-bye.
Soon I am climbing in but this time I will talk to Julio as much as I want, I decide. If Lina can dye her hair blue, I too can do what I want. And besides, I need to practice my Spanish.
“De donde es?” I begin.
Julio answers quickly. He is from Cuba.
I learn that Julio has lived in Miami 24 years. He goes home to Cuba every month. Does he miss it? Terribly. He has an 8-year-old son and a new wife; he was just married two months ago. I congratulate him.
But six years ago, after 11 years of marriage, the mother of his son left him. I can see Julio’s eyes in the rear view mirror. He is not crying. He is not crying, he is not crying.
These are bad times, he says repeatedly, knowing not to cross the line into politics. He is trying to bring his new wife to America, I deduce.
Emboldened by the blue-haired woman, I feel I must pass on the gift she has given me.
I try to cheer him up. Our president, is not our president, I say, only about 20 percent of this country voted for him.
Julio’s tentative words emancipated, become a river of passion. He says repeatedly that he loves this country. He talks about Cuba. The music, the old cars, the buildings, the honesty, the people. I don’t understand all he says because he speaks rapidly and my Spanish was learned long ago and far away.
He says Raoul improved things a little since Fidel. Many tourists now.
And today, the new leader, I ask? Julio doesn’t know. I can tell he has learned to temper his dreams. But I can tell by his eyebrows in the rearview mirror that he has some hope.
Tomorrow, I say, my son is playing with a Latin Jazz group—a concert. You should go.
“I work seven days,” Julio says. I only relax (he uses the word “descanso,” which I cannot fairly translate,) when I go home. To Cuba.
Well, I say, if you want to, you could go. The band director is from Cuba. The music is from Cuba.
I leave it up to him as we get out of the car.
I point how to get out of the parking lot the back way.
This time my son doesn’t act embarrassed. I don’t know how much of our conversation he understood, but Seth too has learned to enjoy things. He fills me with glee when he tells me that Julio seemed happier than he had when we first got into the car.
She’s actually not quite 90 and hasn’t changed much since I met her in 1990.
Today Lars (a logistics guy in the army in a prior life) proposes a visit to the Cabrillo National Monument and its lighthouse. This, I note, will accomplish what I think are his three objectives. He wants to please not only his mother, but me and our family’s 11-year-old dog. The place is named after Juan Cabrillo who landed here in September, 1542. But things have changed a little in the intervening 476 years.
There’s genius in logistics.
Lars has been to the lighthouse before, and so has his mom. But mom doesn’t remember and I haven’t been at all. I navigate from the back seat at his request, i-phone in hand.
We find a parking spot, cross the street to the stairs and begin a slow ascent to the beacon that on November 15, 1855 began to guide ships, fishing boats, drug traffickers, you name it, into San Diego Bay.
I had been attentive, I thought, to the signage about pets as I guided my dog up the hill.
Not attentive enough. Just as our white-whiskered chocolate lab mix was leaving a large mark on the landscaping, a man in a fluorescent green vest approaches, clearly headed straight toward the woman at the end of the red leash: me.
Fortunately I have a thin plastic bag and as I stoop to scoop the poop, he advises me that sure enough, dogs are not allowed, m’aam.
I am not the more patient of the two in our marriage, so I am just fine with returning to the car, rolling down the windows and catching up on emails while hubby and mother-in-law see the sights. But Lars is quicker than me. Reasoning with the politeness I know to be genuine, he points out generously that I have never seen the lighthouse. I continue inching up the hill with my mother-in-law while Lars returns with the pooch.
I learn that the lighthouse, often obscured by fog and low clouds, was extinguished after 36 years and a new beacon constructed at the base of the hill.
My mother-in-law is in many ways quintessential to her role. Her sons can do no wrong, and although I was set up by her, our marriage has always in her mind been the best thing that could ever happen to me. I was expected to be grateful. And for most of those 25 years I have been. But now, I sense all those burdens have been lifted. She could simply enjoy the day, the company, the dog. She no longer needs to decide how I should feel.
I know I have enjoyed her kindness and support in many ways over the years but suddenly, that upside dominates our relationship. She smiles, she doesn’t ask difficult questions, she struggles to remember words and instead uses her hands, waving them about in mild frustration to describe ideas in the air … but somehow gets her thoughts across anyway. And those thoughts are never complex, her attitude is always upbeat, her outlook persistently optimistic.
Who says old age is not for sissies? It seems pretty delightful to me.
My mother-in-law stands in the graduation picture in a frame dominated by men. It’s Stanford Medical School’s class of 1952. Prim and erect, her lips are compressed in a forced and dutiful –but genuine–smile. That duty would be to treat patients in a rural community in northern California for nearly 50 years. And every other winter she would visit a remote Indian village on the sea of Cortez to treat the Seri Indians there while her husband du jour would go fishing.
So when we enter the museum next to the lighthouse it is with interest we both examine the display about the country’s first female lighthouse keeper.
We admire the view, acknowledge the quilts, study the lenses. Then we descend to the parking lot where my husband and her son waited with the dog. As I stand outside the busy women’s restroom listening for any call for help for what seems an hour, I text Lars to pull up out front. The doctor is pretty tired, although I suspect she works to conceal it.
After a picnic in a park where I hover over a dog that is expressly existentially prohibited, I watch some bulky but athletic young men wash a fire truck next door. Then we return the doctor to her assisted living quarters. Then we return to our hotel room.
I used to dread visits with my mother-in-law but this time I saw two beauties: My husband caring gently and gracefully for a person who is not in many ways present any more. And I saw a woman whose edges have worn down, whose good will has been purified, cleansed of the criticism she used to feel the need to carry. The intent of the doctor remains, just parts of the knowledge … and a rough edge … have been worn away.
Just about everything has been said about guns in the past month.
Because everyone has an opinion.
Yup, I’m getting to mine. If I can just figger out what it is.
I am one of the few people in the middle of this. That is, not entirely decided. And you should be too.
Let me explain.
My friend, who we’ll call “Brooke,” lives in Montana. We grew up together in the Rattlesnake Valley north of Missoula. She fed her horse in the morning then got on the bus. I fed my horse in the morning then got on the bus. The same bus.
Her dad was a doctor and my dad was a university professor, but at the time, that didn’t matter. I really looked up to her because she knew how to handle a horse. She was a professional. A barrel rider, the real deal. When you talk about girls who are horse-crazy you are not talking about Brooke. Brooke went beyond horse crazy. She was part horse. When she rode she actually became part of the horse.
While I lugged every Bronte sister’s book through the halls of Lincoln school where we both attended first and second grade, she was probably lugging horse pellets, those mechanically condensed lumps of green alfalfa that horses would nuzzle right into your coat pocket for. Brooke smelled like horses. I probably smelled like books.
My pop, well, we called him “papa,” would go hunting every fall for elk, antelope, venison. That’s all we ate. I don’t remember ever having beef. So, yes, we had guns around. We lived at the end of a dirt road on a hillside. No one ever came to visit… except some of Papa’s grad students, who always showed up just before dinnertime. I can’t remember ever seeing his gun. Or guns. Yes, we had a black bear on the back porch once. And a couple times on the front porch. Although they never figured out the doorknobs, I’m sure it gave my mother some comfort to know we had a gun. But I never saw it used.
I don’t know about Brooke, because I never went to her house—only for 4-H meetings. I don’t know if she ate beef. It didn’t matter.
Fast forward 40 years and Brooke has two beautiful daughters I see on Facebook circling the barrels on what looks like an overgrown monster quarterhorse. Brooke sees my two boys, one on scholarship to music school the other directing his first full-length feature film.
Her daughters are growing up in northwestern Montana, mine grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C.
You heard it coming: these are very different places.
I am posting encouragement to the kids protesting the death machines that have killed their classmates.
Brooke is railing for second amendment rights.
Yes, we live in different worlds. But are these mutually exclusive?
We are the same people inside. But she is talking about a hunting rifle for food or perhaps a handgun to deter the unknown—whether mountain lion, bear or burglar. People in cities must fear only humans. I can attest that when you live in a place where no one will hear your gunshot, your fears are different.
Living in the D.C. area I concluded that my family is safer if only one person has a gun. Because if two people have guns, whoever shoots first wins. And someone is going to lose.
I imagine my greatest threat in the suburbs is a burglar—a home invasion robber at worst—who will probably carry a gun. In the calm of the not-actual-situation, I imagine myself holding my hands in the air while the burglar takes my scant jewelry or worse, my children’s report cards off the fridge. I know that I may want to have a handgun so somewhere in the house, locked up, I might just have one.
What today’s discussion, perpetuated by the Parkland survivors, is a different tool. A gun that is a machine designed to kill scores of people in seconds. This is entirely different than what you see on a rack across the rear window of a Montana pickup truck.
THAT is why we are arguing. We are talking about different things.
It’s not the same out there, people. When you don’t hear the bus going by, you don’t hear the sirens or the metro or the traffic or the airplanes. When all you hear is the wind, it is really easy to have fears. Whether those fears are real is irrelevant. What you want is a gun. A simple device that will put you in charge. It actually will help you sleep. Even if you never use it.
So the threat of losing that, or the threat of losing your status as a law-abiding citizen because it is so important to you … that is a huge deal.
Tell that to those brave kids from Florida who are telling the adults to act like grown-ups. To them, it is simple: Guns. Are. Bad.
So clearly, we need to draw a line here.
And let’s each of us think about it before we decide where we stand. Do we really want only certain people to have guns? Do we really want to allow anyone to buy any kind of gun? What exactly is a gun and how does it work?
I don’t know where the line is. But it is not a fine line. It is broad and easy to see.
Sure, people I respect – a marine who knows more about repeating rifles and how long it takes them to melt from firing repeatedly than I want to know; a teacher who is terrified at the mere picture of a gun‑- these are different people with different skillsets and different ideology. They are both my friends. They are both patriotic Americans. Neither wants to see children die. AND both are capable of higher reason.
Let’s just cool off and listen to each other.
Let’s think about what the insurance industry has done for car safety.
Let’s think about why people take guns to schools.
Let’s think about the role of government as a force for good—a road builder, a protector of the whole. Let’s just think this through a little more.
The day I first met “Esmeralda,” she was in a tree, a worn cotton picking sack around her shoulder, picking pears on a 14-foot ladder. In my orchard.
I had never seen another woman in an orchard, besides the Lake and Mendocino County Farm Advisor, Rachel Elkins. When Esmeralda entered my life I realized that I had been living a dream, my struggles petty.
Esmeralda’s husband, Mauricio, worked for Mauricio’s relative, known as “El Guapo.”
It was a tight labor market that year and El Guapo held a contractor’s license. Still, we were not getting the pears picked fast enough.
It must have been a Saturday, because every weekday Esmeralda cleaned houses.
Esmeralda is excessively polite, to the point I am uncomfortable with it. If I visited her at her patched-together rental trailer in the northern shade of Mt. Konocti in the hard-scrabble seasonal rustic resort of Soda Bay, she insisted on feeding me and whichever child I had in tow. She seemed truly happy when we consented. She taught my children just how rich and exotically beautiful, how exquisitely delicious Mexican food can be.
But we had different lives. Her children went to school in one district, mine, living on the border, went to another.
Then one day, Ginny at the literacy coalition called me. I had often volunteered as a tutor. This time, Ginny called me to say she had a student who would be just perfect for me.
The Lake County Literacy Coalition’s mission is to teach people to read. In the absence of other programs, it often filled in those days, the 1990s, the roll of teaching immigrants to speak—and read—English.
Her name is “Esmeralda,” Ginny told me, and you are going to love her.
She was right.
Here was Esmeralda, back at my house, struggling to pronounce English words from my children’s early books. Soon Esmeralda moved on to INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) documents. I don’t think I really helped Esmeralda very much. She took it on herself. I told her to stop watching telenovelas, to watch American television. Stop using her children as translators, try to listen and speak for herself.
I don’t know how much Esmeralda followed my instructions. But I know Esmeralda’s efforts to thrive, not just survive, to actually live her life to its fullest, in the often racist community of Kelseyville California.
I was proud to be her friend. I don’t remember the date but it was the first mention of building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. that prompted me to remark to her—and to anyone else who would listen, ‘if this wall is built, it will soon serve only to keep gringos out of Mexico.’ The idea of reversing the rolls of our nationalities was funny then. It must have been decades ago.
Every year the Lake County Fair reserves a Sunday for Latino Day. Sunday is often the only day the masses of agricultural workers have off.
For most Americans, the work week is limited to five eight-hour days. In northern California the growing season—roughly March through October is precious work-time. Ag employers can pay up to 10 hours a day or 55 hours per week, without incurring overtime pay requirements.
So Sunday is the day you see the Mexican families stocking up for the week at the grocery store. And it is the day they can go to the fair.
This year lodged in my memory, I decided to go to the fair Sunday just for that reason. I loved seeing the Mexican familes enjoying themselves. But I was shocked and disappointed to encounter not one single Mexican family. Indeed, the fair seemed dead, gone, empty, vacia.
I stopped at the Sheriff’s booth—what is going on? I was told that INS had planned a raid and that word had gotten out. I questioned the officer. Is the sheriff, an elected official, required to cooperate with this federal activity? The man became nervous.
I don’t know exactly what I said, but it was something about how agriculture in this county, the largest business in the region, depended on the immigrant workers—that by cooperating with the federal action, the sheriff’s department would be violating the trust of its constituency. I met no argument.
Soon thereafter I told Esmeralda to have her kids memorize my phone number. If anything happened to her or to Mauricio, I would take care of them. If they cam home one day to find their parents gone, if they were one day lifted from their lives—for they had lived here 20 years—all would ultimately be fine. Just tell your kids that if that happens to call me and I will pick them up, wherever they are.
Esmeralda wiped her eyes and thanked me.
Fast forward 15 years.
The youngest among our collective children is a senior in high school, the eldest a recent B.A. cum laude recipient.
Today, the prospect of deportation is greater than ever.
So last week, eager to be of help, I asked Esmeralda over a glass of wine, if she remembered my comment about the wall. She did. That it would only prevent the gringos from going south. It begged my next question:
‘What will you do if you are deported?’
I had been wary about asking this question. I could only imagine the fear she lived with.
But I was wrong.
“So they deport me to Mexico,” she said. “Fine … I would perhaps rather live in Mexico.”