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Road Tripping With Sophia

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Road Tripping With Sophia
You came home from the hospital in this 4Runner, and now you are flying the nest in it

2020 is one for the record books in terms of catastrophes – 190,000 dead of COVID, the pandemic raging out of control, soaring unemployment. Now, also, wildfires spurred by lightning storms, in the midst of one of the worst heat waves in decades. Still, life marches on despite all of this wreckage and uncertainty: babies are being born, love stories are unfolding, jobs are being started, kids are leaving home for the first time.

It has been a fraught time for you – your last few weeks of school were by video, your track team didn’t get to go to the state meet, your graduation was online, prom was cancelled. Now, you are joining the great exodus from California, fleeing from the fires and toward your freshman year at an east coast university, where you will be quarantined for two weeks and then attend class online while living in a single occupancy dorm room.

We’ve decided to make a cross country roadtrip of it, stopping along the way in Oregon, Montana, Michigan, Chicago, Ohio etc, camping and visiting national parks and socially distanced family along the way. We’re driving our trusty Toyota 4Runner, which at the start of the journey has 247,390 miles, towing our 16 ft Airstream Basecamp,

Your dad spends weeks getting the car and the camper ready – new spark plugs, tires rotated, fluids topped, and finally the day arrives and you kiss Jake and take a final look at your room, denuded of everything important and leaving behind the relics of your childhood. You leave the big nodding daisy but take a stuffed rolypoly bug, he with the secret pocket among his bristles.

You’ll be back of course. Christmas is only a few months away. But a lot can happen in a few months; a lot will happen in these few months – you will become a college student, run for a college cross country team, make new friends, develop new routines. You will return changed – a young woman who no longer lives at home, even knowing you can return here, sure of welcome.

We leave San Francisco for Tahoe just as the smoke from wine country fires begins filtering across the bay.  As we head east to north Lake Tahoe to pick up the trailer, Highway 80 is closed down and cars begin stacking up for miles. Luckily we are paying attention via Waze and slip over to side roads to join a little conga line of cars – presumably also using Waze – and jump on Highway 50, where there is no traffic.  

The smoke from the Loyalton fires in the Sierra foothills means we go from bad air quality to worse, with the air quality index hitting 200 (it is normally 15 or less).

We stop at REI and the h reports they are out of tents, sleeping bags, roof bins, and most other camping related items. Luckily they have what we need and we are quickly on our way. 

At the cabin, we stay inside – there will be no biking or running or paddle boarding in the super heated, hazy air. Every breath outside tastes of smoke. In the morning our eyes are puffy and red, our noses dry, our throats scratchy. Family in Calistoga texts us to say they are being evacuated to the city where the air quality is actually worse. For the first time since I moved here to the Bay Area, all the staycation options are problematic.

Day 2

Your dad installs the new rods the Yakima roof rack fastens to – after decades of use the contraption has become rattly with both a roof rack and mountain bike mounted to it. He stays up ’til 1a and rises at 6a to finish. By mid afternoon we have the camper packed and at 2p we depart for Oregon. As we head through Reno the h is concerned about the tires on the trailer which are holding air pressure fine but displaying a fine fissure of cracks in the sidewalls. Baking summers have taken their toll and we decide they need replacing now rather than later – no way can we make it 3,000+ miles on them. Lady Luck smiles on us and the second place we call has the specialty tires we need in stock and can take us immediately, so we head over. 

With all the cars on the road and crowded shopping center parking lots it seems like normal times, but the signs on the doors of the tire store and the gas station convenience store are stark reminders – MASK REQUIRED.  After 20 minutes or so we are on our way. Highway 395 is a two lane desert highway, surrounded by scrub sage and little else. We see ranches with cattle, the spring calves frisky. We spot one nursing while mama calmly crops grass. We pull over for a pee stop and see a herd of horses running gracefully in the distance. 

We drive on, the mountains dimly visible through the scrim of smoke. The setting sun is a big red eye in the sky.   We are startled when a person materializes in the distance walking along the shoulder. As we pass we see it’s a girl with dredlocks and a medium sized pack. We’ve passed no broken down cars, we’re well out of Reno, and the nearest homes and businesses are at least a mile or two from where she is. She does not stick out her thumb or even look around. Often we pick up hitchers in Tahoe, usually workers at the local ski hills headed to or from work. This time we don’t stop – there is a pandemic after all. But I feel bad and watch her recede in the side mirror ’til she merges with the hot, scrubby, unforgiving landscape. 

We decide to stop at Howard’s Gulch campground before it gets dark. Your dad (who I will be sometimes calling “the h” in this journey record) needs to deal with the trailer lights which are not coming on with the 4Runner headlights – dirty connections, he thinks. My nose gets so dry it starts to bleed. The haze in the air is constant, and apocalyptic, like Cormack McCarthy’s The Road. The dried grasses glow golden in the eerie light. 

Nothing gold can stay

We pass hundreds, maybe thousands of bales of hay. One farm flaunts a flagpole with two enormous flags – American on top, and a custom blue flag beneath that is easily read as we pass by 500 yards away at 70 mph: TRUMP. 

As we pass Alturas the spruce trees become thicker, denser. It’s reassuring to be surrounded by green things. We pass through a town named Sagehead, then Likely, a likely little place with a general store and the well-named Most Likely cafe. We are past the whole town in less than 15 seconds, driving under a sky with great bands of salmon and purple, like the walls of an ancient canyon. 

Driving through the purply light, a fingernail moon hangs low in the sky above a bank of scarlet clouds. A great horned owl swoops across the road just in front of us. We pull into the campsite in the MODOC National forest right as it falls full dark. 

Dinner is rehydrated chicken pad Thai. It’s too warm for a fire (and anyway we’re sick of fire) so we eat by the light of a string of battery operated party lights. After dinner it is 10p and we turn in – the h and I in the Basecamp, you choosing to set up in the bivvy.

first night in the bivvy

The air quality rating has dropped to 89 which is moderate, so we wear masks as we read a bit and ready ourselves for bed. The darkness is complete.  A gap amidst the treetops show the Big Dipper and the North Star, and we fall asleep gazing at them. All is well. 

Day 3 

We wake refreshed, rising with the sun. The car and the bivvy are covered with a light sprinkling of ash. The air carries a whiff of smoke. We have cereal, coffee and tea. We marvel at the super clean bathrooms. 

By 9a we are off to Oregon, where the the air quality is a blessed 19. From the backseat you check your phone and report the air quality of Tahoe – an incredible 195. Our mountain refuge has the same air quality of Beijing. 

We decide to visit the Lava Beds national monument, we have a national park pass just for this trip. But the road to the lava beds is closed so we go to the petroglyphs, etchings by early Native Americans on a huge monolith of black lava rock speckled with white guano from raptors, prairie falcons, cliff sparrows and horned owls, all of which nest in the lacy crevices.  

After a brief stretch of the legs, we pull into a  little town for gas. An attendant taps on the window, indicating we should stay in the car. Your dad unrolls his window. “You’re in Oregon now,” she reminds us. “Fill her up?” I had forgotten that about Oregon – the full service gas stations.  Your dad tells you how once upon a time the station attendant would check your fluids, and likely as not you could get the on-premise mechanic to take a look at a problem you might have. While we get gas two different people tap on the window to say “Love the camper!” It’s a friend maker, the Basecamp.

You take the wheel as we approach Eugene, 80 miles out. We decide to stop for a mountain bike ride and trail run on the way. In Eugene we plan to run a Steve Prefontaine memorial lap on the university of Oregon, long a dream of mine.

On the road to Eugene we pass another Basecamp, the 2020 edition, our first sighting of one (besides ours) in the wild. We decide we like ours better, with the double batwing-style doors in the back, which the new model does not have.

The h has researched two mountain bike rides and we find ourselves towing the trailer up some wild and wooly roads so deeply potholed they nearly jounce the bin off the top of the car, and we have to stop and secure it. 

The temperature in Eugene is a super humidified 85 at 4:30p. I miss my cool, foggy, run anytime of day or night San Francisco. Surely these fires – the third year of them – will drive residents away from our beloved city, which is losing the climate and cultural draws that brought so many here in the first place. Already I know peeps who have moved out of the city.

We are sad but not surprised when we get to Hayward Field and find it COVID closed. There will be no victory lap in honor of the patron saint of middle distances. We pick up vegan sandwiches – the number of vegan choices in this city are off the hook – and head out to Portland. 

Your dad makes a surprise stop – for dessert he has ordered a dozen donuts from VooDoo Donuts. They are a visual carnival but we are disappointed in the actual taste. We were expecting real gourmet – something like blueberry cake donuts with lavender icing, lemon poppyseed cake with matcha green tea glaze, etc. These are more midwestern gourmet, piling ready-made sweets onto plain cake donuts with crazy sweet pink and purple frostings – Cap’n Crunch, Oreos, M&Ms. The only truly creative donut in terms of taste combinations is the bacon topped maple glazed. We end up throwing out about half of them over the next days. 

You share a picture of Hayward Field on your Williams Cross Country team chat and a team member in Portland says hey, let’s do a run! So we land at Mount Tabor Park in Portland and put in a couple of socially distanced miles with the classmate, a sophomore who informs me he loves to read and is the child of two poet parents. “They have other jobs, too” he adds, unnecessarily. I adore that he introduces his parents as poets first. 

After our run we head to an ice cream shop you have researched that has an amazing selection of vegan flavors – Bananas Foster, Lemongrass Coconut,  mango sticky rice. Everything the donuts weren’t, the ice cream is. As we stand in a socially distanced line in the rain, you notice a young boy, maybe 11, with a Williams logo baseball hat. You ask him about it and it turns out his whole family has just spent a month in Williamstown, where the whole family has gone to school. The school has barely 2,000 students and in one day, we’ve met a whole community of them. 

As we leave Portland we turn eastward, a course we will follow all the way to Williams. We find a campground 69 miles outside the city, crowded but with a few remaining empty bays. We luck out again, and are set up and ready for bed by 11p.  Looking through the moonroof, the sky is wild with stars, the Milky Way clearly visible. 

Day 4

Sunrise reveals the campground to be a beautiful place shaded with a surprising variety of huge mature trees, right next to the Columbia River flowing silkily between high precipices of rock wall. I pass you bivvied on the picnic table sleeping like a pro and can imagine you hanging from a rock wall on a 14,000 foot peak with the same peaceful expression.  Your calm demeanor almost never changes – the only way to tell you are stressed with an adrenaline surge is by the number of questions you start to ask. Normally quiet, you’ll suddenly begin asking highly specific questions.  You have been this way from the beginning, carefully observant, making sure to get it right, asking questions and, later, searching out videos to learn to do things like take care of your plants, now numbering a dozen or so, or how to fold a fitted sheet, which you taught me to do this trip but I still haven’t quite mastered.

It turns out camping is a good cure for the pandemic blues – it’s nice to see people interacting and doing people things. We are surrounded by young families, little kids and dogs everywhere. The campsites are naturally socially distant. A constant breeze blesses us as we go about our morning routine – breakfast is high fibre cereal and a bite of VooDoo donut.

Today we will head to Bozeman, the most roadtrippy day of our roadtrip so far, crossing through 4 states: Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana. With new tires on the trailer and a new top rack on the car, we head east on 84 riding parallel to the Columbia river gorge. Floating in the river is Miller Island, a barren looking mound with sparse foliage like hair implants on a dust-colored bald head, valiantly trying to take hold. Being a Miller, I take it as a metaphor for my life just now.

It’s a beautiful highway to drive and man’s ingenuity is on full display – as we race along we are bracketed by trains on either side of the highway. To the north is a high ridge with slow turning windmills, below it a vineyard with a castle- shaped building perched above terraced grape arbors.  Ahead of us, grain elevators gleam whitely in the sun.  If I had the skill of a painter this is the scene I’d try to capture. The long line of windmills following the ridge line have a certain beauty against the soft blue, cloud-streaked sky.  We take in this view as we pass 1,000 miles on the odometer. 

Places with interesting names we’ve passed through: 

Likely, Oregon
Ravensdale, Oregon ( where I saw 2 ravens flapping across a field)
The Bridge of the Gods (OR)
Starvation Creek
Coffin (a town in WA)
Othello 
Ritzville

We take turns driving, you in Washington, me in Idaho, the h in Montana. We stop at a roadside stand for fresh cherries, huckleberries and local huckleberry honey. No mask required, you report. But everyone inside was wearing one, you add. Hooray, Americans, I think to myself. 

Most places we go have large signs: masks required—this is the first place that has not. For the most part people are complying, though regularly about 10% do not. Half of these seem like they simply forgot, like the Latina mother and two young children in the campground bathroom last night, exiting as I entered – seeing my mask they hastily pull their t-shirts up over their noses and look chagrined. The other half are defiant and purposeful, moving closer to invade our six foot social distance bubble or like the couple yesterday evening walking two abreast on a campground path, unmasked and forcing anyone approaching them off the path to maintain distance. Assholes, I mutter behind my mask, but not loud. People like that are already spoiling for a fight and I have no desire to give them what they want, their selfishness having already been massively accommodated. “Don’t give in to fear”, they chirpily adjure, unaware that their stupid behavior is the biggest enabler of the disease that will probably mark the end of the American era. There is nothing I fear more than the blank, certain, smug face of stupidity, a condition that is unmoved by facts and reality.  

The fresh fruit makes us hungry for salad and veggies, so that’s our first planned stop in Missoula.

We all marvel when we see our first ever speed limit sign reading 80mph. I am shocked to see every motorcyclist passing us at speed is without a helmet, tempting fate to test the hardness of their heads. 

As we get closer to Bozeman the air quality begins to plummet, the index in Missoula at 18 turns to 124 in Bozeman just a few hours down the road – smoke from the California wildfires has blown East, following us like a bad dream.  Tomorrow night’s stay in Yellowstone will be another night of wearing N95 masks, the air quality index is at 145. With less than 10% containment and another round of dry thunderstorms predicted this weekend, the outlook for clean normal air looks poor for a couple of days. 

We pick a campsite outside of Deer Lodge, but it turns out to be nothing more than a massive gravel parking lot, packed with RVs. There is not a soul visible as we drive through looking for a spot, though most of the spots are taken and we can see lights on in some of the RVs. There is a casino and McDonalds about 500 yards away, and a lot packed with big trucks rumbling with their parking lights on like big sleeping dinosaurs. We don’t like the vibe at all, and the h checks his Hipcamp app and finds a boondocking alternative 10 miles down the highway in the town of Racetrack.  

We travel down a deeply rutted gravel road and you jump out to open a gate.  There are no street lights – it is utterly dark and for a moment I wish I didn’t like to scare myself watching horror movies like Wolf Creek. The app instructs us to drive through the pasture til we come to another gate which has the unexpected feature of a real live herd of cows sitting and standing in front of it. One cow lifts its tail and drops a few fresh cow patties in welcome. I am stressed – the host said nothing about navigating livestock. I look around anxiously for a bull as your dad texts the host. Dad shut the car off, you suggest. Don’t make them breathes our gas fumes.  “Just shoo them,“ the host texts back. “They won’t bother you!”

Your dad turns the car back on, the headlights revealing the cows have moved much closer, huddled around the front and driver’s side of the car and camper. He inches the truck slowly forward and the calves stand truculently in our way.

As you jump out to open the gate the cows gather around the basecamp and lick it. Stop that! your dad tells them. They moo back. We drive through and find a spot in the second pasture that is free of fresh cow poo though there are ancient patties everywhere. There is no picnic table to act as your platform, and I’m amazed and impressed when you choose to bivvy on a tarp in the pasture rather than shelter in the camper. You’ve always been independent but this is a whole ‘nother level. You are such a badass, standing in a pitch dark cow pasture with your headlamp, casually brushing spiders and bugs off your sleeping bag before crawling in. I take it as a good omen you are unperturbed and even delighted to be unexpectedly surrounded by a herd of cows at bedtime. “They are my school mascot, after all,” you remind me. You are going to do so well at college.

Places with interesting names: Phosphate, MT

Day 5

We wake to find a herd of cows and sheep staring at us from the fence line. You look like a sarcophagus bivvied up on your bamboo mat. 

Your dad and I take our morning coffee to the fence. The calves come nosing up to us, the mama mooing a warning. They react when we point our phones for pictures, not liking the dark oblongs in our hands. 

As we breakfast I have to smile at the picture you and your dad make, each of you stretched out on the ground, identically leaning on an elbow, long legs crossed at the ankle. You are even wearing the same pants (his gift to you before departing). You are your father’s daughter in every way, more and more each passing day, and its a joy – an ordinary one, but a joy nonetheless – to behold.

As we drive towards Yellowstone, the air quality steadily deteriorates – smoke from the wildfires back home has drifted this far north. Your dad texts some friends who report the air index is a stunning 300 in Corte Madeira, home of my favorite bookshop. Just outside of Butte the traffic on the highway comes to a dead stop – a truck has flipped over ahead and we park right on the highway with a long lineup of other cars for what a highway worker projects will be a 20 minute wait.

As we continue down the road we see the story of what happened – a dead deer in the median ditch, the skid marks of a truck swerving from road to ditch to road again before flipping helplessly on its side. The cab is smashed up, the trailer bent and bowed. There is no sign of the driver.  I think about those helmetless motorcyclists going faster than 80 mph and shudder. 

As we drive into Bozeman your dad plays disc jockey and you are treated to an 80s playlist: Van Halen, ACDC, the Eagles, Meatloaf, Metallica. 

In Bozeman the town is alive with pedestrians on the sidewalk, some dining at outdoor cafes, going in and out of the little shops that dot a Main Street made quaint with hanging baskets of flowers in ferocious bloom. About 70% of people are masked, but there is no predicting who: a young family with two toddlers are maskless but a knot of three teenage boys are masked. We grab some veggie sandwiches at a co-op and after gassing and airing up head out to Yellowstone. The smoke is thick now, the air quality in the red zone, the mountains dim in the distance. 

Blue hot spring

We arrive in Yellowstone by mid-afternoon, jumping out to view some mineral pools. We see bison in the distance but no wildlife up close.  Your dad takes a pedal around on his mountain bike to scope out the campground – when we booked, our site was the very last site available in the whole park. As I walk to the restroom I hear different campers talking about the smoky haze that blankets the region. We couldn’t even SEE the Tetons, I hear one lady say. For dinner we have Ramen and spend the evening reading and planning tomorrow’s route – checkout is at 11a and while we originally had hoped to spend a few nights in Yellowstone, we are glad to be leaving after just one night, in search of clean air. 

You bivvy in a small copse of trees a hundred feet from the camper, the only person in the whole campground to sleep under the stars. You don’t even mention the possibility of bears disturbing you, though there is a non-zero probability they will wander through at some point in the night. 

Day 6

We wake to a chilly, smoky-smelling morning.

your swimming hole

The air quality index is more than 150, and the air is hazy. We are stopped on our way out of the park – the south bound route is closed due to fire. It feels like the whole West is on fire. 

Your dad surprises us with a pancake breakfast with huckleberries. You go for a morning swim in the Gibbon-Madison river near our site, declaring it pretty cold but not as cold as the Yuba, or the fjords of Oslo. You and your dad are alike in your high tolerance for extreme cold, as if you have ice water running through your veins. 

The lower geyser basin is a lunar landscape not unlike Iceland – one of the many places you have been – with endless flat prairie land and steam erupting from the ground, sending dozens of plumes of vapor into the air.  I often think about the privileged upbringing you have had, so different from my own impoverished beginnings. That you’ve traveled to a dozen foreign countries before starting college is an undeniable advantage. It has given you a perspective on all the different ways there are to be in the world, a knowledge I didn’t come to until well into my 20s, after joining the workforce. It has made you curious and empathetic, and aware of yourself as part of a larger whole in ways that I didn’t attain til much later in life – your lack of consumerism, your insistence on a sustainable household, our vegan diet.

As we wind our way through the park the vastness and variety of the landscape is awesome – rivers that cut through huge swaths of prairie bordered by endless forests, the mountains rising up beyond. 

We pass lakes of bubbling, steaming water, reminding us the whole of Yellowstone is essentially the top of a volcano set to blow again some day.  Don’t give it any ideas, we say to your dad when he fills us in on this tidbit. 2020 be like that.

Lamar Pass is where we might be able to spot wolves or bears or elk; on the way, deer leap across the road as your dad comes to a quick stop. They are big and beautiful, with dun colored coats and flippy white tails. We are stopped once again in our quest by yet another closed road by yet another fire. We learn that a lightning strike has caused a fire just south of Old Faithful, so the increased smokiness is due to a fresh Wyoming fire plus smoke drift from California.

We pass an enormous bison sitting at the side of the road, placidly chewing.  This happens several times; In the valley there are great herds of them, along with ibex.  As we pass it, it stands leisurely and scratches itself behind the ear like Jake our chocolate Lab.

The drive out of Yellowstone is a steep, rapid descent. On the way down we see a cow stretching its legs, and a trailer parked to the side of the road, a farmer standing next to it looking aggravated at his escapee.  We pass a runner, a girl, headed up the steep grade. We pass no houses and wonder where she originated from – she was carrying no water.

We climb all the way to 10,900 ft and the air cools deliciously. Snow is on the peaks at our level and alpine lakes dot the landscape.  The 2 lane road banks into hairpin turn after hairpin turn in a way that is frankly terrifying, with sheer cliffs plummeting just beyond the road’s edge. Your dad laughs in delight and scares us repeatedly, pointing out the window at particularly hairy vistas. We tell him slow down! Slow down! Unsurprisingly, the guardrail is battered with dents. The mountains arrayed before us have snowcaps, and are robed in smoke.

We pass a sign that says Top of the World and it feels like we are.

Once we’re back on flat land we stop in Billings for a spinach pizza, then you take over the driving for a few hours while your dad rests and I search for campsites. You turn off to check out a blue camping and recreation sign; we follow a dark road called Slaughterhouse Creek Road which ends in a dead end. The campground is lit with a large neon cross. It is creepy af and we quickly decide to press on. As we circle the park and leave, a shadowy man in biballs watches us from a dark porch. We can’t get back on the highway fast enough, feeling as if we’ve narrowly escaped…something.

We decide to shoot for Mikoshika State Park in Montana mostly because every place in North Dakota (which is not a lot) is full, closed or not answering their phone this late.

You drive us on through the night down a deserted highway full of confusing reflectors and cones from an apparently endless highway construction project. A deer crosses in front of the car but you handle it calmly. 

The next place we try, we pass TWO neon crosses – one high on a hill, the other in a front yard, bright red and glowing demonically. The last sign we see is Trails End rifle and gun club, which is marginally better than Slaughterhouse Creek Road, and then we are driving in the pitch dark through the North Dakota badlands looking for the campsite. A few miles of bumpy road later we find the site, and thankfully there is still one empty campsite available, and so closes Day 6, with all of us going straight to bed. It is hot, there are flies, and the sound of snoring emanates from the camper in the site next to us, but we are road-hardened and are all sound asleep within an hour or arrival.

Day 7

Sunrise reveals the campground to be  a lovely place; we are surrounded by the strange alien beauty of the northern badlands.

Sophia in the North Dakota badlands

Your dad has rigged a shower with a bladder full of water with a shower head-style spout that he hangs from his bike mounted on top of the car. Wow, you say, gravity provides good water pressure! It’s a first shower on the trip for all of us, and we soap up in the mild Montana air. 

We are on the road by 9:30a, the temperature already climbing. 

We cross into North Dakota on a long flat two lane highway bracketed by endless wheat fields on the left and endless sunflower fields on the right, growing things stretching from horizon to horizon.  We break up the monotony visiting Theodore Roosevelt State Park where we see a sprawling prairie dog town, wild horses and bison. Then it’s back on the road again, beetling down this long lick of endless highway bisecting America’s bread basket.  We order salads and garlic fries from a restaurant called The Walrus in Bismarck, to be ready for us when we roll in at 3p.  It is, and we are back on the road. 

Note to Minnesota: your roads suck! 

Our campground for the night is in Wisconsin. We woke up in Montana, drove across the whole of North Dakota and Minnesota and will fall asleep in yet another state. We are pro road trippers! We roll into our campsite after midnight.  Tonight we have an electrical hookup and seal up the basecamp for a blessedly cool air conditioned sleep in the muggy midwestern heat. While we set up, a big toad hops slowly out of our way- maybe he is why there are so few insects about. You opt to bivvy, and my admiration for you ratchets up yet another notch. 

I sometimes forget you are just 18 – your maturity makes you seem older (also your height). You have been an equal driver on this trip, and are now well-equipped to handle a road trip basically anywhere.  From using a camp stove to make coffee, putting up a tent or even sleeping under the stars without one, to towing a 1900 lb trailer on steep mountain roads, you can now do it all.  I can see how proud your dad is, though you both maintain an identically laid back demeanor. 

Your dad and I take a late night walk around the campsite. It is pitch black, our footsteps crunch loudly on the gravel path. Everywhere is the sound of frogs, cicadas and insects chirping – the nighttime sounds of our childhoods, sounds you only know from camping, sounds we heard as we fell asleep as kids, as yet unknown to each other, lying in our childhood beds in our respective rooms, he in Michigan, me in southern Illinois, you as distant from our lives then as the moon and the stars. 

Day 8

We wake to a beautifully cool morning and the sound of the wind rushing through the cottonwoods. I have my coffee under the trees looking out at the lake and listening to the insects. Today we roll into Chicago. Your dad has already picked out the pizzeria from which we will pre-order a Chicago deep dish pizza. After a visit with family friend Gayle, we will go on to the fabled birthplace of your dad, Flint Michigan. 

We drive through Wisconsin and when we pull over to gas up and switch drivers your dad (who, with his long pandemic hair, is beginning to look more and more like Mick Jagger) notices, as he is checking the trailer, that the nut that holds the hitch has come clean off, meaning the trailer is attached to the car by its own weight. A few quick calls and he locates a parts store and unhitches the Basecamp to race off and get what he needs, leaving us in the back of the Basecamp in a trucker plaza to wait. A half hour later he is back, and with a little help from a friendly OTR driver with the necessary tools, we are back on the road, the whole incident delaying us less than an hour, though nightmares of the trailer detaching itself and seeing it receding in our rear view mirror will always be with me. 

You are finding out that towing the Basecamp is like being with a celebrity – people point, honk, and photograph it at nearly every stop. Older men in particular gaze at it with an admiring, wistful expression that always tugs at my heart. At a Wisconsin rest area, a man in his 70s approaches us before we get going again, asking us question after question and then asking if he can take a 30 second look around, promising not to touch it. We tell him to touch away (we have sanitizing cleaner with us) and he thanks us kindly and gets himself an eyeful. “I sure am glad I stopped y’all,” he says happily. “Be safe  on the road, there are lots of crazies out there.”  We wave and are off again, racing to pick up our deep dish pizza – your dad ordered “The Lou” – in Chicago at 6:30p.

We arrive exactly on time and the pizza is delivered curbside within 5 minutes. Your dad is flat out delirious and wolfs his first slice right behind the wheel using a section of grocery bag for a plate. On the way to Gayle’s we are driving along and a large beefy truck pulls up on our left and pantomimes to your dad that the Basecamp back doors are open. He motions for us to pull over so he can close it and next thing he’s on the side of the highway beckoning us over. “This doesn’t feel right – something’s fishy,” your dad says and keeps going to the next exit where we pull over and find the doors are in fact shut tight. We wonder what this guy targeted us for but it sure wasn’t to help. 

Our visit with Gayle includes a mini tour of the University of Chicago campus. It is dusk and the lamp posts glow with warm yellow light. Small groups of students are scattered on the huge green lawns. Gayle points out the architectural points of interest which are many. It is a warm sticky evening, an occasional freshening breeze blessing us. The cicadas sing loudly “summer’s ending, summer’s ending, bye bye”. It is the sound of my childhood and I wonder, what will be the sound that takes you back to *your* childhood – the crashing of waves? The blanketing silence of fog? The smell of smoke and the sight of masks?

Gayle thoughtfully gives us fresh peaches and Michigan cherries and we are on our way by 9p. Once we cross into Indiana we decide to stop for the night at Indiana Dunes State Park. At first things don’t look good – there is a jackknifed trailer blocking our way. A park ranger approaches our car and when we tell him we don’t yet have a reservation he helpfully radios to the reservation station, then tells us it’s our lucky day, they are full up be there were two early departures just that evening. We roll in, and have a relatively leisurely evening, with you picking out your college classes online in the air conditioned Bascamp while your dad and I explore the site and end up hiking a trail with an unexpectedly steep dune that ascends 500 feet. It feels amazing to get our legs moving and our heart rate up after long days of driving. 

No one at the campsite wears a mask despite the signs in the bathroom requiring one. Even the park ranger is bare-faced, which is annoying as he clearly has sinus congestion and insists on leaning right into our car window to give us directions. Probably he just has allergies but it is startling he’d be so cavalier, he’s a state employee after all. 

You remain your responsible self, setting up your bivvy on the picnic table and in bed before midnight. And though you are riding in the backseat loaded with snacks, your diet has been as healthy as ever, even on a  roadtrip – another detail that makes me feel confident you’ll do great at school. 

The cicadas sing us to sleep and we wake relatively early to hit the road, pausing to dip our feet into the vast waters of Lake Michigan, which is a perfect temperature for swimming but alas, the beach is closed to swimmers.

We cross the Michigan state line by 10a, making this the 8th state you have passed through in 48 hours.  

We stop in Lansing for lunch with Thad, an old friend of your dad’s who has a vegan feast ready for us. You have never seen a Midwestern suburb and keep remarking on how indistinguishable the houses are. It’s your first time seeing a cul de sac too. It’s nice to sit down and have a meal with friends after a week on the road. We sit outside in the breeze with our masks at a socially distanced table and have samosas and hummus and other Mediterranean fare. You are amazed when Thad breaks out a photo album that contains a photographic history of his friendship with your dad, featuring outings all over the world. “Your dad got me out of my comfort zone, helped me see the world,” Thad tells you. You are shocked to see your two-year-old self in some of the photos. “Hey that’s me!” you exclaim. 

the fabled midwestern culd de sac

After lunch your dad takes us on a tour of his college town where the two of you pose before his old fraternity house.

Then it’s off to his hometown, Flint, then Detroit, where your dad’s family ran a string of motels. Both cities are scenes of simultaneous decay and renewal, their former grandeur still visible amidst the boarded up, broken windowed, smoke-blackened abandonment. 

One chance, one opportunity….

You ask your dad what the current state of Detroit portends for the US and he explains why he sees the city as a reflection of the country’s entire trajectory. We talk for awhile about how this happened, and how changing the role of private corporations in communities as a matter of public policy is the way forward, and how new technologies like blockchains can help enable that.

decrepitude in the once-mighty Detroit

We drive past your dad’s childhood home, and he points out where different friends grew up, like Kevin, who now heads up a multi-billion dollar corporation that provides in-home colorectal cancer testing, and who has invited us to stay with him this trip and wake board on the lake (but sadly, we cannot.) We are headed toward Ohio, distinguished by its really crappy potholed roads. The road between Toledo and Cleveland is a toll road and your dad gripes at the $13 charge to drive a public road that  is poorly maintained to boot. 

You have become a pro at using your phone to research and find us great campsites, and tonight is no exception – Punterman State Park has a lovely lake that reflects the starless night sky.

We roll in at 10:15p, our trip odometer reading just over 3,000 miles. For dinner, your dad expertly heats up the leftover Chicago deep dish in a cast iron skillet so it tastes good as fresh. 

Day 9

We wake in a morning thunderstorm, remnants of Hurricane Laura, thunder rolling and the rain pouring down. As usual you are bivvied on the nearest picnic table, ensconced in your waterproofed sarcophagus. 

We are cozy in the Bascamp, and confident you are dry in your bivvy set up, and smart enough to stay within and ride out the storm – any effort to unzip and make a break for it will drench you. Our confidence is rewarded – you emerge only when the rain slackens, having had a nice sleep-in til 11:15a. 

“Nice!” you say. And it is nice, the Basecamp is lit up, a candle is burning, the Talking Heads album Stop Making Sense is playing on the CD player, the oatmeal sweetened with huckleberry honey we bought on the trip is ready on the stove. We have breakfast listening to music, dry as toast as the rain pounds noisily on our roof. 

You report that it was fun to feel the rain and leaves falling down on you and I reflect that is a kind of metaphor for death – you couldn’t leave your coffin because of the rain, so experienced what the dead do, who also cannot leave their coffins.

 I am reminded of a poem that shares this reflection, by a Nobel prize winner whose name escapes me but not the words he wrote to his wife upon learning his death was imminent:

My body is not me
your body, weeping, is not you
and there is no time here 
where I am
and you’ll be here in a moment
and we will sleep, holding hands
and listening to the rain, forever

You hilariously tell us that the lightning in the night briefly had you concerned (but I was laying on a rubber yoga mat, you figured, so not too worried), but you reasoned if you *were* to be struck and killed, your body was already bagged up for us, a macabre observation that makes me very proud. You are always so self-contained, even in your speculative accidental death. 

We discuss how manky-headed we are. You recall a middle school trip when you removed your hair tie and your ponytail stayed in place. 

SlenderMan

I better wear a hat when I arrive so they don’t think I’m crazy, you say. Your dad appears at the back doors in his customary hooded black jacket, and pants, both waterproof, startling us. He has a way of being unobtrusive; that, combined with his extraordinary skills (he can pick any lock, mountain bike or ski any surface no matter how steep, solve any mechanical problem with his own tools) makes others speculate he is an FBI agent. You look like Slenderman, you tell him and he gives us a big sharky smile. 

We roll out at noon, disgusted to see a neighboring campsite decorated with American and Confederate flags and Trump/Pence signs. The Trump/Pence signs outnumber the Biden/Harris signs 5:1 as we leave this part of Ohio. They are less numerous than they were when we came through this part of the country in 2016, for sure, but it’s still a sobering reminder what a real fight this election will be. 

As we depart we observe the park has a golf course, tennis courts and an archery range and we regret not bringing our bows, but the rain would have made it unlikely that we could use them, plus there really wasn’t room – we’re hauling not just you but all your stuff to school and already packed to the gills. We do have our tennis gear, but in the end there is no extra time, plus the courts are wet. 

It’s been a lucky trip in every way – the problems we’ve encountered have been readily solved, and the weather has been nice if hot and humid. 

We are headed to Niagra Falls, about 4 hours away, just clipping  the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania on the way. Then, we will head to Massachusetts and camp near Williams, where we’ll ready ourselves for tomorrow’s drop off. 

Rolling through upstate New York the sky is overcast. Pretty farms with red-painted barns dot the landscape. We pass the Welcome signs to the states of Pennsylvania and New York in short order. 

We find ourselves in a conundrum as we enter New York in that none of the states surrounding Williams  – New York, Vermont, Massachusetts – will allow a reservation at a campground without a 14 day quarantine or 7 day quarantine with a negative test. In New York this caution is undermined by the toll booth which take no credit cards and are cash only, literally REQUIRING everyone entering the state to pass money back and forth with a booth attendant who wore no gloves and had his mask pulled down below his nose. On the New York State parks site, they are very self-congratulatory about the measures they are taking to successfully contain the virus, yet there are zero controls at the toll booths, where one person is touching everyone entering the state from all parts of the country.  In the highway rest area, masks are required but there are no social distancing guidelines at all, and we’re feeling distinctly nervous as we walk a long narrow hallway that doesn’t allow more than 2 feet from people walking out.  We hold our breath and use the bathroom quickly – it is clean, but so narrow we can’t avoid walking within inches of other patrons.  

most of the tourists at Niagra are maskless

Once at Niagra Falls we are surprised to see how crowded with tourists it is; a good 25% are either totally maskless or wearing their masks under their chins.  Food shops and souvenir stands are open with zero procedures for social distancing. People mill around within inches of each other, seemingly unconcerned. 

You call your step-grandparents in Hamilton and they invite us to stay in their garden, and surprise us with a lovely cold supper of gazpacho, ham and cheese sandwiches, and melon. You sort through your belongings, readying for the drop off tomorrow. I can’t believe it’s our last night, that tomorrow you will be, as you put it, “a free woman!”

Places with interesting names:
Tonawandas River VT
Vrooman , OH

Day 10

We are up by 7a and enjoy a wonderful breakfast of fresh peaches, yogurt, toast with homemade blackberry and apple jam, scrambled eggs and coffee.  We have a nice conversation with your grandparents. Your grandpa has the same wistful admiration of the trailer as all of the men of his generation – he is 89 – and he and your dad exchange motorcycle stories.

a station on the Underground Railroad

After a stop for a surprise visit with your 90 yr old grandma in the quaint town of Colgate (she lives in a house that was part of the Underground Railroad, where an authenticated signed photo of Abraham Lincoln was found in a hidden room in the basement where surely, runaway slaves once hid) we are back on the road.  We see a Trump/Pence sign on a farm, along with a White Lives Matter sign – the first I’ve ever seen (and the last, I hope). In the town proper we see only (and many) Biden/Harris and Black Lives Matter signs. We take a quick tour through the grounds of Colgate University, where students – all masked – are walking, running, and lounging in the grass. The countryside as we drive the 3 hours to Williams is bucolic, with farms, cows, horses and even a couple of donkeys. Everywhere the corn is shoulder high. The signs at the side of the road warn of tractor and snowmobile crossings, and even Amish horse and buggies.

You start counting down the miles (at 35 miles out: “now you’re within running distance”, you inform me) and about 15 minutes away we pull over to separate out your belongings that will stay with you into the Bascamp, leaving the truck much lighter. 

We have traveled 4,484 miles and have  arrived on campus 30 minutes before your move-in appointment at 2p sharp. It feels like a small miracle – like drawing a bow and aiming an arrow from California and hitting a target in Massachusetts – though in fact it is the result of careful, assiduous planning and effective problem management. 

You ask us for any last minute advice, which I know your dad appreciates: Don’t limit yourself to a boyfriend, get to know all the professors, say yes to everything, have fun. 

We enter Vermont, the penultimate state on our journey. I am already feeling a little weepy, but in a good way. Soon we’ll be entering the Purple Valley. At 5 miles out the excitement in the car is palpable. We’re bringing you right to the doorstep of the rest of your life.  We pause to take a picture of you and your dad looking like twin knife blades in your identical everyday camping gear.

You’ve seen a lot of the country on this trip, most of the states we’ve crossed through were a first for you. It’s given you a feel for this nation, so wide open, so varied. Going to college is an adventure in and of itself; I’m glad we made it an actual physical one, too, with this journey. To kill the final 5 minutes we tick off the states we passed through: the final tally is 18 states. 

Williams, through the windshield

We drive up at 2p on the nose and they are waiting. The drop off is a quick and organized affair, the brisk “let’s get it done” attitude helping to hide my tears. I take a video of you and dad hugging, looking like twin ninjas in your identical practical technical go-anywhere-ready-for-anything clothing , and then you walk around the corner and you are gone. So starts this new chapter of your life. 

I love you, honey. It’s been the privilege of my life to get to be your extra mom. I couldn’t be more proud of you, and I look forward to watching you grow into the woman you will become.

Coda

On day 19 we returned to San Francisco. Our return trip was interesting, but that is another story for another day. Along the way we’ve received news you are COVID-free, and you finish quarantine uneventfully. You are as glad to get out for a socially distanced hike with new friends as we are glad to get off the endless Highway 50, aka “The loneliest highway in America”, a slogan that would be equally accurate replacing the word “loneliest” with the word “creepiest”— it is no wonder Stephen King sets one of his more gnarly horror stories (“Desperation”) in the Nevada desert.

Today I am reminded how brief and fragile life really is. I read a news headline, Girl, 18, Dies in Skydiving Accident — her chute didn’t open, neither did her skydive instructor’s. She was exactly your age. A few hours after reading about her, your dad’s phone rings, and I watch his face change slowly at he takes in the news of a mountain bike buddy, a man who hurtles down mountains at speed with nothing between him and death a thin plastic helmet and his two index fingers on the brakes of his bike and an ear to ear smile, has died from a blood clot in his leg. He was exactly your dad’s age.

Life is short, my love. Live and love accordingly.

With Sophia in the Alaskan Wilderness

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With Sophia in the Alaskan Wilderness

The announcement. The packing. 

When the word comes from your uncle Tim that he’s marrying the extreme downhill champion heliski guide with the gap-toothed smile that we have all come to adore and the wedding will be in Alaska, we are stoked. We will all call it Uncle Tim’s wedding, but it is really Kremer’s wedding, with all of her professional powers of preparation on display. 

Most of us experience Tim and Kirsten via the mad selfies that appear on their Facebook page, hanging from a ledge on a hammock thousands of feet in the air against a rock face. Ice climbing in Patagonia, bouldering in Moab, ascending the nose of El Capitan, heliski guiding in the Chugach, summiting Denali – danger is the invisible friend ever-present in their postings. 

“So many of our friends have died. We thought it would be nice to gather everyone together for a wedding for a change,” Kremer told us, and then went about identifying and figuring out how to meet the needs of 300 people convening on a square acre not just off the grid but quite literally in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. 

It’s your summer break before senior year, the caesura between receiving your test scores and applying for colleges, the pause between childhood and adulthood. You are still very much a girl but with light seasoning now – seasons as a runner have given you strength, and a new leadership confidence (and also what have to be the most gorgeous runner’s legs in San Francisco); the season of first love has brought a glow to your face, and a season of visiting colleges has given us all a context for picturing you out of our world, and into your own. 

A season of heartbreak awaits you after this trip, adding to the alchemy of womanhood…but the sadness of those future days is nowhere to be found when your dad suggests we dirtbag around Alaska for an additional week after the wedding, fishing for salmon and camping. You’ve always down for dirtbagging – you’ve been a camper since the age of five, when you would wheedle us into setting up the tent on the back deck and stay up til midnight watching Monsters Inc on the portable DVD player.  

O7AbPwTDS%GmTmzO+VFbTAAt seventeen, you have the effortless natural beauty of the Northern California girl and a singular style borne of savvy thrift shopping. Our neighborhood in San Francisco is sleepy, commercially speaking; a high proportion of the elderly and absentee second home owners keeps the restaurants empty and the local grocery prices sky high. On the plus side there are consignment shops in abundance, and the pickings are good. You sometimes bring home designer clothes that have never been worn, the retail tags still dangling.

The RV. The homestead. The salmon smoking. The bathtub. The Marine.

When we arrive, Alaska is in the midst of a heat wave and the air in Anchorage carries the faint acrid tang of wildfires, a smell that’s become dismayingly familiar to us in the past few summers. 

To attend the wedding all 300+ guests will need to own or rent an RV and carry a week’s worth of water and food, plus – in our case –  clothing for rock climbing, mountain biking, fly fishing, trail running, and of course a wedding. Your dad finds a sturdy plastic case, deconstructs his mountain bike and reassembles it once we arrive. He’s found a sort of Air BnB for RVs, orders it online, and it is delivered to us at the airport in Anchorage – a 28 foot number with a nifty purple stripe, and a backdoor that triggers a rickety little electric staircase to descend every time it is opened.  It’s a little gross – the comforter hasn’t been washed in a hundred years and is full or horse hair and the shower is so nasty I am the only one who tries to use it, keeping my water sandals on, but there is no complaining because we are dirtbaggers, baby.

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Chickaloon population ~300

The town of Chickaloon, Alaska has roughly 300 residents, a population that was easily doubled by Kremer’s wedding. The guests came from all over the lower 48 and beyond: from California, Hawaii, South Dakota, Florida, Tennessee, even Siberia. The Siberian traveler is a Scotsman who lives in France when he isn’t traveling the globe guiding mountaineering expeditions; he is here to officiate the wedding. 

Kremer and Tim’s house is tiny, without plumbing or electricity though Tim spends the months before the wedding digging a well. The shower is outdoors in a separate building, water heated on a gas camp stove and then poured into the tub where the bather sits feeling more naked than usual surrounded by trees.  One wedding guest brings an antique cast iron clawfoot tub as a gift. I’m building an outdoor shower and bathhouse, Tim tells us, gesturing at the space he has in mind, so that the bather has a view of the mountains – or will, as soon as Tim cuts down the tall cottonwoods in his way. Everything is do it yourself in Alaska.

The bathhouse will be near the cold smoker, where we help put up the year’s salmon catch – seasoning, curing, smoking and vacuum sealing a sea of red fish in a several days-long process that requires Tim or your dad to rise and stoke the fire  every few hours. We joke nervously about bears smelling all that salmon but Kremer reassures us bears this far from the rivers and oceans don’t really know what salmon is. It’s the moose you need to watch out for, she says.

Over the wedding weekend, Kremer’s property becomes a giant campground. The RVs start arriving on Friday and by Saturday afternoon the road is lined on both sides for a quarter of a mile. It is surely the most concentrated gathering of extreme athletes in the world – it’s more like a Red Bull commercial than a party. There are ice climbers, extreme skiers, and big wave surfers. There are ultramarathoners and mountain bikers and triathletes. There is a man training to complete a triathlon a day for fifty days later this year. We talk about how amazing it is, how many different ways there are to live your life in the world, how there is no single prescription to live a good life.  

You and I both watched the documentary Free Solo about Alex Honnold’s ascent of  the 3200 ft granite face of El Capitan with no top ropes or safety gear of any kind, so I know you heard it too, the offhand comment that rang like a bell in the way statistics never could: “Everyone who has made free soloing a big part of their life is dead now,” says a character in the film. 

There is a quality that alpine athletes have, clearly present in the wedding guests. It’s something almost tribal – an ability and even preference to live sustainably close to the land, a ‘leave no trace’ mentality that leaves the landscape the same or better than they found it, including the landscape of the hearts of those who love them. There is a lack of artiface…but also a quality, sometimes, of being present and not present, a sense that somewhere inside they are cocking their head,  listening to something. Then the oped by Alex Honnold in the New York times caught my eye: Sponsored or not, the mountains are calling and we must go.

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climbing Kremer’s Crag 5.11b

Most of the attendees of the wedding have this quality. The bride and groom have it. Your dad has it. Dreaming of sending the gnar. It remains to be seen if you have it, though your loneliness-of-the-long-distance-runner-like fondness for mountain trails suggests yes.

The evening before the wedding the dirtbag arrival is in full swing, with RVs lining the road to Kremer’s homestead in double rows for a quarter mile.  We meet Kirstie Ennis, the former Marine  who lost her leg and nearly her life when her helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, now undertaking a personal mission to climb the world’s tallest peaks, the first combat amputee to do so. The Denali ascent, guided by Kirsten and Tim, was cut short of the peak by storms so severe they put the climbing team on a ledge for 21 days.  I do not at first recognize her seated in front of her rig in blonde braids and shorts… though right away I notice a new and magnificent tattoo on the tanned  thigh of her right leg. I compliment her and only when she starts describing it do I notice the chrome apparatus where her left leg should be.

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wedding guest

I become mute with admiration remembering the harrowing tale of their descent. Lashed by 50 mph winds, Ennis’ prosthetic leg keeps falling off, requiring Tim and Kremer to scramble after it, re-ascend and attempt to re-fasten it to Ennis before frostbite could set in. Definitely one of our favorite clients, they tell me. The best attitude of anyone, ever.   

The dirtbag wedding preparations
The groom has requested cheesecake, so your grandma finds a place to rent that has  an oven (Kremer and Tim’s place has only a camping stove) and brings her own springform pans, not taking any chances. You and I go for an early morning run and finish up where your grandma is staying, where a moose and her babies have been spotted in the early morning.  I spend an afternoon on the opposite end of the dirtbag spectrum, baking cheesecakes with my mother-in-law and thinking for the millionth time as she tells me a story from her days running a string of motels in the midwest, if anyone’s truth is stranger than fiction it is surely hers. 

2k+quzVzSuCgqC5tWYuY2g.jpgThe wedding is held at the house of a friend of Kremer’s – a fellow pilot who runs a bed and breakfast with his wife, and who walks Kremer up the “aisle”, a path that wends from Fish Lake, up the hill, through an arch and to the big rock in a clearing where Tim waits for her. The  little house is striking, hyacinth-colored and surrounded by the most startling display of towering flowers in shades of blue and purple, interspersed with the hot pink of the ubiquitous fireweed. 

 You and I chalk flowers and hearts and messages of love onto the driveway and help hang giant tarps from the trees; in case of rain, the 300+ guests and the two bands and food will have shelter. 

The wedding

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waiting for the bride

The bride makes her entrance rowed on a river raft, seated in the center wearing a gorgeous teal embroidered silk robe. She is escorted across the lake by a flotilla of kayaks and paddle boards full of children scattering flower petals on the water and around her, her maid of honor, a big wave surfer, paddling her standup paddle board elegantly alongside. The wedding guests troop down to the water’s edge to wait. The kids and dogs push to the front and a game of water fetch is played, a miniature border collie shaking itself off and spraying our wedding finery with muddy water but no one complains, it isn’t that kind of crowd. 

When the wedding party rounds the point on the lake a great cheer goes up from the assembled guests crowded there on the bank among the rushes and water hemlock, those innocuous-looking tiny white flowers that brought Romeo and Juliet to such tragic endings. I like that the landscape contains elements from one of the world’s most famous love stories, it seems fitting for the occasion.

The couple, appropriately enough, scrambled atop a huge rock where the kilted Scotsman led them through their vows, she promising to faithfully exercise her man, he vowing to keep her wild and feral, a line that brought an approving roar from the crowd. We stood in tableau, the trees all around us, King mountain looming over us and they were married. 

Climbers are expert tiers of knots and the ceremony featured a traditional Celtic knot tying ritual starting with the bride and groom and including all the guests who, having been instructed to bring rope of their own, tied one to another until a great circle was formed, and where all 300+ guests stood for a picture.  Later we would visit the rope and read the messages written.

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Enter a caption

“When your professional peers face premature death as part of the job description, it changes your perspective, let’s face it,” the bride-to-be wrote in her wedding journal – left, in true Kremer style, in the best outhouse in Alaska (aka her bathroom). I read it by the light of a headlamp, a candle reflecting warmly on the glass windows, the smell of sage burning. “In the lifestyle we lead, we only gather to see each other for funerals.”  

I know I was not the only one to admire the way the bride’s backless gown put her latissimus dorsi on display, or note when the couple joined hands how their triceps leapt into view, like cats that had been asleep but are now awake and in a state of readiness for anything.  

The reception. The food. The speeches The slip and slide. 

It did not rain; the day was perfect, warm but not hot, so it was really just a matter of time and destiny that someone would pull one of the giant 100 foot  tarps down from the trees and lay it on the side of a steep hill. There was a palpable surge of energy as every kid under the age of 20 moved forward as one, flinging themselves in every way imaginable down the slick surface. It becomes dangerous with hilarious, frightening speed – kids are barreling down on their butts, tucking themselves into tires, and on top of chair cushions. 

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the makeshift slip and slide

I spot you in the crowd of young humanity – you’ve chosen an elegant cigar roll down the hillside, picking up impressive speed as you tumble end over end in your long red dress. A couple of the more adventurous boys barely survive their trip down on a toddler’s tricycle. A hose is found and the bride whizzes to the bottom on an inflatable unicorn. Your buff young cousins strip to the waist and hurl themselves down like wholesome baby Chippendales.  Unbelievably, there are no injuries. 

It has been relatively easy to be a vegan in Alaska, though we willingly suspended veganism to consume trout or salmon we caught ourselves. I cry each time though, so we are vegan 90% of the time. At the wedding a crew of Kremer and Tim’s friends cook an enormous quantity of fresh-caught salmon on a line-up of grills. A girl with dark hair runs about on her tippy toes hoisting great platters of salmon out to knots of people scattered up and down the driveway and the yard. There are two bands, one comprised of all middle-aged women that rock it surprisingly hard.

After the food but before the dancing, guests took the stage one by one to say a few words to the bride and groom. The tiptoeing salmon girl runs fleetly to the stage and peers shyly at us from under her bangs and thanks the bride and groom for hosting us there in the wilderness, and especially to Kremer for being welcoming to a social freak such as herself at which everyone laughed but in a welcoming way, and then she bolts for the safety of the crowd which had more than its fair share of social freaks, myself included. There are more speeches and music and dancing on the garden of chalked flowers we made. Afterwards a young man approaches your dad, who is still red-eyed from his speech about Alex,  the dying business partner that Kremer led on a bucket list heliski trip. You moved me, man, he said, clapping him on the shoulder. They talk for a long time, and later we will visit them at their house in Anchorage before our flight, and be invited to their place in Valdez.  In fact we leave Alaska with dozens of invitations from new friends like this, having been accepted into the circle drawn by Tim and Kremer’s love. 

Like every wedding I’ve ever been to there is a mild fuss about cake. In this world you are either a cake person or a pie person and though a pie person myself, I like the ritual of wedding cake and frosting so sweet it burns the tongue. 

There are not only cheesecakes but two bakery sheet cakes and also a cake baked  with a selection of hallucinogenics by a friend of Kremer’s, which is kept in a special, very high place that only very tall people can reach. Some of your family members are over-served and your grandmother is not amused by the ensuing hijinks, especially when one of your aunts performs a spot-on imitation of your cousins dancing. I laugh so hard I have to lay on the ground.  

Around Alaska. The trout. The glacier. Hope.

Before the wedding, Kremer and Tim guided for the EcoChallenge; after, he will go to Siberia while she goes to Patagonia, meeting up in three months’ time in Hawaii.  Once the wedding clean up is complete – the rental tables and chairs returned and the outhouses trucked away, the giant slip-and-slide tarps folded up – we dirtbag around Alaska for a week with the honeymooners. We walk the Matanuska Glacier which is the start of the Matanuska river. There is a rainbow, but otherwise the omens are not so good – Kremer and Tim remark on how far the glacier has receded in just a few months

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glaciers and rainbows

Later in the week we will fish in Hope, where the Matanuska empties into the sea. Hope is less a town and more a picturesque cluster of small buildings at land’s end  – a few weathered-looking houses, a bar with a big deck, a tiny bagel shop, a tinier souvenir shop. Everywhere you look there are people in waders – men, women and children. People come here to fish and camp and listen to bluegrass music on the deck of the bar in the evening.

Hope sits on the northern end of the Kenai Peninsula, near the mouth of Resurrection Creek, just west of Sunrise (population 18). I like the funky biblical-sounding names of these places, all constellated together at the farthest reaches of civilization.  I find a Prince pin in the souvenir shop and give it to your dad, who was once flirted with by The Man Formerly Known As.

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Hope Alaska

We make it to Seward which is a port city with a maritime museum and seemingly a zillion art galleries and gift shops. I buy a tiny glass starfish, which now perches in our living room on the same rock as the tiny puffin you brought back from Iceland. For the first time in two weeks we eat at a restaurant which feels wrong since none of us have showered in many days, but if our waiter notices he is too polite to say so.

Getting our run on. Lalala. Bear scat. Fireweed. 

Being with Tim and Kremer always means a workout is prioritized every day, so I plan to use this trip to springboard myself back into a regular running schedule. You have a similar goal, with cross country season looming upon our return. We do not miss a day of running, except for the days we climb. In this crowd, everyone is doing something physical every day – staying in shape is part of their job, yes, but even more, being on the mountain is part of the contract they’ve made with life. Even the morning of the wedding, the bride led a climb while the groom took another group mountain biking, your dad among them. We choose a run, a rugged single track trail with trees closely pressing in.  We pass a ravine of huge piled rocks on our left, the snowmelt water rushing along twenty feet below us. 

As the trail ascends more steeply, we come upon a ramp jutting fifteen feet above us. What is that, you want to know and I laugh and tell you that’s the jump Uncle Tim built. To make the downhill more interesting. You look doubtfully down the path where there is an abrupt L turn. But how can anyone jump from there and make this turn in time? Your voice holds the same surprise in every kid’s voice ever when they see their teacher out at the K-Mart in capri pants and sandals instead of standing at the front of the class in a knee length skirt, chalk in hand. 

Anyone can’t, I tell her. But your dad can. You’ve always known your dad is a biker, both mountain and road. But clearly this has only been an intellectual understanding.  Knowledge – real knowledge – is always terrain-based. 

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my what big claws it has

We run along, shout-singing to alert the bears of our presence. “You got blood on your face, a big disgrace, kicking your can all over the place!”  When we don’t know the words we yell La La La!

Did you see the tree? your uncle will ask us later, and then shows us the picture your dad took of a tree we ran past just hours ago without even noticing the bark shredded by the demarcations of something with very large claws, starting at about ten feet up the tree. Didn’t you notice the bear poop? Your dad asks. It had red berries in it! Oh, we say. We didn’t see it.

On subsequent runs we keep a lookout for bear poop. Let’s count the piles out loud, I suggest, and we run along singing about piles of scat, One pile here, a second pile there, there’s number three, it’s over by the tree. Four and five smell kind of alive and there is number six and lookit that it’s full of sticks. Number seven doesn’t smell like heaven.

It’s hard to run and sing at the same time, you holler. Lala la I know! I holler back and while it is hard to run while expending one’s breath singing, the piles of bear poop are so regular, so fresh that it’s not hard at all to imagine one of us coming around a corner swatting aide the cattails and fireweed just in time to see a mama bear drop a pawful of berries and lower herself to the ground, the better to pursue you my dear. 

Altogether we count twenty eight piles of bear scat on a five mile run. On another run, we cross a creek and from the bridge see dozens of salmon, some crowded together near the shallows, others just holding steady against the current, their startling red color like a mirage beneath the clear rushing water. 

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Dirtbagging

On one of our runs the trail passes through meadows on either side of us, revealing a stunning wall-to-wall carpet of fireweed. It is such a sudden overwhelming of the senses we both stop running at the same time. We listen to a silence thick with the sound of bees buzzing, and the light swishing of the wind undulating the great pink mass of flowers, all swaying and nodding.  Did I get eaten by a bear and now I’m in heaven, you ask, and we both laugh and resume our singing-running rhythm, but later that night in our RV I remember your joke, about not knowing we’re dead yet. We are all bound for dark ground, wrote a climber in the biography I have been reading. Lying there in the darkest ditch of the night, we are hemmed in by trees but I can still feel it out there in the dark, the hulking mountain ranges. A sky painted with stars.  It’s easy enough to believe we are already ghosts. 

The river. Outlaws. Job offers.

Your dad and I have both traveled many places – separately and together – but at the time of our meeting, Alaska was not among them. “I suspect I’ve saved the best for last,” he tells me, and it was one of the many things we immediately agreed on. Though I knew nothing of Alaska at the time, I had a picture of it in my mind from stories by Jack London. 

Like in London’s stories, there are men, men, men in Alaska everywhere you look.  Fishing in long silent lines on the banks and in the rivers and packed five to a boat.  They drive away from the river three, four and five to a car. Some of these men seem regular. Some of them give off a distinct outlaw feel. It’s nothing I can put my finger on but when I share my observations with your dad he says seriously Oh yeah for sure, there are outlaws all around us. There is an elevated testosterone that is palpable; a combination of number of men and type of men.  

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tiny mouse parasols

You seem caught by it, this land of wild dreams various and new. After one of our runs, you ask for my phone and head back up the trail to take pictures. It is strange, later, to flip through the pictures on my smart phone and easily identify which were taken by you. My own  photos are invariably of huge vistas, while yours are of the unexpectedly delicate, presenting scenes of the still and the small, and tiny, teeming life. 

You talk with Kremer about working next summer in Alaska. “Not killing things though,” you emphasize. You aren’t squeamish when Kremer teaches you to filet some fish but it’s not the kind of thing you want to do for hours a day, not surprisingly.  A discussion ensues, all the jobs available for a strong young woman with a willingness to work. It seems whatever job can be done in Alaska, Kremer has held them all and at some point in our travels introduces you to a river rafting guide outfit. Our last day we float down the Kenai River and fish for salmon but mostly we’re just floating, lazing in the sun.  The fish are jumping but not biting. At one point they seem to be actually taunting us – they break the water all around us with a low splashing sound, but the only thing we can catch is a brilliant ruby glimpse.

After a brief lesson, Kirsten hands over the oars to you, and you pilot us the final five miles. The water flows swiftly, and there are some small rapids, and you follow Kremer’s calm instructions and navigate surely through every trial. We are swept along with the current, the sun glinting pretty on the water. There is a mist of droplets thrown up from a waterfall pounding the surface of the river; a rainbow arches over the river, almost in reach.

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on the Kenai

Wet get out of the raft and try fishing from the shore, where a line of men are standing in their waders, fifteen feet apart, casting and re-casting, utterly quiet. The shoreline is littered with salmon carcasses, some quite fresh.WE express surprise the fishermen leave so much fish on the bone and Kremer shrugs. They get the best filets quickly, and there are so many salmon its not worth doing a more thorough job, she tells us. Besides,  the bears are thrilled with the leavings – I find cartoon salmon skeletons in the nearby woods and quickly turn back to rejoin the others. I remind you to sing or otherwise make constant noise. 

Your dad calls us to the muddy bank and we examine a startlingly clear grizzly print in the soft ooze, larger than his hand when he spreads it wide in comparison. 

I find plenty of human leavings – discarded fishing lines, sinkers and hooks and, shockingly, six cigarette butts. I pocket them. It shouldn’t be surprising that man’s leading edge into the final frontier contains a toxic nonbiodegradable pollutant but it still makes me mad.

You could be a glacier guide, or a river guide, Kremer suggests. The casual/crucial offer to live in Kremer’s bus is extended. You seem interested but your seventeen-year old cool makes it hard to be sure if you are at all excited.

Dirtbagging. Eagles. Moose. 

How the landscape calls to us is as personal as who we fall in love with. There are some vistas that when you see them, something inside you kneels down. For some people it’s the inimical shape of a mountain, for others it is the quietude of trees. For me, there is healing to be found in the way the sun spreads its light on water, and how it feels to run along a high lonely ridge, as though I am part of the sky. For climbers, a spirituality as they move through trees toward rock. 

At one point an eagle alights on a high branch on the opposite bank of the river. We take turns watching it through the binoculars, and it is your turn and so you get an up-close eyeful when the eagle suddenly swoops to the middle of the river and grabs a salmon and dispatches its life with ruthless efficiency. It is a brief struggle; the salmon has no chance. Having slashed/drowned the salmon, the eagle proceeds to do the most rock and roll thing ever, swimming to shore still clutching the salmon in its talons, using its wings in a powerful breaststroke as we stood gaping on the opposite shore. 

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vista

We drive the Alaskan highways under a commanding blue sky, mountains always looming in front of us, to the sides of us, rearing up in the rearview mirror as if watching our escape with their timeless, implacable indifference, and everywhere the tall pink fireweed blooms. 

Everything here – the glaciers, the outlaws –  is on the way to becoming someone, something else, including you.   The possibility of working next summer in Alaska, living in Kremer’s fully functional bus with its Ice Pixies stickers is appealing to you. Not everyone has the talent to be a dirtbag. It takes confidence and self-sufficiency and the ability to inhabit the present moment joyfully at all times. Mostly it takes being very planful and organized. The skill of dirtbagging isn’t simply being able to go without, but in knowing what to include so you never miss what you don’t have. It also means sustainable consumption and moose in the meadow at midnight when you walk half awake to the outhouse.  

When their hackles rise it means they are going to charge, so don’t mess around, RUN and get up a tree, Kremer says in the same voice you might use to ask someone to pass the grape jelly. 

Have you ever had to climb a tree to escape a moose, you ask Kremer and she says Only a couple of times.  You look around at the not-very-climbable looking trees in the clearing, realizing she means, one of the trees right here, in the spot we’re standing. 

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But…how did you decide *which one* to climb? you ask, and Kremer says matter-of-factly, When you’re being chased by something that can kill you, you don’t really have time to think – your body just does it. You digest this in silence. When we finally do see a moose, it  may very well me the one that treed Kremer and its muscular reality makes the story seem a whole lot less anecdotally funny and a whole lot more like life and death.

The Return.

We have a few hours to kill between returning the RV and our flight; we spend them visiting a little vegan cafe, then go to the Anchorage museum and after, lay in the grass out front. The early afternoon picnickers have departed and we have the lawn to ourselves; it is lush and green and cool, the sun warm but not too hot and as we talk I am reminded of another time that we three sat in the grass together in a park with nothing much to do. You were six, and wanted to have a dress up tea party in the park. My long green taffeta pouf ball skirt and purple velvet jacket with fingerless gloves gave me a steampunk air; your dad sported a Dick Tracy vibe with his bespoke blue houndstooth jacket with midnight velvet  collar, scarlet lining and a Fedora, while you choose a tunic, tights, a vest and a beret, all in velvet jewel tones, finishing it off with a tall pair of rainboots and looking for all the world like the knight’s pages of old, and a million times more interesting than a princess. We spread a blanket and ate grapes and then kicked a soccer ball around for awhile in the grass, and because this was in the pre-smart phone, pre-Instagram era, we do not have a million likes and shares of this awesome outing, it’s a butterfly caught in the amber of memory.

The poet Ocean Vuong said A poem is never finished, you simply let it go  to make its way in an indifferent world, which applies to raising children, too. Next year you will leave for college, the first step to making your way in a world that can be indifferent, yes, but also beautiful.  

There is no telling what memories of Alaska will stay with you, and what might spawn a return trip next summer to take Kremer up on her offer of a job and a bus to sleep in.  What images from the trip will stay with you, I wonder: Will it be the massive mama moose, gazing at us in mild suspicion while the rain pattered softly down on her and her babies?  Or the eagles strutting on the banks of the Kennai as we floated past, or the great blooming swaths of pink fireweed meadows everywhere. Maybe just the way the wide open sky looks above this last great wilderness. 

One thing is sure: if you return to Alaska, it will not be with your first love as you initially pictured when the bus was first proffered. There is heartache awaiting you back home, when we return from our trip –  something neither of us are yet aware of as we race our way along the Alaskan trails singing our nonsense songs. And though your first love is slipping away, your heart will always have this wild frontier to retreat to, a place that contains dangers, yes, but also beauty and these memories of  being in the wilderness together, brought here by love.

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Harry Potter and The Run for Congress

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Harry Potter and The Run for Congress

We are talking on the phone when you remind me, today is National Book Day. Until that point, our conversation was like every other conversation in a political campaign  – a juggling act of two topics being touched upon and seven more in the air above our heads – but even so, at that moment I know you’re remembering the same thing I am:  driving down Divisadero St. at one in the morning, having just picked up our copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows at the midnight release party at an independent bookstore in the Marina district of San Francisco. We stood in the car holding our books out the moon roof and hollering Harrrrrryyyyyyy Poooootteeeerrrrrrrrrr! at the strands of late-night pedestrians littering the sidewalks, and getting more than a few drunken Harrrryyyy Pooootttteeer!!! cheers in return, thrilling you.

Thank you for my book, you say to me, and we click them like champagne glasses and make a bet who will finish it first, because there is no question we are going to go straight home and read it straight through the weekend. You are delighted that we are alike in this way.

We have long discussions about obscure points in the Potter canon, the most memorable one about Snape. You are appalled that he is one of my favorite characters, and I am amazed that you have failed to suss what side Snape is really fighting on. What side is that, your non-Harry Potter-reading dad asks, and I am pleased to inform both of you that Snape is a soldier of love.  No WAY, you shriek, and race off to sequester yourself with the book; a few hundred pages in and you are back with a thrilled-sounding But how did you KNOW? To your credit, this is no idle question but a serious one, and I am unsure if my explanation makes sense, mixing as it does what I know from the book and what I know from the world.

I’m a writer, I finally tell you. Writers notice the things other people forget, or don’t bother to see. It’s like a superpower.  And you did understand – because as It turns out you have a super power, too.

Harry Potter is the first but far from the last book we will share.  I sometimes think that if you were the daughter of an English professor perhaps you’d spend more time reading and recommending British novelists but you are the daughter of a software entrepreneur and an immigrant – and by the time you are eleven there is also me, your horror-writer sociologist step mom – and your reading proclivities reflect this.

You are an early reader of the Bitcoin white paper and belong to what may be one of the most elite clubs in the world, one who knows not just who Satoshi is, but also *what* a satoshi is.

The most recent books we’ve shared have titles as fantastical as any Harry Potter sequel, including The Corruption of Capitalism: Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay and Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society. This last tome was written by a pair of professors that you actually travel to meet in the spring of your 27th year, in Detroit of all places – the place your father is from, a place he traveled out into the world from in his seventeenth year, the same age your sister is now, readying herself even as I write this to take her own leap into the world.

IMG_3339As you’ve grown we’ve kept the habit of sharing books, even reading some of them together, i.e. at the same time in the same room, or on the same trip, serially. You once surprised us on your birthday by calling an impromptu group of friends together for a reading party. Note to the reader: If you’ve never had a bouquet of twenty-somethings standing, sitting and reclining quietly in your living room with nothing but the sound of pages turning, I highly recommend it.

During a fly fishing trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains this past summer, hours would pass with the only sound the shiver of leaves overhead, the call of birds and chirping of insects and the occasional sound of pages turning as the four of us – your dad, sister self and me – read in the blessed stillness. We read so much, at the end of the trip all of our headlamp batteries were burned out, and at night we were reduced to scooting close to the campfire, tilting the pages to be illuminated by flames.

At one point there is a choking sound and we all look up to the sight of you with tears streaming down your face.  To our alarmed questions you wave the book you are reading, The Sun Does Shine, about a man who serves 15 years on death row for crimes he is innocent of, until he is exonerated. It’s so unbelievable, you say. What he was forced to endure. Then, wiping your eyes, you return to the story, and all heads bend down over books again and the sound of the wind is the loudest thing around. Through your work you will meet the man who heads the exoneration process, and quoting him will become a regular feature of our conversations.

It’s easy to wonder if, in such moments, quiet as they appear to be, that change is kindling, ideas are shuffling together, colliding and sparking.  Change happens deep inside of individuals first, where it can bubble for a time, unobserved. Then one day it fountains up and out to fall like rain on faces upturned in hope, wetting soil that has been too dry for anything nourishing to grow, giving purchase to new things that might take root there.

I’ve watched this change with you, shortly after another book entered our lives, this one Architecture of a Technodemocracy, written by an FBI whistleblower who ran for Congress on the platform that American democracy is ripe for disruption from the non-democratic republic with power centralized in the 1%.  Through new and existing technologies – including blockchains – power can distributed to the 100%, without requiring the spending of tax dollars, the passing of new new laws, or otherwise turning to career politicians for leadership.  It’s a far cry from Harry Potter, unless you think of technology as modern magic (which I sort of do).

As an immigrant, you have always been politically ‘woke’ in a way that those of us who can take our state-issued identities and personal safety utterly for granted perhaps never are.  Over the years I’ve watched you become more and more politically engaged, getting out the vote in far away Texas, volunteering with nonprofits and philanthropists focused on reviving our failing democracy; this book – dense with political, legal and institutional history (not unlike Hogwarts: A History) is the latest in a burgeoning library of revolutionary reading that has replaced the Potter pantheon.

You asked many questions as you read the book; you even called the author, now a friend, to get clearer on the points of constitutional law set forth in its pages.  What’s it about, I overhear someone ask you, and though I like to think I never underestimate you, when you swiftly answer “The book is a blueprint on the evolution of human government, organized according to the four rights essential to a practicing democracy: the right to communicate, the right to options, the right to decide, and the right to accountability” I can’t help but blink.

When we first meet, you are about the same age Harry is in the last book. You seemed such a shy creature, half fawn, half girl, with a great gift for stillness and the same blue chip eyes your father looks at me with. My attempts to draw you out are fanciful: if you could choose what super power, to fly or to be invisible, what would you choose, I ask you and your sister, and you each choose differently – your sister chooses to fly but you choose invisibility, perhaps because as a ballet dancer you already know the hard work that comes with breaking however briefly free from the gravity of this world to achieve flight. You always choose the new and difficult, going to first India, then China by yourself, nothing but the polyglot’s gift for language and your fine engineer’s mind to help you get by. More than enough, as it turns out.

Leap and the net will appear, your beloved Brasilian mamae told you and you listened, carefully and well because being a good listener (which is often mistaken for shyness) is one of the enviable traits you share with your father.  Your life has contained many leaps, each one higher than the last. One of my favorite pictures (hanging on the wall as I write this) will always be you in your Stanford graduation gown, diploma in hand:  having leapt from the porch you are five feet into the air, legs forming a perfect and effortless split or so it would seem from your smile, which is also perfect and effortless. But I have watched ballet  practice and there is nothing effortless about it, it is grunting, grueling, sweaty hours of labor to achieve the look of effortlessness.

IMG_3083.PNGI sometimes think that all good listeners achieve a sort of superhero-like invisibility. Good listeners have a way of receding themselves into the background of the story that is being told; good listeners act as a sort of platform for the storyteller, giving them the courage and space needed to find and tell their own story, in their own way.  It is a skill of paramount importance in your work, where you spend your days not designing algorithms for advertising platforms like so many of your brilliant STEM-trained peers, but listening to and recording the stories of those most easy to ignore in our society: the incarcerated, the undocumented and the Dreamers, the poor, the reviled, the left behind, the voiceless. Your work brings you proximate with the most vulnerable among us as well as with some of the most recognizable names in the world – your hasty snapshot of Malala (!) walking past your office is a favorite. You spend your time criss-crossing the country getting sharecroppers registered to vote and interviewing fellow immigrants like Madeleine Albright, handling every detail down to shooting the video and gassing up the bus and everywhere you go, listening.

You are many things: daughter, sister, perennial student, storyteller.  An engineer, a reader, a violinist, a mathlete; like presidential candidate Mayor Pete, you are a polyglot. Being effortlessly multilingual is a skill that would have been considered outlandish growing up in my midwestern town but one that you take for granted:  born of a Brasilian mother, American father, living in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood attending a German language school, you had four languages as a norm by the time you were eight, and picking up Hindu and Mandarin along the way seemed only natural.  How different the world has become in such a short time.

One thing that always stays the same is how our culture likes labels and as such things go millennial is a good one, easy to say and evocative of the future. But it’s an inadequate label too, not hinting at mass shootings and mass incarceration, a warming, polluted planet, runaway student debt shackling the futures of our college graduates and an opioid graveyard holding more bodies than the fallen twin towers that are part of the ordinary fabric of every American millennial’s life, including yours.  Millennial, for me, is not a label that hints at the depths of what you’ve seen and heard, depths that have been quietly entered in your personal ledger and are now a part of your worldview – for example, the fact that your generation was born into a world with more knowledge and wisdom at your fingertips, on demand, than any generation in history, on earth. When one day I am showing you how to make French pastry and ask you what label you’d apply to yourself, I know you well enough to be unsurprised that you answer with another leap.

How about Congresswoman, you say.  In that moment, fellow millennial Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not yet part of the national consciousness; once she is, you like so many others will be inspired but at the time of this conversation you are motivated not by millennial congressional candidates barnstorming the US House of Representatives (see: Knock Down the House), but by your years of listening…. and a recent extended stay in Berlin. Your trip was lengthy and upon your return you are more deeply troubled than usual by comparisons: everywhere you look America is not only not great again, but not even measuring up to the ordinary perks of ordinary Berliners who enjoy better public transportation, better air quality, better individual health and healthcare, better education, and better freedom from the constant noise of the constant advertising that dominates America’s catastrophically consumerist way of life, a direct reflection of the loudness of the voices of corporate money

It was as if the returning culture shock jolted things into focus, jolted you into the desire to move beyond storyteller (which you’d been hinting at for more than a year), to move directly to the levers that change the narrative. As you passionately enumerate the problems with a democracy wholly controlled by big business and big money, I experience one of those moments that are a feature (or a bug, depending on your perspective) contained by writers, that of finding connections. In this instance, I am connected to myself at your age, working in a new industry called “technology” for a computer company that few people had heard of and even fewer could pronounce.  Within three years of me joining it, this company will become the number one PC seller in the US, and one in six homes will own one.  The company is better at making PCs than branding them, though, and it and every other company in the industry will eventually be eclipsed by one brand, Apple.

While I was at this company I spoke with the CEO many times, and I can’t remember a single word he ever said, but I do remember listening to Apple CEO Steve Jobs anytime – every time – he spoke, and often wishing that what I was hearing would become required listening for every high school student. What a better world this would be.

“When you grow up you get told the world is a certain way,” Steve said in an interview. He is a man whose life is intertwined with your own in ways that only seem strange if you’re not a writer like me. Your first job out of college is not for the social media and search companies frantically waving their banners at the woman immigrant Stanford-educated engineer, but for a below-the-radar company where you could dedicate all of your time to the social justice causes that have been as much a part of your life as Harry Potter, as breathing. That this company is run by the widow of Steve Jobs has a novelistic roundness that life rarely accords.

You get told the world is a certain way… but you can change it, Steve said in an on-camera interview still easily findable on the internet. You can poke life – if you push in, something will pop out the other side. You can change it, you can mold it. If you have the passion.

Now, a lot of people have glommed onto this ‘passion’ thing and not always in the way that I think was intended. They think passion is enthusiasm, but it’s not – passion is about what’s under the enthusiasm. New York City marathon winner Juma Ikanaga captured the nature of passion perfectly when he commented that “The will to win is nothing without the will to train”.  I used to think that the famous winners of the famous marathon races possessed more talent than the average runner – as a beginning marathoner, maybe it was a way to excuse my own mid-pack status. But over time I had to admit this wasn’t true – the fact is, elite runners are not born elite. They simply run more miles at a faster pace for a longer time than the average runner, and that is why they win – not because they are the unicorns of the running world but because they are the unicorns of the training world. They have what Steve Jobs meant by passion, which is: if you don’t love what you’re doing, you’ll give up. The ones that end up being successful actually love what they are doing so they persevere through the pain, through the heartache, through the failures and the difficulties.

df6ede6c-3612-4f78-9395-b5d13628325fToday’s headlines are filled with Democrats who passionately wish to be president; whom among them will persevere is anyone’s guess.  That the crowd of hopefuls include a gay man, a woman of color, and an Asian entrepreneur – three descriptions that would have met a flat “never in my lifetime” prediction when I was your age – gives me a renewed hope for the future of  the country.

I do not feel this hope when I listen to the famous incumbent of your Congressional district, who numbers among her greatest skills the ability to raise the big money that is at the root of the ruin of American democratic society.  “The green dream or whatever they call it,” she says dismissively of the resolution that has finally, after decades of inaction, put the climate emergency at the forefront of conversation where it belongs — if you  care about the future we are creating for young people. Which of course she does, being a grandmother – but with more than fifty years between the two of you, perhaps it is fair to say she does not feel the future as presently as you.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the last in the series by JK Rowling.  The books are eminently quotable, but my favorite quote of all is from Dumbledore, something I actually went and looked up when Donald Trump was elected, because I wanted to feel hopeful – or at least, stalwart: 

 “Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right, and what is easy.”

What gives me the greatest hope of all is you, yourself.  You are a young woman who has always chosen right over easy which in turn attracts many kind, brilliant, changemakers to you, like moths to a light. There are many more conversations about what it will mean to become a candidate, many factors will be considered. The challenge seems laughingly insurmountable. But it is this moment in the kitchen that my mind returns to again and again, because in it I can see how you have already leapt, and feel, even now, my own heart leap in response.

Driving with Sophia

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sophia yellowYou are tall for sixteen, the year you get your driver’s permit; a recent visit to the doctor for the annual physical, a requirement for running cross country, put your height in the 97% percentile. Back at the old place your dad would measure your height and mark it on your bedroom doorframe, always the same: a little dash and next to it, the date in tiny, neat printed letters.   The marks start at age five, and move up the frame only incrementally until you are nine, when the increments become noticeably, stealthily larger.

Each time a new hash was added you would compare your height to mine, standing on tiptoe and minimizing the distance between the tops of our heads, which always made me smile, remembering how my own dad marked my height on the inside the doorway of mom’s yellow kitchen in just this way, and how afterwards, I would examine the vertical hash and then announce to my mom “Look, I am almost as tall as you.” Not quite yet, she would laugh. But soon.

When will I be taller than you, you would ask. Watching me seriously as I took pencil to paper and calculated your rate of growth from age six to seven, seven to eight, eight to nine. As I made the projections, I explained the calculations with you nodding soberly as if following it all, and then wrote the number 11, and circled it. There, I told you. That is how old you will be when you will be taller than me. You seemed skeptical that you would grow taller than me while still in middle school, but the only thing hard to believe about the projection turns out to be its truth; you are indeed the same height as me the year you turn eleven, for about five minutes.

By the time you are thirteen you are sometimes borrowing my jackets and shoes, and when you reach the age of your learner’s permit, your legs and arms seem as long and spindly as the spiders we call daddy longlegs that we would sometimes find walking daintily along the windowsills on the back deck of our garden. Baby longlegs, I call you, and you grin your shy slightly crooked grin; you might be getting taller by the day, but your smile is still pretty much the same smile you’ve had since you were two and so is the tug at my heart.

When your half sister was the age you are now, she was considering two universities: one east coast, one west. To help matters, I promised her my car, so that, should she choose the west coast option, she would have an easy means to get to the city and visit us. It was a straight up bribe, of course, and what teenage girl can resist the siren song of a yellow convertible? On a fall day in Palo Alto, she proudly took possession of what has to be the perfect vehicle for a design student to drive. To my surprise, I would be the one to teach her to drive a stick shift, an instruction she found less nerve wracking coming from me than your dad – not because your dad is harsh, but because she was able to recognize the extreme pressure she put on herself to perform well in front of him. She needn’t have worried – she, like you (and your shared dad) is a careful listener and a quick study; within a week of learning she was making the long drive from Palo Alto to San Francisco mostly without incident.

It’s nice you are so close, people tell me. You are both lucky. I smile but say nothing.  Luck, I read somewhere, is a contextual grace, relative rather than absolute. Meaning, I think, that we create our luck; it is our circumstances that recognize the preparation and reward it.

Growing up, motherhood was nothing I imagined for myself – my context didn’t encourage that. The saving grace of my childhood was not luck, but rather my sister. I am your step mom but find myself often thinking of you, even speaking to you, as a little sister. Which is not surprising, I suppose – my sister is, has always been, the closest family I have, and talking to your serious 7 year old self automatically made me my 9 year old self, looking out for you as I looked out for my own sis, she of the scarred skinny legs and the indignant sense of justice. “Take your sister,” my mom would say as I banged out the door. I didn’t always want her tagging along with me, something she knew without making me feel bad about it. On those days she’d lag behind a little, probably the first time I felt that familiar tug at my heart.

There is nothing, no one, no love, like a sister’s love, I tell you. You are curious about this person so important to me, whom you have never met. We are less than two years apart in age. When we were young, our mom dressed us identically; I was puny for my age, and the similarity in our height combined with the identical outfits led many to ask , are you twins? No, we’d say in unison, just sisters. I’ve read about the twin connection, the shared secret language, the seemingly encoded personalities, the way twins raised separately often ended up with the same dog breed with the same dog name, and driving the same make and model of car. I think of how I can call my sister, and in my first word, just a “hi”, she will know immediately if something is wrong – if I am sad, sick, hurting, wronged. It means I have to be careful of the when of my calls to her, whether shopping or driving or taking the dog for a walk; the immediate love and concern that flow toward me crumples my defenses and can find me unexpectedly weeping in the aisle of the grocery store or behind the wheel at a stoplight.

There is nothing I haven’t told my sister, nothing I couldn’t tell her, nothing I couldn’t hear from her, nothing I don’t know about her. Nothing changes this: not marriage, not divorce, not illness, not mistakes, not even long separation.

One night she came home with a still white face and eyes that would not meet anyone’s, not even mine. I went to her room, and sat quietly on her bed, asked the question I dreaded the answer to, and waited for her to tell me what I already knew. How did I know, she asked later, and only then did I tell her the story I’d been too scared to tell anyone, sure it was somehow if not my fault, my responsibility. More than thirty years have passed but it is still one of my clearest memories, the feel of her, gasping and hiccupping, so small in my arms, my heart raging with helplessness.

For all my life, my sister has been the most constant, reliable synonym for love I know. And that remains true; but now there is you.

Your own half sister is ten years older, and for a long time that in itself was enough to make you seem very different. But that was an illusion: your sister looks, at twenty six, much as she did at sixteen, which is to say, much as you look now. And so we are treated to this vision of you two sisters grown into your alikeness, pointed of chin, pale of skin, long of leg, the same intelligent regard, the same quiet, watchful beauty.

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This summer we took a week-long fly fishing trip, the longest period of time the two of you have been able to spend continuously together. You learned the skills of fly fishing together, including cleaning and cooking your catch.You floated on the glassy surface of the lake, or wandered into the woods to target practice with throwing knives, axe and slingshot. You spent quiet afternoons reading side by side in the warm California sun, and long hours in the tent together, after dark, your headlamps dimly glowing inside the fabric walls, talking softly. Just a few feet away, your dad and I fell asleep each night to your indistinct voices murmuring late into the night, the only other sound the crickets and the skittering of squirrels in the surrounding trees.

The writer Joan Didion famously said, We tell ourselves stories in order to survive, and on one of these nights, I knew, your sister would tell you a story nearly identical to the one I heard in that long ago bedroom I shared with my sis; it is a story I know she will cry in the telling of, a story I know will untie your heart, as it did mine.

One of the dictionary definitions of sister is “a fellow woman seen in relation to specific shared life experiences” and in this story your sister tells you in the star-lit darkness of the Sierras mountains – this story that is also my story, and my sister’s story, and a story many women would hear and say “yes, me too – it’s my story too” – we share a cross-generational sisterhood that I intend for you never to be granted entry to. Your sis and I pinky sweared on it.

At the end of our fishing trip we spend what seems like a day washing a week’s worth of camping dust from our clothes, shoes and selves. Your dad even washes the car inside and out, so that when we roll back into the city it’s like we’re already viewing the vacation – like the sleeping forms of you, your sister and Jake the chocolate lab piled untidily in the backseat – from the rearview mirror. As we pull up to the house, where the yellow convertible sits like a smile  in the driveway, awaiting our return, your dad gives me a wink. There’s a sight I’ve always looked forward to, he grins and I grin and, remembering, we burst into laughter. What, what! you girls want to know, but it’s the kind of story that leads to another story – the story of how we met – and though it’s one you’ve both clamored to hear, it’s another story for another day. I associate the car with good things, is all your dad will say.

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I was nearly your sister’s age when I bought the car, which is now older than you yourself are.   It was, in many ways, my declaration of adulthood: I spotted it, wanted it, negotiated for it, waiting more than a year to get the price I had sworn not to pay more than. Driving it home from the dealership, my smile was as wide as the road itself. Yet giving it away was easy, knowing it would bring your sister’s orbit closer to us, closer to you.

As much as I loved the car, I never once felt a pang or a worry giving it up, until this summer, when the receipt of your learner’s permit coincided with a cousin’s wedding in Big Sur.

We’re going to drive down together! you announce to us, and I’m, at first, only glad: driving Highway One is a trip tailor-made for a convertible – I should know, I’ve made the same trip myself a few times. The beauty is astonishing, and I am happy you will see it together. But as the two of you drive off with abundant hair flying like flags in the slipstream, my heart catches in my throat a little. I glance over at your dad and see he’s having the same thought.

Precious cargo, I manage to say, and he puts an arm around me, and I wipe my eyes and no more is said, not even when the text messages come pouring in from your sister, who is teaching you to drive a stick shift on what is possibly the world’s most winding road – a road that is also bordered by a cliff for much of the way, a road that has had huge sections swept away in sudden mudslides, a road full of speeding long haul trucks with wheels taller than bright yellow bit of nothing carrying the two of you.

Reading the elated texts, the car suddenly seems as fragile as the skin, as breakable as the bones that cradle the beating heart within you, and I have a moment of we-must-have-been-crazy-to-permit-this panic, which I am mostly successful at pushing down and ignoring. For the rest of that long weekend I do not worry, exactly- how can I, when my life has quite literally paved the way for this very moment? –   but I do not quite breathe as easily as usual until the car is back in the driveway with its yellow smirk and with the two of you completely unharmed and looking quite pleased with yourselves.

But from now on, separate cars, I whisper to your dad, and we both laugh of course, but also mean it.

Cars mean different things to different people in different places. Growing up in the Midwest, a car meant freedom. Freedom from what, you ask me, and we both laugh when I tell you, parents, of course. Parents like me. On Friday nights, the streets of my small town were mostly populated by teenagers driving around looking at other teenagers driving around, stopping to congregate in the parking lots of the fast food restaurants that lined Main Street. If there were too many of us, the restaurant manager or a laconic officer in a patrol car would scatter us, mindful of the families that somehow found teenagers in large numbers to be threatening. So into our cars we’d pile to drive around the cornfield-lined roads that connected our town to the next, and the next, circling back again and again. It was a journey with no destination; it was a journey that was only and ever about the brief freedom from adult eyes, the only place that independence can be proven to the budding young self.

This is not the sort of scenario that teenagers in San Francisco enact; in a city that numbers among its public transportation options busses, trains, trams, trolleys and street cars, having a car is actually optional, but still represents, if not independence, then an unmistakable signal of maturation, and one that you are eager to avail yourself of.  Driving to your mom’s to pick up some books, I am your passenger for an eight block trip we’d normally walk, but tonight you want the practice driving your dad’s four wheel drive (besides, books are heavy), so I obligingly buckle in next to you.

We’re so high up, you exclaim, and I laugh because it’s the same thing I thought too when I started driving the 4Runner; driving a sleek little road-hugging convertible is a distinctly different experience than driving a musclebound SUV. It’s a short trip but long enough to establish that you are an attentive driver without being anxious or nervous, and you execute a three point turn with halting but reasonable finesse. You note the differences in the way a bigger car handles from your mom’s sedan and your sister’s convertible, and I manage to restrain myself from transforming an innocuous little driving lesson into a warning lecture for your own good on speeding, black ice, rain-slick roads.

Some horrors, I know – we sisters know – can be prevented by telling our stories, but driving is learned by experience. So I say only, Well done, and you smile at the praise. It is not a smile as wide as the road itself, but the freedom of the road is in it, and I feel the familiar tug, a harbinger of the day you leave us in your rearview mirror to drive whatever roads it is your destiny to travel.

Minding the Gap with Sophia

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Minding the Gap with Sophia

Herb and SophiaThis is your gap year, the year between your fourteenth birthday and fifteenth, between eighth grade and high school, between girlhood and young womanhood.

Born in late November, you, like your father and me, are one to two years younger than your classmates, a gap that was barely noticeable when you were in early middle school, but that has become much more apparent as you enter your teens.  This year abroad will help you bridge that gap, entering high school at the same age as your peers.

You are tall for your age, but still seem young among your classmates. At your graduation some of your peers crossed the platform to receive their diplomas in grownup dresses and suits with ties, already bearing the shape and heavy footfalls of the adults they will become.   You stood with your sunflower in your age appropriate white dress, an English rose in the California sunshine; the girl next to you wore a strapless white number and heels, looking as sleek and glamorous as a 26 year old, the illusion only broken when she rushed to her friends, shrieking with giggles.

in spain.pngA year sounds like a long time but here we are in May and you are three quarters finished with your gap year. Madrid, London, Rome, Geneva, Oslo…your gap year has been so packed with travel and study, it seems misnamed – Crammed Full of New Experiences Year is more apt (though unpoetical).

At 14 your passport has a lot of stamps in it; at the same age, I did not even know what a passport was, doing all of my traveling in books. At 14 the farthest I’d ever been from home was the Missouri Ozarks to visit my grandparents, where nothing much ever happened unless you count my mom (also at age 14) being crowned Carnival Queen.

girlsYou spent the fall in Madrid in full immersion language study, attending a Spanish middle school. I thought of you often during those months, wondering what life was like, totally surrounded by people speaking a language you had, at the time, only a beginner’s grasp of. I was glad your host family has a daughter your age. You shared pictures of your new friends, managing to look simultaneously reassuringly girlish and alarmingly grown up.

In your blue plaid Catholic school uniform, you remind me of my own self at the same age; our uniforms were green, but otherwise, the parochial school education I received three decades ago in the Midwest was pretty much identical to the one you are getting in Madrid this fall.

“There are no group projects, ever,” you informed us. “We just sit and listen to the teacher who stands at the front of the room and talks. “ This contrasted sharply with your progressive education in the San Francisco Bay Area, where student collaboration and leadership of their own curriculum are cornerstones of middle school education.

caceres.pngYou kept your blog dutifully if desultorily.   Your writing is direct, unadorned, reportorial rather than revealing. I suspect this is by design – you have always been a close one. You snapchat us funny selfies that show you looking leggy, unfamiliar and beautiful in your Spanish Catholic girl uniform; we send you pictures of Jake sleeping on your bed, videos of Jake romping in your beloved coastal headlands of California. In this way we stay in each other’s daily lives.

Jake misses you. If we say your name, his tail thumps, and he swivels his head toward the front door with hopeful expectancy.  While you gallivant around the world visiting the world’s largest supercollider, Picasso’s Weeping Woman, Vigeland’s Wheel of Life sculptures, Jake sleeps on your bed, sometimes with one of your stuffed animals between his  paws – usually the rabbit but sometimes the owl.  He never tears their eyes out.  He startles me sometimes, his brown head lifting up attentively as I walk down the hall very late or very early, past the open door to your room; for a second I think it is you and then remember, you will not be home for many months yet.

You have a two week respite between studies in London and Madrid, and to no one’s surprise you chose Norway, a wild landscape that seems to have captured your heart as completely as it did mine, and fits your father like an old favorite coat. It’s a lot like Michigan, he says, and indeed, with his Nordic complexion and habit of wearing all-weather gear and mountaineering boots he is mostly indistinguishable from the natives.

house2We are staying in a fairy tale house made of reclaimed wood with a traditional roof that has daisies and grasses growing from it, the Norwegian woods rising up all around us. For you this is a break from being studious, for me this is a break from working nearly non-stop for too many months in a row, so we don’t mind the pouring rain and have no particular plans other than to read in the morning and build a fire in the evening and make pancakes and coffee on the beach in the afternoon, weather permitting.

You were the only one to brave the freezing Oslo Fjord – even the Norwegian among us demurred, but, hardy herself as all Norwegian women seem to be, admired how you stayed in for a good long swim. I can’t feel my arms, you call out to us, laughing but undeterred.   In this you are like your father, seemingly able to withstand any amount of cold when immersed in something you love – not only not suffering but laughing with enjoyment.

Your sister flew in from Amsterdam to join us, and after dinner one evening we went for a walk. With your long hair blowing in a chill spring wind that brings fresh roses to your fair-skinned cheeks, the two of you remind me of Athena and Artemis taking a break from your goddessy duties to sample the rain-scrubbed air and giggle together.

In an age where parents commonly bemoan the sight of their children glued to their electronic devices, Snapchatting and watching You Tube videos, you can be found more often with book in hand than phone. Texts to you might go unanswered for days at a time, something both your dad and I find more reassuring than annoying.  You have always been a dreamy one, enjoying your solitude. At age 11, after a class trip to Joshua Tree your conversation was not about boys or what this or that friend said, but the periods of solitude in nature that you were able to find, even amongst the mob of kids.

Three years later you are not much changed in this regard; in our time in Norway, when not running the trails or visiting museums you can most predictably be found tucked away reading in a corner window seat. You are content here, the woods looming all around, the sound of the rain and wind and locusts and conversations in distant parts of the house humming just below your consciousness. In this we are alike: I spent most of my time at your age with my nose in a book, or sitting at the edges of conversational circles observing, alone but not lonely, a distinction you seem to instinctively understand and appreciate.

gulhallaI marvel constantly at your self-assurance in strange settings. You are utterly unintimidated by public transportation, and I watch with some amazement as you confidently consult the maps and route boards for train, tram, ferry, bus, subway and trolley, calmly working out the transfers and then announcing “We take the L1 on Platform 4 toward Spikkestad, or we can take the R33 toward Gullhalla then catch the Metro.”

I tell you about my own first experience with the subway, in London, with an entire crew of colleagues – some of them Ph.D. engineers – preferring to expensively taxi around rather than risk the subway, too impatient or simply unwilling to learn the unfamiliar.   At my indignant insistence that we travel as locals not tourists I strode fearfully but purposefully into Picadilly Circus and figured out the Tube, a nominal feat as it turned out, with everything color-coded so simply a child could learn. I was 29, nearly twice the age you are now, with half the mastery.

You found it hard to believe that something so naturally easy for you would be challenging for grown-ups and I smile inwardly, wondering if this is your earliest encounter in the inevitable disillusionment with adulthood all children must face: that age does not always confer wisdom or guarantee greater experience. That sometimes, the young know more than the old, and must lead the way. Watching you, I have no doubt you will be ready when that time comes.

I feel a bit sorry that she is spending so much time with old fogies like us, joked one of your gap year mentors. She is an energetic woman in her sixties, a brilliant professor who is retired now but still a tireless learner and treasured family friend. Friends are so important to kids at this age, she observed. But you have always been an ‘old soul’ in that regard, as comfortable being the only child in a room of adults as you are amongst your peers.

Near the end of our time together in Norway, before your father and I return to San Francisco and you jet off to England, we find ourselves in bustling Oslo Central Station. The platform is crowded with tired workers, newly arrived travelers and local shoppers, but you thread your way effortlessly through them to the correct platform.

norway 4It has rained steady and hard on our sightseeing day, and we are drenched and tired, the type of situation that brings out anxiety and crabbiness in most adults. Perhaps in acknowledgement of this (but more likely to simply rid himself of his last Kroner) your dad makes an almost unheard of purchase from a vending machine and we share around the booty: Snickers for him, Twix for me, you sampling each.

Wow I haven’t had a candy bar since last Halloween, you remark, then correct yourself: the Halloween before last, actually.   I reflect that perhaps this, as much as anything else, marks the end of your childhood – an indifference to candy and the American holiday that glorifies it.

We all perk up at the sugar, which helps us shake off the doldrums of a long day coming to an end.   On the trip home you gaze out the window, lost in thought, and I surreptitiously photograph you, something you notice no more than the constant furtive little glances of young men as they pass you on the street and in the shops.

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You are as yet unaware of your beauty and the effect it has, another final remnant of girlhood. As I watch you, an image of you arises in my mind’s eye, your suddenly womanly form emerging dripping from the freezing Oslo Fjord, a sight whose loveliness will take the world’s breath away someday, but for now, is still the provenance of your girlhood and those of us lucky enough to witness the last of it.

 

 

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Everything’s Jake with Sophia

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Everything’s Jake with Sophia

The city of San Francisco has many charms, and one of the most idiosyncratic of these is the ubiquity of dogs.  One of my earliest impressions of the city is walking down the sidewalk of a Saturday and seeing dogs waiting patiently outside the shops, some tied to parking meters or trees, others completely unfettered.  It is a charming sight.  San Francisco is, without a doubt, a dog city.

This is the story of how you became a dog person.

Some people are dog people; some are cat people. You though born in San Francisco, started out a cat person, much to the dismay of your father and me.

I’m a dog person.  If I pass you on the street, I’ll make eye contact with your dog before (or possibly instead of) making eye contact with you.  If you are a dog  person too, you’ll smile at the way I smile at your dog.  I’ve always felt a connection to dogs that is as strong as my disconnect from cats.

I don’t dislike cats solely because their owners let them freely stalk the night time streets like gunslingers, taking out 4 billion songbirds a year from our collective neighborhood trees, but it’s definitely a contributing factor.

(but seriously what’s up with letting these pygmy lions wander freely about murdering birds? Imagine if dogs killed songbirds for sport, how outraged everyone would be.  We’d never allow them to freely roam the night streets to do so!  So why are we OK with cats doing it, again?)

At five, your favorite game was “Kitty” which consisted of me pretending to be a cat that you rescued from the SPCA and brought home to live in your room.  You wore a tiara during the selection and adoption process, and for my leash, co-opted a feather boa that your dad bought for me on our infamous New Orleans date (our third).

I would be required to crawl around after you on all fours and when this got old for me (which it quickly did) I would simply herd you and the unfolding story of Kitty Finds a Home from the kitchen with its painful ceramic tiles to the hallway with its thick pile Turkish runner that was so much easier on my 40-something knees.

kitty skull and bonesYour love of cats persisted and it’s  a testimony to your cuteness that we indulged this whim; we bought you t-shirts with sparkly kitten faces on them, and socks with kitten skulls and crossbones.   We even took you to the  Moscow Cat Circus, a grandly named traveling folly that  turned out to be a few non-English speaking Russians and Ukrainians who looked as if they would smell of mothballs and vodka, dressed as derelict clowns and doing odd tricks with their cats.

It was a shabby affair but you were thrilled:  at six, you had no regard for production values.  A cat balancing on a man’s head while he rode a unicycle was plenty entertaining for you.  For the occasion, we wore matching cat ears and cat tails and eye liner whiskers on our cheeks.

We even ‘adopted’ a neighborhood cat, a skittish gray and white girl with long luxurious fur that we named Luna (after Harry Potter’s Luna Lovegood) that would come meowing to my basement office window in the after midnight hours, and deign to let me pet her now and then.

But over time, as you heard your dad and I talk of different breeds, of good dogs we had  known (and our barely concealed disdain for cats), you were persuaded to the dog side, and by the time you were eight, you had begun to pester us for a puppy.

We all wanted a dog, but your dad was adamant – not ’til the time was right.  Not ’til we were traveling less, not ’til we were sure we’d be around to train him to be the good dog we just knew he would be.  Most of all, we told you, not ’til you, yourself, were ready for the responsibility.  Dogs have to be walked, fed, played with, and trained.  They needed the the same care and attention any family member did, and were dependent on us not to forget.

You, former casual murderer of pet mice (I squished it, your five-year-old self explained calmly, snapping your hand shut to demonstrate), took all of this in with great seriousness, and soon the sounds of Cesar the Dog Whisperer could be heard coming from your room, where each day after your homework was complete you’d retreat with an iPad to learn how to make our future dog sit, stay, never eat leather or furniture, and go to the bathroom outside and not on dad’s priceless rugs.

cartoon jakeYou’d emerge from your Cesar marathons with a list of do’s and don’ts that we’d discuss.  Cesar was firm about matching the breed to the need, and we dutifully considered and rejected Vizsla’s (too nervous and wiry), labradoodles (too expensive), toy breeds (too small), golden retriever (too hairy) and border collies (too energetic).

You and I evinced a mad love for pugs, but your dad wanted an athletic dog, and after picturing a pug waddling after us on one of our two-mile runs, we reluctantly agreed (for now). We finally settled on a labrador – either white (our choice) or chocolate (your dad’s preference).

After about 100 episodes of Cesar you felt ready, and you jumped up and down with excitement when your dad announced, OK, Let’s find our dog. For weeks we scoured the internet for a litter that would be available for adoption during your summer break.

We found Mr. Blue, a white lab pup that you and I instantly fell in love with, despite your dad’s determination that we would not buy the first dog that we looked at.  You hovered over your dad’s shoulder as he tried to contact the breeder, crushed when he could not reach anyone.  Your dad found a backup pup, this one chocolate-brown and improbably blue-eyed, and  with the kind of wise old puppy face that only a future big dog has.

Is that snow? you asked, pointing to the white fluffy stuff surrounding the pup. Your dad squinted at the picture. Nope, he said. It’s garbage. Oh, no wonder he looks so sad, you said.  Sometimes I think everything was really decided right then.

The next morning your dad and I drove out to look at the pup who was not, after all, blue-eyed – his light amber eyes had simply reflected the blue-painted wall behind him. He was, however, surrounded by garbage; the breeder lived next to a dump, and abandoned cars were everywhere.

carsOur guy was the only chocolate in a litter of black puppies, all of them cheerfully dangling from the arms of a pack of children that matched the dogs for energy and chaos.   After an initial greeting, he scooted under the shade of a parked car and calmly surveyed his trashy domain.

When your dad reached in to pull him out, he was so relaxed his back legs trailed behind him,  leaving long parallel lines in the dirt.  Your dad held him by his little armpits, and stared into his face, and he stared serenely back, never wiggling or whimpering.

The moment stretched out, and in all that kid-and-dog hubub it was as if the two of them with their similarly calm demeanors had created a little bubble of silence, man and dog, communing with their light eyes, blue and yellow.

And that, really, was it. The choice was made.  Your dad paid the owner, who couldn’t have been more than eighteen.   As we made the transaction, a stream of family members came pouring out of the little house in celebration, so many that it reminded me of the clown car at the circus.  Everyone was celebratory, even the puppy parents bumped around our knees, wagging and laughing in that way dogs have.

jake pupAs we walked to the car and got in I thought our new puppy might struggle to get down from your dad’s arms, or at least whimper for his mother, but  he did not look back at the garbage-strewn yard behind us, chaotic with children and his litter mates.  His little amber gaze moved placidly from your dad’s face to mine, and he radiated a calm confidence that seemed to say, everything’s fine and right in his world, everything’s good.

So that when your dad asked me What shall we name him, it was obvious, maybe even ordained.  Jake, I told him. Look at him – he’s jake with everything. In a way, he’s already Jake.

jake definitionAnd so he became, riding in your dad’s lap tucked beneath the steering wheel like a contented little prince, and a few minutes later we were pulling up to the house where you were waiting on the sidewalk with your best friend (a position Jake was soon to occupy), jumping from foot to foot in anticipation.

What’s his name was your first question, and we told you, and we stood watching him gambol about the sidewalk with his eight week old legs and his hilarious eighty year old face and we all agreed the name fit him like a chocolate glove.

A white blaze on his chest was found to be shaped like a heart, askew on what would one day become a marvelously broad and powerful chest, big enough to hold the whole of all of our hearts which were now also decidedly askew (something that was also maybe ordained, and that we were also totally jake with).

In the next few years his growth spurt matched yours, and you matured together to the cusp of adulthood, it became a common site, you skipping off on legs grown impossibly long, Jake bounding after you on sidewalks, paths, through woods and lake and ocean.

It would only be a short while before Jake learned all of our names, and could come and ‘get’ us on command, rousing us from bed with a pink nose that was as born to root birds from cover as it was people from covers.

But that was all in our future, something as unreal to you as it no doubt was to Jake, both of you fully present in the moment, in your respective childhoods.  In the now, it was a beautiful sunny day in June and the previously sleepy street rang with joyful sound of young girls calling in voices that pealed like bells, Jake! Jake! til he must have thought in his delight at this new part of the world, in his old-puppy sagacity, that everything was, indeed, Jake.

And that’s how you became a dog person.


p.s. Luna was not jake with Jake, and after the first shocked inspection of Jake’s amiable face, darted off into the night, perhaps to her real owners

In the Norwegian Woods with Sophia

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ImageAt eleven, you have already traveled extensively: Tahoe, New York, London, Spain, Hawaii, Iceland.   This summer we visited friends who live in the woods on the outskirts of Oslo.  The home in all its bohemian rhapsody could not be more different from your mom’s paean to sophisticated modern luxury back home in the city. Here, the bare wood face of the house is crowned with a thatch roof where grasses, daisies, seedling trees and ferns wave to and fro in the cool breezes.   It lends this house a fairy tale air, with its weathered boards and mossy statues hidden among the wild blueberry thickets that blanket the back yard.

ImageInside the house are piled, stacked and propped everywhere towers and troves of books, oddities, treasures and antiques from the family’s travels across Europe.  Your bed for the week is a wide-bodied, elderly leather couch (Spanish) laid with an actual wolf skin (Norwegian) in front of a great ancient stone (French) fireplace where you take great delight in stoking a roaring fire each night.  Your dad and I sleep above you in a crow’s nest of a room with one wall composed entirely of a mélange of antique windows, where we drift to sleep in the flickering orange-and shadow glow of your pyrotechnics.

Although your young life includes the luck of luxury, you’ve always been a camper at heart.  By age four you were a veteran of tenting in the wilds of the backyard deck, your preferred venue for popcorn and movies. Your dad and I would creep upstairs to sleep on a bed vs. boards for a few hours, then creep back down before you woke.  I was certain you never knew, because if you woke up in the wee hours alone in the dark in the backyard like that, we’d surely hear it  through the crackling sentinel of the baby monitor.

But the baby monitor emitted only the soft sounds of your breathing, and we congratulated each other on our stealth, only to have you much later remark casually over your Cheerios, “You guys sure were gone a long time.”    We laughed and I asked you why you didn’t come up and join us in bed. “Because we were camping,” you say, with perfect comfort-is-for sissies disdain.

Since then you’ve camped in all manner of places – from beside the Blackwood Canyon creek in Tahoe, to the remote lakes alongside the rugged mountain biking trails of Downieville.  You’ve camped in Idaho, Nevada and California.   But it is here in Norway, that your jones for camping is finally, fully satisfied: outdoor life is not so much a respite from daily life as a part of it.

Our first day you are charmed to take part in a Norwegian custom of a breakfast barbeque right on the windy beach, the sound of the water lapping counterpoint to the crackling fire.  We make pancakes in a cast iron pan, the batter thick with blueberries we’ve picked from the  back yard that same morning.  You even sip the coffee percolated over the fire in a bialetti well-darkened with age.  Afterwards we swim in the fjord water, its icy sharpness snatching our breath away.

foodIt is the first of many meals on the beach, the wind sending the smoke after first one, then another of us, as we gather around the grill propped between rocks with its bounty of mackerel, salmon, peppers, and asparagus spears laid out like soldiers on the grill

The people of this house are as lovely and unique as the surroundings; we both agree that Ingvild, with her slim limbs and long, wild curly mane looks just like a mermaid. It seems almost impossible that she is the mother of four, ranging from age 8 to 20.  The boys have the famous Norwegian tow-headed beauty of the crown princess herself, the girls  with  the same thick flowing locks of their mother are sun-and-moon beautiful, one blonde, one dark.

Theirs is not a lifestyle but a life lived in natural full; the garden is an abundance of greens, herbs and edible flowers which find their way to our dinner table each night. The soaps are handmade, the jams are home-canned, and the great porcelain bowls of eggs laid at nearby neighbors’ farms.

Everything here doesn’t just look old, it is; from the metal café chairs (Greek) with the pillows softening the seats (Turkey)and the leather poufs (Moroccan) and the wooden steps that creak with Grimmish maleficence at night, the entire house is painted in a patina of time.

The bathtub is a century old; our host asserts that indeed, his wife can float within its depths, news at which you and I exchange a secret mermaid glance.

At night, the rushing Norwegian wind slithers through the cracks between the reclaimed wood walls with a hiss that makes you shiver with the ghost of winter’s past, even in the midst of midsummer, and sleeping by the leaping light of a fire I find, as you seem to, a comfort that is about more than mere warmth.

Another day finds us on another beach, where we perch on rocks above the fjord waters and eat fresh caught shrimp Norwegian style: open faced sandwiches with mayonnaise and just-picked dill, plus a squeeze lemon .   Shrimp are of the few foods you’ve never cared for, but you cheerfully twist off pink shrimp heads and tails into a pile for the seagulls to squabble over.

We wadImagee into the fjord like old pros; the water is a touch less icy here, protected as it is from the wind.  The water is clear and we can see straight to the bottom to the blue mussel shells piled amongst great moss-carpeted stones, where the white and purple starfish pulsing gently with the lapping waves are almost unremarkable in their expected magic.

Your entry into seventh grade has augured many new developments, including (what seems like overnight) an extra twelve inches (all in your legs!) and a transition in sports focus,  from soccer  to cross country.  I am thrilled to see you embrace running, which you have a natural gift for.  I made the same transition at about the same age, and nearly forty years later I’m still running and even sometimes winning, which is not lost on you or your quiet competitive intensity.

ImageYou run with a deceptive long-legged diffidence, whether the terrain is through city streets or mountains, and the Norwegian woods are no different.   Only a half mile from the house and we are running a single track deep under the dripping tree canopy, you bouncing along ahead, our feet thumping across the mossy, rocky, root-strewn trail.   Your improbably long legs cover the ground in a skipping lope that looks as aimless and effortless as a dragonfly –  an elegant deception that utterly  belies your actual speed,  which is as sure  as it is startling.  Though you never seem to even breathe hard, you are the fastest in your grade, not just among the girls but the boys too.

How far was that, you ask me afterwards, and marvel when I estimate four miles, and how the miles passed almost unnoticed.  We agree that trail running with its elevation climbs and steep descents, is nonetheless easier than track running, where the simple brutal monotonous measure of the distance confronts the runner at each step.  Already you run with the heart (and the frantic hamster wheeling mind) of a true champion.

Later we revisit the same path, this time hunting mushrooms for the evening’s meal, a sopprisotto.  We venture well off the rocky single track trail we had pounded down earlier.  Off the trail the landscape is rocky and unforgiving, boulders poking up through the thin forest soil like the humped backs of buried brontosaurs.  Our shoes and pant legs are immediately soaked in the long grasses and fiddlehead ferns still heavy with the morning’s rain.  The tree branches form a canopy overhead that drip drip drips all around us.

We find pale mushrooms and dark, small in crowds and huge and craggy loners, speculating if the ugly ones were more likely to be poisonous. We  hold out our finds to our Norwegian mermaid, who has two bags: one for mushrooms she recognizes, one for the mushrooms she’ll look up in her book back home.  You ask why they need to be separate and I tell you about the movie The Beguiled, starring poison mushrooms as the murder weapon of choice by a little girl who doesn’t want her sister to run off and marry Clint Eastwood’s Union Soldier.   You are respectful of the power of a mere vegetable, and your dislike of mushrooms is shiveringly reinforced.

The sopprisotto turns out well.   Norwegians in general are deadly serious about their coffee, and these Norwegians of ours with all their world travels are particularly deadly serious about their wine, so our sopprisotto with garden salad and roasted root vegetables – a meal we’ve assembled almost entirely from the backyard and surrounding woods –  is paired with a biodynamic wine (Argentina) poured from a fragile-looking  decanter (France)

ImageAnother day we visit a park crowded with the sculpture of Vigeland; the sculptures themselves are crowded with humanity, a tangle of arms and legs and heads tumbling together in great groaning groups and tortured spires. We try but do not find the sculpture of a monster eating children, one in his mouth, three more screaming in his arms.   We laugh at the idea of such a sculpture appearing in any American park, ever.

On still another day we wander up the road with our buckets until we find great clusters of wild raspberry bushes.  The fattest, reddest berries hang on the lowest branches and fall into our hands at the merest touch.  We wade deep into the bushy depths, you chanting in a low voice “one for the bucket, one for my mouth; one for the bucket, one for my mouth.”

A seven day vacation seemed like an eternity when it starts, but the day of leaving finally arrives.  The rains have finally cleared  and in the early morning light the sky is scalloped with salmon clouds.  The stone fountain with its silent watching angel tinkles goodbye, the lily pads in the pond undulate gently, the daisies nod at us from the roof.

Hugs are given all around and you inform you love Norway,  Typically (ever the Bridge)  you decline to list a favorite thing about it – there were too many, you say, though you quickly add “blueberry pancakes on an open fire at the beach” at the exact moment I imagine you in that same scene, bending delightedly over a cast iron pan, your hair whipping across your forehead, your rain-spattered face lit with a smile.

ImageWinding down toward the train station we note that only a few of the traditional thatch roofs can be seen – red metal seems all the rage these days. We discuss how roofs are the perfect place, really, for daisies. Your favorite flower would always be there, you say, and wouldn’t that be nice?  And I agree, having one’s favorite flower growing constantly overhead would be a fate I’d wish on anyone.  As we start our long journey home I picture it for a moment, every roof across the world dotted with daisies, a scene to rival the star-spread sky.

 

Sophia and the Polka-Dotted Mistifyer

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Last Saturday you took a sort of entrance examination for sixth grade.  There were 70-some odd kids applying for about 15 spots.   As part of your day of tests and participation, the kids were asked to come up with an invention, and explain how it would work.

“So what did you invent?”  I asked.

“A transporter,” you responded.  “So I wouldn’t have to get up early for school.  I could just be transported in two minutes before the homeroom bell rings.”

“I don’t like getting up early,” you said matter-of-factly, a sentiment I sympathize with – I an not a notably early riser, myself.

“A transporter would be pretty handy,” I conceded.

“Only, it’s not really a transporter. It’s a Mystifier.”

I liked the sound of that, even better after you explained the etymology: “Because people would dissolve into a mist, then they are transported, and reappear like mist.”

But you weren’t done yet.

“It’s the Polka-Dotted Mistifyer, and each dot represents a place you can program it to go.”

At this pointI felt mildly guilty for already knowing about this invention you were telling me about. A concern had been voiced that your invention – more specifically, its reason for being – might be interpreted by the powers that be in charge of admissions to reflect a lack of motivation – or, at the least, an unacceptable commitment to staying in bed as long as possible – but we needn’t  have worried.  You don’t imagine things so much as engineer them, and whether it’s a picture you’ve drawn or a story you’re telling, there’s always a reason for everything you’ve put in the frame.

I’ve always liked that about your imagination – never reliant on someone else’s input or prompts. The stories you tell yourself  unfold like a Dr. Seuss staircase, the kind that meanders up into the sky, seemingly all directions at once, with a twisting and turning, cheerfully accommodating kind of logic that is both fantastic and eminently sensical.

The conversation that followed reminded me how little we get right when we think we know the why of what children think, and say – mostly because we forget to suspend our disbelief, something that still comes as naturally to you, at age 10, as thinking itself.

“There won’t be any more airplanes so we won’t need any more gas to fly them, and the Polka-Dotted Mistifyer can be made from old airplane parts,” you explained.

“The airline pilots will do all the testing,” you added.  “So they’ll still have jobs but even more fun ones.”

The thought of beta testing a transporter reminds me of a science fiction  story I read – I think by  Ray Bradbury – in which the narrator is the father of two, with a young son who is brilliant – the kind of math and science whiz kid that aces applications like the one you just completed. The family is in the waiting area much like an airport, but it’s for a new machine – a time travel machine. Not a Polka-Dotted Mistifyer, but close.

In the story, the father explains to his ever-curious son the history of how the time travel machine was built.  He withholds some of the gruesome details of failed early versions of the machine – some really gross stuff happens to the testers, such as arriving at the destination inside-out, or drooling and unable to speak –  until the inventor figures out that the transportees have to be unconscious.

Fast forward to the glorious future and people are time traveling by the thousands, with nothing more required than taking a light hit of laughing gas in Seattle in order to wake up a few seconds later in Nigeria, or the moon.

As is so often the case, telling a kid some of the truth while withholding important details didn’t work out so well.  The son holds his breath during the administration of the gas so he can see what it’s like to time travel, and when the family wakes up at the destination, the kid has gone white-haired, and is quite mad, with a face gone ancient as a lizard’s, screaming “Longer than you think, dad! It’s longer than you think!” before clawing his own eyes out.

I decide not to mention the dangers of being a test pilot for the Polka-Dotted Mistifyer, at least, not until we have a working prototype.

“Will it be expensive?” I ask.

“Well, not for my family,” you say in a practical voice.

“But yes, it will have to be, because if you’re going to London, instead of twelve hours, it’s just two seconds.”

You paused.  “But all the poor homeless people can go free, because after all, you only have to push a button. It’s not like I have to work more to send more people.”  You nod at your own logic.

Can the whole family go together, or just one at a time? I ask.

Everything that fits into the Mistifyer can go, you say.  You pause again, considering.

“You could lay all the luggage on the floor, and everyone can sit on top of it, since it’s about the size of an elevator.”

I remember in the movie The Fly (the Vincent Price version is better than the Jeff Goldblum version); the time travel machine that the scientist creates mixes up the DNA of the scientist with  a fly that somehow found its way into the capsule.  The scientist emerges  with a fly head; weeks later, the bereaved wife hears a tiny voice in the garden; bending close to a spider web, she sees a tiny fly with her husband’s head – now very aged, screaming “Help meeeeeeee!” as the spider moves in for the kill.

imageYour time travel machine doesn’t evoke these fears, however — maybe because of the brand name you have chosen.  Polka-Dotted inventions just sound safer, and the worst thing I can conjure is an elevator door opening to reveal people genetically jumbled up with one another and their belongings – a woman with a purse for a head, a boy with a portable dog kennel for a body, a man with a newspaper face, a stuffed animal with a little girl’s pigtails.

My teacher said that of all the inventions, mine is the one he’d buy first,  you say shyly, and I have to agree – the Polka-Dotted Mistifyer is one of those ‘everyone must have’ things, for sure.

“Sign me up,” I say, and your answer is, again, a reminder of how little I understand about how much you understand.

“Sure!” you say.  “But only after it’s tested.”

Holding Hands with Sophia

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We’re walkers, your dad and I – fast walkers.  We pound along at twice the speed of most people, often breaking apart to flow around the sidewalk slowpokes without breaking stride or conversation.

A flashing crosswalk signal is like a red flag we can’t resist charging; if the light is green and we’re thirty feet from the corner we’ll break into a simultaneous run as if the signal light emits some sort of warning siren that only we can hear.  We never jaywalk, preferring instead to jayrun, something I can do as expertly in high heels as  flats.

Though you are only eight, you walk right along with us. Not since age 3  have you asked to stop for a rest.  Your penchant for skipping derives directly from efforts to keep up with us.

You always demand that I skip with you and I always cheerfully oblige, and so we are seen all over the Castro, skipping past crowds of men  clustered on the sidewalks outside of the gay bars, skipping past the cafes and restaurants and the BDSM shops with their window mannequins dressed in leather codpieces and studded dog collars.

“We’re getting milk” you say to the mustachioed and the muscle tee’d men, and they laugh and tell us to go, girls.

You have kids of your own, right? People often ask, assuming the easiness we’ve found together is attributable to experience.  I always snort at this, because it irritates me to no end, this idea that one cannot fully appreciate something unless they have personal experience with it.

They are always surprised at my ‘no, I have no other children’.  What I do have is a good imagination, and with you, it serves me well. I am always able to think up something to do, or something to talk about.  Lacking that, we skip.

Recently you realized you could crack us up with your version of speedwalking, your skinny little legs (and when did they get so long?) scissoring along, your tiny butt switching back and forth,  a perfect genetic blue print of your daddy in miniature.

The first time you reached for my hand you were only following the oft-repeated parental dictum:  never cross the street without holding someone’s hand.   Reaching for my hand symbolized nothing more than my adult status. Still, I was surprised – and touched –  that I fell into a category where trust was automatically conferred.  I have never thought of myself that way, though perhaps I should – after all my name is derived from the Greek, and means “Defender of mankind.”

But somewhere along the line, you began reaching for my hand as a matter of course.  Was it the weekend when your daddy left for a bike race, and I was solely responsible not just for your street crossing safety, but everything else as well?  I was anxious about that weekend –what if you cried and wanted your mom? (she was out of town).

So I kept us busy – we drew chalk flowers on the sidewalk, and we colored the giant Strawberry Shortcake coloring book, me being careful to put each of the magic markers back in their designated slots under your watchful eye.

In the evening we skipped to dinner – a pasta place a few blocks away.   We skipped home, and in a truly hilarious and utterly unconscious mimicry of your daddy, the “Walk” sign began flashing and you skip-raced to beat it.  You did, too, but tripped on the curb and fell and hit your forehead and cried.  We sat on a low stone wall while I examined your smooth pink forehead, which bore a small but definite scratch.

Should I kiss it, I asked you hesitantly, and you nodded, tears streaming.  I hugged you and worried that your mom might think I couldn’t be responsible for you – and maybe you worried about that too because you hugged back and surprised me by saying in a practical voice, “We don’t have to tell anyone.”

Well, I told you, if anyone asks, I think you should, and you agreed. “But I’m OK,” you amplified, which was my first lesson in how my anxious heart might be more visible to you than I perhaps realized.

Maybe it was the weekend we became ski buddies.   Your daddy likes to hang with his girls, but he also likes to hit the back country, sometimes spending hours hiking with skis on his back in order to reach the top of some impossibly high, mist-draped peak, where he’ll launch himself face-first down a run of intermittent rock and powder.

It’s not a place I can follow or deny him, so I volunteered to watch after you on the slopes for the day – a day that turned out to be surprisingly fun.

Walking back to the car, your daddy asked how our day went.  “I was fast! We’re ski partners,” you responded, clomping along in your black ninja ski boots. Then, taking my hand (and my heart) “Aren’t we?!”

Maybe it goes back all the way to that weekend in London when you were visiting your grandparents. Your daddy and I chose to vacation in Paris at the same time, just so we could take the train through the Chunnel to visit you for the day.

We arrived in time to have some tea and toast with you, and then off we went, and to this day when I think of that visit, it is always with a circus music soundtrack: we went to the park, and a museum, and to lunch, and to another museum, then a ride on the London Eye, then a walk along the Thames, then to Harrod’s for tea, and then another park.

We took the tube everywhere, and you loved the conveyors and escalators, grabbing my hand and shouting “Run!” because that was the game, for me and you to beat daddy –  at age 4, you were newly socialized by preschool into the concept o f girls vs. boy.

At the end of the day we raced into the final train, now filled with commuters who scowled disapprovingly at our raucous American fun.  Snoots, I thought…. right up until the moment you suddenly began to cry, hiccupping “Whee Daddy! Whee!”

“What?” he asked, picking you up, and you answered by spraying all of us with a powerful stream of warm  (and very yellow) wee wee.

Now four years later we are still up to the same tricks, this time in New York, skip-racing down Madison Avenue to Zibottos, an Italian style coffee bar.  “I’m in the mood for an espresso,” your daddy said, to which you responded “Yes, I’d like a nice iced coffee,” the kind of thing that you sometimes come up with that makes us wonder, who is this little person, anyway?

We skipped to M&M World (a rip off, we all agreed) and speedwalked through the late-night throngs of Times Square to see Toy Story 3 one night, The Karate Kid another.

“I don’t know, it ends pretty late,” daddy said doubtfully, and you said reasonably “But its summer vacation, we can sleep in!”

Which movie did you like better, you wanted to know, and for me it was no contest: Toy Story.  “Me too,” you said, taking my hand, and we skipped back to the hotel, past the garbage bags piled on the curb and the street food vendor stalls of sizzling chicken and warm cones of nuts.

The church steps are crowded with men sleeping on cardboard, many uncovered in the mild air, and your daddy and I exchange a glance that is a conversation unto itself.  It is hard times in the city.

“Is that a boy, or a girl” you asked of the androgynously pretty 11-year old star of Karate Kid, and I smile because you are unsure of the cues – braided longish hair equals girl, but skateboard equals boy; the character’s name (Dre) provides no further clues.

I think that your question is one that John Irving would appreciate, he the author of The World According To Garp  in which Garp encounters a child who, in her same smooth pink sexless perfection Garp  describes as “she was only a Child, not yet Boy or Girl”.

I’ve always loved John Irving’s novels which I suppose is not surprising – if there is novelist equivalent of circus music, he is it (maybe he even agrees, hence his story “Son of the Circus.“)

I sometimes think of an interview I read, one in which Irving tells of being asked, did you have a child that died – are you Garp? His answer resonated with me – at the time I thought of it as a writer’s answer. But skipping through these last years with you, I find that the resonance has undergone a quiet but nonetheless deep sea change.:

“I haven’t lost any children,” he said.  “I’m just a father with a good imagination.  But in my imagination, I lose my children every day.”

Riding Bikes with Sophia

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We’re a bunch of late babies, the h and me and little one three.  Our birthdays are within 30 days of Christmas, more or  less.   The downside of this is not getting your fair share of  birthday booty AND Christmas booty, but getting the dreaded combo booty.

Actually, not all combo booty is bad booty. A lifetime of experience has taught me that Combo booty comes in two types:  lame, and jaw dropping.  Did you ever get a jaw dropping gift?  I’ve had a few in my life, and I remember them all, but none so much as my first new big girl bike with no training wheels, a snappy sunburst yellow Schwinn with hot pink daisy decals on the seat, and a white wicker basket wound all around with white and yellow plastic daisies perched pertly between the handle bars (most of the daisies fell off when I crashed my bike into a parked car while riding no handed, showing off for the Stubblefield boys).  It had yellow and white streamers that flew like the thick blonde ponytails of Jan and Marcia Brady, and when they flowed out behind me in the breeze as I rode, I tasted true freedom.

Growing up, we didn’t have much though it wasn’t something we kids talked about  – many of my parents’ friend (and of course their kids) were in the same boat.  Christmas gifts always included necessities, like clothes.  At dinner, if we had meat, it was the kind that needed to be pounded really hard to be edible and there was exactly one small piece for each persona at the table – no extras.

We were sometimes reduced to powdered milk.  Cookies were bought in bulk, because broken ones were cheaper.  For years I associated true wealth (or just extreme luck) with branded snack food: Oreos, Hostess Cupcakes and those little individual sized bags of chips and single serving boxes of cereal  – indulgences that simply cost too much for a family that had to watch every penny.

I was  young but I understood the meaning of that brand name, Schwinn.  I knew I was getting the best brand, though we were relatively poor.  It meant my dad could do anything, that even in a world where I sometimes left the dinner table a little bit hungry, he could find a way to pay for the best yellow bike in the world.   My dad wasn’t one to talk about love but I knew it when I saw it.

Now some forty years later, the little one is jumping up and down in front of me, excited about the birthday gift that she has been instructed to prevent me from walking in on, as the h thumps around upstairs getting ready for the all important Presentation of the Birthday Gift.  She runs up and down the stairs, reporting how many more minutes it will be until I am permitted to come up and see my gift.  Her excitement is sweet if not contagious, and I  watch  her from over the top of my laptop monitor with some amusement as she dances in and out with her updates.

I hear her pounding down the steps and she hits the door full tilt to my office.

“It’s so cool!” she reports.  She has just brought this word  home from school, and she is judicious in her use of it.   Curiosity stretches in me like a cat.

“It’s READY” she bellows through a space she has found under the kitchen sink, a space in which you can, if you are a small eely eight year old girl, talk directly to the person in the basement, if that person were sitting at the computer desk, which I often am.   The business is busy these days, so I didn’t come up right away.  But when the second call comes drifting from the ceiling “SAAAAAAN-DRY!” ( a nickname I now think of as my  Na’vi name) I start catching some of her excitement. What is this present, that it has her so excited?

She leads me down the long narrow hallway of our Victorian and in there it is, learning rakishly in front of the fireplace, gleaming.

“IT’S A BIKE!” I shout, in unison with the little one.

It is not just a bike, it is THE bike: it is white and sleekly urban, with shiny black fenders and a most excellent glove-leather seat.  The h points out its attributes: it is a city bike for the streets of San Francisco, with 21 gears that can be shifted with a flick of the wrist.

But just like a woman, my mind is on accessories, like a bike bell the silver kind that goes rrrring rrrring! when you push the little silver lever.   A basket, maybe silver, for the back where the h has thoughtfully installed a rack . And streamers for the handle grips, of course – shiny black ones (preferably sparkly).    I imagine them fluttering and snapping in the breeze I create as I ride up the hill that is just around the corner from our house. It’s a big long hill and I can’t wait to ride it because I’m weird that way about going uphill – I actually look forward to it –  but also because I’ll have to go slowly and that will give all the car traffic a good long chance to get an admiring eyeful of my Totally.Awesome.Cool.  new bike.

The h waits for me to notice that it is a Schwinn; when I do, my eyes feel damp.

“We’ll have so much fun bike riding!” the little one hollers, jumping with excitement.

It is the most beautiful bike in the world, I tell him.  A bonafide jaw dropping combo gift.