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With Sophia in the Alaskan Wilderness

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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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. 


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


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.


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. 


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. 



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.  


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.


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. 



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. 



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.


Harry Potter and The Run for Congress

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.

Minding the Gap with Sophia

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.


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.







Everything’s Jake with Sophia

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


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.


Singing to Sophia


sophia bangsGo ahead, sing to her, he said, but I hesitated.  We got along well, you and I, but I felt like an intruder in these nightly rituals.  I am unused to the bedtime rituals of love, security and affection.  I am from a different place than you. My bedroom was a place of both refuge and punishment, my bed a place to hide from the tears and the fears that, both real and imagined, chased me into uneasy sleep.

Sing to her, he insisted, I love to hear you sing.  And so I found myself kneeling by the side of your bed, your face above the covers like a flower smiling up at me.    How practical you were.

“What songs do you know?” you asked, seriously.

I told you the titles, and you asked for a sample of each before deciding on which you wanted to hear.

I sang from an amalgam of selections from the musicals of my high school youth, Phil Collins and Elton John singles, and oddball radio hits from my childhood.  I sang:

Edelweiss, edelweiss,

every morning you greet me

 I sang slowly, remembering the words as I sang, remembering the scene in the movie, where Captain Von Trapp sang a song as novitiate Maria listened, the song a code for the joy he felt seeing her each day:

Small and white, clean and bright,

you look happy to meet me!

I like that one, you said judiciously.

Wouldn’t you agree,

baby you and me

got a groovy kind of love.

What does groovy mean, you wanted to know, and we discussed the intricacies of cool.

Somewhere, out there, beneath the pale moonlight,

someone’s thinking of me, and loving me, tonight.

What is that from, you wanted to know, and I told you about Fievel Mouskavitch from A Mouse’s Tale, how Fievel got lost from his immigrant mouse family, and how he and his sister perched on rooftops and sang about reuniting, to comfort themselves.

Why were they separated? you wanted to know. How did he find them? You, an only child, were charmed by the idea of a brother and sister singing up at the sky,

And even though I know how very far apart we are

It helps to think we might be wishing on the same bright star!

And when the nighttime starts to sing her lonesome lullaby

It helps to think we’re sleeping underneath the same big sky….

Were they camping, you wanted to know – a recent love of yours,  you accepted as calm fact the idea of English-speaking mice dressed as Russian peasants, singing and camping in New York, a place you visit courtesy of your stepdad.

The story captivated your imagination so that we were sorely disappointed to find that it is no longer in circulation, not at Blockbuster, not at Netflix, not at Amazon (and why is that, movie creator  people? The Wild West sequel is stupid).

A favorite is The Onion Song, by groovy performance artist Laurie Anderson:

I don’t like snails or toads or frogs or

strange things living under logs

but mmmmmm

I love onions!

We sing it interactively, and I see your daddy’s shadow hovering at the door, listening, amused:

Me: I don’t like shoes that pinch my toes

You: or people that squirt me with the garden hose

Me: but mmmmmm

You: I love onions!

Soon it is a ritual, me singing to you, and when your daddy asked, Who do you want to put you to bed, me or Sandra? your answer rang my heart like a bell.

What new songs do you know, was now the question, and I surprised myself, how I’d wrack my brain scanning  my memory, and iTunes, for something you might like.

Your tastes are sophisticated. You like Bjork, she, appreciator of the mountains you are growing to love like your daddy:

We live on a mountain, right at the top

This beautiful view from the top of the mountain

Every morning I walk towards the edge….

And throw little things off

Like car parts and bottles and cutlery

Whatever I find lying around

It’s become a habit….

…but you sniffed indifferently at the Beatles, a song I was sure a 7 year old would love:

You say yes, I say no

You say stop, I say go go go!


I know that song, you said, and I was excited at your recognition.

Shall I sing it? I asked.

No, you said in a bored voice

The ritual goes thusly:

What shall I sing? I ask.

What songs do you have? you counter.

I run through the titles.

Do you have anything new? you ask.

I do, I say.

Let’s hear it.

Where are the simple joys of maiden hood?

Where are all those adoring daring boys?

Shall two knights never tilt for me?

Shall kith not kill their kin for me?

Oh where are a maiden’s simple joys?

That’s pretty, you say. Then: what’s a kith?


There’s a sad sort of clanging from the clock in the hall

And the bells in the steeple too

And up in the nursery an absurd little bird

Keeps popping out to say cuckoo!

You liked that one. Cuckoo! Cuckoo! you sang along.

The romantic theme to Romeo and Juliet was judged nice, I think more for the melody than the words

A rose will bloom.

It then will fade

So does a  youth,

So does the fairest maid….

But the song in a different context:

There once was a man

Who loved a woman

She was the one he slew a dragon for!

And there once was a woman

Who loved a man

He was the one she took the poison for!

…….left you cold.  (on reflection, I’m glad.)

Other favorites include Take It Easy and Desperado, by the Eagles, and Daniel by Elton John.   I sing this last because your mom is from here:

They say Spain is pretty, though I’ve never been

Daniel says it’s the best place he’s ever seen

and he should know, he’s been there enough

Lord I miss Daniel, I miss him so much

That’s sad, you say, and I agree, wondering not for the first time if Daniel was one of those early ones who died of AIDS, a death hidden and unremarked on, immortalized in the days before a befeathered, platform-shoed Sir Reginald Dwight started selling ersatz emotion to Disney.

Sing the funny song, you ask, and I comply:

It’s a little bit funny

this feeling inside

I‘m not one of those who can easily hide,

I don’t have much money but

boy if I did

I’d build a big house where

we both could live.

Should I send daddy in to kiss you? I ask, and you say yes. What if he’s gone, and I can’t find him anywhere? I tease, and you say seriously We can live together here, and I wonder if you can see the shine in my eyes and I kiss your forehead.

Early on, you surprised me with your comprehension – you are not just hearing the songs, but listening.

What shall I sing, I asked, and you said, The little white flower song, please, though I never once explained to you that that is what edelweiss is, the national flower of Austria.

Not long ago, the news was filled with the tragic story of the death of Natasha Richardson, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave, the actress who played Guinevere in Camelot, she the plaintive singer asking whereof the simple joys of maidenhood.

Natasha Richardson was exactly my age when she died. She had a skiing accident. These two facts, seemingly unrelated, have been flitting around my head like moths.  Perhaps because you and I have recently discovered camaraderie in skiing –  this past weekend I took you up on the mountain alone, and we had a grand time, and it was your idea and not mine to eat the peanut butter and jelly on the lift so we didn’t waste precious ski time at lunch in the chalet.

The lift to the top carries six, so we inevitably rode with others.  How are you girls doing, our lift chair compadres asked. They’d lean forward to get a peek at you, small in your pink parka and pink ski pants, your black boots and mittens and gaiter making you look like a scary sweet Ninja.

They grin at us, even the brash young boarders grin at us, happy to recognize kindred spirits twenty years their senior and twenty years their junior.  It’s all good! they shout into the blue sky, and you smile shyly ad kick your feet and ask me, can we ski the bowl this time?

My mind drifts to the death of the actress and I tell you again, never take your helmet off. Never, do you hear?

And you nod and say, not even when I’m going slow.

Good girl, I say, and the lift  moves us steadily up the mountain, higher and higher, our feet dangling over the pines and the snow spread out below us like a cloud fallen to earth, and I am suddenly, acutely aware of the passage of time, how small you are but how soon you will be the age of the snowboarders jostling and joshing on my left, and how none of you can imagine being my age, an age when, barring accidents, there should still be much to look forward to.

Did you hear, a friend asked. Did you hear, at the end? Her mother held her hand and sang “Edelweiss” and then they unplugged the machines, and she was gone.

That night you ask me, can you sing the little white flower song? I sing it for you, perhaps more slowly than usual

Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow

Bloom and grow, forever!

My voice is steady and sweet until the end when it wavers only a little, but you are asleep and so do not know.