What’s Your Story?

If you have no story to tell, something, somewhere, isn’t quite right.

Not a day passes that we don’t experience something worth sharing, whether it’s something we observed, something we heard, something we participated in, something we remembered from the past, or even something we are planning for or dreaming of in the future. We all have a story to share.

If we feel we have nothing worthwhile to share is it because we are sitting idle, waiting for life to happen? Do we wait for other people for the company, or to have enough time, or enough money in order to acquire experiences we feel are worthy of sharing? Do we dare not to dream because we fear we’ll never be in a position of “doing”? If this, in any respect, is the case, our story, presently, is a tragedy.

Scarlette Begonia

One of the best storytellers of the day is Casey Neistat, filmmaker and vlogger. He recently traveled to Madrid for a speaking engagement. During his vlog shot from there, in a moment of reminiscence, he recounted the story of his first trip to Spain; he was young, still a teenager, with a young child to support, he worked as a dishwasher. Yet, he managed to set aside enough of a small sum of money that he could manage to pay for a trip to Europe with his older brother. Casey’s story was a reflection of his priorities; he still supported his child, he worked very hard, and saved diligently, and he traveled and experienced, that he’d have life experiences to grow from and stories to share. He had very little time and he had very little money, but his passion for life and experience inspired him to find a way. Because of his commitment to experience and to storytelling, he has followed his passion into a self-made career as an independent filmmaker and YouTube artist.

There is a way, but it won’t likely come find us while we sit idle and wait. We must pursue, we must go forth, if we want amazing adventures to tell tale of.

And yet, stories don’t have to be of an epic adventure to be worthy of telling. Some of the best stories are relatable because they are ordinary events, just well told and joyfully shared.

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If we feel we have nothing worthwhile to share, is it because we don’t have the confidence to think others will find value in what we have to tell. This, too, would make our story a bit of a tragedy. Almost any story told with confidence and passion is worthwhile. There is humor, there are observations, there are plenty a worthy tale that can stem from the most mundane of events. The success of a story has only a little to do with content and much more to do with delivery and with engagement, which stems wholly from confidence.

Confidence, much like working very hard at a job and diligently saving money for a trip to Europe, takes commitment and practice and fortitude. And confidence will serve us well in every aspect of life. Confidence is a practice, like yoga or tai chi or ballet, like singing or playing the violin, once proficient, there is always another level of excellence to achieve. It is infinite. But confidence is critical, it is a life force.

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And even with experiences to share and the confidence to tell them, there will be the few who will still not hear, will not listen, and this is never a reflection on the story or the storyteller. As much as storytelling is an art, so, too, is listening. The best storytellers are the best listeners; the best listeners are the best storytellers. As author Bryant H. McGill has been quoted, “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” Every story, every tale, every storyteller, will have a critic, too, from time to time. The quality of our story does not rely on the reaction of the listener, but the joy it brings us to tell and to those who truly hear. Do not be discouraged by those unwilling to hear, it is their loss, completely.

I often share stories of my simple, little life. In some cases, when I have an attentive audience, I feel I can tell the greates tale. Other times, when my audience isn’t connected or focused or willing, I struggle to even form intelligible sentences. I was, the other day, at the salon for my brow and bikini wax and as the hot wax was slathered on and the cool wax ripped off, I shared my tales of the weeks since my last visit. Here, I always find the perfect audience. May I suggest, if you struggle to find a willing audience with whom to share your stories, I have found the very best listeners, of all time, to be aestheticians. I have never had an aesthetician who wasn’t a great listener, who didn’t respond in all the right ways to all the stories I have to share. Your aesthetician, if you’re into bikini waxes, knows you in a way even your doctor doesn’t. There is a level of familiarity and intimacy with your aesthetician that can hardly be duplicated with anyone. I can get smooth and pretty and practice my craft of storytelling! Just thought I’d share.

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Storytelling is a very large part of life; books, songs, movies, dance, photography, television shows, art, and poetry, are all just stories arranged into various mediums. Stories fill our every day, and, true, while many make a profession of telling a story, in one form or another, the rest of us are no less capable. We need only experiences to share and the confidence to express ourselves, and, we too, can tell a story!

So, what is your story?

Scarlette Letter – August 29, 20015

I’ve decided that letting your age define you is a sure way to limit your happiness.

I had a marvelous day not acting my age; I drove a little too fast, listened to loud music, hiked along the coast to a sketchy, steep, poison oak covered trail, down a cliff, to the beach, where a fresh water waterfall spilled into the ocean. Well, me and hundreds of other people. As I descended the steep, slippery trail down the cliff to the beach, I found myself behind a gentleman and, I assume, his wife, probably not too much older than me. There were two younger men with them I’d almost have to assume were their sons. The woman, with much trepidation and some assistance, made it down one section of the slipperier part of the trail and halted at the next, and the last steep portion, before the beach below. There, she gave up, stating she was too old to do stuff like this. I went ahead, when offered, but I showed her how I used my arms to lower myself down to the next level and assured her she could do it. I went on my way. Later, after a brief stroll along the surf, I noticed the woman, with her family, enjoying the beach and watching the water spill down from the cliff she’d descended, she was all smiles. What a pity it would have been to act the way you think you’re supposed to act at whatever chronological age you happen to be and miss out on a great experience.

After my hike, I drove home with the windows down and the sunroof open, a little too fast, and I listened to really loud music, and I felt the age I want to feel, and I felt alive.


To B or Not to B

Scarlette Begonia

When my children were in middle school and high school, we lived quite a ways out in the country. I was commuting into Sacramento, over an hour away, for work and then providing afternoon and evening transportation to various extracurricular activities for the kids. I drove in excess of 3,000 miles every month. I had this uncanny ability to arrive to pick my kids up, wherever they happened to be, at the precise moment I estimated. Whether inclement weather, road construction, unpredictable traffic conditions, mattered not, if I said I was going to be there at 3:02, I pulled up at exactly 3:02. It bordered on spooky.

I plan.

I have spent the past quarter decade in a career I sort of half-wittingly, and unwillingly, fell into. It was only ever to pay the bills, just until I figured out what I really wanted to do. And it still is. I’m an accountant. An auditor, more specifically. Not an I.R.S. auditor, I’m a financial statement auditor, the kind of auditor a company hires to come in and audit their financial statements for compliance with certain standards and expectations. I’m a friendly auditor. Or I was. Now I teach audit software skills. I teach audit methodology. I teach audit.

Auditors plan. Auditors plan like military strategists. Don’t think for a moment I’m joking. If you are ever involved in a financial statement audit, be aware of the fact that every number, every variance, every interview, every document examined, goes into developing the most strategic, most detailed, most well documented plan. Just be aware of the fact that if you offer the auditors a donut with chocolate sprinkles, it will probably trigger an action in the audit plan different than if you offered a donut with rainbow sprinkles, like perhaps assigning more experienced staff, or altering the nature, timing or extent of testing of a certain financial statement area. I’m kidding. But not. There are plans and they are detailed.

So, I plan.

My question, though, is whether for every plan, should there be a backup plan, a “plan B”?  You know, in case things don’t work out, there is a fall back plan. I’ve decided not.

Five years ago, I embarked on a quest to lose weight. I had recently left a long, fattening, and increasingly unhappy marriage. I traveled extensively for work, which meant eating in restaurants for every meal while away from home, not having a steady routine for sleep or exercise, and only being home a couple days a week, and so, celebrating, by eating out or indulging in “comfort food”. I looked to food for comfort, for solace, for celebration, for boredom. I wasn’t obese, but I was unhealthy, miserable, and uncomfortable.

I adopted a fitness guru, Jillian Michaels, and thought her books and materials were clear, practical, logical and would, more than any others I’d read in the past, be most likely to offer lasting, lifelong, life-changing, results. I ate more healthy selections both in restaurants and at home. I paid attention to portion size. I found a way to exercise every day. I adopted a mantra, “WWJD? What would Jillian do?” The sizes dropped, one after another. In the course of a year, I found myself swimming in my wardrobe four different times. I had to buy four completely new wardrobes in the course of a single year! It was awesome. I jettisoned every piece of ill-fitting clothing as it was replaced. I remember the shock and horror expressed by most of my friends and family. “Why would you get rid of the clothes that became too big? What if you gain the weight back again?”

I tried to reassure everyone, this thing I was doing wasn’t some “fad” diet, this was a lifestyle change. The weight was gone with my old behaviors. It had been a year. I was confident with my new self and had no intention of ever allowing myself to return to my old ways, or shape. I figured, by donating all my too large clothing to charity and not having them to slip back into if I slipped up, would put more impetus on watching my “p’s and q’s”. If my new jeans were beginning to feel a bit tight, it was an indication to take immediate action. Having a “plan B”, a whole wardrobe of roomier clothes, would make it easier to stray from the original plan. It was a plan for failure. It facilitated failure. It resigned to it, made failure an expectation, an eventuality. That was five years ago. I’m still the same, smaller, size, my weight and shape has fluctuated some, but very little. Not once, in five years, have I had to replace a single item in my wardrobe with a larger size. There are currently, out of two dozen pairs, only two pair of jeans in my closet that are a wee bit too tight and, so, my plan is to be a bit more careful with portion size and second portions of certain things I’ve been allowing, lately, like beer. And wine. I’m watching my “p’s and q’s”.

As an auditor, when we plan an engagement, as we gather evidence and information, if we discover a risk we hadn’t planned for earlier, we don’t have a “plan B” to revert to. We don’t abandon the original plan for some lesser plan. We edit the original plan to include steps to address the new risk. The rest of the original plan remains in place. We enhance the original plan, we shore it up, make it more robust. We simply adjust.

I believe this is how we should manage all the plans in our life; from career plans, to plans to improve relationships, to plans for activities or vacations, to plans to learn a foreign language, whatever the plan. Make a plan for exactly how you want things to go. Don’t have a plan for failure. If the original plan doesn’t work out 100%, and, truthfully, few do, simply adjust the plan, enhance the plan, make it more robust, shore it up.

Scarlette Begonia

I was on a vacation to the east coast lately, to visit my daughter and son-in-law, in upstate New York. When I began to plan my visit I told them I wanted to do two things, for certain, during my week there; I wanted to see the horses race at the Saratoga Racetrack and I wanted to summit Mt. Marcy, the highest point in New York state. I was so certain about summiting Mt. Marcy, I’d actually drafted the witty social media posts I would make memorializing my accomplishment. It was all but in the books before I even boarded the plane. I planned for it. I packed my hiking boots, my hiking socks, my day pack and hydration system, my trusty water-wicking wool shirt, my emergency trail items; headlamp, knife, cord, multi-tool, etc. I brought with me everything I’d bring on a day hike up to the top of a far higher mountain, here, on the west coast. I’ve summited a few west coast mountains, some over twice as high as Mt. Marcy, in the past few weeks alone. I had a solid plan.

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As the week in New York unfolded, my daughter and I fell into our usual pattern of behavior; do, see, eat, drink, repeat. We went to the horse races, we went to a polo match, we went shopping, we dined, we wined, we revisited our favorite spots in Saratoga Springs, New York, where she lives. We had so, so, so, so, much fun. The night before our planned trip up Mt. Marcy, we stayed out a bit later than we should have. As our plan to summit Mt. Marcy fell on the last day of my trip, before flying home, the week’s activities were taking a toll, I’m sure, on our physical, mental, and emotional ability to perform at our peak in such an endeavor. As we stayed out entirely too late the night before, and had put off accumulating and organizing all the necessary provisions for our planned task until the morning we were to depart, and, because my alarm went off only a couple of hours after managing to drop off to sleep on my somewhat less than perfect, though free, air mattress on the basement floor, we got off to a very late and groggy start. We’d planned to get gas the night before, while out, but neglected to do so as the evening wore on into late night.

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Further, this plan, perhaps, not as solid or well-executed as most of our plans, failed to adequately research the drive time or to check the weather for the day in the vicinity of Mt. Marcy. You see, originally, our plan included my son-in-law who would have painstakingly organized all those last bits of details. He had to adjust himself out of the planned trip the day before the trip because of a sore knee. So those last details were kind of dangling and, truthfully, were kind of in the way of our plan to enjoy that last night in town.

Scarlette Begonia

We set out a full three hours later than planned. We detoured into town for gas and some additional snacks. We made our way to the interstate and headed north and drove and drove and drove, the navigator telling us the trip was a full hour or so more than we really imagined. Or had planned for. As we drew closer and closer and closer to Mt. Marcy, in the Adirondacks, in upstate New York, the sky grew darker, cloudier and more and more ominous. About three quarters of the way there, my daughter asked me if I’d brought my packable rain gear. Um. No. I’d meant to, I’d planned to, but in the last moments of packing, I’d forgotten. She had extra rain gear at home, but we hadn’t thought of the necessity for it, for both of us, until now.

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She asked me what we should do, as in, should we devise a “plan B”, like hike somewhere else, less challenging, not as far away. I’d thought of this, too, but figured the time it would take to research another, lesser trip, would be better used in attempting the original trip. That was my plan, it was our plan. She’d hiked to the top of Mt. Marcy, ill-prepared, before, she knew the challenge, the trail, the conditions, and had tried to communicate them to me, but perhaps I didn’t listen as carefully as I should have, or I was cocky at my ability, emboldened by all my recent, successful, mountain ascents.

Scarlette Begonia

We passed through a couple of mountain towns in the last miles before reaching our trailhead at the Adirondack Loj. One town boasted a very popular appearing outdoor store. I considered detouring in to purchase some rain gear, but the parking lot was completely full, we were totally late, and I’d asked my daughter if there was a similar store on sight at the Loj. She said there was. We adjusted the plan accordingly; I’d just pick up a rain poncho at the Loj store and we’d be set, according to plan.

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As for our timing; we knew the approximate mileage up to the summit, we knew when the sun was likely to set, and we knew our historical, average, hiking pace. It “mathed” out. Given the number of miles, even with the ascent, the hours of daylight available, and our hiking pace, we should be able to summit and return to the car by just about dark. Our original plan had included dinner back in town, but we were willing to adjust it for this.

Scarlette Begonia

We reached the Adirondack Loj. We committed to our revised plan by paying the ten bucks to park for the day. The sky was dark, cloudy, damp and ominous. It had rained off and on during the entire last hour of our drive. My daughter brought Aston, the pup, to accompany us, and was tending to his needs as I went shopping in the Loj shop. I looked like a California mountain summiteer; I wore running shorts and a tank top. I still had my flip flops on, with plans to switch to my full-on, lace up, ankle supporting, mountaineering boots. I’d been told the trail was more rugged than the west coast trails I was used to and had planned accordingly. Unless backpacking and bearing a significant amount of weight, I usually opt for old running shoes over full-on hiking boots when I hike. Running shoes were not part of today’s plan. But, entering the Loj store, I looked, admittedly, like a goofball. Everyone was bundled up in layers of technical clothing; pants, shirts, jackets, rain gear, gators, hats, ponchos, pack covers, the whole deal. I looked on every rack and every display in the shop. I squinted at the labels hung next to empty hooks on the displays, but, as I didn’t bring my glasses, couldn’t make out the letters for those missing items. I looked and looked and looked, all while trying to look casual and competent, I couldn’t find any rain gear. I finally asked, and was informed they’d recently sold out. Those blurry labels adjacent to those empty display hooks were, apparently, where rain ponchos would have hung.

I returned to the car we paid ten bucks to park for the day. I told my daughter the store had sold out of rain gear. We revisited “the plan”. I still was not ready to devise a “plan B”. We’d planned to hike Mt. Marcy, we were here, for better or worse, that was the plan. I was invested, we were invested, and that’s what I wanted to do. I said, “Let’s just go and revise the plan as needed.” I changed into my proper hiking pants, laced up my proper hiking boots over my proper hiking socks. I adjusted my trekking poles to the proper height and made sure my daypack included all of the proper things, with the one exception of rain gear. My daughter prepared herself, properly, as well. We made sure there was adequate water and provisions for us, and for the pooch. She’d planned carefully for his company by bringing a bungee-style leash that secured around her waist, as he was required to be leashed, and she’d need both hands free. The pooch, too, had made this hike before. I was in good company. It was part of my plan. The revised plan. We agreed on a “turnaround time”. If by 3:00 PM, we weren’t at the summit, we would turn around and head back for the car in order to make it before dark. We had headlamps and all that would be necessary to hike at night, but going downhill, in the rain, with the puppy dog, would be more challenging than just hiking in the dark. Our re-revised plan.

Scarlette Begonia

We set off. I observed the signs, the mileage to the summit, the trail, we were in good shape. It would be a long day, but a rewarding one. I’d decided to put my water-wicking wool pullover on to start with. It was raining. My daughter had her rain jacket on. We hiked and hiked and hiked. The trail was wide and soft and sloped upward gently. We met, and passed, all kinds of other hikers. We hiked and hiked and hiked. We conferred, a couple of times, at junctions, trail crossings and water crossings, and made decisions collaboratively. We hiked and we hiked and we hiked. It rained. It was warm, though, and I was very hot with my dampish, water-wicking wool pullover on. The clouds gave way, finally, to broken sunshine and we stowed our outer layers away in our packs for later use, potentially, or not.

Scarlette Begonia

We hiked and we hiked and we hiked. After one stream crossing, the trail took on a new form; boulders. It actually resembled a stream bed, complete with water trickling down the center, making the varying size and shape rocks, slick and slimy. The trail was well-marked with round, blue, trail markers fastened to trees. It was clear we were on the intended trail, though it resembled more a seasonal stream than a trail. The very sparsely spaced mileage markers added additional confusion; after hours and hours on the trail, we seemed to have only hiked a couple of miles. I didn’t let any of this discourage me, but the reality of reaching the summit before our turnaround time seemed less likely. But, still, here I was and with a goal in mind. Had I known the mileage markers were “as a crow flies”, and not in “trail” or “walking” miles, I’d have had better information to apply to the plan.

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The trail became steeper, and rockier, and as morning passed into noon and beyond, there were more people heading back down the trail, from points beyond, like the summit, than there were heading up. I felt, at this point, I was amongst the fools, chasing a folly, of reaching the summit of this mountain while daylight was still available. And I felt like everyone passing us, in the opposite direction, silently agreed with my self-bestowed judgment of “fool”. While it wasn’t raining, there were still clouds, and through the dense tree line, and not really knowing the direction we were headed or the direction the trail would turn, it was difficult to gauge whether the clouds were gathering, or dispersing, would hinder us, or hide from us.

Scarlette Begonia

We hiked and we hiked and we hiked. The trail got steeper, and rockier, and more strenuous. The toll of too many nights without adequate or comfortable sleep, the overindulgence in food and drink, the reckless abandon of appropriate physical activity and pre-hike hydration practices were beginning to become evident in my energy level, or waning energy level, I should say. And I was hungry.

Scarlette Begonia

We’d made so much progress, thus far, and much like negotiating one’s way through traffic on a congested highway, you really hated to stop, for any reason, and get passed up by those you worked so hard to get around. We’d passed groups of hikers who sprayed DEET on themselves, while hiking, creating a cloud of DEET in their wake, which we couldn’t help but inhale as we went. The only thing worse than the smell of DEET is the taste of it! We’d managed to make our way around a couple from Canada who smoked cigarettes. While hiking. Spewing cigarette smoke for us to breathe until we maneuvered our way successfully around them. It was not a good strategy, presently, to stop for nourishment and let these unsavory, poorly behaved hikers regain their positions in front of us.

Scarlette Begonia

But, I was spent. I needed food. And, it was 2:30 PM, a half an hour from “turnaround” time. We hadn’t really verbalized this reality, but it was there, and it seemed, now, time to take a break and revisit “the plan”. We fed the pooch, munched on some of our own provisions, and deliberated for a good ten or fifteen minutes, how we might adjust the plan. It was absolutely clear we would not summit before 3:00 PM. Our choices seemed to be; shun our very prudent turnaround time and just go for it, or turn around and head back now before it started to rain, again, making our descent down the steep, slippery, rocky trail with the enthusiastic pooch pulling us (her) down the trail, or hiking on upwards, until our 3:00 PM turnaround time, likely not making much additional progress, only to have to then negotiate our way down that much more terrain. There was thunder rumbling in the distance. Our nature, my daughter, and me, would be to “just go for it”, so it was with uncharacteristic temperament that we decided not to forge on to the summit, but to just turn at this point and head back down. But, rather than abandon our plan, completely, and call this a failure, or defeat, we altered our plan.

Scarlette Begonia

A mile or so back, along the trail, at the last discouraging mile marker we passed, at a fork in the trail, there was an arrow pointing to “Indian Falls”. We revised our plan to hike to Indian Falls rather than to the top of Mt. Marcy. It was not a “plan B”, just a wise revision to the already partially completed, original plan. To mitigate any notion that we were, in any way, wimping out, we agreed, had we both had appropriate rain gear, and had not brought the sweet, adorable, rambunctious, pooch, we would have carried on, summited Mt. Marcy, and hiked, like triumphant bad asses, back to the car, in whatever conditions Mother Nature tossed our way; rain and dark and treacherous trail.

Scarlette Begonia

Thunder rumbled, again. We bundled up or snacks, donned our daypacks once more, and began the first steps downwards. The smoking couple met us, still heading upward, we conversed with them momentarily on the likely duration of the rest of the hike, both in time and distance, the likely conditions, the changeable weather, the treacherous descent in the dark. The man wore cotton jeans and a cotton Old Navy t-shirt, his daypack was awkward, askance on his frame, large and purple and looking like it came off the “back to school” aisle at WalMart. His female companion was overweight and wore a way too tight black, Lycra, yoga outfit like you’d see worn at a mall in New Jersey. Her carefully done hair and makeup also did not make her appear to be the more skilled outdoorsperson of the duo. He seemed to seriously take into consideration the challenge that lay before them should they continue on. She, however, as we headed on down the trail, was heard to all but beg him to get to the summit. I still wonder if they made it.

Scarlette Begonia

We slowly negotiated the slippery boulders down, steeply, to the fork in the trail, and took the trail off to Indian Falls. It was a short leg of trail that quickly cleared the trees, opening to a stream that ran across impressive slabs of rock, then tumbled downward, out of view. Across the falls, with canyons between, loomed Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in New York state. It loomed so large above us, compared to our present position. I craned upward and wondered just how many more miles, how many more hours, we’d have before us if we had chosen to persist. I’ve no doubt we could’ve done it, and would’ve had a lifetime of stories to share for the accomplishment, but, in this moment, on the sunny rock, next to the rushing stream and the cascading falls, I was completely happy, completely content, in our plan. Our revised plan.

Scarlette Begonia

Our trip was not a failure, it was a complete success. We had a wonderful time carrying out our plan, and, as wisdom and acquired knowledge and facts dictated, as they always do, an alteration to the original plan. I am so grateful we didn’t plan to have a plan to fall back on, had we decided not to carry on with our plan. “If we stay out late and wake up late, instead of going to Mt. Marcy, let’s just …” I loved Indian Falls and am so grateful I got to hike there and spend time eating pistachios and sharing a beer with my daughter and the pooch. It is a day I’ll not ever forget, and a “plan B” would have deprived me, us, of that experience, of that joy, and of the lessons we learned that will help us as we devise our plan for our next attempt at Mt. Marcy! Yes, we plan to return, and to summit, and to triumph, and, had we not carried out this revised plan, we wouldn’t have as much valuable information in masterminding our next plan!

Scarlette Begonia

That’s the plan.

Insecurity Blanket

I remember a time when all I wanted was to be secure. I wanted to be certain, to the degree possible, that everything would be perfect, now, and in the future. I remember wishing for security, hoping for security, praying for security, planning for security. I’d go so far as to wish on stars, to hold my breath while driving through tunnels, and beg the universe for security. Security was the word I used to describe my resistance to change, my fear of change. Oddly, though, I wanted some change, but only on my terms, according to my overall plan for lasting security; the bigger house, the acreage, the newer car, a bigger paycheck, better performing investments, more clothes, more shoes, a bigger boat, horses, more pets. Happiness. Security.

Scarlette Begonia

And I was a prisoner. I was a slave. And I was insecure in my quest, my driving desire, for security. Things went according to plan for so very long, but I wasn’t completely happy, and I didn’t feel secure. There was always a sense of unease, uncertainty, at times, feelings of dread and doom.

As the economy worsened several years ago, my empire fell. The worst I could imagine, happened. Everything was lost. Everything material I’d worked for, for my entire adulthood, lost. The real estate, the acreage, the pets, the horses, the boat, my security, and the means to a secure future. But, in that precise moment when I knew it was all gone, I experienced a sense of peace, of calm, of, dare I say, joy. The burden had been lifted, I was no longer a prisoner, I was no longer a slave. I was, for the first time in my life, free. The shackles of security fell to the ground and I ran. I ran, I danced, I sang, my quest for security replaced with a quest for growth, adventure, uncertainty, and joy.

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Since that time, not even a decade later, I’ve left my marriage, I’ve lost a lover, I’ve lost family, I’ve lost friends, children have grown and moved far, far away. Loss is change, and change, is part of life. There is comfort in being comfortable with change, loss, and with insecurity. Life is tenuous, life is exciting, life is not meant to be secure.

Security meant comfort. Comfort meant complacency. Complacency meant a headlong spiral into disaster. Life, now, is moment to moment. Life now is edgy. Life now is adventure and risk. Life now is real. And blissfully insecure. I am happy, almost always.

Oh, sure, I still find myself fretting over potential loss, thinking about “what could go wrong”, what could change in a manner I’m not cool with. And it is only at these moments that unhappiness and discontent seep into my world.

Scarlette Begonia

There is something very liberating in losing all the stuff. I look now, with pity, at people burdened with “all the things”, and ever in anguish about not having more. I’ve found so much freedom and joy in being “stuffless”, I often go through my remaining belongings, pulling things off shelves, out of drawers, bundling them up, and sending them away to become other people’s stuff. The sense of relief, with each and every purge, is indescribable.

Yes, there are “things” I want. I want a stand up paddle board right now. Does my life, my happiness, my sense of success, of purpose, depend on it? No. I can rent one any time. And, sure, I’d love for my current relationship to endure, but this is never a certainty. Do I let the uncertainty of permanence poison the beauty and joy I have right now? God, I try not to, I’m wonderfully imperfect, but I try.

In security, we are hopeless. In insecurity, once we understand it and embrace it, we are free and joyful. Security is imperfect. Security is a myth. Insecurity is growth, it is reality, and insecurity, like many good things in life, requires practice and thought, to understand, to embrace. In a blanket of insecurity, we find ourselves, our true selves; our passion, our joy, life. In a blanket of insecurity, we learn to take risks, to accept the present moment, each as they come, with gratitude. We learn to forsake the past, gleaning only the lessons we’ve learned along the way. We learn not to fret about the future, what will come will be right, in that future moment. We are not in control, and we lose control in our attempt. In insecurity, we have the chance to learn to be youthful, adventurous, and joyful. We learn to actually live.

Scarlette Begonia

So, like a small child with a ratty, old, blanket, required for comfort, for sleep, for security, there comes a time where it must be tossed into the trash. It must be discarded. When we embrace insecurity, blanket ourselves, instead, with the joy and opportunity in insecurity, we learn to live and we find joy.

Independence Day

Happy fifth of July! Yesterday, we celebrated Independence Day. We drank, we ate, we wore red, white, and blue, perhaps we took in a parade, maybe we watched things explode in the sky, either in person or from the overstuffed comfort of our recliners. That’s what Independence Day is all about. Or is it? From the Facebook posts I perused, from the handful of usual and frequent posters amidst my hundreds of Facebook friends, they all seemed to echo the same exact message as Veterans Day and Memorial Day. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to those who serve, past, present, and future. Very. But what, really, is Independence Day about?  
 I always thought Independence Day was a day to remember the Declaration of Independence, a document declaring our intent, as a colony, to, by whatever means necessary, secure our independence from the tyranny and taxation of England. Tyranny and taxation. Independence. Freedom from tyranny and taxation imposed on us without fair representation. Hot tub time machine Batman! Déjà vu! While a worthy topic, that isn’t what I’m discussing today. I just couldn’t resist the temptation to provoke a little thought. Let’s be more mindful of those days off from work, the no bills in the mailbox day, those days when mobile deposits don’t post to our bank account. Those days are each unique in their dedication and purpose. Oh dear, friends are going to say I rant.  Let’s talk about independence. In general. I feel, as a nation of people, we aren’t as independent as we once intended, as we once fought for. But, as a person, I feel fairly independent. Free. Sure I have responsibilities and obligations, we all do. The absence of responsibilities and obligations does not negate our freedom, our independence. In fact, the more independent we are, often, I think, the more relied upon we become by those near us who have not achieved, or who have lost, their independence.

  

 I was independent enough to choose, for the time being, to move back to my childhood home to assist my elderly, widowed mother. She is less independent than she once was. She depends on me to do certain things she isn’t able to do; drive her to out of town doctor appointments, fill her car with gas, deal with her cable television service provider every time an error message pops up, and sundry other things.

My mom always encouraged me to be independent, and I tried, and though it took a few hard life lessons to really sink in, at the tender age of (almost) fifty-two, I think I’ve almost got it. To my mom, being independent, in the vein she meant, was to, as a woman, especially, always be able to support myself with my own earnings, regardless of marital status or a spouse’s wealth or earning ability. I eventually got that. I’m an independent wage earner. And in the dissolution of my one and only marriage, ironically, the only point of contention is how much spousal support I’ll have to pay to my husband! And for what duration. I know, right?

I taught my own children to be independent, in the same respect my mom taught me. I think they got it before at a much younger age than I, their life hard lessons being entwined with mine. I also tried to instill in my children a facet of independence I hold valuable; the ability to go and do and experience, if necessary, alone. Independently.

This type of independence is something I developed a great value for by observing, among so many others, my own mother, in her lack of independence. I don’t fault her, or anyone, for this lacking, it simply saddens me. How many hundreds of times I witnessed my mom, friends, and acquaintances lament missing out on something important or exciting to them because no one would go with them. To miss out on experiences, events, adventure, pieces of life, because of a fear or trepidation of going and doing alone breaks my heart. For this reason, I tried to instill this type of independence in my children’s core values. I sent them to camp “alone”, without friends, and encouraged them to make new friends. This may seem like child abuse in today’s world, but I felt it was an important skill for them to master, and the earlier the better. Acting alone, independently, is a reality in life. We go to job interviews alone. We can’t bring a buddy along for moral support. The ability to walk singularly and confidently into a room with a stranger and come across as the best candidate is not something that comes naturally to everyone. Myself included.

I suffered from two things as a child on into my early adulthood; shyness and being an only child. I learned from both afflictions, and I overcame both. As a shy person, acting alone can be a challenge, but, as an only child, being alone is a reality. I learned, as a child, to work up the courage to call my friends on a rainy day to see if anyone could come over and play. If no one was available, I was left to play alone. From this I learned to enjoy my own company, to cherish some solitude, and to play four different players in a solo game of Monopoly. Right hand, left hand, right foot, left foot. Right hand was always banker.

  
I am an extremely active person, I like to go, I like to do. I like to experience. I don’t like to sit still long. I can’t stand the thought of life passing me by, of time slipping away, without some experience attached to it. Funny to live in the same neighborhood near some of the same folks I used to call up to come play Monopoly with me on a rainy Saturday. Now, like then, they are more often unavailable than not. Many of our interests differ, our stations in life are different, we all have many who depend on us, which means I either need to act alone or miss out. Missing out is not an option.  

I run alone, except on Saturdays, when I run with a running club. But I joined the running club alone, I didn’t require the security of a friend to join with me. I will happily go to art galleries, museums, parks, national monuments, wine tasting, parties, restaurants, outings, traveling, and to events, alone, if necessary. I hike alone as much as possible. I kayak alone, usually. I camp alone, occasionally, I have even backpacked alone. If I’d waited for someone to go with me, I’d still be waiting! And I’d have missed out on so much. What an indescribably sad thought!

  

Sometimes I wonder if I’m alone, not just running, hiking, and kayaking, but in my fierce independence. Especially for a girl. Yesterday, as I drove away from the house, kayak atop my car, still dripping from the day’s solo adventure, a neighbor from across the street, you know, the one who speaks to everyone, who lies in wait for someone to exit their house, their car, then chats for an awfully long time. I’m not proud to say I’ve mastered avoidance. Until now, with him practically stepping in front of my moving vehicle, waving at me to stop. I rolled down my window, turned down the Jeremy Loops song I had blaring and greeted him. A couple of week s ago, the UPS driver knocked on our door while I wasn’t home. Mom answered. He had a large parcel, a kayak, for the neighbor next door. Mom couldn’t accept it because she isn’t very mobile and would have a hard time a) delivering the kayak to the neighbor upon their return and b) walking next door to tell them they had a delivery awaiting their retrieval. We both assumed the kayak was for the man of the household, with whom I’ve swapped stories of hikes and backpacking treks. But, the neighbor from across the street now leaned in my window and told me the mother in law had bought a kayak and wanted to go on solo paddling excursions, but couldn’t figure out how to fix the kayak to the newly installed roof rack on her Prius. My heart warmed, a kindred spirit, older than I. I told the neighbor I’d be happy to offer my assistance, next we met out in the front yard. 

I value and cherish independence, as a nation of people, from tyranny and taxation without representation, as a wage earner, but most of all, as a student of happiness, a liver of life! My life, the way I want it, and my happiness, depend on it! Go. Do. Be. Don’t wait. Make your declaration. Make every day independence day.

What’s the Difference?

I know. It’s been a while. Right?  I’ve been busy.

An Effort to Evolve

I’ve been sliding down a slippery slope of deteriorating self-respect and climbing the mountain of self-destructive behaviors. I’ve been having fun, and, at the same time, feeling like shit in every imaginable way.

An Effort to Evolve

I’ve been overindulging and, in the process, undermining everything I’ve worked for and everything I value and believe in, leaving me to question, all over again, my self-worth.

An Effort to Evolve

Why do I feel so out of sorts, why do I feel so negative, why am I having feelings of self-loathing? I catch myself, several times a day, at every turn, thinking, or saying out loud, “I really don’t care.” What’s the difference, anyway?

An Effort to Evolve

  Perhaps I’m being a little dramatic. Things aren’t that bad. I’m just heading down the wrong  path.

An Effort to Evolve

I went hiking a week or so ago with a friend I met in Alaska. She recently relocated to Northern California, a couple of hours away from where I live, and we’ve been trying to stay connected. She has similar interests in hiking and outdoor pursuits as I do. Other than my kids, there are only a handful of folks I know who are willing to hike as hard, as long, or as far as I. She is one in that very small handful. She is also twenty years younger than I. As I often say, “there just aren’t any young people my age.”

An Effort to Evolve

We hiked about twelve miles on a very narrow, single track trail, in the hills east of the town of Calistoga, overlooking the Napa Valley. We encountered four snakes in our travels. I was in the lead and, being a Northern California girl, I am well-schooled in keeping an eye on the trail immediately in front of me, watching the ground exactly where my foot is going to land.

An Effort to Evolve

There are no snakes in Alaska, and my hiking partner’s only experience with snakes, while hiking, was in Peru, where the snakes tend to be overhead, dangling from tree limbs. Snakes on the path that resemble sticks across the trail were a whole new experience for her. We were both glad I lead. Three of the four snakes I spotted, politely exited the trail as we approached. The first we encountered, though, stubbornly stretched across the trail, with a steep incline to our right, masked in poison oak, and a steep drop to our left, also festooned with poison oak. I tossed a couple of pebbles at the snake, but it didn’t take the hint. We considered climbing up and around, or scrambling down and around, enduring the wrath of the rash over the possibility of a snakebite.  Earlier in the week, on a solo hike, I encountered a snake that behaved in much the same manner. I ended up backing up a distance, sprinting and doing an Olympic long jump over the snake. Today’s trail really didn’t allow for such athletic feats. Ultimately, I found a stick nearby and gently lifted the snake off the trail, tossing the stick and the snake down into the ravine a few yards so we could safely pass.

An Effort to Evolve

Other than snakes, the only other trouble we encountered was losing the trail back to the car. After six hours and nearly ten miles of rugged trail, and having not eaten since breakfast, as late afternoon began to turn to evening, we found ourselves on a trail that just seemed to be heading in the wrong general direction. We retraced our steps a couple of times, tried to pick up an alternate trail, and reasoned that, perhaps, we were on the right path afterall, unfamiliar though it seemed. We’d encountered very few hikers during the course of our day, and none were about presently. As we retraced our steps a few times over, we remained calm, applied some reason, a bit of logic, and, surveyed the hills that rose around us several different times. There was a scar on a hill that appeared to either be the result of water runoff and erosion, or an unusually steep trail. We’d discounted the scarred patch of earth earlier, as it, too, seemed to head in a direction we weren’t entirely comfortable with, but, we decided to reconsider, as other options didn’t manifest. Upon reaching the scarred patch of earth, we could see it was littered with footprints, far more than the other trails we’d been picking up in our attempt to get back to the car. We followed the steep path up the hill, leaving, now, our own set of footprints, and, after cresting the hill found ourselves on the familiar, wide path leading directly back to the parking lot.

An Effort to Evolve

It was the wisdom we’d acquired through experience, and our ability to remain calm, apply reason, and logic, and our willingness to try several options, admit our error, and try more options, that ultimately led to our success. We tried different things and found the right path.

An Effort to Evolve

So, I recognize now, that I’m headed down the wrong path, metaphorically. The path is easy, like a straight, flat, paved sidewalk, but I know, it will lead to misery. I could stumble along, endlessly, effortlessly, still moving along, but really, just going through the motions. Or, I could stop, remain calm, apply some reason and logic, and change my course to reach greater heights, majestic views, journeying impressive distances and experiencing challenges, triumphs and adventures that few realize. This is the path I’ve always desired, this is the path I’ve travelled before. Before taking a wrong turn. I’m choosing the narrow, steep, serpent strewn trail less traveled, now, over the straight, paved, sidewalk. The adventure begins. The adventure continues. Today. If you want things to be different, then things have to be different.

That’s the difference.

That’s Life

You’re a baby and you see toddlers walking and riding trikes and playing; you want to be a toddler.

You’re a toddler and you see the preschoolers going to preschool, they have friends and play games and have fun; you want to be a preschooler.

You’re a preschooler and you see the kindergartners going to “real school” and they’re so big and get to learn so many things and play on a bigger playground; you want to be a kindergartner.

You’re a kindergartner and you see the grade school kids go into classrooms and learn to read and do math and stay at school with their friends all day; you want to be a grade schooler.

You’re a grade schooler and you see the middle school kids. They’re so cool and fashionable and worldly; you can’t wait to be a middle school kid.

Middle school is sheer hell; you can’t wait to get to high school.

High school is much harder than it looked and you have to deal with adult emotions and relationships and responsibility before you’re really emotionally ready for it. You just want to grow up enough to deal with all this. College will be better.

That's life.
That’s life.

College is stressful, you feel a little unprepared and overwhelmed, it isn’t as easy as you thought it would be, and you still don’t feel emotionally ready to deal with adulthood plus the workload of college, and now there’s money to worry about, too. Graduation and a career job will be so much better.

Finding a job is really hard. Finding a job in your field of study is even harder. The student loans are due, friendships are harder to maintain now that everyone is grown up and working full time, trying to pay off student loans and make their way. Some friends are married already, some have pets they treat like children, some have children they treat like pets. How are we ready for all this? Your relationship is serious, but is it real? Is it right? Is this the one? How do you know?

You’re sick to death of your job, all you want is a new boss, new responsibilities, something interesting, some growth, some challenge. Your relationship has endured and even taken on a life of its own. It isn’t joyful but it seems to work, like the path of least resistance, it isn’t “bad”, so don’t try to fix it, or break it. If only you didn’t have so many personal and financial responsibilities, you’d quit all of it and go backpacking across Europe for a year. Or two. Friends have done that, they survived, why can’t you just do something crazy like that?

Seems like marriage is the next logical step. The career is going well, mind numbingly well. There seems to be only enough time to work, eat dinner, maybe fall asleep in front of TV and go to bed for a brief spell before starting all over again tomorrow morning. It’ll all pay off if you work harder, it’s all about making progress.

Married now. Got that to pay off, too. Career continues to grow, oh so slowly, like watching grass grow, but in super slow-mo. You thought you’d be so much further ahead, you thought this was what you were working for all this time, but everything is only partially paid for. We want kids, now, while we’re young enough.

Baby is here, so blessed! It’ll be cool when baby is a toddler and can do more than giggle, coo, eat and poo. Blessed, though, so blessed. Going to work is hard. You’re really, really tired. Blessed, but tired.

Another baby. The first is now a toddler, thought we’d better have another before the first was so old. Makes sense to get the diaper and drooling thing over, once and for all, as quickly as possible. Can you imagine how terrific life will be when they’re both put of diapers? Still feel blessed. More exhausted now. Work is just there, you’ll get the career back on track once your regain consciousness, again.

One in preschool one in school, two time schedules, two drops offs, two pickups. You wonder how you accomplish work, commute, drop off, pick up, dinner, TV, and sleep all in a 24-hour recurring nightmare. You live for weekends, except they end up being an endless parade of Costco trips, themed birthday parties and yard work. You miss college. You miss your friends, you miss the person you married, you miss you and the only friends you ever see are parents of other kids at cheesy themed birthday parties. You don’t ever want to eat store bought birthday cake frosting again. Or cake, for that matter. It’ll be better when both kids are grade schoolers.

Soccer and T-ball and karate and cheerleading and softball and swim lessons and math tutors. Your childhood was so simple by comparison, you’d really like to go back! You drive a big, unstylish car and it’s full of Goldfish and Cheerios and empty, sticky Capri Sun pouches, which, by the way, you’re out of, time to go to Costco again. Is it Sunday already? How did that happen? It’ll be easier when the kids are in high school and can drive themselves.

How do you parent teenagers? They’re so difficult to deal with, moody, angry, sullen, always right, always questioning authority. You love them, of course, but they’re really so much needier than you ever remember being, so much needier than they realize they are, so vulnerable, really. You thought it was hard when you were a teenager, this is a whole different world. Life was simple then, God, you wish you could go back.

College applications, SAT scores and unlikely scholarships. How did that happen? You groomed those kids in every sport, knowing a full ride, athletic scholarship was the only way college for two would be anywhere near affordable. There is the meager college savings, but even that pales compared to what’s necessary. It all came so fast. It seems like you “just” paid off your student loans, and now there will be a whole new batch of student loans. How can an education possibly cost so much, and is it really worth it? How far have you gotten with your college education, not as far as you hoped. But once the nest is empty you can focus on your career again, make some real headway in the decade or so before retirement.

The nest is empty. This is weird. You don’t even know your spouse, it’s like living with a stranger, like starting all over, in an arranged marriage. You miss the kids, you wish they were little again, those were the good days. Your old friends are going through the same thing, the ones that are still alive, God, and some are so ill, and others are alone, divorced, addicted. Life is so precious, it’s hard, so hard, but fleeting and precious. You feel incredibly mortal. Incredibly vulnerable, more helpless at times than when you were an infant. It’ll get better when retirement comes, the just reward for the hard-working, prudent average American.

Skydiving! You felt alive for ten minutes. You can’t believe you just squandered three hundred bucks.

The resort vacations are disappointing; paying all that money to just sit around and drink, in a slightly nicer climate. You can sit and drink at home and get better TV. What a waste of time and money, but it’s what all your friends are doing. You still wonder about backpacking across Europe. Do people your age do that? Do you care? You wish you had the guts.

The gold watch, no pension, an anemic portfolio, and a retirement account that doesn’t even cover the debt amassed from the kids’ college. Volatility of real estate values and skyrocketing healthcare keeps you awake at night, there’s a pill for that. The copays on your prescriptions alone are staggering. You worry about the kids, they are struggling getting their careers off the ground, it is so competitive out there, and with a young family, how do they find the time, money and energy for all that. It was so much simpler when you were raising your family. The worry is suffocating, day and night. There’s a pill for that, too. It’ll be better when the grandkids are older.

The grandkids are headed for college. How do the kids afford all that? The house, the car, the bills, spousal support, therapy, and their lifestyle? You don’t understand their fast-paced, fractured, fragmented and technology dependent lives. All of their friendships and business dealing seem to be contained in a small device permanently clutched in their hand, persistently distracting them from conversation, from the moment at hand. You look into their eyes and catch a glimpse of sheer terror, theirs? Or was it a reflection of your own expression? You feel more mortal than ever, but you wonder how they’ll get by without you. You long for simpler times, you think about the past, when you aren’t worrying about the future. You wish you were a child again. Life was so simple. Where did your life go?

Or did life ever even happen? You were waiting for it to begin for half your life, and mourning its passage the second half. Ah, but, is that life? Or is it not? There is still time, though you never know how much. Grab that backpack and a Eurailpass, quick, before you talk yourself out of it! Life begins with the next breath! You only need to learn that, and breathe.

Life is in each moment, each precious, each unique. Every moment is a new beginning, if you only wish it to be. The moment you decide to live, to embrace that moment, you shall. Live your life. Now.

 

 

Ahhhh-laska

I am back from the wilds of Alaska. Well, maybe not the wildest part of Alaska, but, yes, the part with no Internet, no cellular service, and, at times, no electricity. Right, I didn’t make it to Barnes & Noble. So I have much to say, a week in Alaska, who wouldn’t have a lot to say?

It is no surprise that I love Alaska. I mean, I love California, all of the Californias; the endless coastline, some sandy, some too rugged to traverse, the big cities, the small, historic towns, the big trees, the agriculture, the history and the heritage, the big mountains, the rolling foothills, the winding rivers. Mostly, I love the Sierras. But I love Alaska, what I’ve seen of it, thus far, a great deal, and, yes, in some ways, more than Cali. And, yes, in some ways, I love Cali a bit more, but, increasingly, that tends to be related only to quality shopping venues and wine.

They call Alaska “the last frontier”, and while it is certainly my latest frontier, I don’t intend for it to be my last. It will be a lasting frontier, for me, though. I really can’t see, at this point in time, no matter what happens in my life, on any level, not having Alaska in my life on a regular, if not quasi-permanent basis. I am in awe.

But, it is no surprise that I love Alaska. I’m sure you must have some memory from childhood, some very formative memory, that, though random and seemingly insignificant, has, in some way influenced your life and even, maybe, directed the course of it. Certainly you must have. We all must have. For me? It was a Hamm’s beer sign. Circa late 1960’s or early 1970’s, I don’t know for certain, that’s when I saw the sign, it could’ve been an “old” sign at that point in time. But, it was a sign, a sign that guided me into certain pathways and journeys, not directly, but through the subtle and lasting impression, and the sheer, somewhat cheesy, backlit beauty of the scrolling river scene, depicting waterfalls, a serene river, wildlife, a campsite. As Liz Lemon would say, “I want to go to there.”

There was an old school scrolling Hamm’s Beer sign in “Food City” in Napa, at the intersection of Jefferson and Old Sonoma Road, for any old time “Napkins” out there. My mom would push the clackity-wheeled grocery cart through the store, filling it with boxes, packaged cake mixes and Jell-O, and cans upon cans of faded, waxy vegetables and condensed soup, I was a particular fan of “Campbell’s Manhandler’s Beef and Barley”. I was pretty sure that’s what was in the kettle, over the fire in the campsite in the Hamm’s Beer sign. Mom would pick up a couple of items from the produce and meat aisles, iceberg lettuce and ground beef, most likely. While she shopped for the week’s “loss leaders”, I stood at the front of the store, mesmerized by the sign. I am one hundred percent certain that is where my love of the outdoors, of the wilderness, camping, rivers and adventures was first ignited. I know, Hamm’s Beer wasn’t from Alaska, but the scene in that sign could’ve been Wisconsin, or California, New York, or Alaska. It didn’t matter, I wanted to go to there.

My parents certainly were not “outdoorsy”. Until I was four years old, we lived in Oakland and I only remember gray fog, gray streets, gray highways, gray factories and the gray water of the San Francisco Bay circa mid-1960’s. They never camped in tents or hiked, canoed or skied.  Seeing nature was done from the comfort of a large sedan on a Sunday afternoon, with, maybe, a picnic, if the weather permitted. A trip to “the wilderness” was staying at a friends’ cabin in Tahoe. The adults sat around inside the dark cabin, day and night, having cocktails, smoking and playing cards. The kids took to the woods, followed a stream, out to the lake. Fish were caught by the boys, and some fish never made it back to the cabin, on a dare, they were eaten raw and whole, by the boys, before we even knew what sushi was. The fish that did make it back to the cabin were never seen again. I’m really not sure what ever happened to those beautiful rainbow trout, we certainly never ate them, cooked, or raw. We had the contents of boxes, packages, and cans, accompanied by Jell-O molds, on a bed of iceberg lettuce, as a garnish. I’m sure there was ground beef in the meal, somewhere, too, but certainly no freshly caught rainbow trout out of the pristine, blue waters of Lake Tahoe.

I’m certain it was because of the Hamm’s Beer sign at Food City at the intersection of Jefferson and Old Sonoma Road in Napa that I begged my mom to let me join Girl Scouts. I wanted to camp and fish and live in a tent by that river, maybe see that bear. Beer really wasn’t on my mind, yet, I was a few years too young. And, ironically, my first beer was with those very girls, from Girl Scouts, sleeping outside, in sleeping bags, under the stars. On my parents’ deck. Sssshhh. But, perhaps that sign has had another influence in my life; my love for beer, especially if it were to be enjoyed alongside a woodland river. Not Hamm’s, of course, for like my love of the outdoors, my taste for beer has developed into a lust for more.

I had the best Girl Scout leaders in the world, and, again, I’m sure that is another formative turn in my life; that I had Girl Scout leaders that hiked and camped, in addition to all the crafty stuff. By the time I was big enough and old enough to be a Girl Scout leader, myself, most of the other Girl Scout leaders wouldn’t fathom setting foot outdoors for an activity. My troop did. Because of the influence of my adventurous Girl Scout leaders as a girl, and, because of the Hamm’s Beer sign at Food City at the intersection of Jefferson and Old Sonoma Road in Napa, I became the Girl Scout leader that took the troop hiking, backpacking, snow boarding, rock climbing and rappelling.

So off to Alaska I’ve been. Again. And there will be another again. And another. There is much to see, there is much to do, there is much to experience. And though I still have many corners of California I intend to explore, I want to see all of Alaska. Too. And other frontiers, as well.

This trip started with the idea of a couple of new adventures.

Our plans for a July trip to “fish camp” on the Yukon River to fish for “silvers” were dashed due to the fact that there weren’t enough salmon in the river. So, in July, instead of gill netting for silvers on the Yukon River, we dip netted for reds on the Copper. I didn’t mind the change in plans! I was thrilled! The annual fall run of “chum” salmon on the Yukon gave us another opportunity for “fish camp” and more salmon. Like the Hamm’s bear, I could eat salmon pretty much every day, maybe not every meal, but I have been known to. No easy task keeping this girl supplied with salmon, and, I will resort to, dare I say, frozen fish from Whole Foods and maybe even, shudder, Target, if I must. Desperate times, desperate times.

I’ve seen a few parts of Alaska in our travels; Anchorage, Fairbanks and surrounds, certainly, Coldfoot, Prudhoe Bay, Denali, a little bit, and Chitinia. We were hoping for a “pilot car” trip from Valdez to Fairbanks, taking an extra day to see the town of Valdez before reporting for duty. With only a week of vacation left for the year, this was it, and a trip to the Yukon for a couple of days and another to Valdez for a couple of days, would pretty much round out the plans for the week.

There were also hopeful plans for a wine-tasting party, which is a more “winter-time” tradition in the “neighborhood”, when it’s too dark to do much else. But, no one would object to a wine-tasting party earlier in the year, certainly. I, as you know, have been buying up wine, week in and week out, winery after winery, tasting room after tasting room, and then, I very carefully selected the six (of twenty seven) bottles I’d take, to share with friends and neighbors. It is, I assure you, no easy task to lug two suitcases and a half a case of wine, single handedly, from the trunk of my car in the economy parking lot to the bus, from the bus to the terminal, and finally, to the agent to be checked, at whatever unholy hour of the morning it was. Feeling like a mother parting with her infant at day care, that first day back to work, I handed over the specialty box I bought to cradle my wine from Cali to AK, even in the hands of the Samsonite gorillas.

But, as with life, even a week in a life, plans change. And, as with life, when plans change, there should never be sorrow or anger, disappointment or despair. Plans change. That’s life. Plans change. That’s vacation. Plans change. Though we never made it to “fish camp”, or to Valdez, and, well, we drank all the wine ourselves, it was a splendid, fabulous, wonderful and never to be forgotten week. Not because of the wine, and, yes, even with the all that wine, nothing will ever be forgotten. Being able to adapt the plan and still enjoy every single moment is what vacation needs to be. Being able to adapt the plan and still enjoy time together is what a relationship needs to be. Being able to adapt the plan and still evolve in life is what success in life is all about. Practice, every day, adapting for alterations to your plan, because, being a master at that is what will carry you through life, much like the canoe, on the cheesy, backlit scrolling river on the Hamm’s Beer sign at Food City at the intersection of Jefferson and Old Sonoma Road in Napa.

 

Aaaahhh-laska!
Aaaahhh-laska!
Enjoying V. Sattui wine from the Napa Valley, in Aaaahhh-laska!
Enjoying V. Sattui wine from the Napa Valley, in Aaaahhh-laska!

 

Aaaahhh-laska!
Aaaahhh-laska!

Scarlett’s Letter July 12, 2013

Today, near Fairbanks, the weather was perfect. Perfect! It was warm and sunny with no clouds in sight and no smoke from the nearby fires. And since we planned on a canoe trip down the Upper Chatanika River, perfect was just perfect!

We met the neighbor up the road with her kayak and the neighbor’s down in the valley with their two canoes. There were five of us in all, our friends, a mother/son team, with the son working on requirements for his Canoeing Boy Scout merit badge in their canoe, me and my man in the second, borrowed canoe, and our friend with her kayak. We were kindly chauffeured to our launch spot and set off, armed with snacks, sandwiches, the best gluten-free cookies ever, mosquito dope, fishing gear, extra clothes, various cameras, all with near dead batteries and a firearm. Just in case, a necessary precaution in, well, just about anywhere, outdoors, in Alaska.

I’ve been on this river a few times before, in an airboat, and I kind of had the gist of it, but, still, I will admit, I was a little nervous. I’ve been a passenger and in participated in no way in the navigation. I just hung on and smiled. I haven’t canoed in quite some time, and have usually canoed on a lake, or “flat water” as it is often called. Rivers can be tricky, and even rivers you are familiar with can change, literally, overnight. One new tree fall can make a lazy stretch a much more hazardous challenge. I remember one of the few times I did canoe on a river, the Russian River in Sonoma County (Northern California), back in college, in an aluminum canoe, we got sideways in the current and sort bend the canoe around a bridge pier. We straightened it out as best we could, and, believe it or not, no questions were asked when we returned it to the rental company. So. Yah. A tad nervous. I knew I was in good hands, with much experience, both with the river and with canoeing in general. So, I just paddled as instructed. And smiled.

Originally, this was going to be a “ladies” trip, but not all the ladies could attend, so we invited the guys. And as soon as we encountered our first tricky tree snag, which required some thought, planning, contemplation and strength, we were glad we had the men with us, for more than just their good looks and excellent company! There were a few passages we had to stop and walk and figure out whether to proceed by land or by “sea”. We fished along the way, catching an Artic Grayling with every few casts, most of which were released.

As we made our way down this scenic river, we passed an upended tree root in the middle of the river. Caught in the snag was a fishing rod, the first canoe spotted it and yelled back to our canoe to try to grab it. I was in the front, so as we sidled up along the snag, I grabbed the fishing pole. The top half detached from the bottom half, so I had half. My man grabbed the bottom half! And in the time it took to negotiate around the next few bends in the river, I had the twigs, dirt and other river matter removed from the reel, the rod reassemble almost correctly, and another functioning pole for us to use! Finders keepers!! The unofficial fishing derby competition intensified. And at the rate we were fishing, it was going to be a very long canoe trip!

We pulled the canoes and kayak ashore at one point and enjoyed the food we all brought, potluck style. I made a salmon spread, for the first time ever, with only a little supervision and guidance. I used one of the jars of salmon we canned just a couple of days earlier, added some salt and pepper and some mayo and sweet relish. It was really, really good, bones and skin and all! Now, I get it with the whole jarred salmon thing. I’d still prefer fresh, of course, or a frozen filet, but the jarred salmon has many, many options for deliciousness!

I’d brought my “helmet cam” and we fastened it to our canoe, turned it on, and anticipated the potential of eight hours of digital filming capacity! I also had my “still “camera with me, which has both still and video functionality, and I let our friend borrow it to take some pictures as “evidence”, if needed, for the canoeing merit badge. Sadly, though, and totally my oversight, the batteries died after a couple of shots. After our lunch on the rocky banks, we took again to the river. Our river. We were the only people on this part of the river, all day long, until we arrived at our destination. Bliss.

We paddled and fished, fished and paddled, trouble shooting “sweepers” (fallen trees or branches that, if passed under, could sweep you out of your canoe) and snags. We ported the canoes and kayak a time or two, the kayak being far more maneuverable than the canoes. At one point, focusing a bit more on fishing than paddling, the two of us fell a bit behind the other canoe and kayak. My man suggested we slow up and possibly walk around the fallen tree across that portion of the river. We watched as the other canoe headed through and they appeared to make it just fine. We paddled forward in pursuit. Then I noticed our friend in the kayak quickly beach her vessel and begin to run. I thought to myself, “she just went to ‘study nature’, as we used to call it in Girl Scouts”, so I couldn’t imagine she had to find another private spot behind a tree. As we drew closer, I saw the occupants of the other canoe, drenched, dragging their canoe towards the shore. The young man had firm grasp of one paddle and his mom was swiftly off and into the river after the other, which, thankfully, she retrieved, lest we have a canoe up the river without a paddle! Everything was soaked, but accounted for, except their fishing pole. Darn. You win some, you lose some. We’d won one, and now we’d lost one. We gave them our extra, our newly refurbished and almost as good as new, rod and reel. Fishing poles be dammed, thank goodness everyone was okay! And we set off. I decided, at this point, to tuck my helmet camera safely into a Ziploc buried deep into my daypack strapped securely to the canoe. I couldn’t wait to see the footage! Too bad the batteries were dead and there was nothing to view once I got home and tried to upload. Oh well. I was able to revive the other camera enough for a couple of photo op shots before the batteries decided they were, once again, dead. Or maybe just extremely sleepy.

The rest of the trip went without incident, a few fish caught, a couple released, a couple saved for later consumption. We reached our destination, the bridge crossing the Upper Chatanika at the Elliott Highway and called for our chauffeur. And with our thirty-three mile trek behind us, in five short hours, we made our way back home.

And, in reflection, all I can say is that I am so thankful; I am thankful for the unique opportunity to be able to share experiences like this with so many truly, wonderful people, in such a magical and beautiful place, with so much laughter and friendship, love and fun. I am thankful, most of all, that we all made the trip safely, of course, and look forward to many returns. I’m a lucky girl. Blessings counted!

 

Getting ready to go.
Getting ready to go.
Potluck lunch of the banks of the Upper Chatanika River
Potluck lunch of the banks of the Upper Chatanika River

An Effort to Evolve

 

 

Adventures with friends, can't beat it!
Adventures with friends, can’t beat it!

 

Scarlett’s Letter July 9, 2013

When first planning this trip to Alaska, our hope was to be able to go gillnetting for king salmon on the Yukon River. We planned dates around the likely opportunity for this adventure. As an Alaska resident, my man is entitled a specific number of different species of fish as “subsistence”. I’m not a resident, and am not so entitled, and fishing for salmon for me may either not be allowed, may be catch and release only, or prohibited altogether, depending on numbers. Last year, for example, the kind salmon numbers were lower than usual, and as they come up the Yukon from the sea, Canada is “guaranteed” a certain number of fish, so Alaska has to make sure there are adequate numbers of fish to meet that obligation and provide for healthy spawning for future generations of fish. Last year, the king salmon fishing on the Yukon was brief and severely limited. This year ended up being the same. Hopefully, next year, the numbers will rebound.

For many years, my man has gone to “fish camp”, a place along the Yukon where there are “cabins” and other somewhat primitive resources for subsistence fisher people. I planned to go to “fish camp” on the airboat with my man and a former neighbor of his, a dear elderly man of ailing health. The elderly man has only been “allowed” to go to “fish camp” in recent years because his wife trusted he would be in good hands with my man. This year, sadly, the elderly man’s health has deteriorated to the point where he would not have been able to go to “fish camp” at all.

On top of all of this, the regulations had changed as to the size of gill net that could be used. Again. Apparently, seven-inch nets (I presume that means the openings in the net) were the standard for all of time. In recent years, the fish and game folks changed that regulation to six and a half inch nets and provided a monetary allowance for retrofitting existing nets, which my man took advantage of. Now, the regulation has been changed to six-inch nets and there isn’t an allowance available for retrofitting existing nets. I have never seen a gill net, but they are quite expensive and there really isn’t an option for buying a new, compliant net this year.

With the freezer fast being depleted of salmon, and “fish camp” not being likely, we had to come up with another solution to stock up for another year. There were red salmon, but fishing for them, too, was being carefully monitored and controlled. With a seven hour drive, each way, 80 gallons of gas and likely more than twenty four hours of driving, fishing and driving involved, there was much to consider. The limit was fifteen for subsistence, and this early in the season there would be only “wild” fish, being somewhat smaller in size than the hatchery fish. Economically, this really wasn’t a practical means for restocking the freezer. Eighty gallons of gas at four dollars a gallon, so, three hundred twenty dollars just in gas, for fifteen smaller fish, that’s twenty-one bucks a fish. I can do better at Whole Foods three thousand miles away.

This morning, though, with a quick call in to the fish and game hotline, the limit had been increased for the next twenty-four hours to twenty-five. Now we’re talking twelve dollars and eighty cents per fish. Now we’re talking! Now the math works out a bit better. We mobilized quickly. A fast shower, gathered gear, packed extra clothes, I slapped some sandwiches together, we grabbed some beer and some fruit, put the “sleeper” on the old blue Ford truck, gassed up, grabbed a couple more sandwiches at the gas station and headed south to the Copper River at Chitina.

The road trip southward was punctuated with rain, which, according to the weather resources, was not supposed to be happening. We would be arriving at Chitinia late in the evening and would likely “dip net” all night, rain or not, until the limit was caught, and then, depending on time and the level of fatigue, we’d head home or sleep over, or head home and sleep along the way. Rain was not going to be pleasant while dip netting. And, truthfully, I had not included in my suitcase what I would consider appropriate attire for a rainy adventure. I have piles of “technical clothing” for virtually every outdoor situation, but, I just didn’t have room in my two suitcases for such practicalities. I had shoes. And tank tops. And glittery ass jeans.  So I packed layers. Layers and layers of really cute, not very warm, jewel, glitter and sequins bedazzled clothes. There must be some sort of redeeming benefit to jewels, glitter and sequins in outdoor survival situations, I just can’t find any sources on Google. Yet. As a non-resident, again, I would not be able to actually dip net for fish, but I would be assisting in many ways, and true to my nature, though I may act and appear as a girly girl, high maintenance city girl, I am not. So not.

After many hours, we approached Chitina, and though somewhat cloudy and threatening and very windy, it was not raining. We planned to, as my man usually had in the past, hike up O’Brien Creek a ways and find a back eddy to dip from. As we arrived at the confluence of O’Brien Creek and the Copper River we saw, or I saw a magnificent sight, something so memorable and awe inspiring I can barely describe it befitting it’s glory; a purple and lime green espresso stand lashed to a skid, there to capitalize on the fisher people, or their girly girl, high maintenance city girl girlfriends. I was delighted, as I’d made no provision for morning caffeine other than the one Excedrin left in the bottle I carry in my purse at all times for just such emergencies. How I was down to just one, likely expired Excedrin, I don’t know. Measures that must be taken, just in case I am forced to survive a coffee-less morning. Second, we were met by folks who said “everyone” was catching their limit within a few short hours right there at the confluence. We looked at the shore of the Copper River, just beyond the parking lot and the espresso stand, and sure enough, there were multiple people dip-netting there. And they were hauling fish in.

While adventure is wonderful, and I probably had a compromised experience by not going up the creek, our mission was fishin’, and in the least amount of time and with the least amount of effort possible. Hopefully before it rained again. So, we walked the short walk to the shore at the edge of the parking lot, claimed our spot along the bank, and my man started dipping the net into the river. The wind was strong and the muddy current was treacherous, the river was swift and wide. One misstep and you’d be swept away and likely drown, or die of hypothermia before you washed ashore again miles downstream. The net goes in, is swept along the shore, and drawn out, fighting the force of the river with every dip. If a salmon is swimming upstream and enters the net, the net has to be hauled in, against the current and now laden with a good-sized fish. This was not easy work. Neither is finding a parking spot at Whole Foods, but this is a whole new level of effort for good salmon.

It wasn’t long before one fish was netted, and with that, a lesson, for me, in how to behead, detail and gut the fish, wash it, bag it and put it on ice. I knew I’d be involved in the process, I guess I was only a little startled, at first, with just how “in depth” my involvement would be. About elbow deep in fish blood and guts, to be exact. But no worries, if you eat ‘em, you’d better be ready to clean ‘em. My man is a great teacher, and quite patient, especially with me, as I always seem to have a bit of a “learning curve”. I am always eager to help and eager to learn, in all things I am involved in. I think it is my eagerness that is the root of my “learning curve”. I listen, I watch and I’ll ask for clarification, and I just want to succeed. Immediately. But I will almost always botch up a time or two before I get it. This was no different. I cut the head off a bit awkwardly on the first couple of fish. My man cut it like butter, I felt like I was sawing a hardwood log with a dull saw. The fish looked like he got his head caught in machinery, not cleanly severed with a sharp filet knife. I managed to cut and twist the tail off and it reminded me of trying to cut through really stale Red Vines with those dull, rounded tip, safety scissors they made us use in kindergarten. Slitting the fish up the gut was where I really went wrong. I held the knife like a dagger, clutched in a white-knuckle clench, and I stabbed away at the fish like Jack the Ripper with the prostitutes of London. Which was wrong. How did he do this with so much ease, finesse and grace? I’m thinking, “man, I gotta do more push ups!” I massacred the first two fish I was left in charge of. And so, I asked to watch on the next, one more demonstration, a little closer observation, a bit more clarification and I learned that the slit up the gut was done shallow and sort of gingerly, like Julia Child cutting phyllo dough or something. I got it, and the rest of the fish were cut perfectly, head, tail and gut. I became a fishing beheading, detailing, gutting machine. He would catch and club, I’d retrieve, slice, slice twist, cut, cut, twist and then slit, hold tight, wash in the river, bag, and then run bags with three to four fish back up to the truck where we had big ice chests waiting. The sooner the fish was “bled out” and put on ice the better the finished product would be. So, as soon as the fish hit the shore and got whacked in the head with a stick, I retrieved it to do my duty. Now, let’s talk about the actual murder weapon; the stick. There isn’t much quality wood on the ground around here, most of it having been scavenged and used already. So, when asked to find a “stick”, what was in order was something with a certain amount of heft, density and weight, what I found was really not much more than a piece of driftwood. After a good whack or two to the head, I’m pretty sure the salmon was only slightly phased on not actually dead. At that point, I’m to cut its head off with a filet knife. I found myself talking to the fish. Really. Kind of apologetically explaining what I had to do. “I know you’re not dead, but I’m going to lay you down on this terribly bloody, slimy piece of plywood, which in itself, if you think about it, is disgusting. Don’t think about it. Then, I’m going to take this filet knife that is about five fish past being sharp enough and I’m going to quickly cut your head off, one side at a time. I have to measure the angle, from just under your fin, along the gill, to the top of your head, which, oddly enough, reminds me of how I use a brow pencil to find the arch for my eyebrows, carefully lining it up with the corner of my nostril to the center of where my pupil is when looking straight ahead. Then I’ll flip you over and do it again. And somehow, you’re still trying to escape my grasp, so I’m going to try to cut your tail off. I have to turn you precisely like this and cut like this, the flip you over again and repeat. Then twist. I’m going to throw your head, attached guts and tail into the river for your family to watch float by, which, I’m pretty sure is why the rate at which we’re catching fish is beginning to decline. I mean, really, if you saw your cousin’s disembodied head, guts and tail go sailing past would you really venture in the general direction from whence they came? Yah, me either. “ Yes, I’m still talking to the fish.

On my first trip back to the truck, bag of fish in hand, I was met by a nice man a few vehicles down. I must have looked like a fru-fru coffee sort of girl, maybe like a girly girl, high maintenance city girl who would want a skinny no whip half-caf dirty latte at some point in the morning. He was the espresso stand vendor and wanted me to know that he’d be open at 4:30 AM. I was elated and had visions of a hot cup of black coffee before hitting the road home, hopefully after a few hours of sleep. That was at about 7:30 PM.

During a brief lull my man pointed out the “gulls” just up stream from us. I’d seen the seagulls, but not the ea-gulls. There were two bald eagles helping the one thousand seagulls take care of the fish scraps that had been left behind by the many fisherfolk before us. I have never seen bald eagles in the wild, until this trip, now I’m up to five. Wow. Every time I see one that’s all I can say. Wow. I grabbed my camera, and as soon as I set one foot in the direction of the “gulls”, they eagles took to the wind and gracefully floated, against the wind, up the canyon. No picture, no proof, but I swear it to be true.

Five hours later, we’d caught our limit of twenty-five, with no rain. It was about 1:00 AM and we were exhausted. My man, more than me, having driven and then dipping for five straight hours, with blisters on his hands and fatigued muscles from such hard, steady labor. He is my hero.

I had visions of bundling up and getting some rest, me in the sleeper, which only fits one, my man on the bench seat of the truck, or vice versa. I was willing to give up the comfort of the sleeper to my hero. But, no, the plan was to hit the road and get back home, or as close as possible, before getting sleep. No espresso stand hot black coffee at 4:30 AM. Damn.

We headed out in near darkness, which was interesting, being further south and experiencing darkness to the point of having to turn the headlights on. Experiencing darkness for the first time in, like, two weeks, like it is totally foreign to me. But it seemed so. We stopped at “The Hub” and I bought three large cups of gas station coffee, two for my man, one for me, so I could stay awake and keep him awake. Fail. I didn’t realize I slept quite that much, but, come to think of it, the drive home did seem much quicker. I felt like I was awake for all the really important stuff, like seeing moose. Twenty-six of them in a ten-mile stretch. I think I’m Andy Rouse with my little digital Sony camera I bought at Times Square one trip to New York, on impulse, when my iPhone battery died at 10:00 in the morning. I’m actually trying to photograph moose on the side of the road with my point and shoot camera from a pickup truck doing sixty. “No, that brown blur is a tree, that one is a late model Subaru, that brown blur is a bald eagle. THAT one is the moose.” So, brilliance, I have my helmet camera with me. But no helmet. But, really, what would you say if you saw some chick, wearing a helmet, with a camera attached to it, slumped over and snoring in the passenger seat of a speeding pickup, clutching the biggest cup of cold gas station coffee a dollar and a half can buy? Right? Best I don’t have a helmet. So, for those brief, lucid moments, I hold the helmet camera up, roll down the window, stick the camera out the window while the truck slows to forty and hope for a better result. “No, really, the rack on that moose was over fifty! The moose is that thing you can almost see move between those two trees, behind that one rock, down that embankment. Close your left eye, you’ll be able to see it better.”

And so it was with the remainder of the trip home. A blur. Like the moose in my pictures. A blur. And then I woke up to two coolers full of salmon (the salmon saga continues tomorrow, which is already today, but in another letter).

The Painted Mountains
The Painted Mountains
The espresso stand!! <3
The espresso stand!! <3
All geared up
All geared up
The first catch
The first catch
My job
My job
Still baggin' fish
Still baggin’ fish
Like the moose in this picture, the drive home was a bit of a blur!
Like the moose in this picture, the drive home was a bit of a blur!