Ninety Years

It’s eighty degrees with unseasonably low humidity. The post-bar exam fog in my brain is lifting, and my dad is meeting unexpected resistance as he carves into the hard, dry, Western Pennsylvania ground.

It’s late July and my dad and I are standing in the short summer shadows of hundred-year-old tombstones on Mars Hill, in Butler County. The worn engravings bear dates of birth and death that seem impossibly far apart for the era they mark. Row by row, we examine the graves of people who lived into their late seventies and eighties, 200 years ago. Later that day we meet a 94 year old World War II veteran who describes his plane crash, barefoot jungle trek and prison camp stay like he survived them yesterday. At nightfall, we’re on the covered porch overlooking 52 acres of rolling hills stretching into an infinite horizon of stars. Our eighty-year old hosts are reminiscing with my dad about their cross-country road trips before seat-belts and air-conditioning.

We made the pilgrimage to my dad’s home town to scatter my grandpa’s ashes. He died a month and a half earlier, at 92. Everything about our trip felt nostalgic. Like we’d taken a time machine into my dad’s childhood: old colonial buildings, two lane roads and the folksy lifestyle of everyone we met.

On the plane ride home, I think about the length of life and the passage of time. How our relationship to each one is shaped by our perception of the other. We design plans, make choices and move through each day with a long-view of ourselves and our place on the planet. We bank on ninety years.

Eleven months later I slump into my big, rickety, leather desk chair at 5:23p.m.  The office is quiet. My brain is dizzy and clouded from the stress and anxiety of trial preparation. For the first time in two weeks, I feel my muscles start to relax.

“I”m ready.”

I swivel to the left and reach for my keyboard. The phone rings.

It’s my client. The one with the story that’s kept me up three nights a week since we met in February. The one who I think about on my yoga mat and talk to in my dreams. Her trial is set for the next morning. Before any polite exchanges, she blurts it out: The key witness in our case is dead. She died this morning. A twelve page trial brief, a two hundred and seventy five dollar subpoena and an entire litigation strategy crafted around the testimony of a witness, a person, who no longer exists.

My mind starts spinning again. I frantically look around for the hidden camera, or the production crew from dateline NBC.

Nope. Nothing.

This is my real life.

Being a lawyer gives me a false sense of control over circumstances and outcomes. It’s an entire profession built around the illusion that a compulsive work ethic and relentless attention to detail avoids uncertainty and interference from the unexpected. Countless hours and full energy committed to bending reality and manipulating facts to conform to our preferences and perspective. If we need ninety years, we believe we can guarantee it.

The shocking overnight trial development jolts me into the reality of chance, and the power of change, moment to moment. It reminds me of a lesson I keep learning, but fail to accept. A week earlier, my professional mentor shared that a family member went to sleep one night recently, and didn’t wake up. He was thirty-eight. Two years before that, I casually hopped on Facebook one night to discover my dear friend had a tumor in her pancreas. 13 months later, she was gone. One summer night my brother took a fast turn on a motorcycle and lost the use of his right arm, forever. Two days after my twenty-ninth birthday, 20 parents of first graders sent their kids to school one morning, and never saw them again.

My friends and family suffer loss, battle cancer, and endure the unimaginable. Nobody ever sees it coming. Nobody could stop it, even if they did.

Lately, my life is dominated by recurring mantras of “if I just.” If I just finish this project. If I just make this deadline.  If I just survive this week, or month, or year. Each mantra presumes a sequence of events. Each sequence marks a period of time I don’t even consider not having.

Each period shapes a piece of my ninety years.

When something awful happens, I always have the same reaction.  Immediately, I commit to moving from “if I just” to “be different now.” Be happy. Be loving. Be present. Do what I want. Twenty four hours of purpose and intention.

Then my life interferes again.

Two days ago, I’m sitting with a friend from high school at a long, metal table, at a coffee shop, in our home town. Together, we’re reflecting on the life we didn’t envision at (almost) thirty. I ask him how he has the courage to live life on his own terms. He tells me, it’s simple: Figure out what you want to do and go do it.

I’ll add: Because even if you make it ninety years, nobody has that many to begin with.

That was a tough goodbye

A week after my seventeenth birthday my family took a road trip to Redding, California to watch my brother graduate from boarding school. It had been two years,  two weeks, since my brother left home. He’d grown eight inches. He looked healthy and muscular, almost unrecognizable from the pasty, acne-faced, alcoholic teenager who departed in a terrifying frenzy of aggressive resistance and law enforcement intervention. I hadn’t grown at all but I’d learned to drive, taken the SAT and survived more than half of high school in the time he was away. My parents had separated.  Each of their faces wore the lines and expression of ten years passing, not two.

My mom drove my red 4runner north on highway 5. My best friend and I serenaded her from the back seat with impassioned  covers of tracks from  Garth Brooks’ album, “Sevens.”

I packed a pink turtleneck, my black J. Crew pea coat, a pair of dark denim and side-zipper, heeled black boots. A carefully chosen wardrobe, selected to display my junior-year sophistication. To illustrate to everyone just how much I’d grown up.

For the car ride I wore sweatpants and my River City Magic hoodie. In my lap, I kept safe the stringy remnants of my childhood blanket, mostly a tattered wad of disintegrating fabric.

I called it “blanky,” and even then, it was my most valued possession. I inherited blanky as a hand-me-down. My brother failed to recognize its magical, healing powers and passed it up without ever getting attached. At seventeen I felt like my brother robbed me of many things, but blanky, I stole from him.

Blanky survived countless family vacations. I battled my fear of flying by anxiously poking my fingers in and out of the spaces between the cotton threads. When anxiety turned to terror (frequently) I’d clench all ten fingers together and hold the fragile strands up against my face. I’d breathe in it’s comforting smell, slow and deep. My mom swore it emitted a fragrance of filth and decay. But to me, blanky smelled warm and safe. Before and after harrowing plane excursions, I schlepped blanky in and out of rental cars and between hotels. I slept with blanky wrapped around my wrists, or snuggled beneath my nose, every night.

I took blanky on overnight school field trips and to sleepovers with friends. When I got older, I’d hide blanky in my pillowcase, take it out when no one was looking, and stash it discretely under my shirt or between my legs.

Somewhere between a gas station pit stop in Red Bluff and our accommodations at the Best Western Inn, blanky disappeared. My first sensation was panic, followed by the launch of frantic phone calls to every place we went that weekend. For forty-eight hours I held on to the hope that blanky would be recovered. Every time the phone rang, I heard the miracle in my head. The voice on the other line assuring me blanky was safe, promising to fold it gently in a fed-ex envelope, and ship it, unscathed, to Sacramento.

A week passed, and nothing.

I cried myself to sleep every night. My mom was helpless and distraught. She couldn’t even look at me, so sad and pathetic.  I’d wake up disoriented at 2a.m. and reach into my sheets, desperately feeling for blanky. The race in my heartbeat would settle when I’d brush against something warm and soft. Then, awakening to clarity, I’d realize it was all imagined.

Blanky was gone.

I was heartbroken.

It was the deepest, most painful loss of my life.

Blanky had been my last shred of sanity and security, and comfort. The only thing salvaged from the wreckage of my brother’s alcoholism. The sole remaining artifact from the life I was living before everything came unglued.

The days after my brother’s graduation were dark, and long, and difficult. I felt both inconsolably sad and indescribably angry. I held my brother responsible. For all of it. The loss of blanky was both the “final straw” and the ultimate symbolism. If only he: wasn’t such a fuck up, finished regular high-school, hadn’t ruined my life…

Everything would be different. And blanky would be safe.

On Easter Sunday, twelve years later, my brother and I reminisce about blanky. He shares that his favorite childhood toy is still tucked away in a hall closet at my dad’s house. I admit I’m still angry that “funky” survived and blanky didn’t.

In the discussion, I feel a surge of old emotions. Heartache and longing for something I haven’t seen, or smelled, or touched, in over a decade. Resentment, sadness, anger, grief.

On the car ride home I blast the a mixed CD my best friend made me. It begins dramatically with the lyrics, “that was a tough goodbye.” My eyes fill with tears.

It sure was.

Tough goodbyes still haunt me. The struggle to gracefully move through endings, and peacefully accept loss. The mirror image is me clinging to old: feelings, relationships, ideas, even when I know it would serve me better to let them go.  I think about about the hurt I was burying, every time I picked blanky up. The emotions and sensations that I wadded up, and tucked away. I gripped blanky like it would stop time, or speed it up. The illusion that if I could dig in deep enough, everything around me would evaporate, and I would be “o.k.”

I roll the windows down and turn the volume up. I sing as loud as I can and when the tears come, they pour down hard. My face is red and swollen and my throat is parched. I feel all of it.

That was a tough goodbye.

“It’s Good to Be Remembered”

The summer before seventh grade I fell in love with a boy named George.

George was tall and red-headed with a prematurely deep, sultry voice. Sitting next to him in the stands of Arden All-Star Little League games stirred my first feelings of sexy. Grown-up attraction. A surge of intense excitement and energy ignited by his inadvertent (deliberate) brush of my hand, or ankle, or outer thigh. Each time he looked at me, he looked down first. He opened into a smile just as he met my gaze. It was so perfect it almost felt practiced. But I could feel it was pure. Genuine.  The guy just knew how to talk to a(n almost) woman. How to be suave and gentle with just enough edge to make my 13 year old mind, and heart, race.

Baseball season ended. My summer romance faded into cool nights, early sunsets and the angst-ridden start of junior high.

But George left a powerful impression.

For more months than I care to admit, I clung to his memory. I thought about him, talked about him and described the emotions of attachment in my pre-blog era, handwritten journal.

My best friend lived in his neighborhood, and every time we picked him up, I begged my mom to drive by his house.

It was the 90s version of perusing Facebook and following him on Twitter.

My mom would pretend to protest, but reliably obliged. She knew her resistance was neither believable, nor defensible. She knew all along, I’d learned from the best.

When I was a kid, my mom had a crush on the lead anchor of the 5 o’clock news. He was a legend in my hometown. Distinguished and sophisticated, with a full head of perfectly-gelled, silver hair.

He came into our family room, every night, at the same time. He was confident and authentic, with a strong, trustworthy gaze.

My mom never missed a broadcast. Or a public appearance.

Armed with a camera and a big cup of coffee, she hit the mall to watch him host the local version of the Jerry Lewis telethon. She tracked him down promoting charity, grabbing a latte, and anywhere else she could find him in the community.

She always returned, swooning. She’d recount the racy details of brushing up against him in Boulevard coffee like a giddy thirteen year old falling in love on a Summer night.

Even now, she admits having “a hundred pictures” of big crowds of strangers featuring his tiny, blurry, dot-of-a-head in the background.

Stan Atkinson was more than my mom’s favorite celebrity. He was her dream-man. Her ideal spouse. My dad worked long hours at a demanding job. Stan was like a substitute life partner, keeping her company and retelling the days’ events while she cooked dinner and cared for her kids. He was predictably gentle and calm. Ever-present in the evening with his inviting smile and reassuring warmth.

On Wednesday night I made a rare appearance at a happy hour to support a fundraiser for the agency where I work. With sore feet, clad in a disheveled, khaki, skirt-suit, I reluctantly made my way up three wooden steps to the front entrance of a trendy bar. There, standing in the doorway, as handsome as I remembered him, was my mom’s most memorable crush.

At first, I froze. Instantly aware of my haggard appearance,  I felt less-than-prepared to face such an epic encounter.

I took a mind-clearing breath, and knew what I had to do.

In the minutes that followed, I lost my nerve. But as I watched him graciously begin his exit, my courage resurfaced.

True to the stealth and skill of my ancestry, I stepped out on the patio to trap him as he was leaving. As soon as he emerged, I delivered my introduction.

I told him that I was a huge fan. That I grew up with him. That he was a fixture of my childhood memory, and my childhood life. That my mom adored him more than any other person she never knew in real life. I thanked him for who he is, and who he was, to both of us.

He grabbed my hands with the same, unforgettable sincerity that charmed my mom every evening of my childhood. He looked at me with honesty and love, squeezed his fingers into my palms and told me, “It’s good to be remembered.”

He hugged me like an old friend. We posed for a picture and when I turned to let him go, he pulled me in. He kissed my cheek, and said simply,

“that’s for mom.”

A familiar surge of excitement came over me. Less sensual than its early adolescence predecessor, but equally intense. The feeling of an unforgettable moment. The experience of creating a memory I’ll never forget. The perfect interaction with the perfect man.

In the quiet of my apartment, the high slowly wearing off, I reflected on the importance,  and impact, of a good impression. That in some cases we have years and years to leave our mark on people, and others, we have only minutes.

For most of my life, I’ve devoted my social energy to managing the way other people perceived me. My highest value was to be regarded as brilliant, powerful and accomplished. At the end of my first year in law school, at the peak of my obsession with prestige and achievement, I sat next to my dad at a memorial service for a man who’d passed away in his late eighties, after a long battle with a rare and debilitating disease. I knew from our family relationship that he was a successful professional who’d amassed a considerable amount of personal wealth. But in the many  and varied stories shared by his family and friends, not a single mention of what he’d done. Tearful descriptions of his laughter and embrace. Detailed accounts of the way he mentored people, rescued people, lifted them up.

I left the service committed to evaluating the legacy I was already creating. Transformed by the realization that who I am is defined  by how I am, I was moved to shift the emphasis of my everyday interactions. To change focus from trying to control the way people see me, to bringing awareness to the way I am treating them. To live in the truth that memories are shaped in moments of connection, not ideas, images and projections.  And that it’s good to remembered, well.

Over Dinner

I ordered Whole Wheat Blueberry Pancakes and sat cross-legged on a cold metal chair. You chose a table on the ground floor of Novel Cafe. You’d only lived in Westwood a couple of weeks, otherwise you might have known to sit upstairs. When I arrived, the plate in front of you was dotted with remnants of baby spinach. I noted it as peculiar. I had a long and sordid history of male friendships, but couldn’t recall any of the men in my life ordering salad at a restaurant. Ever. Later, I would know you as a frequent consumer of cold lettuce and raw veggies. Usually from a square plastic box with a colorful Trader Joe’s label. One time from a folded cardboard container. A Whole Foods Salad Bar Caesar I’d assembled myself. I remember the care and consideration I’d used in selecting the ingredients. High quality. Right proportions. It was important to me that it tasted perfect, to you.

That first night was more “second interview” than “first date.” I was still skeptical about whether we’d end up really being friends. Were you funny enough? Interesting? Politically Engaged? Did you have a closet full of jersey cotton t-shirts with ironic phrases across the chest?

I asked my best “get to know you” questions and channeled my inner high school counselor. I probably chewed with my mouth open when I got excited and had a mess of dried maple syrup smeared across my chin.

It was the last time I felt any uneasiness between us. My last memory of us as anything other than best friends.

Our inaugural hangout was a foreshadowing of the months to come.

Week after week of Friday and Saturday nights spent laughing and talking through a light, organic meal and shared dessert.

Our relationship happened, and deepened, over dinner.

Sometimes the purpose and nature of our dates was unclear to one or both of us.

Like when you picked me up wearing sweat pants and I pranced down my concrete staircase wearing makeup and high-heeled leather boots.

Or the time I was forced to go out in your oversized zip-up sweatshirt because I’d showed up in the middle of the day in a tie-dyed  t-shirt. We planned to sit and “catch up for an hour.” It was early in our relationship. Soon after we realized that between the two of us, that phrase didn’t exist.

I knew I was doomed during our first homemade “dinner in.”

You masterfully crafted gourmet quesadillas from your two-burner makeshift kitchen while we sang and swayed to Ray Lamontagne. That night we played mini golf after threatening to find somewhere to “laser tag” in Los Angeles. On my short drive home, I thought about the ease of our relationship. It’s comfort and stability. How I was  going to avoid the inevitable disaster at the intersection of platonic soulmates and unrequited love. A  year and a half later, I could feel my patience unravel over a plate of sauteed brussel sprouts. You offered them to me tenderly, coaxing me out of my ball of exhaustion, curled up on your soft, beige couch.

I always thought we were best during those stripped-down stay-at-homes, but we had our share of beautiful nights out, too.

You salvaged the celebration of my 27th birthday with an elegant plate of fish and a fake story to the wait-staff about how we were engaged. Overlooking the ocean in Malibu, we wrote a screenplay about best friend lawyers who made a classic romantic comedy marriage contract as unlucky-in-love law students. We called it “At Arms Length” and staged the movie poster while holding hands, barefoot under the icy, mid-December tide.

We drank a bottle of wine to celebrate surviving our second year. You made our reservation under your celebrity pseudonym, John. We toasted to finding, and saving each other. As we left for more drinks at ” The W” I warned you about my irrepressible desire to make-out after more than one glass of wine. I was being honest, but also testing your always clear (and thick) boundaries. The boundaries that kept our unique relationship intact.

We demonstrated entrepreneurial genius and made countless strangers into friends. We made up elaborate narratives for the events and relationships at adjacent tables. Even now, there is no one else in the world with whom I would agree to “split a brownie.”

During dinners amidst our small social network, we kept people guessing. They wondered if we were “doing it” on the side of our friendship or secretly involved in a full-fledged affair. Every person we knew together had a different version of our story, not one of them mirrored the truth.

When we ate with your siblings, I wondered what they were thinking. I wondered both what you told them and how they evaluated it on their own. I wondered if some day, at our wedding, they would talk about the early days of light-weight denial and the destiny we collectively knew about, but of which, we never spoke.

Lately, I can’t stop thinking about  a year ago. My seasonal memory is a powerful storyteller and the images and sensations of February trap my mind in the re-living. I re-play every episode, evaluating what I might have done to re-write the ending.  We talked about dating, and marriage. About telling our families, and our friends. When you kissed me on my living room couch, I was trying so hard not to screw it up, it’s the only thing I barely remember at all.

It happened so quickly, then ended just as fast. A month later, we felt like strangers, again.

I ran from you, and hid from my feelings. You watched me leave, and let me hide.

Ultimately, we would repair the damage the same way we created it.

After months of dinners without you, on a garden patio in a Venice bistro, a week before the bar exam, we finally felt like us, like before. You ordered shrimp and I chomped though a kale and potato flatbread, wondering when the “greens on everything” trend would finally disappear. We took the “is this a date?” online quiz, a hysterical flow chart that could have been written exclusively for our relationship, at all stages of its evolution. It was both fitting and awkward. We could laugh out loud in silent recognition of the unreleased tension, the still unaddressed feelings underneath.

As the youngest patrons of a chic Brentwood eatery, on my last night in Los Angeles, we said, “goodbye,” over dinner.

It was the last time I looked at you and wondered how you could possibly resist doing this with me forever. I wondered why you didn’t reach across the table and beg me to stay with you. Why we were planning how we would stay in touch instead of how we would spend the rest of our lives, together. How dinner could possibly be better, or more fun, with anyone else.

Internet Love Story

The Internet is creepy. A land of voyeurism and judgement. A hot bed for the exchange of righteous opinions and bad information. Shameless self-promotion, shameful self-deprecation. Wedding pictures. Food imagery. Hashtags and viral videos.

My relationship with the internet is like most of my recent romances: Addicting and fascinating. Repulsive and dangerous. One day exhilarating. The next day devastating. every encounter filled with internal conflict between how I am and how I want to be.

Late last summer I sat on my computer trying to piece together my post-law-school plan. Still jet lagged from a month in Asia, I could barely face the idea of starting the next chapter of my life. I felt paralyzed by uncertainty, resistant to changes already taking place.

Without explanation, a post popped up on my Facebook page from one of my high school classmates. I hadn’t seen any internet action from this guy since we first connected online in the early days of the website. I hadn’t seen this guy in person since graduation day.

My mind flashed on memories of Miles from the Varsity basketball team and our school student government. He was uniquely wholesome in a pure and genuine way. Years before the movie empire was conceived, he looked and acted like a character from Disney’s High School Musical  He was smart and silly and loveable. The type of boy the mom of a high school girl would encourage her daughter to go out with. The clearest, most vivid vision I have of him is at the bedside of his long-time girlfriend. She broke her back in a freak ski accident, and in the days that followed, he spent every minute next to her in a tiny downstairs room of her parents’ house.

Years later, I would wonder if he was put on the planet to support strong women in their recovery from unthinkable events.

My focus lands back on my computer. He writes a blog. I click on it immediately.

I read three words and burst into tears.

The blog was launched in response to Miles’ wife’s cancer diagnosis. His 28 year old wife. With stage four lung cancer. A vibrant, beautiful young woman. Full of life and love and energy and potential.  Dreams and plans stretching far into the future.

I kept reading. And crying. Then crying some more.

I read every post dating back to late June when she was first diagnosed. I cringed thinking about so many late-June hysterical breakdowns in the face of my Barbri Paced Program Study List. Perspective is not retro-active.

An hour later I closed my computer and pulled a blanket over the top of my head. I shrunk into my couch. I wanted the entire experience to evaporate. I felt a surge of anger and frustration still lingering from my loss of Heather. I felt too weak to take on the sadness. I decided I needed to let it go, or, more likely, block it out.

But as the weeks went on, I was back on the blog. Over and over again.

Miles writes clearly with humor and sincerity. His narrative voice is beautiful and funny and evocative. Reading his blog, I feel like we’re sitting at brunch together sharing our lives. His support of, and dedication to his wife animates every word. The blog, designed to give medical information and updates, reads like an elegant, honest and witty love story.

Out of sadness, I feel hope. The courage of this woman is indescribable. In every picture, she is beaming. The mere description of her battle leaves me exhausted and yet she continues to prevail. I have laughed and cried with her. She’s become one of my most important teachers of the practices of presence and unconditional love. A reminder to value the life I have. The moments of health and deep breaths and illness free meals with people I love. She gives me hope that in the face of challenge, I too could find the strength of a resilient warrior goddess, who refuses to give up.

Miles and his wife are strangers to me. We may never see or talk to each other in real-life. Still, I feel a deep and intimate connection to their story, their strength and their ongoing optimism and bravery. I feel tremendous gratitude to them for illuminating this deeply private struggle in their lives.

You can find love and inspiration here.

You can donate to help Emily’s recovery and research for future lung cancer patients.

You can fall in love with Miles’ entire family. You can be inspired by a remarkable story. You can creep on the internet, and find something beautiful.

Faith and Football

Growing up in my house, Sunday was sacred.

My parents met through my grandfather’s Presbyterian church in Lafayette, California. Our family is deeply rooted in ritual and tradition. My brother and I were raised to respect the sanctity of the last day of the week. One path of devotion. One house of worship. A single, spiritual force to believe in.

The San Francisco 49ers.

September through January revolved around professional football. I woke up every Sunday morning to my mom’s anxiety and a house buzzing with anticipation. For the morning game, powdered sugar mini donuts and orange juice. When the Niners were at home, pepperoni pizza and beer for my parents. Niners gear on, prayers complete, the four of us huddled on the couch holding our breath until kick-off.

Most weeks we celebrated triumphant victories. Screaming and leaping to our feet for a spectacular catch or defensive stop. We high-fived and hugged and cheered. My mom paced and mumbled the F-word when the game got close.

In the late eighties and early nineties, it was good to be us.

But as the nineties wore on, the red and gold glory faded.

Steve Young retired and Jerry Rice wore a Raider jersey. Sunday morning lost its spark and the joy seeped out of our weekly family gathering.

The Niners changed. Life changed. The pride and love that once connected the community of Forty-Niner faithful was replaced by frustration, angst and a nostalgic longing for a lost legacy.

I rarely stood up on my couch with both arms in the air yelling, “go,” repeatedly until the receiver reached the end zone.

But me, my mom, and the die-hards among us never gave up hope.

The Niner fall from grace made televised games hard to come by while I was away at college in Los Angeles.  But in the pre-streaming era, I followed every quarter on ESPN.com. “Gamecast” mostly brought disappointment and Sportscenter highlights rarely featured my favorite team. Through the rise of the New England Patriots, the Green Bay Packers and both of the Manning quarterbacks, the Niners struggled to bounce back from what was becoming a decade-long slump.

Still, every Sunday I wore my tattered “Team of the 80’s” t-shirt, my favorite wardrobe piece, stolen from my high school boyfriend.

I graduated from college, had more than one career and found my way back to school, and Southern California. Slowly, but surely, just as we’d always talked about, the 49ers started to “rebuild.”

In my final year of law school, the Niners came within a freak-fumble of the Superbowl.

After many years when it wasn’t, it was good to be us, again.

This week, my team heads to their second consecutive NFC Championship. In reflecting on my relationship with the Forty-Niners. I think about faith, patience, and unconditional love.

I think about all of the disappointment, heartbreak and hopelessness felt by Niner fans over the last few years. I think about my forgiveness for their mistakes, my acceptance of a period of struggle, and my commitment to them, through it all.

I think about all of the other relationships and situations in my life through which I failed to demonstrate the same  grace and understanding.

In the dark days of 49er football, my brother struggled with alcoholism and addiction. He stole from my parents, manipulated his friends. He’d call me late at night to ask if I’d sneak away from my house to buy him a meal. Three years into his struggle, I gave up on him. I shut him out. Withdrew my investment. Stopped following his life on my family’s dysfunctional version of Gamecast. I surrendered any hope that he would ever look or act like the big brother I’d worshipped growing up.

More recently, I turned this behavior on myself. I created a negative inner-dialogue around what I believed to be under-performance. My inability to make my self-identified version of the late-twenties post-season. If my mom suggested I was “re-building,” I replied that I didn’t have the time, nor energy, for that.

Along the way, smaller issues and instances reflect a similar pattern. An unwillingness to accept what is. An inability to be where I am. Lack of contentment. A strong feeling of resistance. A desire for things to be different, or better, right away.

When I imagine my “best-self,” I treat everyone like the Forty-Niners. I feel deep sadness when they don’t live up to my expectations, but quickly let go of the feeling, looking forward to their next opportunity to shine. I want them to be the best, but accept that they can’t win every game. I defend them to critics, and try not to judge them out loud. I show up and cheer for them, with my whole heart, no matter what.

Love in Southeast Asia: One Last Thing

Five months ago, I landed in Los Angeles on a plane from Seoul, Korea. Twenty Eight days of international travel. Eleven flights. Four Countries. Nine Atavan.

Countless lessons.

Writing about my trip has been a way to relive it. To soak up the powerful moments and deepen their meaning.To share my experience, and my insight.  To feel gratitude for the courage (and everything else required) to spend an entire month abroad.

Writing my final blog stirs feelings from my last night in Cambodia: reflection, sadness, humility, love.

My deepest love is for my seven travel partners.

In Bangkok: the fearsome foursome. Parker, Edward, Werner and Me.

Werner, the storytelling, sarong-wearing, little brother I never had. The sweet and sensitive boy who is a compassionate, middle-aged man inside. Traveling together, I could picture him in the future, vacationing with his kids. Creating goofy traditions and friendships out of chance encounters. He will both embarrass and enlighten them. He will tell them about reading Steve Jobs’ biography on the Indian Ocean and how we almost died at sea. He will teach them how to say “we own the Green Bay Packers” in all the languages of countries they visit. He will make his whole family feel cherished and loved.

Edward, the center of our social universe, locally and abroad. The most considerate man I have ever met. Edward is part frat boy, part diplomat. In Sri Lanka, Edward taught us about “fan death,” the mythical child-killer of Korean-American parental folklore. In each new destination, he attended to our diverse group’s spectrum of needs. He balanced all the emotions, intentions, desires and quirks. He handled every. group. check. He indulged me in mid-Ocean heart-to-hearts as we dove through cresting waves (Phuket) and relished the glassy stillness (Phi Phi).

In Sri Lanka, our group swells to seven:

Diana, the source of an unexpected female friendship. Within hours of being together, I wanted her to be my best friend. I fell in love with her the way women of my generation attached themselves to the fictitious Carrie Bradshaw. She is soft and confident, doesn’t take herself too seriously, and is visibly present in each moment the way I can only struggle to be while meditating. I will cherish connecting with her on our trip long after the memories of our moments together fade.

Manal, the would-be mean girl who isn’t. She is open-hearted, loving and accepting. She is one of the most gorgeous women I have ever met, effortlessly stylish and flawless. She was the President and social chair of our law school, a woman who could easily be catty and exclusive, but instead is warm and inviting. She gives me hope that we can all be good to each other.

Priyan, our tour guide and native host. A man with a perfectly executed hairstyle, even in ninety-percent humidity. Priyan educated us about Sri Lankan culture and history, occasionally exaggerating for dramatic effect (“that’s Pride Rock, where The Lion King was filmed”). He is brilliant and sophisticated, high-brow with a social justice sensibility. A rare combination of elitism and a lightweight sense of humor. I adore him from the depth of my soul. I could make a life as his partner if only our gender and sexualities aligned in a more practical way.

In Southern Thailand, Fred made a triumphant appearance. He is a survivor of monsoon-season jungle trekking and under-vaccination. Fred gives the best hugs of anyone I know. He wraps everyone up like a treasure, holds them firmly against his heart. He has easy-going energy that relaxes everyone in his presence. He is sincere and genuine, thoughtful and smart. He made us laugh and surrounded us with love.

And of course, Parker.

Every day. Every meal. Every flight. Every hotel room. Every night and every morning. Every, single, minute.

Parker was there.

He is both my alter ego and my other half. We are simultaneously soulmates and adversaries. He is relentlessly practical and efficient, I am whimsical and disorganized. He is fearless and task-oriented, I am anxious and easily distracted. He is worldly and well traveled, I was brand new to every experience on our trip.

To him, my biggest thanks. For planning every detail of our incredible adventure. For his patience with my fear of flying and picky-eating. For looking out for me like a big brother, and for telling-it-how-it-is like a best friend. For listening and understanding. For talking about feelings, over and over again.

Even early in our friendship, I knew I could trust Parker with everything. There aren’t many people who could get me on a twelve-hour flight to spend a month away from the comfort of familiarity and my compulsive routines. Parker lives his life saying yes to opportunity. Yes to change and newness and progress. He dives head first into everything, without hesitation. With him leading this way, I found the willingness to follow. Following him, I was able to take the most incredible journey of my life.

Bad Skier

“I can’t do it.”

I’m paralyzed in the middle of an intermediate ski run yelling helplessly at my dad, eight feet below me. My skis are completely sideways and I’m trapped by the sensation that if move in any direction, I’ll plummet to my death in a tumbling ball of wet, sticky, snow.

I see my dad pause to evaluate his response before giving it. I can tell he’s skeptical about the gravity of my peril.

“Get parallel to the fall-line, Boney.”

I heard that phrase countless times growing up on the icy slopes of Northern California, but am still uncertain what it means. I imagine it’s something like: point your skis down the mountain like a normal person and let’s get on with it, I don’t have all day. My dad is practical, scientific and ever attentive to accuracy and precision. He taught me how to ski the same way he does everything else.

My heart rate quickens as the initial distress intensifies into full fledged panic. If my dad can’t help me, I’m doomed.

Twenty years later, I am still a terrible skiier. Inexcusably bad. I’ve skiied almost every winter since I was five years old. My progress feels equivalent to the time scale of evolution. I’m convinced I’m entitled to some unusual and dubious honor as the world’s most experienced beginner.

Skiing, even more than my yoga mat, is an oversized magnifying mirror for my worst traits. Most notably, my inability to relinquish control (of everything) and (not unrelated) the way fear interferes with living my fullest life.

At the top of each ski run, I breathe in a fresh gulp of mountain air. I am relaxed and energized. I am inspired by my surroundings and excited for the opportunity to begin again.

As soon as I am moving, my energy shifts. My body is tense, my jaw muscles tight. I feel my elbows lock against my rib bones, bracing for  imminent disaster. I am suddenly without balance or coordination. The loss-of-control feeling overwhelms the entire experience, rendering me hopelessly unskilled and pathetically flailing.

At the bottom of the ski run, I let out a deep sigh. My face softens and my arms relax.

Between the tension and relief is a moment of confusion, “who was that up there and why did she do that?”

In the aftermath, I promise myself to do better next time.

It’s not all angst and discomfort. Sometimes I take three or four turns in a row feeling light and effortless. Occasionally, I find just enough calm to make contact with what it’s like to really ski. I let go of the need to control it: the snow, the other skiiers, the conditions, the outcome, and find the freedom to move gracefully, with purpose and ease. Each glimpse of my potential, fuels hope for my future as a downhill enthusiast. So far I’ve had just enough of them to prolong my inevitable resignation to failure and retirement from the sport.

In my life, I am similarly skilled and capable, but frequently blocked by fear. I want to be assured of a result before I am willing to explore the unknown. The voice of risk silences the allure of reward. I have the tools to navigate, but am frequently dragged off course by my resistance to letting go. I battle anxiety at the top of every new run, and beat myself up at the bottom for what I didn’t do right.

Recently, I resist pursuing my biggest dream in the face of paralyzing fears. I know what I have to do, but get bogged down in swampy, self-doubting thoughts. I have everything I need to move forward, but hesitate each time I start to take off.

Change the Conversation

I was a freshman in high school the year of the Columbine shooting. That day, my world changed. The term “trench-coat mafia” suddenly had colloquial meaning. A new threat of violence in the form of outcast, troubled teenagers emerged in a space where suburban white high schools were formerly immune from attack. There were no metal detectors in our neighborhood. That stuff didn’t happen to us.

A decade later I went to a “violence prevention” training for my job in high school counseling. The discussion focused on identifying and serving youth at a “high-risk” for perpetrating school shootings and related behavior. I found most of it to be outdated and out-of-touch, taking me back to the days after Columbine, the countless news reports chronicling the lives of the shooters: who were these kids? who were their parents? where did they live? what did they do?

All questions about their individual identities. All questions about their individual actions. All questions looking outward, seeking an explanation. Pointing fingers, placing blame.

In the years since Columbine, more tragedy. Virginia Tech,  Tuscon Arizona, Aurora Colorado, smaller acts of violence in between. Each time, we cry out, feel fear, express sadness.

The media digs into the life of “the person responsible,” drudging up anecdotes from old neighbors, girlfriends and childhood acquintances. Speculation swarms about mental illness and a violent past. Some of us mourn with compassion for the darkness in the heart of the person who is moved to do unthinkable things. Some of us judge the actions of a criminal and the hopelessness of humanity. Some of us grow quiet and contemplative, some get loud with rage.

Political blogs go off about gun control and the second amendment. Twitter pours forth with sympathy and solidarity. We tune into dateline and CNN. We hug our families and tell them we love them. We post a heartfelt Facebook status. Or an angry, reactionary one.

Then in a week and a half we go on with our lives. Until the next catastrophe, when we begin again.

As I sit with the shooting in Connecticut, I call to mind lessons from my spiritual practice:

1. Times of darkness and deep pain present our greatest opportunity for growth.

Now is such a time for our country.

2. Growth Requires Change.

Creating a new outcome demands changing the behaviors, attitudes and perspective that produced the old one. Ask new questions. Reveal new answers.

Change the conversation.

3. Change comes from within

Maybe it’s time to investigate ourselves.

4. Everything is connected.

These unimaginable tragedies aren’t happening in a vacuum. This exact incarnation of violence isn’t recurring everywhere in the world. It is a reflection of our culture and connected to everything in it.

To talk about “gun-control” is an oversimplification. It may be true that more restrictive gun laws won’t end gun-violence, but it’s hard to ignore the way the two things intersect. There is no natural order of gun-ownership. It is a value choice. We value the individual right to gun ownership over the possibility of a gun-free country. That value projects a message. That message shapes our culture.

To talk about mental-illness is a starting point, not a solution. We acknowledge its existence but don’t always respond in a meaningful way. We know people need help, but don’t always  ensure they get it. We debate about “entitlement spending” and complain about higher taxes. Mental Health resources cost money, but we are unwilling to pay.  There is no natural order of how to treat the neediest in our population. It is a value choice. Our social services are minimal, and ever-diminishing. That value projects a message. That message shapes our culture.

There are other value choices, too.

We dead-bolt our doors and alarm our homes. We glorify individualism.We say awful things to our neighbors, families and friends. We judge others for how they dress, vote, pray and raise their kids. We consume violence: movies, video games, tv, the internet-our children do the same. We pay lawyers millions, and educators nothing. We campaign for democratic elections with hateful speech and character assassinations. We lock people up, or kill them, for doing wrong.

I’ve been working with Kindergarten through Fourth graders my entire adult life. They forgive easily and love openly. Until the world teaches them not to, they readily accept themselves, and others, no matter what. They are problem solvers with limitless creativity. Their lives, bodies, and environment change rapidly and they willingly adapt. When something isn’t working, they find a different way.

My heart breaks for the community at Sandy Hook Elementary. I can’t even wrap my mind around the loss of those kids. I can think of at least one powerful way to honor their memory: to recover from this tragedy just as they would. With open hearts. With curiosity. With courage and introspection.

Listening. Learning. Growing. Changing.

So we don’t have to relive this cycle, again.

Love in Southeast Asia: “I forgot the Umbrellas”

“It won’t stop raining.”

Our hotel driver tells us, solemnly, about the uninviting weather pattern in Siem Reap.

“You should come back when it’s not raining.”

Parker and I glance at each other. We exchange a silent joke about the ridiculousness of that suggestion. In the moment, we share an appreciation for the rarity and specialness of this trip. We share sadness that it’s coming to an end and gratitude for how far we’ve come. The magic of it all. To be in this van right now. On this road. In this country.

This once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

This miracle life.

The tiny, developing streets of Siem Reap are cluttered by Westernization. Every two hundred yards there is an elaborate, ornate hotel. They all look abandoned. It’s like a rainy, Vegas ghost town.

We pull into a beige, stucco monstrosity. All of the sudden I feel like we’re trapped in one of those tourist horror movies that Parker taught me about when we first met. We were flipping through channels late one night after dominating our friends as partners in a sweep of board game night. He paused the scrolling to summarize Touristas, “These movies are all the same. The dumb-ass Americans get wrapped up in some sort of organ harvesting scheme and everybody dies.” Weeks later I agreed to come on this trip with him.

My stomach feels queasy.

The inside of our Cambodian hotel is more whimsical than our previous accommodations. It’s clear Siem Reap has embraced its position at the center of exotic tourism. The hotel attendants are clad in elf-like, gold and green uniforms. There’s a chance it’s an homage to traditional culture, but I’m suspicious it’s an appeal to Western excess and essentialism.

Alone in the lobby, we are suddenly swarmed by six, eager employees. One has a welcome drink, the other a local pastry, four more are there to ensure we feel like the two most important people on earth.

I breathe a sigh of relief. For now, it seems I’ll be returning home with all of my vital organs.

The next day, we hire a local guide to lead us through Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.

He’s small and stoic. He doesn’t grin from ear to ear like Neil, or pay us effusive attention like everyone working at our hotel. He delivers lessons like a task-oriented high-school teacher. No frills. No nonsense. No attempt to glamorize Cambodia’s brutal history of conquest and imperialism. Just the facts.

We make it from an early morning start to the noon hour under an increasingly dark and threatening sky. So far, no rain.

A torrential downpour interrupts our midday meal but subsides before we’re out and about again.

As we wind up the dirt road to the back entrance of Angkor Wat, the clouds are the color of school-yard asphalt. It’s the type of darkness that blurs the passage of time. Where even 1pm looks like twilight. It’s misty and majestic. The lush, green, swampy background. The ancient ruins.

Five minutes into the tour of the most famous temple in the world, it’s pouring again. Our otherwise poised and pragmatic guide is suddenly fidgety and uncomfortable.

“Is Cambodian rainfall secretly deadly for American tourists?”

We maneuver through every inch of the temple before reaching the front entrance.

It’s still raining. With each falling raindrop, our guide looks more and more distressed.

Parker and I take one more glimpse at the weathered stone walls, then stand at the brink of the dramatic entryway, ready to leave the temple.

Our guide looks up, frowns, then lowers his eyes.

“I forgot the umbrellas.”He says it like he’s telling us we can’t leave the country without giving up a kidney.

Parker and I try to assure him we’ll survive the weather. He’s unconvinced.

The next few minutes are filled with awkwardness and anticipation. In the midst of pacing and contemplating, I think about this quiet, simple man. He devotes himself to sharing his country with eager tourists who land in his life for only hours at a time. He doesn’t rely on recurring business, or building a client portfolio. I can’t Yelp him when we leave. In the absence of traditional incentive structures, he pours his heart into his work.

This trip has been filled with heartwarming encounters among unlikely friends. Over and over, we’ve been met with varied manifestations of love and goodwill; with reminders about the far-reaching impact of small acts of kindness, of how easy, and meaningful, it is to be nice.

I let the rain fall on my eyelids, then my mouth. I twirl with my face to the sky and my arms wide open.

Tropical storms have followed us all over Asia, but right now the air feels special, and unique.