15: Time to Relax

My stomach is cramping and my eyes are teary. I can’t get out of the fetal position and every time I try to speak, I’m gasping for breath.

It’s like that, with me and my brother. We laugh so hard we cry, and hurt, and can’t move and can’t speak and can’t do anything, but keep laughing.

We’re in a motel room, during a rare moment of downtime, blocks from the entrance to Disneyland park. We’re watching Patrick Ewing being interviewed on T.V and making ridiculous jokes about the Main Street Electrical Parade. It’s the summer before seventh grade and my family is on the last vacation we ever took together.

None of us know how the next two, six, fifteen years, will change us.

We never do.

Every year of my childhood my dad planned an elaborate, intellectually enriching, family vacation. He had the same two weeks off every year, the last week of July, and the first week of August. They were the only consecutive days, all year where I saw my dad for both breakfast and dinner.  The only family movie nights and daytime adventures and father-son time spent without the yelling, and the homework.

We traveled for exactly ten days and covered between five and eight thousand miles, depending on the destination. We’d fly somewhere domestically, then put as many miles on the rental car as the company allowed, before we outright owned the thing.

We visited a museum dedicated to the artwork of Salvador Dali and another showcasing swords from a spectrum of historical eras and geographic locations. We walked inside Louisa May Alcott’s house and the one with the Seven Gables. We learned about the Salem Witch trials and how Francis Scott Key wrote the national anthem. There were dinosaur remains and scientific phenomena and alligators, eerily close to us, in the Florida everglades. Exotic fish and rare, northwestern mega-fauna, and every Smithsosonian there is, in a single day.

All before I was 12 years old.

In high school, when most of my friends failed it,  I got a “5” on the AP history exam for no reason other than I walked all two and a half miles of Boston’s freedom trail, in size 3 tennis shoes, during the summer of 1995.

We worked for the time we spent at amusement parks, and lounging on the beach. The activities and imagery that define most families’ leisure time, amounted to mere footnotes on our rigorous itinerary.

Every meal had meaning, and every minute had a purpose, and beginning on our visit to Lancaster Pennsylvania, my dad woke us up at Sunrise, every morning with a quote from the movie “Witness.”

“4:30, time for milking.”

Back then, all I knew about my dad is that he had a demanding job and a rare, eccentric personality. I figured our hyper-scheduled family vacations were more a product of who he was, rather than how he did things. To me, the bizarre destinations, long driving stretches and multiple lodging changes were an expression of his uniqueness, more than anything else.

In my adulthood, I spend more time with my dad. We talk and email and share meals where I learn about his life through stories and reflection. I’ve pieced together my childhood memories of him: cleaning car windshields while our extended family is gathered inside around coffee and donuts and the Indianapolis 500; inviting my brother and I to accompany him to the hardware store, plant trees in the backyard or pick weeds from the garden on his days off; fixing appliances or building new toys at my grandparents’ house while everyone else is napping on Christmas morning; and, of course, his relentless pursuit of activity during family vacations.

My dad can’t relax.

He is constantly engaged in a project or challenging task. He only sits when he’s sleeping and he’s uncomfortable with small talk and casual conversation.

He lives to work, even when he’s not working.

Three months ago, when I left my own demanding job, I assumed everything in my life would slow down. I thought the free-time and the deep breaths and the lazy Sundays would show up, automatically. I was exhausted, and over-committed and in a constant state of fear that I was forgetting something important. I was answering emails, in my mind, on my yoga mat and rushing out of class with my head down, determined to avoid any conversation that would delay the checking off of the next item on my to-do list.

I was living to work, even when I wasn’t working.

Anytime I share something about my dad with my friend Parker, he has the same response:

“That nut didn’t fall very far from the tree, did it?”

And sure enough, two weeks after I stopped being a lawyer, I was still running, and running, at full speed. I was measurably happier but still incapable of rest and relaxation. I worked fewer hours but filled the space on my schedule with things to accomplish and energetically aggressive activities.

I mapped out each day with a rigorous,  ambitious itinerary.

I still do.

What I remember most about my family vacations are the sounds and feelings in the spaces between the scheduled events: Cracking inside jokes with my brother while we both rode patiently in the back seat; curled up on the floor of the hotel room, re-capping the days events; important life-talks at the edge of the Northern Atlantic Ocean, with sandy hair and half-zipped wet suits.

The uncontrollable laughter and the quiet comfort of recovering from an adventurous day.

What I remember most about my life are the sounds and feelings in the spaces between the scheduled events: Delirious conversations with my best friend, right before bed; sprawled on the floor with my college roommates entrenched in an important feminist dialogue, then suddenly wondering whether Foster’s Freeze is still open; circled up with my camp kids, reliving beautiful moments from another unforgettable summer. Sitting in the dark in Nick’s living room, laughing hysterically at each other, for no reason at all.

The tears. The silence. The long, deep hugs.

Most days it requires my patience, and focus and renewed dedication.

To live fully in the spaces between the demands of my life. To soak up the beauty, the value, the memories, created in the time to relax.

5: Magic

The local news can’t stop reporting about El Nino, an alleged, rare, extreme weather pattern that is supposedly responsible for three straight weeks of storms in Northern California.

My soccer team is preparing for our first visit to the association cup championship, the highest level of tournament play in our league. All season, we are unstoppable. Undefeated. No one can touch us.

But heading into the most anticipated, high-stakes weekend of competition in any of our young athletic careers, everyone is worried.

The fields are hopelessly muddy and every night, the forecast is for more and more rain. The altered terrain changes the movement of the ball and the speed of play. The bitter cold and relentless drops of water, in our eyes, and on our backs, make us more vulnerable to mistakes, and aggravates the plague of fatigue.

We are an unconventional powerhouse.

We are not exceptionally fast, or big, or otherwise spectacularly talented. Less than five percent of us will go on to play in college. Most of us maintain straight A’s and juggle a host of other extra-curricular activities. We are swimmers and volleyball players and school and community leaders. As grown-ups, we are career-minded professionals, with high-paying jobs and impressive degrees.

We joke about not having matching warm-up suits or fancy, embroidered bags.

We are full of heart and determination and because our coach believes in our greatness, we work incredibly hard in practice, and never let up during games.

Our chemistry and team work is like nothing I’d ever experienced, and nothing I’ve been a part of since.

When the morning of our first game arrives, it’s still raining. Our parents, who have only ever had to endure an entire weekend of soccer games through November, are faithfully huddled on the sidelines, after the first of the year. They are clad in REI ponchos and squeezed together under four or five umbrellas. Looking on through a blurry sheet of rain, they can barely tell us apart.

Before halftime, we are caked, head-to-toe in mud. It’s the kind of cold outside that makes your fingers tingle and your skin sting. The intense sensation seeps into your bones, lingers, then unexpectedly evaporates as your whole body goes numb. Our legs are burning, constantly. With each stride our feet sink into the deep, unforgiving muck.  The ball is sticky, our shoes are sticky, everything is a sticky, wet, mess.

Each moment is a battle, each play is a battle, each game feels like another war we barely survived.

In the end, we win the whole, damn, thing. The final whistle blows and we are, suddenly, light on our feet. We sprint towards the center line and triumphantly dive, head-first, through a gigantic mud puddle, four games in the making.

We hug and holler and celebrate. We are giddy, and teary-eyed and so, so, proud.

My coach is beaming.

The moment is instantly an eternal memory in my mind

During eight years on the River City Magic, I learned more lessons than, maybe, the rest of my life, combined. I learned about leadership and work ethic.  Straight talk and disappointment. I learn to stand up for myself, stand behind my teammates, and stand back, eventually, when I got out of line.

Where I lacked natural talent, I learned to struggle, and persist, and succeed.

My greatest lesson, though, is in the miracle of our collective achievements. Our three year winning record. Two state championships. More trophies than my parents could find space to store in my childhood bedroom. All of it came in the brilliance of how we operated, together. I used to think someone like John Wooden should write a book about us called “Teamwork over talent.” We were, as they say, so much greater than the sum of our parts.

It’s a mild winter and my adult soccer team is undefeated, for the first time. These days, I play with less fear and more muscle. I play defense, not midfield, now, and do my best to channel my inner Heather Hall. We called her, “the animal.” She was a tough kid from a tough neighborhood and on our team, was the only person we could say that about. She could have easily felt out of place and totally alone and quit after just one season of it.

But she didn’t.

She played every season, and started every game. She shared in our hugs and sleepovers and trips to Hometown buffet.

Because who we were and where we came from never mattered.

All of us, were a lot of things, without each other.

But together, we were Magic.

I Brought My Mom

I am a fiercely independent sixth grader. Two months before my elementary school graduation, I am relentlessly determined to prove my autonomy to my mom.

My mom, who has been waiting in the parking lot to pick me up, before the bell rings, every, single, day of my entire school career. My mom, who has been to every dance recital, soccer game, swim meet, and activity in between. My mom, who has attended every parent-teacher conference, driven every carpool and pre-quizzed me for every vocab test I’ve ever taken.

My mom who has chaperoned every field trip. Every, single, one.

She never hovers, interferes or gets overly involved. I am confident and outgoing and popular. I don’t need her support, or assistance. Besides, she is preoccupied with the overwhelming needs of the saddest, most pathetic kids in my class: The girl with terrible hygiene and a complete inability to make friends; the one with the chronic motion sickness, seated at the back of the school bus, on a windy road; The kid who misses home, or his dog, or wets his pants. The kid who rips his sweatpants during a team-building exercise or burst into tears at the top of the trust fall.

In every crisis, my mom swoops in to hug them, soothe them and parent them. They attach to her immediately, and refuse to let her go.

I am facing a transition to junior high school and in the market for a badge of maturity. I convince my mom to set aside her permanent chaperone invitation, so I can spend my last week-long field trip, alone.

She loves the multi-day trips the most. She hikes and plays all day, and eats unlimited dessert at night. She gets to show off the acting skills she always talks about, and enthusiastically respond to every request of her thirty, adopted kids.

But in the name of honoring my burgeoning adulthood, she sacrifices her unpaid vacation, and agrees to let me experience my first field-trip ever, without her.

We arrive on Monday. I feel uneasy, but excited. I feel brave like Caddie Woodlawn, and sophisticated like Anne of Green Gables. I am the inspirational heroine protagonist in the historical fiction novel of my own creation. Simultaneously, I feel a rare sensation of ordinary. Suddenly, I’m just like the other kids. I have no back-up plan, or safety net, or personal medicine cabinet, in case I get sick.

On Wednesday morning my hiking group is crossing the peanut butter river on a narrow, wooden plank. I am thoughtfully gazing across the horizon when I see a one-of-a-kind vehicle pull up. My mom’s minivan is the most recognizable family car in all of northern California, maybe the world.

When we meet-up at lunchtime, I pretend to be miffed. I dig into my arsenal of inherited acting skills and express a convincing feeling of betrayal.

Deep down I feel grateful, and relieved.

She sees right through it, but indulges me in an explanation, just the same.

Her mid-week appearance is a compromise. When my mom broke the news of my epic-solo-heroe’s-journey to my sixth grade teachers, protests ensued. Apparently, my commitment to self-sufficiency is equaled in intensity only by my teachers’ obsession with my mom. The success of the week, their school-year satisfaction, possibly the outcome of their entire careers, hinges on my mom’s presence in Marin Headlands, this week.

I can’t blame them. She lives up to the hype.

My mom is vibrant and fun and loving. She laughs openly and loves deeply and makes everyone around her feel special. Even at a young age, I see the way people light up around her. My classmates tease me because the male chaperones have schoolboy-crush googly eyes, whenever she’s around. She is the most loved human around the campfire, on the trail and especially in the dining hall. The teachers love her, the kids love her, even the on-site instructors favorite her obviously and immediately, every time.

And so it was, on that trip, just like the others.

What was supposed to be my first one alone, became our last field trip together.

A year later, as a gawfky, self-determined seventh grader, I spend a week in Ashland Oregon, by myself. During bus rides, and down time, and especially dinner, I feel sadness and emptiness, and longing for the past. I stare hopelessly with envy at a stranger who would some day be my best friend of fifteen years. A girl who had the courage to bring her mom.

My mom and I revive our spirited mother-daughter traveling antics during the summers between my years in high school. We spend multiple five day trips park hopping in Anaheim, CA, luxuriating at the Disneyland hotel. We conquer every attraction on the map, become experts in line movement and crowd management, and eat more main street ice cream sundaes than most people consume in a lifetime.

Even many years and travel miles later, our days together in Disneyland are some of my best.

My mom moved me in to my first dorm room and my first adult apartment. When I got sick my first quarter of college, she spent three days in a Westwood hotel. My first year as director of Mentorship, she left Sacramento before sunrise to share the most memorable sunset of my life.

During law school, and twice as much while I was studying for the bar exam, my mom talked me off the ledge, and out of a personal crisis, multiple times per week. For countless hours, she waited patiently on the other end of a phone call, when the only thing coming through the microphone, were tears.

My mom is my best friend, and my inspiration. She is a daily reminder that the value of life is measured in laughter, and hugs and kindness towards other people. She is as silly and fun and spontaneous as she was two decades ago, serving as the greatest field-trip chaperone, that ever lived.

Two months ago, after a 14 hour work day, I landed in the emergency room on a Wednesday night. I felt pain, and fear, and panic and dread. My mom remained calm and comforting as I spiraled into the emotional space of the neediest kid at the back of the school bus.

When the doctor, with whom I undoubtedly share a birth year, comes in to check on me, confusion is evident across his face. I watch him piece together the why behind the wrinkles in the creases of my eyelids, and the adult chaperone in my room.

To ease the mounting tension, I point out the obvious.

“I brought my mom.”

He nervously shrugs his shoulders and sympathetically narrows his eyes.

When it’s all over, I wouldn’t change a thing.

My mom is my sanity, more than my rock.

At thirty, I need her as much, or more, than I did at thirteen, or twenty, or eight, or five.

I bring her with me when I can, and call her when I can’t. When separated by long distances, we exchange doggie paper cards, and heart shaped emojis. When I can’t see her, or reach her, I close my eyes and feel how she would hug me. Soothe me. Parent me, in person.

I can sense her arms around me, and hear what she has to say.

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.

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.