Thursday, January 31, 2013

Burn, Suby, Burn

It has been a rough year for my family, with health scares, a house fire, tragic deaths, unexpected major expenses and countless other personal tragedies big and small. They seem to come regularly, just about the time I'm settling into feeling normal and thinking the worst is behind me. And then my car catches on fire.

For sale, as-is.
I've always been a little down on my Subaru. I liked driving our previous Subaru, a snappy red Outback nicknamed Ruby Suby. But Ruby was old and unreliable, and the new Outback we found was much better in every way but one: it was white. My mother had driven a white station wagon when we were kids and I wasn't thrilled to be saddled with a mom-mobile. It quickly earned the name Moby Suby, my white whale. It was a good car, though, and I got used to it. At least it wasn't a minivan.

And then yesterday. I had just exited the winding mountain Highway 17 when I noticed some white exhaust behind my car. Not much, but I knew something was wrong. The power steering started to give out as I scanned the dashboard - no oil light, engine temperature normal. I drove along slowly, hoping I could make the 3/4 mile ride home. The smoking continued so I pulled over into a driveway, wondering if I should go on, when a car coming the opposite direction stopped. I wondered why - there wasn't that much smoke. They drove away, and I decided to keep going. Suddenly brown smoke began pouring from the engine. Another car stopped, and the driver yelled out that the car was on fire. I pulled onto the shoulder - luckily there was one here, and it was asphalt. I jumped out and unbuckled Adele, placed her on the hillside and told her stay put. I turned back to grab Lucas, who had already unbuckled himself and jumped right into my arms. The man who had stopped was now dropping road flares and told me to move further away from the car. By now flames were visible under the front of the car and the smoke was dark brown and gray. I began walking down the road and called 911. A fire unit was on the way, they said. Then an SUV pulled up and I saw it was my friend Jayme. We've known each other for 8 years, long before either of us lived in the mountains, and now she lives just down the road. It was a relief, and I started crying. We got into her car and she drove a bit away to a safe spot.

Nothing to do but smile.
The fire unit took a while to arrive. Moby Suby's engine was engulfed in flames as the hood melted away. I worried the hillside might catch fire. The windshield shattered and black smoke poured into the car. I already held no hope that the car would be saved, but now I also knew everything inside would be lost as well. We were all safe though. The kids were watching a DVD in the backseat. After what seemed an eternity the fire truck arrived and it was all over. I had Jayme take the kids to her house while I waited for Philip and the CHP to arrive. Her husband Denzil came by to keep me company on the side of the road. Eventually the wrecker arrived to scrape our car off the melted asphalt and haul it away and that was that.

I have been focusing rather deliberately on the silver linings. No one was hurt. It didn't happen on the fast and shoulderless highway. I did not start a forest fire. Jayme just happened to drive by so I was not alone. And best of all, a nice discovery: I'm pretty cool under pressure. I didn't panic. I knew that despite the scary smoke and flames that engines do not immediately explode, so I was able to calmly get the kids out. They are curious about the situation but not scared or scarred by it at all. I'm shaken now but at the time I held it together fairly well.

I've managed to do this before. When Lucas' forehead was split open on the playground, my brain clicked into a practical mode and reminded me that faces bleed a lot and he was going to be just fine. When Adele began choking on a piece of plastic confetti (a week later, in the exact same spot) I did all the proper Heimlich steps that people around me were instructing, my brain calmly repeating that she as long as she was still breathing she would be just fine. These scary moments pass and I'm left with a good story. Maybe if I were in a truly hopeless situation - trapped somehow or unable to determine what to do next - I would freak out. But so far I've been pretty damn good at moving through frightening moments.

Moby Suby in better times.
There is part of me that finds it easier to deal with sudden tragic events than the everyday business of life. Getting through a day of school pick-up and errands to run, laundry to fold and dinner to make, rushing home in time for naps and running out the door late again for the next appointment. The endless cycle of activity and my inability to shape any kind of routine around it is a constant source of disappointment and frustration. I can't figure out why my daily life is so hard when it sounds simple. Food, sleep, play, housework. So how do I end each day feeling like a failure?

Yesterday I didn't feel at all like a failure. Tragedy strikes and you act and you cope and you move on. Today I'm already back to dealing with the normal stressful routine of life, the naps and meals and laundry, along with arranging the disposal of Moby Suby's charred remains and researching for this weekend's car buying expedition. A minivan may be in my future after all. It's not the end of the world. Just another day in a life.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Unnature Lover

I’m embarrassed to admit, even to myself, that it’s my favorite place. A small bend in the creek under a bridge alongside a running trail. No doubt it’s a pretty spot, thick with tall trees and ivy, and the soft steady sound of water making its way downstream. But there’s no denying the whole thing is man-made. Sure, the creek looks natural enough, but its true course was redirected decades earlier to make way for the nearby freeway. Less than a quarter mile upstream the muddy pebbled banks give way to the sloping sides of a concrete gulch. This pretty little creek is just a spillway for the nearby reservoir. The dangling vines that give the spot a lush look climb at an unnatural diagonal as they follow a power pole support. The flat cement walls on either side of the bridge have been stamped with a repeating pattern of reeds and ducks. It mimics nature, this place, but it’s not natural.

And still I love this spot.

Why here? Why not a breathtaking green and black valley in Hawaii? Or a peak of a mountain with nothing but the sound of the wind through the tall grass? Or the isolated beach along the Lost Coast where I hiked with Philip just two months after we’d met, where I realized – even without really knowing that I was in love with him yet – that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. No, I like this little bend in the river beside a trail that isn’t really natural at all.

In an effort to infuse this spot with meaning I took my children here. I pointed out the hushed sound of the creek, the snaking vines, the tiny pebbles perfect for throwing into the water. When I asked Lucas what he though of it he said, “It’s a place that makes you tired.” How poetic of him, to notice it was a spot that calmed the mind and brought peace. Then I realized he was just telling me he was bored.

But who am I fooling? I’m no outdoorsman. I grew up in a suburb, where the closest thing to nature was the empty field behind our house that was unceremoniously bulldozed one morning to make way for an office complex. For the next week field mice, rabbits and a beautiful red, white and blue San Francisco garter snake – a species now nearly extinct – sought refuge in our backyard. Our family went camping exactly once, in Yosemite, and we didn’t even pitch our own tents. Even the waterways near our home were artificial, a series of lagoons built from landfill to create waterfront communities. So why should the place I love most be something untouched by man when my whole life has played out against a decidedly man-made landscape?

Since moving to the mountains I am more aware of the natural world. But the Los Gatos Mountains aren’t exactly an unspoiled frontier. We have a bit more space than a suburban home but still have neighbors on all sides. We see more wildlife than our flatland counterparts, but not all that much more. I’m ten minutes from a 24-hour grocery store. We aren’t exactly shunning humanity. And I like it that way. I like screens on my windows. Ready access to bathrooms with running water. The camaraderie of a neighborhood community. The comforts of a man-made life. It makes sense that my favorite spot be not so different from the place I choose to live the rest of my life.

So this quiet shady spot is perfect for me. The trail serves a purpose. At any hour of the day people are strolling, running, biking, often with dogs or kids in tow. I like people. Like seeing them enjoying life. I can reach this spot anytime. I don’t even need to stop there to feel the peace it brings me. Running by is enough. Though sometimes I pause and sit on one of the benches perched by the edge of the bank. Just sit and breath and feel good. Yesterday I noticed a third bench, on the other side of the trail just beyond the bridge. A small memorial plaque noted it had been the favorite spot of a woman named Vi. So I’m not alone in loving this place. Not being alone is an important part of it. To be in place surrounded by the activity of people and still feel that quiet wonder, that wonderful calm. There’s a lot to love about a place like that.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

New Year, New Blog, Old Lady, Old Habits

My Dead Grandmother Blog
I must admit I am very proud of the blog design. 
In October I posted about my quest to capture the story of my grandmother. I envisioned writing a book or a series of short stories but have decided to blog about her life, which seems an odd choice considering how infrequently I manage to post here. But short bursts of writing are easier to schedule in, and giving myself a deadline is handy. I'm a rule follower. I always do my homework. So I've launched My Dead Grandmother to blog about the life of Vov√≥ Flora, updated Thursdays.

Starting a new blog and making other resolutions (weekly yoga, meal plans, try something new and scary every month) have me wrestling with the notion of motivation versus discipline. Motivation is so fleeting.
The rush of inspiration, the vow to change, and the inevitable return to the standard routine. My resolutions are doomed to fail if I rely on motivation alone to keep me going. Discipline is required, the drive to keep at something long after the initial thrill has faded. I may not feel like writing a post, but if I am committed to a weekly deadline I'll do it. If I don't want to roll out of bed to exercise (do I ever?) it's discipline that will get me up, not an inspirational quote I found on Pinterest.

Are you inspired yet?
The self-improvement blog Pick the Brain has a good feature by Peter Clemens on the power of discipline when motivation fails. This passage summed up so well what I've been missing from my past resolutions:

Self-discipline involves acting according to what you think instead of how you feel in the moment. Often it involves sacrificing the pleasure and thrill of the moment for what matters most in life. Therefore it is self-discipline that drives you to:
  • Work on an idea or project after the initial rush of enthusiasm has faded away
  • Go to the gym when all you want to do is lie on the couch and watch TV
  • Wake early to work on yourself
  • Say "no" when tempted to break your diet
  • Only check your email a few of times per day at particular times
If I decide something will be good for me, I need to keep at it even when temptation, exhaustion and moodiness drain my resolve. So I start 2013 with more than another list of good intentions, but a better approach to achieve what I'm after. And if I fail, well, that's what this blog is all about. Trying, failing, learning, living.