The final tally

I'm going to tell you this next thing not because it quite haunts me anymore, but because just a few months ago I was so committed to telling this story and I cannot in good conscious just let it appear like it faded away so easily. Admirable- coveted, even- in our world is this stalwart attitude of moving forward without a doubt, of stealing away the ego and preserving emotional resources purely for what is still to come, never wasting a moment on glancing backwards. But I can relate to none of this. Writing this blog has obliterated my chances of that, as if I had a chance to begin with.

Remember that when Andrew and I broke up, I was the first to admit that there was much more involved besides heartbreak, besides the pure and acceptable emotions of missing a partner that left my life abruptly. There was ego, self doubt, the sour disbelief of somebody new? And of course, the shame and inconvenience of breaking up at a time when everyone around me, it seemed, was getting engaged and getting married and settling down, thanks a lot, Facebook. It was a real bouquet of shadowy, twisty unpleasantness.

So I was genuinely interested to see how all these things had healed, assuming they'd healed, after many months and lots and lots of hard work. I was curious, cautiously so, and also I missed Andrew, mostly the way you miss an old friend, and I wanted to see him. After all, we'd never intended to never see each other again ever, although after I move that will probably be the case.

So we met up a few weeks ago. It had been four months since I'd seen him, and he'd been pretty stiff and I'd been pretty drunk and then I cried at the table. After that fun night you understand my lingering reticence for another dinner, or (even worse) a chance run in.  I'd been dutiful at avoiding old neighborhoods and climbing gyms. And once again I'll  say this was not because he did anything wrong. It was simply because I was doing worse than him, I was taking it much harder.

(This doesn't surprise me. I'm a highly sensitive person on most fronts. One Skittle can ignite a migraine in my brain that will lasts for days, if consumed in the wrong weather or the wrong time of day or on an airplane. Caffeine makes me high as a kite. And my feelings, thoughts and emotions are fierce. I think it's why I'm a writer and why my life is, or at least appears to be sometimes, maybe a little bit unusual.

I take medicine to help curb the sensitivity. If I didn't mention that I would be lying in every post that I write. It take one pill that acts as a migraine preventative, sleeping aide, anti anxiety and anti depressant. I've been on and off of it for years. I can write more on that later.)

So anyhow, Andrew and I meet for a classic climbing and dinner combo, and I learn pretty quickly what has healed and what is still in rehab. The big wins came early: I wasn't nervous, not particularly concerned with what I wore or what my hair looked like, and when he first walked in I felt nothing but happiness. But then we ran into some people and I realized that agreeing to meet at the big crowded public climbing gym may have been a huge mistake.

The people we ran into were some of his friends who I don't know, who had no idea who I am, and who immediately start asking about his girlfriend and where she was and why she isn't there, and all the fun times they had, the lot of them, on climbing trips these past few months.

This felt, for me, just pretty uncomfortable and painful and also just kind of annoying. But my mind was split on the issue. The self preservation side of me was thinking 'what in hell life decisions did you possibly make that landed you here, now, with these people? Flee!' While the other half, perhaps the logical side, was thinking 'buttercup, it might be time to toughen up. You're fine. He's fine. We're all fine.'

In the end, yeah, it's good to feel what you feel, but at some point you do have to toughen up, buttercup, not that I'd ever suggest meeting up with an ex at a climbing gym, those things range from big playground full of friends to HOUSE OF EMOTIONAL TORTURE.

We went out to eat. That was easier. Dinner was nice. Andrew is just a nice guy all around, he was kind and inquisitive and interested in my life. And he seems to be supremely winning at life, which I tried not to resent him for. My friend Dave told me that if I get competitive and start comparing my life to his life, or her life, or anybody else's life, that's a good way to go crazy quickly. Because you can never win. Ever. 

Then at the end, as we were saying goodbye on the street, he said I should meet his girlfriend and I said oh no way. He said we'd probably really hit it off and guys, you need to stop saying that, because of course we'd get along. But your mere existence might prevent that from happening for a little bit.

We hugged goodbye and then I drove home and cried until my ears filled up with tears.


Because I was lying on my back and so the tears slid sideways off my face and into my ears.

Oh, why was I crying? Because Andrew and I had had a really good relationship and I missed that. Simple. For once, simple.

Seth says I have to stop beating myself up for having feelings. He pointed towards his broken thumb and said, "My thumb hurts because I broke the bone. Would you ever tell me that I'm weak for feeling the pain?"

I said no.  He looked at me for a long time and said, "....sooo......"

I get it.

Okay, so here's the final tally:

Heart: just fine (what a workhorse!)
Stomach: can still twist a little if I sit down and think about things, but mostly just hungry, and
                  very flat (!)  
Brain: pretty much concerned with other things
Ego: still bent, but can easily be distracted by posing in sports bra in a full length mirror (see  
         stomach, above.)
Envy: still blocking any people on FB who might post photos of andrew and his girlfriend, so I
           suppose still in recovery?
Senses: mostly returned
Humor: working on it, for christ's sake

the art of swimming to shore

1. We know you have tried valiantly to shut out the type of useless information that will cause you pain. You don't see the point of going to the old spots, of possibly running into him, of seeing who he's with. He didn't do anything wrong, but you're just trying to take care of yourself.  We appreciate your effort. But we think it's important that you know, anyway. So we arrange for you to find out. You see a picture. Him with somebody new. Carefree, happy. On a trip. Just one picture, we thought that it would be okay.

2. You're writing on a Sunday night, drinking a hot chocolate instead of coffee. This is generally when you write, you like the midnight deadline and how it forces you to organize your thoughts. You're a last minute kind of girl. You just submitted two articles, to glowing praise from the editor, and you've got that little surge of triumph. You're doing so well, just in general, we thought it would be okay. You're working full time, and all the skiing. You have just about everything you need and then some. You've lost ten pounds. You look great. Really.

3. So your reaction, we have to admit, confuses us. You do not take it well. You grab your stomach like you've just been punched, rush to close the offensive window on the computer. You're frustrated- this is what you didn't want to happen. You pack up quickly, hands skittering across the table, in a hurry. When you reach the door there is a table full of police officers who turn and smile at you. You smile back. Then you go outside and start to cry.

4. It's extremely foggy outside, a freezing fog. Very strange weather. Watch out for those runaway trains.

5. You're crying very hard now. Maybe you shouldn't be driving.

6. We really don't think you ought to be driving.

7. You're becoming a little hysterical. You sob until you start to cough, gripping the steering wheel, trying to navigate through the blanket of fog and the distorted lens of tears. Then you pull over and throw up the hot chocolate. There goes four dollars, you think blankly, a little surprised.

You're not the only one who is surprised. This reaction, while not altogether illogical, is certainly unnecessary. It seems to be a bit out of nowhere. You're a puzzle.

8. As you stand by the side of the road, feeling spinny, it occurs to you that you might be going through a fairly significant depression.

9. Now we're starting to feel a little uneasy. You sort of had us fooled; we thought you were farther along than this. So did you, apparently. You're back on the road. You shouldn't be alone. We arrange for a friend to call at that moment, we pull some strings. It's the least we can do.

10. You wind up at your friends' house, a decision which causes us great relief. It's ten thirty at night, they were already in bed. She leads you to the couch, takes you fully into her arms like you're a kid. Your forehead is hot. She soothes you as if you were her own daughter. Her own daughter is sleeping in the nursery just a few yards away. As a courtesy, you cry silently.

8. Then he gets up and sits with you for a few minutes. He's known you since you were fifteen, he was your high school teacher, of all things, but he's never seen you like this. There are big tears running down your face. He says, "those are some big tears." You sleep in a bed in their basement.

9. We're struggling with the idea that we may have jumped the gun. Maybe you were right, that ignorance is bliss. But we really thought you ought to know. The baby cries all night and keeps you half awake. You're aware of those transitions that normally occur during sleep: the sadness melting and forming a new shape, something that feels more like exhaustion, but in a good way, like a ship finally pulling away from the harbor and slowly fading out of site. By morning you've realized this: it's not going to get any worse. In this realization there is an endless supply of relief.

10. We understand the cliche of a writer writing about depression, coming up with shaky metaphors that work, barely, to both explain how it feels and to keep it a little bit at arm's length. But that's what you get to do now. Maybe for better, maybe worse, definitely a little surreal and probably lacking in judgement, but we'll make sure you're capable of it. It might make it all worth it in the end.

Like we said, it's the least we can do.

adventures of the paper heart (3)

I am a very vivacious and secure person with a stunning imagination and potential for creative thinking.  I know this because lately, I've been taking these online questionnaires about character traits and happiness and this is what they all tell me.

If you must know, I rank pretty low on modesty, humility, caution, prudence, discretion, spirituality, faith and sense of purpose.
I'm aware of this creativity, and how it's set me apart from some and brought me closer to others and steered me across the globe for the past fourteen years. It makes problem solving not easy but always interesting. The flip side to this vivid imagination, however, is that when life takes the inevitable turn for the worse, I am capable of crafting a perfectly designed, artful, sublime sort of sadness.

Unnecessary sadness, I think. I really commit to it, the first to dive down the rabbit hole, conjuring bad omens out of thin air, swirling consciously downward. I throw back a handful of the blue pills when all I really needed was one or two. I fill my whole self up with sadness and then tip over and pour it into the world around me. And then it takes a really long time to crawl out.

Which is why Ryan, who knows me very well, ripped me from that sad place just as I was beginning to wrap my knuckles around its handlebars and get a good grip. I was crying when he picked me up from my house and during that sleepless night in his guest room I was crying and when he hauled me into his car and drove East on 1-90 I was still crying. Seattle was being hosed by this incredible rainstorm with standing water on the highway and the white lights of cars all blurred and I saw my misery reflected in the rain and oh, what a lonely, achingly sad place!

As one might imagine, this type of gratuitous, head over heals emotion is exhausting and I eventually fell asleep, to the great relief of the driver, and when I woke up we were somewhere in  Idaho.

We continued to roll east, hour after hour, past larches flaming in gold and patches of mountains actually flaming in wildfire, churning heavy grey smoke into the atmosphere. The air was thin and brittle and chilly and burned a little in my lungs. The landscape was arid and open and so very different than the glassy, wet city we'd left behind us.

We stopped at a gas station, a building in shambles, Ryan bought a grape soda as a breakfast drink and the attendant had no teeth. It was there that I unlocked the door, fell out of the car and started to feel better.
For a week, Ryan and our friend Sebby, who lives in Whitefish, continued the process of picking me up and dusting me off. And they did a remarkable job of it.

I love the practical problem solving strategies of men, which differs so greatly from the nurturing instincts of women. They approached me as something broken, but like anything broken I could very well be glued back together by following a simple set of instructions. "Fix it, fuck it, or punch it," is a term I've heard them use before. There was no sitting around wrapped in blankets talking it out, no agonizing hours debating the meaning and merits hiding behind every word in every conversation.

Part of this is due to the fact that Andrew and I broke up very cleanly. But amicable or not, my paper heart still repulses at the idea of he didn't want me. And thank God, the boys left me no room to wallow. They talked entirely in movie quotes and refused to indulge me in the circle-talking of the recently heartbroken. "What do I do now?" I'd ask from where I sat, sunk into the booth at dinner, suddenly overcome by a fog of sadness.

"Shoot the hostage, take him out of the equation!" they'd say, and laugh, and go on talking about whatever they'd been talking about.

The self-pitying observations and pointlessly nostalgic comments did not interest them and after a few days they stopped interesting me, too.
I spent the daylight hours alone, working at my computer at Montana Coffee traders, the cheerful hub of the town decorated in white christmas lights. The cafe saw a steady stream of patrons, all the men were handsome in ski hats and all the women wore sweaters and vests and tights and boots and I looked exactly like them. I spent hours of each day in that place, half working, half watching.

In the evenings the two boys collected me from town and brought me to their luxurious gym. They taught me their grueling core workouts and their weight workouts. We swam in the pool and sat in the sauna. They took me out to dinner and forced me to order something other than soup. One evening I ate half of a hamburger and Ryan said, "Oh, hey, welcome back to life!"

At night we made bonfires and kept a fire in the wood stove and soaked in the hot tub under a bright white spray of stars and blowing snow squalls. We cooked food and watched movies and played board games.
What I really loved was the bars. The bars of Whitefish are full of skiers and country boys, sweatshirts and Carharts and patagonia jackets and old men playing ping pong. Everybody has a beard. I'd go alone or with the boys or with my friend Lauren, a tall, gorgeous butterfly of a woman who laughed loudly and knew everybody. I'd go to the Great Northern or the Brewery or the Palace. After only two days out there, I started smiling at strangers, gauging their reactions, basking in my complete anonymity yet undeniable power of being a girl in this wild place. People either ignored me or smiled at me, introduced themselves or didn't. After a few evenings I started learning their names, nodding at them when they got their coffee in the next day.
And I felt okay. I felt happy, actually, but mostly I what I felt was a staggering relief at having escaped. Even thinking about the confused cells in my body doing the wrong things at the wrong time was okay with me. It didn't scare me so much.

The only time that big ball of sadness lodged in my throat threatened to rear up and choke me was when I thought about returning to Seattle. The new house, shabby and unfamiliar, the wet weather, the dark afternoons and terrible traffic. I knew when I went home I'd have to cope with missing Andrew, and it would be my job to grind through that sadness and face the winter without him.

A week went by, and when Ryan was getting ready to drive home I told him to leave without me. I packed up most of my things into his car and said goodbye to my dog. They drove away early in the morning, and I bought a bus ticket to Missoula to go see Nici, my old friend whom I've never met.
It feels like Nici brought me back to myself, but that's not entirely true. What she did is show me that I'd never really left in the first place.

I still have not gone back to Washington.


I'm sitting in a waiting room with all the pregnant women who are waiting to see grainy, slow motion movies of their babies. I'm nervous, visibly so, and if anyone notices me they might assume that it's my first appointment and I'm one of those women who never saw this coming. And they would be right- I didn't see this coming. But I'm not pregnant.

In the dark room, the ultrasound tech is not interested in talking with me. I'm lying on the table, shaking, trying to force myself to calm down. She is looking at a monitor that makes alternating clicking and beeping sounds, studying the images with a concentrated frown. I tell her I'm scared. "Do women always get scared about this sort of thing?" I ask, hoping for some reassurance.

She does not take her eyes off of the screen. "I don't know. Everybody is different."

"That's such a cop out answer," I snap back. And then I regret it. Don't be rude, I tell myself. She is helping you, even if it doesn't feel like it.

After a few minutes of silence, she prints out the images and stands up. "I don't see anything alarming, but your exam is only half over. I'm going to go show this to the radiologist. Then we have to put a camera up inside you and get a better look."

I sit up halfway. "What? My doctor didn't say anything about that."

She shrugs. And she says, "Don't worry. Most women find it tolerable."

Tolerable would be an accurate way to describe it. Nerve wracking, uncomfortable, but not the worst of the exams I've had during the last two weeks, as a host of doctors try and find the cause of the ubiquitous, searing pain in my abdomen.
Bouts of pain have come and gone for years, with spells of normalcy in between that are so long that I never worried too much. It got a little more prevalent this summer while I was on the boat. And since I didn't want my appendix to burst in Glacier Bay or the I'm-sure-it-must-be-cancer to spread to my lymph nodes as I talked about whales to passengers, I went to the doctor during a turn day in Juneau. The Jones Act paid for it.

The woman in Juneau told me it sounded like an ovarian cyst and that it would take care of itself. Then she gave me a prescription for Klonopin because maybe it was all in my head.

But it didn't take care of itself. It got worse and worse and worse. Something kicking me in the lower back repeatedly, a twisting, molten, agonizing pain twisting inside my abdomen.

Finally, on a backpacking trip with Andrew, it got so bad I could not walk. I lay down on the trail in a beautiful open valley and gripped at grass with my fists. This can't be normal, I said to him, breathlessly, urging him to scramble up the peak without me. This cannot be normal.

So the melange of doctors visits began. A woman reached her hand up inside of me and pressed on things- does this hurt? "No." Does this hurt? "Yes. Why- do you feel something?"

This is what I do- I try to jump to the bad news before the bad news jumps on me. Do you feel something? Is something wrong? Are you thinking we aren't working out? Are you losing interest?

When she said yes, she did felt something, I was surprised. I didn't expect her to actually say yes. I thought I'd hear what I usually do: that it was nothing out of the ordinary, it would go away on its own, it could be in your head anyway.

And so I was sent to wait with the happily pregnant women as it bucketed rain outside. The uninterested tech and the tolerable cameras. And afterwards, I couldn't stop shaking and feeling terrible about everything. I drank half a bottle of wine and made dinner and Andrew took me out to a movie, and later I cried on his couch and he said all the right things so perfectly.

The ultrasound pictures came back, a few days late but completely normal, and my doctor called and said that it was good news, but it meant we had to keep looking. She asked if I could come in the next day and see another doctor. So I did, another hand reaching up, pressing, asking if it hurt.

This new doctor was very kind and told me she'd taken her two little boys on a Disney cruise over the summer and how much they'd all enjoyed it. And then she asked me a bunch of questions, and I said yes to nearly all of them, and she said it.

"I think you may have endometriosis.

"What we need to do now is take a CT scan of your abdomen. I'd put you on hormonal medicine, but I see in your chart you have migraines with aura, so we can't do that. Let's start with the CT scan."

Endometriosis. It's something I've suspected since I was nineteen. Because some things just could not be normal. I've brought it up a few times, only to be brushed aside by doctors. "Have you tried Advil? Stretching?"

Endometriosis is not a disease that is cured, it's a condition that's managed. It's painful, but it's not the pain I'm worried about so much. It's the possible complications, which could mean, although does not guarantee, that it's really difficult to have kids.

The diagnosis has to be made definite, and then the options and treatment and answers to questions I am not letting myself look up on the internet. I'm waiting a little bit, because my friend Ryan said he was going to take me to his cabin in Montana for a week and get me away from everything.
On Tuesday night I lay there in the dark of his guest room with my bags packed and lined up at the door. Andrew and I broke up on Monday, which may sound like horrible timing, but we've been talking about it for a long time. And I was so dreading the lonely, longing time that would come after our break up that I just wanted to get it over with. And so we did and it was sad, but it was graceful because I prevented myself from saying no, please, forget about it, this is a terrible idea. Or I may have said that anyway. I don't remember.

And so between losing Andrew and letting anxiety take me on a spinning wheel of worst case scenarios, I didn't fall sleep. I lay there awake until Ryan came in at three fifty in the morning to get me up.

"I made it easy for you," I whispered. "I didn't fall asleep."

Ryan turned the light on and looked at me. He said, "Uh oh, hot stuff."

He texted the friends we were going to see: Lina is a wreck. Then he hauled me into the car and drove me all the way to Whitefish, Montana, which is where I am now.

A Tiny Thing Heads North

Everything on the ship is so small- the bunks and passageways and tiny bathrooms- and all the doors are remarkably heavy. The watertight door to the crew cabins make me fear for my fingers. I've become acutely aware of my fingers, actually, how very small and fragile they are, how quickly they'd crush inside those iron doors or snap in two inside a taut line when we are docking.

And then there is the utterly fearsome, wrought iron anchor that makes a sound like the earth splitting in two when dropped.

In two days I've logged 28.5 hours of work. Its safe to say I've been in a complete daze through all of it, except for the two times I've cried in my cabin, then the daze sort of broke and it felt nasty. Last night however I gave a presentation I put together about the nautical origins of certain phrases, and I felt a bit more myself now that I was the whole show. It went over well and everybody liked it, and I didn't use the microphone I just projected across the whole big room. So today all the guests are coming up to me and saying what a good loud voice I have for "such a tiny thing."

That makes me feel about seven years old, which is a funny thing to feel when you are the head medic and reaching into people's mouths to examine their infected teeth.

I've got to go now, we're sailing away from Friday Harbor and North into Canada in a little bit. From now on I'll only have internet once every week.

If you want to write me a postcard, or a letter, or a story, a letter of encouragement, a pep talk, the story of your own toughest job, the story of your own thriving, or surviving, sinking or swimming or quitting or breaking or whatever.....send it here. My friends have strict demands to write me often. If you are a reader and we've never met, well, now is the time my friends. I welcome your love or your Harden The Fuck Up speeches, whichever you see fit. In return, I'll patch up your teeth if ever they break.

Melina coogan, safari Endeavour.
C/o inner sea discoveries. 
PO box 33579, Juneau Alaska 99803 
Write me everybody. 

Write my story for me

Leaving Seattle

May 28th Day 2 Anchored somewhere in the San Juan Islands, Washington.

I cried in my room today, twice, once out of pure frustration and once out of sadness. I should never have taken this job, is what I was thinking. I really shouldn't have gotten on this ship.

I was standing in the bathroom of the tiny, windowless room, afraid my roommate, another guide, would walk in. Therefore I was forced to look at myself in the mirror as I cried, never something one wants to do.

This will not work, I thought. It will not be like this.

This is the time to find humor- the deeply buried humor and appreciation of irony that my wonderful, dry, Midwestern mom and Bostonian dad imparted on me.

 The fact that on this 8,000 dollar a week cruise the toilets don't work is a great start. The fact that on an 8,000 dollar a week cruise the toilets don't work is the greatest thing that's ever happened to me.

 Everything that happens on this boat is a story being written. Everything that now makes me crazy or furious or frustrated is merely my story being written for me. This is my autobiography being cranked out.

And all I have to do is do my job and laugh at everything and stand my ground. So the people that challenge me, I do what they say if what they say is reasonable. If its unreasonable, maybe I do it anyway. Maybe I have to do. Go ahead, I say inside my head. Write my story for me. Do your worst. I want it to be a good one.

Leave the Pieces?

We're outside of a Dennys in a town East of Seattle. Andrew and I have been climbing for two days straight in hard, cold wind, and we're both wrecks. The last two places we stopped at were closed, so when I see the lights inside the Diner and the people sitting amibically in their booths, I throw out my hand in a wild gesture- half celebration, half invitation for Andrew to hurry out of the car. My iphone goes flying out of my hand and lands- smack!- right on its screen on the cement, the Apple equivalent of the C4 vertebrae.

Andrew scraped it off the floor and gingerly hands it back to me, his expression nervous. My phone is toast. This will be expensive. But it's okay. I have a job now. It's no big deal.

A few days later I'm driving on I-5, with capitol hill on my right and downtown Seattle on my left, when a stone jumps up from the road and pops me right in the windshield. It leaves behind a pock the size of a quarter, with cracks spider webbing out of it like something gone septic. I know what happens if you ignore those little chips- they weaken and weaken the windshield from the outside until one day the whole thing crashes down on you, maybe while you're driving out to the CVS to get a bag of chips or something, and you dead.

 It's okay. I have a job now, and I can pay for the little things that come up.
 It's not long after that that I leave my house in the morning to say goodbye to Andrew at his car. I have no shoes, no wallet or phone, no dog, no house keys, no cell phone keys, no gum, no hairbrush, none of the necessary thing. In the thirty seconds it takes to tell Andrew to Have A Lovely Day at the Job, my roommate leaves for the day, locks the door behind him and cheerfully bikes down the hill to work.

 Thoroughly locked out and completely alone, I slice through my screen with a railroad spike and tumble headfirst into the house. The rescreening is a pain in the ass. I can't reach the screws without a ladder. I have no ladder. I can't get to the Tweety and Pop hardwear during business hours because I'm on the boat during normal business hours, and also during abnormal business hours. So my friend Tyrel offers to do it, because he carries a ladder in his car and he is The Best Man In The World. This I say with confidence.

The rescreening only cost 30 bucks, which is nothing. I have a job now.

 I'm driving with Randal out of the ship yard and something bumps underneath the wheel. "What the hell is wrong with your car?" He asks. I tell him I have no idea. It's normally such a good car. What was wrong with the car was something about the break pads and that's all I could understand about that. It cost exactly the cost of ten re-screenings, plus tax.

 This all leads me to yesterday, the big grand daddy of them all. I'm waiting for my cousins to share a bowl of Pho with me at our usual Pho spot in Ballard. It's the day before the day before I leave for Alaska, and I want to eat Pho because it's 5 dollars a bowl and after all those damn repairs I can't afford anything else, job or no job. It had been another long and slightly demoralizing (can you be slightly demoralized? or do you have to really commit to it?) day at the boat. I asked for a hot chrysanthemum tea with honey, for the comfort, and then I threw it all over my computer. Not just my computer, but also the table, the chair, and my legs. I don't know, I just lost control of my hand or something. I jumped up- the woman who lifts a car off her child- and I shook my beautiful, silver, perfect, soothing, glowing Macbook like I was trying to make a deaf baby out of it. I toweled off the keyboard and I knew that it was bad. I oscillated between blinking back tears and really just letting loose with the sobs.
 In the end, I chose to save the sobs for the poor fool at the Genius bar who had the misfortune of getting me as a customer. I was crying so hard in that Apple store I almost expected a nurse to appear and gently but firmly pull the partition. My computer, as it turned out, didn't want to drink any tea. It zapped the logic board (what the hell is a logic board) to the tune of 800 dollars. Not only had I poured tea onto the keyboard, but then I'd dunked the thing into a box of rice, on the advice of a friend, hoping it would dry it out. It may well have dried it out. But it also filled the thing with rice. Tilt my computer to the side and it sounded like an African Rain Stick.

 The computer, the music, the photos, the laboriously pieced together Power Points on Nautical Terminology "Nauty Terms!" and the ethnobiology of Alaksa. I needed those things to keep my sanity and to keep my job. Without that computer and all the painstakingly gathered naturalist information and caches of bear photos for all the presentations were supposed to do- without that computer I don't even need to get on that boat. All my work is on that computer.

 I'm also the head medic on the boat and an expedition guide but none of that seemed to matter at the moment. Everything I need for my job is on that computer and nobody can talk me out of that statement.
Andrews hands on a Denny's menu
However, when you don't have 800 dollars, whether or not to spend 800 dollars is an easy choice. I continued to cry- real tears here, dripping all over the counter top, the genius recoiled as I tucked my computer back into its pink carrying case, like wrapping a dead dog in its favorite blankie. I bought an external keyboard with some hope that a half miracle would occur and the computer could march on with an artificial limb.

Before I left, the Genius opened my computer and picked out the grains of rice with a pair of tweezers.

I already spent my first two paychecks from the boat trying to fix all the shit I broke in preparing for the boat in the first place. If I don't get out of here tomorrow I'm going to break something else, maybe myself or a major bridge.

Luckily or unluckily, we are sailing tomorrow. We're starting our two week journey up the inside passage to Alaska and from now whatever I break, Bosun will fix and I won't have to pay a god damned thing.

Tough As

I got my Xtra Tuffs- the Alaskan sneaker, they call it. I got my pair at the Marine Supply, which is where I shop now. Randall went with me and we made a big thing out of it.

Then Randall up and left for Alaska on his own boat, The Wilderness Explorer, and that's that. He went off and left me here at the Harbor tapping my foot. The Endeavor is the last boat in the fleet to sail North.

And Andrew left this morning, on an airplane to California. As I drove home from the airport I stopped at REI and stood staring at a row of coffee mugs for a long time. But I couldn't make up my mind, because I was trying hard not to think, so I just went home without anything. So I'm left here tonight in my bed alone, in my empty room, and the dog is eyeing me with suspicion and she refuses to lie next to me.

I'm wondering, on Sunday when it's my turn to go, will I actually be ready?

I should have bought a coffee mug. Or something off of The List That Won't Shrink.

But I had just seen my all my big walls and ski cabins and river camping and restaurants, all my thrill and excitement and comfort walk onto a plane and away from me for a long time. I wasn't good for anything after that.

The Fish on the Dock

There are two stories I could tell right now. The first one is the triumphant story where I sleep on the side of the road next to roaring Icicle creek, climb eight pitches up Orbit, take pictures of Andrew's bloody fingers at the summit, stand at the edge of the cliff in the cold wind and hike out by moonlight. The story that I like to tell, the one where I'm strong and energetic and healthy, falling asleep in the passenger seat as Andrew drives down I-90 in a torrential rainstorm, safe after yet another big adventure, bringing us back to a city brimming with everything familiar.  The life that I've carved out just right.
The second story is that one where I'm failing, flailing, flopping around- picture a single fish in a net on the dock- the one where I'm late to everything, where I get lost, literally lost, in the passageways in the ship and I'm scared of my own room because there are no windows and it's next to the engine room and it's loud. The part where I'm exhausted and overwhelmed and fantasizing about quitting and falling asleep during the expedition team meeting and crying in my car to Randal, and my tears are white with salt which means I'm very very dehydrated because I can't find the water on the ship. That story where I'm sea-sick when I'm on dry land and the world is constantly tipping around me and the dog sits alone in the house all day and it's back to sleeping pills at night.
The transition into boat world has been tough. It feels like hell. I'm fairly certain I'm not doing a good job at it, and I always do a good job. With everything. Except this. As it turns out, two full time lives is one too many. 
One of our vessels, the Safari Spirit, burned down at the harbor last week, and the crew has been laid off or thrown in to a new job, a demotion by necessity, onto a new ship. The Safari Endeavour is still afloat, with a full crew working every hour of every day to get it ready for embarkation, and I should be so grateful that it was not my ship that burned. But all I can think is, if it had been, if I had been on the Spirit, I could go home, and crawl into bed, and go back to my normal life and nobody could blame me because my ship no longer existed. 
Of course, I can always just gloss over it. Glossing is an art, like everything else, and I've mastered it. I've mastered the wild, envy-inducing elevator pitch of my life:

I'm going to live aboard a boat, and soon we're heading to Southeast Alaska and I'll be there all summer leading kayak trips through Glacier Bay and being a medic and on the weekends, until we leave the harbor, I go on these huge climbing adventures.
You see? Look how I can word it so that everything sounds so perfect.

I'd rather tell it like that.

I'd rather not tell the second story at all, because I don't want anyone to know what a rough time I'm having, how terrible I am right now at my job, at my own life.

A Rousing Round of Pain Comparison

Last Saturday saw my complete transformation from a cool, composed, avalanche-savvy, skiing back country no-big-deal kind of hot shot to a crying, convulsing mass of wimp, writhing in the middle of a snow crusted parking lot as day trippers and their dogs gingerly stepped over me. In just under five hours!

A personal best.

You may be wondering, at this moment, about my use of hyperbole. "What she really such a hot shot at the beginning of the day? Was she actually convulsing? Could it be that she is just exaggerating to make me want to read this?"

Honorable questions. 

I will say this. As we were gearing up at the trail head, I felt like a million bucks. My general pre-adventure excitement was laced with the clear-eyed, stoic certainty that comes with beginning a long journey. On this morning, I was finally becoming a backcountry skier, a process that began a year ago when I first started to aggregate the expensive and elaborate set up. 

To everyone else, I looked like a normal girl with unusually thick hair putting on skis with maybe not so great balance. But sometimes I write about how things feel inside of my own head instead of how they are in reality. It's much more fun that way.

To answer the second question, yes, I was actually convulsing at the end of the day. Just my legs. But still. 

You ready to hear the story now or what?

I've been downhill skiing since I was 8 and I love it. But the one bad thing about skiing is it requires you to wake up early. I have a really hard time with this. I'm so bad at it that even setting an alarm makes me  anxious, and I have to distance myself from the reality of the situation. I'm like, 6:00? Yes, I recognize that those are numbers. I'm going to program this onto my phone and at some point it will make a noise, and I will rise from bed and I'll be awake, just like I am now. This will go fine

Then 6:00 am rolls around and it's terrible. It feels like I'm deep under a pond of pain. I'm always surprised by just how bad it actually is. I've nearly pulled the plug on my life's best adventures because of how miserable I felt in the morning. I always toy with the idea of calling my friends and trying to explain the gravity of the situation-"you don't understand, I think there is actually something wrong with me. I feel very heavy. I can't move. I was having a dream and now I'm very disoriented. Go on without me." 

But eventually I do get up, pull it together a little and slump my way to the shower. After the shower I sit on the bathroom floor with my head in my hands wondering what life is all about and why it has to hurt like it does. What kind of God are you? Then I put my clothes on. I load the car, turn on the radio, crank on the heater full blast, listen to a few good songs on low volume, sip some water and steer the vehicle towards somewhere that sells coffee.
If I can get to this point, I think -maybe. Maybe I can keep this up. 

This is how Saturday morning begins. By the time I meet Erika and Chris at the park and ride, I'm just beginning to side with the the Let's stay awake and give this day a try side of my brain.  
It's snowing heavily on the drive out to the Cascades. My extreme highway-in-snow anxiety is a nice perk up, and I'm wide awake by the time we get to the trail head. Awake and feelin good. As I pull my gear out of the car I have this really smug feeling because I'm on my new AT set up. I've got an avalanche beacon strapped to my chest and a shovel in my pack in case I have to dig out a comrade. And I'm going to be good at this, I can just feel it. I am one hell of an athlete, aren't I. 

So I'm acting all confident, cracking a few jokes, attaching my skins, giving out nods to the people schlepping by in their snow shoes (slow shoes!) and cross country skis. Hang with me now, guys, but we're gonna blow past you and go places you can only dream about. Because I'm not sure if you've noticed, but these are AT skis I have here. All Terrain.

No wait- that's not right. Alpine Touring is what I meant to say. Damn it I do that every time. These are Alpine Touring skis. As in backcountry. As in, I ski backcountry all the time. As in 'I might not make your birthday party, depending on snow conditions in the backcountry.' It's just much cooler than anything else ever. Yeah, I earn my turns. Yeah, my cheeks are always this windblown. Is that my boyfriend on the cover of that magazine about snow? No, but it could be. He does look just like that. 

I am one solid tour away from being that girl. It's all I've ever wanted. 

Then I try and put on my boot, and this is when when things start to go wrongity wrong. 

Getting your AT boots fitted is a relatively involved process. The dude at Second Ascent covers your feet in gel packs, heats the liners in a special oven and then presses your feet into different positions inside the shells for half an hour. In the end, the interior of the boots are perfectly molded to your feet and obviously very comfortable.  

The one important thing to remember is that you, as the owner of your feet, have to do a little bit of communicating with the dude. As in, "That's too tight." Or, "I think my toes are jammed." Or, "Why don't we try a larger size? These don't feel right."

This is especially important for someone with severe frostbite scarring and needs extra room in the boots for warmers and three pairs of socks. I'm referring to myself here. 

And I had a difficult time with it, the communicating part. Not because I have any problem stating my opinion or asking for what I want. Far from it. It's just that my self assertiveness goes up in smoke when someone touches me. I love being touched. I become the most agreeable and easy to get along with person on the planet. My best friends know this, and whenever I'm being overly excited or difficult about something (which never happens) they'll just reach out and stroke my arm and I'll become immediately quiet and docile.

One year ago,  I went into my neighborhood gear store with the intention of buying a perfectly sized and extremely expensive ski set up. What ended up happening was that I got a kind-of foot massage for an hour and walked away with some boots perfectly fit for a twelve year old. 

Also, the dude doing the fitting was a little suspect. He kept calling me 'Man.' He kept saying, "I only do this job so I can ski, man. Just so I can get out skiing. Man, I hate working retail." He'd push my foot down into the shell and it would hurt, but then the warmth of the boot lining would start to relax me. "I just hate working with people, man. I think I just hate working." 

And I'm sorry to say it, but him squeezing around on my ankles was probably the most physical contact I'd had in months, so I probably started to connect with him and by the end of the conversation I was just like, you're right. This isn't about me and these boots I'm about to buy. That was rude of me to even think like that. Let's talk about you and how terrible it is that you have to have a job. 

Then I gave him four hundred dollars and took the boots home. I did one quick tour with them, up and down at Hyak mountain, and was so busy congratulating myself for being such an adventurous jack of all trades that I didn't notice the blue and yellow bruising in my feet the next day. And then a year passed.  

So here we are, it's this beautiful winter day, and I'm feeling like a total champ. Except I can't fit my foot into my boot. I shove my foot down, then raise the whole thing and whack the boot on the ground with all my might. My foot is being compressed in every direction- pushed in from above, up from below, in from both sides. It feels like something is trying to squeeze my toes to touch the bottom of my heal, making my foot into a loop. Foot loops.

After I squeeze both feet somewhat down there, then I have to fasten all the buckles, which is  excruciating. There is no way I can leave the parking lot with my feet and shins in that much pain. But, if I leave the boots completely unfastened and pulled open at the top, I can sort of shuffle around. We start skinning up, and I immediately drop behind. I'm dragging my feet, not getting any distance into my strides. 

I'd always thought that when I finally made it out touring I'd look really pretty doing it, but also unusual and mysterious, like Taylor Swift on skis. But I don't. I look like an old person trying to walk on the beach.

Chris waits for me around the first turn. "How do they feel?" He asks. My response is something confused and indefinite, like "....I feel.....ahhhh....?" I don't want to turn around, but I don't want him thinking that this is how I always look when I ski. 

He frowns. "If your boots don't fit, we can just go into North Bend and get sauced. It's not worth suffering for." Erika nods in agreement. And I know they're both sincere about turning around and giving up a whole day of skiing. I've managed to sift through the masses of self involved assholes in this outdoor world and find the most un-selfish people in the whole tribe. 

But there's no way I'm going to admit defeat this early. I've been so stuck in the city lately, feeling irritable and antsy, working in front of the computer convinced that this is it, my life is no longer fun, just put me on an ice flow for chrissake. I have to get out and ski.  The thought of sitting around all day, then getting home before dark to sit around some more is far more excruciating then the pain in my feet.

Three hours later, when we're still skinning up, nothing is more excruciating than the pain in my feet. To keep my mind from shutting down, I play a little game. I call it the pain comparison game, and it's a lot of fun. "Is this more painful than...frostbite? Is this worse than migraines? Kidney Failure? That time I broke off the top of my pinkie in the door? Tonsillitis? What's worse- this, or that one time my foot caught on fire?" 

You know when you start to fall in love with somebody new, and you are just out of control into them, and it dwarfs every feeling you've ever felt in the past? You say to yourself, This thing I feel for Luke is the real deal. The stuff before this was just child's play. And while most of you is in wholehearted agreement with this conviction, there's a little part of your brain going, 'But that's what you said about Cam two years ago' and you're like SHUT UP. YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT. THAT WAS NOTHING. 

That's what severe pain is like. It's immediate amnesia. The bone-crushing steps of right now trump any flaming foot of back then.   

And that's how I come to the decision that this is the worst pain I've ever felt, ever. The scenery, however, really is beautiful. Top notch.

But eventually, I give up. "I don't think I can go any further," I say, looking down at the ground. "I know we've just skinned up for three and a half hours and we haven't gotten to the skiing yet. I'll just sit here while you guys go up." Which is essentially saying, I'll just lie down here, remove my boots, and take a nap. When you come back, I will have died. But go- you deserve it.

 Because Erika and Chris are not assholes, they refuse my offer and kindly suggest we ski back down on the track we skinned up on and call it a day.

To have any control whatsoever on the descent, I have to lean forward into the boot, which feels like driving a screw driver into shin splints. So I give up control. Fuck turns, I'm going straight down, gasping loudly the whole way. Not crying exactly, but crying out with every exhale, which makes it a lot better. I actually use some of the techniques I used in my doula class. And you know what? They don't work. Sorry ladies. Fuck the breathing. Take the epidural. 

And this is how my backcountry career ends, at least for the day- all whimper, no bang. I keel over sideways besides the car, writhing and trying to rip my boots straight off. I want the jaws of life. I want to cut them open with a hack saw and then bash them to pieces with a monkey wrench because these boots have literally ruined my life. 

Chris takes my boots off for me. My feet come out all bruised and alabaster and numb. I climb into the car, finish the rum, wrap a down jacket around my head and pass out, awash with self pity. 

But! It only lasts for about twenty minutes, and then someone has propped me up at a table at the North Bend Bar and Grill in front of a plate of Super Nachos. I drink two beers, get immediately drunk, and start planning a multi day touring trip with Chris and Erika and all our friends. All of the friends! Because I did so very well on this tour.  

The very next day, I limp into Second Ascent ready for war.  But, you know, I'm polite about it. I'm re-fitted into new boots two whole sizes bigger than the first pair. "How did this happen the first time?" Asks  the very nice guy who is helping me. I shrug. "I don't know, man. No idea."

By the very end of the day, I have new boots, new linings, inserts, and adjusted bindings. And just in time. A huge snow storm is whirling its way into Seattle, so Chris and Andrew and I are planning an early escape before the whole city falls apart. I set my alarm for 6 in the morning. This is going to go great. 

South America

On June 29th I found out that Stephen was dead. I was in Maine. I sat down at the end of a logging road and wrote his name in the dirt with a stick. It made me feel a little better, so I wrote it again. His name would have stretched on for miles, carved in cursive on the side of the road, until the road became pavement, and the pavement became state highway, all the way down the length of the Black River until I was etching his name into the granite hills in New Hampshire. But I had to be back at camp in the evening to make dinner for girls, so I had to stop.
Whenever I miss him now, I go down to the beach and write his name in the sand. Today there was sun in the city after two weeks of steady rain and I couldn't get him out of my mind. I gave up on work and took the dog to Discovery. We wandered around until night. I collected sea glass. I keep a pile of it next to Stephen's photo on my desk.

By now, my character is probably coming into focus. I have a strange schedule. I'm oddly employed, with long patches of days where I'm not required to be anywhere. I do my best work around the time that I should be getting ready for sleep, which leaves the days open for other things. I live inside my thoughts a lot and I refuse to go on dates. And although I have great cause to float around all the time and gape at all my excessive luck, certain things still cause me anguish. Like Stephen drowning. It wakes me up in the middle of the night sometimes. Those dreams! We'll be sitting together on a rock in the river and I'll ask, "Was it a great relief?" And he'll be just about to answer and I'll wake up.

I had the dream last night so I had to go to the beach today. It was a steely cold, harsh but gorgeous, a good day to be alive, to be by yourself.

I thought about the Achibueno river in Chile and the thanksgiving we spent on its banks. The school was living  at this big wooden lodge, so deep into the Andes that to get there, you had to abandon your truck in a meadow and walk the rest of the way, or ride a horse. The only other people we saw out there were cowboys. These days I find it hard to believe I ever ran a river so big and so remote as the Achibueno.

On thanksgiving we took the whole day off from school. Tino went to town and brought back soda, wine, and piles of cakes. We had way more cake than we knew what to do with, even with all those boys we barely made a dent. It was the happiest thanksgiving I can remember.

Over dinner we read Pablo Neruda poems and some of the stories the kids had written in my class. One of the boys, most likely Clay, tried to coax the tarantula out from where it crouched in the shadows. We weren't supposed to touch the tarantula because it was severely poisonous. But Clay, a handsome kid from Chatanooga who I liked a lot, was always breaking the rules and causing trouble. He gave us some headaches. He also gave CPR to David when he got stuck under a waterfall for too long. He saved Dave's life and I think that redeemed him for all the trouble he caused.

After we ate, we spent the evening as we spent every evening in the Andes, spread out around the fire place, reading, grading homework, playing hours of Uno. Talking. Tino took his guitar out each night, and Andy his fiddle, and the three of us sang a lot of Avett Brothers songs.

I do not have the talent to put that time into words. How it felt to be there, so removed from the world and so enveloped inside our own. I remember the river was very cold, it rained each day, and one time we all had to rescue swimming goats by pulling them onto our kayaks and paddling them to shore.

I wish I could crawl backwards in time and spend a few more weeks there. We were so lucky. I miss them very much. More than anything I miss Stephen. Our boy who went underwater. 

I hope this leaves a bruise

Today I visited my hometown of Woodstock, Vermont to see my friend Elissa. She was sitting on the floor of her parent's living room with her baby, Eli, lunging around on her lap. It was starting to snow outside. We were both down, totally at the bottom of the heap. Actually, that's not fair- she could have been having a terrific day, but I was being so pathetic that I just yanked her down with me as soon as I came in.

"Really, nothing much new here," she told me. She offered me chips out of a bag. "...The other night Eli rammed me with his head so hard, right in the face. I thought I was going to get a shiner."

"Yeah," I said, "something like that happened to me a few weeks ago. I was walking back to my bed from the bathroom, it was the middle of the night, and I just slammed into the wall. It was a corner of the wall, so the right side of my face just took the whole hit. I was certain I was going to have a black eye, but nothing came of it."

Elissa shrugged. Since I met her as a 12 year old, she has always been sublimely straightforward. She studied one of Eli's hands, brushing something off his fingers. "If it had left a bruise, then I could have written about it."

I knew exactly what she meant. The night I walked into the wall, I fell back in bed with raging pain in my face. I felt like I'd broken my cheekbone. At the same time I felt so relieved because I thought it would be this big, prominent bruise and I'd have something to write about. People would react to it and it would become a story: the time I knocked myself out in the middle of the night. My readers were just coming down from the bloody eye ball E.Coli incident, a black eye would be a perfect second act.

But it never developed into a bruise. No bruise, no story.

I used to have this boyfriend who became really terrible to me. He was just a nasty person; he'd cut me down and say things to me that were actually pretty cruel. There are some specific incidents where, looking back on it now, I can't even fathom why someone would act that way. But it never got to me back then. It was like, these is his thing, not mine. This is the way his own issues are surfacing, and it's got nothing to do with who I am or what I'm doing. My parents love me, I'm from a stable home, I'm very confident and this shit means nothing.

Of course, the fact remains that I didn't leave him for a while. Even though I never let it make me feel bad about myself, I wasn't smart enough to just go. I think I looked at it almost academically, like "I wonder what's making him say this stuff, I wonder why he's acting this way." And the kicker, the Achilles heal of so many women: "If I can figure him out I can probably help hem."

That was stupid. But it didn't really effect me then on a surface level. In hindsight, I was crashing into the same wall every day, but it never left a bruise.

This is a problem now, as I'm writing up stories for my book proposal. Because "yeah, that happened, it didn't bother me too much" is not a story. For it to be worthy of writing, there has to be blood. You have to be running away in the middle of the night, but then you end up going off the road at the end of the driveway and you have to hide in the car and suddenly it's funny.

There's something really menacing, disturbing, about a thing that absolutely should get to you and it doesn't. It's like the other side of depression. You know those ads that show a wind-up woman looking in the mirror and it says "Do you find that you can't enjoy good things any more?" It's the flip side of that: you're watching something in your life go to shit and you just ignore it, you accept it.  You turn over in bed and go back to sleep.

I try to keep that in mind, whenever something really kills. Whether in a funny way or an excruciating way. If it's leaving a scar somewhere, then you are processing it. It will be a story some day. It will be worth it.

And another thing

Three weeks ago, I posted this video clip from NBC news. It shows my hometown of Woodstock, Vermont pulling together after the hurricane.

I pointed out that the community leader at the very beginning of the clip was my high school English teacher, Dr. Halle.

Hasse Halle was an absolute pillar of our town. After retiring from the high school where she chaired the English department, she opened a community oriented bookstore in the village that sold local authors and books about New England history and heritage. Whenever I went home I'd go into the shop and usually find her behind the counter, talking with another one of my English teachers, Joyce Roof. Together they'd faun over me, and ask me about my writing, and ask about my sister's music career. They both seemed so proud every time my friends and I came back home.

For my best friend So, formerly Sophia, who has wrestled her whole life with gender and identity issues, issues that so many small towns do not have the tolerance to deal with, Dr.Halle provided encouragement and understanding. Our town was different. We didn't even know how lucky we were, growing up in a place defined by the supportive, open-minded adults around us.

At the end of the news clip, Dr. Halle says these words to the whole community gathered on the green:  "The worst is behind us, and the best is in front of us, because we have each other."

Dr. Halle loved our town. Our town which is so special, our town that we all need so much.
On Saturday, she was hit and killed by a truck while walking on the Rt. 4 bridge.

I think things change too quickly. You just can't hold on tight enough.

Every Mistake Ever Made

 At the beginning of the month, I moved into a new house in a neighborhood across town. The new place has everything I wanted and then some: a stunning view of the Olympics, a bakery down the block that only sells pie, track lighting, a back yard. My bedroom is spacious, with large windows, wood floors, and my own bathroom.

When I signed the lease, my only concern was the bathroom. It's got a new-age flat sink and a beautiful claw foot tub, but no fan. I repeat: Bathroom. No fan. Practically in my room. Also worth noting, the bathroom door is missing a doorknob. Instead there is a little hole cut into the door where the knob should be, and if you're lying on the bed and you turn your head just right you could look through it and see stuff.

Being a healthy, rational adult, I was a bit perplexed by this one persistent hypothetical: What if there's a boy over and one of us has to do something embarrassing in the bathroom? And by something embarrassing I mean anything other than a hand wash or a pee of normal duration and magnitude. Should I have looked at more places? What if I've made a huge mistake?

Girls have been avoiding using the bathroom around boys since the beginning of time. We're quite good at finding ways to go somewhere else, like the bathroom in the lobby or the Port-a-potty at the construction site across the street. It's something you just get good at even though you know it's wrong, like texting and driving or Ultimate Frisbee. "I'm just going to grab something from the kitchen," you say, carelessly pulling on a pair of sweat pants. Then, as soon as you're out of the room, you bolt downstairs or across the lawn and you do your business as fast as humanly possible. A real expert will remember to bring something back from the kitchen, so as to stick with the original story. "Here's a bowl of grapes from the fridge," you say nonchalantly. "Didn't you say you wanted some grapes?"

I had to give myself a pep talk. All this anxiety over a bathroom! Cool it, hot rod. I thought. You're putting the cart before the horse. Here I was worrying about this beautiful new house before I'd even spent one night there. And to tell the truth, I just don't have boys over all that often (or ever, if you're reading this and you are my mom.)

Unfortunately, this was one of those times where my fears were entirely correct. My very first night in my new place, I did have a boy over, and we both contracted food poisoning from undercooked hamburgers. And all the fans and doorknobs and downstairs bathrooms in the world could not have saved us for the retching, reeling horror that is Escherichia coli in all its miserable glory.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Gosh Melina, why does this sort of things happen to you so often?! Actually, I have two theories. One is that I did something very, very bad in a past life. I committed unspeakable crimes against humanity and for that I am now paying dearly. The other theory is that I am going to end up a very successful television writer with lots of money and famous friends, and all this life experience is just material for future skits I'll co-write with Andy Samberg. We'll just have to wait and see.
Here is what makes this particular bit of life experience not as hideous as it sounds: it wasn't just any boy who was staying over. One, he wasn't a romantic interest, and two, it was Andrew. Andrew Wehner, who I knew when I was a skinny fifteen year old and he was a skinny thirteen year old and we were both attending the Academy at Adventure Quest. The last time we spent a night together was eleven years ago, and we spent it freezing to death on a mountain. Yes, that's right, it was Andy, the co-star of my Lost in the Mountains adventure. (In case you haven't read about that yet, go read it now and come back when you're done.)

Welcome back. So as you can see, we've shared some real heavy stuff.  Together we crawled up a mountain on our hands and knees, chewed on orange peels to stay alive, slept frozen and entangled in a single bivvy sac. We co-hallucinated the angel of death- that right there is more epic than any 27 hour road trip to Bonaroo you did with your college buddies.  It's been eleven years since that night, and during that time we completely lost contact. Then he comes out to a Navy town near Seattle for work, the first time I've seen him in a decade, and we end up on the bathroom floor, and I'm puking into the bath tub because he made it to the toilet first.
Andy is the skinny kid on the left. I'm the girl.
I could write about how bizarrely wonderful it was to see Andy again, how quickly we reconnected and how our friendship is so special because of what we survived together as kids. Alternatively, I could tell you in some detail about how hard we vommed after we got sick. Here, I'll put it up for a vote: Friendship? Barfing? Keep your hands up, please. Okay, barfing wins. But one last thing about Andy: he's a good kid, and I love him a lot.

So, the barfing: I met Andy at the ferry terminal downtown, and we spent about an hour bussing back to my hill top neighborhood. I spent the most of that hour gushing about this newly opened restaurant that's a block away from my new house. "It's perfect! It's got a little bar by the window where I can write, and they sell espresso in the morning! I'll go there all the time!" I think I at one point I was actually squealing. Andy was very hungry, it was four in the afternoon and we hadn't had lunch, but I was dragging him to this one restaurant because I was so very excited.

So we went to the place and we both had hamburgers and split an expensive bottle of wine. I felt like an adult. Halfway employed fake adults drink a glass of wine at dinner if they manage to pay rent that month. Adults drink whole bottles of wine over lunch whenever they want. Right? At some point through our meal, (which was full of stories and catching up and gossiping about our classmates- the ones who are still living)  Andy said, "Boy, this sure is a juicy burger!" I too noticed how very pink and rare the meat was, but I didn't think to do anything about it. Real adults don't send back their fancy bacon blue cheese burgers because they're scared. In fact they prefer their beef medium rare. Right? 

Later that night, after visiting with my sister and walking around the neighborhood, Andy and I went to a pub down the street and had a few glasses of beer. Nothing crazy. No hard alcohol, no shots of anything, no late night chicken wings or manic 7-11 stops. By the time we got home, I wasn't drunk, just tired and feeling the beginnings of a cold coming on.  But when I lay down in bed to go to sleep, I started to feel weird.

Really weird. I had a migraine in my throat, which was new, and my whole body hurt. It really hurt. Things got worse as the night progressed. I developed a fever and terrible chills. I was burning hot under the covers but freezing cold on top of them. I assumed Andy was asleep, down on the hard floor in a sleeping bag, so I tried to stay very quiet. Hours ticked by. Finally, unable to cope, I whispered "Andy, you have got to help me with this head ache." And when I heard his feeble response rise up from below, I knew we were both screwed.  "I'm feeling sick to my stomach," he said. "I....I think I'm going to yak."

Next thing I know Andy was in the bathroom, yakking. And yeah, you know, a fan and its sound-neutralizing hum would have gone a long way at this point. But then he staggered out of the bathroom and that's when I realized I had to ralf too, so I hustled outside and start throwing up all over the lawn. It was 6am and the sun was rising all pink and delicate over the Olympics. I stayed down on my hands and knees, just hurling away. 

At this point I was thinking that I must have had too much to drink, which didn't make any sense. I've had a lot more than a few beers before and been fine. Besides which, this felt different. This felt way more painful.  Now, I'm not an expert in throwing up alcohol. I've only ever done it once, in my friend Kyle's minivan on the way to paddle the Skykomish river. It came up as a big watery slosh and was followed by tremendous and immediate relief. I did two enthusiastic laps on the river that day. But when I crawled off the lawn back into bed after that first episode, I didn't feel any better at all.

It got ugly. The fever and chills cranked up and so did the barfing. At one point I realized that if I stayed lying on my bed any longer I would die. So I decided to take a bath. I was so fucking cold that my skin was burning. I sat in the claw foot tub and ran the water up to my chin. But then my stomach twisted again and I started heaving right into the bath. I was too weak at that point to get out. I threw up five more times before I decided to let the water out. (Wow, look how many things I'm telling you! We sure are getting to know each other, aren't we, internet friends.) 

Just like when we got frostbite, I was worse off than Andy. Later in the morning he mentioned leaving the house and getting something to eat. "Maybe some muffins," he said. At the word muffins I jumped out of bed, hopped across the living room and threw up off the porch. Andy gamely took off walking up the hill but I heard him twenty seconds later throwing up in my new neighbor's driveway.

By this point, there was nothing left in my stomach. I threw up bile, water, and nothing. There were tears running down my cheeks, snot coming from my nose, and I kept changing outfits because I'd sweat through everything. Now I know what you're thinking: this sounds just like a middle school dance! But it was even worse than that, I promise you. When Andy returned, he found me sitting in the chair that's outside the house. I live on a street that's too steep for cars, so the city closed it off and turned it into a community garden.  It's a beautiful, leafy, secluded spot, and now a good portion of it has been sprayed with my stomach acid.

Andy sat down next to me. The morning was hazy and colorful. Almost peaceful.  It was very much like the time we sat side by side in the Emergency Room, slouched in wheelchairs, quietly absorbing saline solution into our veins. We were going to live, perhaps, but the aftermath was not going to be pleasant.

I touched his shoulder and somehow found the strength to speak. "You must go, Andy. You must save yourself. You are recovering, and I am not." This was my dramatic and polite way of saying "You'd better get your ass on a metro bus because I'm not driving you downtown."

After Andy left I would have felt very sad if I was still capable of human emotions. I crawled back into bed, curled into the fetal position and rocked myself into sleep. When I woke up, it was a few hours later and the light coming through the blinds had changed. My mouth was so dry that I felt instant panic. I went to the bathroom to drink water from the faucet. When I felt like I could breathe again, I looked up at face in the mirror. And that's when things got real. Like being a kid at Disney World and seeing the Blue Princess coming back in from her break brushing cigarette ashes off her gown. Mom? Dad? What's happening?

My eye balls had exploded. I still had pupils and retinas, but the white parts were bright red with blood. I do not mean that they were blood-shot, I mean that my eyes were actually hemorrhaging blood because of all that award-winning puking.

Now, I'm no stranger to puking. I've had renal failure. I once combined one pound of gummy bears with a Venti Starbucks Chai and then ran a marathon. I threw up all over a boy I was trying to kiss in the Grand Canyon. I had the Norwalk virus at Christmastime. I think a third of the posts on this blog are about me barfing (hyperbole). The point is, I know a thing or two about throwing up and its many unattractive attributes. But I have never, ever experienced anything close to this. I looked like Satan's daughter.
If you want to become very close friends with someone and you don't have much time, I recommend sharing some contaminated food. Or freezing do death in a remote mountain range as a teenager. Turns out, I'm full of ideas for fast-tracking friendship, especially when they involve Andy. What's next for us? Maybe I'll invite him to my next medical exam. Maybe we'll be the only survivors of a plane wreck, or we'll watch the film "Human Centipede" together. Andy, when I'm the head writer for SNL, I guarantee a back stage pass and a meet a greet with your celebrity host of choice. I promise that to you, and to anyone else who I've thrown up on, anyone I've inadvertently humiliated on this blog, or anyone who has lent me a book that I then dropped in the bath tub.

If it turns out I do not end up writing for TV and I'm just paying the price for my former life as a murderous dictator, then what can I say. I'm sorry. Honestly, nobody is more sorry than me.

The terrific humiliation of my life is made more bearable by Ariat Rodeobaby Boots.

It's Only Water

It's only water. They used to tell me when I was a new kayaker. Hey, stop being scared, it's only water. I never understood that, not then and not now. Water is the most powerful, awesome, destructive force on the planet. It takes people in a quiet heartbeat, washes them away without a word, closes over them like the lid of a coffin. It roars and flashes, smashes and screams and destroys. It took Stephen this summer, and then Allen Satcher on Cherry Creek, then Boyce Greer on the North Fork Payette, again.  And now it's taken Vermont.

I knew about the hurricane and its enormous, swirling eye hovering directly above my hometown on the weather radar. My parents had stocked the house with food and water and as many candles and flashlights as they could find in the empty isles of cleaned out grocery stores. They told my sister and I not to worry, as electricity and cell phone towers were sure to go out for a long time. I didn't worry about them, or my house high up on its hill, the epitome of safety, miles away from the rest of the world. Instead I wondered vaguely about New York City, Boston, coastal land and all the people in those areas having to evacuate.    

I went out to Index, Washington this weekend on a climbing trip. There was perfect weather, a riverside camp ground, friends I haven't seen in too long- but when my cell phone died on Sunday night I packed up and headed home, a day or two earlier than I'd planned. With everything going on back East and my family braced for impact, I didn't want to be out of communication. I got back to the city a little before midnight, and was moving around my room putting things away when my sister came to the door. She sat down on my bed and said that mom and dad were okay, but Vermont had been devastated.

All of Vermont is underwater, but the Southern region was hit the hardest. Our region. Our town. All of these pictures are the of places where I grew up, where I go every single day when I'm home.

Vermonters like myself who now live in other places- the Vermont diaspora, as we call ourselves- are left staring at the news and Facebook with disbelief, heartbroken, stunned. Wanting so much to go home. Here's a link to all the posts and photos on The Wilder Coast about Vermont and New England. It's such a small, quiet, safe state- a rural refuge, peaceful and green and isolated.  Nothing ever happens there. We always thought that nothing could ever happen there.

Was it worth it then

Stephen's body was found the day of the funeral, more than seven miles downriver of where he was last seen. That night I drove home to Vermont, and the next morning went back to New Hampshire to meet up with the Liz and the girls. A few days later our trip was over and I took a two week vacation, where all I did was read and  cook. That's all I remember, anyway. I went kayaking once and expected it to mess me up a little, but it didn't.

I returned home to Seattle on a late night flight, got in all disoriented and sore. Even though it was just the beginning of August, the weather was about as bland as an in-flight movie and I started to look for work, so I considered the summer to be over.

The story of Stephen doesn't end, of course, but this is where I stop telling it.

Trust and Devotion

 You're not supposed to go to a funeral looking like shit, but that's what I did. I had been working in the woods for a month and living out of a backpack, blah blah, Atlantic, sunburn, sea water, sweat, all that. My clothes, as you can imagine, were so filthy that I shoved them in a trash bag and stopped at a Walmart in some down and out town in Massachusetts. I bought black shoes and a new black dress and underwear, the cheap kind off the rack designed by some celebrity tween. There were little rhinestones in the shape of a guitar on the ass. Then I went into the bathroom and put the clothes on and tried to scrub the dirt off of my face and shoulders.

That was a joke. I had used this cheap spray on sunscreen a few days before which had gone on like glue, and all the dirt had adhered to where I'd sprayed the stuff like some kind of skin graft. It wouldn't come off in the Walmart bathroom, it wouldn't come off in the rest area bathroom, or the Burger King bathroom, not even with industrial strength soap or stacks of hard, bleached white paper towels.  Every where I stopped on that eight hour drive to Connecticut, I'd grip the porcelain sink and lean forward, studying my face in the mirror, hoping that somewhere along the highway I'd gotten cleaner or prettier or become a different person entirely.

It's okay, I reasoned with myself. It's alright.  You go to a funeral to show support to the family. No one will notice you and no one will notice that you look like hell.

In fact, this was about the only thing they noticed. My friends, anyway. When I got to the house and first saw the boys I'd worked with at New River through the kitchen window, I felt a stab of love and relief and my face got wet with tears and sweat. I wanted it to be just us. I did. Like I wanted to go to the basement and sit on the futon between them and talk about Stephen and our days in South America and how we were doing with this and what it meant and all that. I wanted them to put an arm around me and push my face against their chest and say shhh we're in this together.

But our reunion did not play out exactly how it had been in my head. Which is fine, it never does. 

But actually it was really far from what I'd been hoping for. They looked at me and said You are so fucking dirty. 
I know, I said.
Them: What did you do, sleep in a bed of shit?
Me: ha ha. Stop that. I've been in the woods for the last month. My job.
Me: I literally left the trail-head this morning and drove all day to get here.
I realized, They really don't give a fuck about any of this.
Them: Couldn't you have taken a shower?
Me: Where would I have done that.
Them: I would have figured something out.

This was not teasing, exactly. Or even approximately. This was something hard and residual between us, something broken, or even worse, evidence that nothing had ever been there at all. This was I am no longer an interesting person to them. But in terms of reunion and solidarity and comfort this is pretty much what I got. So I took it.

I made my way to the family room and I sat there and watched a photo montage of Stephen play on a loop on the TV, wearing my black shoes and my new Rocker underwear. I cried in the snot nosed swollen eyed way that nobody wanted to be around. I made strangled sounds. At one point I got up and took a shower and washed my hair but the dirt stayed glued on me. I actually had this layer of scum on me, and I could peel strips of it off with my fingernail. Back on the couch, I started to get really angry at myself.  Maybe if I hadn't used that cheap ass sunscreen I wouldn't look like this and the boys wouldn't be such dicks to me. Then I started getting furious at the boys for being such assholes even though I knew in my head people deal with grief in different ways blah di blah.

Suddenly I was blazing hot with anger at everyone. Everyone- all of the people out there telling stories about kayaking and charging and nobody having the balls or the brains to say Yeah but really, if little Steve had known he was going to drown on that rapid he probably would have walked, and don't you think him being dead at 19 is a fucking waste. 

Three girls wandered into the living room. They were young Virgina Tech girls, very pretty. Straight hair and mascara. A photo of Stephen and I came on the TV, taken outside the house in West Virginia. His arm around my shoulders, both of us grinning. The girls leaned in behind curtains of hair and whispered to each other.

Excuse me, said one. Was he your brother?
No. I say. His little sister is Elizabeth. She's out there in the kitchen. She looks like him, they could be twins.

Later on, one of those girls reappeared in the doorway. She looked at me and said in a confiding manner,
I know you aren't Stephen's sister. I looked at you on Facebook a few days ago.

Eventually I picked up a beer and went into the back yard, where the 19 year old gunners from the Ottawa river were sitting around a gas flame and talking about kayaking. I drank a lot of beer and let the bottles pile at my feet. I used to sort of belong to this world, I could tell a few stories of my own if I wanted to:

Hey let me tell you about the kayak school that I went to when I was in high school. The guy who started the place was a child molester who bribed the kids with sponsorships and races. Those kids died, too. Or let's talk about my ex-boyfriend churning beneath a waterfall in Chile and shoring up blue and unconscious at the feet of the students. Or my other ex boyfriend running away from me (can you blame him?) and living on the North Fork of the Payette. How prescient, since that river is why we're all here right now.

Yeah I never was a little young gun like you guys but I had a few close calls. Once I dropped into this canyon in Chile, everyone swore up and down it was safe even though no one knew a thing about it. Stephen was there with me. In fact Stephen was wearing my broken, way too small dry top and I was wearing his. It was alright down there, cold and tight, but then we ran into a terminal rapid, hey, whatdaya know, we hadn't known about that rapid! Now we're stuck at the bottom of this canyon trying not to go over the thing.  Lucky for us there was a tiny eddy and we could crawl out of our boats and balance on the rock edge wondering now what do we do.  We managed to rescue ourselves and it took a long, long time and a lot of sketchy ass maneuvering but all the kids thought it was a big exciting adventure. Which it always is, isn't it, until your luck runs out.

Don't worry though, I didn't say any of this stuff. I'm not a total bitch. I tuned out. I played a song in my head over and over. It was a Zero 7 and DJ Danger Mouse song I'd played for Stephen at school and he'd said yeah, best hip hop song I've ever heard in my life, Melina, and it was a nice moment of connection for us because Stephen was a moody kid and I had my own problems and we didn't always get along:

She wondered would it hurt again a scary new setting/ a Mary Lou Renton perfect ten /was it worth it then/Aah -- the stench of first love/ The quench of the thirst made it worse/ truly the burst of upward-thrust motion/ trust, devotion/ lust is like the sand where the beach meets the ocean/ soaking, felt joy in the whirwind/never ever did he mention boyfriend girlfriend/demanded her respect/then ran and did a handspring almost landed on her neck-

Everything Matters

For the girls on Owles

Liz gave me a book to read called Everything Matters. It's about a boy who knows from birth that a comet is going to destroy the earth when he is 32 years old. His whole life is a struggle to attach himself to a world that he knows is doomed and fleeting. After the many twists and curves of the novel, he eventually arrives at the conclusion that Everything Matters.


After the rigorous, rain soaked, blistering trip through the mountains came the warm, peaceful days on the water. We struggled with our gear-laden boats through the sucking, knee deep mud of the salt flats and started paddling up the current, towards Mascongus Bay. We spent four days like that, gliding through the bright, ramshackle harbors of fishing villages and riding the swell of the open ocean. We charted the tides and the currents and the light in the sky, and at the end of the day spread our gear on the grey, pebbled beach of our own islands. Storms hit the bay and we watched them roll in; lighting bit into the skyline and rain the size of pearls pocked the surface of the ocean.  

Nights were full of sudden, hard rain showers and fat blue flies that chewed through clothing and burst into blood when slapped. Liz and I fixed my broken tent pole using a SAM splint and a bandana, mended the vinyl with a roll of duct tape. I slept inside its very crooked walls, thankful to be dry and itching with salt. The girls slept poorly, their painfully sunburned bodies turning uncomfortably on foam mats. They winced every morning as damp bikini strings bit into their shoulders. They loved to comb the water for curious things, gnarled driftwood and long streams of glossy seaweed. They hoisted these things onto their boats and arranged them to dry on the bow or drag behind them like sea dragons. Around us, sleek heads of seals poked out like little dogs and then disappeared.

One night on an island, a group of boys paddle up to our shore. They were young boys from a Maine camp. We invited them to our fire and the leaders took great pleasure in forcing them to play those camp games that mostly involve pretending to be animals. The head leader of the boys was the most enthusiastic person I'd ever met in my life, one of those guys who says Howdy! to everyone he sees. We watched the kids melt into the shadows of the fire, sitting very close and quiet as Liz told them a long, drawn out ghost story about being chased by a coffin. She swore up and down that it was true, and the best thing was that they all believed her, right until the very end.

One day, we pulled up onto a beach for a swim but found ourselves stuck at an impasse between the broiling sun and the stunningly cold sea. Finally the girls decided to brave it together, they waded out into the water screaming until the water was up to their waists. There they stood, holding hands in a ring and waiting to go down. They called and called my name as I stood on the sand and swore they wouldn't go under until I joined them, but they wouldn't come back to shore either. They'd stand out there and go numb and die if I didn't swim with them. So off I went and took their hands and we counted to three and went under. The water was a jarring, salt shock as it closed over our heads.

Everything matters. This is how I think about Stephen dead and the girls living. Everything matters.


Into White

I sat on the grass by the side of the road, alone. I had one bar of service, if I held the phone just right, and I used it to call the boys I'd worked with at New River Academy. I don't know what I expected, but to hear those big, handsome boys breaking down and sobbing was horrible. In real life, they're callous and caustic and funny. I remember there were black flies circling me and I waved one hand around my face and used the other to hold the phone against my ear. Matt's voice on the other end was deep and cracking as he told me the details of the drowning.

Drowning is an absolute nightmare. 

That night I told the girls about Stephen. They looked very serious and then asked if they could play with my hair. Naya went around and sat behind me and started pulling my hair almost aggressively into a braid. I held my breath and the parade of bad images in my head came to a halt.

There was a girl at New River, Taylor, this tiny girl, an unbelievable kayaker with no fear. She could always tell when I had a migraine at school and would come stand behind me and play with my hair. It sounds like a small thing, but it's more than that. It's an instinct, an instinct to reach out and touch someone who is in pain, and very soon after those teenage years that instinct seems to go away.

The next day we went into the Whites, a mountain range that never fails to administer an ass kicking like none other. Last year Liz and I hung on a rock face and watched helplessly as her backpack -with the food and the tent and all her gear- went bouncing over the cliff and into the densely forested oblivion. Eleven years ago in the deep winter, I nearly froze to death there, lost overnight in the Pemigewasset wilderness, and was sentenced to a wheel chair for six weeks with burnt, black feet. 

I watched every step those girls took. Lightning, rain, rocks, creeks, whatever, I bared my teeth at anything I thought could cause harm. On the second day we went through the Mahoosick Notch, the most difficult mile of the Appalachian trail. It took us five hours to get through that one single mile. It's a very narrow pass littered with boulders the size of swimming pools that you have to crawl under, squeeze through and scramble up. By the time it got dark we were still fighting through it.

That night, our tents set precariously between trees on the side of the trail. There were cuts to clean and sprained knees to fix and half of them got bloody noses, which meant they were more than a little anxious.

I fell hard asleep that night and fluttered into one of the darkest dreams of my life. I was standing on the banks of the Payette with Will and we had found Stephen's body. I was insisting that I go to it and take him out of the water but Will wouldn't let me. He kept saying, "It won't look like Stephen." But I ran down anyway and pulled the body into my lap and said "It's him. You see? I can recognize his teeth." I was thrashing in my sleep and I broke my tent. I woke up halfway when the poles cracked and the nylon split down the middle. In the morning, they found me like this:

That next day it rained and rained. We were up on the ridge above treeline, walking up and down and up and down over mountain tops as it poured down. Liz and I pushed food on the girls and forced them to unpack and put on every layer they'd brought. We fought off Hypothermia with sticks.

Again we got into camp past dark. It was Liz's birthday and the girls tried to make brownies in a pan on the stove. The brownies were inedible. You could roll them into a ball inside your hand and bounce them on the tent platform. The next morning, someone knocked a pot of boiling water onto Lydia. Lydia made no noise as she stood there, glassy eyed, the boiling water soaking into her socks and boots. Liz jumped up and tore them off of her and poured cold water onto her skin. I dug through the dwindling med kit for the gel packs and burn ointments. I bent over Lydia and watched as blisters sprang up clear and yellow around her ankle. "Hey Liz," I said, "Let's get out of here." 

We hiked out that day, the fourth day, and I hitched a ride from a truck full of old people back to where we'd left the van. The old people had tattoos and big, wobbling arms and were out for a joyride. They pulled over when they saw me loping down the dirt road and a woman leaned out and said, "Come on it. It's okay honey, there are ladies in here."
On the way back to town, I kept looking back at the girls in the rear view mirror. Sun-beaten, dirty, worn out. "You girls have a good time?" I asked, and they all screamed at once that yes they had. That hike was the coolest- the hardest- they were interrupting each other- never thought I could do it- can't wait to tell my friends about it- don't want to do it again but so happy-

In the middle of it I got a message on my phone. It said that Stephen's parents had flown out to Idaho but his body still hadn't been found. I found it sad to think that he was still under water.