Thursday, July 19, 2012

Happiness is.....

...swimming from Cape Cod to Martha’s Vineyard with the help of wonderful strangers and family.

Who knew?

(Left to right: Mike, Karen, Kate, Mark, Dave, me, Rob, Linda and Brian. Mack is taking the picture.)

The morning was clear and calm, and we could even see the finish line when we got to our starting beach, but only just barely. Martha’s Vineyard looked like a single brushstroke of green on the horizon. The island was the definition of “yonder.” Our on-water team consisted of two motor boats and two kayaks and eight people, one of whom was Rob’s niece Kate Powell. Kate makes everything better wherever she goes. Our land team was one person: Fifi Burton, a mover and shaker extraordinaire who would turn 88 a few days after our swim. We were so set.
“Are you the ones swimming to Martha’s Vineyard?” asked the wide-eyed teenaged lifeguard at the Menauhant Yacht Club on Cape Cod.
“Yes. Me and my husband,” I said, pointing to Rob.
“Wow,” he said, a huge grin on his face. “Good luck!”
They say you can’t go home again. But this place where Rob spent his childhood summers and which felt as much like home to him as any place he had ever lived, welcomed him back with open arms. Those arms easily stretched wide enough for me, too, no questions asked. Even the sea clamed and warmed herself for our arrival. But this swim wasn’t just about looking back. We had to involve strangers and acquaintances of acquaintances, who all became as close as old friends by the time the day was over. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The idea of swimming from Menauhant on Cape Cod to Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard – 6.5 miles of current and creature-filled filled sea – took hold of Rob’s imagination last year when his friend Liza Gregory posted an article about a couple of Menauhanters who swam from Nobska Point to West Chop, a much shorter distance between Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard with fewer current issues. That point was a natural choice for a crossing, but Rob remembered standing as a kid on the beach in Menauhant and looking toward Martha’s Vineyard and wanting to cross that body of water in that place somehow.
“I didn’t necessarily think about swimming it, but I wanted to get over there,” Rob said.

(Last minute course charting to "over there" with our kayakers Mark and Dave. Not only are currents a problem best avoided to the extent possible, but ferries and other boats would be a dnager.)
The child went on to become a nationally rank college swimmer specializing in the 200 butterfly. He took up open water swimming after a ten year break from the water and proceeded to excel at races in lakes, rivers, bays and oceans. But his family had sold the summer home in Menauhant, and we hadn’t been back to Cape Cod for anything other than funerals since he started the open water phase of his life.
I never swam growing up, but it looked like fun when Rob did it, so I joined him and gradually worked my way up to longer distances. So when Rob said he wanted to do this swim, I said “me too.” We started planning in 2011. We knew we needed to pick a good day with favorable tides and we needed escort boats and kayaks and a place to stay and a Coast Guard permit. Planning for the swim turned into a second hobby. (Training for the swim I don’t even want to think about. Thousands of laps in an over-heated 25 yard pool. Ick.)
Since Rob is faster, our swim would be like two solo swims and we needed two boats and two kayaks. And the captains and paddlers had to be experienced. This stretch of water is where the Vineyard Sound and Nantucket Sound meet in a big swirling mess. There could be cross currents up to four knots and there were shallow areas that could kick up big waves. And there were sharks. Okay, the sharks were further east and north, but still. They were the big ones.
I live to research, and luckily I easily found a Cape Cod kayaking forum and posted my request for information and possible assistance. I got some replies along the lines of “sounds like a great adventure” and “are you crazy!” But I got our first member of the team, Mark Stephens, who was extremely experienced in the waters all around Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. He suggested we get a copy of Eldridge’s Tide Book which we did and then spent weeks pouring over. We learned the difference between spring and neap and ebb and flood tides and were able to pick a good week, that of July 9th, when the window of slack tide wouldn’t be in the middle of the night or at 6am. No one was swimming in the dark.
We still needed boats, but felt confident to go ahead and apply for our Coast Guard permit. It was becoming real. Then I mentioned the swim to open water swimming pioneer Lynne Cox, and she had a friend on Martha’s Vineyard who might have a line on a boat. Sure enough, Michael Wooley found captain Brian Peltier for us and we were halfway there. (By that way, I owe the Coast Guard a big shout out. They were very professional and friendly and even a little excited about the swim.)
To get us the rest of the way, Rob starting poking around in his memories and came up with Fifi Burton’s name, the matriarch of Menauhant. She offered up her youngest son, Mike, and we had our second boat. Our first kayaker then recruited a second, Dave Briggs, a worldly waterman, and we were all set. Everyone seemed excited about the adventure. Our job now was just to keep our fingers firmly crossed for good weather. We started checking water temperature websites in June when the sound was 55 degrees. Gulp.
Now we just had to finish training, which included three open water races in two weeks, the longest of which was almost five miles in challenging conditions. We were as ready as we could be, but we were still apprehensive about the anticipated rough conditions which can make a 6.5 mile swim into an eight mile or longer swim. And the cold. I was worried about the cold. I was prepared to wear a wetsuit, but I really didn’t want to.
With Kate on board, it was already a family swim. The three of us had done crazy athletic endeavors before, and I would trust Kate with my life, and more importantly Rob’s, so I was glad to have her along. But the unexpected pleasure came when Linda Calmes Jones opened her house to us.
Emails flew, and we picked the actual date, July 11th, once we saw the weather looked good. We packed up the car, kissed the dogs and pointed ourselves north. The day before we left, a great white shark was spotted in Chatham, which was north of where we were planning to swim, but still a little unsettling. We joked about it a lot to keep the nerves at bay and because it made us feel tough. You can’t even start a swim like this if you don’t feel tough.
After meeting Kate in Boston and relieving the city of a goodly amount of sangria and ice cream, we all headed for the Cape. It was an easy drive to Fifi’s house with an easy stop for flowers and a card for her upcoming birthday. It was a joy to watch Rob reminisce with Fifi about all the people they knew. It was even more fun to watch Fifi use her power to order Kate – who she could easily see was the youngest – to fetch things for her. After an enjoyable hour of crazy stories, we strolled down to the beach of Rob’s childhood and got in for a shake-out swim. The water was gently rolling. It had to be the nicest water I have ever been in. Friendly. There is something about very clear salt water that is neither warm nor cold that is both soothing and energizing. We all were having a good time when I nearly ran into Rob talking to a guy we knew from Charlottesville, George Sampson. Rob knew he also vacationed at Menauhant, but what were the odds? George ended up coming to see us off on our swim. Things were going so well, it was as if the universe was rolling out the red carpet.
Now if this were a movie, it would be time to cue the ominous music. But nope, things just continued as if guided by an invisible loving hand.
We dried off and headed to Linda’s house where we would be staying. Linda is Rob’s now-dead father’s second wife. We never had much of a relationship with her, and on this trip we saw how much we had been missing. She became a new member of the family.
We killed Tuesday with errands and more ice cream and sitting around. We touched base by phone with our captains and kayakers. Wednesday morning we filled our bottle with our sports drinks and packed our bags and headed for the beach at 8:30am. Our starting point is called the baby beach in Menauhant parlance. Not too intimidating.
Kayaker Dave was the first one there, then Mark came soon after. Brian and Mike pulled up to the dock in their boats and we met Karen Kukolich who would be on Brian’s boat and who could have well captained her own boat as gifted as she was about all things aquatic. (Although she is far too young, she reminded me of my Aunt Shirley, one of the most competent and loving women I have ever known.) Mike brought his nephew Mack, a bright and friendly teenager, and we introduced everyone and divvied up our bottles and clothes and then it was time. Several folks come to see us off in addition to Fifi. Mrs. Carr, who along with her husband bought Rob’s family’s beach house, Jeff Gwynn, who had swim from Nobska Point and West Chop, Jeff’s wife, George, and a few happy and curious other people we didn’t know.
Rob and I kissed each other twice – once for ourselves and once because Fifi called for an encore - put on our goggles and walked into the glassy water and started swimming.  Two hours and forty minutes later, Rob walked out. 55 minutes after him, so did I. Time disappeared for me during most of my swim, and I just felt enveloped by love. Love of swimming, love of the ocean, love of all the people involved old and new, just love. I know it sounds sappy, but it’s what it was. Until the end of course when the island didn’t want to let me come ashore. (The currrents kicked up as we knew they would, but it was still a little bit of a shock.) But if it hadn’t gotten hard, I might have felt a little cheated. The best part for me was when Mike brought his boat over and I got to see Rob and Kate. Mike helped Brian and Karen fend off the boats and ferries that were aiming for me.

Everyone was so amazing, and I want to go back. I want to swim in that water as much as I can. I know it will not always be that friendly, but I want to get to know it. I want to get to know it like family. I want to learn more from the people who helped us. I want to do something, anything for them. It was home.
Rob said the swim was all he could have hoped for and that the week we spent on the Cape was more than he could have hoped for. And that week would never have happened if we hadn’t decided to do the swim which started out so scary in our minds when we were planning and ended up so sweet. Life moves in funny ways, just like water.
Now is the strange time. The lonely time after all the effort. It took eight people to get us across that water and I will always feel bound to them. I hope they don’t mind.
And I feel even more connected to my husband and his past and who and what made him. It was a big crazy goal to do what we did and we were rewarded. Now to pay it back somehow.
Thank you to everyone, from the bottom of my heart. I can see that we’re home.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Which 1980s Molly Ringwald Movie?

The exhausting and wonderful Virginia Festival of the Book is over. I enjoyed presenting my book of short stories, Breaking and Entering, but I think I enjoyed hearing other authors read from and discuss their recent works and their writing philosophies and share what interests them and what they think makes good writing.

Ernessa Carter was on a panel at Barnes and Noble and she read from her book, 32 Candles. She is a lyrical and thoughtful writer and a charming person. I was so pleased to be able to talk with her further at the author's reception Saturday night.

The book follows Davie Jones, an outsider in high school (and who really wants to read too much about anyone who wasn't?) who dreams of Hollywood endings, thanks in part to the movie Sixteen Candles. Carter follows her character into her thirties, hence the title.

I liked the passage Carter read, although I can't say Sixteen Candles was my favorite Molly Ringwald movie. My favorite was Breakfast Club, which Carter said most of her guy friends liked best. She also said that her designer friends liked Pretty in Pink for the dress-cutting-up scene.

So that got me thinking. I wonder what our favorite Molly Ringwald movie says about us? Beyond the fact that I apparently have to give up my girl card.....And do all our choices in art reflect our personalities, especially our choices in high school?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The $64,000 Question

How do you balance doing the right thing by the world with your own personal happiness? Hell, I don’t even have my answer much less anyone else’s.
I often wrestle with this question in various guises, but I can’t stop thinking about it after a friend’s FB post on overpopulation. To paraphrase, he thinks having children is bad because human overpopulation will destroy the plant. (I have oversimplified his argument for the sake of argument – this friend is usually quite a nuanced thinker and kind person.)

We all balance many things in every choice we make, whether consciously or unconsciously. What about saving your premature baby? Waste of resources. That $600,000 could be better spent on helping 1000 people learn to manage their diabetes better. I don’t care that you want your baby to live. That’s selfish.
Vacations? Huge carbon footprint. I don’t care that they will refresh you and make you a kinder and gentler person maybe more likely to appreciate the variety of the world.

Your designer goldendoodle puppy? Better to adopt a neglected hound or pit mix from the shelter, even if you don’t know how to handle a dog with issues.
You should do what I want, what my experts think is best.

Everything we do is wasteful if we look at the big picture, swimming and making art included. While I absolutely think we should all bear in mind the consequences of our choice and try to do good by our fellow human beings, one way to do that is to offer the world the best versions possible of yourself.
It is easy to do the “right” thing in the abstract. It is much harder when flesh and blood individuals are involved with their own wants and needs and desires. And they are right in front of you.

Love complicates everything. And makes it wonderful. Numbers can’t argue with love. I don’t have children – I don’t want them. One of the reasons I never wanted them is because I think there are too many people in the world. But the key part of this sentence is the verb “want.” I am not denying myself something I want or love. I am not being a martyr.
I would rob a bank to save my husband. Or my dog. I would kill to save any of them. That isn’t exactly a terrific attitude for saving the world. But it is what love does to a person.

I drove three dogs 3500 miles to save their lives. What a waste. What an environmental degradation. What a joy.
I am a lucky person. My life is easier and better than I deserve. But joy? That is rare, even in a great life. We all deserve the right to grab as much of it as we can. Pay it back (or forward or whatever) somehow, but go get it.

It is hard to keep the big picture in mind as we live our lives. The central question is always where does my freedom end and your begin?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I Probably Shouldn't Write This....

I probably shouldn’t write this post, but I’m not reading what I’m feeling anywhere. And writers need courage to be any good. There is a quote that The Sun magazine uses to explain its editorial policy and it goes something like this: “You can’t shine a light on something without burning.” I love The Sun, so out of respect, here goes.

I do judge political candidates by their religion. I judge them by everything they believe in. I find it strange that I am upbraided for this stance by almost everyone opining on this subject in the media.
I have friends who have left a church, partially because of the church’s views on women and their proper place in the home. I do not want a president who is a member of a church whose teachings are offensive to my rights in this country. If you are a member of a group, I assume you agree witht he group. If not, enlighten me. Talk about it. Don't just hate me for asking.

If you do not believe what your church says, leave the church. If your church is split, denounce those parts you disagree with. If your church has a history of excluding African-Americans, tell me that you think that is wrong. People make mistakes. Churches make mistakes. But you cannot be silent and then accuse me of being anti-religious because I want answers about the connection between what your church says and what you will do.
Religion is not sacred, if you’ll pardon the irony. If a candidate is going to use his or her beliefs to limit my rights, I will withhold my vote.

Why can’t we talk about that?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Back in the Saddle

I was in the basement beer/bike room the other day and felt the pull to get back on my bike. I haven't ridden in over a year for a whole host of reasons, mostly because I was (and still am) devoting most of my exercise time and energy to swimming.

But with the gorgeous weather we've been having, I decided to go for a short ride just for the fun of it. And it was fun. I love my bike. It fits me like a glove, and it handles like a dream. And I'm a good cyclist. Plus I have a book planned about a murder in a cross country cycling race, so I need to keep my hand in. Or butt, as the case may be.

It wasn't long, though, before I remembered another reason why I hung up my helmet. My joy at pedaling was marred by the behavior of the cars I have to share the road with. Well, that's not fair. It's the drivers, not the cars.

Regardless of your bumper stickers, type of car (I'm talking about you, Prius drivers), or even the fact a car has a BIKE ON ITS ROOF, I don't know if you will give me an inch on the road or not.

However, I think I've figured it out. Whether you care about endangering a fellow human being or not comes down to whether you are too busy to have brain space to spare to notice the world around you.

I'm not saying the drivers who nearly brush me don't see me, I’m just saying they don’t process me.

And yeah, I know cyclists can behave badly too. But you know what? I DON"T CARE. Really, because who has the bigger obligation to behave? The person on 17 pounds of metal or the person in 2,000 pounds of metal? Yes, cyclists should be good citizens of the road too. But CARS CAN KILL YOU. All this focus on getting cyclists to be good citizens just gives drivers an out.

I’ll go out for a ride again, but I will make sure I am riding defensively.

People are too busy.

Sorry for all the yelling.


Friday, January 20, 2012

16 Thoughts about 16 Legs

As almost everyone who knows me has heard, my friend Stacey Evans and I drove three dogs from Virginia to Colorado for a chance at a better life. Pooch, one of the dogs we took, is pictured above. Sadie and Sasha, my former foster dogs, also came on the trip. Pooch and Sadie (renamed Sally) are doing great at the Longmont Humane Society and Sasha is already adopted.

It was a whirlwind trip - 3,500 miles in five days. It seems like most of those miles were in Kansas, so a lot of my sixteen thoughts are about Kansas. As for the sixteen legs part of this post's title? That's the number of actual legs in the car for the trip out - three dogs plus two people have 16 legs, at least by my math.
Anyway, here are those 16 thoughts in no particular order:

1) This trip would have been much harder without Stacey's iPhone.
2) This trip would have been much harder without Stacey. The driving would have been fine, but wrangling three dogs and two crates in and out of motel rooms on my own might have been nigh impossible.
3) McDonald's egg biscuits rock.
4) Driving in the dark in Kansas is nice. The roads are straight.
5) Sasha's smile looks like her ugly face which looks like a sneeze.
6) You can get attached to a dog very quickly.
7) Going from 16 to four legs was incredibly hard.
8) Even when you don't look or act like a lady, men at a truck stop in Kansas will hold the door for you.
9) It is uphill to Denver.
10)Always buy what catches your attention at the Colorado Gifts truck stop.
11) Kansas is not as flat as I thought.
12) Beer tastes really good after you check into a motel at midnight.
13) The Mississippi River just looks like it has stories to tell.
14) Driving 3,500 miles is easier than real life.
15) Don't feed dogs breakfast before they get in the car; but make up for it with yummy dinners.
16) I'd do it again in a heartbeat.