Tuesday, August 11, 2015

my dark day

For the many of us who have lost someone special, there are certain days of the year that make it hard to keep on moving forward, to keep on growing old. The deceased's birthday or the anniversary of the day he/she died is almost always harder for us than all other days in a given year. But since losing my older brother, the hardest day of the year for me has always been MY birthday. That's right, my own birthday. I still recognize my brother's birthday, the day of his diagnosis, and the day of his death. I light a Yahrtzeit candle. My family goes to the cemetery. We mark these events the same way everyone else does.

But the hardest day of the year, for me, is the day I turn yet another year older. Older than my big brother. From my perspective, he stopped aging at age 30. The day I turned 30, two and a half years after Dave passed away, I was a mess. But then I was okay. I was surrounded by good friends, who raised money for Brain Tumor Research. Well, I thought, I finally caught up to you big brother. Thirty's not so bad. 

But then I turned 31. I had officially outlived my older brother. I didn't do a single celebratory thing that day. I think I ate Taco Bell and went to bed early. I just didn't want to be around anyone else on my "dark day."

So last week, when I turned 35, I just felt awful. Turning another year older, I always feel awful. I'm used to it now. I can see it coming. And I do my usual ignoring of the inevitable, "what are we doing for your birthday" texts.  Because, let's face it: I'm now 35 and my big brother is 37 still 30. 

I know Dave would never want me to sit at home on this special day and wallow in my sadness. I don't do that (anymore, at least). I go out to dinner. I try to run a race or be outside. I try to learn something new, or travel to a different location. But I know this day is still going to be excruciatingly hard. And often the days leading up to the birthday are even harder. 

Sometimes I just disappear off the grid for a few days. Frequently, I try to ignore the darkness that I know is inevitably coming. Other times I just let the sadness envelop me and sit at home and cry. Mostly, though, I've learned to be honest with people. I find myself saying more and more to my close friends and family, "you know, my birthday is just a really hard day for me." They don't have to know why it's my dark day. They can just nod and move on. Knowing that the next year they will still ask me what I'm doing for my birthday. Because that milestone will come, whether I like it or not.

A few days after my birthday, I saw a former Business school classmate celebrating her 30th birthday. With a giant party. And a huge close-up photo of the stitches in the side of her head. And an announcement that, after eight years of beating her tumor, her brain tumor (just like Dave's) had morphed into the dreaded Glioblastoma (GBM 4 for short). She referred to her tumor as terminal and at that point, something changed inside my head. No, not really. I can't change my whole temperament that quickly. But I did have a bit of a reality check.

This lovely young lady is actually the true definition of a fighter. She will forever remind me of why we (I) need to celebrate life. And never give up. Regardless of her diagnosis, her words are always filled with hope and I love seeing her smiling face when we meet up in Golden Gate Park for the Brain Tumor 5K (almost every year). Next year, I will complete the race for her. But I know she will still be here to ring in yet another birthday, to complete yet another milestone. And she will once again remind me that it is not about feeling sorry for myself. It is about celebrating the gift I receive by being able to turn yet another year older.

#curegbm #greymatters #curebraincancer #braincancerawareness

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

working for the weekend

Lately I have been inundated with certain ground-breaking announcements. This just in: working over 60 hours a week is not productive. Actually, it can become counter-productive. So stop working so much overtime. Don't give up your personal life for more billable hours. Take control of your work addictions. Step away from the phone...

All of which is not really a problem for me. I'm happy to work my 30ish hours per week (many of them from home) and call it a success. That is, until I was asked to work over the weekend. Because, well, there was a mix up. A mistake. And a 50 page report that had yet to be completed. It needed to be compiled and written already. But it didn't quite exist yet.

So, at 4pm on a Friday I finally accepted my future; because there would be a report by Monday. And I would be the one to create it. I looked at my weekend calendar. I cancelled everything. I started to drive home from work, ready to get started on the report. But first, I stopped to go for a run.

Because that is how I work best. I need time for me. I need to calm down, to breath, to step away and come back to whatever I am working on with fresh eyes. I need to know that before I spend 80+ hours doing something for someone else, that I did something for myself. Plus, if I go for a run first, I'll do a better job in the end. It's just how it works for me.

When I finally got home Friday evening, I got to work. I printed hard copies of instructions, spread out in the living room, organized my emails and documents, and read up on what I needed to know to get started. Then I started organizing my thoughts. Hours flew by. Once I couldn't see straight, I knew it was time to stop for the night. So I went to bed.

I woke up the next morning and went to a class at my gym. Yes, I had an insurmountable amount of work to get through. Yet I still needed a little bit of time that day for me, an appearance of weekend. I had already cancelled all my other Saturday plans, but not this class. It was over before I normally get out of bed on the weekend and I was back home, back to work, before I knew it.

I worked until the sun went down. I ordered myself a pizza. It tasted amazing. I ate it over the computer screen. I worked and worked and again once my eyes started blurring the type, I set aside the computer and went to bed. I was making progress, but I had so much more to write.

This isn't a lesson in complaining about having to work. Or about how much more I work than anyone else (we all know that isn't true). It isn't even about how I manage to work every weekend. It's about how something good came from something that at first seemed completely awful. At first, I was afraid to tell my friends what I was up to that weekend. I immediately thought they'd judge me and my job for letting it control me and dictate my life.

But this couldn't be further from the truth. My job is amazing. The best job I've ever had. It's a treat to do my job, to go to my office on a beautiful college campus, to work with brilliant and caring individuals, and to help send low-income students of color to college. It's a privilege. Sometimes it just becomes like every other job; too much work and not enough employees or time. It's rare, but it happens.

Except that I've just learned it doesn't much happen in San Francisco. I'm shocked about this. When I did tell a few people I was working all weekend, they complained. No one around here works weekends. I thought that was crazy. Of course they do. They go in to the office on Saturdays. They work from home on Sundays. They are always checking their work email throughout the weekend.

But that's in Chicago, not in San Francisco. The last time I checked, almost every single member of my family works weekends. My dad, as a doctor, worked every weekend of my life. My brother, as a corporate lawyer, most definitely went into the office on Saturdays. My sister, as a lab tech, works a Saturday shift every week. My cousins and aunts and uncles all do this as well. They work during the week. And then on the weekend they work some more. Whatever it takes to get the workload done. To get the promotion. To get the recognition.

Except that it doesn't need to be done. After working 22 additional hours in one weekend I did get a promotion (I got a bonus). And yes, I did get a ton of recognition. But I also got the best gift of all: permission (and funding) to hire another staff member. In response to the "great jobs" I was receiving all around for my (to be honest) kick-ass work, I was able to say, "let's make sure it doesn't happen again" to people who are now making sure it doesn't happen again. Because I am not my best at 90 hours a week. I'm just not. And thus my organization is not. I don't know anyone who is their best self at that rate. 

If working this much is your life, I won't judge you. Maybe you have to. But maybe you don't. Maybe you work this much because you let yourself work this much. It's okay to push back every now and then (if you can). And it's absolutely okay to do something for yourself every day (if you can). For me, this is mandatory. Because in the end, it will make you happier, more balanced, and simply more pleasant to be around. And that will pay off in spades.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


A few months after I first got up on stage and told the sad story of the accidental death of my precious first pet, my cat Bella, I found myself yet again wanting to open up to a group of strangers regarding a second sad, yet slightly less accidental, animal death story. This story will ultimately become my next NorCal Story Jam story.

Once upon a time, in a Honduran village far far away, two chicks hatched. My very generous host mom named each chick. The first was mine; she was named Karen. The second was my site-mates'; she was named Jason. My host mom took care of these chicks, feeding them along with all the others. She told me that when our chicks grew up they would ultimately become ours. And the eggs they would go on to lay would be ours as well. It was a really sweet sentiment, while also saving us from having to purchase eggs, an integral part of our daily diet.

My host sisters showing my chick, Karen, to my brother

 As Karen and Jason grew they became teenagers. Then they became full fledged hens. Jason hardly ever lay eggs, while Karen, on the other hand, laid her fair share of eggs. She was just very particular regarding her egg laying habits. She would lay eggs only deep within the grass. She would leave the confines of my host mother's yard and lay her eggs in the grass across the street. She was particular in this respect. But I received her bounty every week. And she continued to lay eggs. Until one day she didn't. 

It quickly became apparent that Karen had just stopped laying eggs. There didn't appear to be anything wrong with her; it was as if her eggs had run out. So the question was raised as to what would become of Karen. Because my host mom continued feeding  her (at a cost) and no one was reaping the benefits of having a hen, I went back to spending my money on store bought eggs. Keeping Karen around no longer seemed like a benefit; she was now simply a cost.

Meanwhile Jason, the human Jason, was in the middle of a crisis of conscience. He had just announced that he would no longer eat meat, unless he killed the animal himself. While I'm a fan of knowing where your food comes from (that's farm to table, right?), I thought his rantings a bit extreme. However, it gave me an idea. I would kill Karen myself. Then I would cook her up. I know it seems morbid, but it's the circle of life. I realized that I too shouldn't eat any animal I wouldn't be willing to kill myself.

Well, willing is one thing. Actually doing is another. But, I thought  now might be my one and only chance to learn how to kill chickens as my neighbors did. It would be cultural bonding at its best. I felt like a true Peace Corps volunteer.

My host godmother, Marleni, prepares to teach me how to kill my chicken

So I took Karen (the chicken) over to my host-godmother's home. She would show me the ropes. The first step? To wring Karen's neck. How was I supposed to do this? I wasn't exactly sure. I do recall taking the neck and wringing it, waiting for it to snap. But it didn't work; there was no snap. And I couldn't tell if Karen was dead or not. So I was worried. I didn't want to her suffer. If she did suffer, I didn't think I could eat her. And then I would have killed my namesake for nothing.

So my host godmother, Marleni, quickly grabbed a bucket. She laid the chicken on the ground, turned the bucket over with the rim of the bucket crossing the chicken's neck and stomped down. Hard. I heard the crunch. Karen was dead. And I was horrified. Marleni had just completed one of the dirtiest chicken killings I could imagine possible. It was gruesome. Poor Karen.
 How could I explain to Marleni and her family how horrified I was? Her family had to eat. I felt that I had no choice but to pick up Karen, pluck her feathers and cut her up. Marleni needed to make her in to tamales for her entire family's dinner.

That's when I learned yet another Honduran custom. Not the one about using every part of the animal. I had seen that before. But the part where my host family argued over who would get to eat the tamale with the huevos in it. Even though Karen had long ago ceased to put out eggs, she still had her own ovaries. And apparently they, along with the rest of her internal organs, were considered delicacies. I then watched my godmother stealthily set the eggs aside and make herself a special tamale. I could barely stand as I watched her feast on Karen, huevos and all. But she had done the dirty work. She deserved the caviar of chicken parts in her tamale.

Yum, nacatamales de Karen

At that point, I had to get out of the kitchen for a few minutes. And in the end I didn't eat a Karen tamale. I'm not really a fan of nacatamales, a traditional Honduran food. Plus, Karen's death had been a bit too horrific for me. But she was enjoyed by all. And I suppose that's what really matters.

Thursday, May 21, 2015


There are very few things as truly San Franciscan as Bay to Breakers. It's a 40,000 person springtime Sunday party, a race through the city, and Halloween all rolled in to one. San Francisco is Bay to Breakers and Bay to Breakers is San Francisco.

I remember my first Bay to Breakers (B2B). I had been living in San Francisco for about five months, newly returned from the Peace Corps. I wasn't yet a runner. I had only a few friends. I wasn't a big drinker. But somehow I found myself in a Bay to Breakers group, complete with matching t-shirts, a float, and all the beer we could fit in a shopping cart. 

Our theme was the Duff beer guy

That first B2B had a lot of firsts for me. The first time I tried skateboarding. The first time I entered a race. The first time I tossed tortillas in the air and passed men and women in salmon costumes running the opposite direction. And I definitely didn't make it to to ocean (aka the breakers). Still true today, B2B 2007 was the only time in my life I have been drunk before 8am (that wasn't from the night before).

B2B costumes can get pretty elaborate. I'm always impressed.

Proudly, my Bay to Breakers 2008 was not a repeat performance. Over these past seven years I have slept through the race, watched the race in Hayes Valley with friends, driven my boyfriend to the start of the race, cheered on random runners near the end of the race, and run the race myself. I  long ago learned that the best way to avoid the late drunkenness of those walking the race with floats, yet still experience the costumes and massive groups of people, was to run the race myself. Alongside all the people. To be one of the people. To make it to the end and then hit the bbq. Because Bay to Breakers is also San Francisco's official welcome to summer.

 Racing through this amazing city with 40,000 other people is quite an experience!

Thus, as I found late May quickly approaching, I couldn't think of a more appropriate first race post-marathon. Which is why I chose to run Bay to Breakers 2015. It would be my return to running short races (a quick 12K or 7.5 miler). It would be my first race back from so many things; from the flu, from new orthotics, from running once a week, if at all. But most importantly, it would be my first race back from the marathon.

The starting line of Bay to Breakers 2015

It's a strange feeling, running a short race. I found myself exactly on pace. And enjoying the scenery. And the costumes. But I also found myself anxious to be finished already. To be at the finish line, enjoying coconut water and potato chips. To be home already and in a hot shower. But I was still in the middle of the race. But by mile six I was just ready to be finished. So I sped up.

But then I began to really think about enjoying what I was doing. To realize how fun it was to run with no preparation. How I didn't pick out a special running outfit the night before or bother with goo. How easy it was to run a negative split - finally! (A negative split means running the second half of a race faster than the first. It's always a mini-goal of mine and I knew I had done it this time!) I also knew I didn't PR, but I didn't care. Because, I realized, it was a little chilly and slightly overcast most of the way; my perfect running weather. 

 Making it all the way to the beach (in costume) is always impressive

Most days I honestly don't know if I'll ever race again. I ran a marathon, for crying out loud. What else do I have to prove? I don't know if I have the patience to start training all over again. I don't know if I can run that distance again. I don't know if I should. And I don't know if I want to.

I'm not certain what the future has in store for me and road racing. The same can be said for Bay to Breakers. Every year there are more restrictions on the race, more police presence, fewer floats. But despite the mayhem, the nudity, the drunken sh$% show that it truly is, Bay to Breakers still belongs to San Franciscans. It is still ours. For over 100 years now we've been running across town, from the bay to the breakers. And I can't imagine spending the third Sunday in May any other way.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

the end of the road

Veo al final de mi rudo camino, que yo fui el arquitecto de mi propio destino. 
I see at the end of my rough journey, that I've been the architect of my own destiny.
- Amado Nervo

I feel pretty comfortable driving in Mexico. Actually, I feel comfortable driving just about anywhere. And I'm almost always the driver. Rental cars don't bother me. I like getting to test drive different cars. Every time I've gone to the Yucatan to volunteer with Proyecto Itzaes, I've rented a car. And the only mishaps I've had have been regarding the actual renting of the car. No matter what time you arrive, the process of filling out the rental paperwork and getting to drive away in your newly rented car takes several hours. I don't exactly know why, but it just does.

This is how much Mexican country-side I typically drive through

But then, while driving through the Yucatan last month, my car rental luck ran out. A rock hit the car's windshield. And at the very most top part of the windshield, half on the plastic that seals the glass to the roof. But just low enough to embed itself at least partly in the glass. But just high enough that I didn't know that was the case. However, once the crack started to spread in a long line down the window, I realized exactly what had happened. In the five minutes it took us to get home the crack had successfully run the entire length of the windshield. And it was only getting longer. I panicked. I didn't know what to do. This had never happened to me before. Not even in the US. I once had a windshield bashed by some thugs with baseball bats in Potrero Hill. But never a rock in the windshield. I guess it was about time this finally happened to me.

I quickly tried to decide what should I do; get an estimate from a nearby mechanic and pay for the repair before the rental was due back? Or break down and call the rental car company, knowing it would be a long painful process. I knew I couldn't drive the car again, so I had to do something. I called the rental agency. They were so nice. Surprisingly nice. With amazing customer service. I had never experienced this before. I was still skeptical this would go off without a hitch, but the nearest car rental depot (not the one we originally rented from) would send a driver out to our home, bringing a replacement car for us. It sounded too good to be true. Especially because I had to head to a village for an appointment and wouldn't be home for a few hours. They assured me they would sent someone in a few hours. It would all work out.

When we go home from Dzemul, there it was; a brand new, identical but red (our first car was turquoise) rental car, along with two patiently waiting agents. Though I had arrived only five minutes past my scheduled time, it seemed like they had been waiting for quite a while. When I asked the rental agents the length of their wait they politely responded that they had been there for an hour. Yet they didn't seem restless. Perhaps they were enjoying the sun, sand, and ocean. Yes, they assured me, the windshield will need to be replaced. ¡Que mala suerte!

So there we were, new and improved rental car at our disposal. Which was convenient. Because we were planning to leave the beach, drive south a few hours to my favorite ruins (Uxmal), and many hours later arrive at Bacalar, situated just south of Playa del Carmen. On the other coast. It was about a six hour drive but we planned to make it into one long day of driving and sightseeing along the way. We set out very early in the morning.

And we were driving along just fine. Highway driving in Mexico is pretty self explanatory. The highways are nice and new, although mostly two lane. Since the speed limits are high (at least 110 kph), it's completely normal to pass slow moving vehicles. When the roads aren't curvy or dangerous. I'm a pro at passing cars on single lane Mexican highways. It takes a lot of patience, but you can always eventually pass.

Which is why I was very perplexed when I quickly came upon seven cars going slightly slower up ahead of me. They were clearly waiting to pass a slow moving van. Wow, I thought, they must have some serious patience to wait so long to pass. But in time, I knew, we would all make it safely past the slow moving vehicle. We had many many more hours to drive; we couldn't exactly afford to drive so slowly for a very long time.

None of the cars ahead of us were going particularly slowly, nor were they inching to pass the slowest car at the front of the line. I thought about it for a split second before heading on to pass the cars myself. There was no use in waiting, after all. Except that the roads through the Yucatan can be windy. So I wouldn't have enough time to pass all seven cars at once. I started passing them two at a time. I passed the first two cars. They seemed content to be where they were. Hmm, I thought, maybe they're driving in a line. I wonder why. I can't be sure, but it doesn't seem as if they are trying to pass the front car. So I quickly passed the next two cars, and then the next two cars. Eventually I was right behind the slow moving van. And that's when I saw it. The giant picture of the Virgin Mary staring right at me. It was posted conspicuously in the rear view window.

It looked like a regular covered truck to me

Because it was a hearse. Carrying a corpse to its final resting place. And we had placed ourselves prominently first in line at a funeral procession. I swallowed hard. Was what I had been doing wrong? Was I not supposed to weave in and out of a funeral procession? Was there some tell tell sign early on in this process that I had completely missed? Or did I not know what was going on until just that moment? And once I realized where I was, was it wrong to try to head out and pass the hearse? So I did just that. I waited for a clear view of oncoming traffic and sped over and passed the hearse. What else was I to do? They were going far and long; but they were also going slow. They didn't need me embedding myself in their mourning processional.

So we drove on. And on and on and on. We were going to take Highway 184 from Uxmal to the Caribbean coast. Highway 184 would meet up with Highway 307, the main road from Cancun all the way down to Belize. We'd hit into 307, turn right, and drive a few miles down the coast to Bacalar. We'd been driving for hours, but we started passing the signs telling us that 307 was just ahead.

According to Google Maps, Highway 184 bisects Highway 307

Which it probably was. But we'll never know for sure. Because we never merged onto Highway 307. We never go that far. Instead, we drove on Highway 184 until the road just ended. That's right, the highway just stopped. So we stopped. And then we looked around. There were people coming towards us on foot. They were walking over with suitcases and backpacks. They were getting into taxis. They were driving away, the only direction the road went - back to where we had just come from.

I found a narrow place to turn around. And then attempted to ask a taxi driver for directions. He and his friends laughed as us. The road didn't intersect with the coastal road, at least not yet. The road would be built, someday. I couldn't believe it. The maps/gps indicated we could drive right on through. Except that we could see right in front of us; there was no actual road. Only a parking lot. The taxi driver drew us a map; we'd have to backtrack for a while, then turn off and pass through three villages before finally hitting 307, south of where we were. But we would hit it eventually. In only a few hours time.

So then I asked about the people coming towards us, from what appeared to be the other, coastal side. No one could answer me. Apparently there was an airport some place nearby. But that didn't explain the cars and people I could see ahead of us, driving inland from the coast to meet us. Except we wouldn't meet. Because there is a strip of highway missing. That just hadn't been built. Instead of continuing on the way we had planned, we had made it to the very end of the road. So we turned around, drove back back, turned off at a random desvio, and ended up in paradise. Because that's what happens in Mexico. Paradise is always just one wrong turn away.