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NorCal Blues
13 July 2005

When we started our vacation last week, I was pretty sure that vacations are generally not a good idea. Americans romanticize vacations and suffer from envy of the French who actually stay away from work long enough to calm down - a month or so. We picture happy extended families in interesting places, eating and laughing and swimming and having picnics, causing a surge in their already healthy connection with Life that is not Work. Now let me pick that apart.

Happy extended families. That would be families with children, maybe grandchildren, maybe grandparents, or blissfully unencumbered families of two for which the magic - whatever that is - still works. I'm not convinced that such people exist in any large numbers, at least not in today's USA.

American vacations, besides being too short, tend to be boring, especially for kids. We Midwestern people of a certain age have come to realize that our own bitter youthful boredom in the back seat was not without precedent. It was probably just as boring to be in the back of a wagon or on the back of a horse. These people in the front, we thought, may be related to us, but they are not - most certainly not - our people. Our people - the people we wanted to be - were in stories, in far-flung places, or later on the radio, in movies, or on TV. Our people were adventurous and full of energy. In truth, our people were souls like ourselves suffering in separate back seats who would, in their early teens, begin to visualize the moment when they could join forces with others of their own kind and make it a Better World. Better than the world of those aliens in the front seat. Better for dreams, dolphins, and maybe even Democrats.

It didn't turn out that way.

All three of our daughters grew up with aliens for parents. They will have migrated to various colleges by the time autumn comes. We find ourselves in an extended period of empty-nest grieving, especially in that they are not yet gone. Going but not gone - there's a weird situation. Like double vision, we remember our own dislocation and loneliness when we were their age - and our own not-so-healthy solutions to the existential problems we encountered.

I use the term "we" with some caution. We - that is, my husband and I - have never really been a "we" in the sense of those old stories, movies, TV shows. We came from fractious families and backseat tortures. We have not come to terms with the fact that the we we imagine is usually not the we we are. Vacations can exacerbate this problem. On vacation, we are thrown together in an unwholesome concentration of we-ness. We argue too much, sleep too much, eat too much, and worry about what's going wrong at home, what's going wrong with our kids and our jobs, what's going wrong with our vacation. We have unrealistic hopes and unreasonable desires. We can't talk about work. We can't talk about the kids. We can't talk about "someday" - that occupied us well in our forties, but no longer - it's just too scary. I find myself secretly wishing we were at home, tending the flowers and getting work done.

Lately two daughters and I went to see Kate Mullgrew as Katharine Hepburn in "Tea at Five." In the play, Kate comes to the realization that work was the way she always survived her difficulties. I ponder what work means to me. True, work can make a person happy - when one loves one's work; when one knows what one's work is; when one has measurable outcomes - even if only in the coin of personal pleasure. But work does not necessarily make life meaningful. When the time needed to get one's work done exceeds the time available, meaningfulness slips appallingly away. Rob and I both remember being young, and being middle-aged, and doing great, satisfying work. These were posts to tie a boat to. We also remember the demise of many a Silicon Valley dream, the layoffs and recessions. We notice entropy a little more as the decades pass. "Well, all of it must have been for something" - I hear my mother's voice here - and I think, no. All of it simply was.

I'm exhausted. I struggle a little more weakly every time I find myself on the professional, political, or personal rocks. But the sand keeps running out of the bag, and after a week of vacation, it's going to be even harder to climb back into my working shoes. I am cynical about the possibility of experiencing "renewal" in seven days and dreading the moment when I have to climb the mountain of email that will pile up in my short absence.

After half a week of morose meanderings in Mendocino, Rob has had enough of my dark mood. He zips me into a wet suit and plops me into a kayak. We work our way past the surf line at Caspar beach and out into six-foot swells, then tack back toward shore just south of the river's mouth, dodging dimples of turbulence that suggest rocks below the surface. We spy a colony of seals from a distance. Upon our approach we are strafed by a desperately upset seagull who is probably protecting a nest. The bird is diving for my head, and Rob is swooshing his paddle around to fend it off. The gull is so agitated that it is actually gobbling like a turkey. "Yeah, dude, OKAY," we say, as we back out of the scene. I am starting to feel better. I'm not thinking, you see. There's too much going on.

We beach the kayak and wade into kelpy water with snorkels and fins. At first I am convinced that my face is going to freeze off. Then I begin to see what I remember that I came to see: startlingly green sea grass, fields of purple anemones, starfish rusty red and milk-white, ponderous blue fish, abalone shells glinting as the swells make the world sway. I'm not feeling my face any more. I swim farther out, through a narrow canyon that opens suddenly to deeper sea. A submerged rock the size of an elephant looms ahead, all covered with undulating fronds. Then the sun comes out, and the rock explodes into rainbows. Everything in the water is alive. Including me.

On the way back to shore I peer down the trunk of a gigantic kelp, probably 40 feet high. I am reminded of redwoods, for these are truly the redwoods of the sea. I wrap my arms around the top of the plant and give it a good Norcal tree hug. I know instantly that this is no redwood. When you hug a tree, if you pay close attention, you feel a coolness, a weightlessness in its mighty heart. When you hug a kelp, it feels warm. Who knew?

This is my last rant for a while. I've got to get some work done so I can take another vacation.