Just beneath the surface of normal


Since I returned I’ve tried to think of a nice way to summarize my trip to the Pacific Northwest. Well, in between the naps and the getting sick, that is. It turns out I am now officially too old for red-eye flights and while I might have managed okay with landing at 1:15 AM, the hour-long delay had me staggering in the door well after 3 Yes, I know, it doesn’t add up. First there was the gauntlet: to start, I arrived five terminals away from where Jim had parked the car that morning when he left for Nashville, and had to schlep my bags through a mile of parking garage in the middle of the night. And then it started raining. And then I found out that the bridge was closed for construction over night and I had to detour a few miles to another bridge…in the middle of the night in the rain. I made it home, and was greeted by a giant banner of spider web stretched across the walkway, which probably meticulously spelled out “welcome home, dinner!” before I walked blindly into it. I always did know how to ruin a surprise.

What with the toiletry unpacking and the CPAP setting up and the sexy, sexy mouth-guard cleaning, I wasn’t in bed until a few minutes after four in the morning (which is at least symmetrical, since that’s when I got up to leave the week before). I slept until 2:15 the next afternoon, and probably would have slept later if my therapist hadn’t called to ask me if I might have forgotten something, like our appointment. So yeah, jetlag like crazy. Punctuated by a nice pair of fillings at the dentist. Welcome home.

The best I can say of my return is that I now understand that when I utter unto myself the words “I can probably manage”, I should treat them as though they are a flaming swarm of killer bees shot out of a cannon. I may be able to survive it, but it won’t be pretty. And it’s really entirely unnecessary. There is no award for managing or surviving stupid self-induced pressure and I won’t do it anymore. Probably. So hey, growth! Maybe.

The trip, though? It was really wonderful.

The problem with wonderful is that it’s way less interesting to write about. It’s the moments when everything goes stunningly wrong that are hilarious and fun to tell. It’s much less entertaining to tell you about how we visited colleges and old friends and I got to watch my daughter fall in love with the Pacific Northwest as hard as I did. There’s no dramatic tension in learning about her music and daydreaming about creating forage gardens in our town for hungry people, or her wonder at the profound dearth of litter and the ubiquity of trees, hipsters, and drive-through espresso shacks. Every parent should take a road trip with their teen and just bask in the amazing person they’re becoming, the things that captivate them, and the unsteady (and still at times irritating) way they are learning to express their boundaries and needs. That was a week my heart will savor all the more as she ages, and she gets good at the lessons she’s struggling with now and moves on to new challenges. Watching her analyze the colleges we visited in terms of who she is and the kind of experiences she wants makes me excited to meet the woman she is becoming (and I am a crafty mom, showing her schools in our future hometown, am I not? It’s like going away to college and staying home all at the same time!).

That’s not to say we didn’t have some odd adventures. We are us, after all.

After touring Evergreen, we went into downtown Olympia for dinner to check out the local scene. Our first impression was that it was incredibly charming. Our second was that there sure were a whole lot of homeless people. Evidently they wander up and down the west coast en masse, chasing the temperate zone like a pod of dirty, smelly, panhandling whales (alas, there were no panhandling whales pics on the internet, unless you count save the whale campaigns, but they lacked the requisite dirty blond dreadlocks). We navigated past a number of them on the way to a brew pub, where a young hipster in (no, really) breeches, hose, and a flipping alpine hat told us we couldn’t eat there because she’s under 21 and kids there evidently aren’t allowed to go to establishments with views of the bar. Nonplussed but giggling all the way, we moved on to another establishment, past yet more homeless pods loitering in the doorways of night clubs and tattoo parlors, and past a garden shop with a neon sign that read “no tweekers”. It was very different than the street on which we parked a couple blocks away, and sort of reminded me of old-school South Street in Philadelphia, in that “um, am I in over my head?” sort of way.

At the restaurant, we ordered a plate of of tot-chos, which are nachos made with tater tots instead of chips.

these are insanely good, and managed to not kill us. Probably because none of this actually happened. Really, this photo is the only proof I have that we were ever even IN Olympia, WA. If that was really Olympia at all…

In a matter of minutes, while we waited for our order, the following things happened:

– A group of women my age but dressed like trashy teenagers came in, and one was telling the others about how her boss likes to text her her pictures of mushrooms.

– A hipster with an Amish beard and hat and a pentagram t-shirt came in with his friends and sat down at the booth behind us. Neither of which is particularly remarkable – mostly it was the combination that we found entertaining.

– A person identifying as female – which was awesome, and I wish I saw that much casual comfort with owning gender identity out here – sat down nearby and we got to listen to her use her lovely high voice, which was really more novel than weird, but still part of the greater tableau of “things you certainly don’t see every day in Philly.”

– The eleventh Doctor walked by. Yes, I’m sure.

– A homeless man ordered coffee, sat down, started talking to himself about things that probably made perfect sense in his world but sounded like paranoid rambling to the uninitiated, and then he started singing. He had a pretty nice voice, and was providing us genuine entertainment, so we anonymously bought him some pie, but he asked for fries instead, so we bought him some fries.

I am so glad Corinne was there to provide corroboration for the fact that that entire episode really happened, and was not some kind of weird fever dream. Or if it was, it was a shared one. The waitress was an Evergreen alum, and super-helpful in providing some advice about going there, so even if it was a shared hallucination, it was at least very useful. And Corinne managed to not be scared away from Olympia to the point of deciding to cross Evergreen off her list, so it was probably a pretty good initiation as far as those things go.

In general, we met lots of neat people, laughed at hipsters, ate amazing food, got her cell phone stolen (which we both kind of enjoyed, since it allowed her to be more in the present than managing constant texts would have otherwise allowed), left my debit card in an ATM in Astoria, got stuck behind a painting truck going 8 miles per hour on highway 101, so (between the slowness and the losing of the debit card) we didn’t have time to go sandboarding on the dunes in Florence after all. We also sat in a mountain hot springs with itinerant hippies, went bowling with some of my best and oldest friends, played with their adorable kids, went whitewater rafting and beach biking, measured the pros and cons of some really amazing colleges, and planned adventures for our next visit out.

Corinne on a beach bike in Manzanita. This is much harder than it looks, but every bit as much fun.

I came home feeling refreshed and rejuvenated – everything you want from a vacation. I felt the rust and hardness of coping with life on the east coast crumble away, and my ability to be polite and friendly and make space for others come back to me. Leaving broke my heart, as it always does, but it was tinged with a new sense of “only two more years and this will be home.” Almost 20 years after I initially decided I wanted to live there, I am finally on a real trajectory to make it.

Driving to the therapist that first morning home, I was surprised by how un-used I had become to the incredibly aggressive and pushy driving that passes for normal around here. We are too many rats in a cage, incessantly chewing on one another in a desperate attempt to create more space. I want to hold onto that easy vulnerability and kindness, but I feel it slipping away already.  I am so ready to retire.

Bring. It.