Update to my post about pondering a 50-mile run: I’m not doing it. There are a number of reasons, and I know that I will occasionally regret the decision, especially since a good friend of mine did sign up so I will hear all about it from him. But a few factors won out, and I am resting easy in my decision.
Could I do it? Probably, because I’m just stubborn enough.
Would I like the sand? Not really.
Do I dread the idea of running many miles of mud in Portland all winter? Yes.
Am I unsure about committing so many of my days off to long runs on trails? Yes, because I just moved and want to do lots of local things with anyone who will welcome me.
I have spent the past two weeks pondering the decision and watching as the race filled up. A number of people gave valuable, thoughtful input, and I appreciate every comment (here, Facebook and Twitter), email and in-person conversation. I will definitely consider doing it in 2019, which gives all of you plenty of time to decide to join in!
In the meantime, I do want to find a fall race. The plan had been Portland Marathon, because it would be a full-circle/demon-exorcising event for me. Also, I now live here and could sleep in my own bed, AND one of my best friends was going to come run it and we’d make it a girls weekend, hopefully with another friend. Well, then the marathon had to change course, and it’s now an out-and-back through an industrial area (along Highway 30, called “dirty thirty”). Also, the race directors are under federal investigation for questionable non-profit actions. 2017 is clearly not the year for me to run this race.
I know there are a million other fall races. The task now is to figure out which one I want to do, which time is better for me, and whether I can travel or should stick closer to home. So many decisions! Who wants to make a weekend out of one of the umpteen options?
Last year, I finished 36 books. This year, I have a goal to get through 37 books. Since I’m ahead of schedule at 21 books and the list is getting long, I figured I’d split this into to posts. So, here are the books I read during the first six months of 2017.
The Life We Bury, by Allen Eskins. A college student from a dysfunctional family finds himself learning and writing the story of a man who spent 30 years in prison for rape and murder. The book is a sort of a thriller, but not the full-speed-ahead craziness of most books in the genre — this one was more thoughtful and focused more on the characters.
Becoming Rain, by K.A. Tucker. Is it realistic? No. Is it a fun read about a cop in Oregon? Most definitely. I read “Burying Water” last year and also gave that one five stars, because they’re just the perfect blend of mild chick lit, crime, and nice scenery. This book is about a female cop who goes undercover to bust a crime ring, and that’s about all I will say to avoid any spoilers.
The Bette Davis Club, by Jane Lotter. A light-hearted tale that involves a road trip, so I was automatically interested. It wasn’t a sappy romance, but just a fun story about a runaway bride who is chased across the country by her aunt and her jilted groom — but it’s about the aunt, not the bride.
The Poet, by Michael Connelly. As a former crime reporter, Connelly knows journalism, so of course I wanted to try this book that stars a reporter who starts looking into the suicide of his twin, a homicide detective. This was just a fun romp that was pretty accurate about the life of a newspaper reporter.
The Scarecrow, by Michael Connelly. This was a sequel of sorts to “The Poet,” with the same main character, who is now an LA Times crime reporter who just got a pink slip. He wants to find one last big story, and of course he does, because that’s the only way we have a not-quite-realistic novel to read about a reporter once again teaming up with an FBI agent. This one involves cyber crimes that were more realistic than you’d expect, and it was just a guilty pleasure book to listen to while packing up my apartment.
Whoever Fights Monsters, by Robert Ressler with Tom Shachtman. I waffled between three and four stars on this one, but went with four stars because it held my attention well, though I spent a month on it. The subtitle is “My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI” sums up a lot of it — Ressler was an FBI agent who was fascinated by murderers since childhood, and he wanted to know what made them tick. I have a lot of respect for that, and for the fact that he didn’t lose sight of the world. Side note: I was sad to learn that he died four years ago of Parkinson’s Disease; he was only 76, so I suspect he had at least another decade of lecturing and knowledge-sharing in him if that awful disease hadn’t invaded.
Forgotten Secrets, by Robin Perini. Yep, another crime caper involving an FBI agent, and a Navy Seal. One’s sister goes missing, and the other comes to help him because she’s been spent 15 years looking for her missing sister. A lot of it was predictable, but it was a good, easy distraction from my world of studying for tests.
Off the Record, by K.A. Linde. This was a $2.95 Audible sale, and it caught my attention because I briefly thought the author was K.A. Tucker (to whom I’ve give two five-star ratings). I was tempted to give this book five stars, though it should get, at most, three stars on my scale. Well, it gets four because I related so much to this book. It’s the somewhat fluffy story of a college journalist who gets into a relationship with a guy she’s covering for the newspaper, and they both have to keep it secret for their own careers. I devoured this book in two days and HATED the “to be continued” ending, but luckily I was able to start the next book immediately.
On the Record, by K.A. Linde. This book picked up where the previous one left off, regarding the relationship between the newspaper reporter and a guy she’s writing about. I don’t want to say much about the plot to avoid spoilers, but a lot of it was pretty realistic. And, once again, I related to a lot of it and inhaled it in a few days. I’m a little embarrassed to give these four stars, but hey, we can’t all just read “War and Peace.”
For the Record, by K.A. Linde. This was another guilty pleasure book, and it wrapped up the story of the journalist in the previous two books. Again, I don’t want to give away spoilers, but it continues her story of work vs romance. I’ve been out of journalism for nearly seven years, but I still related a lot to it, and also to the relationship dilemmas.
Angel’s Flight, by Michael Connelly. The sixth book in the series about Harry Bosch, LAPD homicide detective. This one involved racism in post-Rodney King Los Angeles.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple. Told from the viewpoint of a mature 15-year-old girl piecing together emails and letters about her mother, this story was great until it took a turn for the unrealistic/absurd. I guess the author just really wanted to write about Antarctica (and I can’t blame her), but it just felt like a jolt.
Julie, by Catherine Marshall. I read this years ago and when the Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway threatened to send a 30-foot wall of water into Northern California towns in February, I pulled out the book and read it again. I like the story, of an 18-year-old girl whose family takes over a struggling newspaper in the 1930s (bonus points for the newspaper stuff) downstream from a large dam. But the evangelical Christian stuff was too much for me now — it was kind of like mild flashbacks for me, which weren’t necessarily bad but felt unsettling and unfriendly.
Rogue Lawyer, by John Grisham. This was about a defense attorney who takes the cases nobody wants. I would have liked it more if the story hadn’t been rather disjointed (I think Grisham just wanted to write short stories this time).
An Accidental Death, by Peter Grainger. I waffled between two and three stars on this one, but I erred on the side of generosity because the characters were realistic and had a lot of promise if I chose to continue with the next book in the series. It’s a British police procedural, focusing on the death of a canoeist (a word that amused me, for some reason). I listened to this one, so the British accent certainly contributed to the third star, but I wonder if the history lesson would have been less confusing if I’d read it instead.
Poisonfeather, by Matthew FitzSimmons. I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the Gibson Vaughn series, but I only liked parts of this one. The main character learns that the judge who saved him from prison as a teenager is now elderly, ill, and the victim of a con artist. Commence treasure hunting, a Chinese spy, CIA hijinks, and a weird ending.
A Darkness More Than Night, by Michael Connelly. The new season of “Bosch” is out, so I wanted to catch up on the books. I really enjoy listening to these books while running and doing things around the house, though I also find myself sucked into them when I should be studying. Oops? Anyway, this one also featured retired FBI agent Terry McCaleb, who appeared in another book not in this series. I felt like I was missing a few things and didn’t know him because of that disconnect. The plot was also kind of ridiculous and had someone scheming to set up Bosch in order to get out of a case, and I was rolling my eyes at times. I couldn’t quite bring myself to give it two stars, though, because it was still a fun, easy read.
Missing, Presumed, by Susie Steiner. I’m being generous and giving this three stars, because I think some of my disappointment was caused by comparisons to Tana French novels. This was definitely no such thing, and was kind of forgettable. It’s about a British police detective looking into a case of the missing daughter of a bigwig, and I just found it to be so mundane.
City of Bones, by Michael Connelly. Yep, another Harry Bosch book, and I apparently read this one years ago. This time I did the audio book version, so I liked listening to it but kept knowing what was going to happen next. The story itself isn’t bad: Bosch is called out to look at a human bone, which turns out to be a 20-year-old murder case. Oh, and he gets involved with a newbie police officer.
Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice, by Curtis Sittenfeld. I almost gave this one four stars because it was well-written pleasure reading. There were no surprises, since it is basically a modernized version of the Jane Austen book, but it certainly is modern — including paleo diets and text messages.
The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro. The premise seemed interesting: An art museum heist has gone cold when one of the stolen pieces surfaces and the main character is asked to make a copy of it, but then she has suspicions about the artwork itself. However, the main character annoyed me (how she got that far in life is beyond me; she’s so stupid), and the art talk didn’t interest me.
The Killer Next Door, by Alex Marwood. I started this as an audio book and just could not get into it. The characters were depressing, the story was slow-moving, and it wasn’t living up to my expectations of a murder thriller. I rarely abandon books, but a quarter of the way into this one, I decided life is too short to not enjoy a book.
I’ve spent the past month pondering a big, daunting running event. It’s in sand. In Arizona. Also, it’s 50 miles.
Yes, 50 miles. Yes, I know I am mildly insane.
It’s the Antelope Canyon 50-Miler on Feb. 24, and I would do the 50-mile option because the shorter distances don’t actually go into Antelope Canyon. They do pass Horseshoe Bend, but there’s no way I’m dragging myself back to Arizona unless I’m seeing Antelope Canyon. Here, have some pictures, which I stole from the Internet.
See what I mean?? I WANT TO GO THERE!
I’m not sure when I first heard about this event, but somewhere in my web wanderings a couple years ago, I came across the Grand Circle Trails website, and the Antelope Canyon race in particular. They linked to race reports, which I read and then moved on, because helloooo, 50 miles?!
Truth be told, I used to say I never wanted to run 50 miles — and that was after several years of crewing for and pacing friends at 50-milers. Then I ran a trail marathon in February 2013, conquered my first trail 50k the following month, and paced my friend Chris for 18 miles of a 50-miler in April 2013. It didn’t seem so far out of reach, and I began to think of doing the race the following year, or least pacing more miles when Chris attempted a 100-miler.
That trail running was apparently good for me, because I then proceeded to break all my previous road records, until my left IT band gave up. This significantly affected the odds of being able to run 50 miles, and then my best trail running buddy, Kristen (who was also saying mayyyybe to the 50), got pregnant — which was just as well, because I suspect I would not have finished the 50-miler due to my leg. Then Chris was hit by a truck while on his bike, so there went my offer to pace him at a 100-miler. That said, Chris has since gone through multiple surgeries and is currently training for Ironman Kona, so if that’s not inspiration to keep going, I don’t know what is.
Anyway, at some point about a month ago, I saw a post on that nefarious site known as Facebook about how registration for Antelope Canyon was opening July 7. The idea settled itself into my head and has proceeded to taunt me every day since. I sent the link to several people, and so far one of them has decided to do it, which has not helped me say no to it. In the two days since registration opened, I have been refreshing the sign-up page to see how many spots are left, and thus how much time I have left to decide. As I write this, there are 124 spots left, of 375 — last night, 140 spots remained. Oh wait, I just double-checked that link and now 123 spots are left. They do have generous refund and deferment policies, but if I’m committing to something like this, I don’t want to commit halfway.
I’m currently out of shape, but I spent this morning’s embarrassingly short run thinking up a list of pros and cons. And that’s where you come in: What should I add to these lists? More importantly, do you want to go along??
I want to see Antelope Valley.
The idea of a 50-miler scares me.
2008 marked my first marathon, so it’s only fitting that this would happen in 2018 — both in Arizona, no less.
If I succeed, it will be before I reach a dreaded milestone birthday.
Unless I volunteer for overtime, I will have three consecutive days off work per week, when I can attempt back-to-back long runs in daylight.
My gym is open 24/7 and I have unlimited cell data, so I have no excuse not to do stairs and cross-training while streaming action movies.
Odds of getting the race days off work are a little better at this time of year.
I live 2.6 miles from a trail head. Heck, I live in Portland, a mecca for trail runners.
Despite so many setbacks, I still dream of qualifying for Boston. Increasing miles on trails has proven to make me stronger and faster on the roads, so maybe this would get me back on the path to that pipe dream of a goal.
It’s a lot of sand — about 30 miles of sand. It’s like the Bataan Memorial Death March Marathon (here’s my race report) on crack.
Training in Portland winter will mean rain and mud, and more rain and mud.
There are no local trail marathons or 50k’s in December or January to use as training. If I get a weekend off work, I could travel to one, but odds are not high.
Four days a week, I will be working 10-12 hours a day, plus an hour roundtrip of travel. At some point I’ll work days (probably a 5 a.m. or 7 a.m. start time) and at another point I’ll work nights (probably a 9 p.m. or 11 p.m. start time). I’ll still be on probation and training at work, which is my main priority, so sleep will also be a priority.
I’ve only run one 50k, and that was in March 2013.
I haven’t run more than 13 miles since December.
What if I don’t get the days off work?
I no longer live near my favorite running buddy.
So, who has opinions? And who’s in? Does it sweeten the idea if I tell you we’d fly into Vegas?
I began this post on March 8, 2017, the morning after I accepted a final job offer. I started writing that day with the words, “there is nowhere else I should be,” and I almost clicked the “Publish” button a few paragraphs later. But I hesitated to tell the world that everything felt perfect when I hadn’t even yet moved or started the new job. I came back to this post a couple more times, always with the same content feeling, but I was in classroom training and still had yet to do the real job. So I waited some more. You see, this new venture of mine has a high washout rate, and often half the people hired are gone in a year. I’m an optimist, but I’m also realistic and felt that it would be unfair to shout from the rooftops before I even started the real job.
Well, I have now worked five full days on the operations floor and I still have the same sentiment 15 weeks later, so I’m finishing this post and publishing it. I’m green and need the constant words of my coach in my ear, but every time people ask if I have any regrets about turning my life inside out, my “no” is an easy answer. I still want to shout from the rooftops, “Keep fighting to be happy! Make changes! Take chances! LIVE LIFE.”
Written on Wednesday, March 8, 2017: Only once in a great while do we get that distinct feeling of “there is nowhere else I should be,” and I was fortunate enough to feel it twice in one year — when I got on a plane in January 2016 very shortly after my mom was diagnosed with cancer, and when I clicked the final button to submit a job application nine months later. Last night, I received a telephone call that I had gotten the job.
Exactly 13 weeks later, on another Tuesday afternoon, the same woman who called me about the job was congratulating me for passing academy and moving to on-the-job training.
In each of the many hoops I jumped through for this job (and there have been many), I never once hesitated or questioned it. Instead, as I passed each test and interview and subsequent test and subsequent interview, the feeling intensified: I was on the right path, and I really did want this job. Only time will tell if my instinct was correct, but I woke up the morning after that March phone call with a sense of peace and excitement. That’s a good combination, and it has not faded.
I try not to look back on my life events and decisions with regret, because I cannot change the past and because I know that, no matter how bad something was, it could have been worse. Of course, this knowledge doesn’t help me immediately after an unhappy event, and that’s where time and perspective help. I believe two tumultuous times in my life contributed heavily to my latest life change, and that’s why I can now see that good things came out of hard times.
First, in August 2010 I upended my life. I look at the “Timehop” app that shows my vague Facebook and Twitter posts from that time, and I see how incredibly unhappy I was for the year leading up to the breaking point. I almost included a screenshot in this post, but the sad reality is that there were too many screenshot options. I was miserable and didn’t realize how much so. The diagnosis of a stress fracture in my leg was the final crack that shattered the increasingly fragile glass of my well-being. Suddenly, I could no longer run and train for the Portland and New York marathons, which were the only bright spots in my life. Everything that remained was negative.
And so, in a few moments of desperation that caused my family more than a little worry, I quit my job, thus ending my 10-year journalism career. I also ended a dysfunctional three-year relationship. I suddenly had spare time and a lot of vacation pay-out, and then my old friend Ryan, whom I had recently reconnected with after an absence of 15 years, suggested I move my Portland trip to August, since I wouldn’t be going for the marathon in October. A few days later, I packed two weeks of belongings in my car and drove 10 hours north. Ryan hosted and showed me around Portland, as did my friends Becky and Frank, whom I hadn’t seen since I was in their wedding 10 years earlier.
I loved Portland. It just felt right. However, I needed a job, and a great opportunity came along in the Bay Area. I took it, and occasionally visited Portland when I could. I’ve never regretted moving to the Bay Area, because I made lasting friendships there, and I grew and learned a lot along the way. I also had no idea that it would allow me to take on the other tumultuous time I referred to several paragraphs ago.
In January 2016, my mother was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic colon cancer that had spread to her liver. What followed was a whirlwind of cancer doctors and surgeons and hospitals. That soon became chemo treatments and prescriptions and medical decisions. I was able to fly back and forth a number of times while still paying my rent, thanks to a compassionate boss and remote work access. My sisters and I watched as my mom fought cancer. Chemo wreaked havoc on her, and then she had to make a big surgical decision. In June 2016, I spent an anxious day in a waiting room while two surgeons operated, and then we spent more than a week in the hospital. Recovery at home was also very hard on my mom. But she kept going. It was inspiring.
Along the way, I had started pondering jobs in Chicago, knowing I couldn’t sustain the time away from work. It was not my first choice, though, and when my mom continued to rally despite undergoing more chemo, my thoughts again turned to Portland. We only get one chance at life, and I knew it now more than ever. If I never took a chance and tried Portland, would I look back one day with regret? The answer was a firm, resounding “YES.”
In early September, Becky randomly sent me a picture of the two of us from that first visit to Portland six years earlier. She said it was a nice photo of a time in my life when I was going through a lot of changes. Her timing was, as Becky later said, “providential.” I told her I was again thinking about moving to Portland, and she said to send her my resume. A month later, her husband Frank emailed me a job posting, asking if I’d be interested in being a 911 call taker.
My first instinct was another capitalized “YES.” I made myself think about it for a week, considering the shift work and the stress that I knew about from my years as a crime reporter who listened to thousands of hours of scanner traffic. I looked at several dispatcher friends’ Facebook pages to remind myself of what they gave up on countless holidays and weekends. When I looked at the application again as the deadline neared, I had answers for every question. There were no feelings of doubt.
My application — one of 150, I later learned — made the first cut and I then snuck away to Portland and sailed through a two-hour test with what I was later told were “incredibly high” scores. I got to an in-person interview and found myself wearing a new outfit while sitting at the head of a table in front of an interview panel. I had all those answers, too. Then another interview felt right. Sure, I had prepared for each one, but the answers came naturally and I never had a feeling of incompetence, or the thought of “well, that was a long shot, but at least I had interview practice.” The process continued (and I owe heartfelt thanks and drinks to the nearly 20 friends and family members who were contacted during the background investigation). More tests ensued, and along the way I confused a doctor and nurse with a perfect hearing test (what?). The vision test said something about my astigmatism (oops), and the psychological evaluation was the most exhausting part of all. [Note: All of these requirements and procedures are listed in the public job description. I will not reveal anything that is confidential. Also, any opinions expressed here are my own and not my employer’s. This was written on my own time.]
I received a “conditional” job offer, pending that daunting psychological evaluation, and found an apartment in Portland. I even had a backup plan in case the new job fell through — but that made me want it even more. When I received the call with a final job offer on that Tuesday evening in March, I sat in my car in a parking lot, filled with a kind of electrical shock and excitement.
And so it was that old friends introduced me to Portland during a rough time in my life, made me smile when I struggled, and were there for me years later.
A little less than three weeks after that job offer phone call, I had moved 650 miles to a new state.
Then I started a full-time academy. It was generally harder than I had imagined, especially the vast amount of geography I was required to learn in a short amount of time — Portland is the biggest city I’ve ever lived in, I moved here five days before work started, and I already have a knack for getting lost. One day found me crying in my car after scoring 20% on a geography quiz, and another day I was sent to a different instructor to see if maybe SHE could work some magic on me. As I type this, I still don’t fully know all 71 on/off-ramps of Interstate 5, plus the ones for I-205, I-84 and I-405, or all the bridge ramps. But I kept going. I gave up most morning runs so I could study when my brain was fresher, and I made many flash cards. And, to my utter amazement, I scored 100% on a subsequent geography quiz.
And then, after two days of exams, academy was done. I was officially on the work schedule, with my name on a mailbox and permission to park inside the secured gates. That said, this next level of training is going to be a different kind of exhausting than academy — and it will last at least four months. And then I’ll start an even more intense, longer phase of training. All in, this will take 18-24 months.
I still have no regrets. Every single day, even the time I was hating myself for crying over geography, and the unpleasant calls I’ve already taken, I see funny, beautiful things that make me so glad I took this big plunge.
February. It’s that mix of winter with a hint of spring, when the days are finally, noticeably getting longer again. Where I grew up, it was when the manzanita flowers would bloom. It’s a short month, and sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to have a presidential holiday added to the equation.
February has always been a mixed bag for me. When I was a child, I spent all of January looking forward to my February birthday. Yes, I just mentioned the b-word that my friends know I dread. I don’t like to make a big deal out of my birthday, mainly because I always feel that I haven’t done enough yet in life, so I don’t want to get another year older. To me, it feels like a day of failure, and of things not done. I’ve also had some rather interesting birthday experiences over the years that have made me a little jaded:
My 10-year birthday party had to be postponed two weeks because whooping cough broke out in the neighborhood, and I had a 3-week-old sister who couldn’t be immunized yet. (I don’t have hard feelings toward her; whooping cough can kill infants. Whether I have hard feelings toward the people who didn’t vaccinate their kids and thus caused the breakout that threatened my sister’s life is another story for another blog post.)
An on/off quasi-boyfriend brought a new girlfriend to one of my birthday parties.
I was dumped on my birthday.
A lawyer’s body was found buried in a vineyard, an event that actually launched my professional journalism career.
I was extremely ill but desperate to get to trial, where the afore-mentioned case was reaching its peak. I convinced a doctor to give me a shot — and I promptly had a reaction. But I did get back to trial!
I was kicked out of a law firm’s offices, so then I went and snooped through their trash in the dumpster behind the building. That was actually one of my favorite birthdays, because shady things were going on involving millions of dollars, and I was allowed to drive two-plus hours just to visit their office. (The next night, that office was “burglarized” and all of the computers and hard drives were taken — nothing else. But it was clearly an inside job, because all the glass from a broken window fell outside, not inside.)
I moved. I hate moving. Then we celebrated with champagne with a flower in each glass, and that’s when I discovered that such flowers give me bright red hives.
I dropped out of a 31-mile race at mile 16.5. It’s my only DNF (did not finish), and that race would have qualified me for something I’d sought for a couple years. I did finally qualify 10 months later.
I cried in my surgeon’s office, then scheduled the second surgery in five months.
And that’s just the day of my actual birthday. February as a whole has contained some pretty gloomy things over the years. But the thing is, I could single out any time period and create a bulleted list of “disappointing things that have happened to me.” I could also create a list of “awesome things that have happened to me” (like seeing Metallica almost-on-my-birthday last year). For that matter, each day and month and year is a chance to do things better and more fully.
Ultimately, it is up to me to turn those negative events into something memorable, whether it’s a good story to tell later or a lesson to be learned. (The same guy who dumped me on my birthday also dumped me on Valentine’s Day and Christmas, so that’s a two-in-one deal.) When I look at that list up there, it doesn’t make me depressed. I see a list of non-boring things that are just a fraction of the events that happened over the course of my life. Maybe I haven’t done enough things to appease myself, but at least I’ve gotten this far.
Despite my rather strong ambivalence toward my birthday, friends and family members still insist on sending me cards, gifts and cheer every year. I do truly appreciate it, even if I don’t feel worthy. Maybe I should be a bit less critical of myself. I am grateful for the life I have, so I should try to be more grateful for each day, whether it’s my birthday or not. (For the record, today is not my birthday. It will take longer than a blog post to fully reverse that ingrained train of thought.)
On the afternoon of January 11, 2016, my mother went to the doctor because she had noticed a lump in her abdomen and thought she might have a hernia. The doctor ordered blood work, then scheduled an ultrasound for the next day. That ultrasound was conducted at 11:30 a.m. (9:30 my time), and the doctor immediately ordered a CT scan — not for the next day, but for that same night.
That’s when my mom emailed her three daughters to say her liver appeared to contain multiple tumors.
On January 13, 2016, doctors told my mom that she had four masses in her liver, what looked like another mass in her colon, and that they suspected she had metastatic cancer that had started in her colon. According to the internet search I conducted in about three seconds, that meant she probably had stage four cancer — and there is nothing beyond stage four. Each tumor was the size of a chicken egg. Six days later, I was on a plane to my mom’s house. And the day after that, on January 20, I cried in a hospital room as another doctor, a gastroenterologist who had just conducted a colonoscopy, told us that such cases were “typically inoperable.”
Two things are fairly normal for me: I rarely cry; and most memories are blurry. That day in the hospital defied both norms. One year later, I still clearly remember that room in the Highland Park Hospital. I remember the look on Dr. Chiao’s face, and his struggle to meet my gaze as he watched tears well up in my eyes. I remember trying so very hard to keep those tears at bay, and the maddening frustration as I failed. I remember my mom saying a slow “okay” as the doctor talked. I remember looking at the pictures he had taken during the procedure, and already knowing what they meant because I had been Googling for days. I remember hating the fact that I was sniffling, and that one or two sniffs didn’t suffice. I remember sitting back so that I would be behind my mom and she wouldn’t see me trying so hard to keep control. I remember her, always a mother, looking for a box of tissue, and the doctor handing me a slim, red box. I remember my mom sitting back and saying, “It’s okay, Layla.”
For a long time, things were not okay. A lot of 2016 was not okay. For that matter, the fall of 2015 was also not okay, and my family even said, “things will get better in 2016.” We had no idea.
But that “typically inoperable” phrase didn’t come true for my mother. She rallied and fought back. We went to multiple doctors and surgeons. She jumped through so many hoops in order to start chemotherapy less than three weeks after her first visit to the doctor. I strongly suspect those hoops, maddening and bewildering as they were, saved my mother’s life because, in the three weeks between her first and second CT scans, the tumors in her liver grew half a centimeter each. When colon cancer spreads (metastasizes), it typically goes into the liver and then the lungs, and that’s when it’s finally detected — and by then it’s too late to treat. One of my mom’s tumors was on the outside of her liver, so combined with being a small woman, she noticed it in time.
Chemotherapy, with all of its terrible side effects, stopped the tumors in their tracks. As quickly as they had grown, they began shrinking. Surgeons had various opinions, but my mom chose the liver surgeon who wanted to try teaming up with another surgeon to operate on her colon and liver all at once. Surgeons at a bigger hospital with a big university name hadn’t wanted to attempt such a thing, because that’s just not how it’s done. Even a week before surgery, my mom’s chosen surgeon said they could do the operations separately, but my mom stuck to her decision. Dr. Talamonti, her ever-calming liver surgeon, said “okay, let’s do it.”
On June 2, 2016, surgeons spent six hours operating on my mom’s abdomen. I hung out in the waiting room, later discovering more than one error I made while valiantly attempting to work remotely. I was nearly numb when Dr. Talamonti came to tell me that it was complete and looked good. I think he was expecting me to cry because he had taken me into a private room, but I stuck to my tear-free norm — until he left and I started to walk back to the waiting room. I suddenly turned into the bathroom, and then I cried for the first time since that January day in the hospital.
After nine days in the hospital, my mom went home. Recovery was not easy. And then chemotherapy started again.
On October 31, I was at a beach town in Mexico a couple days before a friend’s destination wedding. I got to a wifi signal and checked my email, knowing my mom was hopefully having her last chemo treatment if it wasn’t postponed, which had happened more than once due to white blood cell counts being too low. My mother had emailed an audio recording of the visit with her cancer doctor, where she received her last chemo treatment and he told her she was done. He then talked about the timing of future CT scans and other maintenance.
And there, beside a pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean in central Mexico, I cried for the third time. My mom was okay.
To my pleasant surprise, I finished 36 books in 2016. (The number nerd in me liked this, and promptly decided 2017 should have 37 books, but we shall see.) Goodreads tracks this info via a website and a phone app, and while I’m not thrilled with countless time-sucking semi-social sites, I think the site has encouraged me to read more and to stay a bit more organized. The payoff: their year-end “My Year in Books” summary.
Full disclosure: The site doesn’t differentiate between physical, electronic and audio books — and I plowed through a number of audio books in 2016. Am I cheating by including audio books? I’m not sure, but my conscience rests easily if I say I “finished” the books, rather than saying I “read” them. Regardless, I did consume the entirety of each book (including the lengthy end notes in a couple of them).
Of these 36 books, I only gave a full five-star rating to three. Coincidentally, they were either set in the Pacific Northwest or about WWII, which really isn’t much of a surprise.
The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown, a well-researched account of poor, hard-working young men from the Pacific Northwest who set out to beat the Ivy League crew teams and then take on the Nazis. I have a life-long fascination with WWII, I didn’t know much about the 1936 Olympics, and I could picture the area.
Burying Water, by K.A. Tucker, about a woman who was left for dead but survived — with no memory of what happened to her. It wasn’t quite the typical “girl suffers amnesia, falls in love, lives happily ever after” type of plot. The characters pulled me in, and I just wanted the story to keep going.
The Lost Wife, by Alyson Richman, a story of a young couple who are separated by WWII. The novel switches between his and her perspective, present and past, and somehow it works without confusion.
In no particular order, the four-star books:
The Long and Faraway Gone, by Lou Berney. Two separate crimes and two separate characters are woven together. I really wanted the story to keep going!
Happiness For Beginners, by Katherine Center. A light-hearted, funny tale of a newly single woman who has no business signing up for a rugged wilderness survival course.
Black-Eyed Susans, by Julia Heaberlin. A suspense story of the sole survivor of a serial killer, successfully told in both present day and 20 years earlier.
The Spy’s Son, by Bryan Denson. Subtitle: “The True Story of the Highest-Ranking CIA Officer Ever Convicted of Espionage and the Son He Trained to Spy for Russia.” I came close to giving this one five stars.
The Lake House, by Kate Morton. A tale about a missing person. This was a toss-up between three and four stars, but I liked the writing.
An Irish Country Doctor, by Patrick Taylor. Cute little tale set in the Irish countryside: I was biased because I’ve been there and could picture it, and this was an audio book with a fantastic accent.
One Plus One, by Jojo Moyes. Good blend of humor, non-cheesy romance and funny characters. Bonus: They’re on a road trip.
Isaac’s Storm, by Erik Larson. One of my favorite non-fiction authors, Larson brought a 1900 hurricane to life. This was closer to five stars.
Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes. A young woman takes a job caring for a grumpy man in a wheelchair. Her character is hilarious.
After You, by Jojo Moyes. Sequel to the above, I continue to like the character. (It helps that she is delightfully British.)
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. I’ve read this book at least once before, but it’s been about 20 years. This was the folding pages version; I am a bad blogger who hasn’t taken a photo of it, but you can buy it here.
The Diplomat’s Wife, by Pam Jenoff. A WWII story of love and heartbreak, with a plot turn that is a little too far-fetched but made it a good airplane read.
I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb. The story of the remarkable teenager who stood up to the Taliban — subtitle: “The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.”
The Short Drop, by Matthew FitzSimmons. Another mystery of a long-missing person. Strangely, I read this in July and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I barely remember it.
Anonymous Sources, by Mary Louise Kelly. When a former NPR reporter writes a crime novel about a reporter, of course I will read it.
Split Second, by David Baldacci. Two former Secret Service agents team up on a crime case. This is my guilty pleasure reading at its finest.
Moving along to the three-star books:
Hell’s Guest, by Glenn Frazier. First-hand account from a survivor of the Bataan Death March in WWII, which I finished just before running the marathon that honors the victims. I wanted to love this, but the writing was mediocre and it was a little too preachy. The passion was genuine, though.
Killing Floor, by Lee Child. Bad writing made tolerable by the audio book factor and the “fun action story with a cool main star so you can suspend all deep thought and just enjoy the ride” notion.
Seabiscuit, by Lauren Hillenbrand. A well-written, well-researched book about the legendary race horse, which took me a very long time to read because I’m just really not a horse person. (I loved her book “Unbroken,” though.)
The Girl You Left Behind, by Jojo Moyes. More Jojo Moyes fiction, this time set in WWII. This was more of a 2.5-star book.
Hour Game, by David Baldacci. The second book in the “King & Maxwell” series about the former Secret Service members turned private investigators.
Simple Genius, by David Baldacci. The third book in the series. This one’s plot was kind of ridiculous, but I just really get a kick out of the two main characters.
First Family, by David Baldacci. Fourth book in the series. I often run without music, but when it’s a three-hour run that will get tough, this kind of audio escape is the best.
The Sixth Man, by David Baldacci. Book number five. More guilty pleasure fun.
King and Maxwell, by David Baldacci. The sixth, and apparently last, book in the series. Wait, that’s it? No more PI capers?
The Black Echo, by Michael Connelly. Crime novels by a former LA Times crime reporter: Books I will explore. Harry Bosch, the gritty detective, is my kind of character.
Black Ice, by Michael Connelly. This one took Detective Bosch into Mexico. I was a bit generous with my stars.
The Concrete Blonde, by Michael Connelly.I started plowing through these Harry Bosch books because I discovered the Amazon TV series that’s taken from the books. The show is fantastic, but I wanted to read the books before seeing the episodes.
The Last Coyote, by Michael Connelly. This one explores more of Bosch’s history.
Trunk Music, by Michael Connelly. I polished off the second season of Amazon’s show, which ended with this book. I have a feeling I’ll binge both when the third season comes out this year.
And then we have the two-star books. Like the five-star ones, I only gave this lower honor to three titles:
The Rumor, by Elin Hilderbrand. I’ve read a couple of her books in the past and remember liking them, but this one was just too fluffy with zero substance.
The Heist, by Janet Evanovich. Her books can be fast-read fun romps, but this one was ridiculous to the point of being absurd.
The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth van Arnim. I really wanted to like this one because it was recommended as an antidote to a book that was miserable. But it was just so slow and seemed to have no point. A guy on an airplane was impressed that I was reading it, so maybe I am just not sophisticated enough for fine literature.
And that last book leads to the one book I abandoned this year. I didn’t give one one star to any books, and I’m really not one to abandon books because it bothers me to leave pages unread, but I finally decided that I simply could not waste my brain cells on a book I hated. The book that gets this rare honor: Alibi, by Joseph Kanon. Another novel set in WWII, this one brings up moral questions that could be good things to think about but instead made me not want to read at all. I’ll be donating this book, which is also rare for me, though I just got the idea to leave it in my unused fireplace for the next tenant who moves in.
And that’s a wrap for 2016 in books. What else should I read, aside from/in addition to the books on this never-ending list?
I stole this idea from Kimra last year, and I decided to do it again in 2016. It was easier this time, because I started it in January and then added to it — I feel so accomplished! Here is a list of cities in which I spent at least one night between January 1, 2016, and December 31, 2016. An * denotes those cities in which I spent multiple non-consecutive nights.
Beaverton, OR *
Dublin, CA *
Lake Forest, IL *
Upland, CA *
Las Cruces, NM
Green Bay, WI
Camp Meeker, CA
Evanston, IL *
Santa Rosa, CA
Vancouver, BC (Canada)
Sayulita, NA (Mexico)
Also for fun, how about the flights I took this year? These do not count layovers.
Portland to Oakland – January
Oakland to Chicago – January
Chicago to Oakland – January
San Francisco to Chicago – January
Chicago to Oakland – February
Oakland to Ontario (California) – February
Ontario to Oakland – February
Oakland to Chicago – March
Chicago to El Paso – March
El Paso to Oakland – March
San Francisco to Chicago – April
Chicago to San Francisco – April
Oakland to Chicago – May
Chicago to Oakland – May
Oakland to Chicago – May
Chicago to Oakland – June
Oakland to Chicago – June
Chicago to Oakland – June
San Francisco to Vancouver (Canada) – August
Vancouver to San Francisco – August
San Francisco to Puerto Vallarta (Mexico) – October
This 4-inch circle of stiff paper has been floating around my work desk since mid-August, when I picked it up for free at a clothing store in Vancouver, British Columbia:
“Life is short; live it” has been a mantra of mine for years now. It’s a phrase that wormed its way into my head after seeing someone nearly be murdered in 2009 and then witnessing a double-fatality car wreck three months later. I’ve also phrased it “life should be lived, and dreams should come true” when thinking about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing victims. And a friend who died of cancer in 2012 inspired me to write that “life needs to be lived, and that it’s worth fighting for as long as possible.”
To say that the past year has been hard is an understatement. My immediate family has been dealt the cards of injury, death, ongoing sorrow and stage 4 cancer. Through it all, my first instinct has been to LIVE. Each new blow has made me more determined than the last: If this is how life will be, I need to make the most of it NOW rather than wait until the unknown future. I need to chase dreams and sign up for races and see friends and visit new places NOW.
In response to the above 28,000 days thought, my friend Desiree pointed me to this video. I’m not always a video person (reading is faster!) but this was an instance where the visual representation really shines through:
I might have a lifelong fascination with WWII, but that fascination always seems to reveal how much I DON’T know. For instance, a Virginia park just outside Washington D.C. was actually a top secret place codenamed P.O. Box 1142, and it’s where Nazi POWs were interrogated — by Jews.
P.O. Box 1142 was the American government’s first foray into interrogation, and they kind of learned as they went along. And then, when the war ended, the place shut down and became Fort Hunt Park. Those who worked there had been sworn to secrecy by the U.S. government, and they only consented to interviews after the National Park Service, seeking to preserve history, got the military to send them written releases.
I learned about this place while listening to a “This American Life” podcast (“Act 2″ of that one). I naturally turned to the Internet for more information. The podcast site has this blog post with old documents and photos. And NPR’s “All Things Considered” previously did a feature on the place.
I’ve wanted to return to Washington D.C. for years, and now I have yet another site to add to my list. History is so fascinating.