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  • February

    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.

    Not rough: Bike riding between rain showers with these clouds and this greenery.
    Also a bonus in February: Bike riding between rain showers with these clouds and this greenery.


    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.

    Sunrise runs are always good.
    Sunrise runs are always good.


    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.)


  • It’s okay

    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.

    One year ago, a tweet of desperation and hope.


    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.

  • 2016 in cities and flights

    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.

    1. Beaverton, OR *
    2. Dublin, CA *
    3. Lake Forest, IL *
    4. Upland, CA *
    5. Las Cruces, NM
    6. Green Bay, WI
    7. Camp Meeker, CA
    8. Evanston, IL *
    9. Santa Rosa, CA
    10. Vancouver, BC (Canada)
    11. Sayulita, NA (Mexico)
    12. Gresham, OR
    13. Charleston, SC

    Also for fun, how about the flights I took this year? These do not count layovers.

    1. Portland to Oakland – January
    2. Oakland to Chicago – January
    3. Chicago to Oakland – January
    4. San Francisco to Chicago – January
    5. Chicago to Oakland – February
    6. Oakland to Ontario (California) – February
    7. Ontario to Oakland – February
    8. Oakland to Chicago – March
    9. Chicago to El Paso – March
    10. El Paso to Oakland – March
    11. San Francisco to Chicago – April
    12. Chicago to San Francisco – April
    13. Oakland to Chicago – May
    14. Chicago to Oakland – May
    15. Oakland to Chicago – May
    16. Chicago to Oakland – June
    17. Oakland to Chicago – June
    18. Chicago to Oakland – June
    19. San Francisco to Vancouver (Canada) – August
    20. Vancouver to San Francisco – August
    21. San Francisco to Puerto Vallarta (Mexico) – October
    22. Puerto Vallarta to San Francisco – November
    23. Oakland to Portland – December
    24. Portland to Oakland – December
    25. San Francisco to Charleston – December
    26. Charleston to San Francisco – December

  • 2015 in cities

    I’m blatantly stealing this idea from Kimra, because I have nothing better to do on a Thursday evening, I suppose? Anyway, here is a list of cities in which I spent at least one night between January 1, 2015, and December 31, 2015. An * denotes those cities in which I spent multiple non-consecutive nights.

    Santa Rosa, CA *
    Dublin, CA *
    Placerville, CA
    Healdsburg, CA
    Kailua-Kona, HI *
    Portland, OR *
    Seattle, WA
    Centralia, WA
    Beaverton, OR *
    Weed, CA
    San Francisco, CA
    Vancouver, BC
    Sydney, BC
    Upland, CA

    So, that makes four states and one Canadian province. I had planned on several more cities and states, but surgery and family happened instead. I did make two trips each to Kona and Portland, so I guess that’s something.

    I also captured 364 of the 365 days in photos. When you’re about to lose your grandfather and you cannot go to him, no photo will suffice. But here is 2015, in photos dumped into a low-resolution phone app, then put into low-resolution Facebook, and then captured in screen shot. I get an A+ in photo presentation skills, right?








  • No answers

    What do you do when you see a photo of a loved one and start crying because of the sadness in her eyes?

    When you cannot hop on a plane and go give her a hug?

    When you’re scared because your easy-going surgeon is worried about you and threatened more surgery?

    When you hear about your grandfather’s ashes being scattered?

    When you wonder if you’ll ever have have full use of your thumb again?

    When a broken molar is the least of your worries?

    When you want to go visit all of your family but cannot?

    When you curse the fact that it’s 2015 and you’re nowhere closer to your loved ones?

  • No words

    I truly do not know how many deaths I wrote about during my 10 years as a journalist. I covered crime and courts for nearly all of that time, as well as breaking news including car wrecks, fires and deaths of local citizens. People were shot, stabbed, poisoned and run over. People overdosed, crashed, took their own lives and drowned. People died of cancer, “old age” and incurable diseases.

    I was that person talking to sobbing family members at crime scenes and car wrecks. I was the one looking through phone books, searching the internet and court records for relatives, then knocking on strangers’ doors. I was the one blasted by the public for intruding in the lives of those who were grieving.

    The thing is, people almost always wanted to talk. They were desperate to tell me about their loved ones, and they begged me to write about fond memories. They showed me childhood photos, they recalled jokes, they told of scholastic and professional achievements. After I had left, they often phoned the numbers on my business card, wanting to tell me one more anecdote. They invited me to funerals, and some even contacted me on an anniversary of their loved one’s death, anxious to keep memories alive. One friend of a domestic violence victim sent me Christmas cards for years. A few found me on Facebook years later.

    Even in the midst of gruesome, terrible scenes, I liked the work. I liked recording history, which included the details surrounding the death as well as the people involved. I liked being able to tell others’ stories.

    But what happens when it’s my own family?

    Until Wednesday, October 14, 2015, I never had to ask that question.

    The answer is that I don’t have words. I don’t know how to sum up the life of a man born into an impoverished immigrant family, who went off to fight in WWII, earned a degree at Rutgers and became such a successful businessman that an Iowa town once dedicated an entire day to him. I don’t know how to tell about how he retired but then started a new career. How he made exquisite jewelry as a hobby but then began selling it, how he grew fruit for fun but then had so much that he had to give it away. How he designed and built his last home because he wanted the views to be just right. How he watched “Jeopardy!” every day and was so pleased when he knew the answers. And there were his legendary puns — a trait he passed down to my mother and which sometimes comes through in me.

    It’s no wonder grieving families usually talked to me, the badge-wearing, notepad-carrying journalist who was at their door: They wanted someone to write about their loved one, but they didn’t have the words to do it themselves.

    Now I am the wordless one.

  • Yes, I root for two baseball teams

    Me, in September 2003:

    “The Cubs just won their first post-season road game for the first time since 1945. I thought I was cheering for the underdogs and I thought I didn’t watch baseball. Well, ‘my team’ is still winning, and I just intermittently watched two innings of baseball. The sky must be falling.”

    I remember that time, in my upstairs apartment that had no air conditioning. I sat on my free (used) couch and watched my 19-inch TV with rabbit ear antennae that I had to regularly adjust to reduce some of the static.

    I had no knowledge of baseball, but a couple internet friends caught my attention with their sports chatter. The statistics intrigued me, as did the Chicago Cubs’ underdog status. I’d always been picked last in sports games in school, so I liked the idea of rooting for the worst team in baseball. Just three years earlier, I’d expanded my family, and they all lived in Chicago and rooted for the Cubs, so why shouldn’t I add the Cubs, too?

    Me, the next week, in October 2003:

    “Five days ago, I wrote about how I was taking an interest in baseball. I’m getting worse: I watched part of yesterday’s Chicago vs. Atlanta game and a large part of today’s game. I actually talked to the TV, cheered a few times and then really cheered at the end, when the Cubs won their first postseason round in 95 years.

    My sister is appalled that I’m getting into baseball. Many other people are laughing at me or are simply bewildered (as am I). I think I’ll blame it on Jon.

    Oh, and the next Cubs game is Tuesday, against the Florida Marlins.”

    After the Cubs lost that season, my interest ebbed and flowed. Later that month, though, when the Yankees and Red Sox were playing, they got into a brawl. And I loved quoting this news story:

    “NEW YORK (AP) – Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez should have been arrested for throwing 72-year-old Yankees coach Don Zimmer to the ground during Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Sunday.

    “If that happened in New York we would have arrested the perpetrator,” Bloomberg said. “Nobody should throw a 70-year-old man to the ground, period. You start doing that, pretty soon you’re going to throw a 61-year-old man to the ground, and I have a big vested interest in that.”

    About five or so years later, I went with friends to a San Francisco Giants game. It was my first professional sports game of any kind — and we had a suite. I was amazed. Then we went to an Oakland A’s game, where we also had a suite as well as a few seats close enough to see the blades of grass, and we took turns sitting in them.

    grass  IMG_9041

    A couple years later, in 2010, I moved to the Bay Area to work for a company that has season tickets to Giants games. I made friends who were Giants fans, some of whom took me under their wings and explained more of the game to me.

    IMG_4838 IMG_3031 hmla

    Some fans were snooty, looking at me as a bandwagon fan because the team was doing well that season, and because I also rooted for the Cubs. But you have to start somewhere, and I take the firm stand that it’s all just a fun game (played by people who make a ridiculous amount of money).

    IMG_4763 IMG_0058 giants

    When the Giants won the World Series, it was inspiring to see their true, honest elation. Then came the 2012 World Series win. And the 2014 win, in which I got to attend two post-season games and cheered until I was almost hoarse.


    Now it’s 2015. The Giants had a lot of injuries this year, but they still beat most odds. The joke is that they “only” win the World Series in even-numbered years.

    I don’t keep up with All Of The Sports the way some of my friends do. But I was interested when, after the end of another season last year, the Cubs began making big changes, including hiring a new manager and signing a lot of players. Having watched the Giants a lot, I believe true teamwork is key. You don’t get to the major leagues unless you’re a good player, so it’s not like anybody in the MLB is swinging a bat on my level. Everyone out there is talented, but one man’s talent does not win a World Series. Winning requires teamwork, so you know where everyone is on the field, you trust they’ll be there, and you work together for the one goal of winning. If someone gets hurt, the season isn’t ruined — because it takes a whole team to win or lose. That’s one reason I really like the Giants: They’re a team in sickness and in health.

    IMG_3017 playofffireworks IMG_9498

    The Cubs are playing with a lot of new team members, all the way up to the manager, and they’ve even started a massive overhaul of Wrigley Field. I believe this season has been crucial, because it’s their best chance to gel as a team. I said last spring that I didn’t know if the Cubs would be ready yet to go all the way this year, that it would depend on how well they could learn to work together and truly trust each other. Well, they finished the regular season with the third best record in baseball (but still had to go to the wildcard game because their division is very talented/tough).

    Last night, the Cubs did exactly what the Giants did last year: They shut out the Pittsburgh Pirates for the wildcard win — in Pittsburgh. (I kind of feel sorry for Pittsburgh: Two shutouts in two consecutive years with home field advantage has to be rough.)

    Go, teamwork.

  • The inspiration of Erik Larson

    I finished the book “Dead Wake” by Erik Larson today. As with his first book “Devil in the White City,” I sat there for a minute and thought, “Wow.” His research is incredibly impressive, and he weaves everything together in a magical, captivating way.

    Larson’s work is my kind of writing: Gather lots of research, gather a bit more, and then piece it all together like a puzzle. In college, history classes relieved me, because I could write my way through them rather than guessing at arbitrary multiple choice questions on exams. Term papers were dreaded by many of my classmates, but I truly enjoyed finding the material and then watching it meld together. I liked footnotes and bibliographies, also unlike my classmates, because they were a way to give credit where it was due.

    When I wound up in journalism, it’s no wonder that I found it easy. By nature, I’m curious and I like people, so I was being paid to be myself, and then to put everything together in writing. I could tell factual stories, and it was usually effortless. On election days, I was always tasked with going out and talking to people near the polls, because I could get them to talk. Then I would gather all my quotes, and the quotes my colleagues had also managed to collect. I’d piece together the puzzle, adding in numbers and outcomes as polls closed and results began rolling in. I don’t like politics, but this I could do — combine the solid, opinion-free poll numbers with people from all walks of life.

    I haven’t written much of anything beyond this little blog in five years now. When I was a little girl, and then a teenager, and then a young adult, I never imagined I would reach this age and have no book with my name on the spine. But if I ever reach that one and only lifelong goal of mine, I like to think it would be a poor imitation of Erik Larson’s work style.

    And, hey, he apparently likes the cream part of Oreos, too.

  • Gracious gestures

    Eighteen months ago, an a Friday afternoon in March while driving to a memorial service for a 19-year-old girl, I noticed how brown everything seemed for a spring day. I took this photo:


    Since that memorial service, some things have changed and some things have not.  Sometimes things remind me of her death and of her parents, and I’ve written a couple blog posts when the mood has struck. Sometimes I’ve had a random urge to text one of her parents for no particular reason, but I’ve worried that it might be a bad time — would I give them a reminder of the sadness at a moment they had managed to smile?

    While on vacation last month, I woke up to a dream about her dad. I don’t remember the dream, but the fact that I remembered any part of a dream was rare and I told Deb, my friend/host, a bit about the family’s loss and how it was strange to have such a random dream for no apparent reason. “It sounds like you have some unfinished business there,” Deb said.

    Today marks the 21st birthday of that young woman. She should be alive to celebrate it. Instead, I am sitting here, thinking of her parents’ faces on that March day. I still don’t know what my unfinished business is, but there is one thing I can do: To pay for unexpected medical bills, I recently got money out of a college fund I never needed to use. It more than covered my bills, so the rest will be used for airfare to see ailing family. But I am also writing a check to the Kara Adams Memorial Fund, and putting it in the mail to Lodi High School. It’s not much, but it’s a little bit that can make a young student’s future brighter.

    On my drive back home from that memorial 18 months ago, I noticed that the light had changed, and the hills no longer looked brown. I took this photo:


    Sometimes light can bring a new perspective to the world around you. Sometimes a smile or a kind word can make things seem beautiful again. That’s what Kara’s family wants today — for people to make a gesture of grace to brighten someone else’s day. You never know when it will make all the difference in the world.

  • One-handed challenges

    So, I have my first-ever cast.

    This cast is as rigid and uncomfortable as you can imagine.
    This cast is as rigid and uncomfortable as you can imagine.

    After surgery, I had a partial cast that was plaster on one side and lots of soft padding on the other side, to account for swelling. And, boy, was there swelling. My fingers were sausages for about five days. But pain was minimal: I stopped the Norco (Vicodin/Tylenol) the next day because it was keeping me awake, making me foggy, and messing up my digestive system. Yes, it kept me awake; I’m also a weirdo who usually experiences the opposite sleep effect of cold medicine (which is one reason I don’t take the stuff).

    Last Thursday, I had my post-operative appointment where they removed all the bandaging and I got to bend my wrist for the first time in a week. I’ll post a photo of the 12 stitches at the end of this post, so prepare your appetite. Now I have this terrible, horrible, painful cast for eight days. My outer wrist bone has become an innocent victim: It sticks out, so the hard cast squishes it 24/7, and I feel it every waking moment. I could have gone in today and had it replaced, but I really didn’t want to deal with hours of post-casting thumb pain, more time off work, and traffic — especially since I’m four days into this cast and will get a new one in another four days.

    I’m currently debating the color of the new cast, though I’m thinking of buying decorative duct tape to put around the next cast so it stops catching on my clothes. It’s 2015, and casts are still this terrible?? Why???

    Anyway, here is a list of things that are impossible to do if your left thumb is completely immobilized and encased in plaster:

    1. Bike outside.
    2. Floss. Those plastic “flosser” things snap instantly on rear molars if your teeth are crowded.
    3. Play the piano.
    4. Use a regular can opener.
    5. Pull open a door while holding a cup of coffee, or any unsealed container.
    6. Paint the fingernails on your other hand.
    7. Turn a mattress that also has a bed skirt under it. Remaking the bed is also a challenge, though it’s not on this list because I can use my foot to prop up the mattress while I valiantly attempt one-handed hospital corners with my “good” hand that is still not 100%.
    8. Alt-tab on a PC. It’s not the same if you have to use two hands to do it (but thankfully, I already use my other thumb on the spacebar so I’m not relearning THAT).
    9. Elliptical.
    10. Lift anything heavy, whether it’s a case of water at work or weights at the gym.
    11. Wear long-sleeved shirts/sweaters, unless they have buttons and wide cuffs.
    12. Scrub a potato. (I’m working on this one, though.)
    13. Fully shave your other armpit.
    14. Swim. (Yes, that’s my latest excuse against swimming. I’ll find more once this hand debacle is behind me.)
    15. And, last but NOT LEAST: Take a normal shower that does not involve plastic and waterproof tape.

    And now for the post-op stitches photo. I’ll type a couple lines in case you want to stop scrolling. (Mom, this means you.)

    I swear, it’s not bad.

    Michaela said it looked like Frankenstein, which I’ll take as a compliment.

    It’s really not bad at all.

    It could be worse: My friend Matt was rear-ended by a car while on his bike the other day, and he has to worry about scaring customers at work with his injuries. (Yes, a car rear-ended him. In broad daylight. After he had signaled to turn, but the car decided to pass him. On a solid center line. So many WTF questions for that driver.)

    Reminder: Always wear a helmet.

    Okay, enough typing. Mom, if you’re still reading, here comes the photo.

    Also, there are a couple Sharpie marks left. Don’t worry; those aren’t permanent.

    The stitches. Coming in a few months: scar photos! I'm sure you're all excited.
    The stitches. Coming in a few months: scar photos! I’m sure you’re all excited.