Bye, Bye, Birdie

“I hope this doesn’t cause you to want a divorce,” my husband, Jonathan, began a recent conversation.

I braced myself. Was he about to confess an affair? Insist we relocate to New York City? Register as a Republican?

Jonathan continued: “I signed up for a birding hike with the Sonoma Land Trust.”

No wonder he was worried. Early on in our relationship, we vowed never to become birdwatchers, a pact that was threatened several years ago when we accompanied our good friends on an outing to see the sand hill cranes. You can get the full report of that marriage-jeopardizing venture here. You can also get a better way to see the cranes–from the comfort of your own home–here, courtesy of Google Images and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife:

Relieved that Jonathan’s announcement wasn’t all that dire in the scheme of things, I threw caution to the wind: “Why don’t you sign me up too?” At least this trip was only 20 minutes away, and we had our own escape vehicle, since we’d be meeting the group at the levee. Plus, they were strangers–who cared what anyone thought of us? The worst that could happen was that only one of us might have a good time. Or that rain would cancel the outing. Which we were both secretly hoping for anyway.

When the Big Day arrived, the weather forecast indicated a 30 percent chance of rain starting at 10:00 a.m. The outing began at 9:00 a.m., and we figured we could leave if the rain materialized. So we went, the sun burning through a heavy layer of fog to blue sky.

About 30 people were gathered. About 28 of them actually seemed to be birding enthusiasts, if the field guides stashed in pockets, high-tech binoculars, and tendency to stand about exclaiming at tiny specks were any indication. I was bored already, but at least the wetlands and green hills were pretty enough to keep my loutish tendencies in check. Plus, I felt reassured when Jonathan said to me in a low voice, “I thought it would be covered with birds.”

Our interest picked up when the Sonoma Land Trust guide recounted the history of the restoration projection. Everything around us, including the highway we’d come in on and the ground we stood upon, was once below sea level. Then, we learned, during the mid-19th century, a “Drain the Swamp” movement quite unlike Donald Trump’s version led to a frenzy of levee-building to create rich farmland. As the tidal bay waters receded, the land sank six feet. Now that people have come to appreciate the vital role wetlands play in protecting ecosystems and mitigating sea-level rise, a few years ago reclamation began with a breech in the 5-mile-long levee built by the Swampland homesteaders. The tidal waters and their natural silting process have returned, along with a rich feeding stopover for birds.

Some of said birds we could even see, either as specks with the naked eye or dots through binoculars and scopes. The guide remarked that our presence would ensure that the birds kept their distance, which seemed to defeat the whole purpose until I remembered that the real purpose was to see how resilient our marriage was.

After about 10 minutes of standing still, the guides picked up the scopes and we all walked about 50 feet to the next spot for standing still. The wind picked up, the clouds rolled in. Without the requisite birding passion, Jonathan and I were freezing.

“Ready to walk?” I suggested in a low voice.

Jonathan checked in with the guide to see if we’d scare off the already scarce birds if we went on ahead. He assured us it would be fine.

“If I had to choose between nature-hike-Hell,” I said to Jonathan, “I’d choose wildflowers over birds. At least you can see them.”

“Yeah, and they don’t get up and leave as you approach,” he agreed.

We walked briskly to the end of the levee and back, admiring the view, seeing more birds than we’d seen as part of the group, not caring what they were called. Two women also left the group, so we weren’t the only apostates.

At 10:00 a.m. on the dot, it began to rain. We returned to our car, damp in body but not in spirits. Once again, our marriage had survived the call of the wild.

Buche de Noel, Revisited

Even though I now own a still-unused candy thermometer, I’ve been content to forever swear off my Christmas fantasy of making Buche de Noel. But when I went to my weekly consulting gig at a mental health agency on December 20, they had an incredible dense chocolate version from Sweet Adeline, the kind of bakery cafe I would want to open if I still harbored fantasies about opening a bakery cafe.

This Buche was a rich swirl of buttercream and chocolate smothered in chocolate ganache. By the time I got there, the staff had pretty much eaten away it’s log-like appearance, which is probably just as well, since its pristine form might have intimidated me.

“How hard could this be?” I asked myself, noting that it was not a delicate spongecake (which doesn’t taste very good anyway). It also had no ridiculous handmade brittle like the recipe that defeated me years before. And since just three weeks before I had made for a friend’s 70th birthday the super easy and delicious Chocolate Amazon Cake with Mocha Buttercream Frosting from the Cafe Beaujolais Cookbook, I thought, “Why not pour the same batter into a jelly roll pan, then smear it with buttercream, roll it up, pour chocolate glaze on it, and see what happens?”

What happened is pictured above. If I were auditioning for Cook’s Illustrated, I could tell you the science and recount in obsessive detail the five attempts I made to get everything perfect. But I only made one attempt, because it was the holiday season after all, and I had menus to plan and presents to wrap. Besides, I only subscribed to the magazine so I could cut out the pretty cover art and frame it for my daughter’s new kitchen (she didn’t like it, but luckily the subscription was only $5.00 for the year).

“If the Buche is a major fail,” I told my family, “I’ll just cut up the frosted cake chunks and layer it with whipped cream and hot fudge sauce and call it a day.”

Once trimmed horizontally with a serrated knife (it was a little too thick; I should have made cupcakes with some of the batter) and frosted with the mocha buttercream, the cake rolled up quite nicely, thanks to a nifty parchment paper cradle that kept everything properly aligned and tight. My daughter, a devotee of The Great British Baking Show, was impressed that I knew about parchment paper despite having lived my entire life without once watching TGBBS.

Another thing–it is perfectly fine to decorate one’s Buche de Noel with real mushrooms (and pine cones and mossy twigs and holly, as long as one does not ingest these latter items). Pomegranate seeds or cranberries with mint leaves make a nice garnish that won’t actually poison anyone. Plus, my daughter sauteed the mushrooms for her breakfast the next day, which you couldn’t do with the meringue kind.

I don’t yet know if this dessert will become a Christmas tradition, or if I will go back to my longer-standing tradition of dreaming without doing. One thing is certain, however: I will NEVER make good on my fantasy of opening a bakery-cafe!! Although couldn’t you just imagine this picture on Yelp?

Once in a Super Blue Blood Moon

Since my husband and I failed to transform our lives with the life-transforming solar eclipse last August, we vowed to do better the next time big events involving celestial bodies occurred. At least if it wasn’t too much hassle.

This morning, we West Coast denizens were promised front-row seats to the trifecta of a blue moon/super blood moon/total lunar eclipse practically on our doorstep. So we set our alarm for 5:00 a.m., not much of a sacrifice for a middle-aged couple up several times a night to pee anyway.

Our weather app had predicted clouds from 4:00 in the morning on, so I was hopeful that we could glance out the window and go back to bed. I was already on a winning streak, having convinced my husband that no, we did not have to drive to a faraway high point and hike up a trail in the dark for a good view. Really, standing in front of our house and looking west should suffice. As a compromise, I had agreed to drive three minutes to a reasonably good vantage point if the eucalyptus trees on our hillside blocked the view. Assuming there was a view, if our weather app was wrong. Which it usually is.

When the alarm went off at 5:00, I awoke from a dream in which I was getting a commendation of some sort. I volunteered to put on my robe to see if the cloud cover had materialized. My dream became reality as my husband murmured from under the warm covers, “Thank you, you’re my hero.”

I could see through the living room window that the night sky was crystal clear, so as promised I made the extra effort to go down to the street in front of our house. Sure enough, there was the moon. Pretty spectacular, as the photo at the top suggests. Except that’s the street lamp at the end of our cul-de-sac.

This is what the super moon/blue moon/total lunar eclipse actually looked like at its awe-inspiring peak:

In order to get out of the street lamp’s glare, we hopped in the car and whizzed up the hill three minutes to a better vantage point. There we had an unobstructed view of a small orange-ish orb covered by a brownish smudge (see above). It looked nothing like the on-line photos that had lured us into becoming celestial gawkers at such an ungodly hour. Those showed the moon looking like a gigantic red clown’s nose blotting out the sky. Damned cheaters using filters and special lenses instead of an old iPhone or the naked eye!

It was too late to crawl back into bed, so we got on with our day. Life transformation would have to wait. Possibly until later tonight, when we resume binge-watching Season 3 of “Outlander,” where not only lives but centuries are routinely transformed. Claire and Jamie: Talk about celestial bodies.

 

Why I’ve Been Away

Celebrating my father-in-law’s 96th birthday in January 2016, a little bit less than a year before he died. He and his wife of nearly 70 years are seated in front, with our dear family friend on the top left. (Then there’s me, my husband, and our daughters.) Sadly, we have lost all of these elders in the past year.

Even though I have a pretty crippling case of writer’s ambivalence, I never intended to stay away from these pages so long. But then WordPress went on the fritz and, never having quite escaped feeling ashamed of my technophobia, I failed to enlist tech help from the nice people at GoDaddy. Then I finally did, and in a heartbeat the Daddies fixed the problem, which had to do with uploading photos. Then the same problem happened two heartbeats and two blog posts later. On top of which my iPhone went all funky, and the first worldwide ransom ware hack happened. The universe seemed to be signaling that it was time to take a break from all things online. Perhaps instead I should weed my garden before the heavy rains and the finally emerging sunshine conspired to create a jungle outside my kitchen window.

Which I did. I even spread 52 cubic feet of mulch by hand on our hillside.

I also took a break from blogging to spend what little energy I had on extremely intermittent activism: publishing a couple of letters to the editor, attending some town hall meetings about affordable housing, even phone banking a time or two to try to save healthcare from the Republican repeal attempts.  It wasn’t much, but at least it was something, and made me feel less helpless.

Mostly, though, I stayed away from writing because of more pressing priorities: tending to my aging in-laws in their final months of life. In December, my husband’s father died a few weeks shy of his 97th birthday, and my mother-in-law died on Memorial Day, three weeks before turning 90. They were wonderful people, and although their decline was sad, it was inspiring to witness my husband’s faithful attention, and to be of help where I could. We recently hosted a celebration of their lives at the assisted living facility where they spent their final years. The day helped make small again one difficult year in the scope of long and well-lived lives.

While attending to matters of life and death, we’ve also been attending to more mundane matters: After 17 years, we had our entire interior repainted and re-carpeted, with some other minor improvements as well. Sorting through my in-law’s effects and noting how ephemeral the stuff of life is helped us be ruthless with our own deferred sorting, organizing, and getting rid of stuff before the contractors started. It was as arduous and time-consuming as weeding and laying mulch and tending to our failing loved ones, but in the end just as satisfying.

So now that these chapters are over, it’s time to see what will come next. More writing, perhaps, though I have been happier and less tortured not writing, so we shall see. Something meaningful, I hope. As the summer draws to a close and a new season begins, I’m back, refreshed, and ready to go.

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What’s been going on with you as the seasons change?

 

 

 

Baby Blue

Baby BlueWhen I called our insurance company to put our brand new, baby blue car on the policy, the agent asked, “How many miles are you planning to put on it?”

“None,” I confessed. “I’m afraid to drive it.”

Our old car was riddled with dents and scratches. Naturally, I blamed our daughters, who’d learned to drive on it.

Would our pristine Baby Blue suffer the same fate?

“We won’t let them touch this one!” I’d vowed to my husband.

In all honesty, though, I was responsible for at least half the damage to our old car. I had even dented its front left fender while pulling into the garage the very first day we drove it home from the dealer.

The fact that our new baby was all-electric intensified my fears. The car was either eerily quiet or emitting weird beeps. We couldn’t tell if the engine was on or off, or how to work the lights and windshield wipers. And it was so tiny!

My husband and I felt just like we did as new parents coming home from the hospital with our perfect infant. Was she still breathing? What did those strange noises mean? How badly would we mess her up?

Still, there’s no going back. Just as kids can’t remain in a bubble, cars can’t stay in garages forever. Baby Blue just turned a year old, with close to 8,000 miles on it. Our daughters, now in their twenties, have traveled around the world a time or two. So far, everyone’s made it through pretty much unscathed. There’s a ding in the car’s windshield, but I’m happy to report it happened on my husband’s watch. As for the dings our daughters have taken on, it’s anyone’s guess how they got there.

In either case, life bangs you up a bit, but hopefully doesn’t flatten you.

And if anything big goes wrong with Baby Blue–well, that’s what insurance is for!

Too bad it doesn’t cover raising kids!

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That “first ding” fear with cars or kids?

Advice

adviceMy mother dispensed some puzzling advice: “Don’t grow old,” she was fond of saying.

This always brought me up short.  It seemed hard to imagine that the woman who thought I was God’s gift to the universe was advocating my early death.

Less morbid but equally impossible was another one of my mother’s favorite sayings: “Don’t be like me!”

This is like asking a duckling not to imprint on the first living creature it sees. For better or for worse, we women bear the stamp of our mothers.

My advice to my own daughters is more pragmatic:

  • Pay off your credit cards on time and in full every month.
  • If you want to save money, never order alcohol at a restaurant.
  • The secret to delicious cakes, cookies, and brownies is to always under bake them.

What I’m really saying to my daughters, of course, is DO be like me—sober, responsible, with no greater vice than a sweet tooth. That way, assuming your sugar consumption is under control, you’ll be sure to grow old, with a measure of financial security to boot!

My daughters, now in their mid-twenties, roll their eyes at my advice. They find it hilarious that I’ve never had a hangover.

“Have you ever had ANY fun?” they ask.

“I have fun!” I protest. “I hike, go to the movies, listen to NPR . . . “

I’m beginning to see how I sound just as impossible to my daughters as my mother sounded to me. The difference is that she tried to warn me away from the trap of similarity, while I’m inviting them in.

I’ve attempted to heed my mother’s advice not to be like her, determined to escape the black hole of despair she sometimes fell into. Taking to her bed in the middle of the day, my mother tried to fill that void with cigarettes and Agatha Christie novels and Hostess cupcakes. I do not smoke. I do not read mysteries. I never nap. The empty calories I consume come from artisanal breads and flourless chocolate cakes, not the bologna sandwiches and stale baked goods my mother favored.

Still, she pops up within me, having seeped into my pores despite my best efforts. I, too, embarrass my children by chatting up the grocery store clerks in the check-out line or fulminating against those with different political views. Unlike my mother, however, I never hurl ashtrays at the TV screen when politicians I loathe appear. But that’s only because I don’t smoke.

My mother followed her own advice—she did not grow old.  Done in by three packs a day and all those Hostess cupcakes, she barely squeaked past 70. I hope to defy her particular counsel about aging. But I’ve long stopped fighting the fear of becoming her. Now that my mother is gone, I wish I was more like her. For one thing, I realize there’s a whole genre of detective fiction I’ve missed! And how I’d love to hurl invective if not ashtrays right along beside her at various presidential candidates. I’d give anything to tell my mother how glad I am she passed on to me her politics, her humor, her intelligence, her passion for social justice, and her deep, deep love for her children.

My daughters still fear turning into me, just as I once feared turning into my mother. They can’t imagine a worse fate than the dull, safe life I have mapped out for myself and seek to impose on them. They don’t yet know that such a life might be worth emulating.

Since I never co-signed for my daughters’ credit cards, I do not know if they are now paying exorbitant interest and late fees to banks, or how many expensive cocktail bars show up on their statements.

But already they make a mean chocolate cake. I guess there’s hope that they’ve been listening after all.

*

What’s the best and worst advice your mother gave you and/or that you’ve given your kids?

 

 

 

Upstairs, Downstairs

StairsOne of the advantages of living in a five-story house is that you don’t need a Fitbit to make sure you’re getting in your 10,000 steps a day. We’ve stayed pretty spry just taking out the trash, hauling in the groceries, and running up and downstairs retrieving little odds and ends we constantly forget like books, dirty dishes, and car keys.

The stairs are not so great for my father-in-law, though, who has reached the age where walking down the corridor to the dining hall at his assisted living facility is a big challenge. He’d hauled himself up 19 stairs from our garage to our dining room for Thanksgiving, but the prospect of a repeat performance for Christmas looked dubious. And at age 95, who knew how many Christmases he had left? Since this was the first time in five years both our daughters would be home for the holidays, it felt even more important to celebrate together in traditional style—tree, stockings, lights, decorations, and Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.

“No problem,” I said to my husband. “Surely the four of us can carry him up the stairs.”

We decided to practice by hoisting Emma, our eldest, in the safety of our living room. Staggering, we dropped her onto the rug in about ten seconds, envisioning the domino effect of three generations meeting with disaster on the stairs into the garage. It was time for Plan B.

“The important thing is that we’re all together,” my mother-in-law and I said to one another, agreeing we’d eat instead at their favorite Chinese restaurant.

Which turned out to be closed on Christmas Day.

My husband made a reservation at a Thai restaurant instead.

In the meantime, my friend Eileen told me about a friend who’d had been carried into his house by firefighters after he was discharged from the hospital with a severely fractured leg.

“You should call the fire department,” Eileen urged.

“You’re kidding! They do that?” I replied, silently thinking, “What a waste of taxpayer money!”

And even if I didn’t think so, my in-laws surely would. I could not imagine them agreeing to such special treatment. We like to joke that they hate to impose on people so much that we won’t know that they’re dead until two weeks after the fact.

Still, I couldn’t let go of the idea, debating it back and forth in my mind, even putting “Call the fire department” on my to-do list. Like most things on my to-do list, there it stayed.

“Enlisting the firemen is a crazy idea, right?” I mused to my daughter. “We’ll be fine at the Thai restaurant, right? The important thing is for all of us to be together.”

Emma nodded.

The following day, my morning walk took me on a route I don’t usually take—one that ends a half a block from our fire station.

“What the hell—no harm in asking,” I said to myself, going in.

“I have a crazy question,” I said to the man at the desk, then explained our situation.

“It’s not crazy at all. We’re a full-service fire station, and that’s what your money supports. We do this all the time.”

My in-laws were surprisingly game.

“Some people might be too embarrassed to be carted up the stairs,” my father-in-law chortled over the phone. “But not me! I think it’s marvelous!”

On Christmas Day, four firefighters met us at the base of our stairs, strapped my father-in-law into a special chair, and deposited him safely in the living room. They arrived precisely at the appointed departure time, and reversed the procedure.Firemen and Grandpa, Christmas 2015

It was the best Christmas ever. Thanks, taxpayers!Jenny and Katie with Grandma and Grandpa, Christmas 2015

And yesterday, to celebrate my father-in-law’s 96th birthday, we all went to his favorite Chinese restaurant, this time without any assistance beyond his portable walker. It was the best birthday celebration ever.Hugh's 96th at Lily Kai

Buche de NO-el

Buche-De-Noel_1366

Every year I have the intention of making a Buche de Noel for our Christmas Eve feast. And every year I revise my plans as the reality of unwrapped presents, unpolished silver, and undecked halls lays claim to my diminishing time and energy. My daughter tried a few years ago when she was organizing my recipes to curb my hoarding tendencies and delusions by saying, “Get real–when are you ever going to make Buche de Noel with Meringue Mushrooms?” But I stopped her from throwing away the yellowed clipping. A woman can dream, can’t she?

This year, I was determined that my dream would finally become reality. I had more time to prepare, and more help, what with my husband retired and both daughters back in the area. Plus I planned to outsource the meringue mushrooms to the fancy Italian bakery that churns out such delicacies in exchange for a small fortune.

Make that “churned.” Alas, Rulli’s no longer makes meringue mushrooms. No matter. Summoning my inner Martha Stewart, I rummaged through the cupboards for the pastry bags I knew I’d bought long ago, so I could concoct the confections myself.

Except that I had finally donated said pastry bags to the Salvation Army just weeks before (hoarders are correct in thinking that you will come to regret throwing away something you haven’t used in years). I also discovered that, reckless purging of unused household items notwithstanding, I was too late with my culinary dreams for meteorological reasons as well. After four years of drought, the weather forecast promised a week of rain. Too bad every meringue mushroom recipe began, “These should only be made on a dry day.”

But couldn’t I just put real mushrooms on the log? Or just extra “holly” fashioned from mint leaves and cranberries?” So I proceeded undaunted to the Buche proper. That’s when I discovered I would need a candy thermometer. Would a grocery store model suffice, or would I have to fight the crowds at the mall? Reading my ancient clipping and all the online recipes more carefully, I noted the several warnings about not tearing the sponge cake when getting it out of the pan, or rolling it up, or carefully spreading it with buttercream. “A lot of trouble,” wrote more than a few reviewers.

Meanwhile, visions of brownies with orange buttercream frosting and chocolate ganache, Russian teacakes, chocolate crumb bars, and almond filled shortbread danced in my head.

Who was I kidding? Ours was not a sponge cake family anyway, but one with a preference for mainlining dark chocolate and butter.

“We’re not having a Buche de Noel. Not now, not ever,” I announced. “I’m over it.”

Here’s what we had instead:

Liberated from a dream I now know will never be fulfilled, I’m looking ahead to the new year wondering what other fantasies I might jettison—and what other delicious possibilities will take their place.

*

Have you ever made a Buche de Noel? What dreams have you relinquished for the better?

Beanie Baby

Beanie BabyOh, how sad!” I inwardly gasped, brought up short on my daily walk.

There at my feet was a bit of dirty orange plush. It looked like it had been run over by a truck. One leg was missing entirely; white fluff spilled out from what was left of an arm: A beanie baby bear, lying face down on the asphalt.

Briefly, my empathy flitted to the forlorn child, the parents desperate to soothe, placate, substitute, bribe—anything to stop the wailing. I remembered the sleepless nights of misplaced lovies, the routes retraced until we found Sock Monkey or Pink Doggy, or whoever else had escaped unnoticed from my daughters’ clutches.

Mostly, though, I was horrified by how far this particular orange bear had fallen from its original pristine condition. Back in the late 1990s, Beanie Babies were not supposed to be the victims of botched surgeries performed by aspiring veterinarians, or sacrificed in the service of sibling torment. They were not supposed to lie on the ground getting dirty. In many families, they were not even supposed to be played with at all!

It didn’t start out this way. When Beanie Babies first appeared, they were just cute plush toys that cost five bucks. I didn’t care what my daughters did with theirs, as long as I didn’t break my neck tripping over them on the stairs.

Then things went a little crazy.

Thanks to a clever marketing strategy of “retiring” beloved characters, scarcity drove up demand. People willing to pay anything spent hours tracking down the elusive creatures, convinced their value would skyrocket. One man made national news when he bought $100,000 worth of Beanie Babies, gambling that their ever-increasing value would put his kids through college.

Suddenly, Beanie Babies became not a child’s favorite cuddle buddy, but investments. To protect their assets, people bought heart-shaped plastic covers to place over the manufacturer’s label (the very same label that in saner times would have been removed as a choking hazard). Truly zealous collectors entombed each Beanie Baby in a special acrylic box. Kids could forget about playing with their Beanies, since they couldn’t be trusted to keep them in mint condition.

Skepticism and a reputation as a tightwad inoculated me (and thus my kids) from all but the mildest case of Beanie Baby fever. Still, we occasionally were part of the grapevine of kids and mothers alerting one another to a rare Beanie sighting at some far-flung store. I confess to rushing out and paying $13.00 for a floppy-eared bunny rumored to be worth more because its tag had a misprint. During the Princess Di craze, when all the shelves were stripped bare of royal purple bears, my girls and I were overjoyed when the clerk dug out an overlooked one from the storeroom. (I was even more overjoyed when she didn’t jack up the price beyond the $20 retail “value.”)

Eventually, the bubble burst and my daughters grew up. Now there is a giant box of gently used Beanie Babies stowed high on a closet shelf. They’re awaiting future grandchildren, not a market rebound. Sadly, the Beanies were useless for college tuition, possibly because the unprotected but still-affixed labels showed a little too much wear and tear.

Not as much wear and tear, however, as the bedraggled orange bear I’d stumbled across on my recent walk. As I looked down at the heap of soiled plush at my feet, I thought of The Velveteen Rabbit, whose shabbiness was an emblem of how well-loved he was.

I imagined again the bereft child whose beloved orange friend had gone missing.

Then I pondered further on the time when kids were deprived of the chance to love someone to decrepitude because we encased their Beanies in plastic and put them out of reach.

*

Were you or your kids afflicted with Beanie Baby Fever?.Memories from that time?

Up in the Air

hot air balloonsLike many recent college graduates, I spent the summer of 1977 moping in my parents’ basement.  My college roommate, Sharon, was doing the same, 3,000 miles away in Berkeley. We had no jobs and no prospects, so we spent a lot of time on the phone.

“Why don’t you come out to California?” Sharon proposed one day.

Since it was the first idea all summer that made me smile, I thought, “Why not?”

A couple of weeks later, I waved goodbye to my stunned parents, then boarded a Greyhound bus that would take me across the country.

First, though, it would take me to St. Louis, where two college friends had just started medical school at Washington University.

It was great to see them. It was even greater taking a shower and sleeping in a bed—my last taste of such comforts until I’d arrive days later in Berkeley.

Before my friends put me on the bus the next morning for the second half of my westward adventure, we wandered through Forest Park. There people swarmed among hot air balloons, most just flat or half-filled expanses of brightly colored nylon on the lawn. A few were fully inflated into majestic orbs poised for flight.

We watched as the balloonists adjusted ropes and burners, then took off to land wherever the wind (combined with skill and a little luck) would blow them. It was the Great Forest Park Balloon Race, founded just four short years earlier—the same September we had entered college.

This weekend marks the 43rd anniversary of the Great Forest Park Balloon Race. Which means I’m marking my 39th anniversary of coming to California. I had no idea back then how long I’d stay, or what I’d do, or how I’d survive.

But when Sharon picked me up dirty and exhausted late at night from the Greyhound bus station, she drove twisting, up and up, through the Berkeley hills, stopping finally at the Lawrence Hall of Science.

“Look!” she said.

There stretched out before us was the fathomless black of the bay, the twinkling lights of Berkeley and Oakland below, San Francisco a shimmering faraway specter, the night sky shot through with billions of  stars.

I had arrived home.

Decades later, my husband and I sometimes say, “We should take a hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley someday.”

We haven’t yet, and I suspect we never will. We’re too cheap, and besides, I’m really not all that adventurous. It still amazes me that I ventured away from home and onto that Greyhound bus so long ago.

But I’m glad I did, glad I let myself land wherever the winds blew me.

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Have you ever been adrift and let the winds blow you wherever they take you? Where have you landed?