The Long Journey Home

From Rental Nightmare To Home Sweet Home

“Hi, this is Miss Craig,” I answered into the telephone.  It was March 13, 2014 at 3:15 p.m.  I was supervising an after school homework center in my classroom, and doing a crossword puzzle to unwind after a long day of teaching.

“Miss Craig, can you confirm that you are alive and well in a safe location?” the woman on the other end asked.  Initially thinking it was a former student playing a prank on me, I started laughing.  

“Um, yeah; I’m sitting here in my classroom just fine.  Is this some kind of joke?”

“No, Maam; this is the Santa Cruz Police Department, and this is not a prank.  Again, you can confirm that you are alive and well, in a safe location, Miss Craig?” the woman confirmed.

“Yes, yes,” I stuttered, a sudden rising pit of nerves in my stomach.  “Is everything okay?”

About Three Years Earlier…

Ron and I awoke in the middle of the night to a thunderous boom.  It sounded like a piece of furniture fell over next door.  Our unit shared a wall with our neighbors in the front house, a group of young Cabrillo College students.  They had just moved in, and their partying had made its ugly appearance.  We went outside, hearing the sound of a drunken wrestling match among the boys.  Ron knocked on the door.

“Hey; can you guys keep it down please?  We were just woken up and you guys are being really loud,” Ron stated.  This was the first time of endless times we would ask our neighbors to please keep it down.  And as we learned, sometimes you have to knock loudly to get the attention you need.

Ron and I moved in together in 2006, living in a back granny-unit of an old Westside house in The Circles neighborhood.  We lived near a market, had a cool alley behind our house, and were only about half a mile from the beach.  It was an ideal location.  Sure, the house itself was quite run down: termite rot; low, sagging ceilings; surely some lead paint.  But our rent was cheap – $800.  And for the Westside of Santa Cruz, that was a steal.

We shared a thin wall with our front-house neighbors, who initially, were quiet, nice college students.  Sometimes their juicer woke us up early in the morning, but that was nothing compared to what lay ahead.  

First, it’s important to note how much I’ve always cared about home.  Not just any home, but my own home.  Something no one could take away from me; some definite piece of land that I could claim for all my days ahead.  Having grown up in the same house until age sixteen, I definitely appreciated the steadiness and familiarity of a stable home. Having moved about eight times since then, each move reaffirmed just how very much I wanted to go home.  And I wanted that home to be mine; not my mother’s house, not a friend’s house, but my own house.  I loved admiring the houses in Santa Cruz as I’d go for runs and bike rides through town.  I remember looking at housing prices when I was waiting tables on a slow lunch shift at a restaurant in Santa Cruz.  A co-worker and I were baffled by how expensive homes were.  Our boss, a local, just laughed.  “This is one of the most expensive places to live in the whole country.  You guys know that, right?”

We sure didn’t.  At twenty-one years old, I was naively dreaming of buying our rental house in Bonny Doon – still a dream property that I would offer all-cash for if I ever had the chance.  It was this age, fresh out of college at UC Santa Cruz, when I really realized how much I wanted a home, and just how challenging it seemed to get one in this town.  

By the time I was in my late twenties, I felt a true emotional void about what “Home” meant to me.  We were renting our place for dirt-cheap, but it was small and run-down.  On a teacher’s and surf-instructor’s salary, we weren’t looking too promising for buying a house.  Until the recession of 2008.  By 2009, housing prices fell so low I actually had a chance of getting in on the market.  I found a realtor, and looked at some homes for sale in the San Lorenzo Valley, where cabins were going for as little as $200,000.  I could afford it!  I was so excited.  We made an offer on two homes, both of which were rejected.  As inventory dropped and housing prices began to rise out of our reach, we decided to just keep renting our house in Santa Cruz.  The search was over.  

We were back to the late-night drunken wrestling brigade nextdoor, up close and personal.  By Summertime, the new crew of boys had turned up the volume.  Late-night parties with thumping music, shouting, and the constant banging of moving bodies on the thin, old floor would shake our house like an earthquake.  Ron was getting far less polite with them.  I’d awake to shouting outside, with Ron screaming at them to shut the hell up, and them belligerently arguing back, posturing like intoxicated roosters.  

It was laughable if it weren’t a nightmare.  We went to our landlord to complain, since we weren’t making any progress.  He said he’d “have a talk with them”, and things quieted down for awhile – as in for about a week.  We’d awaken to puke on our walkway, beer bottles on the front steps, cigarette butts on the ground, my plants would be stepped on…and nasty loogies from Salvia smoke-clogged lungs.  It was outright rude behavior. They were avid users of “Spice”, or synthetic marijuana, and had a chronic, productive cough as a result. It was painful to listen to them hack up a lung; try enjoying dinner listening to that.   Each time I would talk to them, I got lip service about how it was always their friends and not them doing the misbehaving; that they would try harder to keep it down.  But it just got worse.

By mid-Summer that year, we had complained many times to our landlord with no success.  He would make empty promises about regulating their behavior.  Cops were called multiple times; most of the time, they were too busy to show up for at least an hour, and when they did, didn’t do anything except tell them to be quiet.  It was so frustrating.  

Being woken up in the middle of the night to loud partying doesn’t just wake you up, it makes you irritated and angry – emotions that are hard to come down from and go back to sleep.  As a teacher, I have to wake up early, and I need all the sleep I can get.  I was cranky and exhausted, not a good combination.  

By Fall, by some stroke of luck, the loudest of the crew moved out.  However, their friends moved in.  We had quieter neighbors overall, but they would still invite the old tenants over to party. There was a lot of tension.  Ron and I decided to seriously find a new rental.  Determined, we began our search.  Nothing was panning out; everything was either overpriced, too far away, or just not good enough.

By May of 2013, the partying had increased up front again.  I wrote in my journal then:

“I wish I made more money.  More money so I didn’t have to live here with the loud college boys up front.  I sometimes wonder whether I’ll ever afford a house of my own.  We have been looking for a new house to rent to no avail.  I feel like I’m being kicked out of the place I love, the town I long to set up shop and build a home in.  I want to own a home.  So badly I feel like a crying child in a grocery store, forbidden to eat any of the wonderful food around; just looking.  Stuck in this stupid situation with (our landlord), who’s really been a slumlord to us.  Want to move out so badly – if not for how prohibitively expensive it would be”.  

Followed by a poem:

Waiting

Dancing on the verge between hope and despair

One foot in, the other quaking on the edge

Waiting…infinitely waiting…

“Patience” does not surmise the voyage she takes, day after day

Holding on to fading rays of faith, a future path unfolds

The pieces lain

One giant foundation evolving

Until the critic butts in: “All is not perfect, Missy”, he scoffs with smug derision

For a few moments, he says his peace

But then she shows him the door

Proceeding forward, the only way how

The way to love.

***

I was feeling a little depressed about our housing situation by this point.  Unempowered, under a glass ceiling, just low.  Everything else in my life was going well enough, I reasoned, that I shouldn’t be so down.  But I felt so unsettled, knowing we weren’t in a good situation.  

I remember going for a run one day at Wilder Ranch.  It was cold and cloudy, dreary as I felt.  I was escaping the chaos of our housing problems, thinking about how much I would love to have my own home, where I wouldn’t have to deal with problems like these.  Home represented a cure; a relief; an end to the constant tension we were living in.  It was security, comfort, and safety, physically and emotionally.  Where that home was, I had no idea.

“I just want to go home!” I cried out loud into the vacant air, tears streaming down my face. Never had I let myself want something so much.

March 13, 2014

“Miss Craig, have you been at work all day?” the woman asked.

“Yes; I have been here since about 7:45 this morning.  What is going on?”  My anxiety about the situation was rising.  

“Ma’am, we need to put some eyes on you to be sure you’re okay.  We’ll be sending an officer to your site in a few minutes,” the woman explained.  My heart was now pounding out of my chest.  “Let me explain why.  We received a 911 call today from a man who identified himself as your neighbor.  He said he had heard you and your boyfriend fighting all morning.  Again, you’ve been gone all day?” she questioned.

“Yes”.  

“The caller reported that your boyfriend shot and killed you today, and that he was outside with a gun threatening to kill himself.”  

Have you ever had a moment where you heard something, but didn’t quite process it right away?  You hear the words being said, but there’s a disassociation from it?  Like it’s not real?  That’s exactly how I felt in this moment.  It felt like a prank from the old “Punk’d” tv show or something.

“Right now your boyfriend is being detained in front of your house.  Once we put eyes on you, you can go home.  Once you’re there, they’ll release him.”  

I sat in shock and confusion for a moment.  Your boyfriend shot and killed you, I kept hearing.  What the heck was going on?  

I told the students I was sorry but would have to leave early.  Within minutes, by coincidence, the father of one of my students showed up, a local policeman.  He was the “eyes” to verify that I was alive in the flesh, radioing in to his officers to confirm.

“Nice to see you, Officer.  This is crazy.  What is going on?” I asked worriedly.  
He was kind enough to explain what had happened.  They received a 911 call reporting a murder and possible suicide, and began an active-shooter protocol: locking down our neighborhood, calling in SWAT, and preparing for a possible standoff.  They had Ron in custody.  Clearly, I needed to hurry home.  

I drove home as quickly as I could, feeling the panic of the situation kick in.  Why was Ron being detained still?  Our neighborhood was on lockdown?  What could I expect to come home to?  

Turning on the street towards our house, I immediately noticed the fire engines, cops, and yellow tape around our circle.  Two news crew vans were parked.  A helicopter circled overhead.  It was like the armageddon had descended upon our neighborhood.  

I drove up toward the yellow tape, where an officer had blocked the road.  

“I’m Katrin Craig,” I said.  “I’m the one who was supposedly shot and killed today.”  

“Nice to see you, Katrin,” he replied.  I got out of my car, and showed him my driver’s license to once again confirm I was myself.  By that point a few officers had gathered around, and radioed that the “girl” was here.  

They escorted me under the yellow tape towards the house.  Ron was sitting in the distance on the sidewalk, hands cuffed behind his back, head down despondently.  The officers waved to each other, and uncuffed him.  By the time I’d made it to him, I hugged him tightly and cried for a moment.  The officers debriefed with us for a few minutes about the complex, bizarre drama that had just unfolded.

They had received a 911 call from the front unit.  When they arrived to investigate, they found the caller outside on the sidewalk succumbed to a grand mal seizure.  Apparently he’d been up on coke all night, and was delusional.  He was taken to the hospital, where he later made a full recovery (and was arrested for reporting a false crime).  Not knowing whether a legitimate risk still existed, they set up a perimeter around our house, including members of SWAT, and a sniper on our neighbor’s rooftop.  A team descended upon our neighborhood to deal with what was a potential crime scene.

As Ron was innocently eating a bowl of cereal on the living room couch, watching television, he heard some noises from outside the window.  When he pulled the blinds up to look out the window, he was startled to encounter three guns on him.  Ron described the fear in their eyes as they repeatedly yelled, “Let me see your hands!”.  He immediately dropped to the floor with his hands up, and they told him to crawl out the living room window.  Once outside, at this point in our neighbor’s backyard, they detained him in handcuffs.  Who was he?  I live here.  Where is Katrin Craig?  At work since this morning.  They walked Ron out to the street, where neighbors and some press had gathered.  They didn’t tell him right away what was going on.  

Next, they searched our house for my body.  Our laundry pile was picked through like a rummage sale; the bed had been moved; closet items moved.  After finding nothing and Ron repeatedly saying whatever was going on was some kind of mistake, they finally called me at work to see if he was telling the truth; they couldn’t let him go until they saw me in person.    

By the time I got home and Ron was released, it had been nearly an hour.  That hour was the impetus of a months-long battle for justice.  The scariest part of this whole story is that Ron could’ve been killed.  One wrong move in front of SWAT with guns could’ve resulted in him being shot.  You hear about it on the news often enough.  That’s what got me: I could’ve lost the man I love.  That was my breaking point, when the gloves came off.  It ended up being the swift kick into action that we needed to finally get out of our bad living situation.  Ron was at his wits end with our landlord’s negligence; we had complained for over two years about loud neighbors, only to have their friends move in and continue the trend.  It was time for action.

Newspaper Article

The First Trial

“I’m suing (our Landlord) in small claims court,” he declared.  

I was initially against the idea.  “We’ll probably lose; we can’t afford a lawyer,” I reasoned.  It seemed like a bad path to take.  

“Think of all the suffering we’ve endured: lost hours of sleep, peace, and quiet; I could’ve gotten shot; aren’t you tired of all this?  Aren’t you tired of having the same conversations about it?  It’s like Groundhog Day!” he explained.  

Yes, I was exhausted of all this.  To the point of defeat. I was stressed out and losing sleep.  All I wanted to do was go home.  To a home that was ours, a home that was peaceful.

Ron morphed into a paralegal over the next month, gathering all kinds of evidence: phone records of all the times he’d called the cops (and the landlord to complain); rental agreements; a calendar log he’d kept of every night we were woken up; a pro-rated nightly rate multiplied by all the nights disturbed totaling close to $10,000.  He cited our tenant’s rights, including sleep, and peaceful enjoyment of the property.  

He filed his papers to start the small-claims court process of suing our landlord.  I didn’t want to be involved.  The tension of our living situation was bad enough.  I told him he was on his own for the court day.  Ron was by himself, representing himself, with all the evidence he had gathered.  He and the landlord couldn’t reach a compromise, even with the landlord’s attorney.  Ron won that judgment – $4,800.  But within two weeks, our landlord had filed an appeal of that judgment.  Once I knew there would be an appeal is when I got defensive.  I was ready to go to the appeal with him and speak to the misery and headache the whole ordeal had been.  

The Appeal

He had tried to settle with us before going to trial with a paltry sum of $2,500, and to move out within 60 days, an offer we flatly rejected before entering the courtroom for our hearing.

“You’re representing yourself, Mr. Deetz?” the judge asked quizzically.  

“Yes, Your Honor,” Ron replied, standing stoically in his pressed, neat suit and tie.  

I was so proud sitting next to him, though I was nervous as a deer, at the mercy of the big lions of the court, and our landlord’s professional hired attorney.  I was intimidated by his nice suit and dismissive glances at us.  But when he had tried to settle with us pretrial with a paltry, insulting offer of $2,000 and move out in 60 days, I wasn’t so scared of him anymore.  I knew we were in the right, and what our experience had amounted to over the past few years.  I was ready to fight for us.  

Ron eloquently presented all of his evidence from the first trial, plus added material.  To refute the landlord’s lawyer’s claim that no one else complained about noise, Ron obtained a written letter from our neighbor stating he was hard of hearing, and had slept through a huge car accident recently.  He wouldn’t hear our neighbors partying even if it were a concert.  Ron presented pictures of gang tags on our front porch, made by our partying neighbors and their friends.

And then I got to speak.  I am not a good actress; I have to genuinely feel something to express it.  I had rehearsed the points I wanted to make: I was a teacher who got up early each day; how many times and ways we’d tried to resolve the problem to no avail.  I even showed him before and after pictures of how I’d landscaped the property.  I’d lived there almost 9 years at that point.  To be bullied out of our home by constant noise wasn’t right.  I looked our landlord in the eye from across the room and said, “I came to you in tears begging you to do something about the problem. You did nothing.”  It felt so good to speak my truth, from the heart.  I delivered my message.  I am not a big “vengeance” person, but I felt justified.

When our landlord’s lawyer went to present his information, he was less than composed.  He stuttered to find his forms; he kept asking me what my job was, and how if I was a teacher, wasn’t I used to noise?  

The judge keenly interrupted his train of thought.  “Where exactly are you going with this?”  

The lawyer didn’t recover well.  He changed tactics.  “They’re a couple of young punks trying to swindle an old man out of his money,” he argued.  

“Sir, I’m 44 years old, and she’s 33.  Clearly we’re not young punks,” Ron corrected.  

“Your rent is so cheap, you guys are lucky you have a place at all,” the lawyer tried.  

“It doesn’t matter what the price of the rent is; if you pay for an agreed upon service, you get it.  It’s the principle of the matter, Sir,” the judge said sternly to our landlord.

We had schooled him.  He had nothing against everything we’d presented.  As we waited for the judge to decide, I had a good feeling.  When we were called back into the courtroom, I felt butterflies in my stomach.  The judge addressed us all.

“I’ve had time to review the evidence for this case, and I have to say, this is a case of serious negligence on your part, Mr. Landlord.  You cannot ignore your tenant’s complaints when their rights are being repeatedly violated.  It’s shameful, and if you don’t change your ways, you’re going to find yourself right back in this courtroom in another six months with another judgment against you.  I am siding with Mr. Deetz, awarding him damages of $9,600, and you’ll need to pay his court filing fees.  You should learn from this experience.  It doesn’t matter how cheap the rent is, Mr. Landlord, a tenant’s rights are a tenant’s rights to enjoy.”  

My heart dropped.  He said more than that, but it was everything I wanted to hear.  I didn’t care so much about the money (though it certainly came in handy later).  The justice of the situation made me feel vindicated and free.  Ron and I nearly skipped out of that courthouse, elated by the ruling in our favor.  

Within a month of the ruling, we’d received half of our money, and an eviction notice to be out in 60 days.  This would seem obvious, surely.  You sue your landlord, you’re probably going to get kicked out.  Ron didn’t quite see it that way, his spite still flowing strong from the last trial.

“He can’t evict us; that’s retaliation,” he argued.  “Furthermore, he still hasn’t dealt with the problem.  You would think after two judgments he would learn.”  We were still being disturbed by loud partying up in the front house.  I sighed.  Was he really going to fight this?

Rents on the Westside were going for $2,500 – $3,500 for a basic two-bedroom house, or apartment even.  It was ridiculously competitive.  We’d show up at rental showings with thirty other people.  And we didn’t really have a reference for our last rental either, to say the least.  

It was Winter break from school, and I decided to look into buying a house again.  The housing market had tanked again, and my teacher salary had risen since I last looked in 2009.  If we were going to pay $2,500/month on rent, why not put it toward owning a home of our own?  

Home Sweet Home

It was a symphony of serendipity that allowed me to end up buying my own home.  I found a great realtor and loan officer, who creatively found four loans and programs to qualify me for a home loan.  I looked at homes in the San Lorenzo Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where I could barely eke into the housing market.  

It wasn’t long until I found it – a modest 800 ft² two-story house on about half an acre in Ben Lomond.  It had high ceilings with huge windows upstairs, airy and open like a cabin.  There was a small stream in the backyard, and plenty of garden space.  Its asking price of $370,000 was pretty much my loan approval limit.

By January 23, 2015, I was in escrow for that house.  I couldn’t believe it was happening.  By that point, Ron had filed another lawsuit against our landlord for wrongful eviction. I was busy enough in escrow, and said I wanted nothing to do with it.  Only a month later, he had another trial and won another $5,000, and agreed to move out by the end of March since we were moving anyway.  Ron was happy, but I just wanted to get our things and move out of there.

Escrow was a long process with many bureaucratic delays and snags, but on Friday, March 13, 2015, we officially became homeowners.  Ron and I were ecstatic.  We had also gotten engaged one month earlier on Friday, February 13.  I’m not superstitious, but I think it’s neat that both happened on Friday the 13’s.

I can’t explain the heartwarming, pure joy I felt when we got our keys.  It was real.  All the tears, years of dreaming and planning, were coming to fruition.  It wasn’t a “dream house” per se, but I didn’t care; I was just happy to get in at all.  For years I heard how hard it was to own a home as a teacher in this area.  Everyday I am grateful for this house and the future it represents; I love working on projects around the house and in the garden.   Although life is unpredictable and you never know what the future holds, I do feel more grounded and secure now being a homeowner.

I look back on our years of living on the Westside, and know that it, too, was home.  Home can be where ever you make it, as they say; where ever the heart is.  For the decade Ron and I lived there, that house served as the backdrop for countless good memories.  But we had outgrown it, and it was high time to move on to a new home.  

Home is where we are now, and it’s nice to actually own it.  

It certainly was a long journey home.  

Flow of A Ride: Sea Otter Classic 2017

A Beginner’s Foray Into Mountain Bike Racing

The Sea Otter Classic is the world’s largest cycling festival, taking over the Laguna Seca Mazda Raceway for four days every year since 1990.  There are dozens of bicycling races: everything from Criterium to Cross-Country, Downhill Mountain Biking to the newly added E-Biking.  Thousands of people flock to this beautiful area near Monterey, California to celebrate two wheels in motion, as I did today on April 20, 2017 for fun in the sun on Day 1 of the festivities.

Otter12

Today was my third year racing at the Sea Otter Classic in the Open Women’s Enduro Mountain Bike race.  For anyone unfamiliar with what “Enduro” is, it’s basically a category of racing that combines downhill and cross-country trails, which are divided into timed laps.  Your cumulative time ranks you, so you can relax a bit on the untimed transfer sections in between the laps.  It’s about 15 total miles.  I’ve only done one race where we were timed consecutively from start-to-finish, the Santa Cruz Old Cabin Classic, and it felt like a lot more pressure to keep going.  I like the format of the Enduro better so far.  Today was my fourth race ever, and it definitely felt like the best!

I arrived around 7:30 a.m., and checked in for my racing bib and wristband.  There was a heavy drizzle, but tons of excitement in the air.  Probably every bicycling and mountain biking company in the world have booths set up in the pit of the raceway; bikes of all kinds are going every which way; enticing aromas are brewing at the food tents.  By about 7:50, I proceeded to practice the Downhill Course (Stage 1), along with hundreds of other riders, literally.  With a 9:18 a.m. race-time, I figured I had plenty of time.  The line moved at a snail’s pace, however, taking about 45 minutes to get to the start.  I had a great practice lap, and took advantage of the shuttle back up to the start.  By the time I made it up to the top of the Downhill Course, though, it was 9:22!  I lined up at the end of my group, with only about six girls left to go in front of me; I barely made it on time.  And I didn’t have time to practice the Dual Slalom course.

Otter15
True Faith

The rest of my ride was full of flow and grace; no falls or close-calls.  I pushed my speed, but maintained good control.  I enjoyed myself more, appreciating the ubiquitous wildflowers and birds.   It was much better than the first year I rode in 2015, when I made all kinds of rookie mistakes.  I practiced the Dual-Slalom three times in the morning before the race, thinking it was the Downhill course.  By the time I realized the race was starting, I had to hurry over to the actual downhill course, having never ridden it.  I rode it too fast and ate it face-first on the downhill.  Although I was bleeding a little and had a dirty face, I was fine, so I continued riding.  I got off-course, however, and rode the Dual Slalom again (the fourth time that morning), before riding stages 2 and 3.  I fell on a sandpit section of the second stage, but was okay.  By the time I got to the Dual Slalom lap that actually counted, it was my fifth time doing it that day, and clearly an advantage.  I rode it in 56 seconds, not bad compared to others.  This proved one of the most obvious lessons: the more you practice a course, the better you’ll do.

In 2016, I raced again, and did better; I felt more familiar with the course, and had returned to practice riding the trails of Fort Ord National Monument all of two times.  My rank went up a little (I was 36 out of 48), but mostly I was happy I didn’t fall!  I enjoyed the experience a lot more, knowing a little more of what to expect.

This year, I specifically trained on the sandy trails of Bear Mountain, near my house in Ben Lomond.  The topography is quite similar to Fort Ord, with lots of variations of sandstone – everything from pits of beach sand to tacky, grippy, compacted sand.  I don’t typically ride there often, but it’s been a great place to work on my skills in the sand. However, nothing compares to riding the actual location, and I probably should’ve made time to preride the course this year.  Nothing compares to practicing the actual trails; duh!  I wish we’d have more mountain bike races on the trails of Santa Cruz, where I am at home.  I know I’d do better than I did in this race.  Although I’d still like to improve, I went up in rank this year, improving by 33 seconds from last year (15:45 compared to 16:18, cumulative times); a 7% percentile improvement in overall rank.  I’ll take it!

Why am I trying to race at all?  Self-edification.  Growth and improvement are important to me.  I love a good challenge, physically and mentally.  Setting a goal and working toward it motivates me and keeps me excited about life.  I also feel like I have some unfinished business in the realm of competitive sports.  It’s a long story, but after years of playing many childhood sports, I stopped playing competitive sports in the eighth grade  (yes, I regret that! Especially quitting soccer).  By the time I tried to get back into it as a Junior in high-school, I was too far behind compared to my peers to make Varsity-level.  Although I’ve always been athletic and active, I have a hunger for more winning, more success athletically.  Being a sponsored, competitive athlete is something I’ve always dreamed of.

I like the mental challenge of a race; in fact, that is probably the biggest challenge for me.  I’ve done some running races, too, and I can get distracted, either by external stimuli (other people), or internal (self-doubt; comparing myself to others).   I know I’m a good athlete, and I want to learn how to be a pillar of grace under the pressure of competition; to tune out the background noise.  I want to learn to perform at my fullest potential, despite what other people are doing, or the obstacle of crowded pathways resembling the old Atari video-game Frogger.  Yes, I’d like to prove myself as well; ego is part of it.  But it comes from a place of unfulfilled dreams, that resonates with me on a deep, emotional level. Athleticism is part of my identity, and to be recognized for it someday would be awesome.  I have a flame lit under me that, instead of needing to be extinguished, needs to burn and glow.

I try to keep a few things in mind during a ride, summarized with the letters A-G: Awareness, Balance, Confidence, Determination, Endurance, Flow, and Grace.

Each word embodies an essential quality for a successful ride, in my opinion.   Total awareness is everything; without it, riding is plain dangerous.  Balance is key, not just for physically shifting your weight, but for balancing effort, approach, and expectations.  Confidence is what you get from all those rides over the years; it’s the muscle-memory of instinct.  It’s sure-footedness, committed action.  Determination is my trait; tenacious K.  Endurance is the obvious one to see you through the long, hard climbs when your muscles are tight.  Flow is the secret code that unlocks the beauty of the whole experience; it connects everything together into positive, forward momentum.  Grace is the blend of all these traits, where skill and intention combine for a smooth ride; it’s being a courteous, conscientious rider.

Ultimately, it’s a lot of fun to go for a ride in a beautiful place with a bunch of cool people.  I loved talking with other competitors and hearing their stories.   We all shared a good, hearty laugh watching a pair of Wild Turkeys gobble in unison.  Meandering through the booths after the race, warm sunshine on my face, watching the pros ride the pump tracks was a total highlight (names are on the Rider’s chalkboard in one of the pics).

It’s inspiring being around so many others who share the same passion.  I love being part of the mountain biking community – an outdoorsy, thrill-seeking, and fun-loving crew of people, all trying to push themselves to their very best.  I can’t wait for next year!

My Maiden Super Bloom Trip to The Carrizo Plain

“Superbloom” is the buzzword this Spring: the wildflowers of the Carrizo Plain are prolifically blooming after heavy rainfall this Winter.  I decided to see what all the buzz was about, and on Monday, April 3, 2017, I made my maiden trip to Carrizo Plain National Monument in California’s Central Valley.

As a Science teacher and amateur naturalist, I’d always wanted to go to the plain.  Its birds, wildlife, and annual wildflower blooms beckoned, but equally luring was the San Andreas Fault, which passes through the valley like rumpled carpet.  I love Geology, and as a teacher of Plate Tectonics, had  Wallace Creek on my bucket list.  This famous creek shows how the San Andreas Fault has offset the creek over time.

This was such an awesome trip, I am mostly going to let the pictures speak for themselves.  I wish I had a nicer camera to really capture the beauty!  You simply have to experience it for yourself to really appreciate it.  It’s a dream to experience such temporary beauty, in such sacred, recharging silence.  I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone!

I rented a Dodge Dart in Santa Cruz (my car is having issues), and hit the road around 8:15 a.m.  Driving South on Highway 101, I could see many wildflowers on the hillsides.  Once I hit Paso Robles, I veered off some country roads toward Highway 58.  There was a crescendo of color greeting me, each turn through the rolling, verdant hills inviting me further.

I turned on Seven Mile Road toward Wallace Creek.  After driving about three and a half hours, I was ready to get out of the car and hike around.  I made the short hike up to the creek site, and enjoyed the breathtaking scenery.

The silence was beautiful, golden like the hills.  The sun shone with brilliant radiance, warming my skin.  A pair of ravens flew in tandem over the thermals of the creek; a lizard made its appearance on a hot rock.

Wildflower

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After exploring Wallace Creek, I departed for the west side of the valley.  Simmler Road is a gravel road, laden with playa dust, which covers everything.  The views here were incredible.

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Simmler Road

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I stopped briefly at the Visitor’s Center, where there were some tri-colored blackbirds socializing in a cottonwood tree.  There were two porta-potties, a small visitor’s education building, but no running water here.  I knew to bring extra, and definitely needed it in the hot, dry weather.

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Horned Lark

 

 

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Visitor’s Center

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Driving To Caliente Ridge

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I drove up to Caliente Ridge, testing my poor rental car’s capabilities over potholes, divots, and questionable washed out sections.  Ascending up from the valley floor, climbing to over 4,000′ of elevation presented a gorgeous, vibrant landscape resembling a painting.  The expansive views were absolutely breathtaking.  I unloaded my bike, and set out on the Caliente Ridge Trail.

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Soda Lake

 

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Caliente Ridge Trail
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Biking Through A Painting
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Atop Caliente Ridge

 

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After a nice ride along the Caliente Ridge Trail to Caliente Mountain, I descended back down into the valley up Soda Lake Road.

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I stopped at Soda Lake for some last shots before heading out, feeling happily content and tired from the full day.

On the way out, I was lucky to see some antelope run through the valley (see the video below of them bounding through the fields).

I will be back someday again to walk among these heavenly fields.  I hope you get a chance to see the Spring bloom at least once in your lifetime; you’ll be glad you did!

The Recharging Power of Silence

Why Unplugging Keeps Me Plugged In

Noise: it’s a subjective thing.  

One person’s harmony can be another’s chaos.  While one person may work productively with music playing, another may be rendered idle by the distraction.  There’s a lot of noise in life, and much of it is imposed upon us: the leafblower’s drone next door; the scream of steaming milk in a coffeehouse; the roar of traffic on the freeway; a commercial on the radio.  We all have different levels of noise-tolerance, of what we consider to be “loud”, distracting, or outright annoying.  

Some of us are so sensitive to specific sounds, they can trigger anxiety.  Sensory overload is a legitimate state for many people.  Added to our physical disposition toward sound perception is our personality.  Our unique blends of introversion and extroversion can determine our approach to classifying sounds in the first place.  Our relationship with noise is often overlooked, yet ultimately a driving factor in how we live our lives.

For a classic introvert, hanging out at a local bar may elicit an “It’s too loud in here” comment.  The cacophony of audible stimuli – bottles clanking, people yelling, music thumping – can overwhelm someone who typically enjoys people in smaller, more intimate settings.  It’s not just the sound that can overwhelm, but the fear of striking up conversation with strangers.  Every voice in that bar represents a potential new interaction, thereby adding to the stress.   The unpredictability and unstructured nature of a social setting can also be nerve-wracking.  There may be a desire to talk one-on-one with someone in a quiet corner instead of whooping it up on the dancefloor.  At the end of the night, they’re so exhausted from trying to hold it together for so long.  

On the other end of the stereotypical extrovert spectrum, hanging out at a local bar is being in one’s element.  The buzz of being with so many people in an intense, high-energy environment is invigorating.  Being surrounded by people is like a security blanket.  But put that same person in a quiet university library by themselves for an hour?  It might be a challenge to sit there in silence, not talking with anyone, alone.  

We are complex beings, and surely cannot be simplified as just “extrovert” or “introvert”.  I’m no expert in human psychology, but I certainly enjoy reading about it.  From what I’ve gathered, people are a blend of both introversion and extroversion, and it can depend on the situation.  Some may fit the classic mold: introverts who enjoy quiet solitude; extroverts who are social butterflies.  I read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  One of the most important lessons I gleaned was that introversion and extroversion wasn’t necessarily just being social or not, but how we problem-solve in our daily lives.  While an extrovert may want to call her best friend to talk about an issue, an introvert may prefer to write in her journal, or just think quietly, about it.  Our tendencies to look toward people or toward ourselves during times of challenge says a lot about our nature.

Where does reaction to noise come in?   How much does introversion or extroversion affect noise sensitivity?  Why is it that one person can continue along undisturbed to the sound of humming, while another simply can’t focus on anything else?  The sound of someone chewing food or chewing gum can be like nails on a chalkboard to some. Misophonia is a real condition in which some sounds are intensely stressful, if not painful, for the listener.  I’m not sure if I fall into this category, but I know I have a thing with some noises, including humming.  

Humming, yes.  It began last year with a few of my students humming to themselves in class.  It surely wasn’t a malicious thing; they were carrying a tune in their head, and using it to help them along in their classwork.  However, that humming was the only thing I could focus on.  There could be conversations from group work at table groups, and still I could pinpoint exactly where the humming was coming from.  It wasn’t just humming, either.  Pen tapping as if it were a drumstick?  Clicking the end of a retractable pen repeatedly?  Whistling?  Just as distracting.

I banned all “distracting noises” from my classroom: humming, whistling, singing, drumming, tapping, clicking, or otherwise repetitive, loud clamor.  It was about maintaining a well-focused learning environment free of unnecessary stimuli.  In a group full of adolescent middle-schoolers, the last thing you need is any more energy.  I was conscientious myself to speak in a gentle tone, not raising my voice over them, and tried to keep the overall noise in the classroom from overpowering their attention.  I thought I was helping out the students, but upon closer reflection, I realized I was mostly just helping myself.  I spoke softly not for their ears, but because it felt better to me; it helped set the tone for the noise-level of the classroom.

Talking to my husband Ron about my noise sensitivity helped put things into perspective.

“I think you might be overreacting a little bit to the humming,” he offered as an alternative.  “Most people can tune out those kinds of noises in a large group setting like a classroom.”

“But I can’t,” I conceded.  “I literally cannot do a math problem, think critically, or hear what someone else is really saying with that background distraction.  It takes over the entire soundscape.”

The more we talked about it, the more I realized I was indeed on the “sensitive” side to noise.  A dripping faucet?  Leaky downspout after a rain?  The tick-tock of a grandfather clock?  Instant reaction.  Man-made noises are the worst.  I am used to hiding ticking clocks in drawers (though they’re less common now); I’ve put towels in the bottom of a dripping downspout to stop an incessant, echoing drip after a rain.  I sleep with a fan on to drown out any nighttime noises (including my husband’s snoring).  The sounds of traffic, loud engines, car alarms, building refrigeration units, the reverse beep of a delivery truck…they all add up to a lot of interruption.

Music, on the other hand, is almost always welcome.  I love listening to many different kinds of music.  I play the guitar and sing (I don’t sing all that well, but I sure love doing it).  I believe in the healing power of music, its ability to bridge the gaps between us.     

Most natural noises I embrace: a rushing river, leaves rustling in the wind, the fleeting song of a passing bird.  Except some birds.

In 2002, I traveled to Bali with my friend for an awesome one month vacation.  We spent a couple of nights jet-lagged in the bustling city of Kuta before escaping for the beautiful hillside village of Ubud.  Pristine fields of fluorescent green rice carpeted the landscape like a technicolor dream.  We couldn’t wait to explore, but had arrived late in the afternoon that day.  I was coming down with an awful flu, feeling feverish and exhausted.  I went to sleep once we settled into our homestay, but in a few hours the siren began.  

“CAH!”  the piercing noise reverberated into the hot, humid evening.  About ten seconds of silence graced me.  

“CAH!” it wailed again.  My eyes wide open, I wondered if it was man-made or animal.  After a few minutes of cawing at fairly consistent ten second intervals, I grabbed a pair of pants from my backpack, and wrapped them around my head to cover my ears.  

Lying there another little while, tired and achy from the onset of that awful flu, I kept hearing the CAW! interrupt my sleep.  Joelene was sleeping fine through it, so I didn’t bother to wake her.  I got that claustrophobic feeling I get when I feel trapped.  I felt trapped by this sound, and I couldn’t get it to go away.  It felt like the presumed bird was laughing at me.  I broke down crying in my bed, wishing it would stop, until I just couldn’t take it anymore.  

Out of my bed I rose, quickly dressing and grabbing a few rupees.  I walked for a few blocks until I reached a cafe with a friendly group of locals and tourists; they instantly saw the tears and distress in my eyes, especially apparent at two o’clock in the morning.  I plopped down at a table, and asked them what was that incessant cawing?!  Actually, I cawed like the bird, making them laugh, and finally myself, too.  

“It’s probably a Nightjar,” one of the tourists chimed in.  “They drove me crazy when I first got here too.”  I enjoyed a beer and some food with them, tiring myself out in combination with my flu, until I returned to my room and finally conked out.  Back home, it was the Northern Mockingbird singing on Summer evenings that kept me up.  

Perhaps most interesting are the sounds of the environment I work in.  I am a seventh grade Math and Science teacher at a middle school with roughly 600 students.  To say there is “noise” is an understatement.  Noise is the nature of the campus.  It starts with the morning bell – “BEEEEEP!” into the crisp air – followed by the always animated morning announcements by the students.  Then begins the day, full of activities and lessons to be taught.  There are multitudes of sounds: talking students, electric pencil sharpeners, squeaky chairs with legs in need of tightening, blowing noses, the chirp of a tennis shoe catching the tile floor just so, the oohs and aahs of discovery during a Science lab, the BEEEEEP! of the bell, the screams of kids running around at lunch.  Often, the sounds of students working together productively is music to my ears.  

I’ve become quite accustomed to the many sounds of teaching, but one thing has remained constant throughout my eleven years of teaching: I need quiet breaks to recharge.  

When lunchtime rolls around, I regret that I often don’t have the energy to go to the staff room and eat with my colleagues.  I have been in a stimulating environment with plenty of noise for a few hours by that point, and want nothing more than a few minutes of silence.  I tend to work quietly in my classroom alone, or walk the track outside if the weather’s nice.  I’ve been told time and time again that I should go to the staff room for lunch, and some days I do (it helps to have monthly PTA lunches).  I love the people in there, and always enjoy their company.  My tendency to hide by myself during lunchtime has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with my need to recharge without giving my attention to anything.  I need that time to replenish for fifth period after lunch, and for the rest of the day.  

When I get home from work around four o’clock most days, I need about an hour to unwind quietly before doing any activities.  Ron knows this about me; he respects that time, not taking it personally.  Once I’ve had that time to unwind, I can be fully present with him the rest of the evening.  It’s kind of like a power nap – restorative, regenerating.  The downtime allows me to be more open to experience.

I wonder how much my tendency to escape to silent enclaves after times of socializing is based upon my introverted nature.  I love people and interacting in large groups, but I love time alone.  One of my favorite aspects of running or mountain biking is the silence of the trail.  Looking out over a gorgeous mountain valley, hearing nothing but a light zephyr blow, is music to my ears.  Add in a singing bird, the buzz of a dragonfly, or the chirp of a squirrel’s alarm call to sweeten the deal.  But a blaring car alarm?  Thumbs down.  

The recharging power of Silence is something I’ve long looked to for solace and comfort.  I remember being a kid and sitting quietly for long stretches on road trips.  “You’re such a good traveler,” my parents would comment.  I was content enjoying the downtime between our adventures.  It was the same thing at home; I would come home from school or a sporting game, and enjoy playing quietly by myself for awhile.  I would play with my Sylvanians (animal figurines), draw, or play outside in the yard.  I also played a lot with my sisters and friends, but in retrospect, I realize I needed quiet time even then. 

As I’ve grown older, I’ve embraced my need for quiet time.  Whether just sitting still in a meditative state, doing the crossword puzzle in the garden, or riding my bike through the forest, I know I’m a better friend, wife, and teacher when I take that time for myself.  I certainly don’t need quiet all the time, but when I do, it sounds like an alarm.

How much do you need Silence?  What do you consider to be “noise”, and how do you manage those you deem “distractions”?  

More importantly, what is music to your ears?  

Wait: Please Don’t Comment On Weight

If you’re like most people, someone has commented on your weight at some point in your life.  Maybe it was your friend in junior high school; perhaps a family member.  However it happens, it can pierce your confidence when someone comments negatively about your body.  

We have a wide variety of body types, shapes, and builds, most of which are somewhat genetically predispositioned.  Born with the genes we are given from our parents, we have the power of lifestyle choices to shape our bodies further.  Our genetic mold, like a cookie-cutter, sets the overall pattern, though.  My parents are both lean and athletic, passing on such traits to me and my two sisters.  From a young age, we were often called “skinny”.

We live in a weight focused, if not obsessed, culture.  From the images and messages we receive from media and advertising, or the way we compare ourselves to each other, we are all affected by our own relationship with “weight”.

I haven’t met an American girl who, at some point in her life, hasn’t been on a diet or cleanse of some sort to lose weight.  That includes myself.  Food has always been a source of pleasure and positivity for me; I’ve eaten whatever I’ve wanted my whole life.  After four years in college, though, I did gain about 10-15 pounds.  Wanting to get back to my strong, athletic self, I tried the Atkins diet in 2003, when it was wildly popular.  It worked well, but made me a little shaky from low blood-sugar.  I was off that diet after one month, and reaffirmed my philosophy to simply listen to my body.  I eat what I want to, in tune with what my body needs the most.  I love a good pint of ice-cream as much as I do a glorious cup of blueberries.  I need the calories.

Pretty much every single day of my life has involved some sort of rigorous physical activity, from a very young age.  I’ve always had a ton of natural energy, and love to be physical.  Over the years I’ve learned how important, if not medicinal, it is to expend my energy through exercise.  Not just exercise, but outdoor physical adventure.  A good, hard ride or run in nature not only makes me feel happy, but it calms me.  It helps me focus, problem-solve, and think of new ideas.  It also helps me to fall asleep each night within minutes.  Being on the move so much keeps me in great shape.  

But please don’t call me “skinny” as if it’s a bad thing.  

I have nothing against what I perceive to be “skinny”, but the judgment with which people say the word bothers me.  I couldn’t do the things I can if I were “skinny”, without the muscles I have.  That’s not arrogance, but fact.  It takes strength and endurance to mountain bike for hours on end; to run up a steep hill; to hold plank position or downward dog for two minutes; to build a retaining wall in my backyard; to climb; to snowboard down a mountain.  Some people assume I’m thin because I’m vain and want to look a certain way; they don’t know all of the cool things I can do as an athlete.  They assume that I don’t eat much or diet like crazy.  Comments have ranged from ignorant to rude to just plain mean.

“You must spend all day at the gym”.

“Gosh, you’re so skinny!  Do you ever eat?”

“Are you okay?” with feigned concern.

“You look like you’re anorexic”.

Those are just a few of the plethora of comments I’ve heard over the years.   I’ve been told I’m too athletic; too top-heavy for my small frame; my shoulders are too broad; my arms too muscular.  I’ve even had my emotional well-being questioned; “Is she happy?” someone asked my friend while I was climbing at the gym.  People can be quite creative and specific with their observations.  From strangers to colleagues, friends, and family members, the gamut runs wide.  The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve learned to stand up for myself.  

It’s inappropriate to comment on someone’s weight.  I think it would be common sense, but no.  There seems to be a double-standard with weight shaming.  Would it ever be acceptable for someone to comment, “Wow, you’ve really put on some weight, haven’t you?”  It would be considered totally rude!  People would gasp in shock.  To tell someone they’ve gained weight, or look fat, is taboo.  

So why is it okay to tell someone they are too skinny?  

I used to try to justify myself to such skeptics who would question me. “I exercise a lot; I eat well; I’m naturally thin”, I’d offer.  Eventually, I became irritated that I was wasting my time dignifying such questions with an answer.  Why did I have to explain myself to someone who was body-shaming me?  Who were they to judge me and my body?  Most of the time, they were projecting their own body issues onto me, but it hurt my feelings and made me defensive.  I can’t make someone who doesn’t exercise regularly understand how hard I push my body, and it’s futile to try to change their mind or control their views.   

It didn’t happen right away, but I became more curt in my responses to weight comments.  Now I just frankly say, “I think it’s best not to talk about other people’s weight”, and change the subject.  I try not to take it personally, even though I still feel a bit offended.  If I’m feeling feisty, I’ll retort, “Want to go run 7 miles with me?  Want to ride a bike through the forest up and down (mostly up!) steep hills for two hours?!”

It’s important to keep our opinions in perspective; to take them with a grain of salt.  Who are we to decide what’s right or healthy for someone else?  We should be supportive of each other, and positive with our words.  Although we may interpret someone to be “too skinny” or “too fat”, that doesn’t make it so.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the old adage goes.  Look at all of the different cultures around the world, and all of the different types of beauties, lifestyles, and diets they embrace.  

At the end of the day, we’re all the same: human.  There is no one right way to eat, no magic diet.  There is no one perfect weight, body type, or way to live your life.  As I always say, just do you.

To each their own Flow; to each their own Grace.