Sunday, August 11, 2013

Miss O’s Summer Travelblogue 2013

On the ferry, photo by Kerry, to San Francisco we go.

 I'm Goin’ Up the Country (Baby Don’t You Wanna Go?)

You know how you finally get four weeks of paid vacation after working for your company after nearly a decade, and how you get a destination wedding invitation from a beloved former student and you think, “I could finally see the Loire Valley in France, which I’ve dreamed of doing since we studied that region in Madam Watts’s French III class in high school,” and so you ask your travel-mad cousin Kerry in California to go with you, and she says yes, and then she realizes she can’t afford it this year, and so you think maybe you could take a couple of weeks and go to San Francisco, and you learn that July is maybe the prettiest month for the Napa Valley, where Kerry lives, and if you do that you could also see your friend Anna from graduate school whom you haven't seen since maybe 1999, since it turns out she also lives (when she's not teaching overseas) not far from San Francisco? So it’s like that. And thus this Travelblogue of Pacific Coast Wonders. Join me!

We interrupt this blog: This will have to be quick, because I no sooner got back than my friend Rina, a political scholar from India (see 2012’s Memorial Day blog, “The Only Living Girl in New York”) arrived to conduct more interviews at the U.N., and as my readers know, this means hours of nonstop talk about everything from world politics to the climate to our friends to what an erect penis actually looks like to why it is we manage to make so much compost in a week. Whew! 

Rina Arrives from New Delhi, August 3, 2013
Last night (which was three o’clock this morning), as we were finally turning off the lights in the kitchen, our water poured, and all that was left was to make it to our rooms…(oh, sleep), Rina asked, “Leeza, have you read Antigone?” Yes… “What did you think of it?” And I looked at her. “It’s 3 in the morning, what do I think of Antigone?” She was crestfallen, so I told her what I thought, and out of that came this revelation: My directing professor in college, Maureen, asked on an exam, “Is Antigone is the agent or the victim of her tragedy?” and I had realized in that moment she was BOTH. And as I explained this to Rina, I realized this: Where there is no agency, there is no tragedy: There is only horror. (Gnaw on that until next time.)

Meanwhile and herewith a recounting, in brief, along with some photos and impressions of my journey, should you be a person who likes to read about other people's trips. I am actually struggling to write a travelblogue (as I call it) because I don’t really enjoy reading travel writing (unless it's by my friends). I am not, naturally, a traveler. I am an observer. Plus, travel is HARD. Anne Morrow Lindbergh says in her book about going to a summer beach house with her sisters, Gift from the Sea:

“Is there anything as horrible as starting on a trip? Once you’re off, that’s all right, but the last moments are earthquake and convulsion, and the feeling that you are a snail being pulled off your rock.”

That’s pretty much it for me.  I thought briefly about doing it up in iambic pentameter, this tale, and got this far before I realized it was hopeless:

On Air Train, via 7 Train and E
Did Miss O’s summer tour thus take wing.
From Queens apartment thence to Kennedy,
A Delta flight turned summer temps to spring!

Strained rhymes aside, what have you really learned in those syllables? Readers hardly look for the weather report (which was 55 degrees at night, 75 degrees by mid-day; overcast “fog” each morning, burning off to bright skies and low humidity each and every day of the nine, if you must know); nor is this a “how to get to Kennedy Airport” guidebook.

I travel for one of two reasons: to study, or to see friends. If I am not doing one of those two things, I can’t manage to see a point in traveling. At least, I cannot motivate myself to do it without one of those intentions. Beyond that, I don’t have an agenda, except to be of wherever it is. Here’s what I love best about leaving my old world behind, though: My brain immediately stops working. I stop thinking, I mean. It’s the closest I can get to Zen, or to what I think Zen must be: I am. I have eyes, ears, various sensations, and aside from the part of my brain devoted to itineraries and protocols, I am reduced to flesh (ample, too-soft flesh), burdened with a purse, backpack, and hat, that moves from one mode of transport to the next, empty of all ideas. It’s so restful.

Miss O’, as friends and readers know, is nothing if not a swirling, whirling HEAD. To experience me as a traveler is to cease to recognize me. I inherited this ability to switch to “off” from my dad, Bernie, who is like a cartoon superhero when cooking, cleaning, landscaping, or doing any other kind of work. When he finally retired at age 62, everyone said he’d never be able to stand it. “Watch me,” my dad said. And no one can rest like Bernie—and that he manages to do this while never being lazy, is the feat I’d like to think I also accomplish. He can relax more quickly than anyone I know—but where he and I differ is that he can relax in his own home, which I cannot do. In order for me to truly rest, I have to leave and go off somewhere. The place needs to be shared with people who are controlling my destiny—who make the plans, suggest the activities, or otherwise take the reins.

And so it was in California. The last time I’d been here was 1988, when I’d driven cross-country in my blue pick-up truck, Barbara, the summer after my first year of teaching (my first non-working summer break since I was 14), joined by my brave friend Debbie. I hadn’t liked California at all—dry, alien, far too much sky, too much sun, too lacking in edge, and too much traffic as I headed to L.A. I felt so “wrong” in that landscape, I doubted I’d return. (Now New Mexico, on the other hand, held me, energized me, made my eyes and arms go wide, but that’s another tale.) Yet here I was, going there again.

Anna and Michael, Santa Cruz, July 15 to July 18, 2013

Anna and Michael, celebrating 31 years of marriage
at Main Street Garden Cafe in Soquel, CA
We had no plan. Anna and Michael, who have taught overseas for over 20 years, have no cell phone. How will they know where to find me? Plane landed early, and I walked to “Arrivals” (I had no baggage to claim—travel light, I say), stood out on the sidewalk beside the “pick-up” road, and figured they’d find me. They did. Anna, one of my dearest friends from my graduate school days, just screamed when I tilted my head as their Michael-driven truck slowed along to where I was. Sometimes you just have to use The Force. We could not stop laughing. Michael just grinned, and I sat up front, and off we went from one SFO ramp to the next and out and along and finally turned up hills and across their memories onto Hwy 1 along the Pacific Coast.

Highway 1 in California, San Mateo or Santa Cruz County.

Grasses, succulents, live oaks, hills bigger than Appalachian Mountains, an ocean the bluest I’ve ever seen, wind, clean air—the cleanest I’ve breathed, I learned as we made our way across the border of San Mateo County into the County of Santa Cruz, where the air quality is said to be the best in the state, if not the nation, and I put my head out the window and inhaled deeply. “The cleanest I’ve breathed,” I assured them; “I felt that change.”

Eat here. Get all the soups. And the pies.
Our first stop was along the ocean, where after looking out to the vista, I looked down and saw a discarded greenish-black lace-up bustier, which we speculated on and didn’t photograph. Best not to inquire. I am on vacation, after all. But suddenly this staggering landscape became a David Lynch movie.

Thence to our next stop, Pescadero, a tiny old-West town, for lunch at Duarte’s. Thus began the best food experiences of my traveling life. Best drives, best talk, best eating, best alien experience by an Easterner in this landscape. Here are some photos of the time there, but how to render the walks into the hills, among the redwoods, the long talks with Anna about writing, living in our places, who we’ve become in the last decade, how we relate to our work now—the quiet of the mornings I enjoyed in all this green and brown?

Anna Happy with Redwood
The second day I was there, Michael worked with some landscapers to continue the lifting of tons of rock to place in a retaining wall and walkways (the main house, which they are renovating so they can rent it out—they’ve been living in a smaller, lighter guest house on the property), as Anna and I went walking and talking; that evening he and Anna went out back to relax in their outdoor hot tub. Miss O’ does not do hot tubs, pools, or other things which require the wearing of limited clothing in front of other people. I adjourned to the fading director’s chair on their front porch as they headed out back. Soon I heard in 
a joint big voice, this happy voice, “O Sole Mio,” other songs I don’t know, closing with a gospel call and response song, “I’m Amazed,” and it was about the most joyous concert I’ve attended. When they came inside, we shared songs with each other via YouTube, singing and singing—opera, blues, whatever moved us. To sit in a kitchen singing with friends is underrated beyond the way of words to express.

We must sing more. We must dance more. We must enjoy every dish we eat more. Every meal Anna and Michael cooked for me began with oil, a red onion, garlic, peppers, and mushrooms. Wine flowed. Tea was served. We saw stuff, and I could tell you about that, but it was the BEING WITH that mattered. It was like living three days out in joyful prayer. And that includes the impromptu visit to The Flying Crane massage parlor for hour-long foot massages that also included head, arms, legs, shoulders and back while your feet soaked in hot salted water (and between my revulsion of being touched, Michael’s tender rock-sore arms, and Anna’s injured back, we passed mutual empathy among ourselves, and laughed about this in the car—a weak laugh, as we had been reduced to puddles of flaccid tissue.) Then we went out to eat. Oh, food. Oh, wine. Oh, friends.

Thank you, Michael. Thank you, Anna. LOVE is so reviving.

Cruising to The V with Kerry and Trudi (The Trip, Part 2: July 18 to 23)

The Transition begins: The morning of the 18th began like all those other perfect California mornings, and yet my energy was no longer in “rest” and “sink in” modes, but now “anticipation” and “caretaking” gear, anticipating my cousin Kerry (the driver) and her little sister Trudi (riding shotgun with a box of Dramamine) and hoping their two-hour trek to pick me up at the cul-de-sac ending on this curving country road was incident-free. These are grown MOMS, for Pete’s sake, and Kerry is a born traveler. They arrived around noon looking festive and happy to be there. It’s always interesting when, as Seinfeld’s George Costanza said, “Worlds are colliding!” Here they are!

Cousins Trudi and Kerry flanked by Michael and Anna
Santa Cruz kitchen
Last-minute photos and off we went into the wilds and Kerry remembered all her turns into Santa Cruz. Back to Hwy 1, which I recognized. If something looked pretty, Kerry said, “Let’s pull over!” And we pulled over for views, to walk the shore, to pick up organic strawberries from a roadside stand, to visit Pigeon Point Lighthouse, and thence to a town called Half Moon Bay to walk and take our late lunch at a restaurant attached to a hotel called The Inn. Possibly the best carbonara I’ve ever had. And great wine. Oh! And off to Vallejo! But first…

On the road again, Kerry got a text from her niece, Katie, who is married to Rob, and they live in the vicinity of Willow Glen, where we traveled for dinner at a great Greek place called Opa, joining them and my cousin Doc (Katie’s dad) and his younger son, Sean. So I met all these new people, learned about Katie’s pregnancy, and was brought into this branch of the O’Hara fold, when I’d only known Katie via Facebook.

Kerry, Trudi, and Doc (the oldest, along with Dave, Bernie, and Brian) are the children of my Uncle Don, my dad Bernie’s older brother. And here is the sad confluence of events: When Kerry couldn’t go to France, she didn’t know that her father would be entering hospice, would decline quickly, and would die only the week before I was to arrive. By a coincidence of my trip’s planning, I was with Anna and Michael first, and then with the O’Haras, because my Uncle Don’s memorial was to be Sunday, July 21. It was like we’d planned it or something—so very strange. (The same thing happened two years ago with my Aunt Mary, when she died two days before I was to visit her, and I was able to attend the masses and funeral instead. Miss O’ is a kind of family emissary; as Kerry said, “You will represent, as we say in The V.”) (“The V” is Vallejo, and her area is dicey and gang-strangled—“Lisa, I have to warn you, I live in the ghetto”—so I took the nickname as a way of making it homey, as it were. Yo.)

So back in The V, we dropped Trudi at her house and headed home to their sweet, very small house, greeted by five dogs, a sleepy husband (thanks, Herb!), and no kids (who were away for another day and half at Bible camp). I settled into my lovely room, and brushed my teeth in the brand new bathroom that Herb had completed (“Lisa, I can’t thank you enough. We’ve been brushing our teeth in the bathtub for six months. Yesterday Herb called me and asked, ‘When is your cousin coming?’ and I said, “Um, TOMORROW,’ and Herb took the day off to do it”), and Kerry came in and we just looked at it—really gorgeous, including the new round sink placed into a cut-out old table—beautiful. (On Saturday, when Christian and Sammy came home, I saw them in the bathroom, where Christian was turning the sink faucet on and off in a very sweet awe, impressive for a senior in high school to be so appreciative.)

So FRIDAY was all ours, and Napa it was!

Napa Valley Dreamin’

Photos surely are enough: Trudi’s husband Victor and oldest child, Cecilia, made us a tour group, and they were perfect to be with. Ceci took on the role of reluctant anthropologist, learning the ways of insane family members, and Victor was the comic relief and happy-to-be-here non-driving washer-downer of all unfinished glasses. Oh, family! THANK YOU for my day. The Robert Mondavi Vineyard is a class act, and delicious wine. Best wine of the trip: Franciscan Winery reds. The Sterling Winery gives great tour, lousy tasting, but who cares? Our midday repast, al fresco, at V. Sattui was divine. And…home to Trudi’s for supper and hanging out with still more family.

Uncle Don lived in Sonoma, another great wine place, but he had insisted that Kerry give me the Napa Valley tour instead. Thanks so very much, Uncle Don, for thinking of my arrival even in your final weeks, and so glad I could be here for his memorial.

In Memoriam: Donald Arthur O’Hara, 1929-2013

Saturday was a quiet day, preparing food to put in the freezer or fridge, ready to take to Relais du Soleil, a bed and breakfast ranch in Sonoma, the town where Uncle Don had lived with his second wife, Yoli. (His first wife, Irene, (mother of all my cousins here) died of breast cancer in 1987.) I folded laundry and sorted the family socks, surrounded at feet, hips, and back by two Pomeranians (including Roxy the tiniest watch dog), a Boxer named Penny (the most muscular puppy I’ve seen), a poodly mutt named Bailey, and a very old Husky mix who wandered in and out. I'd never have gotten out of my jammies except we were going over to Trudi’s again for dinner, and this is one of the best parts of being with family, isn’t it?

And Sunday was a day of waking kids up, dressing, car-packing, caravanning, unloading, arranging, setting up sound systems, chairs, tables, tents—creating the party that Uncle Don (Poppa O’, as everyone called him) would have wanted, complete with a bar. Grandchildren, step grandchildren, people who’d been halfway raised at the O’Hara house, introduced to me as “other sons” or “other daughters,” so part of the family were they. I couldn’t really feel of it—I’d only met Uncle Don in 1969, again in 1988, once in 1999, and over dinner here in Queens in 2009 (his wife Yoli has a daughter living here, and she is originally from New York)—but it was a privilege to see all this love.

And the stories are legion from my dad’s childhood—Don the storyteller, who could hold the neighborhood kids in a spell of stories he’d make up on the spot; their paper route, their fights, the tiny attic room they shared for 8 years, where Donny, winter or summer, would go to bed in his socks. He always loved clothes, including hats. At the memorial, Kerry and Trudi presented all the grandkids with one of Poppa O's hats (Kerry and I had taped names into them the day before).

Here's your traditional family, America: Steps, halves, wholes, invites;
Mexicans, blacks, whites: I love us. Try on a hat.
My cousin Dave led the singing of the Dan Fogelberg song, “The Leader of the Band,” which is how the kids had come to think of him. What I realized there, in that moment, is how important music is in my family. Whatever formal training we were too poor to afford over generations, we all sing, play the spoons, hear every phrase uttered as a song lyric (“She’s too young,” someone might comment, and we’ll all finish out with the song, “to go steady…”). Brian's band played, too.

My cousins Bernie, Trudi, Kerry, Dave, Doc, and Brian with their dad.
This portrait, taken at a studio when he as in the navy in the 1950's,
was so striking the studio kept it in the window for advertising for years.

Kerry's older son, Corey, with his twin, Poppa O'. Corey is half Mexican,
but Don's mom (my grandma) was a quarter Oglala Sioux, after all, and there's the Irish, of course. 
A living legacy of the leader of the band: I think back now to Anna and Michael and the hot tub serenade; to car rides of songs; to stories of piano bar hopping; to records played on the stereo during my youth. Kerry heard an Irish air on her iPod while driving to pick me up in Santa Cruz: "Lisa, I started ugly crying. It was a song Dad and I heard when we traveled to Ireland. I couldn't stop crying." The friends to whom I’m closest surround themselves with music, make music, think in terms of music., remember their lives in song. It never landed until this trip, how music is home. I blame it on the California wine.

Monday morning, Kerry and I decompressed by taking a 45-minute ferry ride from The V to San Francisco, where we walked from Pier 7 to Pier 39, stopping along the way at the Exploratorium, shops, lunch, the Alcatraz gift shop (which is frankly creepy to contemplate); pausing for me to buy a heaping bag of saltwater taffy to take back to the office; thence back on the ferry for home, to an early sleep after a dinner of curry Kerry made herself. 

Cousin Love in sight of Alcatraz. So right.

That evening after dinner, I chilled, as they say in The V, with Herb, Kerry’s daughter Elisa and her husband Brian, Christian and Sammy and his half sister, Natalie, and the dogs, before bed, and felt so very much at home there I couldn’t believe it.

Tuesday morning, Kerry roused her younger son, Sammy, who is 14, to be our “third” for the HOV lane ride to the SFO Airport, where I got to my gate in plenty of time, flew home and into humidity and back into my life via Air Train and E Train and 7 Train—up and down stairs and through corridors and into the jarring faces of unhappy and tense New Yorkers, so utterly different in energy from their West Coast counterparts I felt I was emerging from that fog on the Bay.

While I was away, my friend Amanda Quaid had filmed sections of her short film, “Dreaming in English,” in my apartment, so the additional stress was discovering the broken cane-bottom chair (“We’re insured! Repair in Progress!”) and other little oddities, but really, you’d almost never know they’d been there—still, I worried a bit about it while away, more as I got nearer to home. How could I return to all this? I WAS NOT READY!

And I didn’t have to…not quite yet.

To the Lake, by George!

Wednesday morning, Quinn called me. “Are you still up for Lake George? Do you want to leave Thursday or wait till Friday?” CAN WE LEAVE NOW? I hope I didn’t sound hysterical.

And so it was, by the grace of Andrew Quinn’s swell folks, Judy and Eddie, that Quinn, Ryan, and Ryan’s dog, Jerry, and I poured into the van Quinn parked outside my building (Ryan had taken the A Train and the 7 Train from Hamilton Heights to my place!) (I think of a kid I heard say, “Do you live in a house or a building?”), and followed the directions out of the city and over the bridges onto the Taconic Parkway and thence to the miracle of Lake George. Let’s say it with pictures: 

Ryan and Quinn unloading for the Lake!
The boys get sun.

Ryan and Jerry sittin' in a tree.

Quinn and his beach read.
Keeping Jerry warm in the morning.
Not only had I missed the NYC summer heat wave, I brought California weather back with me, and it stayed. I loved my friends, I rested deeply, wrote, drank good coffee, cooked, and we all partook of ice cream from Martha’s every day. We spent two full days lakeside. We went to Glens Falls and saw the Georgia O'Keeffe Exhibit of Lake George paintings at the Hyde Collection (where we learned that the Alfred Steiglitz family compound of Victorian mansion, barns, and the shanty where O'Keeffe made her paintings was sold in 1957...and the fire department burned it all down (at the new owners' request) for a training exercise. Needless to say wine was purchased on the way back to the cabin. We did not drink to progress.)

I came back into myself while staring at water, across to mountains.  I wrote. I read. We ate fresh summer fruit. We napped. We made ourselves laugh a lot. (Ryan's giggle word of choice was "queef," a term for a vaginal expulsion of air. We substituted the word for another in various movie titles. I believe Miss O' was the winner with "Queef Encounter.") We didn’t have to return until Monday—and really, even while at work the next week, I wasn’t there.

Lake George view
The Snail Returns

So I'm back in New York, back with the tension, the humans, the commitments, the not-California energy. Notice how I didn’t mention the hellacious cold and cough I had most of my vacation, or the return of my period after months of peri-menopause, or other little complaints? That is because I didn’t really register them—only the wads of Puffs tell the story. Those, and the diminished bag of sanitary napkins. 

But we want the romance of the journey! Wine! Lake! Bay! Song! And it was had. And it was fantastic. The summer's overwhelming emotion? Gratitude. Deep, deep gratitude. I'm singing with it.

Moonrise over the Napa Valley
 Love to all as we put away the memories to return, freshened and invigorated, to the workaday world...

From the Scrapbook
Until next time, with more edge,
Miss O'


  1. Your photos are gorgeous, Lisa O'H! I especially envy the trip to Lake George. I travel vicariously through you, as I sit in the stands at Little League games every friggin' weekend!

    1. Thanks, Boy Mommy! You are doing the Lord's work.