maybe I’ll just rent a car instead

A decade ago when I was working at the Alley Theatre, we sponsored a breakfast event for our corporate donors. Larry Kellner, then-CEO of Houston-based Continental Airlines, was the speaker. The company’s slogan was “Work hard, fly right,” and Continental was being awarded a number of honors, including Most Admired Global Airline and Most Admired U.S. Airline by Fortune magazine.

Kellner told the inspiring story of how Continental turned around mediocre performance and rose to the top of a competitive market through employee incentives. Employees were rewarded when planes left on time, bags made it to their destination and customers were happy. So instead of just one white dude at the top of the food chain grabbing all the money, employees across the organization had incentive to work together and do a great job. Which they did.

It was a pretty simple formula: Honor your obligations, and satisfy your customers.

Then things changed. And not just in the airline industry.

The story that broke yesterday about the doctor being manhandled and dragged off a United flight (R.I.P. Continental) spread like wildfire–and is still burning. There’s the disturbing video shot by a fellow passenger, which makes the situation more “real” than if this had been an anecdote shared by a couple of people on Twitter. But it’s more than that. Disturbing videos get passed around on social media all day, every day.

What many people are reacting to is the naked display of how much corporations are in charge and what little concern they have for their customers. We the people haven’t been in control for a long time, but now it’s becoming less of a secret that’s chuckled about in boardrooms and more of a, “If you don’t eat this poopoo ‘voluntarily,’ we’ll force it down your throat.”

Just check out the United CEO’s tone-deaf response. He started with some Newspeak (changing “bloodying and dragging a passenger by his wrists” to “re-accommodating” the passenger) and has since begun victim blaming. There’s even a story making the rounds now about some misdeeds in the doctor’s past. As if something he did in 2004 excuses his treatment yesterday.

This is what deregulation and monopolies are buying us. Getting dragged, half-conscious and bloody, down the narrow aisle of an airplane while our shirts ride up and our pasts get mined for embarrassing information.

Guess I need to start doing some work on my flabby core muscles.

1,095 days

It’s the three-year anniversary of the day James and I loaded up our cars, grabbed the dogs and put Texas in our rearview mirror. We got here two days later with willing spirits and confused dogs and haven’t looked back since.

This move was an experiment. Neither of us had done anything so drastic before–at least, not intentionally. But up until and including the moment we headed west, I never once doubted what we were doing. It felt scary, but it also felt right, and that rightness has never wavered. Something for which I remain grateful.

It’s hard being so far from the people we love (and even the people we just really like), and we’re still trying to figure out how to maintain years-long and even decades-long friendships in a world where no one talks on the phone. Facebook is a sorry substitute for real life/real time, but it’s better than nothing. If we find the solution, I’ll let you know.

So, three years in, some observations:

  • Our palates haven’t converted to CaliMex, nor will they. TexMex forever.
  • The 1,800 miles between us and home seems shorter every time we drive it. It helps that we’re figuring out the best places to eat, pee and sleep along the way.
  • There’s not much of a temperature spread in Pacific Grove, but there are distinct seasons.
  • Newscasts and truck commercials are much less dramatic here than in Houston. For the former, it helps that we watch a local station and not one out of San Francisco. Less drama to report on means less dramatic news. Plus, there’s just a different tone in general. As for the truck commercials, there’s no California equivalent to the pervasive “everything’s bigger in Texas” motif.
  • Speaking of that, I never really felt like a Texan when I lived there. But I did feel like a Houstonian. I’m still figuring out what I feel like now.
  • We lived here for four months before I stopped reading the Houston Chronicle every morning.
  • We lived here for three months before breaking our year-and-a-half meat fast by eating pepperoni pizza at Tommaso’s in San Francisco.
  • We lived here for almost three years before I ended up with a workable queso recipe. Still not quite like the plastic restaurant version that we so love, but close enough to get the job done.
  • We’ve mostly adapted to living in a small house. A key thing we did was replace some of our beloved furniture with smaller pieces that are more appropriate for the footprint of our house. My grandparents’ dining room table (which seats six to eight) moved to the garage and was replaced with a square table that seats four. And suddenly the walls didn’t seem like they were closing in.
  • The PG dog parade remains one of my favorite annual traditions and melts my cold, cold heart every time. If you were thinking about coming out here on vacation, I’d suggest the end of July because the dog parade is followed the next night by a pretty impressive fireworks display over the water. And even though it’s summer, it’s often cold and foggy. And also, we’ll still be here, good lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.

Points of interest as chronicled in this blog (now I just chronicle on Instagram):
Palo Corona Regional Park
Mill Creek Redwood Preserve
Point Sur Lighthouse
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
El Carmelo Cemetery
Whale watching trip

going home again

The day before we
The day before we left to go home for Christmas, Jean, James’ mom, came to the end of her nine-month battle with cancer. She was still young, vibrant and feisty, so this was a huge blow. Jean used to send me a mother’s day card from Stella the rat dog every year, and she always remembered dates like our anniversary or the day my brother died. Her house was full of things she made with her hands–from paintings on the wall to ingenious inventions to deal with the minor irritations of life (like a lost remote). We shared a lot of laughs over the years, including after the ill-fated whale watching trip where I spent the entire time puking into the Pacific. I’m so glad she was able to visit us out here in 2014 and wish she’d been able to make the second trip we’d been talking about.
When we left
When we left in our rented mini van to make the three-day drive to Houston, we knew it was possible this soul wouldn’t be making the return trip with us. She’d been declining for a few months, and she was in pretty bad shape as we set off. Dali died on the shortest day of the year, December 21, the winter solstice and the day before Jean’s funeral. She’d been with us for almost 13 years, and we think she was a year old when we got her. Not a bad run for a crazy dog with two different-colored eyes and a bit of an attitude. She had many nicknames, but a favorite was “Cooj” (rhymes with Baton Rouge, short for Cujo because sometimes she liked to bite us).
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We broke the drive up like this: Pacific Grove to Blythe, CA (just inside the border with AZ) –> Blythe to Van Horn, TX –> Van Horn to Houston. After fighting our way through the gridlock that is the western half of Southern California, we expected smooth sailing across the desert with just a few semis to keep us company. But CalTrans decided to do a little road work on the Saturday before the Christmas holiday, and it took us two hours to go seven miles. I considered using this random port-a-potty in the median–I could have easily done my business and caught up with James and the van walking at a casual pace–but I was a bit afraid of using an interstate terlet in the middle of the desert as night is falling.
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Van Horn, Texas is just a blip of a town in the moonscape that is West Texas. But it has a super cool, old school (but renovated) hotel with a great restaurant. This is the sister hotel to Hotel Paisano in Marfa, and they share remarkable physical similarities. The hotel in Marfa is a bit cooler because the rooms have patios with fireplaces in them. This place just has a view of the railroad tracks, empty lots and a gas station. But the rooms are nice, the lobby is beautiful and the chicken fried steak with jalapeño gravy is pretty hard to beat.
While in Houston
While in Houston, we had the chance to check out a few new places. This is Lei Low, a “rum and tiki lounge” in the northern end of the Heights and just a short walk from the house we rented for our stay. I had a drink with an umbrella in it that was tasty and not overly sweet. The drink, not the umbrella. I didn’t taste the umbrella. We also had really amazing brisket at Pinkerton’s Barbecue and a delicious breakfast (twice) at Morningstar–both in the Heights. When we lived in the Heights, dining options were Andy’s, Someburger and King Biscuit. The area is an embarrassment of dining riches now, and I wish we’d had more time to try more places.
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After a few days in Houston, we headed up the country to see my family, stuff ourselves with my mother’s nonpareil cooking and drink all my dad’s booze. My nephew and niece, almost 8 and 6.5, are at that great age where they’re smart and fun to talk to but aren’t too cool to hang with the old people. I was thrilled to see Molly reading real, live, 3-D books and watch Rowan build intricate Lego creations instead of being buried in electronic devices, staring and swiping like zombies. They both have great senses of humor and a surprising handle on absurdity.
Here's a shot Molly took of me and my mother with the (pink) camera we gave her for Christmas.
Here’s a shot Molly took of me and my mother with the (pink) instamatic camera we gave her for Christmas. She took her photography very seriously and captured some seriously great shots. She also learned a lesson about angles to avoid (like not shooting up toward people’s faces/double chins).
My car is
The two times we’ve driven back to Texas since the move, we’ve rented a mini van. Our cars are nine and 15 years old, both on the small side, so the van provides lots of room for dogs and luggage and the confidence we’ll actually get from A to B and back to A without mechanical difficulties. It was nice driving a brand new vehicle for a couple of weeks, but I was happy to get back to my no-computer-display, no-warning-when-a-car-is-in-your-blindspot, stick-shift Mazda. I can’t get behind this no key thing. Pushing a button to start a car, then turning a knob to put it in gear makes for a completely unsatisfying driving experience. On our long drive, James and I talked a lot about automated cars and how in the somewhat near future a kid will be talking to her grandmother about road trips and will be incredulous–“You mean you had to steer the car and make it go by pressing your foot on a pedal? For hours? How did you pay attention? How could you be off (insert relevant social media tool) that long?” And the grandmother will think longingly of a more simple time when you had to balance your intake of caffeine with truck stop availability so you didn’t consider using a port-a-potty in the median of the interstate in the middle of the desert as night is falling.

Links
Hotel El Capitan
Lei Low
Pinkerton’s Barbecue
Morningstar

free listening

img_2575I was sitting at my desk working on something meaningless (while thinking about things that have meaning) when I heard waves pounding the shore. The big, crashing, loud kind that usually precede a storm, though one’s not coming. Not a literal one, anyway. The waves were so loud, I was compelled to take a walk to see them. As each one ebbed back into the ocean, the rocks at the shoreline clinked against each other like the ice cubes in the large cocktail I’ll be having shortly. Combined with the dense fog we had this morning, it seemed like nature was trying to give us a bath. Wash the stank off.

I kept walking along the shoreline and eventually came across this lady. “Free listening” her sign said. I took a picture, planning to chronicle but keep moving as usual. But she looked so peaceful staring out at the ocean, so kind-hearted that I stopped and took a seat. I asked, “How’s business?” and she said it had been busy. That a lot of people wanted to talk. That the majority felt shell-shocked. Unprepared for the events of last night. Uncomfortable knowing there were so many people unwilling to publicly admit whom they were going to vote for, but vote for him they would.

No one saw this coming (well, except Michael Moore who called it months ago), and part of the reason is many voters were keeping this choice close. Where women were taking selfies in their pantsuits outside of polling places to celebrate voting for a woman for President, other voters were quietly pulling the lever for the other guy. Maybe it’s the secrecy of it that’s so creepy.

Anyway, she and I had a nice chat. It felt soothing, healing even, talking to a total stranger on a day when the country I live in feels a little strange. I thanked her for the conversation, trudged back to my desk and got back to work. But I felt a little lighter.

As the pendulum swings one way, it must swing back the other. I can’t wait to see the opposite end of the arc we’re on now.

turn, turn, turn

A few months ago, I decided I couldn’t consider myself a playwright anymore. Though my desk houses a little orange plastic box full of index cards scribbled with story ideas, potential titles and bits of dialogue–a box I add to on a regular basis–I hadn’t done any real playwriting in a few years. I just wasn’t moved to open a Word doc and make that blinking cursor cruise across the page.

To actively call yourself something, it’s a good idea to actively be doing that thing.

(I’m not talking about meeting people and saying, “Hi. My name is Crystal. I’m an Aries, a dog lover and a playwright.” I’m talking about internal definitions. The way you place yourself in the life you’re living.)

There was relief in no longer being a playwright. I didn’t have to keep torturing myself about not having a project percolating. When friends asked if I was working on anything, I could say with conviction, “I’m not writing plays anymore.” My lone full-length had two great productions and a much-needed learning experience production, so there was a sense of completion. And it was okay.

Story shouldn’t be forced. It should knock on your door in the middle of the night demanding to be let in. I’m a believer in what Mr. Bukowski says about writing:

if you have to wait for it to roar out of you,
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

I waited patiently, but no one arrived. I turned the porch light off, turned on my sound machine and went to sleep.

Then this election entered the picture. This ridiculous, infuriating, absurd shitshow of an election. I saw friends get in fights on Facebook with their friends and family that I’m not sure they’ll be able to recover from. With each passing presidential “debate,” I watched our country slip further and further into a pool of tepid, flat Budweiser America, with only a raft of soggy Cheetos and a copy of Playboy to hold on to. Each day brought a new low, when I thought we’d already dented the basement floor.

That’s when I heard a knock at the door.

selfie(ish) nation

rocky ridge
Before the fire: At the top of the Soberanes/Rocky Ridge loop in Garrapata State Park

Last night I dreamed I was in Big Sur, and the fire that’s been burning for more than two weeks (in waking life) was closing in. I could see big plumes of smoke just over the hills and hear the crackle of burning brush. It was terrifying.

When I woke up this morning, I found out Big Sur was placed under mandatory evacuation at 3:15AM, from the lighthouse to the canyon between Nepenthe and Deetjen’s. Rumor is they’re going to close Highway 1 at Bixby Bridge today.

When the fire first started and we learned the point of origin was just off the Soberanes Canyon trail, one of the busiest trails in the area, we immediately knew the cause. Tourists. I recently wrote in this blog about the issues Big Sur is having with tourists. They flock to the area by the carload, stopping at points along the way to grab a selfie. You can see them as you drive down the coast–dozens of people at every major turnout with their backs to some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, their eyes focused on a view they find much more precious: themselves. They leave their trash in the turnouts, run across the highway without looking, park like assholes and treat this untamed land like it’s disposable.

Last week, the official cause of the fire was released. It was an illegal, unattended campfire in Soberanes Canyon. This area is part of Garrapata State Park, and there’s no camping–and certainly no campfires–allowed. Not that it matters to selfie nation. Selfie nation feels entitled to do whatever it takes to get the best image of themselves for a few fleeting likes on Instagram or Facebook. If that means going a bit off a trail to build a fire near a waterfall and then leaving that fire to burn out by itself, so what.

Only this fire didn’t burn out by itself. It’s burned more than 55,000 acres (about 86 square miles), destroyed nearly 60 homes and led to one death. It’s caused all parks in Big Sur to close, impacted the livelihoods of businesses/employees who count on all those tourist dollars at the busiest time of the year and jacked the air quality for all of us.

I hope Big Sur makes it through okay and the losses don’t keep piling up, all because of  selfie(ish) people who thought the rules didn’t apply to them. At least they can’t post the awesome picture I’m sure they took of themselves around that fire. For selfie nation, that’s almost as bad as jail time.

“If I don’t post a picture of it, it didn’t happen.” The new version of, “I think, therefore I am.”

For more about the fire, including lots of dramatic images, Big Sur Kate’s blog has the latest. She reports things before the media does. It’s 9AM here, and still nothing from local media about this evacuation.

a plan for the future

IMG_0600Should I have the privilege of living to a ripe old age, I anticipate having to work until 70 before tapping into retirement benefits that may or may not exist by 2040. If I continue making my living by writing, that means another 24 years spent sitting at a desk, staring at a lighted box and type-type-typing the day away.

This is assuming my mind stays sharp, and someone is willing to pay me for whatever it is I’m writing about.

As jobs go, I’m pretty lucky. I love words and have always been a writer. But sometimes I have the fantasy of freedom. Of selling everything, getting a rolling home and moving from one beautiful state or national park to another with James and the dogs, picking up odd jobs that keep gas in the tank and food on the table.

Even in this fantasy, I know I’d find myself craving a home rooted in the ground. A place with a bathtub. Something with a view and room to grow food and flowers. But I wouldn’t want to be saddled with a 30-year mortgage, so I’d need to take a non-traditional approach to finding a permanent place. Which I think I’ve figured out.

A commune.

But not just any commune.

A special one.

Here’s the appeal of the commune concept. A group of like-minded people pool their resources to buy a big piece of land upon which they each have their own small home. They share chores–like keeping the garden, tending to the chickens, feeding the livestock. If there are children (which there won’t be in this scenario because we’ll all be old), the adults share parenting responsibilities.

This all sounds idyllic and lovely to me except for one thing–all those people. Can’t you just hear the screen doors creaking and slamming all day as people come and go in each others’ homes? The chortles of laughter in the garden since it’s weed-pullin’ day and everyone participates? The good-natured ribbing about how Jeremy doesn’t know how to make good coffee from people standing around on his porch holding their mugs with both hands as little puffs of coffee steam rise in their faces?

It’s not that I don’t like people. I do. I just don’t want to be around them all the time. Which brings me to the way this commune will be different.

It’s a commune…for introverts. A non-communal commune.

Same deal as described above. Garden. Screen doors. Coffee. Porch. The difference is, no one really hangs out at each others’ houses or shows up unexpectedly. There’s one communal area where you can go when you want to be social or need to discuss who’s not pulling enough weeds, but other areas are treated like a typical urban neighborhood. A friendly, non-committal wave in the morning, maybe a comment about the weather, then go back inside.

Anyone interested? There will also be wifi.

 

don’t be a tourist

James at Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, August 2006. We were the only people there. Today, picture it with a hundred tourists, plus their umbrellas, blankets, dogs, screaming children, cellphones with no signal and abandoned food wrappers. The beach is two miles down an unmarked, one-lane road. On weekends, traffic makes it almost impassable, which really sucks for the poor bastards who live along the road. The parks system is considering closing the beach completely because the infrastructure can't handle the traffic.
James at Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, August 2006. We were the only people there. Today, picture it with a hundred tourists, plus their umbrellas, blankets, dogs, screaming children, cellphones with no signal and abandoned food wrappers. The beach is two miles down an unmarked, one-lane road. The parks system is considering closing the beach completely because the infrastructure can’t handle the traffic.

A newborn bison was euthanized Monday because a couple of tourists in Yellowstone thought it would be a good idea to give the little feller a ride in their warm SUV (it was cold outside), causing the mom and rest of the herd to later reject it.

Tourists reaching the end of the Appalachian Trail are behaving so badly, the park is considering moving the end point to something a little less Instagram-ready in hopes of preserving nature.

A tourist was gored by a bison in Yellowstone while posing for a selfie just a few feet away from it. And a group of tourists who own a clothing store in Canada were just charged with violating Yellowstone’s rules for going off trail with their cameras to capture themselves near a beautiful spring. (Yellowstone seems to make tourists crazy. Or stupid.)

Last year, selfie deaths outpaced shark attacks for number of fatalities.

Heavy tourism is causing major damage to beautiful places around the world.

In California, Muir Woods has gotten so crowded the National Park Service has asked tourists to stop coming.

Key word for all these stories: tourists. Not travelers. Tourists. Tourists are people who bang and clang their way into a situation with no regard for where they are. Instead of Hawaiian shirts, bermuda shorts and socks + sandals, today’s annoying tourists are identified by the smartphones blocking their view. They’ll do anything for a great selfie or epic vacation pic. Going off trail. Getting too close to wild animals. Walking past numerous signs warning of danger or imploring them to respect nature. Thinking the rules of good behavior are for all those other people, people who aren’t as special as they are.

The biggest problem? Everyone thinks they’re special.

We see it every time we head to Big Sur. Tourists are crammed into every turnout or darting across the road without looking, many even leaving their cars partially on the highway while they glance at the breathtaking view then quickly turn their backs on it to take a picture of their stupid faces.

If you manage to find a turnout with room for your car, don’t look down when you get out. Since Big Sur is very rustic, there are few bathrooms to be had. So intrepid tourists are just letting ‘er rip in the turnouts, leaving their soiled toilet paper (probably napkins from the McDonald’s they had on the way down) on the ground along with their waste.

Here in the Monterey Bay, tourists in kayaks keep getting too close to wildlife, routinely trying to lure otters onto their vessels so they can take a picture. “Getting close to the locals!” the caption will say. Thumbs up, asshole.

As a glance to the right of this post might suggest, I take a lot of pictures that I then share on Instagram. I love being in a beautiful place or seeing something funny and sharing it with my family and friends. And I enjoy being able to look back through my posts to be reminded of the good times or mundane moments I chose to capture.

So I understand why tourists want to get that shot with the wind in their hair and the Bixby Bridge in the background. I get why they want to go off-trail in Muir Woods to find a green, quiet spot away from all the other tourists. I’m sure a bison that’s small enough to pick up and put in your car is incredibly cute (and makes for an awesome Facebook post). But in the quest to document how amazing these places are, these places are being ruined.

This isn’t just handwringing or pearl-clutching. There are demonstrable bad results from ill-behaved tourists. Emergency vehicles are having a hard time navigating side roads in Big Sur because tourists have literally blocked them with their shittily parked cars. On my favorite trail, tourists who don’t want to do the hard work of descending down the steep, sandy path keep walking in the grass on the sides of it, causing trail creep. In some places, the trail has grown as wide as a road instead of being as wide as your shoulders. Tourists are driving back roads and setting up camp where they please, leaving piles of poop and smoldering fires in their wake. Guess they think their moms are going to clean up after them?

The world needs more travelers and fewer tourists. Staying on the trail doesn’t mean you’re that trail’s bitch–it means you respect nature and want to preserve it for other people to enjoy long after the glow from your potentially awesome off-trail selfie has faded. It means if there’s no parking at the place you’d planned to stop, you continue adventuring on down the road–you don’t double-park with your rental car hanging its ass out on the highway. It means you need to stay at your hotel and drink coffee until you’ve done your morning business, you don’t drop trou in a turnout and leave a mess for the next person who comes along.

It means picking up your trash, not having fires when there’s a burn ban, letting wild animals stay wild, not climbing up or down something you aren’t capable of getting back down/up without having to be rescued, turning down your iTunes when you’re on a trail other people are using and realizing that everyone is special–thus, no one is special. We’re all hurtling through space on the same rock.

Let us be travelers, not tourists.

I think Safeway’s going to call CPS on me

“But you don’t have children, Crystal. Why would they do that?”

Two reasons: copious amounts of alcohol and ham and ham gravy baby food.

Let me back up. Did you know small dogs (like Chihuahuas) often have major issues with their teeth? And that I share my house with Stella, a Chihuahua-Rat Terrier mix? And that for years Stella’s breath has been so bad, it earned her the nickname, “Shitrashra” (as in, breath that smells like a combination of shit and trash)? And that, instead of making fun of the sweet little dog I love, I should have been taking her to the doggie dentist so she could have her teeth cleaned?

All of these things came together three days after Christmas, culminating in Stella having to get 16 teeth pulled. Yes, 16 Tic-Tac-sized teeth came out of her tiny little head. She still has close to a dozen (and is close to a dozen years old), so it could be worse.

James and I spent the week after Christmas, which both of us had off, nursing our 7.5-pound dog back to good health. She was on pain medication, which was probably great for the soreness but stopped up her waste-removal process. After three days of nothing but pee exiting her body, I called the vet. They said to try pumpkin puree (she hated it) or sweet potato baby food (she liked it okay) and 1/4 teaspoon of Miralax daily. If she didn’t produce the goods in a couple of days, we were going to have to take her back to the vet.

I spoon-fed her sweet potato and chicken baby food as often as she’d let me. At the 11th hour, she finally pooped. It was a turd for the ages, about half the length of her body. Joy!

After she was done with the medicine, I worried her mouth was still sore. So I continued with the baby food routine, swapping out sweet potato and chicken for more delectable flavors like chicken and chicken gravy, turkey and turkey gravy and, her favorite, ham and ham gravy.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and we now have a picky dog who much prefers baby food over doggie food. And not just any flavor baby food–ham and ham gravy. Give her some chicken and chicken gravy, a flavor she liked just a few weeks ago, and she turns her nose up. Won’t eat all day, leaving the food to congeal in her bowl. But ham and ham gravy? Oh yeah. It’s on.

Which brings me to Safeway. As I watched the guy scan my groceries this morning, which prominently featured booze and ham and ham gravy baby food, it occurred to me that he might mistakenly think I have a baby at home. And that I’m the worst mother ever, only providing one flavor of baby food while I drink bourbon and eat non-baby-friendly things like jalapeños and radishes.

I pictured myself walking to the car with my groceries while the checker sends a cop after me. “There she goes! Get her. She probably left that poor, neglected baby in the trunk of her car. Just follow the smell of ham and ham gravy.”

ham and ham gravy
If I had the skills, I’d photoshop a picture of Stella’s face over that baby.