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Life on California's beautiful Central Coast

A couple things I learned at my high school reunion

I went to my first high school reunion last weekend. It wasn’t the tenth, 15th, or 20th, the timeline on which such events are normally held. Rather, it was the 17th summer since my class of 1997 headed out of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School.

Why now? Well, that was my fault. I planned the darn thing.

Class reunions, by traditional American protocols, are supposed to be organized by the president of the class. I wasn’t in student government – nor had I even gone to a single party in high school that wasn’t school-sanctioned or associated with a team, club or class that I happened to be in. I wasn’t an especially popular kid, and often felt like I didn’t fit in.

You could probably best describe my high school self as a very focused student-athlete. I had my share of crushes on boys and problems with other girls and lots of very vague and hopeful plans for the future, but mostly I was running down a road or had my nose in a book. I was comfortable in those spaces. They were easy and attainable and rewarding and didn’t involve a lot of risk. Being social was a lot harder.

So fast forward more than a decade and a half and change, and why was I stressing out big time over Facebook RSVP’s and trying to track down the few people who didn’t seem to have any social media presence whatsoever and cajoling others to ask their friends to ask their sister-in-law if she could make it? I guess because at the end of the day, I liked high school, and just about all of the people who were there with me, even if we didn’t know each other as well as we could have or should have.

I loved going to high school football games and cheering on our team. I loved being on the Yearbook staff and writing up all the cool accomplishments everyone had all year. And I loved graduation, knowing that we all had the rest of our lives to do amazing things, and were just getting started on our very own magical mystery world tours.

Not even half of our class members were able to make it to the event, but I’m glad we had it anyway. It was at a park on a hot summer Saturday, but people brought their kids and a couple kegs of beer and some stayed all the way until the end. There were a lot of laughs and fond memories and even the chance to get to know people that we didn’t really know back then. There was also really good BBQ, thanks to a great guy named Chris Perez.

Here’s a short list of things I learned from the reunion experience. If you’re thinking about planning one or even trying to decide whether or not to attend, maybe they’ll help.

1. It’s OK that you look older – maturity is really attractive.

2. It’s amazing to see the adorable kids of people you knew when they were just kids themselves.

3. Cliques were dumb. And are even dumber now.

4. You never know if you’ll ever get the chance to see these people again. And they’ll probably bring back some memories of times that you haven’t thought about in years.

5. It never hurts to think back to when you were 18, and life was just getting started. What did you dream of? And what could you start doing tomorrow that would help make those dreams come true?

With many thanks to the class of ’97 members and their families who made it out to this summer’s very random event.

From the sports archives

I was reading an article today on the Daily Beast, about Wyoming’s best high school basketball team, Native American life, poverty, and growing up with ambition fueled by sports. You can find it here.

The story reminded me so vividly of one that I had written myself, about 12 years ago, while working as a sports reporter for a daily newspaper in Northern California.

It takes place in a little reservation town called Covelo, within Mendocino County’s Round Valley. Simply driving there – and back to Santa Rosa again – for this basketball game was an experience that will stick with me for life.

Like the writer of this Wyoming piece, the weather en route to the reporting was dramatic. It was a freezing cold January day, threatening to snow if any precipitation began to fall from the sky. As I returned from Round Valley to a deserted Highway 101 in the middle of the night, a work crew along the narrow mountain road had lit a giant bonfire, both by which to see to work and to keep themselves warm.

It was much later that I started reading CJ Box novels, but it now reminds me of one of his scenes, where the landscapes are often so still and black that you can disappear into them, and every headlight might draw attention.

Here is the story, called “Support on the Court.” I might have given it a different name. Basketball was this little community’s bright spot – and not just on a cold winter’s night.

(Originally published Feb. 5, 2002.)

COVELO – On a frigid winter night in Round Valley, the full moon illuminates snow-covered hillsides and barren farmland, but a brighter glow emanates from downtown.

The handful of businesses and shops that line Highway 162 as it runs through Covelo and onto the Round Valley Indian Reservation are deserted, but take a left on Howard Street and go down two blocks to the high school and things are jumping.

It’s an icy Tuesday night in January, but more than 200 people pack the round-roofed gymnasium, watching four basketball games back-to-back. They cram onto the four rows of bleachers across the north side of the gym. It’s the league home opener against Potter Valley for the varsity and junior varsity Mustangs, girls and boys, and their fans are out in force.

“This community loves these kids and it loves sports,” said school principal and counselor Renee East, who greets each of the high school students by name as they walk by her in the gym. “You’ll never find this gym more packed then on a night like this.”

Usually, it’s standing-room-only at Round Valley games, and people leave work early to get a good seat. The grandmother of one of the varsity boys arrives at 3 p.m. to find a place at the top of the bleachers, even though her grandson won’t start playing for nearly five hours, at 7:45.

The draw of basketball in Round Valley is not new. Many of the people in the stands played for the Mustangs when they were in school. But the teams have taken a different role in the community as of late, providing not just entertainment, but motivation for the athletes to explore a world beyond their tiny hometown.

The population of Round Valley, including the town of Covelo and the checkered reservation lands, is 1,057. The 2000 Census showed a nearly even split between those living on reservation property and the town of Covelo. About 85 percent of the school’s students are American Indians.

Varsity girls coach Kim Stillwell, who played basketball in Round Valley, said the sport gives kids a chance for recognition and realization. “Basketball helps them to realize the opportunities they have and helps them to go on to colleges and junior college,” said Stillwell, who graduated in 1981.

She’s the aunt of one of her players and spends early afternoon games watching over like a mother hawk, observing not just the athletes on the court but the flock of younger children who shoot around between halves.

American Indian scholar Greg Sarris, who grew up in Santa Rosa and now holds an endowed chair of English literature at Loyola Marymount University, said sports have become increasingly important to communities like Round Valley, for people of all ages.

“It’s one of the healthier ways men and women in Indian communities can distinguish themselves,” said Sarris, who serves as chairman of his tribe, the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria. “Playing sports and being focused is a shot in the arm as far as self-esteem and worth.”

Stillwell, who works at the Round Valley Inn when she’s not coaching, tries to get her team into as many tournaments as possible so the players can see new places and experience new things. Basketball and the Future Farmers of America, a program in which students raise animals and learn about agriculture, are the primary chances kids have to travel, Stillwell said.

A future after high school

Principal East, who played basketball at Santa Rosa Junior College, has seen a change in the mentality of the school’s student-athletes since she began teaching at Round Valley nine years ago. At that time, she said, only 15 to 20 percent pursued higher education after high school. On this year’s varsity girls team, all seven seniors are planning futures of school, work, travel and perhaps even more basketball.

The school has had success breaking the cycle of unemployment that often typifies reservation communities. Of the 2001 graduating class, everyone went on to a college, junior college or trade school program, joined the military, or got a job.

About 50 of the school’s 120 students are involved in athletics. More than 30 of those play basketball. Knowing they must keep their grade-point average at 2.0 or higher helps, East said, though four basketball players and a cheerleader were through for the season after semester grades came out.

“There’s a lot more focus this year as far as accountability for their grades. Most of them realize there’s not a lot of resources there and they’ve got to go out and get a job or education to pursue the resources that they want,” East said.

That mentality flourished on the girls varsity team. Five players returned from last year’s North Central League III championship team, an honor that has made their team one of the school’s premier athletic programs.

Senior forward Trista Freeman, a key player for the Mustangs who has been invited to play in a Las Vegas junior national game this spring, said fan support brings success. And fan support has grown stronger since last season’s league title.

“Half our crowd comes to our out-of-town games, too,” she said. That means the Round Valley fans usually outnumber the home-team fans.

In the blue and white home gym, though, which has a 12-foot high Mustang painted on the wall, the advantage is overwhelming. During the JV girls game, Round Valley is down by one point, 36-35, with 35 seconds remaining. The small Potter Valley crowd tries to start a rallying call of “de-fense,” but gets drowned out by the uncoordinated cacophony and bleacher banging coming from the Mustangs’ fans.

When the JV boys team runs out to warm up just minutes after the girls’ game has ended, it’s not to blasting rap music, but to the jarring screams of their fans. The younger the players, the louder the yells.

“It’s our boys playing,” said sophomore Patricia Cortez, who is watching the game from the unofficial student section in a corner of the gym. She and her friend Danielle Bettega come to every home game, even though they aren’t on the team. Being on the high school roster isn’t the only way to participate.

“Everyone here plays basketball, some just aren’t on the team,” Bettega explains. She has asthma that keeps her off the court.

Family atmosphere

Some fans don’t have children or grandchildren on the court, but an assortment of relatives they keep up with. Iian Hoaglen has four cousins on the girls varsity team and a niece who’s a Round Valley cheerleader. He and fellow retiree Hank Gonzales arrive at around 3:15 to see the games, bringing padded pillows to make the bleachers more comfortable.

“It’s the only team we’ve got here,” Hoaglen noted. He’ll go on the road for some games to cheer his cousins — leading scorer Liz Oliver, Freeman, Teresa Bettega and Monica Whipple.

Fans and the athletes speak of the basketball teams as ambassadors of sorts, spreading the word that Round Valley’s reputation as a place where kids run wild is not accurate.

The locals prefer to believe that incidents such as cars being egged and tires slashed are due to boredom, for which basketball is the primary antidote.

“It might be a nice place for older people to retire and stuff, but it’s not a town for young kids,” said Misty Watts, a senior on the varsity team.

Kept in line by basketball

East says that’s not a problem Covelo faces alone. “You’re going to have problems no matter where you go in this world,” she said. “There are aunts, uncles, foster parents and grandparents here. Native or non-native, it makes no difference. These families are supporting these kids.”

Freeman admits she has been kept in line by the sport. “If I wasn’t playing basketball, I’d probably be messing up,” says Freeman, who may attend Mendocino College after high school. “Playing basketball made me want to go to school, keep my grades up, and gave me something to look up to.”

Ken and Connie Watts have seen basketball give their daughter Misty a jolt of ambition. She’s planning to attend Butte Junior College in Chico next year.

If she wasn’t playing basketball, Watts probably would be home watching TV, she said.

“All the people on the basketball teams have a good attitude,” said Watts, whose father played basketball at Round Valley. She’s sitting in the bleachers before the girls game, visiting with friends and cheering on the JV team.

“We’re trying to rebuild our rep to be good.”

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National Running Day, 2014

Tomorrow, June 4, 2014, is National Running Day. I haven’t had time to blog here in awhile, but NRD gets bigger every year, and this year, it has a great chance to gain a national media presence. The second Running Boom, as measured by Running USA, has patterned the trajectory of social media engagement for Joe and Jane Runner, hometown Anywhere, USA.

The National Running Day organizers have a pretty cool campaign that asks you to tell us why YOU run. Here’s the logo:

 

IRunLogoAs I thought about what National Running Day means to me, one of the first things that came into my mind was all the cool places that running has taken me over the years and especially in the last year. In the last calendar year, I have had the joy of running:

1. Through Yosemite Valley, in Yosemite National Park, where I saw deer and a clearing rainstorm over beautiful Mirror Lake.

Mirror Lake with clearing storm.

Mirror Lake with clearing storm.

 

Yosemite Valley deer.

Yosemite Valley deer.

2. In Taos, New Mexico, where I ran past historic adobe residences and enjoyed the view of snow-capped mountains.

3. Along my home beach below Ellwood Mesa, along California’s gorgeous Central Coast.

4. On the fire roads above Catalina Island, where I spotted a native Island Fox and found myself high on a hilltop, with even the clouds below me.

Catalina Island, Avalon view.

Catalina Island, Avalon view.

5. Along Waikiki Beach and all the way to Diamond Head, the iconic volcano that makes up Oahu’s pinnacle view.

Waikiki Beach, Sept. 2013.

Waikiki Beach, Sept. 2013.

6. In Monterey, Calif., home to several of the state’s most scenic marathons and half-marathons.

Monterey Half Marathon, November 2013.

Monterey Half Marathon, November 2013.

7. In San Diego, Calif., home to 2014 Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi.

8. In the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley, Calif., my hometown and a much-loved destination for runners and cyclists alike.

9. In Cambria, Calif, along the Moonstone Beach Boardwalk, just south of William Randolph Hearst’s famous Hearst Castle.

10. In San Luis Obispo, Calif, through the vineyards of the Edna Valley and through the historic downtown.

Running is heralded as a sport that you can take anywhere, and my experience certainly manifests that reality. Where will running take you in the year ahead, and how will you celebrate National Running Day?

On track

Twenty years ago today, I ran in my first high school track meet at Santa Barbara City College.

It was one of the best days of my life, and a day that would change my life.

I was a freshman walk-on who had run in one track meet before, a junior high affair with no real competition. It didn’t count.

I had no expectations for my race, other than anticipating that there would be plenty of girls faster than me, from bigger schools outside of Santa Ynez. I told my family not to come to the track meet, because I figured I’d finish somewhere in the middle of the pack, and I didn’t want them to waste their time.

I was taking the whole thing so unseriously that midway through the track meet I snuck out of the stadium, which we weren’t supposed to leave (such a subversive), and ran down into the Santa Barbara harbor, where I found my Grandfather Mitchell working on his boat.

photo(20) Surprising him, I mentioned that I’d be running in a race across the street in a little while, and if he wanted to take a break, he should come by. I’m sure I warned him that I probably wouldn’t be very fast or beat many people.

The memory of the race itself – a 1500 meter distance, is not perfect. I wasn’t nervous, or scared. I just went out there and ran my heart out. After the first lap, there was no one in front of me. So I kept running. It was a beautiful day, there were tall palm trees swaying, I could smell the ocean. People were probably cheering me on, but all I could see was the red rubber track. My focus was entirely on the act of running, which felt like the most perfect act of physical being that I had ever experienced. I ran faster. No one caught me, in fact, everyone had fallen a half lap behind.

I won the race. My time actually would have won the varsity race. All of the sudden I wasn’t some anonymous little freshman walk-on anymore. Somebody asked me why I hadn’t run cross country in the fall. I think I told them that I thought a three mile race was a little far.

My grandfather was ecstatic. My family isn’t known for its athleticism on either side, and there I was acting like I sort of knew my way around this whole running thing. He drove home, arrived well before the high school bus, and told my parents, brother and cousins. We happened to be having a family dinner at my grandparents’ that night.

When I got there, they had made be a congratulatory sign, and it hung from the front door. My birthday was in a few days, and I remember walking up that sidewalk to see my family and feeling like I had not only done something that I could be proud of, but that they could be proud of too. In one single day, running became one of the most vital parts of my identity. 20 years later, it’s still that.

I’m not as fast as I used to be. Competition hasn’t been important to me in the last few years. I’ve lost two of my ever-loving grandparents, both who were very supportive of my athleticism. But I still try to run every day if I can.

Running, to me, is the heart of my life. I have failed in so many ways in my almost 35 years. I’ve let people down that I care about, I haven’t achieved all my personal or professional goals, and I’m far from being the person I thought I’d be at this point. But I’m also better and kinder in many ways than I ever thought I could be.

Every single day, running invites me to come back and try again. It gives me a fresh start and leaves me assured that I will survive, look forward, and find the right path. I will keep going, keep trying, and get more things right tomorrow than I did today. Two decades later, I am on track, and I’m OK.

This piece is dedicated to my grandparents, Ben and Marion Etling, Renton and Doris Mitchell, and to my parents, Bill and Debra Etling, who have always cheered me on in my races and in life. Thank you, I love you.

Thanks to my boyfriend, Peter Conover, for these photos.

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20140228-R0010172

On giving up the newspaper

The LA Times didn’t show up in the driveway today. I didn’t think much of it at 5:45 a.m., just figured the delivery guy was running late, and it would be there when I got back from my run.

But it wasn’t there. And before I got up the front walk, I realized why: I’d written CANCEL on the last bill in big letters, and sent it back. They’d cut me off from my print junkie ways – because I asked them to. Then I promptly forgot about it, probably because I felt a little guilty.

I felt a little piece of my journalism pedigree get torn off in that moment, like I’d dog-eared a page, put down the book and walked away because I couldn’t figure out the ending.

It feels like that for me with newspapers now, every time I think about it. Since 2006, when my best-ever reporting job spiraled into insanity for reasons better explained over cocktails, I keep anticipating some kind of death star moment for the entire industry.

But it doesn’t go like that, of course. It’s a slow, protracted, infected-with-a-mystery virus kind of death. And the good doctors have given up because they realize the patient is low-income and finding a cure won’t bring much fame their way.

Meanwhile a shiny-faced distant cousin has shown up, whose name is CONTENT. CONTENT, whose name is all caps because he is a demanding and insatiable little rogue, professes good intentions but mainly just wants to be fed. He doesn’t care about craft or wordsmithing or Finding the Story. CONTENT is a brat, but he’s healthy and here to stay. We have to put up with him. So, many of us once journalists have been hired to babysit CONTENT. He’s not our favorite, but we appreciate that his parents are willing to pay for his care. They can afford it – they’re big companies with deep pockets.

I spend nine hours a day with content. It exudes from my pores. But I haven’t called myself a reporter or considered myself journalist since I quit my last newspaper to travel the Western U.S. back in 2009. I figured that one day I would work my way back, be an editor in Santa Fe or cover Santa Barbara County government and courts or write on international track meets and European travel in tandem. I’m qualified for all of those jobs.  None of them seems realistic these days as a long-term career.

I have to be positive and point out that there is amazing writing and reportage being carried out today, and it’s accessible to all of us because of the Internet. The New York Times Magazine and the New Republic, in particular, are producing some of the best stories I’ve ever read on a regular basis. Pacific Standard, right here in my own backyard in Santa Barbara, is finally coming into its own as a sharp thinking person’s magazine. There is great journalism online, and I challenge you to differentiate it from the content that is yanking your shirt tails and demanding your attention every second.

I gave up my newspaper, after always subscribing to a paper since I was 16, for three reasons:

  1. Because I read insatiably on the Internet, and gain a far more vast realm of knowledge than I ever could with one regional publication, honing in on my interests and passions.
  2. I am ready to accept the fact that I may never be able to return to journalism as a profession. It doesn’t feel like a heartbreak anymore to admit that out loud.
  3. The Times puts some of their best stories online before they ever appear in print. So I would find myself rereading articles from the day before, and wondering why I cut down a tree to do that.

There was a time, when I was reporting, when the short walk to get the newspaper off the driveway in the morning was the best moment of the day. I knew that when I grabbed that paper and unfolded it, I’d see a story I had written on the front page. A story that told my neighbors something about their community and the world around them.  A story I cared deeply about, even if it was a small one.

I miss that feeling. I guess I always will.

Once upon a time in Santa Ynez

Once upon a time in Santa Ynez, a beautiful Southern California valley known for its fast horses and perfect pinot noirs, there was raised a little girl who probably should have grown up to be a Luddite.

After all, she was brought up on Little House on the Prairie (the books, not the TV show). Television was expressly verboten in her family, because they lived too far out in the boonies for cable and satellite dishes were prohibitively expensive. Instead, she harvested acorns and played wilderness-themed games with her little brother. They ran around outside, built forts and treehouses, and used their imaginations a lot.

The day her father brought home their first computer, an IBM PC circa 1985, she typed: “Dear Mr. Bill Etling, Thank you for making me a self.” She was trying to thank her dad for building her a wooden bookshelf with cut-out hearts, which hung in her bedroom. The rather adorable typo was officially her first. The shelf still hangs in her bathroom today.

Her elementary school didn’t get computers until she was in fourth grade. Classes would trek to the computer lab to play games – Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego were her favorites. But in fifth grade, thanks to a technology-savvy teacher, she discovered NYCENET.

The New York City Educational Network was an early internet set up to provide educational connectivity between public schools in New York City. An enterprising teacher came up with the idea that expanding student horizons by connecting them with other students across the country would be a tremendous learning opportunity. They set up a 1-800 number, which was supposed to be shared only with the teachers. But the West Coast students had to enter the number into an old-school modem to access their NYC counterparts. Hours of pointless chatting from home computers ensued.

The unusual experience of talking to kids so far away, living such different lives, was an eye-opener. So was the lesson on how 1-800 numbers worked when the access was revoked for running up hundreds of dollars of charges on the New York City School District’s phone bill. So in the sixth grade, she tried a different approach. She set out to get a pen pal in every single state.

Dashing off letters that were mailed to “Any School, Any Sixth Grade, Town, State, Zip Code,” she received hundreds of responses in reply. Not wanting any potential pen pal to be disregarded, she answered every single letter by hand. Some of the pen pals became correspondents for years. She never got every single state crossed off the list, but the local newspaper ran an article about her quest, and it was there that she got the idea that writing articles for a newspaper might just be a good career.

These are the things that I can’t tell you on my resume – but they give you the start of the story of how writing, communicating, sharing information and using technology became part of my life’s work and world view.

With William in Brokaw, Wisconsin, where our grandmother Etling was born in a small paper mill town.

With William in Brokaw, Wisconsin, where our grandmother Etling was born in a small paper mill town.

2013 highlights

2013 was a pretty big year – and a really good one. There were travels, adventures, and many changes. I lost people I loved, but only to other cities, and I was very grateful for that. New friends were made and new races run. There was lots of laughing and really, truly living. I’m pretty proud of myself on that point.

Here are a few of the highlights:

Our trip to Italy. We saw so many amazing places and had many amazing meals. One of the most memorable vacations ever. I’ll never forget running in the Dolomites, cruising in the Vito van to Lake Como, or getting lost in Venice. It was so much fun to share this with the entire family.

And then, almost as soon as we got home, I started dating my sweetheart.

PeteLeahSept2013Pete, thank you for all the great times we had together this year. I enjoyed every adventure so much more because you were along to make it fun. I’m looking forward to many more travels and road trips with you in 2014.

Of course, life isn’t so kind as to always allow you to have everything good at once. I spent most of the year spending time each week with two of my  best friends in the world – Ana and Danielle, who I met in 2012. But great opportunities in other places took them both away from Santa Barbara in Fall of 2013. They are very missed, every single day. Ana says I need to make new friends to replace them. I say you can’t replace the best of the best.

DAL

September was a really big month. We started it off with a quick trip to Hawaii – our first air travel together.

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Then the good times continued with the weddings of two amazing couples – Liz and Boris and Scott and Kelly. It was an honor to be a bridesmaid in Liz and Boris’ wedding – they are two of my dearest friends and I know they are headed for a lifetime of happiness together.

LB

In October we celebrated Pete’s birthday with a trip to Catalina. What a cool place – I’m definitely looking forward to going back there. (And if you haven’t been, I highly recommend it.)

photo(2)

November was another big month. I ran in two half-marathons, traveled to Baltimore for work, and we had a lovely Thanksgiving in Los Angeles with Will and Abigail. Pete’s parents came to visit and it was a pleasure to meet them. In December we put up our first Christmas tree, decorated the house and spent lots of time with our many local friends. Thanks to Ana for driving all the way down for the housewarming. And our best wishes to Matt and Sophie as they head off to a new life in Australia.

I’m very grateful to have met Tim & Andrea, Chris, Michelle, Dylan, Eric, Penny, Brian & Rachel, Larry & Stacey, Tony, Trevor and so many more of Pete’s great friends who have welcomed me into their lives and have become friends to me too this year.

As I write all this down I realize that the reason I’m suffering from post-holiday letdown is clear: so many exciting things happened in 2013! How could next year possibly compare?

So to get my spirits up, here are a few things I’m looking forward to in the year ahead:

Traveling to New Mexico to visit Chris and Danielle; spending time with Ana and Chris (different Chris) in San Francisco, running in the Hood to Coast relay with Christine and the DMSE guys, and hopefully many more adventures that aren’t even on my radar yet.

And finally, I am truly grateful for the things I have, and I realize (as Ana would say) that I am a spoiled capitalist. Many families that I know lost loved ones this year, some in abrupt and unexpectedly horrifying ways. I don’t take anything I have for granted, and that makes all the good times that much sweeter.

Here’s to so many great times and hopefully to many more up ahead.

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