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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, 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.
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.
Pete, 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.
September was a really big month. We started it off with a quick trip to Hawaii – our first air travel together.
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.
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.)
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.
I hate Alzheimer’s disease.
I imagine I hate it the way some people hate cancer or auto-immune disorders or rare genetic conditions. I’m sure I hate those things too, but Alzheimer’s keeps showing up and reminding me of its power to reduce, dislodge and set adrift. In a time of life when people should be enjoying their memories, taking stock of time passed and things accomplished, this disease takes all of that away. It confuses, upsets, deconstructs. And it wreaks further havoc on the afflicted’s family, as they do their best to cope with the situation while watching the person they love fade away before their very eyes.
The pervasiveness scares me the most. My family is coping for the second time in four years. Almost every friend I have has a grandmother, grandfather or other relative who is affected. All of their families have stepped in to be caregivers to their loved ones for as long as they can. It is stressful, all-consuming, life-altering. It is the only option.
I’ve written articles (many years ago now) about the research being done to understand Alzheimer’s and why it attacks the human brain. Some of this vital research is being done in Santa Barbara, at UCSB. I have confidence that these scientists will figure out a way to cure and treat it effectively, but I wish the science was there already. The medicine available now seems like too little, too late.
That first day that someone you have known your whole life doesn’t know you is awful. You can prepare yourself, and guess that it will probably come soon, but when it happens it still rips out your heart. There isn’t anything anyone can say to make it better. You can’t be angry at them for not knowing you – it isn’t their fault. Their confusion, combined with your shock, becomes that moment when you search for the right identifiers to explain why they are supposed to know you.
“I’m your granddaughter.”
“I’m your daughter.”
“I’m your son.”
It’s so hard to know what you are supposed to say next. If I could redo that moment, I think I’d say: “I love you.”
I feel old.
Going back to a place you lived 23 years ago will do that to you.
Especially if it has changed a lot.
It makes you appreciate the things that haven’t changed that much more. Even if some of them are strange.
At the Hilton Hawaiian Village, the lobby of the apartment building where we lived still has the same furniture. This is weird, considering that it’s been updated to a Hilton Vacations resort and was filled with families, dragging their boogie boards and beach gear with them. This made me happy. It reminded me of when we were almost the only kids living there with a bunch of old people.. and Charo. They didn’t have any of the nice huge flower arrangements in there anymore, either.
The ABC stores, still ubiquitous, were around every corner. The Lagoon Pantry wasn’t nearly as dusty and intriguing as it used to be – maybe tourists actually buy things there? Benihana looked dated and had bad Yelp reviews. No more restaurant in the bottom of Tapa Tower.. and the Golden Dragon in the Rainbow Tower was gone too. Tapa Tower karaoke? Nope. The penguins were still there, but I couldn’t find the flamingos. They’ve moved the luau away from the Super Pool, probably to accommodate more people. And they lock up the conference center, so bored kids can’t do cartwheels across the ballrooms. But there are still fireworks every Friday night, and a man who eats fire. Kaisers was breaking, people were surfing, the beach was packed.
I thought about all the great memories we had there and how lucky we were to have truly unique Hawaii experience. And I got to run for the first time from the HHV all the way down past Diamond Head, stopping to take pictures of the lighthouse. Everything seemed smaller and a little less amazing than I remembered it, and the Kalakaua strip was more like Vegas than Hawaii, with all the high end stores.
Fort DeRussy looked the same. A jogging path now circles the lagoon. The pizza parlor, Lappert’s Ice Cream, and Hilton Hawaiian Village barber Leon of Copenhagen – check, check, check. My 11-year-old self still wanted to argue about pineapples. Dole whips continue to be delicious, the perfect treat on a hot day. We went to Local Motion, but there were no bikinis nearly half as awesome as the hot pink one my mother once bought. Ala Moana is now ginormous, four levels, hard as heck to navigate. I recognized the koi pond where we used to take the escalator, and not much else.
Hanauma Bay was still full of gorgeous fish. Sunset, Banzai, Waimea, as beauteous and packed as ever. And my favorite beach – Makap’u – still wild, with crashing waves and hot hot sand. A random tidal wave siren sounded as we walked around, daring me to notice how much things had changed – but how many others remained the same.
We lived in Penthouse 5 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Apartments from June to December 1989. My father was assigned to the Honolulu office of General Telephone and Electric for a special project – as a civil engineer, he planned the undergrounding of phone lines for the state of Hawaii. As a lifelong surfer, he was thrilled to bring us to Hawaii for what could have been permanent residency. As kids who loved to boogie board and play at the beach, we were thrilled to be there.
Life at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Apartments was a trip. From our balcony we could see a free fireworks show every Friday night, as well as the elaborate preparations for the weekly luau, which included the fire eating performances of Siva Afi – at least, I thought that was his name. Googling it now I realize that is actually the name of the traditional Samoan fire knife dance he was performing. Whatever moniker he really went by, my little brother and I were quite impressed with his fire swallowing skills.
We took long walks down Waikiki, swam laps in the apartment pool every day, shopped at the Ala Moana Mall, and on the weekends would tour different parts of the island. I became obsessed with Dole Whips. I also was thoroughly convinced that pineapples grew underground, like potatoes, because despite passing row upon row of pineapple plants as we drove past the Dole fields coming back from the North Shore, I never saw a single pineapple above ground awaiting harvest.
Thanks to an expense account from my dad’s company, we ate out a lot. This six months of my life is probably why as an adult I’m a bit of a profligate foodie. My brother and I would “rate” each restaurant using a Sanrio sticker book we’d gotten at the Japanese grocery store in the Ala Moana Mall. That place had the best bakery – and amazing apple fritters – that I have ever had.
Little things about living at the Hilton stand out: being Charo’s neighbor, we’d see her in the elevator. She had a permanent show there at the time. There was an elderly man named George in our building who liked to ask my brother and I, every time he saw us, “Do you know why they called it Hawaii 5-0?” We’d always say no. He’d gleefully answer himself: “Because Hawaii was the 50th state!” One day we finally got to ride the paddle boats out into the lagoon in our front yard. We were dismayed to find you couldn’t de-board on the little island in the center. There were a few other kids in our building. We played baseball with them on the lawn next to the lagoon, they’d never played before.
It was a strange place to live, with the constant comings and goings of tourists and a permanent party right outside at the resort, and probably wouldn’t have been right for us long term. But for our temporary paradise vacation, it was an amazing spot to call home. Here we are standing in front of the lagoon – in our front yard!