September 30, 2012

Pause, pray, breathe

Most of us have had that feeling. You hover over the key to your car for just a moment, hoping that it will turn over and fire up. Your car is a bit of a beater, and it has become somewhat unreliable. It has failed you often enough that you stop for a moment, and say a silent prayer before turning the key. If only electricity would flow, fuel would fire, compression and expansion would translate into spinning shafts and forward motion. "Not this time, not this time, I have so much to do today", and turn...

Every roar of the engine meant you could make it to work, earn your living, and dream of a more reliable car you didn't have to worry over. Every time the key only produced a faint clicking, you knew your day had gone sideways. My first car was a beater Mustang I drove for twelve years. I carried around a full toolbox in my trunk, along with jumper cables and various vital fluids. My car failed me often enough that I learned how to work on engines. Though they are complicated machines, it comes down to two main systems, fuel and electricity. Whenever the engine failed to fire, I knew where to start looking.

After years of driving a more reliable car, every morning and every evening you hop in your car and think nothing of the myriad of systems that make the internal combustion engine possible work. You get used to everything "just working." Until it doesn't.

After work yesterday, I turned the key and nothing happened. Luckily, Sean had not left so we both went to work on it. Unfortunately, with newer vehicles, there is less recognizable when you pop the hood. There is no carburetor to tweak, no distributor to time, no accessible spark plug wires to clean. Now with fuel injection and chip timed electronics, the basic systems I used to understand are buried out of sight. Since the engine wasn't even turning over, I brought out the jumper cables I still carry around.

The car did not respond, so we monkeyed with wires and crawled underneath to check connections. I don't know what we did, but the truck eventually fired up. I stopped on the way home to let Kristy's dog out. I couldn't exactly leave the car running, but I did park on a hill in case I needed to compression start the engine (the beater car knowledge never fades away entirely). I paused over the key, but this time it fired right up, as it did the next time as well. Relief. Then later that night, when I had gone back to taking a functional car for granted, only silence followed the turn of a key.

After futilely trying to jump start it again, and talking about how I would get home and where I would tow the car, I figured out it was a short in the battery cable. I spent yesterday taking things apart, and when I soaked the copper cables in a baking soda solution, there was a satisfying eruption of bubbles as the corrosion was carried away with the foam. After the repair, I was pretty confident that the engine would fire up, but there was still that pause, that hesitation, the silent prayer that everything would be OK.

These days, I experience that moment of uncertainty in a different way. Every morning when I wake before Sierra, and every time I arrive home and walk noisily past her head with no reaction, I pause. Is it just that she is very tired, nearly deaf, or is this the time she won't wake and fire from slumber. I stop and quietly check that her chest is still rising and falling. She had a bad week recently, and I wondered if what was going on meant more than it appeared. Was this the tipping point that she wouldn't come back from.

She, like the car, recovered, but there is no doubt that both are slowly breaking down. There are fewer days in front of them than behind. I try to do as much as I can to lengthen their days, but at some point it will be out of my hands. Every morning Sierra wakes up with a wagging tail is a blessing. Every health hiccup, mess on the floor, or change in routine is worthwhile to be able to see that ray of light each day.

Though pausing over her is a more regular routine, I am sure I will still be blindsided when the day comes that she fails to fire up. I just keep silently chanting, "Not today, not today."

September 17, 2012

San Diego bucket list

Familiar and trite as it is, the phrase, "Don't know what you got, til it's gone" is still true. I have made that mistake before, and this time I am trying to appreciate what I have before it is too late.

Years ago, six of us did a tourist day in Seattle. Each one of us had lived in the area for at least a decade, yet there were still parts of the city that out-of-towners flocked to, but we had never seen. We all can fall into the trap, knowing that we can see something anytime we want, and since it is always there, we never get around to it. Here we live minutes from beaches people travel hours just to see, but how often do we dip our toes in the surf. Answer - not often enough.

So with a month or two left here in San Diego, I am trying to do some things I have put off. Appreciate this home of two and a half years before I head back north. So I thought I would make a list. Some are things I have intended to do, but put off, while some I have done before, but want to repeat while I have the chance. When I mentioned the list, friends started suggesting things to put on it. Things to do together, and maybe use the list to do things they have put off as well.

My hike up Cowles Mountain at sunrise was one near the top of the list. It was an awesome morning, and I am so glad I finally dragged my butt out of bed and made the hike. Cowles is still on the list, though, because I want to hike it again at sunset with Kristy. Another thing I have wanted to do is ride my bike down the Pacific Coast Highway from Oceanside to San Diego. The deadline/bucket list finally has me out on two wheels after I let my bike languish for too long.

I also want to take a long run with Sean. Overall, we have run seven marathons together, with three in just the last year or so. Though we have toed many start lines together, and chat repeatedly about running at work, we run and train almost entirely on our own. Last year though, we ran a twenty mile training run side by side, and I'd like to do it again. While there is nothing quite like race morning, the more relaxed, social run was a different kind of reward for all this running we do.

Not all the bucket list items are exercise related. I have also been taking advantage of Residents Free Tuesdays at the Balboa museums. As the name implies, San Diego residents get in free to certain museums each Tuesday. The free museums are different each Tuesday, so I have been doing my best to hit them all. Matt and Holly also put wine tasting in Julian on the bucket list, and I would like to complete the tour of the San Diego microbreweries that Sean and I have been working on. The Zoo, Balboa Park, Old Town...I need another sheet of paper.

There are a few things I didn't bother to write down. Things that I have actually been doing, but still want to get in as many times as I can. Things like running along Sunset Cliffs and Mission Bay, or heading over to Dog Beach with breakfast at Tower Two. Unfortunately, Sierra isn't really up for the walk or chaos of Dog Beach anymore, but I will be sure to take her to Fiesta Island where it is a short walk over harder packed sand. She needs to dip her paws in the ocean at least one more time.

Of course one of the most important things to do is spend as much time as possible with friends. I have always made it a priority to travel to see people, but you never know what the future holds. I want to be sure to make the most of it when they are just across town, instead of across state lines.

September 10, 2012

Leaving California with an aching in my heart*

*Apologies to Led Zeppelin 

I moved down to San Diego back in February of 2010. As I mentioned back then, I came down here for several reasons. 2009 was a tough year for me, my toughest really. Several of the pillars on which a life is built crumbled beneath me. I lost my wife, my house and my job. Through the process of loss and counseling, inner walls cracked and fell as well. By the end of the year, I felt shattered into a hundred little pieces, but with the feeling that I could build a more authentic version of my self.

I spent the week after Christmas 2009 down in San Diego with my friends Matt and Holly. They of course were going through their own struggles. Jobs had been lost, and money that was already tight became scarce. With my life a jumble of puzzle pieces, I decided to move down to San Diego. They needed a renter, and I needed a fresh start. I had no clue how it would all work out, but it felt like forces were coming together, and that it was the right turn to make.

I figured I would be down here for six months or maybe a year. Clear my head and open my eyes to new possibilities. I already had some good friends down here, and with time we became even closer. People I sensed were something special, revealed genuine beauty. Friendships grew, and then turned into something more, and I found love here as well. I started considering San Diego long term.

My time in San Diego up til then had always felt like a break from real life, a temporary visa that was due to expire at any time. As San Diego began to feel more like home, I felt more torn than ever. Though my heart was growing again here in San Diego, Washington still felt like my real home. Deep reflection ensued, and I made myself miserable for months.

Although I have made progress on the personal front, professionally and financially I was moving in reverse. I needed to make a new foundation, and for several months I wondered where to begin, and not just in a to-do sense. After some difficult debates and painful conversations, I have decided my best chance to start again is back in Seattle. Once again, I have no clue how things will work out, but it feel like this is the next turn in the road.

As difficult as it was to say goodbye to everyone in Washington when I moved down, it may be that much harder to say it again to California. When I left Washington, the rough plan was to return in about a year, so that buffered the decision. Now I have no clue where the next few years will lead me, and I have no such comforting feeling as I pack up the U-Haul this time around.

As close as I was to Matt and Holly before, they are now family. Sean Hawkins was already a good friend, but now he has become one of the best. Marci and their kids have welcomed me into their Home (capital H). So many like the Kesslers who I met as these great people who gave their time and spirit to the 2008 remodel, turned out to be sainted friends in everyday life as well.

And of course there is Kristy. She is the biggest fallout from this decision. There were other issues, but this mid-life reckoning of mine was the brick wall we ran into. Even though the relationship didn't ultimately work out, she made me believe in love again. I don't know what leaving will mean for either one of us, or where our paths may lead. I only know that there will be a void, that it will be painful, and I may live to regret it.

Sean Hawkins, being the enthusiastic, creative force that he is, started (verbally) writing the sequel to my life story at work the other day.
"Here's a guy who headed south after a painful divorce, only to find love again. He stopped being this morose guy, he wrote a book, and learned to brew beer. He ran in a bunch of races, got faster and faster, and dropped twenty pounds in the process. And he brought shade to hundreds of overheated Californians."
Though I never doubt for a minute how lucky I am, I rarely look at what I have done with such a rosey lens, so it makes me appreciate friends like Sean that much more. I would like to return to Washington the conquering hero, fully cleansed, having left my baggage on the shore to be washed out to sea. But I know that is unrealistic, and I am still a bit of a mess. I don't know what life would have been like if I had not made the leap south, but even though I have plenty left to work on, I know I am a better person than I was a couple of years ago. San Diego, and more importantly all the people, have been a big part of that.

The plan is to move back sometime in early or mid November. Work and U-Haul schedules are a bit up in the air, but I would like to be back home by Thanksgiving. I look forward to spending more time with my parents, my close and extended family, and reconnecting with old friends once again.

There is plenty to look forward to, but so much I will miss. Matt and Holly have been torn between Seattle and San Diego since they moved back ten years ago. Now that I have a deeper connection with the sunny state, I can finally understand what it is like.

September 6, 2012

Rolling true after some repair

I have set a few fall and winter exercise goals, so my bike is finally out of the corner for good. As hard as it has been for me to get back in the habit, the bike seems to be resisting it even more fervently.

Since I haven't been doing that much riding down here, I only have a few regular routes. One of them is a nice ride around Mission Bay then up to La Jolla, and it seemed a perfect way to spend a morning off last week. Before heading out, I wanted to give the bike a once over to clean it up and make sure nothing was out of place. When I tried rolling it outside, the wheels weren't spinning freely, so I just carried it to the bike rack. I assumed it was just a brake out of place, but on closer inspection, one of the spokes on the front wheel had broken off. Apparently the strain of neglect was just too much.

Looking at a bicycle wheel, it is somewhat surprising that these thin strips of metal can not only support the weight of the bike and rider, but can stand up against additional bumps and blows of riding over uneven pavement. Off the wheel, you could bend a spoke rather easily with your hands, but on the wheel they resist bending by being placed under tension, and by relying on the surrounding spokes to share the load. A wheel is so finely tuned that if one spoke fails, the force of the nearby spokes pulls the wheel out of true. Now my wheel had a noticeable bend in it, and was rubbing with every revolution.

It turned out that the spoke was just fine, and it was the rim socket that it screws into that had broken off. I actually have some spare spokes on hand, but had never thought to buy one of the tiny little sockets. So a trip to the shop replaced the morning ride.

Apparently there are only two typical socket sizes, but I had brought along my bum wheel so I didn't have to guess. The tech took it in the back and returned with the tiny little piece that had brought my ride to a halt. When he went to ring it up, a price of $50 appeared on the register. Before I could grab my wheel and make a break for it, he explained that all of the random screws and bolts come up with that price initially. The real price - 10 cents. Well, 11 cents with tax. Finally, a cheap fix.

I went home and replaced the part. I spent some time slowly adding tension to the spoke. A couple of turns of the wrench, then spin the wheel and look for the bend. Wrench turn, wheel spin, repeat. Truing a wheel is a bit of an art form, trying to get all the forces to balance out, but fortunately I knew I only needed to work on one spoke until the wheel was straight once more.

I eventually made it out for a ride that Sunday. The weather was nice, and the scenery beautiful. This is a shot in La Jolla near my turn around point.

Well worth the wait.

I planned a bit longer, less scenic ride yesterday. I need to get more time on the legs, and more importantly on the seat, if I am going to get back in biking shape. When I went over to pull the bike out of the corner, the tire was flat. Same wheel. It is like my bike it trying to give me excuses not to get out.

A flat tire is a much easier fix than a busted spoke, so after a quick tube change I was off. As I was flying down a mile long hill, I was trying to keep pictures of snapping spokes and blown tires out of my mind. The ride was challenging but satisfying, and another great start to the day.

I suppose a bike is a bit like a body - it can break down from lack of use just as quickly as with hard work. I'd rather put it to good use, but it is still a balancing act between the gas and the brake, climbing and coasting. Also, something can look perfect and true, and still be under great tension. Watch out for the snap.

September 3, 2012

Cowles at sunrise

I am not a morning person, but once in a while, it is worth the effort. I returned to Cowles Mountain to watch the sunrise.

Kristy and I hiked Cowles a few months ago. It was the first of several hikes together. Rather than ease into our new weekend warrior habit, she wanted to jump in with both feet, choosing a five-star hike off the Mission Trails map. It turns out there aren't many hikes in the park that aren't worthy of five stars.

Cowles Mountain is the highest point in San Diego County, and the summit offers 360 degree views on a clear day. I thought it would be a beautiful place to see the sun rise or set over the city. The hike is extremely popular, and on the weekends the trail is jammed with people. At 5:00am, however, Matt and I had the parking lot and trail largely to ourselves. There were two older gentlemen getting ready as we pulled in, unpacking walking sticks and doing a bit of stretching. Their gruff, sarcastic and familiar banter made it clear that this wasn't the first time they started the day together with a  pre-dawn hike.

I passed them with a greeting and soon all that was ahead of me was the small circle of light from my headlamp dancing over uneven ground. Kristy and I had made some unintended trail short cuts in full daylight, so I tried to focus on the path, but I still managed to repeat (and add) some extra scrambles over large rocks and tight underbrush.

I paused regularly to look over the lights of the sleeping city, but still managed to arrive at the peak 45 minutes before sunrise. For a moment I wished I had those minutes back toward a full night's sleep, but the feeling didn't last long enough to register to regret. I found a comfortable rock on the east side of the peak and settled into the quiet, almost private moment. As I stared over the valley and at the hilly horizon, my mind emptied and joined the quiet.

It wasn't long before another two hikers reached the summit. They paused to touch the stone marker with the engraved sign before ambling off to the right to find their own quiet vista. Though the sun was still far from making its debut, the monotone horizon gave way to increasing definition. The single jagged line became individual peaks, and roads and trails came forth, as shades of brown and green made their way through the purple. Sounds came more frequently and insistently as the mountain awoke, soon to be joined with more and more hikers.

The earliest arrivals each touched the stone marker like it was some sort of talisman, evidence that they had made it to the top. Some hikers turned around after leaving their fingerprints, heading back down instead of waiting for the approaching solar show. I was content to wait in my rocky, front row seat.

As minutes passed closer to the break of day, the hikers changed from pilgrims to tourists. Reverence turned to chatter and laughter, and hands placed silently on stone became a whirring of cameras and self portraits. I tried to leave my camera in my pocket, and just record the moment in my mind, but the temptation to preserve the scene became too great. The beauty I saw is inadequately stored as pixels on a storage card (I need a better camera), but they are there to reinforce the memory of what I was there to see.

Even as the sun was still below the horizon, its approach was announced in the few low lying clouds, the undersides on fire and the upper peaks haloed in light. The chatter died down for a moment, and even the hovering insects seemed to stop their buzzing. One final hiker made it in just under the wire, touching the stone as the first pinprick of light flashed into our sleepy eyes.


I watched for a few more moments until enough of the sun had crossed into day that I could not look directly at it anymore. I took some more photos, hand outstretched and eyes averted. Turning away to the west, I found more hikers cresting the rise, their forms emerging from a backdrop of cloud cover we had risen above. The low rays of the sun set the bushes alight in fiery red, chasing away the remaining blues for another day.

I plan to return to Cowles again, next time at sunset. I have no doubt it will be just as spectacular to watch the sun drop out to the west as it was to see it join me in the east.