useful bits

On the off chance that anyone who wants *actual* information about what it’s like to sail from Seattle to San Diego stumbles upon this, I thought I’d give writing a useful post a shot.

My gut: Hahahahahahahaha. No way, stupid!

My heart: We’ll see.

#lifegoals.

ANYWAY.

Scheduling. We were out a total of 14 days, 12 of which were at sea, under “power” (please note here I’m using “power” to mean sailing, power sailing, or motoring). I didn’t keep track of that breakout, but I should have. Because I thought I was going to do a lot of things that I wasn’t able to (like write, and also eat), at lot of the details (like journaling) got lost. So, that’s another thing to note, I guess: be prepared for pretty much everything to be the opposite of  Pacific NW cruising. If you’re anything like me, you will spend your hours attempting to stay warm and calm, not writing (read: keeping track of sailing vs. motoring hours), cooking, or doing anything creative or useful. Basically, if we were doing five knots or better, we sailed; if we dropped below that, we motor sailed; and if there wasn’t a lick of wind, we motored. If i had to make a rough guess, I would say we spent the better of part of six days sailing, three motor sailing, and three motoring.

Sailing around the clock. Before we left I thought, sailing at night? Why would you ever? We had never done it, and it seemed like the stuff of crazy people who don’t understand happy hour. But here’s the thing. Math! You can make unbelievable time in a sailboat when you don’t stop. And when you’re used to sailing from whenever you want (when you’re us, is anywhere between 8:00 a.m., and noon) to whenever you want (which, again, for us is between 3:00 and 7:00 p.m.), you gain considerable ground in upping those hours on the water from five-ish to 24. So, we sailed around the clock, and we averaged ~140 nm a day. That is a LOT. Also, it seems kind of weird and scary the first night, but after that, you get used to it, you learn to rely on your instruments, radar, and AIS, and it gets to being even be kind of peaceful and beautiful. When the weather is intense–heavy fog, high waves and swell, and 25-30 knots of wind–it isn’t super peaceful; but when the wind and seas are calm-ish, it’s fine, and you can actually lose time. I saw some pretty moons, and one night, a fire.

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Weather. The Washington and Oregon coast are windy, swelly, bumpy, freezing, wet, and miserable. Pack one billion percent more warm clothes than you think you’ll need. Also, hand warmers. The end.

p.s, if you get seasick, find something better than over-the-counter Dramamine because once you make the turn at Neah Bay, you’ll be sick (I mean the INSTANT you make the turn you’ll want to barf and then die), and taking something that’s going to flatten you doesn’t work when you have a watch to make.

Food. If you’re like me and you love two things in life–eating and cooking–heed this: make food ahead of time that you can heat up in one pot and be done, like chili verde or beef stew. Cans of soup work too, but unless you’re seasick, blech. Boring and tasteless. You will be thankful to dump the contents of a Ziploc into a pot on the stove and be eating something hot 20 minutes later. There will be very little sandwich making or complicated-meal-preparation (although having the bread and the meat and cheese on board are great for grabbing and eating while holding on and trying not to die). Many a meal for us was a handful of nuts or jerky and a cold tortilla, simply because it was too rough to cook (or stand).

Spares. When doing the research for the trip, we read and heard from every possible source that we would most likely be stopping in San Francisco, if not sooner, to make repairs. “Oh, don’t worry about where. You’ll have to stop for parts and repairs at least once, if not more often,” was not an uncommon refrain. While hopeful it wouldn’t happen, we had to be prepared for that, so we just assumed something would break or go wrong. We were very lucky, however, in that EV was a champ. I’m talking CH to the AMP. Literally almost nothing went south. We had a minor hiccup with the auto pilot, which turned out to be a programming problem, so for about a day we switched to the manual, old skool Autohelm. But other than that, seriously, she effing rocked it. Nevertheless, be prepared. Besides the obvious (tools, duct tape, oil, coolant, and zip ties), we carried spare straps for the AutoHelm, an impeller, fuel and gas filters, and sail mending equipment.

Gear. Absolute must-haves are an autopilot and a wind vane. We have a Hydrovane, which I’ve mentioned here before, and it rules the universe. Literally can’t say enough about it. We ran ours (Henriette), almost the entire trip, and she was the winner of everything. You are going to be in rough seas and ideally sailing, so auto-steering without using any power is immeasurably critical. If you don’t have a proper boom brake, get one. They’re worth every penny. Or, if you really don’t want to spend the money, rig your own. There’s no way I would have been calm sitting watch alone in the middle of the night without a boom brake. Get one. If you have a good chart plotter that’s up to date, you’ll be fine. Update your software and ensure you have the correct charts. AIS is a bonus, but I came to love and rely on it more than almost anything else; so your call, but my advice is get it. Radar is a must if you’re going in the Fall, which I assume you are.

Miscellaneous. As scary as the passage might seem at any point, have faith in your boat, your crew, and yourself. But mainly and most importantly, trust your boat. Sail the shit out of it before you leave, test everything ten times, and do all the work yourself. I cannot emphasize enough that knowing your boat will pay untold dividends. When you know every square inch of your boat, every sound, puff of smoke, or idiosyncratic vibration, your mind will be one billion percent more at ease when you’re out at sea. If something goes wrong or weird, one, you will know if it’s actually wrong or weird; and two, if it is, chances are good you’ll know how to fix it. When our Autohelm snapped a belt at 3:00 a.m., in 25 knots and eight-foot seas, Loren fixed it in two minutes. That’s what you want.

Finally, enjoy the moments. I’m not a woo-woo type of person, and even just writing that gave me a little bit of a rash, but I don’t really know the right way to say it, and I don’t have time to try out eleventy variations right now to get just the right combination. I’m not going to say Have fun! Or, Enjoy!, although you probably will. We did. I guess, just know why you’re doing it and be mindful of that. Absorb what you can and/or set out to do. Be open to insights when they present themselves–you’ll learn more about yourself than you might want to or think you need to–and then do something useful with that information. I went into the trip excited and pretty devoid of expectation, and that served me well. I learned a LOT and I grew as a person. But that’s just me, and that might not be where you are or what you want. So, spend some time thinking about those things before you set off, and keep yourself open to everything while you’re out, and no matter what happens, at the bare minimum, you’ll gain a new part of your own story. I think Dinesen was right when he said, “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.” And I say, when you’re lucky enough to be a sailor, you get all three.

we made it

Blogging while at sea is harder than I expected. Last year we cruised the inside passage for a month, and while I’ve never gone back and counted, I probably wrote three to four times a week. This year we sailed from Seattle to San Diego in fourteen days, and I did count. I wrote nine words: blogging while at sea is harder than I expected.

Me, going in: This is going to be great! I can’t wait to write about every ocean swell, every beautiful sunrise, every goddamned gobsmacking moment of life on the Pacific!

Me, on day two: Survive.

We had our first overnight sail on day one, and we did eleven more. It was the coldest I’ve ever been, and the highest number of consecutive days I’ve been that cold. I was wet seven of the twelve days, once due to being hit by a wave, and six due to sailing in endlessly dense fog. I never got more than three hours of sleep in a row. I was sick two of the twelve days (only two thanks to some magical non-FDA-approved seasickness pills a VERY nice couple we met on the water gave me in Coos Bay, where we stayed for two days waiting out bad weather). The swells were anywhere from four to ten feet on average, the waves about the same, but variable; and we saw 30 knots in the highest wind.

We’ve been off the water almost two weeks already, and when someone asks, “How was it?” I still don’t know how to answer.

It was beautiful. I saw magnificent moon and sunrises every day we weren’t fogged in; hundreds of porpoises, four whales, otherworldly seas, and clearer skies and brighter stars than I knew existed. We had calm days that were indescribably gorgeous, and perfect wind that made us feel like we were gliding in the most serene and gentle grandma-rocking-you-sweetly-in-the-rocker lap of the ocean you can imagine.

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It was trying. When waves are going one way and swells the other, and the boat is heading through both in twenty-seven knots, it’s violent. The crashing is loud, and the ride is rough. It’s impossible to sleep because you’re being thrown out of your bunk. You tie yourself in when you need to sleep, cook, or go to the bathroom. You can’t walk from one end of the boat to the other without hanging on. When you’re seasick, you can’t keep your head up. When the wind goes from 15 to 25 knots in a matter of seconds, you have to suit up, clip in, get on the foredeck, and reef the sail quickly. When a swell picks up the entire boat, you can see for miles, and when it lowers you into a trough, you are surrounded by walls of water you can’t see over. I meditated my way through many a cold, windy night, thrashing against the wind and sea, relying only on radar and AIS to know if there were any boats in our path.

It was rewarding and “fun.” These are accurate, but, you know… grains of salt. Awesome is probably the closest, but that word is so overused now (see also, amazing), it’s lost its profundity. I’m happy we did it, and I have a sense of accomplishment that is unparalleled, even weighed against all the adventuring and mountaineering I’ve done in my life. Nothing–not reaching mountain tops or deep, difficult woods, through prevailing storms or near lightning strikes–comes close to the adrenaline rush, test of self-reliance, or sense of pride that sailing on the ocean brings.

I’m grateful. I love my husband even more now than I did the day I married him, and I now have actual proof that we have quite possibly one of the best boats on the planet. She never once put us in harm’s way. And our Hydrovane, Henriette, is the MVP. She steered us through heavy seas and high winds without a whiff of a hitch.

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I’m alive. And I’ve never felt more so.

I’ve been spending the last year wondering if it’s OK that I’m changing. Have changed. That I’ve been so iterative throughout the course of my forty-nine years. V1 was fast and loose. A lot of partying and a little schooling–just enough to stay purposeful (and loan eligible). V2 was responsible. Goals, marriage, career, stability, and all the proving that I can win (also, see also, succeed). I thought that was the final launch.

So when V3 came along recently, I was broadsided, and I’ll cut right to it: No likey. V3 made me feel like a fraud. My flight tendency went into overdrive. ESC. ESC. Shut down this alpha intruder and embrace V2 (the industry standard) STAT! Industry standard is reliable. Industry standard is widely adopted. Industry standard is LOVED. let’s face it, no one hates Windows XP, amiright?

V2 worked ALL THESE YEARS to become the accepted (and lauded) version. V2 needs a small update now and again, but it’s stable. V3–the woman who uproots her life and throws everything away—job, stability, predictability, consistency, income, squirrelling away for the future—NOW (now at forty-nine, not twenty-nine), isn’t me. Specifically, isn’t the crossing-the-finish-line woman who shed the globe-trotting, wander-lusting, bohemian, restless soul in return for a husband, house, corporate job, and deep, healthy, sufficiently watered, thriving, just-enough-room-in-the-pot roots. Cuz you’re supposed to grow out of that shit. Because this is success. This. Is winning. And winning is blue, bitches. Blue. Not red or white. Those don’t count.

So, what happens when you’re working towards the life you think you’re supposed to have (and love the shit out of it when you finally get it) and then you get there, and it’s not the glittery unicorn with great dance steps and perfect teeth you thought would make you feel whole? Sure, a good, secure job with benefits, a nice house and car, and a fanfuckingtastic husband sparkle like a fucking mountain of rainbows on top of an erupting volcano. They’re spectacular. I’m grateful and lucky and try to remind myself of that every day.

But V3’s shine is subtler and more powerful. In V3, winning and success are customized (TO ME! WHAAAT?!). Demanding, sure, the way guidelines test you in a way that rules don’t, but easier to achieve because I’m not casting myself against the near-impossible almost daily, but fighting my through it anyway. This new me yearns to live life at a slower pace, in a warmer place, with the boat and the sea, and the supportive husband, and nothing but possibility. My terms. V3 isn’t stupid or reckless or booze-goggled, it’s just more content to admit that the beach and travel and simplicity are more than enough to define happiness. And V3 doesn’t have to do everything alone. And I’ll tell you, that is the Easter egg, people.

All that stuff they say about a midlife crisis is real. Only it’s not a crisis unless you make it one. What I’m hearing when I listen just right is that more than this is possible. Adventure and happiness are showing up in a path paved of simpler things, and just because I never thought I’d veer from the success = my life the way it’s looked up until now template, doesn’t mean I can’t. And that the outcome might be a better version of success than any I’ve been following by way of example.

I’m not done, but I’m accepting. I’m walking towards this light. And this is more than OK. It’s good. And for the first time, I’m shedding the lonewolfiness that I thought was a badge of honor because there is so much more to be had when my hand’s in someone else’s, and the goal isn’t a grind. V3 is good with red or white. Or none.

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Winch wench

Six months is too long between posts. Here’s an update. I have been eating all of the tacos and drinking all of the wine. That’s pretty much it. Just kidding (sort of). We’ve actually been working on a pile of things, mostly prepping the boat like crazy, so here’s a recap of the goings on.

Yesterday we went down to the mast (oh, yeah, the boat and the mast are now in two different spots. Fun squared! Also money squared times infinity! Yay!) to disconnect and coil up the old standing rigging (cuz new rigging!), install the new foredeck light and VHF antenna, and other things you do when your mast isn’t attached to your boat.

Side note, it’s very weird to see your mast lying horizontally, three feet off the ground. It looks even longer than it does when you’re staring up at it, which is kind of hard to believe cuz when you’re staring up at it–especially when you’re trying to figure out if you’ll fit under a bridge, even though you’ve checked the charts and tides sixty-eight thousand times, and you know you will, but you’re freaked out anyway until you’re on the other side–it looks REALLY long.

And it’s even weirder to see your boat in the water without a mast or rigging. Naked! Unnatural!

Anyway, in two-ish weeks, we’ll have new rigging, and other new things, like radar, a wind instrument (knowing wind speed is kiiiiiind of important), and auto pilot (with a remote control!), and be back on the sound, sailing, and learning how it all works together through the various electronic outputs. No rest for the weary. Also, I love technology. Sometimes. I’ll keep you posted.

OH! We also installed our new wind vane! In case you don’t know what that is, it’s that red vane hanging off the back of the boat behind Loren, and it’s basically an auto pilot that uses wind instead of power to steer the boat. And.It.Rulz, people. Like so many things about sailing (and science and physics and life), I don’t completely understand exactly how it works, but you set your course, balance your sails, lock the wheel, and then go do whatever you want (like sit on the foredeck and drink a beer, as one example), and the boat STEERS ITSELF. It’s smooth, quiet, and elegant, and it makes sailing even more majestic than it already is. We heart our Hydrovane!

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So, along with completing lots of fun, rewarding projects and checklist items, like installing the Hydrovane and securing an awesome captain for our big sail south, we’ve also scaled our fair share of lesser fun mountains, like servicing winches, coiling rigging, and installing new toilets. Funny how the scales always balance.

I’m learning to push through the pain of learning how gears work (read: guess who had the winch assignment not that I’m complaining because Loren is a saint who would never work in the sun on the deck when there is crawling in tiny plumbing spaces to be done), which makes my brain bleed and my soul cry for mercy, cuz Hi, I DON’T THINK in 3D…

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But gaining along the way knowledge that turns into power and insight and experience that calms my anxious, jibbity self.

I don’t think I ever really thought life was fair, but I think I used to think that I could (read: had to) muscle my way to the “right” outcome. Physically or intellectually. That if I just reasoned more reasonably, pleaded more earnestly, wrenched tighter, hammered harder, ran faster, justice would prevail. Sailing–and all the things that come with it–have changed that in me.

Pre-sailing Dawn would never have called it a day after five hours of taking a winch apart, cleaning it, greasing it, and “putting it back together,” only to find one lonely, left out part sitting next to the tools. Pre-sailing Dawn would have worked ten more hours to re-take it all apart, replace the missing part, and re-put it all back together. But who needs all that? Well, actually we do, cuz the winch is kind of skipping, but whatever, I’ll fix it later. Not the point.

The point is, working through things–with a tight and sometimes not tight heart and hand–to find where they lead instead of where I thought they belonged with a capital B, is making me happy. Happy in a way I never saw for my force and grit. I’m not saying force and grit don’t serve me well; they do. And I love them both dearly with all my heart and will never give them up. Maybe it’s just that now they’re finding a new place to rest next to ease and delight.

Cuz going for a beer in the sun after five hours of GREASING gears is awfully damned delightful.

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What it’s worth

Ever since we got back from our trip I’ve been trying to dedicate a lot of energy to keeping my writing rhythm. On the water I hit a cadence and an ease with it that I wanted to harness and sustain. And a good way to do that (besides quitting work and sailing away), at least for me (and what Virginia Woolf and just about every other writer ever born tells us), is to read. Read and write, read and write. That’s how I did it on the boat. One flowed into the other, outside of my awareness. I didn’t think, read; and then, now you shall write. It just happened. Like the waves and the wind and the rocking, swaying, and trimming of the sails. Peak performance was a reaction to action.

Now, though, I’m back. Back to work, back to seeking solace within discipline, back to the nagging passenger in my head on the way to work, reminding me that this is not my beautiful life. And with being back I find the reading part is much easier than the writing part. The read is buttery, salty popcorn, and the write is a hummingbird. I’m also finding that I excel at justifying doing more of the former when I do less of the latter. And I’m really super CRAZY good at then rationalizing that the tilted scale is actually a healthy and productive means to an end. Like a breakfast cookie!

It’s the barter system in downtown DawnTown. No writing today? I’ll read another Medium piece. (I’m actually becoming a better writer without writing!)  Two more unsaved drafts? Another five click-porn “news stories.” (I’m building a room of my own over here, people.) Six thoughts written down on a Post It but zero actual drafts? One more time on Bird by Bird, Chapter One. (I’m Steven Kinging the shit out of this roadmap!) Then I go eat an otter pop or rake the cedar detritus out of the garden.

And then the other day–probably while raking the garden or sitting at my writing table with a pen lid in my mouth, trying to see if I could balance something on my head–I got to thinking about this perfectionist problem and confidence problem, and all the other problems, and about all my  excuses to not do. It’s not a big shocker or anything. No big ah-hahs! here. For these things I know, and have known for a long, long time, but I just don’t ever really think about what to do to break out of them.

It’s sort of like that generic non-answer most people give you when you ask them what they want: to be happy, successful, wealthy, in a good relationship, blah, blah. Meaningless because everyone wants that. But very few of us want it all badly enough to do the work required to get it. When’s the last time you worked a 60-hour week because you were passionate, not forced? Took a real risk, like tossing your life savings at your dream? When’s the last time you said what you really felt to the person you love, even though it was hard and scary and made you feel vulnerable and ripped open?

It’s the same thing with writing: what do I want? To be a good writer? My knee-jerk genero robot response is of course yes, but now I have to ask what it means to be a “good” writer.”  Who’s the judge? Who’s *my* judge? What do I want them to think? What do I care if they think I’m good or not? And what if we have completely different ideas about what’s good? And ultimately, how much am I willing to risk (read: do) in order to get whatever it is that I want back?

This all landed me right back to where I started. And here’s the thing. I’m not just afraid of not being good; I’m afraid of not being good enough. Of being so mediocre (or worse yet, bad) that my writing is embarrassing. Pedestrian and banal and fodder for eye-rolling. Of being a hack who calls herself a writer, who really just writes crap that doesn’t change anyone’s life or make them see things in a new way. Of not writing earth-shatteringly beautiful masterpiece sentences that are so goddamned moving and elegantly crafted that you read them fifty-seven times after the first and then earmark the page and go back to it every time you want to rehydrate your parched soul.

That’s my yardstick, my version of good, and that’s the kind of writer I want to be. But Jesus H, right? The pressure of that is weighting my fingers and killing my drive and eroding any shred of “greatness” that might someday make it’s way from my heart to the page. That bar is becoming the reason I’m not finding the golden crumbs that lead to the perfect-crumb loaf of bread. That’s why I rake instead of write; or when I do get words on the page, end up copping out, ending too soon, holding back, or my favorite: defaulting to funny over the raw, risky, real of my truth.

The other day my husband and I were leaving our house. It was the middle of the day on a Sunday, and we were heading out to get groceries. The street we have to pull out onto off of our quiet little side street is a main one. It’s a cross-town throughway, and there’s only one lane in either direction, with a turning lane in the middle. The two lanes, one west- and the other east-bound, get jammed, and there’s no light, so you have to wait for someone kind enough to stop and let you go halfway, and then do the same in the turning lane–either wait for an opening in the line of cars coming up behind you, or wait again for some kind, patient person to stop and let you in.

As we were waiting for the first opening, we could hear sirens. A lot of them. But we couldn’t tell where they were coming from. We kept looking around, and it seemed like they were getting louder, but we couldn’t orient the direction or whether they were anywhere really near us. At this point, a truck in the long line of cars coming at us westbound, stopped and let us in. We crossed the line of cars and turned eastbound, into the turning lane, which is about midway up a hill, with very little visibility on the other side of the hill. About a millisecond after we got there, we looked up to see the first in a line of unmarked police cars cresting the hill in front of us. They were driving in the turning lane because of the traffic in the normal lanes, and they were coming right at us at about 100 miles an hour. There was nowhere for us to go, and nowhere for them to go. What happened next was a giant, and incredibly fast blur, but I remember sort of bracing myself against my door and the center console, and involuntarily yelling, Holy Fuck.

It all happened so fast, and I wasn’t driving, but someone behind us in the eastbound lane saw what was happening and had the presence of mind and quickness of reflexes enough to pull over, and my husband was able to act similarly as quickly, and get us out of the path of that oncoming caravan of cops. And we lived. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever experienced. The whole thing transpired in probably less than a minute, and within ten we were shopping for groceries.

But the experience has hung around for me. It pops into my head at random times and without provocation. Sirens make my heart race a little quicker than they ever used to. I’m not shell-shocked or house bound, but I haven’t driven out onto that road in that same way since; I take the other route out to the main street, which is two more turns, and a light. Maybe it’s because I’m older, or because it was so recent. Maybe it’s because it was a legitimately life-changing experience.

But having these two things intersect and move apart and cross over again in my brain every once in a while–these two very real things–the fear of failure (and let’s face it, of mediocrity), and the scary reality of facing real imminent death, is giving me some perspective. Not the motivational poster kind, or the post-heart attack kind. The it-doesn’t-matter kind. It doesn’t matter to worry about writing something that isn’t THE POINT of it at all because I don’t know what the point is yet. (And of course it doesn’t matter to put off doing it for fear of mediocrity because I might walk outside and get killed by a cop posse chasing down a carjacker, but that’s the post-heart attack kind of motivation sticking its elbow in my ribs).

The point is I’m by nature a risk-taker. I’ve moved forty times and lived in five states, the riskiest being to a state where I knew no one, had no job, no place to live, a dog, a sleeping bag, and eight hundred dollars. I sail. I ride a motorcycle. I used to rock climb. Now I want to risk my insides. I’ll write partly in order that I might find something worth sharing that might warrant being called great, but wholly to find my own way to whatever that is for me.

Sad muffins

 

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I’ve come to know these things about love: You don’t know what it is until it grabs you by the throat and knocks you to the ground; and you don’t truly believe you’re getting it back until that certain someone loves you in all the ways you are: good, bad, weird, funny, fun, neither, acceptable, unacceptable (to everyone except the one who loves you), good at baking, or not.

Today I made some really sad muffins. They’re not high or fluffy or whatever good muffins are. They’re dense and kind of squatty, and I didn’t do the batter/berries thing right cuz the berries are sticking out of the tops like trees instead of mixed in in all equal proportions and bubbling out in berry goodness. I also attempted a “strudel” topping (I know, I know… Hi, Dawn, it’s me, baking: stop it right now.), which ended up being more just little blobs of goo that careened to their deaths when I pulled the muffins from their little cocoons in the muffin pan, which really strike me as more suitable for something like eggs and cheese, cuz what is better than eggs and cheese? NOTHING.

But I made the sad muffins because of love. Because I met a man who accepts me in all the ways I can’t accept myself, and we got married, and he loves baked goods. Yes, there are a bunch of details in there I left out, but none of your business! Just kidding. But, really, let’s just get to the baking, and better yet, to the things we don’t do because we haven’t been throttled in one way or another by love or any other ass-kicker.

Here’s the truth. I hate doing things I’m not good at. I’m an obsessive perfectionist, and if I can’t be the best or damned near close to it at whatever the thing is, I make up some weird or not weird excuse to not do it. Cuz come on. It’s easier to just hate something violently and pretend it’s stupid than to practice and get better at it, am I right?

Anyway, baking was one of those things. Basketball is another, but let’s face it, I’m no LeBron, so if it ever comes up, you just go, “Who do I look like, LeBron?” End of conversation. Pass those olives. Baking’s harder to escape. It’s real, it’s everywhere, and it keeps coming around. Dinner parties. Work things. Holidays. Delicious treats after meals. There’s only so much putting off you can do before you’re like, OK, get your shit together. Dust off the mixer, find a few staple recipes, and stop with the hand-wringing. So I did. I found some one-pan wonders. They were good. I bought an ice cream maker, and I obsessed over that for a while. And I’m not gonna lie, it’s an easy crack that can land you right outta the park. Ice cream is a goddamned artisan crowd pleaser. But a) making ice cream isn’t baking; it’s freezing; b) it’s super easy but time consuming (i.e., no forgetting about the dessert course til 4:00 when the guests are due at 6:00); and c) I live where it’s cold nine months of the year, so there’s only so much mocha crunch your guests are gonna put up with in mid-January.

But amidst the obstacles, I hung on. I was loud and proud with my hating. I only pulled off a baked good under extreme duress, desperation, or lack of options. I pawned off the dessert part of the menu for every dinner party I could to my friend the fabulous baker, and pulled out the almond cake or fennel ice cream only when I had to. I wore my “I’m a cook, not a baker” badge with excellence and ferocity.

But then it happened. Cupid nailed me right in the ticker, and delivered unto me a tool belt-wearing, baked-goods-loving, all around great guy who deserves everything I’ve got. And just cuz, well, the universe, also… gluten free. Dear Dawn: welcome to Hell. Sincerely yours, the rest of your trying-to-bake life.

At first, before I hated baking cuz I hadn’t really tried it, I was all like, yeah, I can bake. How hard is it to make some chocolate chip cookies? Not hard. Is a chocolate cake rocket science? No, bitches, it’s like flour, sugar, eggs, and water. As a matter of fact, baking is like the menu at the Mexican restaurant. Every single thing contains the same four ingredients in different formats. Plus, I can cook. I can cook the shit out of whatever you wanna eat, so how hard can it be to transfer those skills?! Yeah, I can bake. Let’s have a bake off right now. [/glimpse into my pathology]

Fast forward to trying to bake stuff, and hahahahaha! WRONG. Baking recipes are written in code. “Don’t over mix!” “Don’t over bake.” “Cook until done.” Huh? Baking has rules you don’t and can’t know and that aren’t part of the instructions because baking is science. Not the cool fun kind of science where you shake your head and go, Yeah, the multiverse. Crazy, right?! Or, Wow, if you pour this in there, and then put it over a flame, it erupts like a volcano. Cool! I’m gonna go eat a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos now and watch a rerun of The Jeffersons.

No. This is the kind of science where if you use the same bowl to make the meringue that you used to make the lemon filling, and you don’t wash the bowl in between (cuz why would you when it’s all going into the same PIE), the meringue doesn’t work because there’s some sort of chemical in the lemon goo that makes the meringue not do that puffy thing that makes meringue meringue. That kind of science. Fucking stupid science that makes you hate your life and feel like a failure and costs twenty-four dollars for the bakery lemon meringue pie for the fourth of July BBQ party.

So, I’ve been plugging away at baking for about a year now. I’ve got a few solid, go-to recipe books, about sixty-seven thousand bookmarked pages, and I’d say more than a few staples that are pretty damn good. I’ve even mastered a few different loaves of gluten free bread that actually taste like bread. Exhibit a = win.

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I’ve learned some of what I can and a lot of what I can’t do because I’ve tried and failed. Yes. Failed. I know when I can break the rules, and when I can’t, but I don’t yet move around the kitchen when I’m baking in the same way I do when I’m cooking. I’m not as flowy, my rhythm is choppy, and my heart pounds more than sings.

But I like it. I like the simultaneous letting go while clinging tightly. I like the learning and growing part, and I like how it’s nudging me ever so closer to learning to accept the failures part. I like all the yeasty bread and cinnamony sugar smells. This year I gave some of what I baked as holiday presents, and the gift of that giving was all mine and one of the most rewarding I’ve ever gotten.

I’m opening up my kitchen to this new world of baking in the same way I’m learning to open up my heart and accept this love that keeps holding on to me and reminding me that failing is OK. Perfection is not a requirement. Practicing is living. And hands down what I like the most is when the first thing my husband says in the morning is, “Oooooh, yay, there’s muffins!” Even when they’re sad.

Tender Parmesan

My first memories of the power and pull of cooking were born in my grandmother’s kitchen.

I’m not sure if it’s partly or wholly genetic, if it seeped into my blood and hands osmosisically, or if it has anything at all to even to do with nature, nurther, or neither. But I remember that kitchen and all of the food that came out of it. I remember big family meals, and smaller, quieter ones on weeknights. On nights I got to sleep over, I remember waking up in the morning to the smell of pancakes sizzling in the pan. On many an evening, I was lifted in my grandma’s arms just high enough so I could stir the sauce, and on summer Saturdays, it was to reach a strawberry from the army of flats waiting to be jammified.

But the significant days–the days whose tiny hands reached out to me and wrapped their fingers around my heart– were Sundays. For most of my childhood, Sundays were spent at my grandparents house “for dinner,” which was an all-day affair. Spoiler alert: we’re Italian.

My mom’s whole extended family moved from New York to Southern California when she was a teenager, so while born and raised just outside of L.A., I grew up in a sort of sunny version of Little Italy. My grandfather was a meticulous gardener, and I don’t know the history of how they landed their great little house, but it was small on dwelling and huge on yard. The lot was enormous, and it was filled with fruit trees. In the summer, when the trees were heavy with apricots, peaches, and plums, all the cousins climbed up inside them, and for hours and hours, we picked fruit.

Those fruit-picking days were great, and you could almost always find a game of croquet or Yahtzee happening; but for me, all the action was in the kitchen. Like I said, the house was small, and thinking back to those days, I can’t believe the meals my grandmother produced from that tiny space. The kitchen wasn’t a galley exactly, but there wasn’t room for more than one person at the stove, and the refrigerator was in its own little alcove, through a little doorway, on the way  to the backdoor. There was room for one to move between the sink and the stove, and across the room, in another little alcove, there was a small round table covered in a lace tablecloth, which was my grandfather’s grating station. There was no room to stand and loiter, and my grandparents, while incredibly warm and kind, were pretty much all business. And food was no exception. Cooking and eating were a serious endeavor. There was no hanging around in the kitchen shooting the shit, and I don’t remember anyone ever in there “helping.” My grandma was some kind of lone wolf cooking machine, now that I think about it.

But while there was no standing room, there was  a small stool–one of those old fashioned kinds with the slide out step underneath–right next to the stove, filling up exactly the eighteen-ish inches there was between the stove and the doorway. That was my favorite spot in the house. And if I was quiet and behaved like a little lady as opposed to an ill-behaved wild animal, I got to sit there. Mostly I watched, but I think my grandma knew how much I loved being in there, because whenever she could, she gave me little jobs. Sometimes that meant occupying the grating station to chop carrots or put olives in a bowl, and sometimes–more often than not–it entailed watching the sauce, and, when needed, giving it a little stir. When I got old enough, I was the designated pasta taster, testing for doneness, and as I grew through the years in that kitchen, the one constant was being invited into my grandpa’s lap to help with the cheese grating.

My grandparents didn’t have a lot of money, and I have no idea if they ever splurged on a single thing in their whole lives. But one thing they didn’t scrimp on was parmesan. It was perfect in every way. Just the right amount of dryness, nutty, light as fresh fallen snow when grated, with just the faintest sheen of oil on the outside of the block. My grandfather used a box grater with a plate underneath, and when he was usually about halfway done, he’d invite me off of my perch to come help him. What it really was was an excuse to let me eat the chunky bits that fell off the grater, but those afternoons grating cheese with my grandfather are the closest I’ve ever gotten to cognizant transcendence and pure joy. No matter what was going in my little child heart and head, all my pain went away in those moments. With every grate, the cheese fell to shards on the plate, and in return, I was made whole.

I’m old(er) now, and my grandparents are long since gone. I’m not sure how or when it started, but over and through the years I have built and found my heart beating right in the center of my own kitchen. Food equaled love for me long before I was old or smart enough to realize it. It wasn’t obvious or forced upon me, and I was never made to feel it was a debt to be repaid. It was an act of complete selflessness and the essence of pure generosity.

I know now, looking back on all the dinners, that while words have come up lacking more often than not, a hot bowl of polenta never has. I’ve said I Love You to many friends with braised short ribs on a rain-soaked night, and I’ve gotten to have my own family in my own kitchen, with a simmering pot of sauce on the stove. My kitchen’s a little but not much bigger than my grandparents’, and unlike theirs, it’s often full of people milling around and shooting the shit with drinks in their hands.

And as I look around my little kitchen space that I got to design just how I wanted it, I see that without even realizing it, I built into it, off to the side at the far end, in a little alcove, my very own grating station.

The root canal

I hate the dentist.

It’s not because I’m a coward or a chicken. I’m strong LIKE a girl (that’s right, not FOR a girl; I know what’s viral), and I can withstand a high level of pain. I’m no pussy. But when it comes to the dentist, I am basically a big fat baby. Everything the dentist does hurts. Spraying “air” on my teeth? I’d rather break a bone. “Tapping” with that pointy picky instrument of destruction at my gums? Torture. That new shooting water thing they use to clean your teeth that is like a high-powered stream of liquid nitrogen? Excruciating.

My teeth are sensitive to air, liquid, hot, cold, temperate; chewing anything crunchy, soft, hard, or medium; and to any level of touching. Breathing with my mouth open hurts (thankfully). Aside from causing my heart to race and sweat to drain from every pore of my body at the speed of breaking the sound barrier, novocaine does little except dull the pain for about six and a half seconds. There are spots in my mouth that, when touched, make me feel like I’m being electrocuted. I’ve asked every dentist I’ve ever had to replace my teeth with titanium studs, and I’m not joking. Sadly, none have agreed.

The unfortunate part of all of this is that I have shit teeth. I’m pretty sure every tooth in my head was filled by the time I could spell, and to date I’ve had two root canals and just about every molar is crowned. I’ve had each quadrant (dentist speak, yo) redone, which means old fillings excavated and new ones put in, at least four times. You’d think I’ve paid my dues. And yet, those little bastard remnants rot and die. I also grew up with a sadistic dentist who literally tortured me (so: MEMORIES. TRAUMA.), but that’s a whole nuther motha, people. Not happening today.

Anyway, a couple of months ago I started having the kind of pain you get in a tooth where you know  you are being sent a signal from some deep primitive place in your cells that you don’t want to hear from. The pain critter that is like a physical manifestation of morse code for “something bad is on the horizon.” It starts out worse than the normal everyday live-with-it pain, and it builds. First it hurts more than usual when cold things hit it, and then it bleeds into warm and hot things, and then throbbing happens. And then, you can’t sleep.

When I get this type of tooth pain I go into a state of denial that I should like to bottle and sell. I can deny the shit out this tooth pain and convince myself that this pain isn’t really that bad. And, it’s probably going to GO AWAY. Hahahahahahahaha!!!!

Over the course of the next ten days I proceeded to behave like a normal person. I ingested all the pain pills I had in the house from every surgery I’d ever incurred, and somehow managed to not die. Next, I  broke down and went to see the dentist, who prescribed a course of antibiotics, which I made my way through with the help of my friend Mr. Makers. Moaning and more sleepless nights happened, but no pain cessation. Finally, I called the endodontist.

By the time I arrived at the office of the endodontist, I was a little worked. I was in so much pain at this point that my brain was bubbling. I didn’t look very, um, fresh, let’s just say. And also, I was already sweating cuz dentistry was about to happen. The very nice dental assistant sweetly ignored my visage, showed me in, the doctor came in and examined me, and we all agreed that the best course of action was to go ahead and do the root canal that second.

I crazily turned to the nice lady and said, “YOU HAVE TO GAS ME!” She looked at me like I was some kind of wild animal. “Nitrous,” I managed. I think clarifying that I wasn’t asking her to kill me calmed her down, and she helped me understand that yes, they had the nitrous, and that yes, she would give it to me. The doctor then proceeded with the things: sunglasses, iPod+ headphones, tilting me back in the chair, and shooting me up.

As soon as the novocaine hit my bloodstream, I basically turned into this:

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Dentist: Whoa there, how are you doing?

Me: I’m really hot.

Dentist: I can see that. How bout we clear out of here for a little bit and let you get some air while that novocaine does its job?

With that, he turned tail. The nurse set up THE TRAY, hooked me up to the nitrous, and she was right behind him.

Me: loooong yoga breaths. Cold but hot too. Sweating, sweating, sweating.

And then one of the nitrous delivery tubes sprang from it’s connector location and started flying around the room. I panicked and tried to grab it but it was like a chicken wing springing free. I hit the tray with the instruments, and sent them flying. Then the other nitrous tube flew out. Room filling up with nitrous, dentist tray with all those instruments all lined up in rows crashing to the floor. Loud and quiet and fast and slow. And now very, very, very sweaty.

The nice nurse ran in to address the commotion, and said only, “Oh my,” and then shut the door. “You don’t want us on the nitrous too, do you?! Though, that might be fun!” Then she went to work like a squirrel in the fourth dimension. Nitrous off; tubes reconnected; then back on; instruments off floor and whisked into some re-clean-later chamber; new tray out, replete with proper rows. Door open.

An hour later I was on my way and completely out of pain. I vowed to thank them by choosing a new endodontist next time. Cuz I know there’ll be a next time. Because at the end of the day I know that this root canal is how it’s going to be; how its always been. The pain comes in waves, small at first, and then big enough to knock you over and drag you out to sea. And if you’re lucky and strong enough, and most importantly, interested enough, you fight your way back to the shore. Maybe you even pause a few times along the way, rest in the sea’s arms, lie back, look up, take note of how weird and hard it is to be human and alive. Then, when you’re ready, gathering up the strength you can and swimming back.