‘Shoulda stayed home’; Inner Skeptic Is Left Behind

Every time I travel, especially if it’s a long trip, I hit a point where I’m overwhelmed. Maybe it’s the planning; reading guidebooks so jammed full of places to go and things to see that I just don’t know how I’ll chose what to do with my limited time. Maybe it’s leaving love ones behind; will they all be OK until I get back? Maybe it’s just in my blood. I had a great-grandmother who didn’t leave the farm for months at a time.

Whatever the reason, I always have a moment when I say the words, “I don’t want to go.”

This time it happened when my companion was leaving to run a few last minute errands. I was in our bedroom, staring at the pile of clothes heaped on the bed and I said, “There’s no way these are all going into my one suitcase, is there?” He looked at the stack and said, “Nope. I’ll be right back.” My reply? “I don’t want to go.” He grinned, gave me a kiss in passing and replied, “Yeah, you do.” You’re wrong, I thought. At that particular moment I really did want to forget the whole thing, order some cheap Asian food, and watch an old movie with my little dog on my lap.

But I also knew this trip was a hell of an opportunity. Three weeks in Europe. Who in their right mind turns down a chance to see France, Switzerland and Italy? Yes, I was overwhelmed, but ditch the whole plan? That would be worse than crazy. It would be crassly ungrateful. So I pushed my old lady, homebody instincts down, jamming them between my desires to see Michelangelo’s David and sample real Italian gelato. A few hours later I got on a plane.

“Shoulda stayed home.” The thought mocked me as we sat on the tarmac for an hour.“Shoulda stayed home,” it giggled as I picked at a freakishly bad airline meal. “Shoulda stayed home,” it murmured through my headset as I pulled an inadequate blanket around me, shivering from the cold air seeping in the bulkhead wall. Shoulda stayed home. I’ve heard  it every damn trip I’ve ever taken, even when I was a little girl just going to my grandparents house to stay the night. I was more than just physically tired. I was sick of my own whining inner thoughts.

Sunrise over the port wing of a Boeing 777

The Atlantic was behind us when I finally gave up on sleeping. Stiff and bleary eyed, I stretched and turned to the tiny portal over the wing to look out at the black night. There, just over the hump of giant jet engine, was the sunrise.

And suddenly I was jolted, not by resistance, but by excitement. For weeks, when I spoke with people about this trip, I’d say, “I’m very excited,” knowing I should be. But the little skeptic in me kept me oddly detached, holding onto the notion that perhaps I wouldn’t actually go. But finally, happily, as we rushed toward that thin stripe of pink breaking night sky, my heart began to hammer. I was going to see things I’ve only read about. I was going to wander unfamiliar cities, taste flavors I’ve never eaten before and drink things out of strange bottles with exotic names.
With that line of pink I finally let go, and home fell away.
It turns out my companion was right after all. I always really do want to go. Sometimes it just takes leaving to make me realize it.

Viva Las Vegas

Our gift basket

I’ve never been much for Las Vegas. For an introvert like me, it’s all just too much. Too many people, too many of them drunk. Too many lights, too many fountains, and way too much ding, ding, ding from the slot machines. As I write this, I can look through the airport windows at the odd sight of the Luxor‘s pyramid and Sphinx. Just a block down from there are replicas of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. Crazy. The only word for it is crazy.

So I should have seen it coming when my middle son, Joe Buttry, decided to come live here. He and his wife, Kim Bagby, are both professionals in theatrical production. That means they do things like coordinate loading shows in and out of venues, hang, set and operate lights, and, well, many more things that I don’t really understand. Las Vegas is a gold mine of work for people in their profession. As Joe always likes to remind me, there are lots of people living normal lives, even in Sin City.

We’ve visited here before, and our time with the kids is always good. Like Joe says, we do normal things. We catch up with each other, play with Leeroy and Harry, the couple’s Yorkshire terriers, and, of course, because I am who I am, we cook up a storm. Sometimes it startles me at night, when I glance out the window on their stairway landing, to see the bright halo of light radiating from The Strip, having forgotten the manic, adult playground just a few miles away.

This past week my companion was here for a work event, right at Mandalay Bay, where our son has also been employed for the last few years. If you’ve never been there, Mandalay Bay is an enormous complex, including a hotel, casino, retail stores, restaurants, a convention center and an arena. For this visit, we spent most of the week at Joe and Kim’s home. But Friday was our 38th wedding anniversary, and Joe very thoughtfully arranged for us to have a penthouse suite at the Mandalay hotel. Kim also arranged complimentary tickets for the Cirque du Soleil show, O, at the Bellagio that night. Continue reading

A visit to Switzerland, a simpler place and pace

Lena and Johnny greet Grandma and Papa J

This is a guest post by Jim Head, a/k/a “Papa J,” our brother-in-law. At our invitation, he and his wife, Mary, are sharing a “2 Roads Diverged” view of their recent trip:

Just three weeks ago, my wife Mary and I were anticipating a long-awaited trip to Switzerland where we would visit our oldest daughter Kate, her husband Mark and two young children, Lena and Johnny.

It was unlike me to be packed three days before our date of departure, which suggests how ready I was to see this family and to slip away from the work-a-day in Des Moines where we live.

Years ago, Mary and I had always hoped we would travel overseas – we had our passports ready – but it wasn’t until Kate and her family moved there in 2010 that we had the incentive to make that happen.  This trip would be our third since their assignment began and possibly the last to this location before they return to the U.S.  It’s unlikely we will ever visit Switzerland again, so this visit had a slight melancholy feel about it. Continue reading

Our daughters teach us to give and show us the world

Jim, Kate and Mary in Switzerland

This is a guest post by Mary Head, Mimi’s sister. At our invitation, she and her husband, Jim, are sharing a “2 Roads Diverged” view of their recent trip:

Having children … the overwhelming role of parenthood. I must attempt to teach them everything I know, remembering example means so much more than words. Will I live the life of example? Will I be the person who reaches out to others and not the taker? Will I show them enough of myself and enough of the world to open their minds and broaden their horizons?

Oh, the irony of a mother’s worries. I am on a long flight home from Europe – returning from a two-week visit with our daughter and her family – reflecting, laughing and crying. My children are no longer children. Did I teach them all I knew? Not as much as they’ve taught me. Have I been the model of the giver? Not the givers they have been. Have I shown them enough of the world? Not compared to the world they have shown me. Have I broadened their horizons and opened their minds?  Not compared to the horizons they have opened to me. Continue reading

The Heartbeat of the Pacific

Monterey BeachI’m hugely distracted this morning.

Our hotel in Monterey is an older one. There’s nothing fancy about it. The room is clean and small, but comfortable in a way that covers all your needs as long as you keep them simple. I am thrilled to be staying here. Because it’s old, it was built before California outlawed building right on the beach. It’s a windy morning, and the waves are high. It looks like they’re rolling in directly under my room, along with the talented surfer or two.

I fell asleep last night listening to the rumble of the ocean, so loud and rhythmic it seemed to be an extra heartbeat in the room. When I woke up this morning, it was still there, making me smile before I even opened my eyes.

This morning, my companion is off for a visit at the Monterey Herald newsroom. Royal Calkins, the editor, kindly gave him a ride so that I could have the rental car to drive downtown to visit the aquarium or scoot down the coast to Carmel. But I just can’t tear myself away from my little room. I’ve been given a late checkout. I’ve promised myself I’ll work at the table in front of the window, enjoying the sight of the Pacific waves and the squeals of children running down the beach. I’ve left the door ajar, just enough to let the salt breeze in, while keeping the seagulls out. That should be enough, right? I should be able to crank out the many words in this luscious, deep blue setting.

But the lure is just too much. A dozen times now I’ve left my chair to go stand on the deck to just watch and listen. I’ve tried so many times to shoot pictures and videos, but each time I’m disappointed with the result. My little iPhone is inadaquate and my timing is bad. The waves are never as big as the one that rolled in just before my finger hit the shutter. The surfer I’ve watched ride wave after wave falls before he gets to the beach when my lens is on him. Even if I was a better photographer, it’s a fools errand. There’s no capturing this. However much I want to take it with me when I go, the ocean is not a domesticated thing. It won’t be taken to a little landlocked condo 3,000 miles away, no matter how many times I click away.

So the writing isn’t getting done. I have a project to work on for one son, some words to get down before I speak at my goddaughter’s wedding. There are blog posts to write and a manuscript to proof, The characters in my new novel are nagging for attention. It all sits neglected on a laptop that has gone to sleep.

The lure of the Pacific is just too strong. Early this afternoon, my companion will return and we’ll head inland, out of its sight and out of its sound. So right now I have to have it while I can.

Everything else has to wait.

Worth The Trouble

My companion and the giant.

This trip to California has been a bit of a forced march. My companion has jammed 11 newsroom visits into 10 days. Except for the last two nights, we will won’t be in the same hotel twice. Before we return to San Francisco and our flight East, our rental car will have covered roughly 1,500 miles. It has been a marathon of check ins and check outs, while trying (with varying degrees of success) to keep track of our belongings.

We are both hardy travelers, but by the time we hit the weekend, I was ready to ease up a bit. I was tempted to suggest we take just one day to make the drive a short one and veg out by some pool. Better yet, maybe we could find a nice winery in which to pass a Saturday afternoon.

But those of you who know my companion, know he can be single-minded. He’d never seen the giant redwoods and I knew he wouldn’t give them up without a fight. Besides, I’d never seen them either. If we got up early enough on Saturday, we could get to Redwood National Park and spend some time before starting the 400+ mile drive down the coast to our next stop. When I climbed into the car, it was more with an attitude of resignation than anticipation. The phrase “good solider,” came to mind. Let’s take in those big-assed trees and be on our way!

But when my companion is right, he certainly is right. I had no idea of the treasure I’d find in that forest. It is acres upon acres of stunning life, so rich and full and strong it takes your breath away. Looking up at the tree tops gives you the dizzy feeling you are falling through space. Circle around the massive trunks, and you are overwhelmed with their grandeur. The whole forest seems to sigh with natural sound from the flittering birds to the gentle sweep of a breeze that can be heard, but cannot reach you. Elk, bears and even some mountain lions make the park their home, and although we didn’t see any that morning, there is no doubt they are there. Their life cycles, as ours, are borne witness to by those stately, giant sentinels, Those trees have seen hundreds of years of life pass beneath them, and they will live to see hundreds more.

Even with life vibrating all around us, there was a remarkable peacefulness in the redwoods. It’s like they were created to refresh the spirit. No matter how weary, when you stand among the giants time stops and everything that weighs you down is dwarfed to insignificance. You will be renewed. It is a place where you will rediscover your cornerstones and reconnect to your deepest feelings. It’s a place where your companion of so many years takes your face between his hands and whispers, “I want you with me, always.” And when he kisses you, it’s like it was the first time.

What a fool I’d been, to think it was too much trouble to add the giant redwoods to our trip. And how privileged I was to see them. They are a gift, a special moment, a true treasure that fills your heart and makes it easier to keep moving when it’s time to get back on the road.

New York, New York

For this trip, my companion and I decided to take the Amtrak’s Acela from Washington, D.C. up to New York City. True, we do live only minutes away from the giant Dulles airport, and it’s also true that the air shuttle isn’t terribly more expensive than train tickets. And fighting weekday traffic into the city’s Union Station was a hassle. But once on board, it seemed like a pure pleasure compared to the hurly-burly of airport screening. No stripping down for the metal detectors, no loading/unloading all our electronic devices. On top of that, the seats are roomier and there’s no limit to what you can carry on.

So the trip up was great. The trip back … well, I’ll get to that later. Continue reading

6/3/12 The Haunting Fields Antietam

My grandmother told me once that when she learned about the Civil War in school, the teacher told her that the blood and the horror suffered was God’s punishment because the Founding Fathers allowed slavery to continue when the United States was formed. But I don’t think we can pin the wickedness of slavery and its horrific end on God. The blame rests squarely on humanity, and our infinite ability to be inhuman.

I’d been to Antietam once before. When we arrived at the visitors center, I was aware of a vague, uneasy feeling when we paid our admission and rented a tour CD to play in the car as we drove around to each battle stop. Going down the road, the feeling blossomed to a near panic with ringing ears and sweaty palms. By the time we reached Bloody Lane, I couldn’t get out of the car. Babbling, I tried to explain to my companion what was going on, repeatedly asking, “Don’t you feel that? Don’t you feel some kind of weird vibration?”

No, he didn’t feel it. He was concerned. He was sympathetic. He obviously thought I was crazy.

I’ve wondered ever since if my reaction (or over-reaction, if you prefer) was merely the power of suggestion. I knew Antietam was the single most bloody day of the Civil War. I’d seen the pictures of men’s bodies, piled up like cords of wood. And I knew the claims that ghosts walk there by night. So, when we ended up touring at Gettysburg this weekend, it was my idea that we return to Antietam. I was curious to see if it would happen again.

Gettysburg and Antietam are very different. The battlefields around Gettysburg are not far from the town. The nearby highways are busy. There are more people, more noise. There was only one, brief moment when I could feel a vague rumble of vibration reaching out from the past. (See my post on Gettysburg.)

By contrast, Antietam is quiet – so very quiet. At several of the stops, my companion and I were quite alone. Just me and him, and yes, that strange, deep vibration that raised the hair on the back of my neck and he still couldn’t feel.

There was no panic this time. I expected that I would feel odd while we were there, and this time I was able to get out of the car, read the signs at every stop, and try to understand what happened over those broad, rolling acres. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm, with a strong breeze and bright blue sky. But I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t uncomfortable.

I’m not claiming that I saw any ghosts. All I saw was beautiful countryside. But I do wonder if the energy of that hideous struggle, if the thick aura of violence, still hasn’t quite dissipated after all these years. The valor, the waste, the dauntless courage and the craven depravity – surely they must have left their mark. When I stood down in Bloody Lane, looking up the ravine, knowing the Union soldiers assaulted it over and over, and how desperately the Confederate soldiers held their ground, the vibration seemed nearly to hum with the lingering power of the fight. My ears strained, I was so certain I could catch the sound of it. But no, it was perfectly quiet. There wasn’t even any sound from the birds.

Lee’s army finally withdrew from Antietam Creek, a technical victory for the North, although they actually fought to a draw that day. I tend to think those mighty generals knew that death was the only winner on those bloody fields. It rained down on them, indiscriminate of the colors of their faces or their uniforms. Each one of those men had a life. They had babies to make, or families to raise, parents to see to, or grandchildren to hold. Instead they fell down and died, painfully and horribly and by the thousands. Thousands. The word seemed to echo up the lane.

I found myself thinking of a popular song by Kevin Costner and Modern West called The Angels Came Down. In it, when Costner sings that the angels carry the soldiers’ souls away, one line is: “They left no one and they placed no blame.”

The souls of the men who died there are mercifully gone. God made those rolling hills. It was the hatefulness of man that profaned them. That’s the tragedy that throbs through that beautiful countryside. And that’s what haunts me.


Saturday, 6/2/12 in Gettysburg

My companion was in involved with the Pennsylvania Press Conference until mid-afternoon. But after a rainy night, the morning was crisp, clear and too perfect to sit around the hotel waiting for him to join me.

I got to the downtown square with plenty of time to explore the Farmer’s Market after a nice breakfast a the Ragged Edge Coffee shop. It’s always fun to check out the booths, but since we were traveling I didn’t pick up any of the luscious-looking strawberries or crisp, bright greens, tempting though they were. I also enjoyed walking around the downtown streets.

There is something of a tourist-trap element in Gettysburg. There are lots of t-shirt shops and it’s true that you could eat your weight in ice cream and fudge. But the history is still there. Pick any random street and walk down it. You’ll find plaques in front of the buildings that stood at the time of the battle, and sometimes a story to go along with it. I stopped in at the a shop called the Union Drummer Boy, where you can buy any number of Civil War artifacts, from mini balls to muskets, something that seems to me both a little sad, and a little ghoulish. It gave me pause, looking at tree trunks embedded with cannon balls, and chunks of wood peppered with lead shot, at the courage or foolishness of the men who rushed head-long into them.

Before I left downtown, I toured the David Wills House, where President Lincoln spent the night before, and put the final touches to, his Gettysburg address. As a writer, I was amused by one of the videos, which told that Lincoln’s words received mixed reviews. One newspaper declared it, “vulgar jargon,” another twisted Lincoln words, saying we did not need a “new birth of freedom, but a new president.” But one scribe got it right, declaring it a “brief but immortal speech.” (The video didn’t credit which newspapers gave those opinions.) As a kid, I memorized the Gettysburg Address, and the words came back to me as they were recited on the video. It is a masterful piece of writing, and it never fails to move me.

That afternoon I joined my companion along with a group from the conference for a tour of the battlefield. Our guide, Richard Goedkoop, was friendly and superbly knowledgable, and he wove in newspaper accounts of the fight as we made our way from site to site.

Military stragedy is lost on me. I don’t even play chess well, let alone grasp the fine points topography advantage and artillery power. But even I could see the strategic advantage of Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top. When we reached the end of the tour, and story of the Pickett’s Charge, we looked across the open field from the Union side, toward the Viriginia Monument. That’s where the Confederate troops massed, where they launched their last attempt to break the Union forces. Richard read newspaper war correspondents’ accounts of that third day of battle.

Gettysburg is a busy place. There are lots of tourists. We heard some laughter, people calling to each other, yelling kids, a barking dog or two, and even a repeating honking horn from someone’s mistaken thumb on the panic button of a car remote. But when Richard stopped reading, it suddenly became very quiet. Looking across that open, sunny field, it seem to me a faint vibration rose, a lingering energy of violence and horror. So many men died there. It was the battle that broke the back of the Confederacy.

What drives soldiers in moments like that to pick up their weapons and rush head-long into the cannon’s mouth? Patriotisim to their country? Loyalty to their commrades? Did any of them wonder how they got there? Were any of them apalled at the volume of death and destruction? Did they know, as they fought so ruthlessly, that the tragedy they were creating would hang like wisps in the air to this very day?

It’s a train of thought that haunted me into the next day, when my companion and I decided to visit Antitam as well.


With the battlefield behind him, guide Richard Goedkoop reads press accounts of Pickett's Charge.

The Eisenhower farm: a window to Ike’s and Mamie’s personalities

This weekend brings us to Gettysburg, PA. My companion is speaking to the Pennsylvania Press Conference tomorrow.

We got an early start, dropping Duffy de Dog at his dog resort in the morning so we could make it to Gettysburg in time for a tour of the Eisenhower Farm with the group in the afternoon.

The day was muggy and overcast, a good indicator of the storms that are rolling through a huge swath of the East tonight. But riding down the road next to my companion is one of my very favorite things to do, even if the beautiful green, rolling hills were not set off at their best. We had no trouble filling the time. We talked about our kids, the newspaper industry, my writing, the newspaper industry, the twist and turns of my companion’s career and, oh yeah, the newspaper industry. It was just starting to sprinkle when we arrived. Continue reading