Twilight over Tioga Lake

Sunday, June 12, 2016

My Life in the Aughts

I recently came back from a trip to Kauai with my fiance.  Being the times that they are, I used my phone to take pictures and posted them a couple at a time on Instragram and Facebook.  To go back to sea turtles on the beach, a Hindu temple in the rainforest, horseback riding where a scene from Jurassic Park was filmed, and getting engaged on a beach, I just have to log in.  

Going to that magical isle brought back memories to previous trips to Hawaii, and I wanted to look back at the pictures and remember.  

The pictures from my trip to Oahu in 2002 to visit my cousin Jewels were easy enough to find.  They are in a relic from a disappearing time--the scrapbook.  I used an actual camera and printed out the pictures at Walgreen’s.  Visual memories include seeing crazed goldfish at the Dole pineapple plantation, horse riding where more parts of Jurassic Park were filmed, ringing a giant gong at a Buddhist temple set against a  paradise of green mountains, and snorkeling with parrot fish eating coral and pooping pristine white sand at Hanuma Bay.

But where were my pictures from my trip to the Big Island in 2006?  That Hawaiin trip was definitely the most random.  An extraordinarily generous parent from that year’s preschool class worked for American Airlines, and wanted to show her thanks by giving me and my assistant a free round trip flight anywhere in the US, including Hawaii.  

I chose to go that following Thanksgiving.  I was single at the time and no friends could join me, so my mother suggested I go to Hawaii, or the Big Island, where her friend lived.  And the pictures?  Facebook didn’t exist yet, but the world was the digital revolution was well on its way.  There was no photo album or scrapbook of them.  And then I remembered--Smugmug.

Smugmug was a picture storing and sharing webpage, kind of like Flickr, though it claimed to be better because it didn’t show any ads.  It cost $25 a year.  I figured it was worth it because you can order prints of varying sizes.

Having succumbed to just using Facebook in recent years, I had forgotten I even had a Smugmug account.  Then six months ago they started bugging me saying I needed to update my credit card info. I almost shut down the account.  But then I remembered the Big Island, and decided to see what else was on there.  It turned out to be a record of my Life in the Aughts.

The album titles make me sound like an intrepid traveler, extensive partier, and one whose friends loved themes.  And I suppose all those things are true.  Trips that for a long time seemed recent now prove to be well in the past, such as “Barcelona/Morocco/London” which happened exactly 10 years ago.  “Northwest Road Trip” I think happened in 2008.  “Toronto to See Steph” was also 2006, shortly after a friend of mine committed suicide.  Do I look a tad less innocent after that?  Hard to say.  I know I felt that way.

My friends used to take part in Bay to Breakers every year, and of course they had to be a theme.  The first year I participated must have been 2002, with the theme “Pajamas and Babies.”  Our keg was converted into a bottle.  The few pictures I took before I had partaken of the baby bottle too many times actually made it into a photo album.  Following years, including “Where’s Waldo?,” “Things You Find at an Airport,” “Trashy Prom,”  and a unknown theme one in which I’m wearing a lion costume are all on Smugmug.  We walked for miles while drinking and dancing, every year for many years.  Thankfully, the pictures only show the beginnings of the race.

There are pictures of weddings in wine country and in Lake Tahoe.  They always start out well-composed, of beautiful people in gorgeous dresses, and then descend gradually into blurry depictions of friends attempting to dance around a stripper pole.   There is a whole album dedicated to a combined bachelorette party in Las Vegas, with some gems of me dancing with an army guy.  Oh yeah, that happened….

Some albums are a combo of random events which then make the album an incredibly random smattering of bizarre drunken exhibitionism.  “Thanksgiving/Santarchy/White Elephant Party” has to be the pinnacle.  The album starts out with various friends dressed up as elementary school style Native Americans using only paper bags.  Then everyone is on the roof of a Mission apartment, a post-meal tradition that could have ended in tragedy, but never did.  Fast forward a month to Santarchy, a  giant street party in which everyone dresses as Santa and of course, drinks to excess.  There is a picture of me in a Santa hat with a Hanukkah Harry.  More drunk Native Americans.  I captured a fight over a Hello Kitty waffle iron during a White Elephant Christmas party.  The two women involved in the dispute were stomping the floor so hard I was worried it would cave in.  The person who didn’t get the waffle iron got a Snoopy Sno-Cone machine, so they remained friends.  I think.

The albums do show the effects of time, not always favorably.  People are noticeably younger looking and thinner in the pictures, myself included.  Some make the reality of now hard to reconcile with.  The album “An August of Friends and Family, 2009” shows my mom hiking in the Mono Basin and riding horses through Yosemite.  She is 70 now, in good health, but needs a double knee replacement. How has she aged so much?  It was only 7 years ago.

“Animal Friends” is another wistful one.  I haven’t been able to own many pets in San Francisco, so this album shows my friends’ animals and ones I house sat for.  Most of them are dead now, though some still survive, including my 15 year old leopard gecko Cleo.  Tippy, Waverly, and Bean live on in in the pictures.

I can see how my world view has changed by looking through these albums.  One album is simply titled “Friends.” It looks like most of the pictures were taken at a backyard barbeque, I think in 2010.  What is amazing about this album is how many of those people are not my friends at all.  Not that I had any fights or falling outs with them--there have been a couple of those, but rather that the people in those pictures were never my close friends to begin with.  They are acquaintances, housemates, co-workers, and people I used to see around more often.  They are all good people and I hope their lives are good and fulfilling, and I don’t talk to them anymore.   That’s fine.  People have families now.  I live with my fiance and not with housemates.  I drastically cut back on hanging out with co-workers due to gossiping and negativity.  The friends that are indeed the real ones were that ten years ago, and I am confident that some of them still will be in ten years.  That album would be vastly shorter and different were I to do it now, and I am not sad about it.

What were the aughts for Elissa?  At first glance, it seems a second adolescence.  Rather, it was my first, since my teenage and college years were quite tame.  Drunken footraces and themed parties and music festivals and trips with fellow single friends was what needed to happen at that time.  Some of these events will not happen again, some still do, in a much tamed- down version.  I am happy they happened; I am not sad they are over.  I am at peace with who I have become.  I am pleased with the memories, in my mind, in albums, and online.  I hope my friends and family are as well. Although peoples' lives are vastly different than they were in the early aughts, I would say they look as happy in the pictures then as they do in real life now.

Oh yes, the pictures of the Big Island trip.  They show gigantic insects, lava flows, ancient Hawaiian temples, and another horseback ride through the jungle and along cliffs.  Jurassic Park, however, was not filmed there. No place is perfect.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

City's Eclipse

Pre-dawn in Dolores Park.  An inked city.  

Me--alone, cold, self-conscious.  

I come to watch the moon devoured by the murk,

and hope there is no one watching me.

I shouldn't feel like this, and yet I do.  

Hiding inside myself, I watch for the change.

Several vapored breaths later, there is no moon.  

Instead, an amber ball of smoke hangs.

Eerie and beautiful, the moon regards me in this vulnerable state and 

says to me: See.  I am the one who is odd.  No one stares at you.

I smile in gratitude, and go to return to inside, warmth, normality.  

But I see that the city changes.  

And it implores me to stay, to  

witness its freedom from night's hold.  

I acquiesce, and climb higher in the park to freeze myself to a bench. 

Nautical dawn introduces itself, bows with languid grace. 

Blue light is born from behind lamp posts and attic windows.  

Awakened life arrives on two legs, four legs, four wheels.  

The city breathes and stretches after its forced  sedation.  

The sky presents a wayward rainbow--deep blue, light blue flecked with pink, 

a moment of lifeless pale, and then ever warming gold.  

And then the solar photons rain down.

I dislodge myself from the bench, and head into my day.  

Sounds bounce off pavement and grass--

plastic scraped on pavement, voices, horns.  Brash, with ever increasing hurry.

The day, so young, already begins to lose its innocence.  

Post-twilight.  Dolores Park again, on my way home.  

Relaxed, confident, comfortable.

I pause to see this park in its evening wear.  

Now--fire dancers, barbeques, children out too late.   

The park and city unashamedly present themselves as they are.

An alabaster moon arises, bold and naked, triumphant in its return. 

There is a different feel in this evening between us--the moon, the city, the park, myself.  

The dawn showed us dark, meek, altered.  Trying to be quiet and unnoticed.  

We saw each other through that, acknowledged the strange beauty within and without.   

Appreciated the rare deviation. 

And now we regroup in the other darkness, back into our standard beings.

Recognize each other with congratulatory wonder.  A connection is forged. 

Walking home, we exchange smiles and nods, altered by this understanding.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Once more to the mountains

I wrote this poem years ago, I think in 2006. It was after one of the yearly trips I take to Yosemite Park and the Eastern Sierras. Having just come back from one of these amazing trips, I decided to post this poem about one of my experiences. This poem is dedicated to that incredible area of the state and to the wonderful people I spent time with there.

Tuolome River

We walk along in the sweat sucking heat;

thin air pushes against our tired hearts.

A river seeks us

and we hear it soon-- waiting.

Then it appears--

a sinuous, porcine animal

continually diving downwards.

By a glassy pool

we remove our clothes

and I suddenly I am afraid.

Why? To experience fierce cool is why we came.

Ankles in, I feel ice dragons bite at my bones.

How can water hurt so much?

I retreat, and sensation leaks back down my legs.

A small, deep copper pool offers full immersion.

I jump in, and the scream escaping my throat is

sucked back, and all my organs

quail inwards for core warmth.

In two seconds I experience a year of broken crystal in every pore; it is

terrible and amazing to be consumed by this beautiful creature.

I flee the artic maw, and grab my forehead

to ease the external ice cream headache.

My limbs find warm granite,

and they kindly lower my torso.

Sun thaws my marrow

and I am simultaneously



Back in my body,

I watch the liquid shards

drip from my hair and realize

I am finally



Sunday, January 2, 2011

How I Never Learned to Swim

It is every parent's duty to teach their child how to swim. Why? Because their child’s life may depend upon it. --Babylonian Talmud

“Ppppplease! Please Elissa!” the five year old boy stammered. “Call my mom and ask her if I can just watch swimming today!”

Dylan was in my preschool class last year. On this particular Tuesday he stood on our Morning Meeting rug in a t-shirt and underwear, body trembling and teeth chattering. His camoflage swimming trunks and goggles laid at his feet.

I sighed, and mustered my well-practiced patient yet firm Teacher Voice. “Dylan, your mom has told me that you are going to swimming today. And she also told me you are doing well and have fun once you get in the water! I know you can do this. Here, I’ll help you change.” I handed him his goggles and swimsuit.

“Noooo!” Dylan erupted into tears, dropped the items and pushed them away with his foot. “I won’t go in the water. I’ll just watch.” Dylan eventually succumbed to changing for swimming, but continued to shake and whimper until he is brought down to the pool. This episode happened every Tuesday, the day he had swimming lessons after school.

What is it about swimming that brings about such extreme reactions in young people? Our preschool offers all sorts of enrichment activities for the youngsters, such as clay class, karate, dance, and sports like basketball as well as swimming. Even if a child would rather go home instead of to his or her after school class, there is simply no parallel for the drama that ensues when a child doesn’t want to go swimming.

Maybe the secret of this distress lies in the "duty" of swimming lessons. One is unlikely to find themselves in a life or death scenario involving T-ball or arts and crafts. But being in water is another story. The children who look forward to swimming lessons may think they are there by choice. To them it is simply a fun time in the pool. Only the ones who are terrified seem to know they have to go. I can certainly empathize with the reluctant ones, as I was one of them. While I certainly agree with the Talmud's statement about learning to swim, as did my parents--I never really learned how.

My brother and sister and I were born as fortunate naturally athletic individuals, which made the swimming debacle all the more mysterious. We poured our whole selves and our selfless parent’s paychecks into our chosen fields of interest, which all involved high physical activity: horse back riding, ice skating, and gymnastics. Since we lived in Plymouth, Massachusetts and spent summers on Cape Cod, my mother dutifully insisted on swimming lessons in addition to our already busy schedules. My sister Emilie, while she does not pursue swimming as a sport, is now a skilled diver and a certified scuba diver. She somehow did not receive the curse of swim lesson failure like my brother Danny and I did.

The first attempt happened while my mother was still pregnant with Emilie, and I was only 5. She took Danny and me to Morton Pond, one of the 360 ponds that Plymouth boasts. I remember nothing of this, probably because we only went once and came down with hand, foot, and mouth disease. I picture children in soggy diapers wading in blackish water, steeping in 85 degree heat and 90% humidity. So much for Morton Pond.

The second try was at Plymouth Beach, a couple years later. Plymouth Beach was and still is the main beach in Plymouth. It is nice enough, with calm water and not too much seaweed. The water isn’t the Caribbean, but it wasn’t freezing. Except for this early summer day.

I stood looking at the brownish blue water, digging my feet in the sand. “Why, mom? Why do I have to take swimming lessons?” I whined.

“So you don’t drown someday! Go on, you can do it.” I was doubtful that I could. It was windy out, and the water somehow even looked colder than usual. The instructor was barking orders at a group of kids in the water. He didn’t look particularly nice. He was also quite fat, and therefore insulated against frigid water. I looked over at Danny. His skinny body was already shivering. Quaking, actually.

“We have lots of towels to warm you up when you get out!” said my dad cheerfully, always the positive one.

Finally Danny and I stepped forward towards the water. We started edging our way in. But instead of the usual playful friend the ocean was to me, the Atlantic had turned into a freezing, brackish, slime-weed infested nightmare. “It’s too coooolllld!” Danny and I yelled back to mom and dad, tears not far below the surface. Dad smiled encouragingly. Then Fat Guy yelled, “You two! Come on over and join the group. Let’s see your doggy paddle!”

We tried to oblige, we really did. I gasped while paddling, and swallowed a juice box of sea water. Seaweed, which normally didn’t bother me, kept winding around my legs and interfering with my weak attempts at a straight leg kick. When Fat Guy told us to put our heads under water, I balked. Why the heck should I do that? Not wanting to look like a baby in front of the other kids, I did, and the salt water painfully shot up to my sinuses. I couldn’t hold it in anymore and started bawling. Crying is catching, and when my brother saw me he started his own deluge of tears. My parents couldn’t take it either and finally got us out. Maybe we weren’t exaggerating the cold, because Danny had turned purple. We spent the rest of our lesson wrapped in towels, recovering from hypothermic trauma. Danny and I never finished the lesson and never went back to Plymouth Beach for a swimming lesson. The rest of the summer was spent in the sea weed free safety of our two feet deep pool. Our amazing (to some insane) parents poured bucketfuls of hot water into it every time we went swimming. In terms of swimming lessons, we were already 0 for 2.

It would be a couple years until we made the attempt again. By this time Danny and I were 8 and 10 years old, too old to get away without knowing the basics of swimming. Many of my classmates could be heard bragging about being on the swim team, and here I could barely doggy paddle. Thinking a more contained environment may offer a chance at success, my mother signed us up for swimming lessons at the local YMCA. By this time, my sister Emilie was in the picture and she would be in her own little kids' class. I still didn't want to go, and tried to beg off by being too "busy." Well, a ten year old during summer vacation just wasn't too busy for swimming lessons.

I was dubious about going to swim in a big swimming pool. We had a succession of above ground pools that grew larger and deeper every year, and had no need to partake in a public pool. My mom said there was a smaller "kiddie" pool at the Y, and a bigger, Olympic size pool. Please let me be in the kiddie pool, please!! I pleaded to whatever higher power might hear. On the way over for our first lesson, I let that sentiment slip out. "Well, I'll probably be in the kiddie pool since I am beginner, right?"

"Oh, Lissa!" sighed my mom. "You are ten years old! The kiddie pool is for babies and toddlers. You'll be fine in the big pool!"

"Is it heated?" I asked.

"Honest to goodness, Lissa, our own pool isn't heated!" I tried to feel confident about this latest effort, but the butterflies were already hatching. I started shivering before we even pulled into the parking lot.

The YMCA was your typical big, busy, family centered pool. Instructors shouting, kids yelling, and a fog of chlorine filled my ears and nose. Indeed the kiddie pool was very diminutive and shallow, filled with very small children and no doubt a good deal of urine. It would be the big pool for me.

Things went fairly well at the Y for most of the summer. The pool was cold, so that sucked. Having no choice in the matter, I learned to deal with it. The other children in the class were fine, and I even made a casual friend with one of the girls. Our teacher was a no nonsense young woman with a spiky haircut. Christine was firm, but not mean. I remember the constant temptation to go into a doggie paddle instead of the stroke I was supposed to be practicing. Whenever she caught me or one of the other kids lapsing, she would yell out, "No doggy, no doggy! You're here to learn how to really swim, now show me that stroke!" I still did the doggy on the sly. Perhaps that cheating on my part is one reason I was not progressing much. Everyone managed to phase the paddle out but me. I did not have the desire to get better at swimming like I did at horse back riding or playing the clarinet. What was wrong with the doggy paddle, anyway?

Any progress I did make came to a standstill one terrible day towards the end of summer. What's ironic is that I felt quite confident that day. My group was the "Polliwogs" and the "Guppies--"older children who were beginners. I sat with my fellow novices outside the pool, chatting about Nintendo and other hot topics among preteens in the late 80's. Maybe Christine won't be here today and class will be canceled! I secretly thought, like I did every time. And also like every time, she came out in her red swim suit and spiked hair. Sigh. We lowered ourselves into the cold, chemical water.

"Into the pool, Pollies and Guppies!" she commanded. "Today we work on the elementary backstroke. And you all need to work on it. I want to see straight lines, people!" Damn it, I inwardly growled. This "swim in a straight line" thing was just not working for me. For the stroke, we were supposed to open our eyes every few strokes and make sure we even with the dark line at the bottom of the pool. Well, the over-chlorinated water burned your eyes. And for the backstroke, that was pretty much impossible unless there happened to be a jet contrail right above you that day. Most of the time, I was queen of the zig zag.

Sometimes there were pool dividers to make up lanes; on this unlucky backstroke day there were not. Soon it was my turn to do the backstroke. I turned over on my back, breathed, and began the movements. Arms up, legs up and in, and then push down, arms up, legs up and in, push down and in, repeat. I found myself in a good rhythm. With the water in my ears, the communal noise muffled to near silence. The sky above was a pleasant blue. It was a sluggishly hot day, and the water felt nice for once, almost refreshing. I pictured the opposite end of the pool behind me, pulling me towards it. I felt almost peaceful, and for the first time thought maybe, just maybe, I could be decent at this swimming thing.

"LISSA!" Even through saturated ears I hear my nickname, which only my family use. Then again, "LISSA!" and someone tapped my shoulder. Why would my parents be at my group's end of the pool? They usually sat in the rest area on the opposite side.

I sat up abruptly, unpleasant noise and commotion barreling into my ears after the quiet. I looked around. What the hell? Where was I? My class and Christine were no where in sight. I looked up and saw my dad's face. "You're on the wrong side, honey." The poor man looked guilty, as if he was the one who had messed up. Oh shit. My heart plummeted into my spleen as I realized my mistake. That brilliant backstroke had not brought me straight across the pool. I had swam a perfect diagonal to the opposite corner!

Now I'm sure my memory has exaggerated this, but I recall the entire pool population staring at me and at least half of them laughing. And to think I had thought I was doing well! I exploded into angry, embarrassed tears and could not be consoled for the rest of the day.

My parents took pity on me and let me sit out the rest of the day, but insisted I finish the lessons for the summer. Just like when you fall off a horse, you get back on. Somehow for me, falling off a horse was loads less traumatic than botching the backstroke. I did the last few lessons without incident, but the humiliation was not to end. Our last lesson was the test, and then we would receive a card saying if we passed and could move on to the next level. That would either be "Guppy" for the Polliwogs, or "Flying Fish." Even during the test in which I was constantly watched, I still managed to slip into the doggy paddle a few times. Almost everyone in the group got into Flying Fish. My new friend graduated from Polliwog to Guppy. I already knew the answer before I opened the envelope. The card showed the Polliwog symbol, a child riding on the back of a small fish. "Did not pass. Repeat Polliwog" was the message. "Just keep practicing, kid," said Christine, patting me on the head with her knuckles. I appreciated that she did not put me down, and my parents of course said not to be discouraged. But I could not ignore the writing on the card. I failed. I was still a pathetic Polliwog.

Sometimes, failure brings the possibility of freedom. Or so I had hoped that would be the case with swimming lessons. The backstroke incident had been horribly embarrassing, but I had survived it without anyone in school knowing about it. I would be starting that particularly hellish stint of education, middle school. Sucking at swimming was the last thing I needed, now that popularity was a priority.

But oh no. Mom had other plans. She informed my brother and sister and I that all three of us that we would be starting swimming lessons at the Plymouth Athletic Club in a couple weeks. Not summer anymore? No problem. The PAC had an indoor, heated swimming pool. Why, we could swim there all year! Whoever my mom talked to assured her that their instructors were nice and the classes were small. This set up seemed to specifically cater to the hesitant, the fearful, or in our case the damn near hopeless. How could we possibly fail this time?

The PAC swimming experience was certainly the least traumatic out of all them. My brother and I were in a class together this time, and there were only four of us total. The teachers were friendly and encouraged us rather than barked orders. They even got in the water with us and demonstrated techniques, a first in my experience. My only main concern was that the recent perm I had acquired would get ruined. After 10 weeks we took the test, showcasing our back float, stroke, and elementary backstroke. I sat on the side of the pool with Danny, yanking off the uncomfortable swim cap that was shielding my new puff--doo from harm.

"So, you both completed the test and you did a great job," explained our instructor. Okay, and? "You really have made a lot of progress, especially in your confidence. Just think back to how hesitant you both were when you first came here!" That’s great lady, just tell us the damn test results! "Buuuuut....I'm afraid you both didn't pass. Danny, for you it was the stroke. Elissa, your backstroke needs improvement. Please don't be discouraged. After one more session, I am positive you will both pass with flying colors!"

Seriously? We didn't pass again? This time however, I really didn't care. Actually, I remember Danny and I both laughing a little. There was a young man with Down Syndrome in our class, who I recall was a pretty good swimmer. I can't say for sure, but let's be honest here-- I'm sure he passed. So did my sister from her own group, and she did not let that one go for a while. Danny and I were that bad. At this point it was just funny.

My long suffering mom finally gave up. I don't think she thought we were entirely hopeless. She probably couldn't stand to see us be put through this again. And we could keep ourselves afloat at this point. Hell, we had learned at least that much. Now we were fully involved in our various pursuits, and really did not need the added pressure of a futile swim class. Just as we began our swim career with a sickness, we ended it likewise, this time with swimmers’ ear infections. But we were free at last.

Like swimming, math was never my strong suit. I needed tutoring all through high school and never made it to calculus. When I passed the required math class at my liberal arts college with a C, I rejoiced. I would never have to take math again, ever! For a very long time I thought the same about swimming. Hell if I was ever going to give that a try again. I surprised myself when I did just that in my late 20's.

My place of employment is part of a larger community center that offers all sorts of recreation for adults as well as children. Our building was under renovation for a couple years, and when it opened up in 2003 there was a state of the art pool facility. I wanted to start an exercise program, and thought, why not swimming? It is supposed to be a great low impact workout. Who knows, maybe after all these years I would not be as horrendous at it.

I signed up for an adult beginner class. There were only three of us, and the instructor was great--funny, understanding, and a good teacher. Best of all, there was no test to take, so I didn’t have to worry about failing again. I did learn quite a bit in that class. We got to use all these fun tools like floating barbells to help refine our stroke and flippers for our kick. After the class was over, I tried to keep up swimming. But I just could not get into it. Quite honestly, I found swimming boring. And I just did not have the stamina in the water that I had for things like biking. I started doing spin class and cardio kick boxing instead. At least I could say I tried swimming one last time and did not fail. I can also say honestly that I have more confidence in the water when my friends go rafting or I play in the waves at a beach.

It must have been hard for my parents to see their children not succeed at something, especially something as important as learning to swim. No one was going to tell us we were failures at life because of our incompetence in the water, but like the Talmud says, our life may depend upon it.

Dealing with Dylan’s strong aversion to swimming was a particularly challenging case. We mentioned how upset he got every Tuesday to his parents, but they insisted he calmed down by the time he got down to the pool and that he continue with his lessons. One teacher, a parent herself, was increasingly agitated about Dylan’s weekly dread. “This just doesn’t seem right!” she said to me one day. “I know it is important for him to do this, but is it worth it if he gets this upset? How is he even getting anything out of it?” I could understand her point of view. Dylan’s reactions to swimming were so extreme it made us teachers feel like we were torturing him! I personally could empathize with him. I knew what it felt like to loathe something so much and yet be told you have to do it. I also remember my mom continually pushing me to do this crucial activity over and over. Sure it was not fun for me, but nor did it permanently traumatize me.

The teachers could not come to an agreement on how to deal with the situation, so our director suggested we call Dylan’s parents in for a meeting. His mother explained something that would have been helpful to have known earlier--Dylan fell into a pool the previous summer and almost drowned. So there is the reason for his extreme fear. Four years of life flashed before your eyes is pitifully short. I wouldn’t want to get near the water again either. That is also the exact reason why he absolutely must learn how to swim now. His parents again said he was going to continue the lessons, and felt with time he would overcome his anxiety. Our director agreed. The teachers would be consistently encouraging and firm with him concerning swim lessons.

We teachers are fortunate in that we often get to see tangible growth in another human being. Eventually, Dylan stopped shaking and crying at lunch. Soon, he even became excited to go swimming. He talked animatedly about putting his head underwater and jumping in by himself. When he graduated from his beginner “Frogs” class and was cleared to move on to the next level, we all shared in his joy. And we were all content in knowing we had made the right move by supporting the parent’s decision to keep him in swimming. Not only did Dylan face a significant fear and get over it, he was on his way to being secure and skilled in the water. He would gain tools that would help him in a potential scary situation. And his parents were fulfilling their responsibility of teaching their child a significant skill.

Growing can be uncomfortable. Being put in a situation that does not come naturally is not necessarily fun or easy. But sometimes, it is necessary. In my more self-assured area of horseback riding, I still had some dubious and fearful moments. The first place I learned to ride was run by a vivacious woman who had some unconventional teaching methods, such as threatening to stab our ponies in the butt with a knife if we didn’t keep them trotting. But I do give her credit for not allowing us young ones to get away with any uncalled for fears. One day I was happily riding the white pony I loved, Annie. Another young girl was riding a pony called Symmetry. I was very afraid of Symmetry because one day I saw her make the calculated move to try and remove her rider by trotting under some very low branches. Ponies could be conniving that way. I made the mistake that day by confiding to a friend that “I never want to ride Symmetry!” Well, that instructor must have heard me because I was whisked off Annie and put on Symmetry before I could open my mouth. I knew protesting was futile. Symmetry turned out to be perfectly fine and I learned to never complain again there. I also learned that I wouldn’t die if I had to do something I wasn’t comfortable with.

The quotation at the beginning is from the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of very old Rabbinic writing. My mother did not know of the Talmud or that saying. My guess is that many people have not heard that quotation. Yet many dutiful parents obey it by sending their happy and excited, slightly timid or bored, or terrified and protesting children to swimming lessons. I am truly grateful my mother really tried to find a way for us to succeed. But did we actually fail? I don’t believe so. True, I am not a strong swimmer. But nor am I afraid of a challenge. Neither are my brother and sister. My mother and the many other parents out there are doing their children a favor by keeping them in swimming, especially the fearful ones. They are showing the children that not only will you live when you have to do something hard, but that someday you may become good at it. What was the doggy paddle in the kiddie pool becomes the backstroke in the deep end.

The “learning to swim” metaphor can be applied to many aspects of life. It gets tricky in adulthood because, like the children who enjoyed swimming, we think we choose the life we lead. While we do have more choices that children, the reality is we still have to plunge in to uncomfortable situations that are necessary for our continued growth. Many of us find ourselves in patterns that are unhealthy and know they need changing, but are afraid to start the transformation. Perhaps these patterns won’t enable us to drown, but they could seriously hold us back. As adults we may not have our parents or teachers to prod us towards success. Hopefully we have enough insight by now to understand when it is time to jump into a proverbial pool and learn a new skill or behavior--or unlearn an old one.

I trust that all the parents out there will fulfill their duty to teach their child to swim, even if the child would choose not to. I also trust all us grown children take a refresher course now and then, whether it is swimming or something else critical. I leave you with another quote, this one by George Eliot: “It is never too late to become what you might have been.”

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Longest Journey--AIDS Lifecycle 9

It began with a ten mile ride to the beach.

Having finally purchased a bike--six months after registering for AIDS Lifecycle 9!--I could not put off training any longer. My friend Matt from work, who had done the ride a few times before, assured me I was already in way better shape than half the people that did the ride. He advised I start doing the weekly training rides that went up to Marin, and were now in the 50 mile range. This was sometime in March.

I couldn't imagine doing a 30 mile ride, much less the 60-100 miles that would happen in a day on the ride itself. And yet, somehow, I would end up doing just that.

I decided to do the AIDS Lifecycle almost a year ago. I did not have a bike, any equipment, nor a clue about serious biking. Basically, I was of that nebulous mind set that I wanted to "do something good for the world and good for myself." And my friends Joe, Lars, and Matt had all participated in the past and had almost exclusively positive things to say about it.

In February I finally bought the bike and did that ten mile ride. It felt so good and free to be on a bike again--I had completely forgotten that feeling. Soon I did a 17 mile ride, then a 30 mile loop of the city was under my belt. I did my first training ride, a 50 mile up to Woodacre. Thanks to five years of spin class, I did not have to walk any part of the two formidable hills we encountered. I continued going to the gym and rode my bike to work a few times a week. On the weekend, the training rides increased their mileage. 60 miles, 72 miles, 84 miles, and then eventually we did a century up to Petaluma. I went to my boyfriend Dan's house after the 100 mile and I was so out of it I remember nothing of that evening. I imagine eating and sleeping was all I did. I still never walked my bike or used a sweep vehicle, and continually amazed myself that I could this.

Nutrition and training workshops, many fundraising letters, a fundraising party and an event at work helped steer me towards my goals. The training rides consumed my weekends, and I pretty much lacked a life. But I knew I would be thankful for the sacrifice once the ride came.

And then suddenly the school year was over. Despite a great year and wonderful kids and co-teachers, I was considerably less emotional than usual since the distraction of a 545 mile ride hovered in my mind. The ride began that Sunday. On Saturday we had Orientation day, where we brought our bikes to the Cow Palace, got checked in, and watched a mandatory safety video. I heard all this stuff about how you would have to wait in long lines on O day, but everything I did was a breeze and everyone was really helpful. The safety video, though to be taken seriously had a good dose of humor and raunchiness in it, such as a full on ass shot of someone applying butt balm--foreshadowing the mindset of the ride itself.

That night I read over my list a million times, laid out my helmet and bike accoutrements, ordered a cab for 4:30 in the morning, and managed to get about two hours of sleep. And then it began.

Day One--Riders in the fog

Click clack, click, clack. That was the main sound, the sound of bike shoe clips on concrete floors, in the vast Cow Palace Sunday morning. I forced some food down (now free, as was just about everything from then on!) and kept pacing in neurotic circles, too nervous to sit down. Happily I saw my fellow rider Matt with his room mate and our mutual friend Rebecca to see him off. It was comforting to be with some familiar faces at the dawn of this monumentous occasion.

We were all herded into the arena to the tune of cheesy inspirational music and cheers from well wishers and roadies, and there the goose bumps began. Here I was; it was happening! Matt and I crowded up to the very front, where the speakers threatened to deafen us. After some welcoming speeches, the Positive Pedalers marched down the middle of the crowd carrying tribute banners with messages to loved ones who had passed away because of HIV or AIDS. They also brought out the "riderless bike" which represents all the people who could not be with us because they had passed away. It was one of the many emotional and powerful moments of the week.

You may be wondering who the Positive Pedalers are. I certainly had never heard of them before I started training for the ride. They are a group of HIV positive men and women bike riders who have been coming together and creating positive publicity for themselves for I think 15 years now. Their main goal is to eliminate the stigma associated with HIV status. It may seem that we've come a long way since the days of banning children from schools and Magic Johnson from basketball, but there is still a great deal of prejudice surrounding people with HIV or AIDS. One heart wrenching fellow rider's story was about her young nephew with HIV who was not allowed to swim in a public pool. I found the Positive Pedalers incredibly inspiring. Many of them also totally kicked my ass in the ride itself.

Anyway, the mood in the arena made a dramatic switch as an insanely ripped and energetic young man got up front to lead us in stretches. "All right everybody! Get those feet moving, put your hands up, you've got a long ride ahead of you!" Laughing excitedly, we got our bodies warmed up. Then a couple more inspirational speeches, and it was time to go!

The hisses of tires being pumped and the clack of clips onto pedals resonated throughout the big hall with all the bikes. I smeared on some sunscreen, made sure my bento boxes were secured, tightened my helmet, and took one last deep breath. "Ok, Arrow," I whispered to my bike. "This is it. Be a good bike and carry me safely through this journey." You do what helps calm your nerves, including talking to your bike.

Then along with 1950 other cyclists, I pedaled out into the fog. My mom later told me she watched a video of that moment, and started crying. I felt happiness quivering throughout my entire body. Hundreds of supporters were lined up all the way through the Cow Palaces huge parking lot, and onto the street. I could hardly believe so many people made it out here so damn early in the morning to cheer us on; I almost teared up. Hearing our friends yell "Go Elissa!" gave me another boost of already overflowing adrenaline. We were on our way.

Now I have lived in SF for more than 10 years, and have seen my share of foggy days. There are all types of fog--the block out the whole sky white variety, the swirly wispy kind that is fun to watch, the really damp one that feels almost like it's raining, the cold gray fog of sadness after a sunny spell. But the fog we rode through that early morning was one the thickest and wettest I've ever experienced. As we left the city, I could barely see 20 feet in front of me and I was completely soaked with a half hour. I just laughed. Our lunch stop, somewhere along route 1, was still fog covered and weirdly warm. It was like being under a giant wet blanket. But soon enough fog gave way to abundant sunshine, and we would hardly see a cloud again for the rest of the week.

Much of our route down to Santa Cruz was along Route 1, the road that hugs the coast. I have driven that way a multitude of times, and was always grateful for being so close to its beauty. But everything is so different from a bike! You notice curves of the road, can smell the sea breeze, and notice peculiarities about the landscape that you never would from a car. I am so lucky to be doing this!!! I screamingly thought to myself over and over.

One constant throughout the whole ride was how people from local communities came out to support us. People of all ages and backgrounds stood on the streets with signs, candy and strawberries for us, or just simply cheered. And while Santa Cruz is a liberal place, that cannot be said for everywhere we passed through--some towns were extremely small and rural. And yet I at least did not hear one negative comment. There was one woman on the side on the road in a chair on Day One, and she did not look so good. "Thank you for riding for me!" she weakly shouted as I rode past. Yowsers. I had to swallow back tears that time. She was one of many living reminders of why I was doing this.

Around four I finally rode into Santa Cruz camp, to the sound of cheering roadies shouting "Welcome to Santa Cruz! Welcome home!" Every day they did that, and every time it felt like they were cheering just for me. Santa Cruz camp was a nice grassy park bordered by a redwood grove. I was anxious to sent up my tent and meet my tent mate since I hadn't yet. She hadn’t arrived, so I had to set it up on my own. Now I am a seasoned camper, but putting together one when you’re smashed in with almost 2000 other people is not easy. I was certain I was going to poke out someone’s eye with one of the poles. Luckily, our nice neighbors Cheryl and Roxie helped me out.

I finally met Ruth, a very sweet and spunky middle aged woman. She as a newbie like me, and also very mom-like. It was kind of nice to have a "mom" for company on the ride!

The food was indeed hot and good, and I inhaled a fair amount of it. Then, it was pretty much time for bed.


Even with my heavy duty earplugs in, I still was awakened by other campers getting up around 5:00 am. The route didn't even open until 6:30--was that necessary? But I soon learned the routine of packing up, taking down your tent, bringing all the crap to the trucks, and eating breakfast was not a fast process. Ruth and I usually woke up around 5:30--once we "slept in" until 6! But your grogginess soon dissipates when you see your roadies wearing neglige and blasting 80’s music by 6:30.

So Day 2 was the 107 mile day. That is damn long. This day would have many obstacles and many fun parts, and turned out to be one of the best days of my life.

We had a heard a million times that the rush hour traffic out of Santa Cruz was really bad in the morning, and we should get an early start to avoid it. Well, the traffic problem wasn’t the cars, it was all us riders! And I don’t think there was any way to avoid it. For about 8 miles it was just intersection after intersection, and at least 20 of us moving as a herd together. How would I ever finish in time?? It got quite frustrating, although I tried to be zen about it. At one point I turned to a fellow rider and asked, “Are we in purgatory?”

But it did eventually end, and soon we were cruising along long stretches of roads next to sweet smelling strawberries. I talked for a while to an older man named John who said he regularly rode 80 mile rides, and sold catalogs to teachers (I think my school gets it.) That was a funny thing about the ride is you would have a conversation with someone behind you or in front, and never see his or her face! Most of the time I enjoyed the quiet time of riding on my own, but occasionally company was nice.

At the lunch stop I discovered I had a flat tire, and also that my newly bought $30 gloves were missing. Bummer. But I still was making good time. Cannondale bikes donated their services to us and fixed bike issues for free, one of the many perks we got. Miraculously, that was the only flat I got on the entire ride! Some people got a few in one day. Thank you Arrow and your nice sturdy tires.

With 55 miles to go, the fun really began. Now we were more in the country, and had nice long flat or long rolling stretches, with a tailwind. The Bay Area has plenty of big hills, but soaring along flat stretches is not something I get to do there. It was so much fun! Seriously, I was flying with the biggest smile on my face.

When I got to rest stop 4, there was only a half hour left. Rest stops have specific opening and closing times, and if you don’t make it in time you will be picked up by a sweep and brought into camp. I really did not want that to happen, unless there was something seriously wrong with me or my bike.

I felt something special happened next, though maybe it was all in my mind. It seemed that all us riders that were still at the stop collectively rallied to get into camp on time. Everyone quietly got organized and got back on our bikes, and headed out, steadfastedly determined to make this happen. Even though I wasn’t talking with anyone, I felt a connection between all of us.

There was one more unofficial stop before we headed into camp, however--the Cookie Lady! This is just one of the many examples of people from local communities coming out to support us. This woman (don’t even know her real name) bakes thousands of delicious cookies and gives them to the riders for free. While I think everyone appreciates a free treat and generous people, there is a whole new level of appreciation for this type of thing you can’t understand until your butt has been in the saddle for almost a hundred miles.

For a short stretch we had these horrible side winds, and I almost got blown over several times. Where were the tail winds we had been promised? Finally we made a right turn onto some rolling hills and then--wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! The strong wind was behind us, and literally pushed us up hills and then went swooping down, roller coaster style. To our left was hills, and a large valley filled with growing produce was to our right. It was very different than anywhere I had ever been, and I felt so thankful and alive. After the annoying stopping and going in Santa Cruz, the flat tire and lost gloves, the thinking I wasn’t going to make it and the side winds, this was the ultimate reward. When I rode into King City amidst applause, I felt incredibly accomplished.

King City’s campground was at an interesting county park that had relics of yesteryear on display, like a old caboose and mining equipment. It was also quite chilly, and the only night I had to wear a hat. Ruth and I had dinner together, and I learned a lot about her, such as she was a writer and had published her own book.

I tried every night to hear the camp announcements and news. The speakers, which including the CEO of the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, a man I think was one of the ones in charge of the ride, and fellow riders were all great speakers and often hysterical. Sometimes they told stories, sometimes showed videos. Often they were more emotional and showed true life tales of people who had barely lived to tell their stories of surviving with HIV or AIDS. Other times they were funny vignettes from the day.

One night the Lifecycle guy asked how many of us were getting up to use the port-o's in the middle of the night. About half of us raised our hands (not me.) He said, "That should have been ALL of you! You should be hydrated so much that your brain and your bladder have a battle at night--and your bladder wins!" I laughingly drank more water that night, and sure enough, around 2 am had to get up. It was kind of hilarious--many other riders were out in various stages of zombie emptying their bladders.

Day 3 More like Quadyawner

I felt pretty crappy when I woke up on Day 3. My body was saying, “Um, why do you hate me??” I felt better after eating, as was pretty much always the case. A typical breakfast for me was a big bowl of oatmeal, pancakes, sausage, yogurt, muffin, and chocolate milk (which had never tasted so good in my life.) I never had a problem hydrating, but if I started to feel bad on the ride, it meant I needed to eat. A couple times I felt close to “bonking”--not eating enough when doing extreme physical activity and your body starts to digest its reserves. I arrived at lunch one day so out of it, I could not put my bike in bike parking correctly. Finally a roadie said, "Sweetie, let me do this and you go eat." Once for lunch we had a foot long burrito that was as thick as two of my fists. And I ate it all and more. Yes, this was my dream come true--I could eat all I wanted!

Day 3 was a “short day,” only 67 miles. But the formidable and much talked about Quadbuster was in the beginning of the day. Honestly, I wasn’t worried about it because of all the training I had done in the Bay Area, where on some days we went up about 10 miles of hills. When I got on my bike, I suddenly had serious doubts about myself. The first 10 miles were pretty flat, and yet I could barely pedal. And my butt was freakin’ killing me. How the hell was I going to get up Quadbuster? I had visions of having to shamefully walk up part of it and almost started crying. But after the first rest stop, I felt fine. This happened to be the next couple of days--the very beginning of the ride was brutal, and then I warmed up and felt great. Unfortunately, the butt hurt would continue until the end--all part of the game.

Quadbuster was a decently challenging hill, but thanks to those sacrificed Saturdays on rides out to Nicasio, I went up it no problem. Not super fast by any means, but I never stopped or had to walk. At the top there were lots of riders and roadies cheering us on, which of course nice. The “sound sweep” car, a SUV with a giant speaker on top, was blasting Journey which never hurts. My friend Matt was at the top, and said “Wow, Elissa, you did it!” Matt had done the ride a few times before and was a considerably faster rider than me. He said he was quite impressed with my training and how well I had done for a beginner. It felt good to get up the Quad, and of course even more good to soar down the other side.

The rest of the day was pretty chill. We went through some serious rural country--lots of grassland and oak trees. The smell of growing hay reminded me of home. One town the ride passes through is Bradley, population 120. Every year the town’s one school has a big bbq just for us. The money they raise from it goes to their school and provides scholarships for the few students graduating and going to college. I thought it was so wonderful that such a small community is a part of this, and how we end up helping each other. It speaks highly of this place that they are not afraid to introduce their young people to being aware of HIV and different types of people out there. And of course it was damn exciting to have a hamburger!

I made another friend that day, a very nice guy named Michael from Dallas, Texas. He rode behind me for a while and we talked about all sorts of stuff, and told me “good job” whenever I hydrated. I ran into Michael several more times for the rest of the ride and he always called me “sweetie." It is amazing how friendly people were on the Ride, even after being on a bike in 90 degree heat for 8 hours.

Towards the end of the day we passed into Paso Robles, another very rural area with lots of small farms and “Keep Out! signs on property. I couldn’t believe I was in the same state as San Francisco; it felt like another universe. The campground there was in a weird county fair park, and we had to camp on dirt. Not my favorite one, though we did get to eat inside a giant barn which was novel. I remember being so hot at the end of that day, I had to take two showers. It was hot most of the Ride, actually. Many days I soaked a bandana in ice water and wore it around my neck (thanks Ruth for that idea!) and only once wore my long sleeves. At night it always cooled off.

Day 4 Over the hump

I woke up on Day 4 feeling kind of blah again, and had a feeling it was going to be a tough one. But soon we would be half way to LA, and that was pretty exciting.

We had been told we would be going up some big hills called the Evil Twins, and then a few more called the three Sisters or something like that. Whatever--we went up and over a mountain. At the half way to LA point we were clearly up very high--all golden hills and the wonderfully blue ocean not far in the distance. I would have to wait a long while to have my picture taken with the “Half Way to LA!” sign, but since it was my first time I wanted to do it. Almost everyone lifts their bike up over their head, but I didn’t think I would be able to, so settled for the bike at my side and the fist raised in triumph look. I think it came out pretty good, if I say so myself.

Then it was another “wheeeeeee!” time down the other side, and that is when I realized we went over a mountain. It seriously took forever to get to the other side, and then we were back at the coast. I was happy to be by my beloved sea once again.

The route in the middle part of the day took us through the southern part of the Central Coast, a really beautiful area. We went through the achingly adorable town of Cayucos, which I kind of want to move to. Then it was further south to Pismo Beach and the Morro Bay area. Things started to have a more SoCal feel to them. I really want to go back to many of these places we went--in a car, which is considerable less painful on the rear region.

We turned away from the coast again and started winding through small towns and woodsy areas. At one random point in the seeming middle of nowhere, a man said “Welcome to Southern California!” Random, but ok!

I can’t write more without mentioning “Safety Guy.” Safety Guy is a man who was somewhere along the route on every day of the ride. Most of the time he dressed in a condom costume reminding us to be safe, but sometimes he was a giant Viagra. Then he would say, “Thanks for keeping it up!” Ha ha ha!

Several points throughout this long day, I just wanted to cry. I can’t say why exactly, as I didn’t feel that sore or tired. I guess I was a little lonely and really wanted to talk to my family or my boyfriend Dan. They and other friends and family had been sending me wonderful text messages, but I needed to hear loved one’s voices. I decided I would really try to find a hidden outlet at the next campground for my phone and give them a call.

We went through more growing country later in the day, and some small towns that seemed entirely populated by immigrant workers. Once again, they were incredibly friendly people (many of them children) who came out to wave to us. I have a whole new appreciation for these people who work the fields. The director of the LA Gay and Lesbian center Lorri, who spoke during dinner every night, told a really sweet story. She said that one day on the ride when we were going by lots of produce fields, a Mexican woman in a truck pulled up next to her and asked what was going on. Lorri explained to her about our cause and the riders, and how the money raised helps people. The woman looked thoughtful and drove away. About an hour later, the woman found Lorri again. She had gone around to the other workers and collected some money for our cause--$3.17. These hard working people do not make much money, and it was an incredibly nice thought that they did this. I know there is a lot of controversy about immigration these days, but if you like your strawberries and broccoli, think twice about where it came from and who it took to get it to your plate.

I had a really hard time towards the end of this ride. It was just so damn long--and for me at least, not very nice scenery. We went through some pretty depressed towns, and rather drab farming landscape. I barely made it to rest stop 4 on time. I felt so emotionally and physically exhausted, I seriously doubted by ability to make it the rest of the way. I even started walking my bike to the SAG rack, which would bring me and my bike back by bus. “There’s a good tail wind the last ten miles, riders! You can do it!” I heard a roadie shout. Wait a minute, Elissa, I thought. Take stock of yourself. There is nothing seriously wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with your bike. Now think of why you are doing this. The woman on the side of the street, thanking me for riding for her. The incredibly Positive Pedalers, who are doing the seeming impossible. The HIV+ young man who spoke at dinner last night, saying he would not be alive today if it were not for the services provided by the organizations that we were benefiting. I could DO this. And I did. I got back on my bike and was pushed towards by strong tail winds. Despite the surrounding areas not being so great, Santa Maria’s campground was my favorite. Nice and grassy, and all the service tents close by. I found an electrical outlet and lay sprawled on the grass while I waited for my turn to charge my phone, and felt relaxed and content. Then I had a talk with my mom and dad and Dan, and was much recharged after that.

Day 5 Mother Nature at her most adorable and at her meanest

Ruth and I awoke on Day 5 to the sounds of raucous laughter all around us. It was Red Dress Day, a tradition going back a few years on the Ride. The idea started when a rider thought everyone looked like a ribbon winding up a hill, and well wouldn’t it be cool if everyone was wearing red so we looked like the AIDS support red ribbon?? People’s creativity had already shown through many times on this ride--there was a lady who dressed as a clown in full makeup everyday, the guy that rode with ET in the front of his basket, the Chicken Lady--but Red Dress day was everyone’s turn to shine. There was such an array of costumes--fishnet dresses, super heroes, crabs, sea anenomes made from oblong balloons, Where’s Waldo--incredible. I was sort of Where’s Waldo on top, with Snoopy boxer shorts on the bottom, and red ribbons on my helmet. I think every single straight guy was wearing a dress. And they all got applause for their brave efforts at dinner that night!

The route started out innocuous enough, winding through pleasant towns and such. At one point I saw all these riders pulled over. They had found a field of miniature ponies, including babies! And I’m talking mini--the babies were the size of a beagle. I’m already a major horse lover, and this was the damn cutest thing I had ever seen. Seriously, man or woman, gay or straight, everyone there was cooing “Awwwww!” The ponies even came right up to us. There were a couple other times on the ride where I got to pat a dog or cat or horse, and it would seriously brighten my day. The littlest things make you happy when you’ve ridden a bike for 400 miles.

Things stopped getting cute soon after that. The scenery was nice enough--rolling hills and vineyards that I imagine were like Tuscany. Now the reason the ride goes from SF to LA is because the wind generally blows southward, providing us with nice tailwinds. However, that is not a guarantee, as we learned on Day 5. Head winds up to 30 miles an hour blasted us all the way to camp. It was brutal, and completely zapped my energy. I refused to let it get me down, but it certainly got to others. At one rest stop, people were gathering their resources to get them home. "I need to emotionally prepare myself for this," one man sighed. One woman was complaining, “I hear there is a big hill ahead, along with these f******* winds! Why are they making this so hard for us?” Hmmm. So did the Lifecycle people order these winds to make it “so hard?” I couldn’t help saying something, directed at the surrounding people, not just her. “Well,” I said, “we did choose to be here.” The woman didn’t say anything, but others thoughtfully nodded. Nobody was making us do this, and we could choose to whine and complain or to suck it up and remember why we were doing this.

It really amazed me how many people were not prepared for the Ride in general. To be fair, you could never really know what to expect until you do it. But many people were in horrible pain, had a really hard time setting up and living in camp, or just felt the Ride was so “extreme.” Hell yeah, it’s extreme! I think most of them still had an amazing time, but did not get everything out of it they could have. And I think they simply did not train, educate, and mentally prepare themselves properly. My coworkers and house mates and boy can attest to what a nut I was and how I had no life by May, but I felt adequately prepared and once again, am thankful for my sacrifices.

Anyway, I persevered and made in to camp once again. And once again, I couldn’t believe I continued to do every single mile.

Day 6 So much beauty in the world

Day 6 already? I couldn't believe it. It was kind of bizarre--my butt barely hurt that day. I felt pretty great over all. I guess that come with knowing you're heading down the home stretch, and your body somehow adjusting to the madness. It certainly didn't hurt to see our beloved camp truck roadies decked out in their finest white trash outfits, complete with pillows under shirts and yummy snacks for us such as Spam and marshmallows! Such theatrics may sound silly, but believe me, the tireless and creative roadies really help put a smile on your aching body.

So many beautiful sights awaited us on Day 6, from Lompoc to Ventura. We went up and over a big hill, and then happily out to the coast once again. Things truly felt like Southern California now--palm trees, deep blue ocean, lots of beaches with people cruisin' by on their cruisers, and perfect sunny skies with an ocean breeze. We passed through Santa Barbara, former college home to many of my friends. I already liked SB, but it gets major points now for hosting "Paradise Pit" for us riders. Every year, residents and local businesses create an unofficial rest stop where we can have all the ice cream and cookies we want for free. They do it just because they really support our cause. I have never had such good rocky road in my life. Thank you, SB!

The road out to Ventura may have been my favorite so far. We cruised along mostly flat roads and bike paths (always a treat to get off the street) that hugged the coast, lined with flowering trees and palms. What a wonderful near end to this incredible experience. My thoughts overflowed with the people I loved and the undying support they had shown me, and all I had done to get here. I couldn't stop smiling.

Many people besides our roadies cheered us into Ventura. We camped right near the beach here, and for the first time the night was almost warm. This night on the ride is special because everyone participates in a candle light vigil. After the evening announcements, everyone grabs a candle and heads down to the beach in near silence. The sight of all the glowing candles under the turquoise twilit sky was a beautifully somber sight. Eventually everyone sat in a big circle, and it was truly amazing to see how many of us were there, gathered together in quiet solidarity. I thought about my dad's friend Joe, who was HIV positive and had died a few years ago. He was a very sweet and exuberant man who never let his situation get him down. I also thought of all the other people who had died, many of them possible friends I never got to meet.

After some time, most people walked to the ocean's edge to extinguish their candle. While that is a cool idea, I knew Joe was a unique man and thought he would appreciate something different. I scooped up some sand and let it fall onto the candle until it went out. I slept peacefully that night, basking in the togetherness of this temporary but incredible community, and the excitement of finishing tomorrow.

Day 7 Life changing, heart warming, hope affirming

Camp had a distracted, jaunty feel to it in the morning. Everyone was eager to get on the road, and yet this was the last time we would all be together. In my typical neurotic fashion, I started getting worried I wouldn't be able to find everyone that I wanted to say goodbye to. Eventually I relaxed and figured that these things just seem to work out.

Once again, we had another pretty easy, gorgeous ride. At one point 101 stops being a highway, and it was hills and cliffs against the pounding surf. We went up through Malibu, and supposedly past Cher's house. It was rather cloudy when we started out. A couple girls from my training rides commented about it at a rest stop. "Yes, but when we get to the finish line, the sun will break through and it will be beautiful and magical!" I proclaimed. They agreed that would be magical, but doubted it would happen. What do you know, I ended up being right!

We had our final lunch in the shadow of Pepperdine University, overlooking the ocean. Fortunately, I saw almost everyone I would have wanted to say goodbye to. Ruth my tent mate, Matt and his new friends, training leader Kurt, Michael from Texas, and various folks from my training rides.

And then it was down the home stretch. The sun started shining as we entered LA, and more and more people started appearing along the roads, cheering on friends and family. I started feeling giddy and a little nervous for the ending. I was in contact with Dan about meeting up with me at the end, and it seemed I would get there a little before him. I could have waited, but I was just too excited. It was ok if he didn't see me ride in; I was just so happy he would be there in general.

Unbelievably soon, I approached the Veterans Affairs Center, the ending the of the Ride. We were funneled through a gauntlet of hundreds of cheering people. The love was overwhelming. First I started crying, and then I threw my head back laughing in pure joy. I heard my training ride leader Joseph, such a sweet and supportive guy, in the crowd clanging his cowbell and yelling, "Yay Elissa!! You did it!" And then I pulled into the grassy finish area. I DID do it! Every single mile.

I finished near the same time as Eric and some other training ride folks, so we happily hugged and rejoiced together. I saw Ruth shortly afterward also, and we exchanged big hugs and loudly proclaimed how awesome we were. Dan was still a few minutes away, so I stood at the end and cheered for my fellow riders. Despite being filthy, sweaty, and disheveled, and I felt great and so full of life at that moment. I called my parents and texted my friends and brother and sister the happy news. My wonderful mom said, "I never doubted for a second you could do it, Lissa! You are my hero!"

Finally my baby and I found each other, and we fell teary eyed into each other's arms. It felt so good to hug him and be with someone close to me. We chilled on the grass for a little while, and I picked up my victory t-shirt and all that good stuff. I wanted to stay for the closing ceremonies, but was starting to feel the exhaustive week crash down on me, so we decided to get going.

I'm sure the closing ceremonies were wonderful, but there is a reason I'm glad we did not stay for them. On our way out, I ran into Jo, my cyclist representative. All riders are assigned a rep to help them with training, fundraising, and just the whole daunting aspect of preparing for the ride. Though we had met only a couple times before, we had emailed a lot and she was essential to my participating in the ride. Around January I was doing decently with fundraising, but had not bought a bike yet and was seriously doubting that I could afford one. She gave me some pointers and encouraged me to find a way, which I did. Then I was really scared to start to the training rides, and once again she gave me the boost I needed to start.

I had my huge backpack on when Jo saw me and came running over to us. She gave me a kiss on the cheek and slapped me ten, almost knocking me over because my bag was so heavy. I told her, "Jo, I did it!! I did every single mile--never walked, never took the bus. I couldn't have done it without your help!"

Then she said, "Elissa, I never doubted you could do it. I am so proud of you!" She even gave Dan a hug and asked him, "Are you so proud of your girl?" To which he responded, "Are you kidding? She's amazing!"

I'm really glad I got to see her again--and thanks again, Jo! And thank you everyone, new friends and old, family and families of others for being a part of my journey. Believe me, I thought of all of you on the Ride and could not have done it without all the ways you supported me.

I was lucky to have the perfect R and R after the Ride. I went with Dan to his parent's house in North County where we sprawled on beaches, were fed copious amounts of food, and slept about 12 hours a night. I felt completely recovered soon, and a week and a half later was on my bike again--albeit on pretty mellow rides.

"I can see why this is the type of thing that gets addictive," a fellow rider said at some point on the Ride. Several hundred people already signed up for next year. When I ran into Matt back at work, he laughingly said he just signed up again. Next year will be AIDS Lifecycle's 10th anniversary, which will make it even more special than usual. I haven't signed up yet, but I am seriously considering it. I am really hoping to recruit some of you to join me!

I think nearly everyone believes Lifecycle is a great cause, but in talking to people I realized many do not fully understand how it helps those with HIV or AIDS. "There is no cure, and probably never will be a cure for AIDS, so why bother?" some cynics actually say. I can tell you there is SO much more to looking for a cure involved. The SF AIDS Foundation and the LA Gay and Lesbian Center are the two beneficiaries of Lifecycle. One major thing they do is promote HIV testing so people know their status and then hopefully do not spread it if they are positive. The funding they receive allows them to provide testing in poorer areas such as the Tenderloin in SF.

The organizations also provide numerous resources and support for people who have the disease. They also do general education and outreach to the public, and help organizations in other countries such as South Africa, where AIDS is devasting the population. I heard about or personally talked to several people who said they were alive today because of the services provided by SFAF or LAGALC. And yes, some of the money does go to research towards finding cures, effective treatments for symptoms, and a vaccine. Personally, while I think finding a cure is a long ways off, I do think a vaccination could happen in my lifetime. AIDS Lifecycle raised $11 million dollars for these organizations that will make a life or death difference in many, many people’s lives.

I think many people feel they are somehow immune to HIV or AIDS, and some still believe it is a "gay disease." Remember, anyone of any sex, age, race, or sexual orientation can get it. If you or someone you know may be at risk for HIV, please encourage them to get tested. The organizations I mentioned can provide testing in a free, safe, and non-judgemental atmosphere. For more info and just to learn more about them in general, check out their websites.

Ok, thank you for listening to my diatribe...I am basically trying to say there that is a long way to go in fighting HIV and AIDS, and much more involved than finding a cure. I remember long ago seeing a quote from Kenneth Cole that said, "Sick of hearing about people with AIDS? In time, they'll go away." Tragically, the men, woman, and children with AIDS will go away. But the disease itself will not if we sit idly by. And one super fun and inspiring way to help is by doing AIDS Lifecycle!

So many people were incredibly supportive of me doing the ride, but said "I could never ride 560 miles." I am telling you that you can! Unless you are having a baby soon (a lot of you, I know) and you can make some time commitments to fundraising and training, you CAN do the ride. I would love to have more company next year if I decide to do it. It was truly the most life changing, heart warming, and hope affirming event I have ever done. Come on, people....who's with me? :)

About Me

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San Francisco, CA
Elissa is an east coast transplant making her way through life by way of San Francisco. This amazing city provides lots of fodder for writers of all types. I find inspiration for writing through life's little and bizarre events, such as grocery shopping for dog treats, salamander hunting, and insomnia. I am a preschool teacher in "real life."