I Woke Up Like This

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I have avoided writing anything about this presidential election because it's been a shitshow of anger and illogical outbursts and I didn't want to get caught in the crossfire.

I feel bad for my Republican friends, especially because you guys had so little to choose from right from the start. I don't know what's going on with your party, but I know that for so many of you, it's a rough ride and you would like nothing more than to forget the whole thing. 

As for my Democrat friends, well, it's been crazy, right? For the longest time I think we were coming to terms with the fact that the Obamas are leaving the White House. I'm not sure we are Ok with that yet, but we can no longer live in denial. I, personally, was impressed with Bernie Sanders and truly believe he would make a great President. But then we got Hillary Clinton. I didn't know how I felt about that. I didn't enjoy Bill Clinton's leadership and I wasn't sure I could handle this whole thing of two people from the same family getting elected AGAIN. So, I've been a political minimalist this time, taking in the news in small doses for about a month. I've ignored the bait of dramatic social media posts. I've been thinking quietly.


I had my 2nd post op check up today since my mastectomy nine days ago. This time with the plastic surgeon. For those wondering, everything is on track and both my doctors are very happy with my progress thus far. I did have to stop taking the narcotic painkillers very early on due to some more than inconvenient side effects, so I am attempting to manage my pain with ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Right now that's a bit like throwing rocks at a seagull while eating a bag of popcorn on the beach. It just keeps coming back and my patience is thin. It's exhausting.
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Tomorrow morning I will get one breast amputated. I'm using that word because it's appropriate and the experience of sitting here, the night before, thinking about it, is exactly what you would fear it might be like. It feels pretty freaking awful. I'm scared and I'm worried and I'm also, surprisingly, still angry about the whole thing. Mostly, I'm angry that there is no cure for cancer and no one knows why we get it.

I've got some pretty good circumstances going on for someone who is about to do this. 
1) I have DCIS, the "good cancer". The one that's in my milk ducts and isn't supposed to have gone anywhere else. 
2) At this point, they don't think I will need chemotherapy.
3) It's Stage 0. Pre-cancerous.
4) I'm going to live through this.

I'm 45; relatively young. I feel about 28. However, if I'm honest, I have to say that I have just reached a point in my life when that grey hair and crinkles around my eyes aren't so funny anymore. Up until about a year ago, I was still pretty happy with how I looked in a swim suit. I was lucky and I knew it. It's not that I didn't think that something like this couldn't happen to me. I expected it. But I didn't expect it to come crashing in when I was dealing with other life crisis. But yeah, life is unpredictable and all that. Cue the violin. Poor me.

Ugly Truth

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It's July and I'm going to call it: 2016 is the worst year in my lifetime so far. 

I would list all the things that prove this, but it would sound whiny and I honestly think that not much of an explanation is needed at this point. I am, however, going to compartmentalize, because it's all I can do that keeps me from drowning. I place one feeling here, another There. Over here I have bags of anger; to the left is a pile of smiles I pull out for all those optimistic people who get downright cheerful with me when I am stating shitty facts. Those smiles are getting a bit tight and stiff as my mastectomy surgery date gets near, however. I admit, at times I am lying when I say I'm fine. 

I believe the facts - those successful facts about survival and quick recovery, by the way. I know. I know I will get through this. And I am surprised by and appreciative of all the people who are empathetic and want to help. 

But it seems wrong to deny those "shitty facts" their share of attention. It makes me feel that my emotions are somehow wrong and shameful to hide them. If I've learned anything about hardship, it's that you can't pretend it away. You shouldn't get into the habit of feeding your insecurities, but you should make it known what you are dealing with, so that the next person who encounters it has more information than you did. Or, at least, your friends and family know what you are dealing with so they know better how to help you.

There. Have I justified this post enough?


None of you know me. I doubt Kenzie ever mentioned me in conversation. We didn’t see each other often- the occasional holiday that, for me, was the highlight of my year, was probably a bit awkward for her. I’m her mom’s little sister, the aunt who she heard gave her mom a lot of grief while growing up. But you, her friends and acquaintances, and your parents and families have been on my mind since the day McKenzie left us. Suddenly, we were no longer strangers. We are in this together.

Babylon is Every Town

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When I was 12 I became a Christian. For the next 14 years I attended so many Christian concerts that I have lost count. I stood in the crowds os teenage masses singing along, hands held high. I didn't like church. I barely liked to say the name Jesus among my friends. But I did love that unity, that sound of everyone in agreement about love, singing, the sound so loud that my skull vibrated with the beat. 

I'm going to date myself here, but I have a memory of Rick Florian, the lead singer for a band called White Heart, strutting through the audience, his eyes wide, sweat flying. He takes the mic away from his face and just stares at the crowd in disbelief. What a life! For a second, he looks right at me and nods his head. We are all part of something incredible at that moment. He knows it. I know it. 

That's what my life was for several years. A series of incredible musical moments that I just happened upon. It helped that I became a DJ and a photographer. It helped that I dated guys in bands. I graduated from Christian concerts to mainstream ones. I've been in studios while tracks were laid down. I've chatted while CDs were mixed. I've been in writing sessions, providing my two cents. Behind the scenes, before, during and after; nearly every thing I did had some connection to the music.

I never did drugs. I never had a problem with alcohol. When my kids have asked me about this, I have said that I guess I just didn't have those addictive genetics. That may be true. But my drug was music. It was live music; those emotional highs that come with the unity that is created at concerts and intimate shows at little clubs. It doesn't happen every time. Not everyone gets it. But I remember well every time it did. No drug can match that.

When I was younger, I worried that I felt too much, was too awake. Now, at 44, I feel more awake than ever. Religion isn't a part of my life. Meaning, I don't participate in prayer or church, don't feel the same about Christianity as Christians do. But that doesn't mean I have forgotten those moments of great unity that singing songs of love and peace created. I don't believe in much these days, but I believe in that. 

Music can communicate something that speaking and writing can't. 

One of my favorite shows that I ever saw was the band Live and Counting Crows at Sloss Furnace in Birmingham, AL. Sloss is a really intimate venue because you basically walk down into a pit, with cement walls on both sides and no seating. I was maybe 30 years old, feeling much older and self conscious about being surrounded by college kids guzzling beer. I got a place on the wall to sit and standing next to me were these muscle head frat boys wearing trendy T's and drinking cheap beer. I was thinking Why are you here? How can you even know and appreciate these bands??? 

A recent show at Sloss

The show started and, though hesitant in the beginning, I finally loosened up enough to get into it. Something in me knew there wouldn't be many more shows like this.  And that magical  phenomenon that I know to be true, began happening. The familiar guitar starts and Ed Kowalczyk starts singing Lightning Crashes. All borders go to hell. Lighters go up. These two college guys turn to me and we sing at the top of our lungs. 

"Oh now feel it, coming' back again
Like a rollin' thunder chasing the wind
Forces pulling' from the center of the earth again
I can feel it"

And we sang:

"Love will lead us, alright
Love will lead us, she will lead us
Can you hear the dolphin's cry
See the road rise up to meet us
It's in the air we breathe tonight
Love will lead us, she will lead us"

And we sang:

"In a dream I had
You were standing all alone
With a dying World below
And a microphone
Singing hallelujah
I finally broke their mould"

The entire crowd was with us. Unified like some Southern Baptist choir on the last day of the revival. Better than that, because I felt no guilt, no confusion about what it meant to any of us. If that's not Love, I don't know what is. 

I think about these moments a lot lately. As much, I think about these songs. In an election year, I guess most of us are looking for some peace, some unity. We are also looking for someone to stand up and lead us. Preferably someone who spends more energy inspiring the masses rather than picking apart the other party and dividing us further. 

I don't care that I'm 44 and that more than half the people who knew me way back when think I am some sort of tree hugging liberal with no love for the conservatives views of my former home state. I think, if we were in the presence of a melody that moved us, we would see that  common ground. We'd be family again, for a minute. We'd find our better selves.

The night at Sloss, Live left the stage and people started to go home. In fact, more than 3/4 were gone when Ed walked out onstage and sat down at the piano and started to play. My friends and I walked all the way down front and received this precious gift, this intimate solo of Ed singing Overcome. We were in the middle of a war and I felt every note. I was Overcome. 

I feel that way during this election. I think we could all use a bit of love. Maybe a lot. So, this is my offering to you today. Here is my go-to fix for hope. I hope you will also share yours. 

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We've begun our third year here in Novato. Two years we've been living the Dream. Because so many of you, through the all dancing - all singing- all revealing-power of the internet,  followed us on the journey here, I felt it only fair (and probably therapeutic for me) to give you an update. 

Turns out, even when you live in a great place with great people, great weather and great schools, there are still shitty days. Who knew? Well, we did, of course. Because I have had the pleasure of moving 30 times or so in my life prior to this move, I knew that time would reveal new challenges. Things that we had never considered would take away the skip in our steps, do. 

If I'm honest, and you know I am, I have to say that most days are good. That's something I wouldn't have said three years ago. I almost feel guilty about some of my Facebook posts. I fear appearing like the exact kind of person I wouldn't want to talk to - all smiles and perfect portraits, overusing words like "epic" and "awesome". We've hit some bumps and even a brick wall or two in the last two years and I know you have too. For what it's worth, here's what it is truly like to "Move across the country and take a chance on the West Coast"

These "great schools" require a hell of a lot of time and money. School started one month after we moved and the requests for money and time began rolling in immediately and never stopped. California, like a lot of states, has robbed it's schools of the resources they need to produce intelligent, happy, prepared kids. Parents pick up the slack. I, who used to break into a cold sweat when I even thought about my old classrooms, am now the PTA Parliamentarian. Last year I volunteered in my kids classrooms for a minimum of two hours per week, worked special events & fundraisers, donated funds monthly and have purchased triple my weight in kleenex and antibacterial wipes. This year I added to that- re-designing and editing the school websites, attending Board Meetings, General PTA meetings, Technology Committee for the school, Technology Advisory Committee for the District, School Spirit Wear, Essay Contest and Variety Show. I'm not bragging here; I'm admitting to the craziness rules my days. I basically work for a non-profit - again- only now I don't get a paycheck. The craziest part? I'm one of the mediocre volunteers. There are moms and dads here who make my contribution look like tokens in a fountain.

Clash, living his dream on the very dry Novato hills
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IT DOES NOT RAIN.  The drought that you hear about on the news and give a little frown about before you go water your tomatoes; that drought is a damn crisis here. The only time I have walked on green grass since we moved here was the patch we found just outside a resort we stayed in two weeks ago. The reservoir near our house looks pretty full, but watering your lawn is a big no no. Garden? LOL!  What garden? We have learned to conserve and re-use in ways I never considered. Remember that episode of Six Feet Under when Nate and Claire visit Lisa at her Berkley home and Claire is repulsed by the bathroom sign? "If it's yellow...."  Yeah. That's for real. Rain cleanses - not just your soul when you are like me, but also the sidewalks, streets, tennis courts, skate parks, the air. Think about that. Imagine your town without rain.

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This is that town where Jesus turned all the water into wine. This might be happening all over the country but every time I turn round someone is offering me a drink. It makes sense since we are literally a jog away from Sonoma and Napa. Novato was formerly known as The Gateway to Wine Country and I think it now might be where all the professional wine drinkers live. I know many of you are like, packing your moving boxes as you read this, but as someone who has an , eh hem, alcohol intolerance (Read: Cannot handle my liquor) this can be tricky. I feel like such a killjoy. Everyone's all, "Did you taste this bottle of chardonnay?" And I'm like, "HOW ARE YOU STILL STANDING? I'm so dehydrated my eyeballs feel like raisins!"

Speaking of Jesus, he's Catholic around here. Yes. You Okie and southerner friends hear that? Not Jewish; not Christian. Catholic. Catholics on my left, Catholics on my right. Don't get your preachy fingers going on that imaginary comment yet, though. No one here has tried to sell me a Jesus and Mary story or even given me a self righteous glance, which is really refreshing. There is nary an evangelical to be seen. But as a family who is Jewish by title and holiday ritual only, finagling a get together for the high holidays has been like re-invening the wheel. Our community has a handful of half Jewish families and we've managed to pull it together a few times to celebrate but finding a good challa loaf has not been easy. Our daughter has done presentations for her classes on the Jewish holidays - twice. I sometimes worry that my kids feel a little too unique. And the questions? Sign me up to negotiate peace in the Middle East because I am perfecting my skills as a religious diplomat.

Everbody's a scholar. I was going to type Everybody's smarter than me, but I don't think I can go that far, after all, they haven't solved that drought problem, have they? I will say that I don't bother asking anyone what their qualifications are around here because when our PTA Board did opening introductions at our first, unofficial, meeting, I felt like I was on the set of The Weakest Link. I don't even think I did my usual shpiel about being a "jane-of-all-trades" because, really, who cares when the person sitting next to you has a Masters in Strategic Marketing and the Marine Biologist in front of you is as humble as the Pope? I kind of wanted to stand up and scream "I can tape all your butt cheeks together!" and throw my wine glass in the fireplace of the trendy restaurant we were dining in. (Of course) If there is an Over-Achievers Anonymous meeting here, they will have to hold it at the Giants Stadium and I will not be attending. These people are smart!

This home below is on the market in Novato. Bids start at a mere $600,000.
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That might explain why even a starter house will cost well over a half million dollars. A little backstory: You may not be aware of this, depending on where you live, but 2007 was a very bad year to buy a home. We had a new baby; we had just arrived in NJ and were living with my in-laws and, well, I could explain it all, but I think you know. Home prices took a dive, then they went deeper than a dive. A lot pf people walked away from their homes in those days. A lot of marriages were stressed to the breaking point. At our worst moment, don't think it didn't cross our minds to abandon our little home on Jackson Street. Then, Sandy hit. It has to be said that recovery from Hurricane Sandy is not like recovery in Oklahoma from tornados. It's just not that quick. Housing prices simply were not rising. When we finally called our realtor, she delivered the news that our home would not likely get close to what we paid for it, for another 13 years. That was 10 years too long. Our will to stay evaporated. We decided to accept our financial loss and go.

It was a big loss, by the way. It took all our savings, zeroed out our hope of having a downpayment toward another home and emptied us of pride. We became renters again. But here's the thing about moving to such a "desirable area" like Novato. The prices just go up, up, UP! And even though Mike's income has gone up, Up, UP too, looking at home prices with our realtor last week was a real kick in the teeth. I'm not sure it's going to happen, people. And renting? Renting sucks. While we are extremely fortunate to be renting a wonderful home right now, we are not the renting type of family. We are the roots down, build a proper deck, plant the vegetables kind of family. We are a family who hates moving boxes. 

The Grans. My Family. This is the suckiest sucky part. My kids live far away from all five grandparents and all nine aunts and uncles. Do not ask me to count the cousins. For six years I dealt with the sadness of being a new mom, but living far away from my family. Because Mike's parents and grandparents were nearby, I knew my kids had them and it was good. Very good. Baby sitters can't replace family, but even our babysitter was pretty much family. (We still miss you, MaryBeth) 

Now we are here, no family around. I think, (and I type this this with caution) that living this far away from both our families has given Mike and I some autonomy that we didn't have before and that has been good. I feel very sad and guilty about it, though, when I see how much my kids miss their grandparents. And, frankly, I miss my own parents and brother and sister even more than I did before this move. I don't know why that is, other than the fact that my kids are getting older and I see those inherited characteristics that are so very Russell. That, and it sure would be nice to have someone to yell at who is used to my bullshit. I mean, there is not a lot that I could say these days that my mom or my sister hasn't already heard from me. And they know just when to say that it will all be OK. 

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Living the Dream, we are. In the first year that we were here, I had several people tell me that I seem different. They said I seem happy. No one had told me that in several years. I think part of that is certainly due to us taking a chance and moving here, even with the cost, even considering the emotional and social adjustment. Even if it means I am no longer the smartest girl in the room. Ha. But I also think part of that happiness is due to me getting older, and seeing the negatives as part of the deal. There truly is shit to deal with EVERYWHERE. 
Here, I feel less like a fish out of water. I enjoy more sunshine. But I always feel a little strange advertising the best parts of this life when I know that there are drawbacks that I don't think everyone can handle. 

So, I hope reading about some of my California life makes you have warm fuzzies about the crap I deal with that doesn't apply to you. :) Am I right? If you are contemplating a move, I hope you count the cost and deem it payable. Or, maybe now you see it's simply a stupid thing for you and your family to do. That's cool too. So long as we are all keeping it real.

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Every year on this day a flood of memories return. But today I want to share with you this one.

It's about 3 weeks after the towers have been hit. (I'm guessing, those days are blurry) I'm sitting with my boss, Dave Hoerman at Moran's Ale House on Washington Street. We were surprised and pleased to find Moran's open that night. The facade is dusty and the bar is flanked by WTC recovery workers of every organization. 

Dave and I have just surveyed what was starting to be called Ground Zero, using a bandana and a jacket to filter the stench that still filled the air. We are shaken and feeling pretty off balance from everything we have seen and felt that day. I'm wearing a suit skirt and heels - something you will never find me wearing now. I'm carrying a laptop in my bag along with my Deutsche Bank ID and several credit cards.

As we sit and place our orders for food we are not sure we can eat, these hollowed out workers come in and out. Some of them have dinner and some have a drink. No one is asked to pay. It's quiet, though there must be a dozen other men at the bar. Some drink with heads bowed. No words. Moran's had become a sanctuary for those who continued to work in the midst of the crisis.This bar, which had once been a Syrian church was then a place of refuge.

It's interesting that this memory comes back to me now while the news of Syrian refugees looking for a place to find peace fills the airwaves today.

As tragic as that day was for me, I remember those open doors for those workers who shouldered so much more of the pain of 9/11 than most of us have ever dreamt about. It was a little bit of solace in a horrendous time. For free. No credentials had to be shown, no proof submitted. The owners of Moran's saw a desperate need and filled it. Because they could. Because it was the right thing to do.

Moran's closed down in 2011, about ten years after that night. 9/11 changed the course of the financial district and as nearby construction created traffic problems, business took a dive. Does that mean that the Moran family regrets all those free dinners and beers? I doubt it.

My mother used to tell me about WWII - "It changed people." I do understand that now. The Penny who carried that briefcase and traveled to NYC in business class and black car service was long gone by 2002. But instead of having it close me down to every future thing that may hurt as bad, I hope it has opened me up to offer more compassion and given me the ability to spot opportunities to provide refuge rather than deny that basic human need to anyone; regardless of who they are, where they are from. To me, that is what being a real Patriot is about.
Here's to all those who went before us on that day.

Shake The Dust

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I'm not feeling it today. I even played 80's music in the car and it only had me thinking, "I listened to this?". Everywhere I look people are letting go of some dream or idea, divorce, death, job loss; all there. I found my mind wandering a few days ago, wondering what life would be like if Patrick Bonds had lived. Someone I trusted from long ago. Dead now 25 years. I must be really grasping at straws because he would probably feed me some line about Jesus and burdens and I don't even believe that shit anymore. That's how I'm feeling - like saying "shit" and "Jesus" in the same sentence is one of the myriad of things I say that separates me from other people. 

You can spend all day telling me what Jesus did or is or how God moves. And even people who don't believe any of that will still look at you as some good intentioned citizen. But when I say I think it's likely a croc of shit, I'm somehow less, set aside, frowned at. But it's my belief! I feel it and know it the same way you do. I don't feel bad that Jesus isn't saving anyone, I feel bad that you feel bad about me thinking that. 

No matter where you go there's enough conformity and facade to render us all, basically, useless. And today I'm having a hard time keeping those emotions close to me. Today, this sunny day when nothing is really wrong, I feel a bit sad and angry. It happens. It will pass. But don't tell me there's a reason for it. I know there's not.

"And this one right here ah.. this is for the fat girls
This one is a... is for the little brothers
This is for the schoolyard wimps, for the childhood bullies who tormented them
To the former prom queen and to the milk-crate ball players
For the nighttime cereal eaters and for the retired elderly walmart store front door greeters
Shake the dust
This is for the benches and the people sitting upon
For the bus drivers driving a million broken hymns
To the men who have to hold down three jobs simply to hold up their children
For the nighttime schoolers and for the midnight bike riders trying to fly
Shake the dust
This is for the two-year-olds who cannot be understood because they speak half English and half God
Shake the dust
For the boys with the beautiful beautiful sisters
Shake the dust
For the girls with those brothers who are going crazy
Those gym class wallflowers and the twelve-year-olds afraid of taking public showers
For the kid who is always late to class and forgets the combination to his lockers
And the girl who loved somebody else
Shake the dust
This is for the hard men who want love but know that it won't come
For the one's amendments who not stand up for
For the ones who are forgotten
For the ones who are told to speak only when you are spoken to
And then they are never spoken to speak (La la...)
Every time you stand so you do not forget yourself
Do not let one moment go by that doesn't remind you that your heart beats hundred thousand times a day
And that they have gallons of blood making every one is an Oceans"

Mat Kearney - Hearbreak Dreamers

This is what I looked like before. I know, there's Nick in the photo. That's how it was. We were dating and we were optimistic and utterly unprepared for what was ahead.
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I was 24 years old but I felt much older. My 1st marriage had ended. I knew I needed something. A  wake up call, a slap in the face, a friend, a simpler atmosphere... Something. So, I boarded a plane and flew away.  
It was 20 years ago today that I got on that plane. And while it may seem like such a small thing to someone who wasn't there with me, I know it changed the course of my life. I know it still matters to me today because it still affects decisions I make from who I chose as a friend and how I make my breakfast. 

In 2001 I wrote out my Romania Story on my blog. While those words are all true at that time, even more has changed now. The lens has been altered by more travels, more people, motherhood and general experience. No more God. No more victim mentality. 

When I look back now, and I do love to look back on that first visit to Romania and Switzerland, I think of all those people who are part of the equation that altered my life. Some of them have no idea how big their contribution was to my life. They are dear to me still. So, today, on this 20 Year Anniversary of that turning point in my life, I celebrate those friends. Some, long lost, others, still present. Thank you for being there with me.

The Swansons, minus Allison. Leaving for the Philippines after having me in their home for a week. Hi Rach!

Busingen, looking like a postcard. I told my mom in a letter that the money felt like board game money in my hand, that it was like a dream.

Nick and I with Abraham, a student at ENBC who bought us 2 bags of groceries before he took us to the train bound for Romania. I will never forget his kindness.

A meal that we ate after walking through the Black Forest in Kandern, Germany. I've never forgotten that Forest or this moment.

Dorothy Tarrants tiny kitchen in her first apartment in Sighisoara. It is at this spot where I learned to be still and enjoy a simple piece of toast with coffee or tea. I learned to close my eyes and take in a morning.


Our little show at Radio Total in Bucharest where I learned to make something from nothing and never to underestimate a listeners ability to misunderstand every word I say.
Bidi and me and the spital in Sighisoara. Here I learned what real heartache is and how privileged I am.
Nicoleta, me and her brother. Her family hosted me and Mina Pak for a bit. When I think of strong women, she is one that comes to mind.
The Girls and their family. At least three of these ladies still communicate with me now. Carmen (in the red hat) is married with a baby girl of her own. Daniela and Genica live in the UK. Love you, girls!
IMG_4651.jpgThe snow! I wish I had a better photo. I wish a photo could convey the complete silence of my walks at night when the snow quieted everything. This is me, Alex and the girls.

That day that we went to the mountains and Cristi proposed to Andrea. I adore these two. Andrea, every time I cut into bread form the bakery I think of you and your family. Your apartment was the first time I ate a breakfast of fresh bread, straight from the cutting board. 
Carmen getting her nails done for the first time when David and I decided to hold a "beauty session" in his house. 
IMG_4645.jpgCafe lunch with Dorothy on the far right. She took me in. She taught me how to thoughtfully listen and tactfully change the course of a conversation. I'm not as great at it as she is, but I think of her face often when I try to be diplomatic among acquaintances. Also pictured is Tom From Maine, David Tarrant and Mina Pak.
 Veronica. I don't know where she is or how she is doing. But I still think of her from time to time and I am reminded that not every problem gets solved.
This is what I looked like when I came home. No make-up, down ten pounds and minus any hope of ever being who I was before. But it was a glorious break-down! It was a hard right turn away from what I thought my life should be and it's affected every move since. My appreciation for the people I knew then, (Like Matt & Anita Hanlon, Gabi Popa and David, pictured here from my last night before I flew home) is still strong, despite the years that have passed, regardless of the contact we do or don't have today. From them I learned what being a marriage "team" meant, how to enjoy simpler things in life, how to have an adventure instead of a "trip", what it's like to have your breath taken away and how to make turkish coffee. 
Thank you all for that time, that first trip. 20 years on, I wouldn't change a thing.