Archive for the 'hope' Category

dear paris

O Paris, my friend.

You continue to be outrageously beautiful and interesting.

See you again soon.

ashes and air

The unexpected highlights of Paris this year were Sainte-Chapelle and the Pantheon. At the top of the servant’s stairs into Sainte-Chapelle I stopped for ten seconds, struck entirely dumb. A jillionty tonnes of stone are transformed into a soaring volume of space, filled with the rainbow light of stained glass. I knew the first part of the story from Waugh’s Helena and the True Cross: how Constantine’s mother had travelled to Jerusalem to find the relics of the Passion. I hadn’t known that Emperor Baldwin went broke and sold the Crown of Thorns and assorted True Cross bits to Saint Louis in the 13th century, and that Louis brought them to France. In doing so Louis was trying to combine spiritual and political power, heavenly and earthly crowns, and so the Sainte-Chapelle has the hybrid vigor of a place both sacred and imperial.

So too does the Pantheon, but the other way around. It was originally conceived as a church but consecrated, in the end, as a secular memorial to great men of the Republic. It has become another way for France to assert what it believes itself to be in the durable languages of stone and human remains. We took a tour around the dome and the view of Paris was beyond anything; between the Eiffel Tower and the Tour Montparnasse we saw a Montgolfier-style tethered balloon levitating its tourists. Down in the crypt we all separately found Marie Curie and were, to our mutual surprise, moved. She was interred there on her own merits, the first woman to be so honoured.

It’s what I meant when I talked about choosing our own ancestors: in my case, Saint Jane Austen, Saint Harvey Milk and Saint Octavia Butler. The future is a nation we build with our hope and the work of our hands. It derives its power from our beloved dead.

grand tour

I realized just before our flight that we would be landing half way through the matinee for which we had tickets; proof if proof were needed of just how badly I needed a break. I called Grant and woke him at 1am to explain, and somehow by the time we landed he had cajoled the theatre into exchanging our cheap-ass matinee tickets for tickets to the evening performance. Grant’s impossible to describe. He’d be one of my favourite people on earth even if he hadn’t introduced me to Jeremy; as it is, he is responsible for most of the great joys of my life.

Our hotel was a stone’s throw from St Pancras. Grant met us there and took us to one of the restaurants on Battlebridge Place, the newly developed expanse of public space between St Pancras and Kings Cross. Miss Jo came to meet us and so did Kirsty, so there I sat in the warm evening with my kids and some of my dearest friends, my Mardi-Gras-and-Burning-Man-crossover friends, bewilderingly happy. Kirsty and her friend Sacha joined us for the show, Lin-Manuel’s other musical, In the Heights; great fun.

As we walked back to our hotel we stopped at the large birdcage covered in rainbow LEDs, and Julia swung on the swing inside.

The next morning we hit in quick succession the British Library Reading Room (pages from Leonardo’s journals, the Magna Carta, Jane Austen’s writing desk and Persuasion in her handwriting), the Wellcome Collection (Napoleon’s toothbrush) and – our overwhelming favourite – the Grant Museum of Zoology, with its quagga and thylacine skeletons and its dodo bones.

Still jetlagged, I dozed off on the Eurostar and woke having no idea what country I was in; southern England looks a lot like Northern France. I had slept through the Channel tunnel! Arriving in Paris by train is infinitely preferable to flying in. We took the Metro from Gare du Nord and walked from Odeon to our apartment.

We travel like such nerds. Picking up where we left off last year in the Louvre, I noticed myself noticing things. Last year, feeling crosser, I was outraged at the self-congratulatory imperialism of places like the British Library and the Louvre. This year, humbler and more grateful, I thought: Yes, and; England and France robbed the world but in their museums, we-the-colonised can look at the things once kept only for our foreign kings. I love palaces made over into public spaces. I love the children in the Grant squealing over the jar of moles, and the black women among the Egyptian antiquities, their hair in cornrows exactly like the people in the friezes.

grounding devices

Dark times etc. Here’s what’s working right now to keep the panic attacks at bay (note effectiveness may cease at any time without warning):

  1. Following beloved institutions on Booky McBookface: Cal Academy, Marine Mammal Center, Monterey Bay Aquarium, SF MOMA
  2. (Making plans out past election day like there’s going to be a future)
  3. I know you think your cats are cute but my cats are super cute okay, I’ve given the matter a lot of thought
  4. The new Mexican place around the corner is full of natural light and delicious food that everyone in our family will eat
  5. I’m still starry-eyed as fuck about this city, man it’s beautiful

hope in the dark, by rebecca solnit

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.

alice has foots

Also, her belly is floof. Consider:

friday five, but on a monday

  1. Have I really not blogged in three weeks? Oh well it’s not like anything of local or world-historical importance has happened HAHAHAHA dear god
  2. I can’t really bring myself to say anything about Orlando or the assassination of Jo Cox except that AR-15s and high-capacity magazines should have been banned years ago, and all the lobbyists and politicians who have prevented this are little better than murderers themselves.
  3. While I was trying to have a Saturday afternoon nap, much interrupted by sirens, a fire took out most of a block in the heart of our neighborhood, including our beloved local hardware store. We used to shop there even before we moved to Bernal. Several times a day I look at something that needs fixing around the house and have a muscle-memory of buying its replacement at Cole Hardware. All our neighbors got out in time, which is a great mercy.
  4. I had an almost-perfect day at work on Thursday, then came home only to grow increasingly distressed over Brexit, which broke my Judtist heart. David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum now replaces Bush’s invasion of Iraq as the most appalling error of judgment committed by any English-speaking politician in the course of my adult life. Europe is important. Bureaucracies may seem boring and idiotic but they are inexpressibly less boring and idiotic and catastrophic than the world wars that they occasionally, through the great efforts of many kind people and with considerable good luck, replace.
  5. All of this and a lot of other stories that are not mine to tell have made the last few months very difficult, but there have been fierce joys as well: Hillary and Warren campaigning together; the enduring wonderfulness of Ginsberg and Sotomayor; the memory of my mother pouring out all her tremendous capacity for love in her last days, and the knowledge that her example will be with me for the rest of my life.

adventure time: mountain climbing

As a fan of sunbeams and meadows, I am very much in favor of Mt Tam.

Some of our short roommates share my enthusiasm for these landscapes.

Others find the whole California thing kind of tacky and overdone.

the artist is present

We’ve been talking a lot about presence and absence this week, hardly surprising with Mum and Dad’s ashes in boxes under the TV. Last year when I was tying myself in knots trying to figure out how to organize this trip, I ended up sending mail to my brothers and sister saying look, all I really want is a beach holiday somewhere so that we can drink Bailey’s and play mah jongg and scatter Mum at sea like she wanted. My brother suggested this place and so here we are.

The pictures do not do it justice. On the land side the garden is thoroughly overexcited with hibiscus flowers and rainbow lorikeets and needs to take a calming breath. Climb over the dunes and Diamond Beach is a long wild golden crescent of sand with perfect emerald rollers. The sea is indigo near the horizon and the palest, clearest green where it covers the sand like mercury across glass to make a mirror for the sky. At night the Milky Way is a river of light.

It doesn’t matter that we never came here with our parents. It is every beach holiday we ever had with them and each other. We are all trying to show up and be in the moment for one another and although I was joking when I tweeted a shadow-selfie with the caption “the artist is present,” I am noticing for the first time Abramovic’s double meaning: being present is the art. Don’t just do something, stand there.

Our parents were flawed humans but they left us in no doubt that we were loved. They dragged us to kite festivals and hot air ballooning weekends and zoos and observatories and science museums and Indian and Thai restaurants (pretty exotic in the 1980s). Even though we’re atheists, even though the ashes are not even really the last of them, just more of what they left behind like clothes, even though there isn’t really any such thing as closure, it feels okay to be together here in this beautiful place. At sunset we’ll let them go into the sea, and we’ll build a big fire on the sand, and we’ll sit around it and laugh a bit and cry a bit while the Southern stars come out.

five things dad would have liked about the ceremony of appreciation

  1. It was held in a little garden attached to the University of New England’s School of Rural Medicine. The campus is all rolling hills and autumnal trees like a huge park. Upshot: parts of the ceremony, especially the introduction by softly-spoken Professor Geetha Ranmuthugala, were drowned out by a mob of cockatoos who were having a bloody good time in some nearby trees.
  2. There were lots of family members there. That surprised me. Grief is so lonely and our predicament seems so peculiar that I forget there are a lot of people in situations just like ours. I loved all these mourning strangers very much.
  3. The speakers included quite a lot of the medical students who had taken the anatomy course and dissected our loved ones’ donor bodies. The students talked about how the work informed their medical practice and, in many cases, drew them towards surgery. They were all women and/or people of color and I don’t think the university did that intentionally; I think it just happened. It was also a completely non-religious ceremony, thank Christ.
  4. We got to speak to one of the students, who told us she had assisted with a dissection aimed at developing a new neurosurgical technique, keyhole surgery via the nose. She probably worked on Dad’s brain, Dad’s nose. She was being careful not to say anything to upset me! I told her that Dad would have been delighted to know that his gift helped train new surgeons and discover new techniques.
  5. There were lots of us there, surviving members of my own decimated family: my husband and our kids and my brother and my sister and her kids. We all loved our wonderful, impossible Dad, and we all still love each other, and somehow we are piecing together some meaning out of all of this.

have you no sense of decency

This is what the Stanford campus looks like in spring and it is completely unacceptable.

Look at this. It’s outrageous.

Something ought to be done.

this is true love; you think this happens every day?

I had a pretty Gothically terrible week for various reasons beyond anyone’s particular control, mostly to do with generational inequity and centuries of systemic oppression. The least of it was that my trainer Facebooked a picture of me jumping Sam in which I’d lost my balance and caught him in the mouth. Salome insisted it was just a bad moment. I argued that I have learned nothing in all these years and am wasting my trainers’ time and ruining my good horse.

Salome got up an hour early this morning so she could bring her camera to my riding lesson and get better pictures of us. I love her so much right now I can hardly stand it. From such small kindnesses to one another we will build a less sucky world.

(Apparently my blog is just 24/7 schmaltz these days. I’m not sorry.)

adventure time: staycationing

Claire is at Star Wars again, Jeremy and Julia are with Yoz and Dexter and I am sitting in the house alone with the kittens and the clothes dryer! Amazing scenes.

I have become the type of mother that keeps a To-do list of holiday activities in Evernote; Ian accuses me of being “improving.” Monday we finished off the Christmas shopping – Desigual had a sale so the children made out like bandits, as you shall see. Tuesday we went ice skating, Wednesday we visited the Winchester Mystery House, which was more interesting than I had expected, and the Tech Museum of Innovation, which was slightly less. God love my little wolf pack, though; they can kill hours in even the most dated of science museums.

Christmas Eve we had lasagne at Jack’s house, and I made a very ugly pavlova; Christmas morning we went out for Claire’s birthday dim sum and then to Ian and Lisa’s for Orphan’s Christmas, where I made a very pretty pavlova. It was all very delicious and satisfactory.

Yesterday we finally made it to MoAD, which has terrific shows by Alison Saar and Kenyatta A. C. Hinkle, all about black women’s bodies and the pressure of history and the thorns and glass and glitter beneath the surface; and to the Contemporary Jewish Museum which had a great show full of robotics and color and light, of which the below was my absolute favorite.

I lay there for a while pretending to be an astrophysicist studying a white dwarf from a ship in zero-G while Jeremy and Julia came and went around me at interesting angles. I’ve checked off not-quite-half the items on my To-do list, and it’s been a terrific holiday.

yatima’s mostly-nondenominational northern hemisphere midwinter festival playlist

2000 miles

“I can hear people singing,” (and since I’m not allowed to listen to this playlist until after Thanksgiving) “it must be” Northern Hemisphere Midwinter Festival “Time.” Chrissie Hynde wrote this after The Pretenders’ first lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott died of an overdose; as you’ll see, I like the sad carols. The ending of this song is sublimely 1980s; the band just repeats the chorus over and over until they end on a resounding chord. Jazz hands!

Chiron Beta Prime

So much for being nondenominational: because I’m a lapsed Anglican nerd, I sometimes wonder whether Jonathan Coulton (suspicious initials, those) named his protagonists the Andersons because it means “Son of Man” and whether he chose Chiron because Chi-Rho was a Greek monogram for Christ. That said, the song works equally well as an anticapitalist anthem, with the robot overlords representing limited liability corporations. Oh, and it’s hilarious.

Fairytale of New York

Mandatory, obvi. I usually start crying around “I could’ve been someone./ Well so could anyone.” Reminds me of when Rajit Singh returned our lost luggage and, years before that, when I met Shane MacGowan in Dublin, his broken teeth like tombstones on the red hills of his gums. I wish Kirsty MacColl were still alive.

Joy

This one makes me think of Jamey, who gave it to me, and of my mum, whose story it is. Tracey Thorn’s voice is a silver thread running through my marriage, from “Protection” as the anthem of our first year together to “Hatfield, 1980” for the summer we lived in Cambridge. Mum would have loved the lines: “We face down all the coming years/ And all that they destroy/ And in their face we throw our joy.” That was her basic rationale for all the mah jongg and Bailey’s.

River

Tracey’s Tinsel and Lights is such a great album that three tracks off it have landed on my playlist. This is a Joni Mitchell cover that earned its place for the lyrics: “I’m so hard to handle/ I’m selfish and I’m sad.” (No, YOU are.) I always think of Emma Thompson’s wonderful line from the mostly-reprehensible Love, Actually: “Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.”

Sister Winter

A Sufjan Stevens cover, but I heard Tracey’s version first so it’s definitive to me. I love the strangeness and sensuality of the lyrics – “I kissed your ankle” – and Sister Winter as darkness and heartbreak, but also as an intimate relation. I love the friends waiting patiently for the suffering heart to recover. Demeter and Persephone are here, and so is Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America with its call for the communalization of trauma.

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

Speaking of, that summer in Cambridge I wanted to hear the King’s College choir at last, but I was urged by a smiling Anglican to keep the girls behind the screen where we wouldn’t disturb the other congregants. Ah, the established church, ever eager to tuck its women and children away out of sight. Against that, though, set the pageant I attended at Holy Innocents in San Francisco, where the congregation discovered six-week-old Julia in her sling and urged me to take the role of Mary. I declined – I’m not that reconciled to my church damage – but I still have the tinsel crown Claire wore as a three-year-old angel. This strange old poem was given a mid-20thc setting by Elizabeth Poston. “It keeps my dying faith alive” – we’ll see, I guess.

Gaudete

Another silver thread through my life: My parents playing Steeleye Span when I was still too young to recognize the electric guitars and folk songs as incongruous with one another. Me carolling in York Street with the choir of Christchurch St Lawrence. Alex and I in Dublin discovering that we both loved this song. Maddy Pryor’s incredible voice was probably the prototype for my love for Kirsty Maccoll, Tracey Thorn and Vienna Teng. The ending of this song is ridiculously 1970s; the audio engineer just fades the choir out and you have to pretend that they’re walking away from you still singing.

O Holy Night

This one makes me think of Salome, because sometimes we read each others’ minds. Talk about incongruity, the ukuleles and xylophones making it sound like a school play. Yet everything that makes the Northern Hemisphere Midwinter Festival important to me is here: the long dark, the beloved dead, the newborn baby, the terrifying angels and their incomprehensible message. The star and our journey.

Atheist Christmas Carol

The newest addition, which I heard for the first time live on Boxing Day last year at the Freight & Salvage, with Claire in my arms. I gave this one to Tina after we rode our bikes to the Forest of Wind Chimes at Wilbur Hot Springs and cried for Jen. “It’s the season of bowing our heads in the wind/ And knowing we are not alone in fear/ Not alone in the dark.” That’s all I got. Grace coming out of the void, for some reason. It’s so cold now but spring will come again. Not a metaphor: physics.

adventure time: yolo

Yesterday I drove north, past a bonfire and through an almost Sydney-severe rainsquall, to where California State Route 16 West peels off from I-505 into Yolo County. There, the sun came out and shone on the dry Capay Hills, turning them lemon and gold in front of the smudged indigo mountains behind them.

I wanted so badly to go into those warm yellow hills! And then Highway 16 took me around a corner and into Rumsey Canyon, carved out of the stone by Cache Creek, all geology and cattle pasture and gnarled old oaks. I wanted so badly to get out and walk around! And then Google took me up a still narrower canyon through which Bear Creek was running and gently steaming, and I met Tina at Wilbur Hot Springs, a gorgeous place that smells in a very friendly way of eggy farts.

We soaked in the hot green sulfurous water, shared bread and cheese and salami and radishes and olives and champagne and a little chocolate, rode bikes through the nature preserve, past the geyser to the wind chime forest, and talked about books and politics and our children and our partners and the parties we used to throw in the 90s and her painting and my writing and her sister, my friend Jen. We were urged to leave our electronics behind, and I did, so I don’t have any pictures, sorry about that.

Tina and I don’t see each other often enough and this has to be changed. As I drove back, the near-full moon rose on my left through a pink band of sunset. It followed me home to the city.

Today I drove south to a stable in the redwoods, where Salome and I saddled up and rode two bright gold pony mares through the forest to a chain of meadows in the sun. We talked about work and education and our children and her painting and my writing and our plans for the future. I stuck my iPhone in my jacket pocket, so here are some pictures for you.

We saw five mule deer, the sun pink through their absurd ears. One gentle doe was napping under the trees, curled like a cat.

California is so impossibly motherfucking beautiful sometimes, it actually kind of hurts.

five gifts for my mother on her 80th birthday

1. With my dearest darling bad horse Boo Bear living out his retirement at a lovely farm upstate (no, really, he aten’t ded), I have a new horse, Sam. He is a liver chestnut so dark and shiny that he looks like he was cast in bronze or, possibly, treacle. He is scopey and athletic but also kind and forgiving, sensitive yet gentle as a lamb. He is an education. He makes me a better rider.

2. The worst of grief bogs you down in the past. As I feel myself starting to come out of it, I’ve been getting these little glimpses of a future I might like to live in, enough that I’ve been making a list: Aziz Ansari’s new comedy Master of None, Trevor Noah as host of The Daily Show and, of course, on endless repeat, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

3. Many pixels have been spilled praising Hamilton showstoppers like “Satisfied” and “Wait For It”, because those songs are amazing. This week, though, I particularly love:

  • “One Last Time”, because in relinquishing the presidency, George Washington paved the way for term limits and the peaceful transfer of power between rival factions, two of the things I love best about the American political system; and
  • “The World Was Wide Enough”, because Aaron Burr is such an irresistibly sympathetic character that he shows us how to make space for the people with whom we disagree, which seems particularly important this week.

It is difficult to say anything about the massacres in Paris, except how sorry I am for those who have been hurt, and how desperately I wish for peace.

4. I tried to make pavlova for Mum’s birthday, a pretty Quixotic endeavor considering I’ve never yet succeeded at meringue. After two dismal failures to achieve glossy peaks, I stuck a sort of eggy soup in the oven, wept briefly and discovered online that our Bamix is almost certainly the problem. It doesn’t introduce enough air to allow the egg white to achieve the proper foaminess. So I ordered a hand mixer and just now, the egg soup came out of the oven as a delicately browned giant cookie, which we all look forward to eating.

5. “Brown liquor,” said Jeremy after he had mopped up my eggy tears. I poured us two glasses of the 12 year old Bunnahabhain and we clinked our glasses: “To Jean.” My mother gave me my love for animals and my righteous anger at the world’s injustices, and she was a much better pastrychef than I am. I miss her every day, but I am very, very glad that she was my mother.

ancillary mercy, by ann leckie

…in the last twenty years I had grown accustomed to making my own decisions, without reference to anyone else. To having authority over my own life.

“We are weapons she made for her own use.”

“…You’re used to people being attached to you. Or being fond of you. Or depending on you. Not loving you, not really. So I think it doesn’t occur to you that it’s something that might actually happen.” “Oh,” I said.

“Oh, Cousin,” replied Sphene. “We sit here arguing, we can hardly agree on anything, and then you go straight to my heart like that. We must be family.”

“Can I be a cousin, too?” asked Station, from the wall console. “Of course you can, Station,” I said. “You always have been.”

five things because i’ll probably forget again on friday

1. There is a much longer story about the horse show that I will doubtless tell each of you over a bottle of wine some time, which begins with Nick-the-horse dumping me onto a fence at our Friday lesson, such that his bridle came off and I still have a spectacular bruise on my right butt cheek, moves through a 2-hour drive to get a delightful Dutch breeder named Constanza from the showgrounds to the airport (we are fast friends now and I am invited to her farm outside Utrecht), and ends with me enjoying myself in a show ring for the first time, riding the kind of blissed-out, fluid round we can do at home but never before in front of a judge. “Shit,” Casey reports the trainer standing next to her saying of our performance: “they are laying down some good trips.” We were.

2. Once again I have been puzzlingly overlooked for a Macarthur – perhaps something to do with the fact that I haven’t actually written anything – but I was completely goddamn delighted with two of this year’s picks: my longstanding beloved Ta-Nehisi Coates (have you read his new book yet, why haven’t you read his new book yet), and my new fling Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’ve listened to the cast soundtrack of Miranda’s musical Hamilton approximately one gajillion times since it was released last week. It’s a masterpiece. There’s fine-grained, scintillating brilliance in the detail work, a pattern not so much sequential as unfolding ever outwards, revisiting themes to add nuance and complexity and shadow. But there’s also the straight-up shot to the heart of a staggering story, fiercely told. God, just listen. Trust.

3. Three audiobooks by dudes, of varying quality but interconnecting themes: the Oliver Sacks memoir, and then Laszlo Bock’s book about people ops at Google, and then Vaillant’s account of the Harvard Grant Study. You always think you can’t love Oliver Sacks any more, and then you do. People are so real and present and urgent to him. I wanted to be scathing about Bock but his sincerity and curiosity were hard to resist. (Like Maciej Ceglowski and Sebastian Stan, he grew up a communist; maybe that’s why all three seem to have an inner core of diamond-hard idealism. Easy enough to sneer at freedom when you’ve never been unfree.) Bock’s description of evidence-based everything has the distinction of being the first thing I’ve ever read that gave me the slightest interest in working at Google. Still slight, though. Weirdly, Vaillant’s book has made me yell at the car stereo a lot more than Bock’s did. The Grant study is an extraordinary, 75-year-and-counting longitudinal study of a bunch of college men. With this astonishing wealth of material at his disposal, Vaillant’s mistakes are both egregious (autism, for example, is not a “genetic lack of empathy” and fuck you George for saying that it is) and pervasive. The case studies are quite glorious, almost worthy of Sacks, but the conclusions I draw from them are very different from Vaillant’s. A delicious takedown in the Atlantic paints him as a deeply flawed man.

4. Three books by ladies, of uniformly high excellence: Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up is just as life-changing as advertised. Sparking joy is good but the part that clicked for me is the act of thanking your no-longer-needed belongings for their service. My medicine cabinet has never looked so spare. I put off reading What Works for Women at Work for months, afraid that it would make me feel (more) guilty, but in fact it’s one of the most validating books I’ve read in ages. Jessa Crispin’s Dead Ladies Project documents a sojourn in Europe in search of reasons to live. I am devouring it.

5. How is it even possible that I haven’t blogged about Steven Universe yet? There’s probably a German word for the first time your kid recommends something to you and you pay attention to the thing and you realize, Holy shit, this thing is really good. My kid found a good thing. SU is, for me and Claire, that thing. It’s a love letter from maker Rebecca Sugar to her younger brother, and from both of them to the beach towns where they spent holidays growing up, and to the anime they adore, and it’s also a fully realized world with compassionately drawn, three-dimensional characters. It is beautiful and wise and sane and also hilarious and adorable. It’s a love letter to all of us, and so’s Ta-Nehisi’s book and Lin-Manuel’s show and Oliver’s memoir, and I needed all of them, I needed all the reasons I could possibly find to get out of bed, I literally needed reasons to get back on the horse, and they came when I needed them and I’m so grateful.

adventure time: elkhorn slough

Yesterday should have been Dad’s eightieth birthday. Last year I called him to wish him a happy birthday and it became obvious over the course of the conversation that he had no idea who I was. I ended up sleeping for most of that long weekend. I don’t know why anniversaries like this are so painful, although I know it’s a common enough sorrow. This one comes only two weeks after another terrible one, the day of Mum’s diagnosis in August of 2013.

So I’ve been cranky as hell, and I booked us a trip for Alain’s last weekend without really thinking about it – a night in a hotel near the aquarium in Monterey and a kayak trip on Elkhorn Slough. We got to the aquarium right when it opened and had it almost to ourselves for the first couple of hours. I showed Alain the Open Sea tank and the kelp forest. “Science church,” I said.

The Pacific giant octopus was awake and clambering over the glass. I crouched down at eye level and we looked at each other, mind to alien mind. The children had to drag me away. The bat rays in the touch tank were active as well, jumping out of the water to make eye contact. I stroked their satiny skin.

What makes Monterey Bay so spectacular is a mile-deep undersea canyon that terminates in Moss Landing. Also in Moss Landing: Elkhorn Slough, the largest tract of tidal saltmarsh in California outside the San Francisco Bay. It’s what the bay must have been like in the Before Time (before Europeans, I mean; maybe we Westerners love post-apocalyptic fiction because we are the goddamn apocalypse.) The water dances with seals and otters and fish. The sky is so thick with birds that they look like a mist.

Elkhorn Slough also supports a thriving colony of humans bumbling around in brightly-colored kayaks, and yesterday we were among their bumber (I meant to say number, but who am I to turn down a serendipitous typo?) Our tour guide Jon gave us a good, thorough orientation. When we all said we’d like to see sea otters, he said presciently: “Our real problem’s going to be staying out of their way,” and gave us some tips on what to do if wildlife approached too closely, which I apparently promptly forgot.

We visited these harbor seals first and they worried me even as they made me laugh, swimming under and around our kayaks and popping their silky heads out of the water, the glassy meniscus splitting over their sweet faces like a caul. Then we paddled by a raft of sea otters – at least thirty, probably more, about 1% of the global population. Everywhere we paddled, otters followed. My face ached from smiling at them.

We went under the bridge into the wetlands and saw terns dropping out of the sky, then flying out of the water with bright pilchards in their beaks, gulping as they flew. Stately brown pelicans sailed like galleons.

Fighting the tide to get back to the beach, we paddled near a pair of younger otters that fought and played in the water, an aquatic Alice and Thimble, jumping and Loch-Ness-Monstering joyously. We tried to stay out of their way but as we turned for home, one of them popped up and looked me straight in the eye. It swam boldly over to my kayak, slipping through the water like a thought, and climbed aboard.

I froze. I couldn’t remember anything Jon had told us to do. I am so used to talking to domestic animals that I said, inanely: “No, otter, you can’t be here.” It appeared to find this remark hilarious. It had clever hands and eyes full of mischief and pale whiskers. Its fur was so dense!

I’ve never been so close to a wild creature. I loved it with every particle of my being. With infinite reluctance I turned my back and started paddling. I felt its steady weight slide off the back of my kayak. Then it swam over to Alain’s kayak and clambered on.

“Splash at it!” said Jon, and paddled over to splash at it, whereupon it slipped off and climbed onto Jon’s kayak! He splashed it again and it swam back to me.

“Oh no you don’t,” I said, not wanting to be in violation of Federal laws against interfering with protected wildlife, and splashed my paddle in its adorable face. It frowned at me crossly and swam away.

“That doesn’t happen very often,” said Jon. But not never.

And I thought my face had ached from grinning before.

As you know, Bob, California is a bona fide motherfucking paradise. I’ve seen coyotes hunting in Orinda and Woodside and bobcats trotting purposefully across the Marin Headlands. I’ve seen elephant seals and sea lions and dolphins and whales. I’ve seen more raccoons and squirrels and mule deer and jackrabbits and scrub jays and hummingbirds and herons and egrets and turkey vultures and red tailed hawks than I can easily remember. But I will never forget my otter.

I’ve driven past the big-ass formerly-coal-fired now-natural-gas-fired power station at Moss Landing dozens of times but until two weeks ago I had no idea what this place even was. A chance remark at Jamey’s barbecue prompted me to look it up and book the trip. The protected area is relatively new in the scheme of things, where by scheme of things I mean the huge marine sanctuary that stretches from the Golden Gate to Hearst Castle. The Nature Conservancy started buying up land around Elkhorn Slough in 1971, and donated it to a foundation in 2012.

In the future I hardly dare let myself hope for, all our power comes from cheap solar and the highway traffic is autonomous Tesla art cars. Our food is grown in clean room farms. The cities are dense and green like forest meadows and the Marine Reserves and Protected Areas join up with the National and State Parks into one vast patchwork quilt of wildlife habitat. I’m more grateful than I can say for all the conservationists and scientists and docents and donors working towards that future. I’m glad Daddy raised us all in science church, and I’m glad he was our Dad.

the separation of church and state and the tour de france

A busy week! We are in Villerouge with the girls’ grandmother and uncles. On Saturday, Christopher and Alicia drove up from Barcelona with their puppy, Tosia. We walked the puppy up to the ruined castle and ate blackberries warm off the bush. We had a lovely dinner together (tomatoes and basil from the garden, grapes warm off the vine) but our visitors had to leave the next morning. We see Chris about once every five years for 24 hours. It’s not enough. I didn’t cry when they left but it was a near thing. Afterwards we all went to Annette’s for a swim.

On Monday I was hell-bent on visiting Carcassonne at last. It was extensively rebuilt in the 19thC by Viollet-le-Duc, who also restored Notre Dame. Carcassonne is only thirty-odd years older than the Eiffel Tower but the Tower looks forwards and Carcassonne looks backwards. It’s a gaudy, inauthentic fantasy that is said to have been an inspiration for Disney. Visiting felt like I imagine Disneyland, which is to say crowded and hot, until we got through to the old keep itself and the crowd thinned and J and I looked at each other and heaved a sigh of relief.

On the way home we visited Lagrasse, a village nestled in a wild limestone gorge. I needed a bathroom, Claire wanted ice cream, J hoped that there might be cassis sorbet and Julia wanted to swim in the river. Lagrasse granted all our wishes in our first five minutes there and has thus endeared itself to me for life. Like Cacassonne, it is a funny melange of old and new. Half its famous Abbey belongs to the state; monks restored and moved back into the other half in 2004. You have to pay to visit both sides but it was worth it – the state kept the spooky medieval parts, but the monks got the cloister and the garden. The garden was fragrant with rosemary and thyme and I missed Skud very much.

Tuesday we rented bikes and rode the Canal du Midi, another thing I’ve wanted to do since I first came here in the ’90s. We rode an 18 mile round trip and the girls were magnificent throughout, each winning their own private Tour de France. Me to Jeremy as we set out: “When did we become the sort of family that does this kind of thing?” J: “About ten minutes ago.” For dinner I roasted a chicken with parsley and rosemary and thyme from the Villerouge garden, and we were all so hungry that we ate up every scrap.

Wednesday was supposed to be a quiet day but the markets in Lezignan were even more crowded than Carcassonne. I bought hats and sundresses for both girls and we went to Jill’s for a swim.

Today J, Claire, Barnaby and I had a road trip out to the Millau Viaduct. Good lord.

All of which sounds frenetic but there have been long quiet spells, driving through the red-earthed vineyards under the limestone cliffs, sitting in the garden listening to the cicadas and the cuckoos. There are moths here big as your thumb, with long probosci to sip nectar from flowers. The insect version of hummingbirds.