Sunday, February 01, 2015

Natural Causes

On New Year’s Day I posted a rather audacious status update on Facebook that 2014 had been pretty great but 2015 was stacking up to be even better. 12 hours later I was calling my little sisters to tell them our father had passed away.  Be careful what you announce to the world I guess.

It seems he died peacefully. After years of sickness and spending way too many nights in a hospital, we found him in his own bed, snuggled up and comfortable after a nice New Year’s Eve conversation with the baby of the family. This day has been looming in our lives since the moment his kidneys failed a month before I left on my mission nearly 17 years ago. Somehow sitting there in his house, telling 911 that no, he wasn’t breathing and watching the nice, nice men from the mortuary cover his body, it still all felt so out of the blue. Nearly two decades of knowing someone could die lulls you in the security that actually he might not ever die.

The last few years my dad needed a lot of help. Physically, financially. My Salt Lake siblings took on big caretaker roles. I was able to write checks and spend a healthy amount of time feeling guilty about not being there. I don’t think I called him enough. I know I didn’t hang out with him as much as I should have. But this Christmas break I tried harder. I picked him up from dialysis and took him grocery shopping. I let him fill his cart with Christmas treats he probably shouldn’t have had but I’m frankly glad were some of his last simple pleasures. I took him to lunch the day before he died. We went to Rubio’s and he had a fountain Coke and a shrimp burrito. He had a hard time walking across the parking lot so I moved the car right in front of the door and it still took us awhile to get to it. He said his hands felt weird. He turned the heat full blast in my car and I tried not to get impatient with him about it. We talked about some good things that are happening in my life and he was his usual nice and supportive self about them.  There were many things my dad wasn’t able to provide for us, some things I resented for a good portion of my life. But the certainty that he was proud of me was never something I had to wonder about.

My dad wasn’t married and both of his parents and his only brother are all gone as well, so it fell to my siblings and me to clean out his house, plan his funeral, and tie up all the loose ends of his life.  There are six of us and we spent two days going through books and files and photos. Remembering a dad that some of us forgot, telling the little ones stories about a dad they didn’t know. My parents had been collegiate journalists and then owned a newspaper when they were first married so there were scrapbooks and folders full of columns they had written back when they were younger than most of us are now. We found photos of one of the bands my dad was in, back when he had cool hair and played the guitar and wanted to be a rock star. We found the campaign materials from the time he ran for State Senate, the poster of a tiny little Katie on his shoulders. The guy didn’t leave much of an estate behind but as we sorted through artifacts of his life, I felt grateful for the more esoteric things he gave me. I got some writing talent, a solid foundation of unconditional love, an example of faith that never wavered even when I think it maybe should have. I had a dad who told his daughters we could do anything our brothers could do. I’m sure my dad would have liked to see me find someone to spend my life with but he never once made me feel like my worth was tied up in my relationship status.

There are things about my dad’s life that were disappointing, I know he didn’t feel like he quite lived up to the expectations of his young dreamer self. In many ways my own adult life has been a reaction to that, I’ve been wearing myself out to make sure that I don’t get to the end and feel those same kind of regrets. I want to make sure I hang onto the lessons I learned from some of his mistakes. But in that week, as I spent time with all of my adult siblings and their lovely families, I really couldn’t help but think that my old dad did alright. He raised good people who are raising good people.

It is so hard to lose a parent. Period. I thought maybe because he was sick, and I am a full grown adult that somehow it was going to be easier.  I got to have my dad for a good long time but I find myself being sad about future things. Sad that if I get married, that person won’t know my dad. Sad that if I have kids, they won’t have a Grandpa Clifford. Sad that there are things I wish I had asked him that I didn’t. That I didn’t realize I would want to know until I couldn’t anymore.

Grieving has been a weird thing. I’ve been surprised at how physical it can be. I was in the grocery store this week, looking for a card and the “dad birthday” section caught my eye. Before I even realized what was happening there were already hot tears soaking my shirt. And I just stood there, not even trying to stop while I cried for a good five minutes. I was grateful that no one is ever in the greeting card aisle of the grocery store but it’s certainly not the first time I’ve been betrayed by my own body the last few weeks.  I’ve tried to let myself feel it as fully as I can. I don’t try to cheer myself up. I don’t look for distractions. I’m grateful when someone asks how I am and doesn't get uncomfortable when I say that I’m just ok.

I also feel like I have also had an opportunity to learn some things.  Our little family experienced so much love and kindness and generosity this last month. There is a quote from Anne Morrow Lindburgh about suffering that I have always loved that keeps coming to my mind:

“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.”

I’m trying to keep my heart open, to take it all in so I can give back the strength that has so graciously been shared with me through all of this. 

Music was important to my dad. There is a cover of Jackson Brown’s “For a Dancer” that a dear family friend put on a CD for us many years ago that I used to listen to and cry myself sick worry about my dad. It’s now become incredibly comforting and feels like the right way to finish this piece.  

Monday, December 08, 2014

Raise Your Hand

My first semester of college was so miserable I tried not to go back for a second. 

I had a perfectly adequate high school experience. I had some friends, I didn’t get bullied, I got good grades, starring roles in school plays and a healthy supply of trophies from endless Saturday morning debate tournaments. But I didn’t date as much as a reasonably cute 16 year old thinks she ought to (although I would like to tell my teenage self that she’s got TWENTY TWO PLUS YEARS of dating ahead so um, let’s not worry about getting off the line too quickly there young lady) and I always felt like the other kids were having way, way more fun than I was.  So I was convinced that college would be different, that I would be different. That going somewhere far away, where I didn’t know a soul, would change everything.

The reality is that building a brand new life is really freakin’ hard and I think it was day two before I was sobbing into the pay phone outside the student center (remember 1994?) and begging my mother to come and save me.  She did not save me. I went to classes, I worked my weird job as an usher at the football games, I spent a lot of Friday nights watching “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” with my homebody roommates. I cried a lot and I was still pretty sure the other kids were having way, way more fun and that I was the world's only miserable college freshman. 

I went home for Christmas and when the girl I was supposed to go back to school with ended up not having room in her car for me, I skipped the first week of classes and tried to figure out a way to drop out. As the week progressed through, I started to miss some things about college. Some of the freedom. A few of the interesting people that I had started hanging around with. The fact that the guys in college DID seem like maybe they could appreciate a girl like me.

By the end of the week, I had hitched a ride down to Cedar City with my grandparents and at the risk of romanticizing my collegiate experience, the next 3.75 years ended up being sort of magical. There were plenty of tears and disappointments-I still felt like I didn’t date enough-but there were friendships and experiences and romances that built a foundation for my adult life that I can still feel 16 years later.

It should come as no surprise then, that I also hated the first six weeks of my mission, the first three months of my first adult move to another state, the first three months of my second big adult move to yet another state, and basically the beginning of every new thing I ever decide to do.

Which brings me to today. In the fourth month of a new life, with a new job, and a new city.

I don’t hate it.

I did hate it though. I had a few weeks where I most definitely, absolutely, ask-my-mom-because-I-called-her-sobbing hated it.

I can still remember a distinct moment in my apartment in Cedar City, after things had fallen into place and I was feeling really good about everything, thinking to myself, “ok great, so I survived starting over and now I know how to do it. I will never feel that miserable again.”

Oh 18 year old me, you say such cute things. If you could only see 38 year old me with the covers pulled over my head, trying to figure out just what I could have been thinking to give up my PERFECT COLORADO LIFE to start ALL OVER with a big hard job in a big scary city where EVERYTHING COSTS ONE MILLION DOLLARS.  Dramatic me tends to think in all caps.

This is the sixth time in my life that I have packed up everything I own and shown up in a brand new place. The sixth time. So I know how to find the Target. I know how to make new friends. I know how to make an apartment feel like home. What I do not know how to do, is skip over the part where it’s hard. I have not yet figured out how to skip the challenging part of growing.

Six months ago I knew I was coasting. I knew I was bored. So I hacked away at all the things that felt stagnant. Job. City. Personal life. It felt like the right thing to do. It was the right thing to do.

I just forgot how scary it is. How at the top of the cliff of a new life “stagnant” looks like “comfortable” and “bored” looks like “crushing it”. That when you make grand proclamations to the world about that new life, everyone kindly assumes that you are loving it and it is loving you and you can’t help but feel like something of a fraud for saying “yeah it’s rad!” when what you really want to do is run screaming back to the place that felt easy and forget this whole thing ever happened.

My new job is a terrific career move. I learn something new every single day and I’m having to work harder than I have in a long time. It has kicked my ass over and over but I’m starting to kick back and that is immensely satisfying. I am feeling like I can hang with this group of incredibly talented people. This new city is impersonal and unforgiving and there is nowhere to park and even small errands feel like a production. But is also beautiful and vibrant and I can go from seeing a band I love on Friday night to paddling in the ocean with friends the next morning. It’s a place I have dreamed of living for 12 years and even though the realities have caught up with the fantasy in many ways, in other ways it’s even better than I imagined.

But I want to be clear. I wanted to quit. I’ve cried a lot. I’ve had to remind myself over and over that the other kids are not having more fun than I am.  That I am not the only one who wants to hide under the comforter when facing newness at every turn. It’s so nice in our super connected world that you can get cheers from all over the globe when you take on a challenge. But the flipside is that it can feel extra lonely when no one raises a hand to say “yikes you guys this is hard!” So, yikes you guys, this is hard.

I’ve never been sorry that I stuck out the hard part. The truth is the best things that have ever happened to me have sucked a little bit in the beginning. I guess it’s how I know I better hang on.  

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

My three songs

My pal Heather of the fantastic Fuel Friends blog tagged me on Facebook today to pick three songs that most accurately speak to who I am. This was a way, way harder assignment than I would have imagined. And if you ask me tomorrow the songs will be all different. But it was really fun. Here are my three songs. 

Fast Car-Tracy Chapman

There is a photo in my baby book of me sitting on the floor, enough of a baby that sitting is probably all I knew how to do yet, listening intently to my dad play the guitar. Music was on all the time in our house and I had parents who made sure we got a good variety of it in our little diets. There are a lot of artists that I loved as a kid and then discarded but one of the few who made it through to my adult life is Tracy Chapman. Even today, when I hear the first few bars of “Fast Car” I can instantly put myself back onto my white wicker day bed in my bedroom wallpapered with pink striped and a ballet slipper border. Even though the theme of the song was probably more adult than I understood, the song was wistful, and wistful is what you are looking for when you are 12 and you want to feel things and dream things.  I didn’t really listen to her again until college when I bought her album and it’s feminist and racial storylines started to make more sense to me. Her next few albums were far less political but she writes intense, deeply emotional songs and she seemed to release one during all the major eras of my young adult life. For someone who has often been described as both intense and deeply emotional, I suppose it makes sense that she is one of my favorite soundtracks.  I finally got to see her play after my mission and it’s still one of my favorite shows, nothing flashy, just Tracy playing song after song I knew by heart.

Fake Plastic Trees-Radiohead

I moved to California for a job when I was 25. I arrived full of the naïve expectations of anyone whose sole experience “moving away” consists of the relatively safe perimeters of college and an LDS mission. Which is not to say I didn’t know what it meant to feel crushing homesickness or loneliness, or “what they hell have I done-ness”. But both missions and college share the safety net of being surrounded by people also going through crushing homesickness and loneliness, friend-making, distraction-providing structure and a firm expiration date. Showing up in LA with a car full of everything I owned there was no Welcome Week to attend, no cafeteria full of fellow nervous missionaries. No one knew I was coming and no one would have cared if I turned my little Honda around and drove straight back to Utah. A friend who had made a similar move a few years earlier told me it was a good opportunity to figure out “what you are like when no one is telling you what you should be like”.

I was miserable for months. But he was right, with no one around to influence me, I figured out what kinds of movies I wanted to go to when I was the only one deciding, discovered what kind of friends I would make when there was no way to tell who was “cool”. I formed a relationship with my faith that wasn’t based on everyone around me being Mormon too. I was 25, a college graduate, a returned missionary, and had just worked on an Olympic Games and yet it felt like I was just starting to settle into my adult self.

One of the defining factors of that little era was a huge shift in my musical tastes. I made some friends who had varied ears and liked making mixes so I was constantly listening to new things. I was training for a marathon and in those days pre-iPod that meant hours and hours of the same 12 songs on a Discman. Someone put “Fake Plastic Trees” on a mix and although I feel like the ultimate cliché even writing this, it was on those long runs along the beach that I fell wildly, deeply, hopelessly in love with Radiohead. I wasn’t cool at all though, I bought “The Bends” instead of Kid A and listened to “Bulletproof…I Wish I Was” and cried about boys like it was my job.

I am not the first girl to move from Utah to California and fall in love with Radiohead. Probably not even the first one to do it while training for a marathon. But I can’t look back on time of my life without nearly passing out from the weight of all the nostalgia.

Islands in the Stream-Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton

When I was a little girl and I would think about God, which was a lot because I was a little Mormon girl, I thought He looked like Kenny Rogers. Truthfully, as an adult when I try to picture God, He still kind of looks like Kenny Rogers. My dad liked Kenny Rogers and I had every word to the The Gambler memorized at a younger age than I probably should have.  And then there is Dolly Parton.  Some day I will get around to writing my piece on my “Board of Lady Directors” about all the women I would seat on my Board of Life and you will see all the many and varied reasons she would be the Chairman of this Board. But for the purposes of songs that describe me, Dolly gets a nod for being a smart, talented, unapologetically ambitious woman but also managing to be funny, generous and positive. There is some trickiness to being a woman in the world of sports and I’ve never wanted career success to come at the expense of remaining the nice person I hope is the real me. You might be surprised to know how often I think "hmmm, what would Dolly do?". 

Also I chose this song because although I’ve never been one of those girls who daydreams about her wedding, I’ve already asked my friends Jed and Rebecca to sing this at the reception should that occasion ever arise. So there. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Up up and away

I get asked quite often about my “favorite Olympic story”. Depending on the circumstance I’ll tell something funny, something patriotic. Something super behind the scenes. But if I had to pick a very best “holy crap is this really happening” moment, it will probably always be this.

I had pretty much been soaked since morning when I stood in pouring rain on a mountain in Rose Khutor and watched my friend win an Olympic medal. So it was fitting that night to be standing in pouring rain, waiting to watch his medals ceremony. My friend Nicole and I had weaseled our way onto the photographer’s stand so we were in clear view when the athletes came out on the stage. We jumped up and down like idiots, trying to get his attention and for our efforts, we got a knowing “yeah I see you two goofballs” grin out of him. I was proud of my friend, I had watched him work hard and make sacrifices like elite athletes do, but more than that, I’d also watched him hang in there when he wasn’t one of the athletes on anyone’s watch list. Had heard him talk like he was going to win when he wasn’t the one getting his photo taken at pre-Games events. It’s easy to believe in someone the world is cheering on and that can be part of the fun of the Olympics-there’s certainly something to be said for being in a bar full of people shrieking at Michael Phelps.  But it’s also incredibly satisfying when the winner is someone who kept grinding along, year after year, just outside the spotlight. Especially when you also know that person is a good dude with a kind heart. It was cool and bizarre and completely surreal that people back home were texting and emailing me to say “wait was that YOUR snowboarder friend who won that medal?”

My Munich experience was everything I had hoped it would be. I felt like I had accomplished what I came to the USOC to do and to top it off, here I was, watching one of my closest friend standing on a podium in a uniform that represented so much work and pressure and stress over the previous 18 months. It was a lot to process, so I started to cry. I watched my friend’s cute face, lit up in a way I’m not sure those of us who have never spent our whole lives chasing a singular dream and then realizing it can every actually understand, and knew I was having a pinnacle career moment of my own. Right there, soaked to the bone in Sochi, Russia.  I wouldn’t even have known how to explain what was happening to a younger version of myself, this moment was so far out of what I ever imagined my life would be. I thought to myself that I could go to a million Olympics and probably never top how that felt, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to try. 

I flew back to Munich a few days later to get ready for the Paralympics. I had about 24 hours to myself and I slept, and I went running and I spent way, way too much time thinking about what to do with my life when I got back. Then my grandfather passed away and I went home and it all went by in a blur of emotion and activity. I went back to Munich to finish up my project, completely spent on all fronts but grateful for a few more days of distraction before going back to the Springs and regular old reality.

I use the term “reality” sort of lightly. The truth is I came home, spent four days enjoying eating in my own kitchen and sitting on my own couch and then it was up to Portland to look at Rio product, off to DC to outfit the teams to meet the President, over to NYC for more debriefs and then hopping to London for a friend’s wedding. It was May before I took a deep breath and went back to the conversations I had with myself on the running paths of Munich’s English Garden.

When I first got to Colorado Springs I spent about two months staying in an apartment owned by a woman who had recently left the USOC and I remember thinking, “who leaves the USOC? I’m going to die here.” As much as I always felt sheepish when people were impressed by what I did and would try to emphasize that I spent as much time staring at a computer screen as I did shaking hands with Olympians, the truth is, I had an extraordinarily amazing job even at an organization full of cool jobs. I got to travel the world, make friends with fascinating people, work with world class brands, do interesting projects, and be part of one of the only big events left that the whole world pays attention to. Realistically, I probably could have stayed there forever and been pretty happy.


The problem with jumping up and down on the photographer’s stand while you watch your friend get his Olympic medal is that you can’t help but think, “what’s my medal equivalent? And am I remotely on track to win it?” It’s really cool to be the “team behind the team”, to be part of someone achieving their goals. But when I was honest with myself, I had to admit that I had dreams and plans beyond watching someone else’s podium moment, I wanted one of my own.

I wasn’t entirely sure what that moment would be. A book with my picture on the jacket? A company with my name on the top of the org chart? I know a wedding ring and baby clothes factor into this dream for sure. But somewhere in May, it became really clear that staying in my comfortable job, in my comfortable apartment, in my comfortable social circle probably wasn’t going to get me any closer to figuring it out. 

I talked to a friend who had left our little pack a few years earlier. She was happy. She was energized. She was encouraging.

So I made a list. Places I want to work. Cities I want to live in. I found an intersection. I dreamed big. I applied.

It worked. And now six months after that rainy night, everything in my life is new. I’m not convinced I know what that “medal” is quite yet, but I know I’m braver and more capable than I thought I was then. I know that I’m willing to act, that I’ll take a really big step even when it honestly scares the shit right out of me.

If you want to know my favorite Olympic moment, it’s the one that made me realize that you don’t have to get on the podium for the Olympics to change your life.