Coffee Talk

Although I only met him once, eight years ago, I recognized him right away.

Derek Engebretsen is a math and science teacher in Telluride and before I came to town I zipped him an email.

Here we are at the Steaming Phoenix, coffee cups in hand. Eight years ago I was in the middle of divorce unpleasantness. He was an unemployed math teacher doing a cross-country bike ride. Our paths merged in Telluride on 2011 this month on my birthday. I was standing across from the post office looking for Bluegrass festival tickets. He and his biking companion were looking for a spot to camp.

I invited them to stay overnight at my house. In addition to giving Gabe and Derek a bed, a meal, and a shower I thought to look up job openings for the Telluride school district. Derek got the job. And four years ago, again on my birthday, though he didn’t know it, Derek sent me an update. He was engaged to be married, to Katie–together they comprised two-thirds of the science department at Telluride High School–and they were buying a home. Both outdoorsy, they had gotten engaged while working as assistants on an OARS trip going down the Grand Canyon.

I love every single thing about this story, the fact that all three of us were out of our comfort zones, that it evolved organically, and of course I love the happy ending, complete with wedding! Over time the story has gotten developed an aura, a halo even, in my consciousness. I’ve written about it and I told it at a live storytelling event.

But, until now, I haven’t had a chance to see Derek again.  Although it’s been nine years, Derek is only 32. He’s still young and tall and blond, and easy to see why I was comfortable enough to invite him to stay at the house. I still feel a bit motherly toward him…and perhaps unreasonably proud. I’m a touch disappointed that he didn’t bring Katie, though I’m charmed at how he talks about her, “I’m awfully fond of her.” They are heading west to skin up and ski down mountains in California and Oregon the minute school is out. He’ll also be visiting Gabe, his biking companion from eight years ago.

Derek mostly teaches physics, a subject that encourages sticking to the syllabus. “But toward the end of the year with the seniors,” he said, “I share a bit about how I got to be here.” He wants them to see how one small thing can change everything.

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Oprah Gail Winfrey

“You become what you believe.”

Sounds like it ought to be on a poster, doesn’t it? But nope, it’s Oprah live and in person talking to me.

Well, me and 649 others, but it sure feels like she’s talking to me. It’s a real skill to speak this way, and to listen too. When my daughter Jessamyn was studying psychology the professor had them watch videos of Oprah to learn how to listen.

Oprah spent her early years with her grandmother in Mississippi, with no plumbing and no electricity, the grandmother washed their clothes in a pot. “You watch me now Oprah Gail, because one day you’re going to have to do this.”

No I won’t, Oprah thought. “But even then I had the wisdom not to say it.”

“Did you watch Oprah’s television show,” Randye asked me while we were waiting.

“No,” I said. “I was too much of a snob. I hardly watched television, and especially not daytime television.” Though I’ve realized it was my loss as I’ve appreciated many of her Super Soul Sunday interviews.

Oprah’s grandmother got sick and she was sent to Milwaukee to live with her mother as she was about to start kindergarten. “That’s what saved me, moving to Milwaukee and going to school with the white kids.” Oprah’s grandmother had already taught her to read, so she was appalled that the alphabet was only being introduced. She was put into first grade that very day.  Later, she skipped second grade also. Thinking she wasn’t pretty…no one ever told her…she hung onto smarts since she knew that would be her only ticket.

Oprah talked about her current projects, including a major project she’s starting about mental health with Prince Harry. Her dream is to eliminate the stigma around mental health. “I’d love for no one to ever look at anyone else and say, ‘what’s wrong with you?'” She talked about how she’s gotten close to doing a Broadway play three times, “but when I really thought about what my life would be like in New York while I was actually doing the play I just couldn’t do it. Not enough trees.” She is currently building a house in Telluride, where there are lots and lots of trees.

“I was never trying to change the world,” she said. “I only try and do the next right thing in any given moment.”

Worth the wait to see her in person.


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Oprah comes to town

Waiting for Qs.

“Oprah is the special guest this evening!” enthused Linda as we huffed from the Telluride’s Palm Theater to toward town after our morning movie.

I mentally started to rejigger my schedule.

In addition to moving films like Tigerland, about saving tigers in India and Russia, and Gay Chorus: Deep South, Mountainfilm has lots of extras. There are early morning coffee-talks with authors and film makers, often with the subjects of films in attendance. Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, is the guest director and she was on the schedule as doing a special interview tonight. I was already planning to go. I’ve admired her writing and did a class with her last fall. But now getting a seat would require strategy, and missing an afternoon movie slot.

“They didn’t announce it,” said Linda, “because they were afraid people would come to the festival just to see her.” Linda had just been to a coffee talk with Cheryl so she was a good source.

Typically one hour before a movie starts a staff member with a red umbrella passes out numbered Q cards. You line up, in order, half an hour before show time. That half an hour will let you grab a bite to eat. If you aren’t in order they send you to the back of the line. I asked the fellow at the front desk if there are special procedures for Oprah.

“We’ll pass out Qs at five. You can get one extra Q if you have the person’s pass.”

“How many patrons are there?” I asked, referring to high-rent passes that allow folks to jump to the front of the line.

“There are 200 patrons,” he said. “They won’t all come of course, but we will start Qs with

The folks in front of me for Oprah.

200 since we need to accommodate all of the patrons. There are already about 10 people in line.” It was 1:30. She was supposed to be on at 6.

Figured it was safe to go grab some lunch and when I came back in about 40 minutes I was about 20 yards back. It was a festive atmosphere. People had lawn chairs. One group had a big cooler and a picnic. I’m sure they’d share if I asked. Some folks had bouquets of passes they were holding for others. This one’s husband was off playing soccer. (“He’s 80 years old,” said a friend.) The line grew by the moment. I was happy to be in the shade of a sign since I’d left my sunglasses at home. In a little bit the person with the red umbrella came to explain a change in program. “We are going to pass out Qs at 3:15.”

Some people–me, for example–were happy about this and others furiously started texting or calling loved ones to get their butts over to the Palm. I got number 389. From which you subtract 200 for the patrons and I was probably more like 250. For a 650 seat theater that was very comfortable. I’d even get a good seat downstairs.

So many people. There was a sea of people in front of me and an ocean of people behind me. And across the parking lot there was a lake of people waiting without Qs and with fingers firmly crossed. We were 8,750 feet closer to the sun and it felt like it. I put the hood of my coat on my head to protect part in my scalp.

Even though we were tired, everyone was good-natured, as usual at Mountainfilm only more so. Oprah is building a home here and there’s a lot of self-congratulatory talk about how Telluride is the best place in the world. I do love it here, but I’ve also been to other nice places.

Why did I think it was a good idea to wear my thick hiking socks?

And when are they going to open the doors?

The line behind me for Oprah. Seems like more than 650 people here to me.

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It’s been a year since I was last here, 35 years since I was first here, nearly five years ago that we sold our house.

I wasn’t thinking about that, though, as I did the drive from Grand Junction to Telluride. I was mostly thinking about the weather. Totally unfair to have snow coming on Memorial Day weekend. “Linda, that popcorn better stay in the back seat….after I have another handful.”

Snow started in earnest at Dallas Divide, the pass outside of Montrose. We were going up and up some more. Telluride, where we’re going for Mountainfilm, sits at 8750 feet elevation. My home, and the home of the friend I’m staying with, is a thousand feet above that. I had an oxygen concentrator that I always used the first day. Two days until I was good for hiking.

“Look at the elk,” I say, three of them skitter from the left across the road, scrambling up the near-cliff on the right. I still know the best place to stop for groceries–City Market in Montrose, which gives free dry ice–and the best places to spot beaver dens. I know when the cell signal will give out and that as beautiful as the scenery is right now it might be even nicer in a few minutes.

Kept my eyes on the road in the snow. “Why don’t those people have their lights on?” I ask.

“Drive as slow as you need to,” calls Jerry from the back seat.

A couple minutes later a motorcyclist in a rain suit waves frantically. “Darn! I don’t have my lights on!” I always drive with them on at home and so flipped the dial on the steering column. The temperature on the dashboard kept going down.

After two hours and thirty-seven minutes of driving I dropped off my friends at their condo in town. And then I started to cry.

“The kids will come here to see us,” my ex-husband had said, “the grandchildren will come. It will be our family retreat.” I bought the fantasy along with the home, not knowing that the marriage was already crumbling beneath me. We came to Telluride the first time when Jessamyn was just five months old. “It’s worth the trip,” was the town motto at the time, a strong hint at how difficult it is to get here. Babies had to be a year old to go to the nursery at the ski mountain, so I taught Jessamyn to hold up one finger when I asked her how old she was. We laughed when she did it. I hired a baby sitter for one day of skiing and then had a dental emergency, so found a dentist, and got worked on with Jessamyn in a front pack.

The house here was our last joint asset, the divorce was final a few months when it ultimately sold. It had been on the market for two years. The realtor told us we’d make a killing, but of course we didn’t. Sold the lovely place for what we paid for it.

I didn’t cry last year. Or the year before that.

That’s the thing about grief, it waits, lurking and shows up when you least expect it. I try to respect it, like at unseasonable snowstorm, and know that, like the snowstorm, it will be over soon.

“My” house. Looking very lonely.




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Nary a drop to drink

I stand in front of my bathroom sink, toothbrush in hand, confused.

Yes, I’m whacked out on jet lag. I slept for the first ten and a half hours of the sixteen hour flight from Delhi to San Francisco. The flight attendants were actually worried and I only woke up when I got leg cramps from not drinking enough. Hard to take in water while you are sleeping.

Although it’s time for bed in San Francisco, I’m both exhausted and awake at the same time.

Just being in an international airport is exciting for me, hearing different languages, seeing different cultures on display. Somehow all the possibilities of life are open when you are headed on an international trip. I love to leave. And I love to come home.

I’ve spent three weeks in India, and not in luxury hotels. While I have been an honored guest at every turn, sitting at the head of the table, in the front seat of the car, never allowed to get close to a restaurant bill, the realities of daily life in India are different than here.  I drink bottled water there. Every time. Every drop. If the woman-of-the-house is going to make chutney she uses bottled water so I can eat it.

“Is is true that everyone in America his a pipe into their house with water?” a cousin asks me.

An Indian in-home water purification system. Families like to transfer water for drinking to the ceramic jug as it will stay cooler. Refrigerated water is deemed too cold.

I always invite questions, and learn more from the questions I’m asked than from those I ask.

“How many hours a day does that water come?” is his follow-up question.

“And you can drink this water?”

I told him that if you can’t drink the water it will be in the newspaper. “And we get hot water from the pipe also.”

In the village of Kanai one morning we ran out of water. The family house is one of the most modern in the village. It has two bathrooms with western-style toilets, swamp coolers, and a reverse osmosis water purifier. But that only helps if you have water. The tank was empty. The well water was too bad. I went on the search for water. The first home didn’t have any to spare. We got two jugs from a house-under-construction down the street. I’ve supported Charity Water, which brings clean water to third world villages, for 15 years now and been lucky to see their work in the field in both Ethiopia–where we dig wells–and in India where we build taankas, a modern version of ancient rainwater collection tanks.

I stare at my toothbrush again, put toothpaste on it and run it under the faucet.

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