NAPA: Cliff Swallows and the Hard Times

So this weekend, one of my very best besties, Pam (AKA Adventure Pam) came up from LA to visit Michael and I, and we all headed to Napa for an overnight at the Meritage Resort and Spa, including a trip on the wine train. Pam hadn’t heard about the incident from a year or two back where a group of African-American women (a book club!) were kicked off the Napa Wine Train for allegedly being “too loud.” Absolute bullshit, right? So we told her about it just so she could share in our shame for patronizing it.

But a wine train is a wine train, and ride it I must.  #dontjudgeme  To make myself feel better, I did make a few jokes about how I was excited to go on the “white train” or just “the racist wine train”. Because you know…WINE.

So we got tickets for the Vista Dome Lunch which is about the nicest lunch you will ever have on a train travelling about ten miles an hour through wine country. They encourage you to kick things off with a mimosa before boarding, so we did. Then eventually it was time to board. You walk up a boarding ramp lined with cyclone fencing that has a shit ton of padlocks with people’s names scrawled on them. Apparently, these are all placed there by couples who are in love as a symbol of how trapped or locked into their lives they feel. Oh wait, that’s not right. Could it be they feel imprisoned by love? I know it’s intended to be romantic but honestly, nothing says “love” like a giant padlock.

So we get to our beautiful Vista Dome car, which is vintage and has a dome window for maximum viewing ability (as one might expect from the name). I made a joke about Trip to Bountiful because HOW CAN YOU NOT, and the rest is pretty hazy. Six drinks and four courses later, you roll back into the station, ready to check into the Meritage and take a nap, which we totally did.

Because this is who we are, we read every pamphlet in our room, including the note warning occupants about Cliff Swallows. Pam was reading it aloud to us and paused here, noting that this would be an awesome name for a gay porn star. And from there it was just pure hilarity, since Cliff Swallows is/are endangered and therefore allowed to build nests wherever he/they feel like…including on guests’ balconies. Apparently, Cliff Swallows is also a total slob because the hotel adds that should Cliff Swallows leave a lot of unwanted debris on the balcony, guests should feel free to notify Housekeeping, who will happily clean up after this presumably aging messy ex-porn star/endangered creature. I kept imagining a dude in a ratty bathrobe and cowboy boots smoking on the balcony and leaving crumpled up cans of MGD and American Spirits everywhere.

Listen, we are easily amused. But not by normal things, it seems. We headed to the Crush Lounge, which houses a bowling alley and pool tables as well as really outstanding bar food. We liked the food and the fireplace, and while I wanted to play pool, it was super loud and honestly, we just wanted to find a fire pit to sit near and talk. But all the fire pits were turned off! I think we probably could have turned one on and if not, we could have asked one of the really awesome and attentive staff to turn one on, but at that point, we were ready to call it a night.

The three of us watched a cool little sci-fi flick called “The Passengers” with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence about people travelling in suspended animation for 120 years to get to a new earth-type planet. Only one guy is woken up about 90 years too early and can’t go back to sleep, so he decides to totally ruin some hot smart chick’s life by waking her up, too. They fall in love, until she finds out he’s essentially killed her and then she’s mad and goes swimming in a really cool space pool a lot. Oh, and the British Wesley Snipes from 30 Rock is there playing a robot bartender. And later Laurence Fishburne wakes up, explains some shit, then dies. Bonus Unnecessarily Big Name Cameo by Andy Garcia as the ship’s captain, who is in like 10 seconds of this movie.  And not even a good ten seconds! It’s a ten seconds that makes you realize you just watched a movie with way too many plot holes and a stupid ending.

We slept really well despite the disappointing ending of the film, and awoke to the magic that is BRUNCH BUFFET! And it truly was magical. Trust me, I’ve been to a lot of mediocre buffets in my nearly 50 years of life, and this one was really amazing. Not only was there the usual breakfast fare, there were cheese blintzes, chicken and waffles, brioche french toast, more charcuterie and cheese than I have EVER witnessed in one place before, a sort of coat-rack thing with donuts hanging on it, and a Made-to-Order omelet bar. Oh, and mimosas for Pam! Coffee for me.

We checked out but stuck around because we had barely scratched the surface of what else was going on at the Meritage. We had a dip in the hot tub, then went to a wine tasting (after which I spent an embarassing amount of money on eight bottles of wine), then went to a coffee shop for a cuppa joe and then lunch back at the Crush Lounge.

I have to take a moment here to share this awesome book that Michael found. I still don’t know if he was buying it ironically but I don’t think it was. I think he sincerely needs cheering up sometimes and thinks this will help, gods bless his adorable heart.

IMG_4175

Feeling desparate? Suicidal? THIS BOOK MAY HELP. Or not. Hard to tell. It’s full of pages that have abstract blotchy drawings on them with simple statements about how things will get better and life won’t always suck. It’s so simple, it’s genius. I honestly would have chosen a different title, such as “Please Don’t Kill Yourself” or “I Think You May Need Help”. But that’s just me.

From the little note at the bottom of the cover page, I think this book is assuming an awful lot about what’s going on in my life, but generally speaking, it IS a hard time to be a human being right now. And it’s nice to know that this book is here for me when I need it.  Interestingly, it was published in 2016, which as we all know was a real stinker of a year.

Anyway, that was our awesome visit with Pam/weekend getaway to Napa. I hope we can make this an annual thing and somehow not become alcoholics. I heart my Pammie. And remember – Don’t Kill Yourself, Because You Might Miss a Hilarious Blog Post.

I Guess It’s a Cantwell Thing

“How about this tree?” Fran asked, pointing to the pine tree that was currently throwing shade our way.

I set down my can of Diet Coke beside my beach towel and shrugged, standing up. I approached the tree, giving it a quick once-over. “I guess it’s okay,” I said, but upon closer inspection, I realized it wouldn’t do. I pointed at the base of the tree. “Someone left a bag of dog poop. So…maybe not.”

Fran laughed, seeing it now. “Yeah, I guess not.”

I spotted another, smaller tree, right at the end of the rocky outcropping we always just called “Cantwell Rock.” I imagine every other family that went there called it after their own family, but to us, it was Cantwell Rock, where we had at least one family picnic each summer at Pinecrest Lake. “What about that one?”

Fran nodded. “Looks good. As long as there’s no bags of dog shit under it.”

“So we’ve agreed on the minimum requirements for a final resting place.” I picked up the two jars containing my share of our Mom and Dad’s ashes and we walked over towards the little tree.

“Keeping the bar low is always a good idea,” he nodded. My brother was like that: keep it light. Don’t expect too much. Actually, that could have been the family motto: Don’t be too serious and don’t expect too much. You might end up pleasantly surprised. Okay, so it’s not as cool-sounding as the Stark family’s “Winter is coming,” but on the plus side, at least we’re all still alive, unlike the Starks.

It was a cute little tree. It was easy to spot if you were approaching by boat, and therefore easy to remember for future visits. “Yeah, it’s a good tree.”

My original plan for Pinecrest this summer was to spread Mom and Dad’s ashes with the whole family there, like some faintly creepy family reunion. I’d imagined all eight of my brothers and sisters there at the cabin on the lake, each of us holding our unmarked pickle relish jars filled with each of our shares of Mom and Dad’s cremains, sitting on the porch with cocktails and telling the old stories for the millionth time.

We’ve told the stories so many times that the actual telling of the tales is more ritualistic than informative; it’s not like there’s someone new who hasn’t heard about the time Cathy and John wandered off onto the fire trail and got lost until Cathy made John go up to strangers and cry pathetically until they asked what was wrong. Or the time that Fran was ten and got left behind at the gas station in Oakdale, and the old man who worked there gave him an ice cream cone and patiently waited for the Cantwell family station wagon to return. Or when Dad packed the luggage on top of the car so high that he couldn’t back it out of the garage. Or the year that we had a reunion and someone came up with the awesomely inappropriate idea of printing up t-shirts for everyone reading (unironically!) CANTWELL CLAN. Yeah, there was a reason I never wore that shirt outside of the cabin that year – CLAN is definitely not something you want to have plastered across your chest. It’s just wrong. I couldn’t even donate the shirt to Goodwill; the homeless have enough problems without associating themselves with a clan.

In retrospect, I guess it was kind of ridiculous of me to think that all of us could actually clear our calendars for the same three days in August. Only my brother Fran showed up, sporting his awesome Brad-Dourif-as-Doc-Cochrane-in-Deadwood ‘stache. I hadn’t really known Fran too well growing up, since he’s about 12 years older than me and had already moved out of the house by the time I was able to retain memories. And for a while, he’d been the black sheep of the family, a motorcycle-riding hippie with a genius IQ, the fourth child in a family of nine, while I was the baby of the family, the good kid who craved everyone’s quiet approval. But as it turns out, we probably have the most in common of any of us.

Anyway, there we were: only two of the remaining nine Cantwell kids, looking for a proper place at Cantwell Rock to spread my parents’ ashes. Oh, sorry – my share of my parents’ ashes. Fran didn’t have any because he never collected his from my sister Gail, who somehow ended up with the job of Parental Ash Distributor. Gail and Chuck somehow always get stuck with the jobs like that, although I have no idea how that happened. And Fran probably just thought that someone else would want them more than he did. I could see his point: it’s kind of a weird feeling to just carry home two unmarked jars of your parents’ ashes after having Thanksgiving dinner at your sister’s house. Leftover turkey and stuffing? Sure. Ashes…not so much.

“So…who’s who?” Fran asked, nodding to the jars I’m holding.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I used to know. Um, I think this one is Mom.” I held up the jar filled with lots of white ash. “I remember thinking it was odd because there were more ashes of her than there were of Dad.”

“Yeah. That is odd.” He squinted at the jar that I suspected held our mom’s ashes. “Oh, maybe Pauline got half of Dad’s ashes, and so there was less to split up?”

“Oh, yeah!” Why hadn’t that occurred to me? Of course our stepmom would have taken half the ashes for the Naval Ceremony they had back in New York. Yeah – the one that nobody told anyone about. I didn’t really mind, since that was typical for our family and not something done out of spite. It just doesn’t occur to us, when we hear about things like weddings or funerals, that someone else might actually give a shit. It’s honestly like we’re a whole family full of absent-minded professors, bumbling our way through other people’s emotions.

Without asking my brother if he had parting words, I unceremoniously dumped the ashes at the base of the tree, careful to wait for the breeze to stop. “We don’t want to pull a Big Lebowski, do we?” I add, tapping out the ashes first from one jar, and then the other. I knew he would get the reference, and he laughed.

I stood up once I was finished and the ashes were settled, already mixing with the dirt at the base of the tree. I placed some pine needles over them, as if that would keep them from blowing away. “Um, so yeah,” I said finally. Neither of us were religious. A prayer would mean nothing. So instead, I said, “Sorry, guys. I guess you’re stuck with each other, now. But you’ll like it here, I think. Thanks for giving us Pinecrest. And Cantwell Rock.”

It felt weird saying those words instead of an Our Father or a Hail Mary. Or even a “Peace be with you,” like at the end of all those visits to church as a kid. But by the same token, as a family, we had never done funerals for anyone in our family. We’d do kind of a memorial party; I guess you could call them “celebrations of life”, but no funerals. So it made sense that we’d not really know what to say when dumping the ashes of our divorced parents who’d just happened to pass away six months months apart from one another, at the ripe old ages of 91 and 93.

“Want me to take your picture?” I asked, putting away the empty jars and coming back with my iPhone. Fran was instantly game, and immediately took up a pose. He made imaginary guns with his hands and pointed towards the tree, grinning broadly under his straw hat. “What is that supposed to be?” I snapped a few photos even though I had no idea what his pose was.

“Isn’t this the pose from those photos at Abu Ghraib?”

I rolled my eyes and had to laugh. Leave it to a Cantwell to hilariously send up your parents’ ash-disposal with a touching recreation of infamous torture photos. “Oh my God, Fran!” It really was perfect. I loved my big brother more in that moment than I ever had before. It felt really good to laugh just then, and he joined me. We’d never actually say we loved each other, but we didn’t need to. We were forever unified in finding the inappropriate hilarity in horror and the macabre. We were Cantwells; that’s just what we did. It was in our DNA. It was what made us who we were.

We packed up our picnic things, including the empty jars that were now lined with the ashy residue of human cremains. Later, I put them in the recycling bin. I understood that to some people, this may seem uncaring or harsh. But the thing I think both I and my brother understood was that it didn’t matter how a thing might seem. What mattered was the take-away. And that day, we exorcised the gravity of death from the beauty of the life. Who needed empty jars? Who needed prayers and words, when we had love and laughter?

Not us. Not the Cantwells. And definitely not me.