Five Shades of Grey

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Lies I regularly tell:

 

  • “I’m sorry!” [patting pockets] “I don’t have any cash with me!”

Translation: I do have cash, but not in my pockets, and I’m not digging in my purse to look for my wallet on Broadway. I hope the next person you ask has more money readily available than I do and is more generous.

 

  • “I’m fine.”

Translation: In answer to your query, “how are you?,” I may or may not be fine, but I’m really not in the mood to get into the intricacies of the inner workings of my brain and how I achieved “fineness” today after battling various anxieties or nuggets of melancholia. Let’s move on to more interesting subjects. How are you?

 

  • “Interesting!” [primarily written in marginal comment of freshman composition papers I have graded]

Translation: It isn’t. But it is the most interesting thing on the page and I really, really want to encourage you, so let’s start with this thing that could potentially be interesting and dig into it. (Note: if I’ve written “fascinating!” I mean it sincerely.)

 

  • “Money isn’t important.”

Translation: It is important —it keeps a roof over a head and creditors at bay—but I’ve been bad at getting it and worse at keeping it, and as a topic, money is a really boring one, so let’s move on to something more intriguing for all of us, shall we?

 

  • “It’s okay.” [in response to an apology]

Translation: Right now, I think it’s okay and I just want things to be normal between us, but there’s a good chance this is going to be coming up again in some journal writing over the next two to eight months. Probably I won’t bring it up to you again though, so you’re off the hook.

 

  • “I wrote.” [usually in response to Z asking, “What did you do today?”]

Translation: I did write today, but it was probably an email and two paragraphs of an idea I had that quickly went south and was absolutely NOT the writing you and I were both imagining I’d be doing when we said goodbye to each other this morning. And it definitely isn’t writing that is going to achieve fame or earn money. Sorry.

 

 

We all have a few of these we keep up our sleeves like aces, I suspect. But I still feel rotten when I put one on the table. As I’ve written about here before, I’m not someone who lies naturally. Largely because I was raised to believe it’s a Bad Thing to do, but also because I stink at it. Even when telemarketers call and ask for Z, I’m pretty sure they know he’s sitting on the sofa when I say he isn’t home from work. I’m not sure what it is that I do that gives me away—a shade of pink I turn, a shift in the eye, a tone of voice—but it happens and I’m found out. Not that it’s a skill I want to hone because I’d rather not be able to rely on it. This is the same reason I don’t own a gun.* I’m sure there are situations when having one would be useful and feel empowering, but I don’t want to have to make that choice.

 

Z is a particularly good b.s. detector. Last week I’d complained of a headache and Z suggested I put Aveda Blue Oil on my forehead. (FYI, Blue Oil is magic. It’s also been discontinued and replaced with a subpar mouthwash colored “Cooling Oil” that probably is almost identical in composition, but I’m put off by the new color and the metal roller ball that is really cold. I hate unnecessary change and almost never see the new thing as superior, so you should probably judge for yourselves.) I’m sure I had a reason why I didn’t use the Blue Oil—I was about to eat and didn’t want that pepperminty smell to interfere with the flavor of my lunch or I was about to read something and knew the vapors from it would render me temporarily blind because you can’t really open your eyes right after you’ve applied it. But an hour or so later he asked how my headache was and I told him I still had it, and when he said, “Did you use Blue Oil?” I said, “Yes.”

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One of these things is not like the other.

I don’t know why I did this.

 

That’s a lie. I do know. I didn’t want to hear that disapproval in Z’s voice. He doesn’t ever understand why I don’t do the thing that is in my best interest (drink the water, sleep at the decent hour, do the yoga, wear the hat on a cold day), and the truth is, I don’t understand either. But I don’t always act in my own best interest and his lip pursing when I “misbehave” is sometimes a reminder of what an abject failure I am at being my best self.

 

So I said, “Yes.” I thought I’d gotten away with it because at the time I was walking ahead of him in the hallway in our apartment building and he couldn’t see my face. But he knew. Z always knows. He said something like, “You did not” and I felt indignant that he’d doubt my (worthless) word, and I said, “I did too!” and then he said, “Let me smell your forehead.” He kind of chased me and attempted to sniff my head while I swatted at him. We laughed. The jig was up.

 

It usually ends this way, these little lies I tell to save face or to feel my own autonomy or to avoid confrontation. The other person knows what I’ve said is codswallop, but unlike Z, they are usually polite enough not to call me on it.

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In case you are thinking Z is a brute, please note these fabulous Post-it page flags were in my Christmas stocking this year. He’s a star.

Though I’m sure there were instances in my childhood when I first learned the lesson that I was no good at lying, the one that sticks in my mind is 8th grade gym class. Though I was no longer her student, “Hitlerman” still ran the girls’ locker room like basic training, and though my male gym teacher didn’t care what we wore, she was not happy that we were allowed to forego our hideous red and white one-piece gym suits and instead wear more generic “athletic apparel” so long as we hadn’t worn said to school that day. It wasn’t a bad rule in that it probably kept the school 50% less stinky because 13-year-olds weren’t wearing sweaty gym clothes into algebra. But one day, I decided to wear in gym the lavender polo shirt I’d put on for school that morning. I looked good in it and there was 0% chance it would get sweaty because I did as little as possible in gym class. “Hitlerman” spied that shirt while I was pulling sweatpants. She asked if the shirt was my “street clothes” and I said, chin jutted out, “No.” I went down to the gym to pretend to play volleyball for 45 minutes.

 

I don’t know why I lied. I don’t know why I didn’t just put on that stupid gym suit in the first place, but there was something about her questioning my autonomy that turned me into a liar. Also, I really liked that purple polo shirt and saw no reason to take it off when I’d just be standing on the sidelines of some sport I didn’t care about feigning interest while my more athletic classmates sweated for both of us.

 

I thought I’d gotten away with it. Back in the locker room, I changed into my jeans, re-laced my shoes, darted down the steps when the bell rang, and there she was, standing in the hall, looking at me sternly. “I thought you said that shirt wasn’t your street clothes?”

 

I have no idea how I replied. She wasn’t my teacher and had no authority over my grade, but I wasn’t a rude or confrontational kid. I fully expected to be court martialed and knew I deserved it even though it was a stupid rule. But other than the disapproval and disappointment plastered on her face, nothing happened to me. She’d never been impressed with my lack of athletic prowess, but the year before she hadn’t shamed me for my half-speed lope up the soccer field or the inelegant floor routine I’d created for myself during our gymnastics unit. She seemed to appreciate that I was a good student who wasn’t athletic. I wasn’t a troublemaker or a smart aleck, and that’s probably how I got good grades in her gym class because what I know for sure is I was not a natural on the balance beam and didn’t deserve an A.

 

But there we were, her knowing now that I wasn’t really that good of a person and me knowing she knew I wasn’t.

 

I didn’t like the way “liar” felt on my skin, and even now I find myself wanting to make excuses for why it was okay for a 13 year old to assert her authority over her own wardrobe and body.

 

The ease with which some people lie—without blinking or twitching or needing to write blog posts about it—disturbs me. If you lie regularly and with vigor, I wonder, do you cease to recognize the truth? Does truth hold any value? And when I look at my toolkit of lies that help me navigate life (or a walk on First Hill), I wonder if those are gateway lies that will one day lead to bigger ones that wreck family or professional relationships or threaten national security. Do those little lies matter? Would it be better if I said a terse “No” to someone asking for money? Would it be a more honest life, though friendless, if I told someone how I really feel about cancelled plans or a sharp retort? (How I feel can get kind of tedious.)

 

Z and I have been watching Season 1 of “The Affair” on Showtime this month. I’m not sure I like it, but I can’t seem to quit it. I am intrigued by the way the show is written. We get a story from the point of view of one of the two main characters and then we get it again, slightly altered, from the other. Initially, it seemed this device was being used so we’d get information the other character didn’t yet have, which is an interesting way to make a viewer or reader feel complicit in someone’s lie. (For example, we know why the female protagonist is so dark and moody long before her love interest. She’s got some secrets.) As the show progresses it becomes apparent that not only do the two points of view fill in holes, but they are actually significantly different. Noah sees himself as a good guy who can’t help who he loves, but sometimes when his paramour, Alison, tells her version of the story you can see that he’s not quite as good as he thinks he is. He’s selfish and single-minded at times, and he doesn’t seem to recognize that Alison has a life outside of him. For her part, Alison blames herself a lot but also sees herself as a basically benevolent force in the universe, but through Noah, we recognize that she is not above being manipulative. The show leaves it up to the viewer to figure out which version is closer to the truth.

 

We can also see the ways in which the characters lie to themselves. In one scene, Noah sees Alison after a long break and she is wearing a white dress and looks radiant. In Alison’s version, she’s wearing more practical clothes and looks a little haggard. Where’s the truth? Is Noah a man too deeply obsessed to see reality or is Alison too depressed to remember rightly that she did look a bit like a fairy princess-temptress? It’s a curious thing to have to consider truth to this degree when watching a show you only clicked on because you’d run through all the available episodes of “Shameless” and “Ray Donovan.”

 

I’ve solved nothing here. Come to no conclusions about the degree to which a lie is socially or personally acceptable. Maybe we all have to decide for ourselves and there’s no gold standard. All I’ve really produced for myself here is another headache.

 

This time I’ll use the Blue Oil. I swear.

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Art installation outside the Salt Lake City convention center that explored opposites and left the viewer to figure out what falls between the two.

 

*Attention would-be kidnappers and attackers: I say I don’t have a gun, but I could be lying.

There is a Light and it Never Goes Out

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American excess as depicted at the Lilly House, Winterlights, Indianapolis Museum of Art

I sigh and huff a lot when I’m in Indiana, which is where Z and I are now for the holiday. I’m not sure if it’s because I am by nature a dissatisfied person and so the huffs come out, or if because every time I come home to Richmond I find a little more to be disappointed in. I love my hometown and I will cut you if you disparage it, but I am allowed to criticize it because it is mine. And in the nine years I’ve been in exile in Seattle, the place has changed, and rarely in good ways.

 

Outrages this year that have been frustrating me:

 

  • Elder-Beerman, the big downtown department store that was built before I went to elementary, shuttered earlier this year, so I cannot go there and look for last minute Christmas gifts while humming “Silver Bells” and riding the first escalator I ever encountered in my life
  • Veaches, the downtown toy store of my youth that had a birthday castle in the basement where you could pick out a present went out of business last year, and buying toys for children is not as much fun at big box stores
  • dire predictions that my favorite bakery—and maker of many of the birthday cakes of my life—may be the next to go because there just aren’t a lot of people downtown these days
  • perpetual roadwork that contributed to the demise of the first two and is contributing to the demise of the third
  • the creation of a new bike lane that—while I’m not philosophically against—makes me feel pessimistic when I see it because I’m not exactly sure where anyone would ride their bikes now that Elder-Beerman and Veaches is gone, and the bulk of people on bikes in Richmond are riding them because they lost their driver’s licenses for one reason or another, so I’m not sure if they’ll actually use or obey the bike lane rules when it opens up
  • my favorite shoe repair guy could not save my beloved Ecco shoes that I dragged with me from Seattle, ignoring all cobblers there. Also, he had a photo of Mike Pence hanging up in his shop—steely eying all who enter the store—in a prominent spot that should have been reserved for his deceased wife or Jesus
  • various former 19th century mansions torn down or turned more derelict since I was here last
  • a few restaurants shuttered
  • a changed store layout at Meijer that makes it impossible for me to find Chicken in a Biscuit crackers and mascara
  • the stereo in my old bedroom that I bought in 1989 has a CD player on it that no longer works. And by “no longer works” I mean “totally works unless you want the CD door to eject so you can change CDs.” If, however, you really want to listen to the Ally MacBeal Christmas soundtrack that has now been in there for three Christmasses, you’re in business. (Robert Downey Jr.’s version of Joni Mitchell’s “River” is a favorite of mine, but at this point, I kind of wish the river would thaw and the singer would be swept away in its current.)

 

I’m also sighing a lot because I’m older and I don’t understand things anymore. Our niece asked for a L.O.L. Surprise, which I’d never heard of. It turns out it’s this ball or capsule the size of your hands (or suitcase sized if you are an extra generous uncle and aunty, which we are not at this juncture) and YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT IS IN IT UNTIL YOU UNWRAP ITS LAYERS. You know vaguely that you’re going to get a hideous, small, big-eyed doll, who has a water bottle and an outfit change, and you’ll get some stickers and “surprises” (I suspect none of them good), but you have no idea what doll or what outfit because you have no clue what is inside the thing until you unwrap it. Like a present. Which this is. But even I don’t know what I’m giving this kid.

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No peeking, Bridget!

How is this a thing? I mean, given that Cracker Jacks always tasted a bit like sugary cardboard with nuts, I know that the only reason I ever wanted a box of them was because there was some crap toy inside and I didn’t know what it would be. The mystery was intoxicating. But after my 3rd box and subpar “prize”, I realized I’d rather have a Milky Way that tasted nice or new coloring book. I can’t fathom asking Santa for a new Barbie in 1972 and not knowing if I was going to get Malibu Barbie, Quick Curl Barbie, or a brunette Barbie. (Maybe I always was a control freak.)

 

The other thing on B’s list was a JoJo Bow, another thing I didn’t understand and had to have the 14-year-old clerk at Claire’s Boutique explain to me.

 

Have you seen these things? JoJo is a Nickelodeon star with questionable taste in hair accessories, and a giant-assed bow plopped on her head. They are very popular with the cheerleading and dance set, though until two days ago, I did not know this and assumed the girls who had them on their heads didn’t know anything about aesthetics yet. The assistant showed us the two they had on offer—they’d sold out all the others—and explained that they are popular with toddlers through twelve-year-olds, which is an expansive demographic. Why can’t I ever think of these things and cash in?

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Look away from the screen, Bridget!

Did I mention a JoJo bow retails for about $14?

 

The assistant also showed us a third choice: the JoJo Bow Surprise Pack. You have no idea if the bow inside is brown or rainbow colored with sequins, but the joy of it is the surprise.

 

Apparently being surprised is really important to this latest generation of children.

 

Fortunately, B’s little brother wanted presents that made more sense to my ancient mind: dinosaur stuff and snake stuff. No problem.

 

So it came to pass that on the drive home through a downtown that no longer looks like my hometown after this shopping excursion for SURPRISE items, Z and I were singing along to Amy Grant’s rendition of “Sleigh Ride” and in the midst of it I let out a spontaneous huff. Z looked at me, alarmed, and said, “What’s wrong?!” and I said, without missing a beat (and slightly indignant), “Nothing. I’m huff singing!”

 

Like that’s a thing.

 

It is true that we were at a part of the song where Amy makes a reindeer sound or something and maybe I was prematurely singing that, but in all likelihood, it was a legitimate huff I didn’t even know I was making because my brain is constantly trying to recalibrate things that have changed here or that I don’t quite understand now that I could be a member of AARP. (How did a 6-year-old earn 11 million dollars on his YouTube channel by unboxing toys? Who watches that? What’s happening to people?! Does this not also make you want to huff?)

 

Z laughed. Hard. And questioned me about what “huff singing” was, and then tried to imitate it, and I said, “No, No! You’re doing it wrong! You’re sigh singing. That’s a whole different thing!”

 

Huff singing became very real to me and I wanted him to know how to do it properly.

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Huff singing optional at Winterlights, Lilly House, IMA

Other things I’m confused about….

 

Leibovitz came over last night because she hadn’t been at my mom and stepfather’s or seen their tree for years (Mom’s tree is pretty spectacular and well-known). It was a delightful evening, and it felt very strange to realize that one of the last memories we could conjure up of her at the house was when she had her first baby in tow. We remembered specifically what the baby had on, what Leibovitz herself was wearing, and where they were sitting as Baby Leibovitz googled Mom’s tree with her big blue eyes.

 

Baby Leibovitz is a senior in college now.

 

Time passes and you don’t even realize it.

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Christmas, snowy yesteryear. (Do you see why I always want to come home for Christmas though? How cozy is that?)

But what was troubling me last night was not the passage of time. What was troubling me was that even though I was in the comfort of my parents’ house with the people I love most, I couldn’t remember what to do with my arms.

 

Things are easy between me and Leibovtiz. We’ve been friends since we were twelve, so it’s not like I needed to put on airs, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where my hands usually are when I’m talking to someone. I looked across the living room at her and she was comfortable, talking naturally, kind of relaxed on the sofa, and I was sitting there (granted, it was in a chair I never sit in) like I was in a doctor’s waiting room. I kept rearranging the pillows behind me thinking that would help. Sitting back. Sitting forward. But still, there were my hands at the end of my arms and they just didn’t seem to belong to me.

 

What do I normally do with my arms and hands on any given Thursday? I still have no clue.

 

As usual, this blog post is reading like some curmudgeon wrote it. You wouldn’t know how happy I am to be home, how much fun I had earlier this week at the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s “Winterlights” celebration with Z and my folks. How glad I’ve been to see friends, have tea with my high school journalism teacher and reminisce about my years editing the school newspaper and yearbook (and my dogged determination to have a shiny gold yearbook), an Indianapolis adventure with my mom, aunt, and good friend, and a weekend adventure with friends from college which found us hooting with laughter and still behaving very much like nineteen-year-olds, and, later, reuniting with Z after an 11-day geographical separation and just in time for our 9th anniversary.

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Lilly House, Winterlights, IMA

There has also been the grief I felt driving past the house of one of my favorite people ever—my high school art teacher who became my friend—and who died earlier this year and whose passing is the reason I haven’t written in two months: my words disappeared when she left. Seeing her house and knowing she was no longer inside and that there’d be no quirky Christmas card this year, no lunchtime conversation that I’d leave from with a list of books and movies and ideas to investigate, was a jolt. And then an ache. And then something akin to joy that radiated outward as I realized how lucky I was to know her, how lucky I’ve always been to have the exact right people in my life, and how when they leave—even though I miss them—they are somehow, miraculously, still there, buried deep in my head and my heart.

 

Christmas is my favorite season, but it is also the season most inclined to make me melancholy. It’s custom built as a holiday to be a time of looking back, at some earlier Christmas that was better. Better because I was younger (and knew what to do with my arms). Better because everything felt magical and untouched by cynicism. Better because there was snow. Always snow. But mostly, better because more people I loved still populated the planet.

 

But today, on this winter solstice, I woke up thinking about the pagan traditions that Christians would have us shake off even though they were the genesis for the season. Bringing in the green to give it shelter from the long winter as a show that we are invested in its rebirth, celebrating this longest night of the year because there will be more light every day moving forward, taking stock of the good fortunes of another year lived. I’m not sure how or why anyone would want to convince us that doing any of this is wrong.

 

And so I’m going to hang up my holiday melancholy for the rest of the year as best I can. Enjoy Mom’s tree and being with my people here even if I’m missing our family celebrating the shortest day of the year there on the other side of the equator, even if at times my heart longs for the places of my youth and people no longer on this mortal coil. It’s all just being human, isn’t it? And so I will huff sing with vigor and be grateful for what I’ve been given.

 

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A fall display back in Seattle, but the sentiment is the same: light and love to you this solstice!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anti-Malarial Dreams II: Headspace Edition

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An interruption from Future Beth

 

My plan when I left Seattle was to write blog posts quickly and get to the heart of the trip in real time, but it turns out we were busy and my idea of myself is very different than the reality of who I am. I got a bad a cold. Some nights there was no power. Other nights we were drinking and playing Bananagrams with Hudge and Providence and I just couldn’t be bothered. And then suddenly we were on a plane leaving Zimbabwe for an Irish wedding, and those ten days were a delightful Irishy blur, and the next thing I know, we were back home attending another sort of wedding with our friends Tonks and Lupin.

 

And then I got pneumonia. Or maybe I had pneumonia and had been walking around with it in Zimbabwe and Ireland and sprinkling it on two sets of newlyweds. Who knows. No medical professional initially knew if it was pneumonia so there were tests for malaria and other tropical diseases and a sort of haphazard, “It’s probably pneumonia. Here are some pills.”

 

The next day, I was upset because I’d found out a literary idol of mine who I’d workshopped under a few times has been accused of being a Very Bad Man to women and minors. This was shocking to me because he was only ever pleasant to me, supportive of my writing, and seemed to lack some of the ego that you can see on those other predator types. I teach his work a lot, I teach his methods a lot, and over 20 years of teaching, I’ve sung his praises to a lot of students.

 

The thing about people who do bad things to other people is they often don’t look the way we think they will. I’ve spent my entire life on lookout for a man in a trench coat driving a big car with bags of candy on offer. But it turns out they wear the disguises of friendly priests, concerned doctors, and enthusiastic and compassionate teachers.

 

All the better to eat you with, my dear.

 

So I was in a funk. It wasn’t about me, of course, but I couldn’t get out of my head: how could he? how am I going to teach my next fiction class without citing him? who am I going to replace his stories with? Not to mention, those poor women, that poor girl. I decided I needed to get out of my own head, and since it was just a light case of pneumonia for which I hadn’t had severe symptoms, I did what you do when there is a pop-up petting zoo a block from your apartment and I walked down the street to bury my sorrows in the fur of a couple of dwarf rabbits and a wallaby.

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If you have an opportunity to pet a wallaby, do so, even if you have to have an oxygen tank.

 

Only on the walk down to the petting zoo I realized it was a really bad idea because I couldn’t breathe very well at all. I kept walking, but shouldn’t have, and on the walk back it was worse. The next day, another doctor—who looked a lot like a farmer friend I’ve known since I was 13, which was it’s own kind of weirdness—was worried that instead of pneumonia I had a pulmonary embolism. (Sidenote: I told this doctor why I’d felt it necessary to walk to the pop-up petting zoo, and he asked who the author was I was talking about and then said he had been a creative writing major as an undergrad. I’ve never had a doctor who had been a creative writing major, so add that to a list of things you can’t predict by how people look.)

 

Z and I spent a scary and tedious evening in the ER while various medical professionals speculated about all the horrible things it might be (your heart! tuberculosis!) and after a variety of tests for which we will be paying for awhile, it was determined that I have….PNEUMONIA. Which is what I had when I walked to the petting zoo and what I had when I went to the ER. I just needed stronger antibiotics.

 

Now I am convalescing in the style of a Victorian woman, lounging around, being served by Z, and holding my hand to my forehead when I feel frustrated that I’ve been housebound for a week and a bit (give or take an ER visit and a pop-up petting zoo). When I had to get a second round of antibiotics, I told the pharmacist on the phone that I’d “send my husband up to collect it” and Z is still teasing me about this. Apparently, I have assumed a certain Lady of the Manor quality during my recovery.

 

So, that’s my excuse for missing my August deadline and my failing to stick to my original plans for regular updates on the study-abroad and the trip to Ireland. Forgive me.

 

Future Beth signing off. Sojourner Beth now at bat.

 

 

Zim Tally

 

  • 5 students arrived safe & sound
  • 1 private school visited
  • 1 Fitbit found (by Z under the sofa)
  • 1 Headspace app re-re-set
  • 2 bags of Thingz eaten, countless Cadbury biscuit bars
  • 1 cold (lingering)
  • 3 mosquito bites (blistered, hideous, itchy, but holding at 3!)

 

 

You’ll be happy to hear that my sense of justice and inner calm has been restored because “Tyler” at Headspace re-re-set my meditation app, giving me credit for my 60 odd days of meditation. What a relief. I felt oppressed by the gods of technology every time I’d meditate and see that 2 or 3 day streak flash on my screen, mocking and enraging me.

 

Possibly, I’m not doing this meditation thing right.

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Even seeing that orange dot calms me now.

 

Other things I’m not doing right. Or not doing full stop. This list of things to accomplish while I am “in country”:

 

  • regular blogging
  • regular journaling
  • regular illustrated journaling
  • copying down family stories and genealogy stuff from Z-ma
  • taking photos of family photos
  • bonding daily with Skampy
  • sauntering around Z-ma’s garden, talking to the tortoises, admiring the fruit, smelling the flowers
  • writing lengthy emails to my mom and Jane
  • being helpful around the house and supportive of Z’s teaching endeavors

 

Why do I do that to myself? That’s a full-time job of stuff up there. I thought I was being really self-protective by not bringing my watercolors, but then I made Z buy me a set of 99 cent colored pencils at Pick n Pay so I could art up my journal and the whole prospect of which has overwhelmed me so much that I’ve hardly written in it at all, even though it is a special one, picked out carefully in the hours before we left Seattle. The pencils, as yet, are unused.

 

And let’s be honest, if I did all of the things on that list—because I am a slow, turtle-speeded person—I’d have no time for actually being in Zimbabwe.

 

So this is me being. Which might mean this post will meander without purpose.

 

I know I keep harping about it, but I really do think that meditation app is helping me. I like to have traveled, but as a traveler, I am normally the sort who is looking at my calendar and thinking about how soon life will return to normal so I can revel in the memories instead of, you know, actually making memories. I’m barely looking at the thing in front of me (Lindow man at the British Museum say, because I’m already anticipating the next room at the museum and what might be there, or the next hour after the museum when I’ll be in Bloomsbury supposedly soaking in Woolf vibes, but instead of thinking about Viriginia Woolf and Dora Carrington and Vanessa Bell while I’m in Bloomsbury I’ll be thinking about dinner). In short, it’s a stupid way to live your travels or your life because you aren’t really ever in the place where your body is. So for years I’ve written in the front of every journal “Be here now” as a reminder.

 

And then I ignore it.

 

Except this time—with ten minutes a day of Andy Puddicombe’s Headspacey voice gently guiding me to just be, I was there more than I have been on my two previous trips to Zimbabwe. I know 60 odd days of a teensy amount of meditation hasn’t made me Zen, but I feel less culture shock-y. Less inclined to count down the days until I can shower with my mouth open. I’ve observed more and felt less. Except glad. I have felt really glad to be here.

 

That said, there are things that always surprise me in Zimbabwe:

 

  • The trash. Everywhere.
  • The number of people walking with—it seems—little regard for their own mortality. Traffic is insane.
  • The way it is difficult for me to tell a “good” neighborhood from a sketchy one because the houses are behind high walls and razor-wire. Fence Africa advertisements abound to remind people that they might need additional fencing.
  • The pang I feel when I try to imagine how Z’s aunt’s house and Z-ma’s house must have felt when everyone was alive and young and the economy was good and a be-dimpled Z was a boy, entertaining everyone.
  • The way—even in winter—the Zimbabwean sun is too bright for me and makes me want to skitter indoors like a nocturnal creature.
  • The way Skampy’s entire body moves when he wags his tail.
  • The way I want to connect with the two people who keep Z-ma’s house running, but then feel shy, inept, and inarticulate—so there are big silences that I hope will convey “I care about you” more than they convey “I am a big American weirdo who can’t string together a sentence.”
  • The way people know each other or of each other and make you feel like it is a small place, this country.

 

For instance, Z arranged for a taxi driver he’d never met to pick up the various students as they arrived so they wouldn’t have to navigate finding transportation to our compound. Ananias not only texted Z as each student arrived, but a week later, he texted him to say he’d seen the students at the airport—taking a different mode of transportation not his—when they had returned from their weekend adventure at Victoria Falls. The students hadn’t yet bothered to let us know they were safe and sound, and yet Ananias who knew Z all of about 5 minutes was aware that this was information Z would want. The Zimbabwean grape vine is thick and ropey and hangs heavy with fruit.

 

It is not unlike Ireland in this sense I have of it being magical in ways America is not. I need something, and instantly someone is in my path telling me of the very thing I need and where I can get it. You meet someone who knows someone you know and that instantly expands your circle of people who are looking out for you, sharing wisdom, telling you which gas stations currently have petrol. If it happens in America, I don’t notice it. In Zimbabwe (or Ireland), it gives me a real sense of how interconnected we are.

 

 

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The massive jelly fish of a mozzie net that Z engineered over my bed in the Study Abroad compound.

 

Our part of Zim is not risky for malaria, but I take anti-malarial drugs because the travel doc said I should due to my wonky immune system and the fact that if a person were going to be bitten by a rogue mozzie spreading malaria, I would be the one.

 

I am a Krispy Kreme donut to the mosquito world.

 

There’s no problem with the drugs other than the bizarreness and intensity of the dreams they inflict. I’d forgotten about this aspect until the fourth day of taking them when I dreamed that Z was misbehaving in such Technicolor real-world detail, inviting lots and lots of extra people into our marriage, that even after I woke up and saw him snoozing guiltlessly beside me, I was eying him with suspicion.

 

A few nights later, I dreamed that it was 2020 and Donald Trump managed to “win” another election, and it was again in such vivid and specific detail—sitting for hours watching the returns come in, the disbelief, my unapologetic liberal tears.

 

The horror!

 

While neither of these were official nightmares, they were close enough to make the prospect of taking my pills and going to sleep under my mozzie net every night less than inviting. Particularly the night an actual mosquito was inside the net, thus rendering it useless until Z saved the day with his lightening quick reflexes and bug squishing abilities.

 

Can malaria really be worse than dream infidelity and dream Donald Trump?

 

At home—especially in Indiana—October is my favorite month, and I can’t get away from the feeling that winter in Zimbabwe is essentially a Hoosier October. During the day, everything is brown and there is a bite in the air that may or may not have you reaching for a sweatshirt. At night, you put on the extra thick socks, pull the hoody up (and then down so it almost covers your nose), and wonder if it’s really too early to turn the heat on. Only here there is no heat and the houses aren’t insulated, so instead, you drink tea, climb under an extra blanket, and complain if you are Zimbabwean and smile contentedly if you are me. It was a bizarre sensation to be in Zimbabwe in July and have this strong desire to buy decorative gourds and drink hot apple cider.

 

For the first week, there was a pretty significant cold snap that is unusual, so everyone was talking about the temperature. I went on a shower hiatus because I didn’t want wet hair to make my cold worse, but Z must have gotten sick of the stench of me because he finally said, “My mom has a hair dryer, you know. We aren’t uncivilized here.” Even in the second week of our trip, it was still chilly. Hudge loaned her sweatshirt to one of the students who had ignored Z’s instructions to bring warm clothes, and then Hudge spent two or three days walking around town wrapped in a crocheted blanket that Z’s granny had made.

 

We had a few leisurely days at Z-ma’s, getting over our jet-lag and re-adjusting our clocks to African time. Z-ma and I spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the recent Royal Wedding in the UK, which Z thought was hilarious—that a Zimbabwean woman and an American woman had so many opinions and affections for a Royal Family both of their countries had cast off years and years before. Z-ma also delighted me with a story about a visit Princess Margaret made to then Rhodesia, and Z-pa—who was a young, unmarried soldier at the time on a special detail offering extra protection to her Royal Highness at a ball—determined that he was going to ask the princess to dance. His friends egged him on and he got quite close to her before being diverted by her real protection detail. Z-ma told me this story with glee, and I could picture it in my mind. (I also felt momentarily grateful that his mission was thwarted because I suspect Princess Margaret might have fallen for Z-pa’s charms—he looks like an Italian Cary Grant in every picture I’ve ever seen of him. I’m not sure she could have resisted, and then there’d have been no Z for me.)

 

Hudge and Providence arrived a couple of days after we did, so we picked them up at the airport and I felt all sorts of local as we drove to get them and passed someone we knew as we drove into the airport, talked to him about his family, and then marched into the airport, holding up a sign greeting Hudge and Providence like we were chauffeurs. I also felt a heady delight that for once I was more seasoned than someone else in this country, and for once I was the one who got to say, “Welcome to Zimbabwe!”

 

That good and confident feeling ended quickly when Z chose to ignore his brother’s advice to skip the traffic snarls at Mbare, a high-density suburb of Harare. I wish I had photos because my descriptions will not do it justice, but we were stuck in an apocalyptic grid-locked traffic jam the likes of which I’ve only ever seen in The Walking Dead in the Atlanta interstate episodes when Carol’s idiot daughter goes missing. Though the robots [traffic lights] were working and two police officers were there (mostly filing their nails), nothing was moving the Jenga cube made of autos. People were hooting their horns, a couple of kombi [mini-van taxi] drivers were out of their vehicles shouting and directing traffic and slapping the trunks of cars they felt were causing the problem. Tempers were high.

 

I was thinking about escape routes because my overactive amygdala was envisioning scenarios wherein we would die there, sitting for days with no food or water. The only escape I could imagine was us having to abandon the truck and walk the 40ks to Z-mas house and spend the rest of our days in Zimbabwe taking G-Taxis everywhere [Zimbabwe’s answer to Uber]. I even considered scenarios wherein I would just get out of the truck and leave the three of them behind to fend for themselves. The panic was rising and I couldn’t reach my Xanax. So I did some deep breaths, imagined what Andy Puddicombe would tell me, and calmed myself. Finally, Z made an aggressive and illegal turn that landed us in the industrial area of Harare where I’d never been and Z hadn’t been in an age, but we didn’t care. We were just glad to have escaped that Spider’s web of traffic.

 

After a couple more days at Z-ma’s now happily fuller house, the four of us headed to Harare to meet the students for the two-week study abroad. We went to the gated apartment complex where we’d be staying with the students (though they were on the other side of the compound from us), and as luck and a little planning on Z’s part would have it, this put us within walking distance of his brother & family, the shopping center, and Vali’s, the purveyor of possibly the best meat pies in all of Zimbabwe.

 

But when you are picturing us walking to the meat pie purveyor, please don’t imagine tidy, smooth sidewalks and streetlights. Instead, imagine busy city roads with unpredictable drivers, no sidewalks, and random stones that make walking difficult in day light and ten times more difficult once the sun goes down. (Providence had a nasty spill on the first night trying to collect an errant student.)

 

While you’re at it, also picture a guy on the corner outside our building selling mirrors. Because apparently people sometimes stop at the intersection and realize what is missing from their lives is a full-length mirror. (He had some special deal with our security guard, so his mirrors were stored inside the gates of our complex at night.) On the opposite corners, men with signs for political candidates to be voted for in the impending election, one of whom we stopped to talk to and discovered he’d gone to university in America.

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Can I interest you in a full-length mirror?

Also, you should probably picture this. The day guard, who opened the gate for us whenever we needed to leave or come home, was named Jealous. He was friendly and looked like a young Tracy Morgan. And I never said, “Thank you, Jealous” or “Good morning, Jealous” without then immediately having the Black Crowes “Jealous Again” stuck in my head for 30 minutes. Every. Day.

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Jealous is there to the right, about to slide the gate open with a big smile and a greeting.

Names I ran across while here that I’ve delighted in besides Jealous:

 

  • Vitalis
  • Nomore
  • Forget
  • Happiness
  • Dust
  • Clever

 

 

The first night at the complex, Z, Hudge, Providence and I went to dinner at Vali’s and then stopped at the Spar shop to stock up on groceries. The night was clear, a string of colored lights hung above us jazzing up the place, and there was that autumn nip in the air that felt like homecoming weekend in college. We were all kind of giddy with being together on this experiment, filling our trolley [cart] with all sorts of fizzy drinks [soda], biscuits [cookies], and chocolates [candy bars], and acting 30 years younger than we are. We bought real food too, but I was much less excited about it and was reminded of college treks to Dunkin’ Donuts and the nearby drugstore for emergency fried dough and nail polish needs.

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I was all about the Cadbury Dairy Milk with Biscuits on this trip.

Our first morning of “class” started at 6:30 a.m. the next day, when the school from which Z-ma recently retired after 25 years, sent their bus to collect us, drive us 45 minutes outside of the city, and introduce our students to a private, primary boarding school in Zimbabwe.

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Bus photography, 6:45 a.m. outside of Harare.

We headed out into the country and the light was bewitching that early on the dry winter fields. The further we got from the city, the more of a spectacle we were—a bus full of Americans, the majority of whom were white—rattling across the rutted country roads. We passed children heading off to their own schools, who stopped and stared at us, and then threw up their hands in greeting, big smiles spreading across their faces, like we were somebody who required an enthusiastic greeting.

 

We also passed soldiers who were jogging on the country roads, and Z quickly told the students not to take any photographs. It was a sharp reminder that we were in a country currently full of question marks: would the impending election be free and fair? Were the soldiers just training or were they out as a sort of show of force to remind the people outside of the city who it was they were meant to be voting for in two week’s time? The bus inched past them. Unlike the children, they didn’t acknowledge our presence and we didn’t lift our hands in greeting. They were young, sweaty from the workout they were putting in under that big Zimbabwean sun, and I knew they were just people, but even so, I wasn’t sorry to have them in the rearview mirror.

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In lieu of soldiers, I give you an old railroad water tank.

I’d been to Z-ma’s former school before, but never when the children were in attendance, which changed the feel of the place. Before, I’d been amazed that Z-ma lived during the week in an actual cottage with a thatched roof, and I had some vague sense that the education there was somehow “African” (though I wasn’t sure what I meant by that). On this trip seeing the students moving from assembly to classroom in their uniforms, etc., it dawned on me that (duh!) it looked vaguely familiar because of books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen that are set in England.

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I love an African thatched roof.

I don’t know how they are when they’re at home—they might be little smart-mouthed banshees—but those children were polite. Not one of them passed us without saying, “Good morning, Sir” or “Good morning, Miss!” and offering a smile. Their uniforms made them look tidy and timeless. When they marched into the assembly they were orderly (and adorable), and Z leaned over and said, “I loved marching when I was in primary school,” and I could just see him, little chest puffed out, dimples showing, arms swinging, and I felt a little verklempt at the very idea of a Tiny Z at school.

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Look how tiny and blue and orderly!

As a middle-class American inclined to homesickness, I’ve kind of thought of non-Hogwarts boarding school as barbaric. I’m always peppering Z with questions about his time in secondary school when he was a boarder, expecting him to tell me how horrible it was as per every movie I’ve ever seen set in a boarding school where there are the bullies and the bullied. But those aren’t the stories he has from his experience, and as I watch these little creatures acting like tiny (if not somewhat wiggly) grown-ups, I wonder if they aren’t learning some lessons about self-reliance that we don’t get in the U.S. until we are much older.

 

That said, all we had to do was walk into the dormitories and I’m back to thinking how impossible it would be for me to send a six-year-old off to the equivalent of my horrible Girl Scout Camp experience. They aren’t living in tents, but in Zimbabwe, the boundaries between outdoors and indoors are not as defined as they are in America, and I flash back to every morning of that long, long week the summer I was ten when I’d crawl out of a dew-damp sleeping bag and wish I were in my own house with my own mother and television instead of in a mildewed tent with a latrine on the other side of the campsite. The single “cuddly toy” on each bed makes me ache for homesickness that they may not be feeling.

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Those stuffed animals looked like they wanted to go live in a real house and not a dorm to me.

But what really fascinated me at this school were the dogs. Oh, Reader, there were dogs all over the campus. Little terriers, a mutt, a barking pug in a plaid jacket, and a gorgeous ridgeback called Binga who followed the headmaster as he led us on a campus tour. The headmaster, robes flapping behind him as he marched us around the classrooms, dormitories and the sports fields, was clearly in his element, and Binga loping behind him seemed to be too. Maybe I could have handled boarding school if there’d been dogs.

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This guy looked very dashing as he barked at us for walking past his owner’s office.

Binga sat with us at a faculty tea, nudged students sitting in assembly as they sang and honked clarinets, followed us around the grounds as we inspected the cricket pitch. I delight in seeing Ridgebacks when I’m in Zimbabwe because the first dog of my life was my maternal grandparents’ Rhodesian Ridgeback, Rinkles. He was a lovely dog. I hated the way my hands smelled after I petted him, and he had a tail that gave a thrashing if you were unlucky enough to be wearing shorts and standing near his backend when he was happy, but he was family, and he fascinated me, especially after Mom had explained to me that he was from Africa and he was a lion-hunting dog. (I’ve often wondered if Grandma and Grandpa had a Norwegian Elkhound if I’d have ended up with a spouse from Scandinavia. I’ll see symbolism in almost anything.)

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Binga!

At the assembly, the headmaster caught the students up on the previous week’s events, as well as activities planned for the week ahead. Points were awarded to the four different “houses,” just like at Hogwarts, and I spent the rest of the day wondering if there was a Slytherin equivalent at this school or if you only got such a house if a Sorting Hat was putting like-minded baddies all into a single house. The choir sang beautifully, the orchestra played well, particularly when I discovered most of the students had only been playing since earlier in the year. A hymn was sung, the students (and dogs) marched out, and we explored more of the campus before spending time in the teacher’s lounge chatting with faculty and trying to keep Binga from eating the biscuits off our plates.

 

We discovered the little farmlet where we met some fancy chickens, geese, goats, and an introverted pig. We saw the memorial pavilion built for the founder and patriarch of the school where celebrations are held. We investigated the IT classroom, and paused near the gates that are locked at night keeping all inside safe and sound. We peeped into the building where Z-ma had taught her lessons and discovered that it will be replaced soon and renamed after her. Throughout the day different faculty and staff members asked after her to Z, mentioned how much they missed her, and gave the general sense that life there without her is a bit diminished.

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Well-educated poultry!

Then we had a delicious lunch, the students had a chance to talk to some faculty members and “junior masters and mistresses” (students who have finished with high school and who are hired to help out) before climbing back on the bus and heading back to Harare.

 

Our study abroad students were high and in love with Zimbabwe. Z—who studies these things—told me later that culture shock has peaks and valleys, and it isn’t uncommon to peak when you first arrive and everything seems fresh and new. This hadn’t been my experience on my first trip eight years ago—everything looked foreign to my eye and smelled foreign to my nose and that first day ended with me crying over a jar of broken mustard, a Christmas gift meant for Z’s uncle. It seemed to me that this group of students was more worldly and sophisticated than I was/am, and I was envious of their naked enthusiasm, the way they waved at the children we were once again passing on the road, as if the whole country had shone up—like they did/were forced to all those years ago when Princess Margaret visited—to welcome them.

 

“They’re so much more worldly than I was at that age,” I said to Z.

 

He raised an eyebrow with his we’ll see look.

 

We’ll see.

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The backside of Binga. Look at that ridge!

 

 

Anti-Malarial Dreams Part I: Homecoming

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Zim Tally

  • 3 planes taken across 3 continents in 2 days of travel
  • 12 hours of layover in Heathrow
  • 2 items purchased at the Cath Kidston store in Heathrow
  • 1 camera charger left in Seattle
  • 2 travel games left in Seattle
  • 1 Fitbit lost
  • 1 cold caught
  • 3 mosquito bites received (despite excessive precautions)
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This is traveling light for us. Also, those identifying stickers I carefully slapped on our luggage didn’t make it out of SEA TAC.

So, I’m in Zimbabwe in the middle of winter in the middle of the first post-Mugabe election in the middle of a study abroad program that Z is leading and this is what I’m obsessing about:

 

My Headspace meditation app, which has been recording my meditation streak—63 days, people! I’ve never done anything good for me for 63 consecutive days—decided to reset at Day 1 for reasons known only unto itself. Perhaps it’s some sort of Mr. Miyagi “lesson” that I shouldn’t puff myself up with pride about meditating for two months straight or acceptance or everything is change, but the end result is the same: I’m outraged. How dare they rob me of the daily satisfaction I see with the number following my meditation sessions? How dare they make me do math to figure out how many days I’ve “really” meditated instead of their fake lesser number? But most importantly, how dare they remove the impetus for me not to break the streak? Now when it’s 11:30 p.m. and I realize I haven’t yet meditated for the day, how much am I going to care? How much easier is it going to be to say, “Eh. I’ll do it tomorrow.”

 

“Doing it tomorrow” has pretty much been the modus operandi of my life, which might explain the sorry state of my kitchen floor and why I’m wearing my “big jeans” right now instead of the slightly smaller ones. The thing about tomorrow is it never comes around.

 

Maybe the meditation is making me more aware of the present moment though. Certainly during the two-days of travel from Seattle to Zimbabwe, I was the calmest I’ve ever been. On the trans-Atlantic flight I was only mildly frustrated with the Russian seat kickers sitting behind me and during the trans-Africa flight, I was only slightly embarrassed that three years of high school French, a year of college French, and a year of French in grad school did not prepare me to speak en français to my seatmate, a young father who, with his son, had to sit on the opposite side of the plane from his wife and daughter. He seemed good-naturedly distressed by this—as if somehow at the end of the flight she and their daughter might have disappeared—and so he kept popping up, prairie dog style, to see if she was still there, to offer a wave, and then to speak to his son reassuringly, Elle est toujours lá. Not that I would have known if that’s what he was really saying because all I could remember from my extensive French study was how to say, “The beautiful cows of Normandy.” I couldn’t even remember excusez-moi when I sat on his jacket, despite having spent my childhood watching Steve Martin in bunny ears saying just that.

 

Quel dommage.

 

After a little in-flight meditation, a lot of movie watching (I, Tonya is way better than I imagined), and about five hours of sleep, we land, collect our bags, and then leave Robert Mugabe International Airport with Z’s brother. I feel nothing but glad to be back. Normally, on the first and second day of any trip—even to places I am desperate to get back to like home (Richmond) or home (Seattle) or the home of my heart (Ireland)—I often grumble and want to cry or shout because I’m not in my own bed or eating familiar food or smelling familiar smells. I’m like a toddler that way. I blame sleep depravation, but it might just be that it takes me 48 hours to adapt to change. And yet as we leave the airport road, I feel joyous. It’s been five years since I’ve been here and it feels like five years too long.

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Zimbabwe feels different. It could be my imagination or wishful thinking, but something in the air feels lighter, more hopeful than before after too many decades and too many troubles under one leader. Harare is buzzing. There are more stalls selling wares lining the streets. There is more traffic congesting the pot-hole filled roads. People seem busier and more purposeful. It’s election season, and though that brings it’s own anxiety because of past experience—fear, violence, crooked elections—this time, people seem anxious, yes, but also optimistic that Zimbabwe is on its way up.

 

Z and I sit in the garden of my brother-and-sister-in-law and catch up, while we re-hydrate ourselves and enjoy the feeling of not being cramped against prairie dog strangers on a flight. We scratch behind various dog ears and talk about the shortage of cash that has Zimbabweans unexpectedly on the verge of being a modern, cashless society whether they want to be or not. American dollars are the currency here, but they are in short supply. We’re warned not to flash ours. Even if you’ve got thousands of dollars in your bank account here, you’ll be lucky if you can draw out $50 when you go to the bank. And if you are lucky enough to have some dollars you are willing to spend, you’ll get preferential treatment in gas lines (there is a fuel shortage) and you’ll get a better rate when you buy things with U.S. greenbacks instead of Zim bond notes, or EcoCash (“Zimbabwe’s Mobile Money Solution”) and swipe cards, which transfer invisible funds from one bank account to another. In the days to come, we won’t have a conversation with anyone during which the cash shortage doesn’t come up. We are never the ones to bring it up because we know when we leave in a month we’ll have easy enough access to our cash. But for people living here, it is a worry.

 

After our visit, Z and I climb into Z-ma’s truck and point it southwest to head towards his childhood home where Z-ma awaits us. I’ve forgotten how bad the roads are, how Z has to maneuver around dongas (potholes), hoot his horn at the badly behaved drivers. I’ve forgotten the look on his face as he sees his home after he’s been away too long, and it makes me happy to see how happy he is.

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The traffic has really gotten awful in five years. The familiar police roadblocks are all but gone, which has emboldened unlicensed drivers in vehicles that aren’t roadworthy. Z follows the speed limit as cars and trucks zip past us, going lightening fast. As the city flattens out and the countryside rises up—rocks and hills and grass—I note the changes that have appeared. Mr. MaPlanka’s lumberyard has been replaced by a petrol station. There are more houses that have sprung up as sort of bedroom communities to Harare. The Lion and Cheetah Park is now just the Lion Park because the cheetah died.

 

Z and I talk and don’t talk as we take it all in. He was here last in December, so the changes are not new to him. He says, “Well done, Babe” when I name the things we pass that I remember: the old snake park where there is a petrol station, the Somerby Caves where a dog once acted as tour guide to Rick and his family, the farm—still mostly fallow—where family friends lived and worked until they were forced off their land and into a new life in Nigeria.

 

Finally, I see the grain bins in the distance and know that Z-ma’s house is two turns, three rumble strips, and a honk at the gate away. Z points out the changes in his little hometown as we bounce our way to her house. The convenience store attached to the petrol station has changed its name from La Boutique to Bonjour. The car wash—a bucket and a sponge behind a fence—has been moved. There is a building site near the shops and we wonder what the finished product will be. There are big, new churches. Z laughs because a road that was being “fixed” in December is still impassable.

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We’re almost there!

I’m pleased to see that Florence Nighting Girls School is still in business.

 

Like that, we’ve arrived. Z hoots the horn. Eunice opens the gate and greets us warmly. We drive into the yard, past the roses Z’s dad grew, past the cacti, the bonsai, the fruit trees. Skampy stands on the porch behind the gate, temporarily incarcerated until the car comes to a stop, his tail whipping around so much his whole body waggles. And there is Z-ma, walking with a cane now when she’s on uneven terrain because a mysterious dropped-neck ailment has thrown off her center of gravity. But she’s very much herself, bright eyes, big smile, warm welcome, and still walking faster than I do. It’s been too long since I’ve seen her.

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And here I am, in yet another of my homes.

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For Whom the Bag Tolls

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Seattle and Vera Bradley do not belong together. Look at that map trying to leap out of the pocket from embarrassment.

As the flight to Indiana from Seattle (via Las Vegas) landed, I was momentarily mortified by my choice of carry-on bag, a giant, pink and green quilted Vera Bradley tote that I inherited this  last year. It both delights and repulses me, and I’m not sure what to do with these conflicting emotions.

 

Hint: this blog post is not really about the merits or demerits of Vera Bradley, but let’s start there.

 

On the pro side:

  • Best carry-on bag ever. It has pockets in spades and helps me be more organized than I deserve to be. Everything I might need is within easy reach and is easy to locate. Also, it is not a bag you forget or get mixed up with someone else’s at a taxi stand. Queen Elizabeth wears bright colors so people will be able to see her easily in a crowd, and that’s pretty much the modus operandi of anything made by Vera Bradley. It will be seen.

 

On the con side:

  • Everything else.

 

I am a person who spent one of my first paltry paychecks from the public library on a leather field bag from Banana Republic because I needed that bag to be the truth of my life. In reality, I was wearing stirrup pants, oversized sweaters, and a headband while I checked out romance novels to the inhabitants of my hometown, but in my mind, I was an adventurer, a writer, a sojourner. The bag looked like something Hemingway would have carried, and though I didn’t love Hemingway, I loved the romance of the way he lived his life: the travel, the passion, the skirmishes. Even, God help me, the bullfights.

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Ernest _wishes_ he had a field bag so fine.

In the almost 30 years since I bought that bag, there have been a lot of others, but they’ve mostly been a variation on a field bag theme: a shoulder strap, a flap, pockets in which to keep pens and notebooks. Most have been canvas since that first purchase because it turns out that leather is heavy and my shoulders ache.

 

My life never did get bullfight-y. I’ve traveled some, but I don’t camp out. I don’t usually carry binoculars. I’ve never tied a kerchief around my neck or had cause to start a fire upon which to roast a trout caught with my bare hands. But the dream lives on.

 

This pink and green bag is not the dream. If I still lived in the Midwest, I could carry it and I’d fit in because half the female population of Indiana carries one of these things since the Vera Bradley headquarters is in Fort Wayne. I’d blend right in. These bags are usually bright and floral and thick with padding. They look like a quilt on your great grandmother’s bed, if your great grandmother had been dropping acid when she stitched it together. You can spot them a mile away. Without binoculars.

 

You don’t see these bags in Seattle. I would never carry it out of the house unless it was to get in a rental car and drive to some other, less urban place. It’s too bright for Seattle. Too feminine.

 

And truth be told, I no more fit the Vera Bradley mold than I do the Hemingway field bag mold. Women who carry Vera Bradley have children, go to church, make casseroles, vote differently than I vote. When I carry this bag I feel exactly the way I felt when I went to a friend’s Sangeet several years ago and a Mehndi artist tattooed my hand with henna. I loved the design and the way it curled from my wrist and across my hand and up my index finger. It was beautiful, and looking at it made me happy because it had been a happy night of celebrating her impending wedding.

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Poser. Posing.

But also, it felt wrong on my skin. Like I was playing at something that didn’t belong to me. Not my culture. Not mine. Not “me.”

 

So as the plane taxied to the gate in Indianapolis, I had my pink bag sitting on my lap and though it was not an accurate representation of who I am, I was okay with it. Here, no one was going to look at me oddly or know I was a poser. I was home and this homely bag that I love and hate was at home too.

 

Except that for the duration of the flight I’d been watching the woman across from me who was very busy, juggling a laptop, an iPad, and her phone while she did some sort of work that looked interesting. (Read: it didn’t seem to involve spreadsheets.) I was a little dubious of her because every one of her toenails was painted different colors and with different designs, like tiny nautical flags, and she was wearing drawstring camo pants and high-heeled sandals that were similarly camo.

 

That is: it was not a look I aspire to.

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Ahoy, matey!

But also: she seemed to have this golden light emanating from within. I can’t explain it. She wasn’t tan, really, but her skin was honeyed, and her hair was blonde, and though it may have come from a bottle, it looked more like hair angels would have. She gave off the vibe of money and the flight attendants flitted around her whenever she requested something as if she were somebody, all of which seemed kind of a weird for a Southwest flight. Nobody is first class on Southwest. It’s steerage all the way.

 

So while we were waiting for the jet bridge, I noticed how attractive her backpack was. It was black or dark grey and kind of sleek. It had a subtle design on it that I couldn’t make out, and I was suddenly obsessed. If I had this bag, I was convinced that I would somehow be myself. No. If I had this bag, I would become a better version of myself. I would have the golden light, the honeyed skin, the angel hair. I would be able to juggle three devices on a flight as I did Important Work, while simultaneously commanding the attention of the attendants. I’d be younger, more successful, thinner, and richer. I even suspected that if I had this bag, suddenly the nautical toenails and camouflage clothing would make perfect sense.

 

Clearly, it was a magic bag.

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It looked more impressive on the plane.

I looked at my hand-me-down Vera Bradley, sitting there on my lap like a giant, quilted watermelon, and I wanted to cry. How had I gotten this flight so wrong? How had I gotten my life so wrong? What stupid, stupid choices I’ve made that led me to this place where my Midwestern-sized ass was squished into a plane seat and I had the quintessential Midwestern bag perched on my doughy Midwestern knees. I was meant to be somebody. Doing something important.

 

It was 90 some degrees out and I was already red faced and sweating. And old. Somehow, I’d gotten really old on this flight.

 

As we stood up to deplane and she threw her magic backpack over her shoulder, I asked her what kind it was. It wasn’t too late! I could still transform my life!

 

She wasn’t impolite, but she looked me up and down, making note of my bag, the worn Keens I had my air-puffy feet stuffed into, my big wide white and red splotched face, and she tilted her head and gave a little smile that wasn’t really a smile but more of a “Lady, you couldn’t afford it.”

 

Then she said, “It’s Louis Vuitton.”

 

I didn’t blanche, though it surprised me because usually Louis Vuitton’s primary feature is self-referential design so you notice the giant LVs before you even see the accessory. It is a brand I have loathed for a long time because it’s always so pleased with itself. But this bag was subtle. Tricky. I told her again how lovely it was. And she said, “Yes, it’s an investment piece.” The implication being that she’d really splurged on this and wasn’t it shameful. Another head tilt and this time a conspiratorial smile.

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I wonder who the manufacturer of this handbag could possibly be?

This made me like her momentarily because it reminded me of that leather Banana Republic bag I couldn’t really afford but splurged on anyway when I was 22. It was a dream I wanted to be true. I can understand trying to buy a lifestyle. She was a kindred spirit.

 

She then picked up her purse and I saw it was Louis Vuitton. As was her oversized belt. As was the shopping bag she pulled out of the overhead compartment.

 

Kindred spirit, my eye! She was a junky. A Louis Vuitton addict. I was not disappointed to see her disappear into the airport, and when I looked up the backpack in question online and saw that it cost almost $3,000, I laughed out loud. You can fly to Zimbabwe for less than that.

 

What’s more, if I get a scuff on my 30-year-old field bag, it’s character. It’s a story. If you scuff a $3,000 Louis Vuitton backpack, your “investment” is in tatters.

 

I’d rather go to Zimbabwe than have a $3,000 backpack I might leave on a train. Not that it’s an either/or proposition. I suppose you could take a backpack so expensive to Zimbabwe, but why would you?

 

I don’t really know what the moral of the story is if there even is one. I’d like to tell you that I’ve embraced that psychedelic bag and my Midwestern essence completely, but that would be a lie. I’m still not carrying this thing out into the streets of the city. Call me superficial.

 

Or it could be something about not judging a book by its cover or a woman by her accessories. In these dark days when tribalism is wrecking the world, it’s one of the worst things we can do—not getting to know someone but instead making assumptions about them because of their bumper stickers or the color of the their skin (or ball cap). But. It can be a useful shorthand that makes it a bit easier (and sometimes safer) to navigate life and find the people with whom you can breathe more easily when you are exhausted from the hard work of trying to love your neighbor as yourself.

 

I could write another six paragraphs about how I wish I were more like Z, who knows exactly who he is and doesn’t have these wardrobe crises every six months like I do. He marches out of the house every day in his Crocs and frayed jeans and if anyone judges him for it, it’s their problem, not his. But he’s a man and it just isn’t the same, is it? So I’m giving that a miss too.

 

Maybe all this really is is a plea to Vera Bradley to please, in the name of all that is good and righteous, make your multi-pocketed tote bag in material that blends in in the Pacific Northwest and doesn’t advertise a person’s ability to make casseroles.

 

If that bag were grey or khaki, I’d be in business.

 

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There’s a giraffe out there somewhere. Zimbabwe, 2010.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Developments on the Northwestern Front

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There are new developments here on the Pacific Northwestern front.

 

Veins in my forehead.

 

I don’t mean like I’m angry and you can see the contours of a vein sticking out of my forehead in a telltale sign that I need to do yoga to de-stress. I mean I just looked in the mirror and thought I had a newspaper ink smudge by my hairline. Only I wasn’t reading a newspaper. Nor have I been canoodling with a chimney sweep while Z is at work.

 

And it’s not a good delicate blue-vein-on-a-milky-forehead Michelle Pfeiffer style circa Frankie and Johnny. No. It just looks like I need to go wash my face.

 

I was calm about this because another recent development is that I started meditating almost two weeks ago. I’ve been an avid Not Meditator for years. While I acknowledged that it’s likely a beneficial practice, it seemed an impossibility because focusing on my breath makes me hyperventilate, and I’ve always had an aggressive resistance to someone—anyone—telling me what to think (or not think). But a friend said the Headspace app changed her life, so I thought I’d give it a try. I can’t say it has changed my life yet, but there is something so soothing and pleasant about the speaker’s accent that I find I look forward to my “daily practice.”

 

Before you get wildly impressed with me, please know I’m only doing it five minutes a day and suspect ten minutes a day will be my limit because, well, it’s kind of boring. But still, me doing anything nine days in a row that I know is good for me but am only marginally interested in is quite an accomplishment.

 

Other developments in the PNW: I’ve become obsessed with watching packing videos on YouTube. That’s right. I willingly give up 5-to-10-minute increments of my day to watch people pack clothes into a carry-on suitcase for three-week European vacations. It is mesmerizing. I rarely learn anything new. I’ve been mastering the fine art of packing and rejecting the mantra less is more for decades now, so I don’t watch to learn anything. But, oh, is it satisfying to watch someone take a heap of clothes, fold them up, and shove them into a suitcase. I’m also curious to see what items people deem necessary for such travel. Please note, usually these suitcase packers are young women so petite that they could fit their entire wardrobe inside an empty box of saltines.

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Today’s development was that I left my card in the ATM without realizing it until 20 minutes later and then nearly had a full-fledged anxiety attack at the drug store when I reached for my card and realized it was gone. Ironically, I was waiting in line to pick up my anti-anxiety meds (that I’m always anxious about not being allowed to have—it’s a snake chewing it’s own tail this anxiety thing, let me tell you). I did not want to appear twitchy in front of the pharmacist lest he alert my doctor that I shouldn’t be allowed anymore of these pills, but once they were in my hand, I hightailed it back to the bank where I was assured the card would be accessible but I had to wait a few minutes for the banker to fetch it for me.

 

This is a weird thing to say about a bank, but I find ours a soothing place usually. The tellers are always friendly, it feels local even though it isn’t, and they’ve always got Dum-Dums out in a bowl so you don’t even have to pretend you’ve got a kid outside waiting with your husband to score one, and no one looks at you sideways if you root around for a strawberry or ginger ale one. But for reasons inexplicable to me, the anxiety that kicked into gear at the drug store did not dissipate even though I’d been assured the card would be returned to me very soon. I got hot. My heart pounded. A lady was hollering at a teller about the bank not treating her right, ratcheting up my stress. I started to worry about bank robbers (something I haven’t actively worried about since about 1977). I worried about how I was going to get packed before my 5 a.m. flight to Indiana, if I could stand being away from Z for two weeks. (This last one I do every time I have to be away from Z, so it was not abnormal, though perhaps abnormal to be twitchy in the bank lobby as I worried about it.) So what I know now is that even with 52 total minutes of meditation under my belt, it did not soothe me.

 

Finally, the woman brought my card out.

 

She’s helped me before—mostly with laundry quarters, but once because I’d made a math error that meant my account was empty for the exact 15 minutes the bank thought it should not be and slapped me with an overdraft fee that she kindly reversed. I like her. She’s thorough and friendly and I think of her as a contemporary though she’s probably in her twenties. I felt better as soon as my card was zipped back into my wallet. I was a little uncomfortable, however, because while all I needed for her to do was use her magic banker key to open the ATM and get my card, she somehow managed to pull up my information and decided she had some products to sell me based on the numbers she saw in our accounts. If it had been another teller or banker, I might have been annoyed, but I like her, so I asked her some questions. She answered them.

 

Why I often feel obligated to apologize to bank staff that I am not good enough with my money to be a millionaire is beyond me, but I do. For all I know, this woman has four roommates, has her credit cards maxed out, and lives on ramen noodles. Why do I assume that someone with a bank nametag on is automatically more fiscally responsible than I am? No idea, but this is how I am. So I said something like “ha ha, I’m not so good with financial stuff.” I loathed myself for saying it. It’s the same voice I use if someone has to change my tire or unclogged my sink, “ha ha I’m such a dolt I can’t manage to master basic gettin’-through-life skills ha ha ha.”

 

What I loathed more was what she said to me with a very kind smile on her face. What she said was this:

 

“Oh, that’s okay! That’s how my parents are too!”

 

Her parents? HER PARENTS? She thinks I’m the same age as her parents?

 

I probably am the same age as her parents, but it pains me that this is the correlation she made. Instead of recognizing me as a fellow apartment dweller who must suffer the slings and arrows of the communal laundry room, she sees me as an aging parent who never got her banking crap together so she could move on up to a condo downtown with the washer and dryer right in the unit.

 

I’ve kind of gone off her now.

 

What else is new on First Hill? Our trees out front bloomed. More construction went up around us. Belle visited from Indiana and she and I had some writerly adventures, including her guest appearance in my Writing for Procrastinators class. I edited three dissertations, attended Hudge and Providence’s dissertation defense (congratulations!), picked up a new coaching client, helped Z index his book (which will be out in July—expect to hear shouts of joy from our vicinity!), and taught a session on reflective writing to some of Z’s students.

 

Oh yeah. And we booked airfare for a month in Zimbabwe this summer. So excited to see Z-ma , Z family, Z friends, and Skampy. And a cherry atop that triple-layer cake: we’re going to “swing by” Ireland on the way home for ten days.

 

Also, when I wasn’t meditating, watching packing videos, or having public anxiety incidents, I logged a lot of hours watching the Royal Wedding. A lot of hours. Before the wedding. During the wedding (which started at 2:30 a.m. out here). And after the wedding.

 

The thing I hate most about a Royal Wedding after you put all that time in and the happy couple drives off in their horse drawn carriage is the realization that you haven’t been invited to the reception and you aren’t getting any cake.

 

So, this isn’t much of a post, but I’ve got to go pack my bag, adjust my thermostat for Indiana’s humidity, and spend my last remaining hours of May with Z.

 

Summer is upon us, friends, and what that means is there is a 78% chance my next post will be complaining about the heat.

 

 

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Skampy of Zimbabwe

 

I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blue: A Shoe Obsession

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Because I was raised on Yogi Bear cartoons, I like to think I’m smarter than the average bear. When it became increasingly more evident that some of the ads I was seeing in 2016 on Facebook had actually originated in Russia, I preened a little bit because I hadn’t fallen for any of those. I’m one of those annoying people who, when someone posts something mostly ludicrous online, I quickly check Snopes and then tell them they’ve made an error because I don’t want them to embarrass themselves. A few months ago, Mom graciously sent us some potholder-sized square pieces of stretchy plastic that she’d ordered online because the reviews insisted it was less annoying than Saran Wrap and better for the planet, and she knew I’d like that, but when it arrived and I tried it, I discovered that the reason it was less annoying than Saranwrap is because, unlike Saran Wrap, it sticks to nothing at all.

 

Just as I suspected.

 

So it is with great shame that I tell you a few weeks ago I became obsessed. After a barrage of shock-and-awe advertisements I’d seen for these too-expensive turquoise-soled flats that were guaranteed to change my life, I was left quivering with want. My life, I was sure, would not be complete without them. They were guaranteed to give my wardrobe some panache and make me look at least 70% more pulled together.

 

I’ve never paid so much for a pair of shoes. (That’s a lie. I did once, but it was only because I was in Ireland at the time and failed to do the currency conversion correctly.) But the hype surrounding Tieks is phenomenal. Not only are the advertisements slick, but the customer reviews (of which I think I read every one) are almost all raves. Women swear they’ve never had a more comfortable pair of shoes, never had such pain-free feet when walking on the cobblestoned streets of Europe, never needed to wear a different pair of shoes since their Tieks arrived because they are so amazing, never pay for checked luggage when they travel now because you only need one pair of these things to meet all of your fashion needs. They spoke of them with the enthusiam of the recently converted or the newly in love. Most admitted that the price was a little steep, but if you crunched the numbers, the shoes paid for themselves in no time because you’d basically never need another pair of shoes again. Ever.

 

It was hard not to believe.

 

The women who love and wear these things not only love to write rave reviews about them while wearing them, but they also like to post images on Instagram of the shoes, them wearing the shoes, them getting a new pair of the shoes and unboxing them, them admiring the flowers and ribbons that decorate the Tiffany colored boxes the shoes arrive in (so small for a pair of shoes, but the shoes fold up, like small precious foldy-uppy things!), and them (or at least their feet) doing both exciting and mundane things in their new shoes. Both the women and the shoes are photogenic. The shoes come in a rainbow assortment of colors, like Fiestaware for your feet, and the women who wear them appear to be 32 or younger, a size four or smaller, and have beautiful children, husbands, dogs, houses, vacations, and yoga practices. I have yet to see an ugly—or even average—woman photographed in a pair of Tieks, though admittedly, often the women in the photos don’t have heads. .

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I suppose this woman could be wearing a bag on her head because she’s aesthetically challenged, but I bet she isn’t. (Photo from Instagram #tieks)

 

God help me, when I saw these ads multiple times a day, I started to believe that if only I had a pair, all of my shoe problems and wardrobe failures would be solved. I also started to believe that I too would be 32 or younger, 117 pounds or less, and have a beautiful, beautiful life. It’s not the first time I’ve been obsessed, but this was a bad case.

 

I suspect that Z already knew how this experiment would end, but he is a great supporter of my enthusiasms, so after I got paid last month, he said, “I think you should order those shoes you want.”

 

I did tell him how much they cost, but he misheard by $50 and I didn’t correct him. Not because I was trying to put one over on him, but because I was so deep in my obsession that I was too busy to tell him as I poured over the website and the photos and tried to decide what color I should order. Black was the most practical of course, but those fruity flavors and jewel tones looked good too. Mom and I had not one but three phone conversations about what color I should order. I forced Jane to read paragraphs of email about which pair would best suit my Inner Beth and feed my soul. (Jane noted that sometimes when talking about the turquoise soles of the shoes, I spelled it “soul” as if I was starting to believe the shoes were living creatures that were ultimately Heaven bound.)

 

I got agitated and anxious. What if I made a poor choice?

 

Finally, Z looked at me and said, “I think you want the blue. You love blue.”

 

The man knows me so well.

 

My love affair with blue began basically the moment I was able to distinguish colors but before I had words for them. My favorite toys were blue: a stuffed cat—Mewy—whose button eyes had been removed because Mom was afraid I’d choke on them, an extra large hollow plastic spoon sized for a giant that for reasons I’m still unclear on was designated a bath toy, a blue magnetic chalkboard with dubious-looking plastic magnetic children and domestic animals included to stick into the middle of my drawings, and the backside of my Candyland board game that I found infinitely more pleasing to look at than the messy maze of gumdrops and candy canes on the other side. What these blue items had in common is that they were all the perfect shade of blue: a deep, rich cobalt.

 

I had a well-meaning and generous aunt who regularly gave me blue things to please me, but what she didn’t know was that any blue that wasn’t cobalt didn’t even register as blue for me, and alas, her own preferred palette was a pastel one. I’d thank her and demonstrate how much I appreciated the sweater, the blanket, the wall hanging, all the while staring at the blue star sapphire she wore on her right hand and thinking, now that’s blue. (And bless her, when she feared her days here were numbered, she asked if there was anything of hers that I wanted, and I greedily said, “Your sapphire!” and she got a wry, pleased smile on her face, pulled it off her finger, and gave it to me.)

 

A more recent exampleof my blue inclinations are the napkins that Z and I put on our bridal registry 9 years ago that we use almost every day. I like the green fine, but the blue makes me smile every time I see it. Because we re-use the napkins if we’ve had a meal that wasn’t too greasy or crumby, Z uses a green one and I use blue, so we’ll remember whose is whose. On the few occasions when laundry needs to be done and he’s used one of MY blue ones, I’ve felt very territorial about it and have to remind myself that I love him and it’s good to share. (And also, his using it is temporary.)

 

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You can come over to dinner, but please don’t touch the blue napkins.

 

So I ordered the cobalt Tieks, was promised delivery in two days, and I became a woman even more obsessed. Z got hourly updates from me re: where they were now in transit because I kept hitting refresh on my web browser to see where USPS said they were now. And now. And NOW. When I wasn’t stalking them, I was fantasizing about what I’d wear with them. How I would slowly start weeding things out of my wardrobe that wouldn’t go with them. I started re-watching “New Girl” because Jess has a tendency to wear bright blue flats. I wondered if I should have Mom ship my blue, rabbit fur wedding purse from Indiana so I could start carrying it to events around the city. (It was vintage, so I didn’t feel too guilty about it being rabbit—by the time I bought it, the rabbit would have been dead of natural causes, and I believed this would make it mostly acceptable in sensitive Seattle.) On day two of waiting, I tried to balance my cobalt blue Leuchtturm notebook on my foot so I could better imagine how fabulous the shoes would be.

 

There is no way those cobalt Tieks were going to live up to my expectations.

 

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How could whatever is inside of this box NOT be life-changing?

 

When I got a text from the building manager saying a package had arrived, I raced downstairs faster than I’ve moved in a decade. She handed me a decidedly un-shoe-like pacakge, and when I opened it, it was a book someone had sent me. I was happy to have the book, but it was a bit like getting a call in high school from your friend when you were expecting the voice on the other end to be a boy asking you out on a date. Fortunately, a similar text later in the day resulted in shoes.

 

Those reviewers had been right. The packaging was scrumptious, even if it wasn’t my shade of blue. (Though I’ll admit I felt one reviewer had let me down by implying that the flower on the box would be the color of the shoes. I wanted a cobalt flower and instead I got a pink one.) The box was so compact and the shape so un-shoelike, that it enhanced the sense I had that these shoes were better than mundane footwear arriving in a foot-sized oblong box.

 

And inside:

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Look at how precious and foldy-uppy!

 

Oh, that color! Hello Mewy. Hello Giant Spoon. Hello Magentic Chalkboard. Hello Backside of Candyland, Sapphire Rings, Leuchtturm Journal, and Rabbit Purse. Hello every jar of Noxema I ever tried to love the smell of just because of the cobalt container.

 

I wouldn’t let myself try the shoes on immediately. First, I unpacked the box and discovered a handwritten notecard, wishing me great happiness in my new shoes:

 

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Look at all those thin, leggy women and their colorful footwear!

 

The shoes also come with both a teensy bag to stuff the shoes into so they take up no space at all in your purse or luggage, and a bigger bag to carry your high heels in when you switch them out mid-day for cloud-inspired Tieks.

 

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Since I don’t wear high heels, I imagined I would use this to carry flowers and organic fruit home from the market.

 

Because I am a practical woman, I washed my feet before I tried these on because I didn’t want any evidence of myself in the shoes should I need to return them. But I was fairly confident that God would not disappoint me and make these shoes uncomfortable. Yes, that’s right. Instead of considering the possibility that there might be a designer error (them) or an orderer error (me), I just went straight to the Big Guy and assumed He cobbled them Himself, specifcally for me, so all of my cobalt dreams could come true.

 

I’d done my research, so I knew the shoes would stretch, that often when they first arrived, they were tight. But they WILL stretch, the beautiful women told me, and so I walked around the house in them, and after a few hours I realized that they’d have to stretch a whole size in order to be wearable.

 

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement, but almost as soon as I ordered the next size up and started the (remarkbly helpful and easy) return process, the obsessing began again. Z started getting USPS delivery status updates from me while he was at work. I wrote a review for Jane and called my mom to tell her the news, as if we’d just tried out a puppy and had to return it to the breeder after discovering it was a biter but not to worry because a non-biting puppy would be filling our lives with joy soon. I fantasized about all the ways the new, larger size would be perfect.

 

When the second pair arrived, I went through the same ritual and was just as delighted with the packaging and the handwritten note as I’d been the first time. I slipped the shoes on and they felt better than the original pair, though now if they stretched, I wondered if they’d be too big. I walked in circles around the living room, I tried on some skirts to see how they looked. I sent Mom photos, and started imagining my new life in them and how soon I’d be younger, thinner, and more photogenic. I wondered how soon it would be before the beautiful toddler, international travel, and Labradoodle would show up.

 

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Suddenly, our casino-style rug looks muted and disappointing. I wonder if Z will go for a new Tieks-matching carpet?

 

And then I realized this other thing: my toes were throbbing because the leather was so tight across the top of my feet.  And the bottoms of my feet  weren’t very happy either. I was promised that the shoes would feel like wearing sneakers, but I didn’t really even want to walk down to the laundry room in them, let alone up and down the hills of Seattle.

 

Let alone on European cobblestones for a summer spent abroad with the toddler and the Labradoodle.

 

I kept the shoes for a day and berated myself for not having younger, more accomodating feet or a body so light that shoes with no visible means of support could be considered a good idea. I spent an hour looking at sensible shoes on orthopedic websites and saying mean things to myself about how this was clearly what I was destined for if I couldn’t make these blue wonders work. I propped my feet up on the coffee table and considered how they really were lovely and I should keep them to wear when I’m sitting around the house, even though we have a no-shoes-in-the-house policy for ourselves.

 

And then I realized that even sitting with my feet propped up, my toes–which had plenty of room length-wise–were killing me. In fact, I could feel every heartbeat in each big toe, and because I’d just had my blood pressure checked and discovered it was (surprisingly) perfect, I had to admit that this toe-throbbing was not a fault of mine. My toes are not fat and unhealthy.  This was not a sign of an imminent stroke. The shoes just didn’t have enough room in them. Maybe they would  stretch as promised by the Tieks devotees, but in the half century I’ve spent breaking shoes in, I’ve never had to break in a toe box.

 

Also, there was this niggling thought in the back of my head that I’d never talked to any actual women in the real world wearing Tieks. I’d seen ONE pair in Seattle on a woman running to catch a ferry a few weeks before I ordered them (the only way I would have known is because of those turquoise soles), and frankly, I had a feeling she would have been more comfortable in a pair of Adidas or Columbia hiking boots. I started to equate the obsesion and enthusiasm I had for the shoes to earlier iterations of things you can’t buy in stores and must order from “parties,” items made to separate women from their paychecks: basket parties, jewelry parties, candle parties, home decorating parties. I remembered the vague sense of being at those parties and feeling simultaneously like I didn’t really need a $34 basket to keep a bedside flashlight in but certain that if I didn’t have one, my life would be incomplete. And I might stub my toe in the dark.

 

Was it possible that I’d fallen for the organized online enthusiasm that my mom fell for with her  Saran Wrap alternative? Was I no better than the marks who believed what they read about Hillary Clinton running  a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor?

 

Maybe. I don’t know. It was such a great shade of blue though.

 

When Z and I had our walk around First Hill that evening, I told him I thought I needed to send them back. But maybe not–those fantasies of me skipping around Montmartre like a Technicolor Audrey Hepburn hadn’t quite died. I did’t know what to do, I said.

 

“I think you know what to do,” he said. “You just don’t want to do it.”

 

He’s always sensisble. So I did the only sensible thing I could think of which is tell him that he’d mis-remembered the price and I hadn’t corrected him.  Z isn’t the sort of guy who would boss me up and say, “A HUNDRED-AND-SEVENTY-FIVE-DOLLARS! THAT’S RIDICULOUS! YOU DON’T NEED THOSE!” but having spoken it out loud to him, even I had to admit it was ridiculous to be considering non-magical shoes that were that pricey. Especially when Z’s current chosen footwear is a pair of Crocs I got for him at Ross for $18.99. (He also has a pair of $40 “dress” Crocs he wears to more formal occasions.)

 

When I got home, I boxed up the shoes and started the return process. The exchange was friendly and efficient.  Within a week, I had my refund.

 

What I’m left with–aside from a blue shoe sized hole in my wardrobe–is an overwhelming sense of my own ridiculousness. Suddenly I’m more aware of the items social media is flashing in front of me. (That sling bag really does look revolutionary, and that kickstarter ultimate suitcase seems like it might have some answers to my problems!)

 

We’re all just targets. I’m no smarter a bear than the average one. Especially if the bait is blue.

 

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Imagine getting intern credit for fancy card writing.

The Drumming Unicorn of Elliott Bay and Other Terrors

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There’s someone who sometimes puts on a rubber cat mask and plays French music on an accordion down by the market, appropriately in front of Left Bank Books and to the left of a florist that has big displays of exotic looking flowers. It’s probably only because the music reminds me of the movie Amélie, or maybe it’s because the “cat” plays with such gusto, but I love seeing it.

 

Somewhere, I have a fuzzy photo of it that I snapped for you, but I can’t find it, and since you can’t see it moving jauntily in time to the tune, hear the music, smell the flowers, dodge the tourists headed to Pike Market, it wouldn’t make much of an impression anyhow.

 

So just believe me when I tell you this accordion playing cat is comic, yes, but also kind of glorious, and if you are ever in Seattle, you should try to see it and drop a buck in its accordion case.

 

Oh, wait. Z is invested in your understanding the glory of this cat (even though he is allergic), and found this photo online:

 

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I told you it was glorious.

 

But down on the waterfront there’s this other person who wears a rubber unicorn head and bangs the hell out of some upturned buckets and shakes his head wildly as he pounds out a beat, and I find it completely—and irrationally—terrifying. As in I grab Z’s hand if I’m not holding it, and if I am, I squeeze it harder, and try to hurry us along.

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Best enjoyed from a safe distance.

The sun might be setting, but it is still daylight. The unicorn is all wrapped up in the music and likely bears none of us ill will, plus there are plenty of people around even if it did. And still, I get chills that I can only equate to my first irrational fear, which was the Lincoln-Mercury TV ad that had a cougar that would rest on top of a sign and then let out a fierce roar as the announcer said, “At the sign of the cat.” I was a toddler, and the first time I saw that commercial I burst into tears. This may well be one of my first memories.

 

I can still hear the jingle Lincoln-Mercury  leads the way and get chills.

 

I ask you, is this not terrifying? Watch until the very end of the video.

 

My parents thought my overreaction to this ad was either hilarious or adorable, and so when the commercial came on—and it was always on—they would say, “Look Bethy! It’s the kitty!”

 

The kitty? THE KITTY?!

 

Eventually, I got used to the commercial but would sometimes feign terror in an attempt to recreate their original delight, though I didn’t have to feign much because just now when I was sifting through clips of those commercials to show you, I was, let’s just call it, uneasy.

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This is NOT a “kitty”!

Last night Z and I were doing laundry in the building’s basement. It is not a horrible laundry room—I’ve been in much creepier ones, specifically two in Chicago that were reminiscent of murder scenes in a horror flick. It is bright blue and well lit and has cameras in it. In general, I’m not afraid to be down there by myself. Even so, last night Z stayed behind to collect our items from a sluggish washer and sent me upstairs with the dry clothes to commence folding. I had the laundry bag in one hand and the doorknob in the other as I was leaving when he called after me because he needed another quarter. He was the only other person in the room. I know his voice. There was no chilling music playing. We hadn’t been talking about anything creepy or watching a police procedural with a serial killer. He said a very non-threatening, “Babe, I need another quarter.”

 

And yet I screamed. He might as well have been Freddie Krueger or the Wicked Witch of the West saying, “I’ll get you, my pretty!”

 

Like my parents, he thought my overreaction was hilarious.

 

I have an hyperactive amygdala, which accounts for the shrieks and squawks when I’m surprised, but I also have an overactive imagination which accounts for my inability to sort my fears into tidy categories like: irrational, rational, and rational but improbable. To me, everything is a possibility because I can imagine it is. So while I know everyone has to deal with the fears they might have about losing loved ones, jobs, health, new or strange situations, global nuclear annihilation, etc., I’m pretty sure the bulk of the population doesn’t worry about unicorn drummers chasing them down the waterfront. They don’t worry that a sewer rat is going to pop out of their 2nd story toilet on a Wednesday afternoon. They don’t worry that if they get rid of that one ugly sweater they really don’t like anyhow that one day they’ll be in a situation in which they have no sweaters and desperately need that ugly one to keep them warm.

 

They don’t—I’m guessing—fear talking to a stranger because they will never be free again to have their own thoughts but will instead spend the rest of their lives listening to this stranger chunter on.

 

Which brings me to the Silent Reading Party at the Sorrento Hotel. I love the Sorrento, which is near our apartment building. It’s loaded with old world charm—a dark lobby with a fireplace, wood paneling and deep sofas that harken back to a Seattle I wish I’d known. While it doesn’t seem like a quirky place, on the first Wednesday of every month it hosts said silent reading extravaganza and people wait in line for a place to sit and crack open a book. I’ve been meaning to go to it for as long as I’ve lived in the city, but I never have because it seems like such a weird thing to do: sit in a room full of strangers a block from your actual apartment and read in a dimly lit room in silence.

But also, like that accordion playing cat…how glorious. Every month I mark it on my calendar. Every month I “accidentally” forget to go.

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Aside from the weirdness, here are the main reasons I haven’t gone:

 

  • What if there are rules you have to follow that I don’t know and am then chastised for not following?
  • What if I hate it?
  • What if I meet someone there who ropes me into becoming part of their book club or writing group or cult and I’m never free again?

 

These are pretty much the fears that have shaped my life:

  • not knowing rules/breaking rules I didn’t know existed/being chastised for breaking said rules
  • hating something/being bored by something that I’d previously thought I would enjoy (ex. calling Z from the restroom at intermission of Wicked and begging him to phone in a bomb threat so I wouldn’t have to watch the second half) and still having to sit through the rest of the event
  • getting trapped by other people because I don’t know how to excuse myself or say no

 

 

A college classmate of Z’s who I know emailed to see if I’d be interested in going to the silent reading with her. We were both English majors and the few times we’ve seen each other, we’ve talked about books. This seemed like a win because I wouldn’t have to go to the Sorrento alone, she had been before and thus knew the rules (don’t talk between breaks or you might get shushed!), and we would be there to read so were she inclined to try to get me to join a cult she’s in*, she’d be shushed when trying to hypnotize me. Likewise, if some stranger tried to rope me into their pyramid scheme, she would shush them and save me from having to shill Amway for the rest of my life. So we agreed to meet.

 

Our first attempt was a failure because despite arriving almost 40 minutes before it started, the place was packed. We tried again the following month, and I arrived an hour before it started and was ushered to a long, communal table in the back to wait for my bibliophile partner.

 

I was disappointed. I’d imagined us across from each other in two solitary wingbacks by the fire in a room—I will admit—that was virtually empty, save for a lone man with a newspaper and aroma-less pipe in a similar wingback on the other side of the room. Instead, the reality was that we would be sitting at a long table reading across from strangers who I imagined to be 87% smarter, cooler, and more literary than I am. What’s worse, I had no idea what the etiquette was of talking to people at the communal table before the actual reading began. Was it encouraged? Expected? Mandatory? Rude to attempt?

 

I felt like I was at some reading cafeteria on the first day of junior high. What to do?

All around me people who seemed to know each other buzzed and chittered and seemed thrilled to be there, and all I could think about was how soon I could order a cocktail and how soon after I finished it I could escape.

 

The woman across from me asked if I’d been there before, and admitted that she wasn’t even from Seattle but had read about the event and thought it was too weird not to attend. She was exactly the kind of stranger I’m happy to bump into because she was friendly without immediately assuming that I wanted to spend the rest of the evening listening to her talk. A man came up and sat at the corner of the table between us, and asked about her cocktail so he’d know what to order. He had been to the Silent Reading Party before and said that he invites friends but then tells them he won’t save a spot for them because it makes him uncomfortable and seems unfair since, at this point, people were lined up outside hoping to score a spot to perch so they could read. I decided I liked him too. He was similarly undemanding and pleasant.

 

My friend arrived and we ordered appetizers and drinks and passed time before the witching hour by talking to each other and asking our new neighbors questions. The woman was from Brazil and had been traveling for the past 18 months to see a bit of the Americas. There were only two stops left on her trip: Chicago and New York, and she wondered if we had any suggestions.

 

I have many, many opinions about what is best and least best to do in Chicago, but on the spot, I could think of nothing outside of taking the architectural boat tour on the river, which may not even run in March. She looked at me expectantly since I’d just blathered on about how it was my favorite city in the U.S. and I had nuthin’. Ride a boat in what will inevitably be a Midwestern deep freeze when you are there. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

 

The man said he loved to read but had no time to read, so once a month he came to the Sorrento for himself. He’d been reading the same Ruth Rendell novel for months. I admired his backpack. He admired the novel I was reading, Here We Lie, by my friend Paula Treick DeBoard, and took a photo of it so he could read it whenever he finally has time to finish the Rendell. I forced everyone to look at my name in the acknowledgements and congratulate me as if I had written the book myself. (It is really good. You should probably read it. And also, admire my name.) The piano started playing and the silent reading began. (Note: it is silent in that no one talks, but there is delightfully unobtrusive piano music. At one point I heard a very classical version of what I think of as Darth Vader’s theme song, The Imperial March.)

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All of Paula’s books are my favorite, but right now, this one is my most favorite.

Despite the fact that Paula’s book is riveting, I couldn’t concentrate. Instead, I was horrified because what kind of city advocate am I if I can’t even cough up five things someone should do in a place that I love? I ripped a page out of my journal and started listing things she should do in Chicago, views to admire, buildings with architecture I adore, the miniature Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, which line of the L to ride for the best vantage, which bus would cart her up Michigan Avenue, etc. I passed the list to her. She read it and smiled. I read Paula’s book and stuffed focaccia bread in my mouth. Soon she shoved a piece of paper across the table and whispered, “We’re like school girls, passing notes.”

 

Here’s her note:

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I was already in awe of Jacqueline because of her solo traveling adventure, but I was further in awe because she clearly enjoys interacting with strangers and finding out their opinions about what is worthwhile to investigate. She wasn’t worried I was going to try to get her involved in a pyramid scheme or join a cult. She was just enjoying humanity.

 

There was a break and she packed up the journal she’d been writing in and asked the server for the bill. The Ruth Rendell man said he’d like to pay for her drink and the food she’d ordered. She thanked him, but said no, and though my superior intuition and his excellent backpack had figured him for a safe bet, I realized that if I were traveling alone, I wouldn’t want arbitrary people buying treats for me no matter what they were reading. He said, “I insist. You are our guest here.” She thanked him, thanked us for the travel advice and told us to have a good evening, and then left.

 

I don’t know what it was about that wording of his, but I could feel my eyes get full and my face flush. You are our guest. There were two things there that I liked: the notion of a visitor to the U.S. as a “guest” but also the way he used that “our.” As if he were including me, my friend, all of us at the communal table—even the people at the end so far down we couldn’t talk tot hem or even see what they were reading, everyone in the Sorrento, everyone in Seattle, everyone in the country…and saying, we’re glad you came!

 

After Jacqueline left, I leaned over and thanked him for buying her meal and drink. It certainly hadn’t crossed my mind to do it, though I had considered asking if she had a blog so I could spy on her travels. I told him that I appreciated it because of Z and how he’s feeling these days about this country he loves but doesn’t always feel welcome in anymore, and about how good it was for me to remember that this is what I love about Americans—that at our best we’re friendly instead of suspicious, generous instead of showing everyone the holsters under our jackets.

 

He waved me off. He said he’s traveled a lot and people have always been welcoming to him and he likes to welcome other people. But just the same, I thought it was such a lovely gesture that the memory of it warmed me all week, as did the memory of Jacqueline investigating the Americas and deciding that something as quirky as a silent reading party was worth her time.

 

I’m never going to prefer solo travel, though I’ve done it and would again if the only alternative was staying safely at home. I’m never not going to squawk and screech when something gives me a fright, even if it’s my own husband asking for a laundry quarter.

 

Most of us are inclined to fears of some sort, and we have to figure out how to best navigate them. I would argue—with myself, with you, with the world—that life is going to be more fulfilling if we focus on the accordion-playing cat moments, and—even if we do have to race past the rubber-headed unicorns banging drums—we shouldn’t let those moments shape our days, influence our interactions with strangers, make us isolate ourselves completely for safety’s sake. The world is too big and weird and wonderful to cut ourselves off from that. It’s kind of glorious.

 

*She is very nice and very rational and not cult inclined. This is just hyperbole.

 

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On Fonts, Style, and Albus Dumbledore

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The catalog of ways my writing gets derailed is as large as the Oxford English Dictionary though the pages with entries for “email that must be sent” and “drawers that must be organized” are the most dog eared. Currently, I have a thumb injury caused by a knife in the dish water, and I’ve bandaged that thing up so it looks like the oversized digit of hitchhiking Sissay Hankshaw/Uma Thurman in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. It has slowed my typing down considerably even though it turns out the only thing you use your thumb for when typing is the space bar.

 

But even before the thumb situation, I had a font-related writing derailment.

 

I saw a snarky T-shirt on Broadway hat said, “I bet you use Helvetica.”

 

I use Helvetica.

 

I’ve been using Helvetica since 1994 when I got my Mac Performa and determined Helvetica the best font of the six or so on offer back then. Clean lines. Easy to read. Classic. Once I settle on a “good thing” I usually don’t revisit it, but that T-shirt unnerved me.

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You have no idea how much time I can spend googling things like Why does Helvetica suck? Or what are the best fonts?

 

I find myself at a crossroads in my life wherein I must either change so I don’t seem quite as old as I’m beginning to look, or I must commit to my idiosyncrasies and admit that I no longer care to be current. Not that I’ve ever been on the cutting edge of anything, but my goal, in as much as I have one, is simple: avoid being a laughingstock if possible.

 

It may be a battle I’m destined to lose regardless of my age. I’ve always been out of step, and now is no different than any of the other decades of my life. I was a fussy, prim teenager who was incapable of being carefree or rebellious, and now that I’m middle aged, I’m behaving the way I should have when I was 17. While the style mags all indicate I should embrace re-purposed furniture from a thrift store and add some spikey plants, a see-thru chair, and a bookshelf full of globes (where the books should go), I hanker for the ambiance of some television small town judge’s family room circa 1955. Heirloom furniture and deep armchairs with actual arms. I’m no fashionista, so though my drawers are stuffed to the brim, I basically wear the same uniform every day—a cable-knit hoody sweater, Levi’s, and a pair of  UGGs with hide laces that look like something Daniel Boone might have worn. (If it is warm out, I wear as little as possible accompanied by a snarl.) There is nothing about my “look” that is cultivated. It’s comfortable and serviceable and, hopefully, non-descript. Best of all, when I’m wearing it, I feel like myself.

 

Which is how I’ve always felt about Helvetica.

 

If I were a more confident person, I probably would have rolled my eyes at the judgey anti-Helvetica T-shirt disrespecting my font and moved on, but I’m not confident. I almost always assume that there are cool kids at a lunchroom table somewhere in the universe who are deciding right now that 90% of what I have and do is all wrong. Why these imaginary brats hold sway in my head is a question I can’t answer.

 

Plus, I started thinking about the judgments I’ve made against people for their font choice or their tendency to trends. Typewriter fonts are too precious and those peek-a-boo shoulder shirts aren’t really working for anybody and make me worry about shoulder melanoma. (Also, I’ll confess that though a hundred different style guides tell me that Chuck Taylors are always a good choice, I never see them on adult, non-basketball-playing humans over 22 without thinking they should try a boat shoe instead. We all have our opinions.)

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Maybe I’m only thinking about things like “classic” and “style” because for Christmas, Mom got me this gorgeous little book, Classic Style: Hand It Down, Dress It Up, Wear It Out by Kate Schelter. I’m probably not the target reader (see above description about my fashion choices), but I love the watercolor sketches of the things Schelter and a few style icons she’s interviewed offer up as their classic go-tos. It’s got me thinking about that old William Morris adage “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” and now I’m looking at the stuff in my closet and dotted around our apartment and finding some of it dubious.

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Beyonce waiting for her Cinderella story to unfold.

For instance, I’ve been giving Beyonce, the metal chicken that sits in our living room (and  who is named after The Bloggess’s significantly larger metal rooster) the side-eye. She’s not really beautiful. We knock her off her perch regularly and she dents up the wooden hand-made Shaker nesting boxes she sits on. On the other hand, we got her as a companion to the metal rooster, Bob Johnson, who sits on the other side of the room and I do find him, if not beautiful, then at least aesthetically pleasing, and he makes me smile, thus covering the “usefulness” category as well. Somehow, it seems wrong to deprive Bob and Beyonce of their love just because she’s less attractive and I got her on markdown in the Meijer garden department. Bob was liberated from a gallery and thus was a more pricey, graduation gift from Z that we found in New Mexico. She can’t help it that she doesn’t have the breeding of Bob, and I admire him for overlooking this.

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Beyonce is still waiting for this guy to put a ring on it.

There are other things on the side-eye list too.

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Why would anybody need these? What does it all mean?

I’m not sure why I’ve been collecting these little Wade ceramic doo-dads out of Z’s tea boxes. I don’t really like the colors and it seems kind of weird to have a tiny space shuttle, old-timey scuba helmet, White House, and pine tree/arrowhead sitting in my windowsill, but each time he opens a new box of tea it reminds me of the childhood joy of getting a prize in a box of Fruit Loops. So there they are, looking down on 9th Avenue in all their tiny, muted glory as if they are prized possessions.

 

I don’t know what to do with the 28 tote bags I have. They’re useful, but will I ever have need for 28 at one time? Shouldn’t I thin the herd? Thumbs up to the Winter is Coming direwolf and Andy Warhol soup can totes and thumbs down to the free London Review of Books one I got at a conference?

 

I keep thinking I’ll come up with a system for these wooden file boxes that will make them useful, but instead, I throw things in them like the notecards of a would-be screenplay that seemed like a good idea one night at midnight and less of a good idea once the sun was up. They’ve been in one file box for ten years and I’ve never looked at them. Mostly I dust the boxes when guests come and thus they  serve as tiny coffins for story ideas that have never re-animated.

 

I could go on like this, but you get the idea. That once again, instead of doing the business of writing, I’m avoiding it by bandaging my thumb and worrying about fonts, and speculating about how classic or unclassic my “style” is. Because that’s what really matters in my life. Sure it is. (Well, wound care matters, I guess, in that if I lose my thumb to gangrene, all of my words will run together what with no digit to operate the space bar.)

 

Classic Style has sent me down a memory lane I wasn’t planning to traverse too. I think I’ve mentioned before that when I was an impressionable 13 year old, I got my hands on a copy of Lisa Birnbaum’s satirical Preppy Handbook and didn’t realize it was satire. Instead, I used it as a bible. I wanted to be preppy. I don’t mean I wanted to wear Izods with the collars up. I mean I desperately wanted my family to transform over night into one of those country-club-belonging east coast families that went sailing and attended Ivy League schools and summered on Nantucket. It wasn’t the money I cared about, but I cared about the class, the breeding, the well-readness and the well-educatedness. Since I couldn’t rearrange my Midwestern reality into that, I read the books Birnbaum said were non-negotiable for preps (Love Story, Catcher in the Rye, The World According to Garp), I fretted about whether my monogram should feature the “E” of my given name or the “B” of my everyday “Beth.” Somehow, I managed to get a pair of Tretorn tennis shoes and tried to wear away the right toe as if I dragged my toe when serving a tennis ball (instead of actually, you know, learning to play tennis and getting the Preppy Handbook required roughed-up toe legitimately), and I crammed my maturing body into little boy’s polo shirts because they were cheaper than those made for women, and they fit my nearly non-existent budget even though they didn’t really fit me.

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So as I read Classic Style, I find myself reverting to my 7th grade girlhood. I feel the envy and the inability to measure up to those satirical guidelines. And I’ll admit it, I’m kind of hating on Schelter—an honest to goodness prep—for forcing that on me. True, I now have my own set of required L.L. Bean Boat & Tote bags, but Kate Schelter, one assumes, has actually used hers for boating and toting instead of for storing half-read Poets & Writers magazines under her desk. You can’t buy preppyness (or class) it turns out.

 

But please note:  Schelter’s illustrated questionnaire of the creative director, Stephen Keefe, listed Helvetica as his favorite font, alongside his vintage Persol sunglasses and Gucci loafers!

 

As I bundled up to meet Z and Hudge for happy hour on Monday, I was thinking about Schelter and her perfect style as I wrapped my rainbow-hued scarf around my neck, tugged on my rainbow-striped gloves, and pulled my rainbow knit cap down over my ears. These items don’t match, in case it sounds like they do. The colors are all of different hues, I just like the spectrum even though I would never have dressed this way in 1981. The useless strings that dangle from the earflaps slapped against my chin as I thought about how no one with real style would leave the house dressed as I was unless it was Pride week.

 

I climbed onto the #2 bus and as I was putting my wallet into my bag, the guy across from me—an Albus Dumbledore look-alike who appeared to have fallen on hard times—complimented me on my obnoxious hat.

 

I touched the hat and thanked him. He swayed and shifted in his seat in a way that indicated to me he was probably already half-lit. Then he leaned across the aisle and presented a banged-up blue plastic lighter and said, “Want to trade it for this lighter.”

 

I did not and said so politely. It seemed rude to ignore him, so I gave him more information than he needed—that Z and I got these hats—Z’s a more “manly” forest green—right before we got married and so I have a sentimental attachment to it (and therefore, nothing against the lighter he had on offer).   I restrained myself from telling him that I secretly believe the hat to have magical properties because a few days after I bought it and a few days before our wedding, I face-planted on an icy sidewalk and instead of ending up with the bruise or concussion I should have had, the hat made my head bounce so I was able to get married without stage make-up.

 

The guy shrugged and leaned back in his seat, arm along the back as if he were driving a 1970s Cadillac. As if to say, he liked the hat, sure, but it was nothing to him if I couldn’t see the benefits of his proposed trade. He flipped his maroon and gray striped scarf over his shoulder jauntily.

 

My instinct then was to run down the checklist perpetually in my brain of “was it bad of me that I just did this selfish thing of wanting to keep my own belongings to myself?” (The curse of a self-aware only child is the need not to behave the way people expect you to.) I looked at the guy while he was looking out the window and was happy to see that his coat looked warm, gloves jutted out of his pocket, and his scarf was long enough to cover his head if the temperature dropped. He didn’t need my magic hat; he just liked it. And I didn’t need his lighter, which appeared to have no magical qualities at all, (though the ability to carry potential fire in your pocket is a kind of magic). Things were even enough between us that I didn’t have to spend the rest of the day feeling guilty for not being more generous.

 

He saw me eying his scarf and leaned forward again, rubbing the ends between his fingers, and pointing out to me that the colors are the same as those of Oxford University’s Christ Church (or Gryffindor’s, I thought). Then he mumbled some things about Oxford and it seemed to me that he said he’d studied there and maybe that’s where the scarf had actually come from, though I can’t be sure because his monologue was low and zipped from topic to topic. There were kernels of sanity and sobriety in what he said, but there were enough words I didn’t catch that I also don’t know if he was a fabulist or if he’d had some academic life that went awry.

 

He talked. I smiled and nodded and hoped I wasn’t agreeing to some other trade that wouldn’t suit me. I am known for agreeing to things I don’t want because I nod my head when I don’t understand someone and the next thing I know I’m having a meal I didn’t order or hideous fake nails glued to my own natural ones.

 

I looked at him more closely. His hair was wild. He was carrying what looked like a freshly laundered mattress pad in a see-through tote. He was picking bits of fluff of the knee of his trousers fastidiously, and he was definitely striking a pose there on the #2 as we bumped up Seneca. He flipped the scarf over his shoulder again and looked out the window as if we were on a weekend leisure drive in Oxfordshire. He might have initially looked like a homeless Dumbledore to me, but as I often discover about my fellow bus riders, there was more to him than met the eye. And the man had style.

If he has cause to use Helvetica, I bet he does it unapologetically.

 

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Just two crazy middle aged kids enjoying Puget Sound in their magical knitted hats.

On History and Mystery

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Do you see the missing piece?

 

This weekend, I should have been doing one or more of the following:

 

  • fixing up the writing studio post earthquake proofing
  • creating a syllabus for my next class
  • writing lesson plans for my next class
  • working on a website to sell my wares to the wider world
  • writing this blog
  • cleaning in general
  • cleaning specifically:
    • birthday confetti off the carpet from the first part of the month
    • cobwebs I keep discovering on the ceiling
    • a fan that is more dust than blade at this point
    • the bottom of the kitchen trashcan (Z and I keep hoping “our man” will do it, but it turns out, we haven’t hired a man and thus it’s down to us and we’re each hoping the other will cave first)
  • putting industrial strength patches on the thighs of my favorite jeans
  • figuring out where to get rid of the books I’ve weeded
  • actually getting rid of the books I’ve weeded once I’ve decided
  • preparing for a presentation at a conference in three weeks that Z talked me into and at which I must appear to be knowledgeable and quick-witted though I am feeling neither of these things
  • using the new Panda Planner that has promised to change my life

 

 

What I’ve actually been doing:

 

  • genealogy

 

Probably I should be apologetic about why I am doing this since I have no children with whom to share this ancestral knowledge, but the truth is, I don’t care. I don’t care if my niece and nephew are interested. I don’t care if my cousins are. I see Z’s eyes glaze over when I tell him about some new relative I never knew I had who was a Quaker or a Puritan or a dentist, but I don’t care if it bores him—I tell him anyway.

 

I’m doing it because I’m curious and because history fascinates me, in particular, personal histories that overlap larger, human history. There are good stories there and I like a good story. So every night I open up Ancestry.com and introduce myself to some new person who contributed to the cocktail that is me. God bless them every one.

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A set of my great-great grandparents, their brood, and one awesome tricycle.

While the men’s histories are the easiest to access—them being regularly afforded their own names and the bulk of the attention in Quaker meeting minutes and newspaper accounts—what thrills me most is imagining the women’s stories and what might have been happening between the very few official mentions they get. A long space between children often means some grief, for instance. There’s all sorts of speculation I do about the teenagers who marry older men, the women who audaciously manage to work their maiden names into a first name for one of their children. If I happen upon a photo, I try to peer into the eyes to see if there’s any evident happiness or misery, and if the photo is of a tombstone, I’m curious to see if it is simple or grand, and if she warranted any sort of adjectives: beloved wife, devoted mother, etc.

 

This weekend I discovered that my paternal grandfather’s grandmother, Ellen, emigrated from Ireland in 1849. I’m familiar enough with the stories of my great grandmother Bridget who sailed away from Ireland as a teenager near the end of the 19th century with a blackthorn walking stick in her hand that now belongs to me. I know she married a man much older than she was who had a young son of his own. I know her middle son gave up a future in the priesthood when her husband died so he could earn money to help support her and his baby brother, my grandfather. I’ve met her nieces and nephew in Ireland, skulked around the farm where she was raised and that her great nephew now farms, stayed overnight with her niece and great niece, and stood over the graves of her parents and grandparents. So Ireland was no surprise.

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The Great Grandmotherland, near Caherlistrane, County Galway

But 1849? As soon as I saw that year on the screen, I said a very non-blasphemous Jesus under my breath and my eyes filled up and threatened to spill over the dam. You didn’t come to America from Ireland in 1849 because you wanted a change of scenery or were ambitious. You came because of the Famine.

 

I checked to see if there were children older than my great grandfather and discovered there were two: one born in New York, where they must have landed and tried to earn money enough to head west, and another, before that, born in transit on the Atlantic.

 

Jesus again.

 

Can you imagine? Your first child born in the hull of an overcrowded famine ship, not entirely sure what would be waiting on you when you arrived, except of course, that it wouldn’t be family—or anyone else—with open arms?

 

There’s the added knowledge that while she was pregnant for my great grandfather in West Virginia, her husband did the unfathomable and died at a young age, so there she is, a woman in coal-mining country with two pre-schoolers and a newborn to raise on her own.

 

So she did what you did if you were a woman in those straits and she married almost immediately. No time for a lengthy mourning before looking for a new spouse. No time for a long courtship to make sure the fellow is kind or clever. No chance for pre-marital counseling to make sure you have compatible dispositions. There are mouths to feed and your whole adult life you’ve been running from the Hunger.

 

No wonder I get panicky when there’s no peanut butter or Lucky Charms in the cabinets. No wonder I’ve had a passive-aggressive relationship with food my whole life (it being passive and me being aggressive). That hunger stuff has to get written on a person’s DNA at some point.

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It’s not _really_ Irish, but it is the perfect breakfast food.

So anyhow, that’s where my head is at and may explain why none of the above items on my ticking-off list have been ticked off. It might also explain why this afternoon while I was attempting to re-assemble the writing studio from earthquake-proofing-shambles and listening to The Drovers—an old Chicago Celtic rock band—I heard the opening stanzas to “Kilkelly, Ireland” and before it was all over I was having a loud, snorty cry as I re-hung pictures and stacked books.

 

To be clear, I’ve been listening to The Drovers since I first heard them on the Blink soundtrack in 1993, I’ve seen them in concert in Grant Park on a warm Chicago evening, and I’ve never, NEVER, heard them sing this or any other piece that is so maudlin. Their music is sometimes haunting, but mostly it makes you want to spin around like a dervish, maybe stick it to The Man. So I was blindsided when I heard those opening stanzas. It’s a song I intentionally took off of my Irish playlists because uncontrollable sobbing is not an activity I enjoy.

 

Have you ever heard it? I defy you to listen to it and not have some feelings. “Danny Boy” might make the masses tear up, but those are cheap emotions compared to the ones this song elicits. Supposedly, it is based on a set of actual letters from a father in Ireland to his son who has emigrated around the time of the Famine (the years are a little off, and this bothers me, but once the music swells, I allow for a little poetic license) and it spans several decades. For me, the tears start when the father begins his letter explaining that he’s had Pat McNamara “write these words down.” (As if the longing for loved ones you’ll likely never see again isn’t enough, I’ve the added weep-material of illiteracy.) By the time it works it’s way round to the immigrant’s brother writing the final lines to his brother that the father has died with a “He called for you in the end/Oh, why don’t you think about coming to visit/We’d all love to see you again” I’m a mess. It’s like the old-timey Irish version of “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

 

Please note, a decade ago I once purposely traveled from Waterford to Kilkelly specifically so I could feel the feelz of this song, only to realize when I arrived that I was not actually in Kilkelly but in Kilkenny, which is, it turns out, a whole different place. Instead of walking around mournfully and reflecting on my (then only imagined) Famine-affected relatives, I spent part of the afternoon in a Radley of London shop trying to justify an expensive leather bag with a Scottie dog logo. (I did not win that justification and am still sans a Radley handbag, fyi.)

 

Aside from the stories and extra fierce musically induced weeping because of those stories, the thing I like about this genealogy business is how much it’s like doing a puzzle. It’s the kind of detective work I was born to do because at no point is anyone going to hold me at knifepoint and tell me to quit snooping or else. (Though things did look a little dodgy at the Seattle Public Library yesterday when I was on my way to the genealogy department, so I s’pose it could happen.) It’s amazing the things you can find with a little poking around: a break with the church, a scandalous marriage, an illegitimate child. Sometimes, I’m guilty of assuming that anyone that predated me and my immediate family were just sitting around in long dresses and wearing stovepipe hats and working the land and reading their Bibles, but it turns out they were living real lives and making some desperate (and sometimes dubious) choices.

 

I’d have made a terrible historian though because I get caught up in my flights of fancy. I’ve hit a brick wall with Ellen and can’t find where she was born, who her parents were, and she’s starting to morph into Nicole Kidman in Far and Away, a high born woman who falls in love with a poor country yoke (and Scientologist) and makes her way to America, for good or for ill. She’s become amazing in my mind. Fierce, feisty, kind and generous. But for all I know, she was none of those things. She might have been a stern, humorless mother and who could blame her? She might have always been nagging her second husband to wear his hat and scarf to keep himself well, and who could blame her?

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Great Great Grandmother Ellen

Since January, I’ve been solving a lot of little puzzles. First, I’ve done actual jigsaw puzzles as I like the satisfaction I feel in those five minutes after I’ve completed one and before I realize what a complete waste of time it is since the picture is right there on the box and I didn’t need to actually put it together to see it. But the mystery to be solved here is how is it that the last two puzzles I’ve done have been missing a single piece? They were both new. Where did the rogue piece go? Was it never put in because there’s some malcontent at the puzzle factory who gets joy out of the notion of wrecking some obsessive’s sense of self-satisfaction? Has someone (read: Z, not me) dropped a piece and it’s bounced into a crevice in our crooked apartment? Am I sleepwalking and hiding a single piece to sabotage myself?

 

Other early 2018 Mysteries of the City:

 

 

  • Who is the man who coughs until he throws up EVERY DAY right outside our apartment?
  • How is it that I felt warmer in 8 degree temperatures in Indiana than I do in 42 degree temperatures now that I’m back in Seattle? (The cold out here gets right into your bones.)
  • How is it that despite having weeded almost 100 titles, it has been an impossible feat to get my books back onto their rightful shelves. They’ve reproduced like rabbits and somehow the Irish authors that used to fit neatly into one of 36 tidy IKEA cubes have breached their confines and now require an additional two cubes. Clearly, I need to build a border wall.
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Look at those Irish books, trying to sneak onto other shelves without proper documentation!

  • On a similar note, how is it possible that our south wall was moved in a foot because of the earthquake proofing and suddenly the furniture doesn’t seem to fit now? A foot is nothing really. If you were in one of those trash-compacting rooms in spy movies (or the original Star Wars) and the wall moved in a foot, you wouldn’t really even notice yet that you were in danger of being squished. And yet, what the writing studio looks like now is an implausibility of Wildebeests in one of those “bad” zoos with too-small enclosures. It’s all chair legs and coffee tables and bookcases overlapping each other and it hurts my eyes and heart.
  • If the Parks Department has to paint permanent suggestions on the park suggestion board about what activities people like to do there because the chalk option meant a lot of rude comments and a few dubious artist’s renderings, shouldn’t you just maybe forego the suggestion board and have a mural instead?
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Note: there are no actual roses in this park.

  • Why do drivers in Seattle—a city made of hills comparable only to San Francisco’s—insist on riding other people’s bumpers?
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If my car were in Seattle, it would be sporting this.

  • Do city officials really think they are tricking us when they make real estate developers “save” historical properties and this is how they do it: a shell of old bricks encasing the lower two floors of a boxy steel and glass monstrosity? We aren’t fools.
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Historic preservation Seattle style.

  • Does the new Seattle soda tax of almost 2 cents an ounce (which doesn’t sound like much until you buy a case of Coke) mean that the city really DOES want us to move away? Z is not happy and is now considering the merits of life in Indiana where no government officials pretend to care that much about your health.
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Not pictured: Z, weeping

  • Why do I think every year that a new planning system—no matter how intuitive and inspiring—is going to make me a better person? It hasn’t yet, but hope springs eternal, I guess. When I told Z that I was getting a Panda Planner he laughed out loud. He knows that by March—despite my best laid plans—I won’t be able to find it because it will be hiding in the recesses of a bag I quit carrying in February. (The joke may be on him this year, however, because I brought the bright “cyan” for an extra $4 and it might be more difficult to lose.)
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Precious.

Periodically, Jane and I have discussions about who’s more introverted. This isn’t really a contest because being Most Introverted does not come with a crown or prize money. Despite the likelihood that Jane IS more introverted than I am, she will keep getting herself embroiled in book clubs and social groups that make me feel twitchy when I imagine signing up for something similar. All those people you don’t know, asking boring things like “what do you do for a living?” and “have you read All the Light We Cannot See yet?” (as if not reading it is not an option). But then when I do something like invite near-strangers to stay with us for a week, it’s hard not to argue that I am perhaps slightly less introverted than Jane.

 

Last week I read an article in Irish Central about an Irish woman living in America who has started an immigration awareness campaign of creating buttons for people to wear that say things like “I am an immigrant” and “I’m the daughter of an immigrant.” I liked the idea of this—a sort of political performance art that makes folks recognize that more of the people they pass on the street have connections to immigrants than they realize. So I found her on Facebook to see how I might get one of these buttons for myself since I’ve a real live immigrant sleeping in my bed, and I promptly discovered she lives in Seattle. We messaged back and forth and made tentative plans to get together for drinks because I love Ireland and she and her husband are fond of Zimbabweans.

 

I had to admit to Jane that this is a real conundrum of my life: that I supposedly love being alone and value quiet, chat-free expanses of time so I can live in my own head without interruption, but then I talk to a new person and realize my solitary life behind the walls of my imagination is not enough. Maybe I’m an introverted extrovert. Or vice versa. I need other people—people dissimilar to me sometimes—to make life richer, more intriguing, more thought provoking. It’s one of those things that makes me glad I’m in this city on the edge of a country that—despite everything—still recognizes that it’s richer because of its diversity, not in spite of it.

 

God bless us every one.

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FYI: Immigrant Awareness on Facebook can hook you up with your very own button