Monthly Archives: February 2014

Trying to Step in the Same Stream Twice

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara

We hadn’t been in Santa Barbara for nine years when we arrived there last Wednesday. When we did the math and counted out how long it had been, we were both surprised. It has lived big in both of our memories all this time, and when we exited the highway and found ourselves cruising up Cabrillo Boulevard towards Hotel Oceana where we’d be staying, it felt to me like no time had passed at all. Maybe a few months.


In 2005 when we were still just friends, Z, who’d been in Zimbabwe for a year, returned to the U.S. to teach as a visiting professor at a college near Santa Barbara. Other than a deep affection for my Malibu Barbie collection in the 1970s, I’ve never been California-inclined. I had this notion of it as a place that was too thin, tan, sunny, and plastic to ever make me happy. So when Z invited me to spend my spring break with him all those years ago, let us be clear: I was going to see him, not to soak up the sun on some shell-strewn beach. I would arrive in Santa Barbara ready to assess the situation and see if he’d budged an inch since the year before when I’d told him I was in love with him. I even bought myself a new orange bra because I felt with such a thing beneath my clothes, I would subconsciously become more alluring and magnetic than I really am. It was huge and day-glo and I had to be careful what shirts I wore with it because it was not a bra to be trifled with. Even so, Z remained impervious to the super powers of my undergarments, despite the fact that at one point when we were on a trolley in San Francisco, my blouse came unbuttoned of its own volition and I accidentally treated about 30 strangers to my bright orange satin-encased breasts.


Z stared out the window, oblivious.


The trip nine years ago involved a mixture of emotions that started and ended with longing and confusion on my part. We were both happy, I think, to be back in each other’s company, exploring a new location, investigating the old mission, driving up Highway 1, sifting through bargain bins at what may have been the world’s most affluent Goodwill ever, and walking the beaches. Oh, the beaches! But then somewhere in my head I’d hear Kate Bush singing, “The thrill and the hurting/ This will never be mine,” and the aching would start. I’d wonder how much longer I could sustain our friendship in the face of it. Then he’d say something funny and we’d start laughing and I’d forget the hairline fracture in my heart.


I don’t understand time travel, but the first day of this 2014 trip, I felt as if time wasn’t linear after all. It seemed reasonable to me that we might bump into our younger selves, that maybe I’d see us on East Beach and I’d be able to take 2005 Beth aside and say something encouraging like, “Just hang in there—he’s worth the wait and right now he’s just moving on African time.” Or better yet, I had this notion that somehow I might be able to turn back time and reclaim those days that were lost to us. That there would be a puff of smoke and we’d get sucked backwards, and get our party started sooner rather than later. (It should be noted that in my memory, we are way younger than we were nine years ago, and I was much thinner and looked more like Malibu Barbie than I do in now or then. Also, we’re wearing really attractive swimwear and we’re much better coiffed than we are in real life.)  It’s just so lovely and magical there on the beach in Santa Barbara that it seemed entirely possible that either of these things might happen.


Poor Z! That first day, I think he was wondering if he’d made a mistake, bringing me back to Santa Barbara because I was acting like we’d returned to the scene of some crime. I was given to sudden storm clouds of regret that would form behind my eyes, and worse, torturing him with jabs about what he’d been missing out on back then (for instance, I no longer have that orange bra and he never got to see it). He was good natured about my ribbing. At some point on Wednesday night, I realized I was ruining now with my incessant reflection on then and what could have been. I mean, honestly, can you imagine having to listen to Elizabeth Bennett complain about how Mr. Darcy didn’t love her quickly enough, as she sits on the veranda at Pemberley? Please. Even I was getting tired of me. Frankly, I’m getting tired of me recounting the story here.


View from our Hotel Oceana room

View from our Hotel Oceana room

Eventually, I shut my mouth and directed my line of sight on the present. Hotel Oceana was delightful. It was right across from the beach and we splurged on a room with a view. Aside from the view, I was smitten with the Spanish style courtyard that the rooms opened up on. A fountain tinkled. Humming birds flitted around the stralizia. Even the opossum that was creeping up a tree right at eye level and scared me half to death seemed quaint.  When it isn’t a 100 degree humid summer day in Indiana, I’m always struck by the magic of how you can live your indoor life outdoors in climates like this one.

Hotel Oceana courtyard, Santa Barbara

Hotel Oceana courtyard, Santa Barbara

We speculated on the lives of the people in the neighboring room who left their door open, and when we peered in all we could see was a sea of plastic bags—we still can’t decide if they were some sort of bag people/hoarders or if they just did a lot of shopping and weren’t very tidy or safety conscious. We walked on the beach, laughed at the Californians who were bundled up like it was winter as we shuffled around in shorts and flip flops,  and said hello to a host of dogs. We drove out to Z’s old campus and poked around to see how things have changed since he was in residence. Then we investigated his old neighborhood to see what houses survived the fires a few years ago. Finally, we went to his old Von’s grocery store and lamented the fact that Jonathan Winters is dead now so there was no chance of running into him the way Z used to. We had apps with his former boss in an Irish pub and caught up on nearly a decade’s worth of events. Our last night there, we walked on the beach under a full moon, the way you do when there is a beach and a full moon available to you.


Maybe all the time travel I need in this life is the realization that when we are together, we have fun, just like we always do, always have done. Even before we were us.


Moonlight, Santa Barbara

Moonlight, Santa Barbara

(P.S. Should they make a movie of my life posthumously, would one of you please try to secure the rights to that Kate Bush song? I think it would work really well in the “longing for Z” sections of the film.)


Flashback Friday: The Sea is Wide and I Cannot Swim Over

[In this final installment from Ireland, I pack my bags for home and try to make sense of the personal and the political.]

Monday, March 27, 2006

There’s something about leaving Ireland that makes it imperative that you listen to all of your favorite Van Morrison songs immediately. Lucky for me, I had several on my iPod and so could begin the lament on the long train journey from Waterford to Limerick before I ever got on the plane. I started with ‘Carrickfergus’ where the line about Kilkenny had new meaning to me, and ended with “Won’t You Stay.”

The last day in Ireland was a drizzly one, so it took awhile to get moving. I have about a sixty minute tolerance for museums of any sort, so even though I’d been warned to have three hours for the Waterford Treasures museum, I had to walk around the town centre, poking my head into stores, getting dew kissed from the drizzle, and generally feeling a part of life there before trekking to the museum. The Irish coat I bought when I was there in November must make me look more like a native, because again I was asked for directions. This time, sadly, I had no answers.The museum is nicely done and has a remarkable amount of interactive “treasures” as well as the more traditional kind. The first thing I did was go into a little theatre where an aluminum version of a Viking ship made up the seating area. I was the only person in there and almost got hysterical when the movie started and the ship started rocking back and forth beneath me. The movie itself was silly–about a bunch of Vikings making the journey from York back to Waterford, calling out to a horned old disembodied head who must have been Odin. But the creaking of the aluminum bleacher-seat ship was worth 12 minutes of movie boredom. I was only sorry that I was alone on it and so my laughter must have seemed a bit deranged.

Probably the most impressive piece in the whole museum is the city charter, which is, essentially, a bunch of documents about mayors and city ordinances written and illustrated on vellum and then sewn together into one big historical quilt. I liked seeing man’s history presented in such a girly fashion. Which brings me to my main beef with museums and history in general. I can rarely find myself there. Sure, there might be some bowls women served food in, a beaded necklace of some ancient peoples, but mostly what you see are the stories of men. Likely, they affected the women in fringe ways, but I would prefer learning about women’s lives & that forgotten history. What shaped domestic life instead of how a political action shaped a nation’s history, or, to borrow words from the Feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, I am most interested in how the political shaped the personal. While I don’t care which king presented the Mayor of Waterford with the Cap of Maintenance (which, by the way, looks over much like the Hogwart’s Sorting Hat), I am curious about the woman who helped piece it together or the Lady Mayor who had a laugh with her husband after the presentation about how stupid he looked in it. (“Ohhhh. Don’t you look divine in your cap o’ maintenance, Darling.”) But those aren’t the stories we get in museums or history books because they aren’t considered important. They aren’t national or global. They aren’t worthy of being recorded. In museums, it seems, the female story is predominately relegated to who wore what and which of our dishes were used to feed the men who were fighting the wars and signing the charters. This is an old, unoriginal argument I’m presenting, and it is changing in terms of recorded _modern_ history, but it does have an impact on my level of interest in dusty relics that I pay seven euro to see.

I cruised through the rest of the museum, paying homage to anything that seemed homage worthy, but generally reassuring myself that I am not a bad person or a bad student of life if I don’t love museums, where life and stories are kept in airtight cases.

Back at the Artist’s house that evening, he showed me his artwork from the period right after his wife had died. These were all chalk pastels with mythological figures and death symbols throughout. He explained each one, which I appreciated, because it helped me understand his thought process. Talking about these pieces must have been exhausting for him, both because physically it is hard for him to get breath behind his words and also because of the subject matter. I was overwhelmed by the pain that was in them and found myself having to turn away periodically. After he had shown them to me, I asked about the sketches he did while his wife was dying and he nodded toward the cabinet where they are kept and said that his children can’t even look at them because they are too painful. At that point, the phone rang–two of his friends were taking Belle and me out for a drink–and I felt relieved to have the spell broken and to have been spared witnessing that pain. Even so, as Belle and I were driven away while he stood at the door, holding onto his wheeled-walker, waving goodbye to us, I wanted very much to hop out of the car and insist we spend the evening at home with him instead of drinking with his friends. I wanted to soften the sadness of what I’d just seen. Of course he has lived with these paintings and his grief for several years, so it is likely that I was the only one who needed the softening.

The man who picked us up was the Artist’s neighbor, a retired banker who now travels and studies languages. He drove us to the house of the other man, a sort of care-taker for a Big House that was formerly owned by the Waterford Crystal people. Gates had to be opened before we could drive in. We had drinks there and then later at a 17th century pub which sits under an ancient-looking “flyover” (overpass). We talked about politics (Irish, U.S., Zimbabwean, E.U.) and drank, then went back to the Big House for tea before heading home to our unpacked suitcases. When we got back, the Artist was already in bed, so Belle and I stayed up until 1:30 talking about life, even though we knew we had to get up at 4:30 the next morning to catch the cab that would take us to our train. Though we’ve worked together in one form or another for over ten years, we didn’t know all the bits of the other’s life, and it felt good to share

Morning came early, but we made our connections and had only an hour to kill at Shannon Airport. There were a few U.S. service men (I saw no women) walking around in their desert cammies. I felt self-conscious about my black shamrock, anti-U.S.-troops-at-Shannon-Airport button and was glad it was out of view. As much as I don’t believe in this war and don’t believe we should be involving Ireland in our nation-building, I feel none of those things about the soldiers themselves. They are my neighbors, my students, my cousins, and, if I’d been more productive on prom night, they could be my sons.

As we were in the departure hall, we could see a large line of soldiers on the other side of the glass just arriving from their trans-Atlantic flight, ready to be shipped to Iraq. As they walked by us, a few waved tentatively through the glass, and Belle and I and some others felt compelled to wave back. My God did they look young. I know this is what people always say about soldiers, but seriously, these boys looked about 14. And maybe I was reading in, but they looked a little scared too. More people waved. A few clapped. I got teary, thinking of the hardwork they were about to undertake. How some of them wouldn’t be coming home the same as they left. How some of them wouldn’t be coming home at all. I had to turn away, as I had the night before looking at the Artist’s study of grief, because the idea of it all was overwhelming. But then the cheers and chants of “U.S.A.” started and the spell was broken. Suddenly it became not a poignant, human moment, but a sporting event. Our team is best. Our team will win. Our team will trounce your team. Gooooooo team. No doubt there is need to build up the gladiators  before they go into the arena, but it rang false.

My thoughts turned to a local business owner whose marine son recently walked through that same arrivals hall on his way to be a tank gunner. She said this is what he wanted to do with his life, that this is his destiny. She told me the story of how he and a woman he’d met online tried to connect at Shannon so they could meet face-to-face before he went to Iraq. She talked about how upset the woman was when they missed each other, how touched she was that someone cared so much for her son that she would drive all the way from Dublin, just for a glimpse of him. She explained how she sent an angel statue to the woman as thanks. So anyhow, I ignored the cheers and false bravado and thought instead of these two women and this young soldier, and how though I haven’t met him, I hope he comes back in one piece, because this personal story is the one I care about. Not the oil. Not the WMDs. Not even how political boundaries are drawn or how the history books later present the events.

Maybe its juvenile of me to have this attitude, but I don’t think so. Several years ago a friend told me that he believed poetry would save the world. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the concept at the time, though appreciated the validation he gave to my chosen line of work. Now, I think I understand better. It’s the little moments of personal pain or joy that are recorded into the story, the song lyric, the dance, that will do the work all of our peace talks and war making cannot. It is art that will breathe life into dusty relics in those air-tight museum cases, even if it is by way of an aluminum Viking ship and bad video. It is Van Morrison telling us how he longs for the ability to swim or fly or pay a boatman to carry him back to his own ones across a wide sea.

Snow Memory



Seattle Snow on Spring

Seattle Snow on Spring

I realize some of you won’t appreciate this post, because you are stuck there in the dark heart of the Polar Vortex. But think of us here—a girl who misses her Midwestern snow and believes every winter should look like the holiday issue of the L.L. Bean catalog and a boy raised in a country deprived of snow completely—now stuck in a city that has on offer only rain. Wet, cold, wintry rain.  Look deep in your heart. Don’t you want more for them?


Saturday night the cars driving by sounded extra slushy, so we peeled back the curtains and what did we see but one of those wet, lovely, tree-clinging snows.  Even though I knew it was fleeting, for a whole night, I was able to pretend it was really and truly winter. We pushed open the curtains, turned off the lights, and watched the snow come down. To make it truly spectacular, I should have turned on our DVD fireplace.


Z likes to argue that I don’t really love winter and that I am only happy if the temperature is somewhere between 58 and 64 outside and 68 inside. I complain about heat, rain, sun, wind, and anything else that gets hurled at me. Maybe he is right and I’m the Goldilocks of weather, but some of my best, clearest memories are of snow in a city at night. They aren’t “event” memories—nothing happens in these memories—instead, they are more memories of ambience: walking with my two mittened hands in the hand of a parent when I’m too young to even have memories; walking amidst the Victorian houses and tree-lined streets of Richmond’s north end from the apartment Mom and I were living in to the cozy apartment of our good friend; sitting on a hay bale singing Christmas carols with my cousins at my grandparents’ farm; my little college campus transformed into a 1980s snow globe as we moved from dorms to classes to cafeteria, cocooned in snow; more than one knee-deep, frigid snow in Chicago, where I first discovered how even a big city can seem small and quiet (and clean) late at night with snow falling; a birthday in Freeport, Maine, where I actually got to see that perfect L.L. Bean catalog cover in real life but also sadly dropped my camera in a snow drift trying to capture it; last March, a midnight walk from Chickpea’s apartment in Brookline to the hotel where Z and I were staying and where I was the only person on the street and the whole city felt like mine.


My favorite, though, was the surprise Seattle snow the first few months Z and I were together and the block walk from the Quarter Lounge to his apartment, and we were both electric with love for each other and the snow felt like some kind of magical fairy dust that had appeared just for us.


So those are the reasons why at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, I decided I needed to take my congested nose out into the cold to walk around and snap some photos. Z spent several years in Minnesota, so romanticizes snow a lot less than I do, but even so, he eventually came outside to humor me.


The city was quiet and we passed very few people and one perturbed looking dog. By the next morning, the snow was gone, almost as if it had never happened.


Tomorrow, we leave for California where Z will be presenting at a conference, so all memory of winter will disappear as quickly as a Seattle snowfall.



Cure for the Common Cold

12th Man Cupcakes from Cupcake Royale. Yum.

12th Man Cupcakes from Cupcake Royale. Yum.

Now that I’m not in the classroom teaching college students (aka the world’s germiest people), I almost never get colds. When we got back from Vancouver, Z succumbed to one, which is always a sad thing because a) Z should always feel great and b) I am the world’s worst caregiver. I’ve got no real domestic skills, and so I spend way more time lecturing him on the merits of Kleenex vs. hankies instead of fixing him steaming bowls of chicken soup and fluffing his pillows. I once brought him borscht from the Russian pierogi shop up the street when he had a stomach flu, which I discovered is not a good idea. My most recent care-giving faux pas was just last night. He was suffering with a sinus headache, and so I gave him a head massage with Aveda Blue Oil (love this stuff!) and got some of its minty goodness in his eye. He spent the rest of the night blinking furiously. I kept insisting that it wasn’t the Blue Oil and my ministrations that had caused the trail of tears on his cheeks, but instead attributed it to the strong emotion he was feeling about a particularly dramatic song one of the Olympic ice princesses was skating to.

All week, Z blew his nose and walked around the house wearing sunglasses for his headache and a furry blanket wrapped around his neck and torso, looking kind of like an eccentric drug kingpin. Meanwhile, all week I was crowing about my amazing immune system and how rarely I succumb to things like the common cold now that I’m not grading 400+ coughed-upon papers a semester. And then Saturday evening as Z was starting to feel like himself—the night before the big game and the little party we were having at which I planned to cheer on the Seahawks and hold (and hog) the new baby belonging to our friends—my nose started running.

Boooo. BOOOOOO. If you’ve been wondering why there wasn’t a gloating post-Bowl post, it’s because I was either blowing my nose or napping for the last week.

I am not really a sports fan, and most years when we watch the Super Bowl, I’m in it for the commercials. But this year I was surprised to discover that I’d caught a case of Seahawks fever. I still have no idea what “off sides” means and when the announcer says someone has “taken a knee” I expect to see the extra players praying on the sidelines, so I’m not claiming to be a #1 fan here. But when you live in a city with a team and see some of the players on the cheesy local commercials for things like plumbing and when you can hear the touchdown cannon go off whilst sitting on your very own sofa, it’s hard not to feel . . . involved.

Plus, I’ve discovered via the magic of the interwebs that the Seahawks are one of the most disliked teams in the country, and for some reason this makes me feel kind of protective of them. They’re clearly loved here—there has been a gross misappropriation of office Post-Its to make 12th Man flags in blue and green in the windows all over town—but mention the Seahawks to someone outside of Puget Sound and you’ll see actual lips curl.

Obviously, the Seahawks were not depending on me so my cold didn’t really affect the outcome of the game, but I did miss out on serious baby-holding time. The baby in question—who I will call Pippi (as in Longstocking) here because she has a hint of red hair, Scandinavian heritage, and what I believe will be a fierce heart and vivid imagination—still came over, but I had to just sort of peer at her in her little Seahawks onesie from a distance and promise not to sneeze in her general direction. As it turned out she only spent the first half of the game with us as her parents decided that Baby’s First Super Bowl was slightly less important than Baby’s First—and probably only—Trip to Costco When No One Else is There.  Because they left us with half a dozen 12th Man cupcakes from Cupcake Royale, I forgave them the early departure.

The city went a little nuts, which was kind of fun mainly because the crowd stayed well behaved. (Often when groups of people get together in Seattle, someone decides they’re an anarchist and starts breaking windows.) I was grateful for the cold because it gave me an excuse to stay indoors and just peer through the blinds at the whooping and hollering that went on well into the night and on into the next day. And the next. And the next. Wednesday evening I heard a guy under our windows randomly yell, “Seahawks!”

Since we only live a few blocks from the victory parade route, Z and I decided to pop down to see a little of it on Wednesday before he had to head to work for a meeting. I still had a cold and it was freezing out, but it was sunny so I put on extra layers of clothes, including two hats, and off we went. We stood half a block from the parade route and waited. We watched people. We waited. I checked my email. We waited. Then we got word that the parade was going to start almost an hour late. Z had a meeting to go to and my nose was starting to run more furiously, so we posted a photo of ourselves “at the parade” on Facebook and trudged back up the hill, feeling a little dejected to miss out but also a little relieved to be heading back into the warm. Z went to work and I curled up in my chair under a blanket and watched the parade on TV.

A parade without floats and drill teams just does not engage me. I want scenes made of roses or giant balloons, but this parade involved only the Seahawks and their entourage riding around on the amphibious “Ride the Ducks” tour busses, throwing Skittles and beads to the crowd. The game was over, and as I watched people on TV scream and climb trees, I couldn’t remember exactly what all the fuss was about. My brain started asking big questions, like, Would there be a parade this frenetic if this were a women’s football team? Or, Would there be a parade if someone from Seattle won the Pulitzer?

After half an hour, I was bored and had my nose stuck in a book.

I’m not sure what my prognosis is. The Fever has subsided for now, but there’s a possibility it will return in the fall. We’ll have to wait and see.

Crowd waiting for the Seahawks victory parade.

Crowd waiting for the Seahawks victory parade.