Author Archives: The Reluctant Girl Scout

About The Reluctant Girl Scout

Let's be honest: I haven't been a Girl Scout since the Reagan Administration. What I really am is a writer, a teacher, and a muser, who goes places (reluctantly) and loves them a lot (once I get back home).

Hope Wrapped in Plastic

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At this moment, my writing studio has been overrun by men in hi-viz construction garb who are installing supports in the apartment above ours to earthquake proof the building. Or, more precisely, to fix a bad earthquake proofing that happened a few years ago. It’s frustrating when you live in 900 square feet and are told you have to move all of your earthly possessions five feet from the south wall and five feet from the west wall. And when you are booklovers, it is possibly worse.

 

I spent last weekend moving the hundreds of books I own and love and the hundreds more I own and have never read. They are now in unreachable piles, covered by a plastic tarp, while sawing and hammering make them jump.

 

When will this fresh hell be done?

 

Oh, they can’t tell us. It could be by the end of the week or it could be in two months. It just depends on how the work goes in the apartment above. And based on a conversation I overheard (while eavesdropping and peering out the peephole), there is some worrisome shaking in the apartment above or below, so it’s possible that when I get back tonight all of our belongings will be living in the apartment underneath ours.

 

Added fun: we can’t be in the apartment from 9 to 5, which would be fine if I didn’t work from home, but I do, and so it’s hard not to feel put-upon and a little homeless. And in case you are wondering, no, no we don’t get a reduction in rent for our inconvenience. We’re getting a “gift certificate” for our trouble, which we’re pretty sure will be a $10 card to Starbucks, and neither of us drinks coffee. When we complained about this injustice, we were sent a copy of the contract we signed years ago at which point we agreed easily to this arrangement because we were imagining “maintenance” as “person in your apartment for twenty minutes trying to fix leaky pipe” not “gang of workers cranking up your heat and reducing your square footage while you are cast outside.”

 

There are worse things in the world, and we both recognize that people who live in their own houses also occasionally have to put up with tarps and construction dust and strange men peeing in their toilets. A friend of mine just found out part of her house is sinking and will have to be jacked up, for instance.

 

But when you rent, it feels a little like you don’t have control over your life. You realize this space you call home isn’t really yours at all, and the owners could boot you out on a whim in order to raze the building to erect a 30-story condo on the site.

 

When I first got out of college, I had a job I loathed at a public library. I thought I’d love it, because books, but instead, every morning when I shut the door on the free world and trudged to the front desk, a little part of me died inside. Patrons yelled at me when they couldn’t get their hands on the latest John Grisham book immediately, books were returned smelling foul (and forever changed how I feel about getting books out of the public library, hence the large collection of books I had to move from my south and west walls this weekend), and it was mind-numbingly boring because we weren’t allowed to read at the front desk during slow periods. Because it wouldn’t look “professional.” In a library. Reading. In a library.

 

Also, my immediate supervisor had some mental health issues that unfortunately took their toll on us as well as her. We were sympathetic to her condition, but when her chemistry was off-kilter, we all suffered. On her best days, she was a control freak, but it was magnified a thousand fold when she was not. The worst day I remember was an early morning staff meeting she’d called to tell us about her new policy on vacation days. We could ask for them, we could be granted them, but if there was a staffing emergency, we could be called in and must immediately abandon our free-time plans. Like we were ER nurses. We could be at the airport ready to fly off to Bora Bora, and if there was a need at the circulation desk, too bad.

 

We were outraged but also felt powerless. Jobs were not easy to come by right then, most of us were at the library because we were uniquely unqualified for other types of non-bookish work. We whined and kvetched and slammed books onto the re-shelving carts, but mostly what we felt was that we had no control over our own lives. We were at the mercy of the forces of the universe and our micro-managing boss with the super tight penmanship.

 

Not long after this incident, I decided to go to graduate school. My mother was worried that I was giving up a job with a paycheck for not-a-job-and-debt, but I knew if I spent much more time in that place, bad things would happen to my head and my heart.

 

So that’s where Z and I are right now. We’d like to flounce off and announce Cartman style, “Screw you guys! We’re going home!” Except this is home and by the time we might find another one we can afford in America’s 3rd most expensive city, the flounce will have lost its dramatic effect.

 

Also, in light of world events, what we have going on here is a hangnail. So I’ll just stop whining now. At least about that.

 

Here’s something else that is concerning.

 

Though I’d vowed never to take another stupid online quiz like “What Hogwart’s House Do You Belong In?” or “What’s Your Power Animal?” (I can answer both of these with no test: Ravenclaw and Indiana Box Turtle), a former student posted a link to the “What Murderous Villain Are You?” quiz, and I was drawn to it for reasons I can’t explain. The quiz itself seemed to be a semi-legit personality test with thoughtful questions and I gave thoughtful answers, and so I was fully expecting to discover I am most like some socialist/communist folk-hero-turned-bad-by-power-and-greed. Somehow, that seemed a tolerable sort of “murderous villain” to be—one who had originally imagined a world where people were equal and working together for the greater good before the corruption and mass executions and full-time-wearing-of-fatigues commenced. I could rationalize that this would not be a bad comparison. I could imagine a world in which given the chance to be a dictator, I’d be a benevolent one.

 

But then I pressed “send” and the computer spun its little wheel for several seconds before giving me my result.

 

 

Hitler.

 

Granted, there was no way I was going to “win” this game. Even if I’d given Mother- Theresa-style answers on every question, I was still going to end up with a murderous villain dopplegänger.

 

But Hitler? You don’t really get worse than that one. It’s not a piece of party trivia you can pull out, like announcing to people you just met that you and Richard Nixon are both Capricorns or that the wife of Jim Jones—the Kool-Aid-making lunatic who killed his followers in Guyana in the 1970s—was from your home town. If you have any connections to Hitler, you keep them to yourself. (Unless, of course, you don’t, but that’s a whole other faction of humanity I don’t particularly want to identify with, thanks.)

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And look at that chart. Just look. According to the experts at Individual Differences Research Labs, I’m only slightly more warm-hearted than Hitler. I never imagined him any amount of warm-hearted, did you? And I’m more brooding. In fact, I’m off the charts with the brooding.

 

Oh dear. I’ve got to go brood about this.

 

I was so disturbed by the results of this test that I took another one at IDR Labs based on the Big 5 personality test that not only tells you your personality but also shows you which president you most align with. On this test, I got Thomas Jefferson, which I was okay with. Yes, he made some dubious moral choices, but it was a different time, I told myself (my white self). He loved books, he was a Renaissance man, I could picture myself easily living at Monticello with him and being happy while he tinkered in the other room with his inventions.

 

But according to the breakdown of this test, Thomas Jefferson was more conscientious than I am and he had slaves. Human people he actually owned (to say nothing of Sally Hemmings, who wasn’t free to say “no”). How? How was he more conscientious than I am? Me, who is not complaining to the building manager about our current living conditions because I know it isn’t her fault, she just works here.

 

You might want to take this opportunity to consider whether you want to keep reading a blog written by a woman who has similar psychological make-up to Hitler and America’s most famous presidential slave owner. (See how conscientious I am, warning you off?)

 

Speaking of dictators and people with poorly-functioning moral compasses….

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Photo credit: _The Telegraph_

 

 

If you’d asked me in 1982 what the likelihood was that I’d marry a man whose home country was in the midst of a not-a-coup coup, I’d have laughed in your face. The odds of  even meeting someone whose home country is coup-inclined in Richmond, Indiana, are not high. And yet there I was two weeks ago, watching social media with a weird mixture of hope and concern for our people in Zimbabwe (and for Z who would soon be headed to Zimbabwe for the holidays) and watching Z watching the remarkable news from Harare as it unfolded.

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That’s not just a car ride to Cincinnati.

Also, I have to tell you, until you are married to someone whose home country is on the verge of a bloodless revolution, you have no idea how truly tedious and self-absorbed the U.S. news outlets are. We were searching frantically for any information from a trusted news source, but instead they were re-hashing various sex scandals in U.S. politics over and over and completely unaware or uninterested that the world had shifted on its axis south of the equator and across the Atlantic. We finally gave up and relied exclusively on social media and texts from friends and family “on the ground.”

 

I loved the look on Z’s face while he watched fellow Zimbabweans in the streets of Harare as they draped themselves in flags and danced and sang. He was leaning forward towards the screen with a smile, clicking between different sites to see what the latest was. Shaking his head in disbelief.

 

If he could have teleported to Zim, I’d have been sitting on the sofa by myself. But the truth is, I wanted to teleport with him. I wanted to see in the flesh those people  draped in flags, dancing in the street, hugging each other regardless of race or political affiliation. It was heady.

 

It has been a weird year for me. For us. We’d never protested before in our lives, and yet for the last 12 months we’ve been more politically active than the all the other years of our lives combined—we’ve marched, spoken up, altered behavior, discussed things we never imagined needing to discuss like what we might  do if Z isn’t allowed to live in America anymore, and so on. Z does it because he says he’s not letting what happened in his home country happen in his adopted one. I do it because I believe in the idea of America, and right now, America is falling short of its own idea of itself. But also, we both do it because this is the only control we have: what we do with our own bodies, our own behavior, our own vote (or at least my vote since Z is not yet eligible).

 

What a weird sort of synchronicity that our year of protest wrapped up with a march we were too far away to participate in, so we had to just sit on the sofa and watch. Z dragged out his Zimbabwean flag and hung it in our front window, and that night we had friends over and he cooked a traditional Zimbabwean meal (Huku ne Dovi, sadza, muriwo and also garlic rosemary chicken for me because I am picky and not that adventurous), and we warmed ourselves with hope for better tomorrows everywhere.

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Mushrooms of the Eleventh Hour

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Tiny Buzz Lightyear searching (possibly for a blog topic) on Alki Beach

I’ve jinxed myself. Earlier this month, I was crowing to Jane about how pleased I am with myself that every month of 2017 I’ve written a blog post as promised. It’s been a real learning experience to set a goal so small that it is almost impossible not to meet it, and it feels really satisfying each month to think, well, at least I kept that promise I made to Z and myself on December 31st. Look at me! There might be stacks of laundry waiting to be put away on the table for a week or I might have forgotten to submit five pieces of writing each month (a goal I made, but not a promise, which, it turns out, is key for follow-thru for me), but by golly, I would get my monthly blog post written. Twelve for the year. Not impressive, but maybe next year I can promise two a month. Baby steps and all that.

 

Here it is, people, 5:30 p.m. 6:55 p.m. 7:22 p.m. 9:42 p.m. on October 31st, and I’ve got nothing. It’s Z’s late night to work, and I promised him when he got home at 10:30 that there’d be a bouncing baby blog entry for him to read, but right now, all I’ve got inside my head are the Mary Tyler Moore lyrics and there just isn’t very much I can do with those. I think that line “who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile” was giving me hope about an hour ago, but now it’s just taunting me. I’ve already rewarded myself with a Twinkie (well, two, because they come packaged in pairs and I didn’t want the one to feel left out) and a phone chat with Mom. Now it’s just me, the blank screen and an even blanker mind.

 

Why wouldn’t you want to read this blog? It’s riveting!

 

It seems pointless to write a Halloween post since by the time you read this, we will have started that best of all American holiday seasons, ThanksChristGivingmas, but I do have a question for those of you who are roughly my age or older. Do you remember in elementary school when we were taught to write out Halloween and it was spelled with an apostrophe? Hallow’een. Yeah. What happened to that apostrophe? When did we give it up? Who decided? Was it some consensus from the collective unconscious to do away with unnecessary punctuation marks or was there a presidential decree making it so during the Carter Administration?

 

Get back to me on that asap, would you?

 

October has been a month of celebration and grief, and I think these contrasting emotions are why I’m feeling so stuck. I don’t particularly want to write about the grief—which was grief felt for others who were grieving more than it was my own, so it isn’t mine to write about—but it also feels in poor taste to sit here chomping gum and wise-cracking about the lunatic I sat next to on the bus yesterday or how I was lamenting with Mr. Han at the bodega down the street our similar lack of Halloween plans tonight when I stopped in to buy my Tuesday night bag of ice and Twinkies.

 

Last week, in response to an honest post my friend Anaïs made on Facebook about feeling a little blue, some ass-hat chided her for “casting a wide blanket of sadness” that would be, apparently, contagious to her friends if they read it on their feed. For days I had that phrase stuck in my head—wide blanket of sadness—and that woman’s superior tone and her follow-up post about how we all have hard lives and how basically Anaïs should check herself before whining publicly about her life and making other people miserable.

 

The thing is, Anaïs is no whiner. She never complains. This year has kind of kicked her around, but at no point did she kvetch about the lot that was dealt her. So for this “friend” of hers to chide her for admitting on one random Monday that she was feeling a little down? It’s unconscionable.

 

Frankly, I’m disappointed Facebook hasn’t unveiled a punch-in-the-face emoji so I could direct my hostility toward this stranger visually. (I also want to suggest to Mark Zuckerberg that a feature be developed post haste that allows you to unfriend a friend of a friend who you believe not to be worthy of your friend’s time or wall space. A sort of Better Friendships By Committee option.)

 

So anyhow, in the interest of not spreading a wide blanket of sadness to you, Dear Reader, instead of telling you about the sorrows and fears of October, and in the interest of not making you wild with jealousy for the bits of my month that were stellar, I will, instead, tell you the story of a mushroom.

 

Z and I often have conversations about what things are called. I suspect this happens in a lot of cross-cultural relationships. Sometimes it’s about pronunciation—he’ll spell a word and ask how I say it and then we’ll argue about how wrong the other’s pronunciation is. Other times, he’ll say something like “what do you call the thing you push around the store and put items in that you want to buy?” and I’ll say, “cart” and he’ll say, “hmmm.” (This is actually a bad example. Z has had me calling that thing with wheels a “trolley” since about 2002. ) Some of his words I’ve had to just adopt as my own: biscuit (cookie), braai (a barbeque), brolly (umbrella), robot (stoplight), takkies (sneakers), muti (medicine), chongololo (millipede), and so on. Please note: I draw the line at pronouncing aluminum with an extra syllable and I will not concede that the name Shari should be pronounced any differently than the name Sherry.

 

In Z’s case, he’s lived in America for so long now that there’s the added fun where sometimes he can’t remember if a quirk of his language is unique to Zimbabwe, unique to Minnesota, or unique to him alone.

 

So last week, he showed me an emoji on his phone and said, “What do you call this?” This was the emoji:

 

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“Mushroom,” I said.

 

Z raised an eyebrow.

 

“Or toadstool,” I added. “They’re the same.”

 

He was indignant on this point and insisted they are NOT the same. Not at all. A discussion ensued. We had a similar argument several years ago about turtles (my word for any sea-going or earth-walking reptile that carries its home on its back and also my Power Animal) and tortoises (Z’s word for earth-walking terrapins only). I love the word “turtle”—the sound is superior to “tortoise” with the repetition of the t’s and I grew up with Indiana box turtles and I will not give in to tortoise. I will NOT. He is wrong.

 

Finally, while I wouldn’t agree that he was correct and a toadstool and a mushroom were different, I did say, “The truth is, I don’t even think those red and white ones even exist. Aren’t they more mythical—like unicorns?”

 

On this we could agree. Alice in Wonderland might have eaten a toadstool, but there were no toadstools in the real world, just as there are no March Hares with pocket watches or grinning Cheshire Cats lounging on tree limbs. Those mushrooms people ingest for fun, we were both certain, are the boring brown variety and they only think they are red with white spots once they are high.

 

We both left the conversation certain that we were correct and the other person was wrong, wrong, wrong about the word choice— but we were also glad there was a middle ground on which we could agree: it was stupid to argue about a thing that only existed in the fantasy world, video games, and on our respective phones.

 

When I say we were each certain we were correct, you should probably know that the next day I called my mother and asked her if I was right. Mom knows everything. She’s always my definitive answer-giver about things in the natural world, things in the art world, and things in history. (I do not ask for her assistance with technology.)

 

I described the object to her and she said, “Oh. That’s a toadstool. That’s what I would call it. But I don’t think they really exist.”

 

The next evening Z and I were strolling by St. James Cathedral, which sits high on a bank so the ground under the trees and bushes is at eye level, and there, plain as day, was a crowd (a flock? a menagerie? a murder?) of red-and-white dotted toadstools. It was so out of the ordinary that I half expected Mario or Luigi to hop from one to another, or for them to start swaying and tittering. My brain tried to make sense of it quickly. It must be an art installation, I thought. But then just as quickly, that seemed unlikely since who would go to the trouble? The massive size of these things was also improbable. The largest one was bigger than my hand. We stopped and studied them and finally had to agree that they were 100% real.

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We were giddy for the rest of the walk with the notion that the city—in all of its filth and congestion and electric light—could manage to delight us like this. Later, when I did a little investigating online, I discovered they aren’t rare at all, are plentiful in places with pine trees, and are both slightly poisonous and mildly hallucinogenic (the latter of which might explain why the next day they were all mostly gone).

 

Z and I (and Mom) had been wrong. Maybe you already knew this and think we are dolts, but in our respective parts of the world they aren’t known to us. But they are real. Even the knowledge that we were the idiots who knew less than we thought we did about the fungal world couldn’t wreck the magic of having spotted them there two blocks from our apartment.

 

I’ve tucked into my pocket for some other, rainier day the notion that the world can still surprise me in colorful and mysterious ways. I won’t pretend to believe that the memory of discovering some toadstools can protect me or anyone else from our own blankets of sadness, but I hope…I hope, I hope, I hope…that the knowledge that there are still things out there—things that are new to us, mysterious, things that will mesmerize and pull our attention from the regular to the irregular—that will help us keep our eyes trained on the horizon instead of at our feet.

 

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Who knows? Maybe gnomes are real too. (Sculpture by Rita Jackson http://www.ritabunny.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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Reasons you should not move to the city in middle age:

 

  • Cities are by definition full of young people. You will, thus, by default, seem ten years older than you actually are simply because you aren’t 23 and because you sometimes hobble a little when you stand up abruptly and make your way to the loo. And you (and whomever you are with) will be the only person in your age group at Stout’s happy hour.
  • While you could be reaping the benefits of having worked all your life and thus living in a house with modern conveniences (like a washing machine you don’t have to feed quarters into), you will be living like a college student with one closet the size of a coffin and less square footage than your parents have solely in their living room.
  • There is a lot of walking in a city and some days you are tired.

 

But really, this reason:

 

  • When you find yourself on a sidewalk yelling at a man in the car that almost ran you over you aren’t sure if it is:
    • righteous indignation
    • calluses built up by urban life that make it impossible for you to feel the embarrassment you would feel were you screaming at a stranger in your small Hoosier hometown
    • hormonal

 

Earlier in the month, Z and I were walking around St. James Cathedral, which is surrounded by trees on a block that is relatively quiet and peaceful and gives the illusion of the posh neighborhood that existed there a century ago. (We once saw a man in a dress shirt and slacks sitting on the Cathedral grass with a white goose on a leash, and so I never walk past that lawn without hoping to see him and his goose again, without hankering for the pastoral. I still don’t know if the goose gets daily walks or if they’d been attending mass.) It was a good evening. The heat of the day was gone, Z was still on vacation, and we were about to leave for a three-day beach holiday, so we were in good moods.

 

As we went to cross the quiet street, a car came barreling down on us, much faster than it should have been driving in the neighborhood. It seemed like a high probability that the driver would run the stop sign at the four-way stop and it seemed like a possibility that he’d run us down even though we had the right of way. I grabbed Z’s arm to slow him from the car’s path because he has a tendency to think his fiercely wrinkled brow will stop traffic violators in their tracks. (I think I told you I once saw him shake his umbrella at a car that had driven too far over a crosswalk before stopping.) We skittered out of the guy’s way to safety.

 

Though we didn’t yell at him, we did both fire dirty, dirty looks in his direction once we were safely on the sidewalk. Then we went on with our walk, and just as we had started to continue our conversation, the driver did a U-turn and pulled up beside us. I assumed (oh, naïve Midwestern me!) that he was pulling up to apologize to us, but instead, he had made this extra effort just to berate us for not looking before we crossed the street. (We had looked, plus we had the right of way even if we hadn’t.) With all the wisdom bestowed on him from his man-bun and a beard so large birds could nest in it, he let us know that we were horrible people without the intelligence to cross a street properly and he questioned our political leanings (though we debated later about what he was implying those leanings were). Z briefly engaged him and then quickly disengaged when he realized the sort of person he was dealing with.

 

But I—oh, Reader—I had a fit of pique. I stamped my foot and screamed as he pulled away from us. “You are a DOUCHE!” I shouted. (In my mind, my fist was shaking in the air righteously, but that may be an embellishment my brain has added to the memory.)

 

I don’t like that word, but sometimes, no other word will do, and the combination of his superiority and his choice of hair fashion made it the only appropriate retort. I was seething with rage. Shaking, red-faced. The whole bit. As we went to cross the next street (on the way to the drugstore to pick up my prescriptions for chronic indigestion and “nerves” that city life necessitates), he pulled in front of us, blocking our path, and said, “I guess you’ll have to look now!” He sat there for several seconds before moving forward so we could cross. It took all the willpower I had not to kick his fender, and for an hour afterward I kept replaying it and wishing I had both martial arts training and either a handgun or a sword like Michonne’s on The Walking Dead so I could teach him a lesson. Maybe not kill him, but at least scare the bejeezus out of him. I felt violated and there needed to be retribution.

 

For a week afterward, I had a partial chorus of Tori Amos’s “Little Earthquakes” going through my head, and I hate and I hate and I hate… without ever finishing the line with her more benign elevator music, the way we fight and focusing instead on the various people I pass on the street—in cars, on bikes, on their feet—who are not nice. Who would, if given a choice without legal consequences, do me and others harm because they don’t like the cut of our jib or, well, whatever it is that makes one human seem worthy of your ire. And I hate them for their hatred.

 

While I feel strongly that this was rational urban acting out on my part—the yelling at the be-bunned motorist who taunted us—Mom has been here for three weeks and when I’m juxtaposed against her, I realize that I’ve been hardened in new and awful ways since moving out here. I am not as nice as perhaps I once was.

 

A few weeks before she got here, Z and I passed a man on the street slumped so far over in his wheelchair that his head was nearly touching the sidewalk and didn’t even notice because there are so many folks on our little elevated hunk of Seattle who are in various states of drug-addicted slumber. It wasn’t until we got further down the block and heard a woman behind us say to the man, “Sir? Sir? Are you okay?” that we realized perhaps that was the more human response to another human in crisis. (In our defense, if Z did this every morning on his walk to work, he’d be late for class because the numbers of these people are so many, and I am often in a fog of imagination and internal thought that makes the outside world somehow less real than what’s happening in my brain. I’m as likely to walk past Eddie Vedder’s blue, blue eyes without noticing as I am someone asking me for a buck, so it’s not that I’m predisposed to ignoring those in dire circumstances. I’m an equal opportunity ignorer.)

 

But Mom. Mom is a good person. She is not an extrovert nor is she someone who seeks out people in need so she can feel good about herself for helping them, but somehow, people gravitate towards her. In the 1990s, she would sometimes accompany me to book readings at Books & Co., in Dayton, Ohio, where Jane would drive up and meet us. Jane and I would have a delightful time chatting with authors who were reading, while poor Mom would get pressed against atlases and encyclopedias as someone with the inability to read social cues would share with her their life story or some mundane personal problem.

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Mom (with yet a new friend).

(She isn’t just a kook magnet. She’s met some interesting people. She befriended a South African in England in 1992 who still calls her on her birthday every year, for example. She knew a woman who was good friends with Judy Garland and would offer Mom reports on Liza Minnelli’s latest news. On this trip, when Z and I picked her up at the airport, she’d made a new Brazilian friend who was unsure where her B&B was on West Seattle, so we drove her there and then later spent a rainy day with her in Edmonds, having lunch, a walk, tea and a chat—learning about Brazil, the woman’s life, her art. I love it when Mom meets someone with whom she shares a connection and someone who seems to recognize that Mom is special herself.)

 

But then on other days during her visit, I’m mostly aware of how much the city has bent and twisted me. Mom and I walked past the door of the apartment building and a supposed delivery man was trying to get inside. Mom, who was behind me, said, “What do I do? Do I let him in?” and I snarled, “Keep walking! We don’t know him!” (In my defense, I probably would have let him in six months ago because he looked benign and he did have an Amazon Prime package in his hands, but the building manager recently installed cameras and I don’t want to be caught on tape letting in the fellow who robs the people in #201.) Mom smiles at people I don’t even notice on the street. She chats with the store clerks I usually only thank. She engages people with small children, cute dogs, interesting handbags.

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So this week when we took the ferry to Bainbridge and then had a “comfort break” in the facilities once we docked, I saw the older, barely-moving woman come into the restroom with help of a ferry worker before Mom did. The woman was making teensy steps with her wheeled walker. She shooed the ferry worker away and then started yelling into the echo-y restroom. As I was washing my hands, my only thought was escape. It seemed to me she wanted to know where the handicapped stall was, so I told her at the end of the row and then darted around her into the lobby. It wasn’t until two-minutes later when Mom still hadn’t come out that I realized what must have happened.

 

It seemed unlikely that they’d gotten embroiled in a conversation because from my vantage, the woman was the sort who barely made sense when she talked. That meant Mom was likely helping her back her wheeled walker into the stall. Poor Mom, I thought. Maybe I should go help, I thought. And then I instantly thought of twelve reasons I shouldn’t, including the smallness of the stalls and how Mom is better with people than I am.

 

Eventually Mom came out pulling the walker as the woman barked at her to go faster even though faster seemed as if it would make the woman topple because of her teeny steps. Mom could have looked at me and rolled her eyes (which is possibly what I would have done—a sort of “solidarity with the sane” move), but she didn’t. Instead, she asked the woman which way she was going. This was a slow process; those steps the woman was taking were teeny, and instead of feeling sympathy for her, I felt annoyance that she was interrupting Mom’s birthday vacation adventure. When we got outside, a woman in the tourist kiosk came over to help so we could get on with our day.

 

As we walked away, Mom said not only had she helped the woman into the stall but because the woman had no feeling in her hands, she had to help her pull her pants down and then up again. This is something I might do to help a loved one or someone under four, but after that, it wouldn’t cross my mind. Good luck with that, I’d think, as I walked away. Underpants are a private business.

 

The thing is, Mom isn’t nurse-like. She doesn’t enjoy this kind of help the way I think some nurse-y types do. She’s like me. We’re both kind of body abhorrent and would prefer not having to think about our own bodies, let alone someone else’s. We don’t really like being in service to other people—it’s not our forte. We’re good at giving directions, making suggestions, and then getting out of the way for someone more inclined to know what to do in a crisis.

 

But Mom has a stronger sense of duty to help other people than I do. Maybe it’s a mom thing. Maybe it’s a Virgo thing. Maybe it’s an her thing. I can still remember a time when I was very small and we were getting gas and a man asked Mom if she could drive him to the hospital. She looked at me in the car—the person for whom she was responsible and around whom her world was forced to revolve—and then she looked at him and told him she couldn’t. For the rest of the day she felt guilty, worried that he hadn’t gotten to the hospital, worried that it was an angel in disguise and she’d just dissed said angel because she, a single mother, was trying to keep her daughter safe from a potential Ted Bundy, who was feigning the need for medical attention. She lamented that she had no spare cash to give him so he could call a taxi, but in 1972 we were lucky if there was enough money to put gas in the tank so we could drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s where they would feed us, let us watch their color television, and where I’d spend the weekend in the country with my cousins and the cows, a wonderful respite for someone who then thought her town of 38,000 made her the City Mouse from the children’s story. There is a freedom from others and their needs in the country that doesn’t exist in the city, though in the city there is more anonymity, so if you must, you can say no to someone, pretend not to hear, drive away from the gas station while they ask someone else to help them to the hospital.

 

I have adopted similar worries to Mom’s. It bothers me every time I scroll past another plea for money on Facebook or side-step an aid worker collecting for Save the Children in downtown Seattle, or tell someone asking that I have no cash on me. (I’ve quit carrying cash so, at the very least, when I say this, it isn’t a lie. And also, Z and I are clinging to our little bit of rented real-estate in a city that has recently been designed to cater only to 23-year-old tech workers and their somewhat larger paychecks.) But I do do those things, those side-stepping and not-hearing things, and the longer I am in Seattle, the more it feels like second nature because the want is so much here. If I were home in Indiana, there is no way I’d walk past a man slumped over in his wheelchair. I’d help an old lady into the Meijer bathroom (though I still probably wouldn’t pull down her pants), and if someone told me they were driving through town and had run out of gas, I’d probably believe them, and if I didn’t believe them, I’d tell them I only had a $5 but they were welcome to it just so I could end my interaction with them more quickly.

 

On our return journey from Bainbridge, as we were disembarking, a fellow in front of us was sort of spinning in a circle. His hair was wild, his pants were down well past his butt, and I growled at Mom under my breath, “DO NOT ENGAGE HIM!” Mom looked startled at my command, but then when we got closer it was clear that he wasn’t deranged or begging but just talking on his phone after having made some poor fashion choices earlier in the day. We made our way home and once I’d locked the door on the city, I felt my guard come down. I felt like myself.

 

But then there is this.

 

Our goal on Bainbridge was to go to the historical museum there to see the exhibit of Ansel Adams’s portraits of law-abiding Japanese Americans who were detained in Manzanar during World War II to “keep America safe.” Forget their citizenship. Forget due-process. They looked like the enemy, President Roosevelt signed an Executive Order, and the “threat” was done and dusted.

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The museum is small and packed full of tidbits from island life, and you feel a bit like you’ve stumbled into someone’s attic where everything has been carefully labeled, so you can skip over the bits of little interest and stare at the bits that fascinate you.

 

When we arrived, there were two women sitting at the front desk. We told them we were there to see the Adams portraits, and they both seemed delighted, and made us feel as if no one else in the history of the museum had come in to see them or gave two hoots about the Japanese internment. We went into the room with the portraits, looked at the ephemera from that time—tags that had been tied to coats and possessions with names and thumbprints (even though these were law-abiding citizens), photos of people going to the ferry and leaving their homes for an uncertain future (some were afraid they would be exterminated), family portraits, letters from the camps to family or neighbors, explaining the conditions, etc. We settled into folding chairs and watched a documentary made by the National Parks Service about Manzanar, and when it was over, one of the two women from the front desk came in.

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She was soft spoken and didn’t want to intrude on our museum experience, but she wanted us to know that she had been seven when President Roosevelt’s Executive Order was signed and the notices that people who were of Japanese descent would be removed. She and her family were sent to Manzanar. She told us about her experiences, how the residents of Bainbridge were the first to go in the country, how half of them came back, how some had neighbors and friends who were good enough to pay their taxes and run their farms so they had something to come back to. (Others lost everything.) She showed us where she was in the ferry dock photo in the sea of people headed off to the unknown. She showed us her sister’s doll—one of the few possessions that she was allowed to take—in a display case. Then she directed me to the old Bainbridge Gardens sign that was visible—if I understand correctly—as you entered the ferry. Then she had me walk behind it and see a message there that had been scrawled on the back by neighbors, one of the first thing the internees saw when they returned. It said, “Welcome Back.”

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This read “Welcome Back” but it was in a corner & this was the best shot I could get in tight quarters.

Not all the stories were good for those returning. Not all people are good, but as the woman talked to us, she kept coming back to this idea: it was a bad time, but not everyone was bad. There was good. There was this sign. There was the local newspaper that had kept everyone back on the island updated on the happenings of their Japanese-American friends.

 

There were good neighbors.

 

I’m not sure where this leaves me and my internal battle with my city armor. I’ll spend the rest of 2017 trying to find that sweet spot between being a good neighbor and being a doormat who gets yelled at by a man under a bun for some imagined pedestrian infraction.

 

Good fences may make good neighbors, but when you live in the city, you have to make those fences on your own, in your mind, in your behavior. And then you have to make peace with the choices you’ve made.

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Some Reasons You Might Think I’m Unbalanced: A Summer Sampler

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I’ve been taking stock of my behavior lately to see if, perhaps, I have become unbalanced. Unhinged. Unglued. Because I am incapable of determining this myself, I offer evidence of my derangedness for your consideration in the following paragraphs.

 

My current state of mind

 

Last night the bedroom was stuffy so I opted to sleep on the sofa. This morning at 7:30 (which, with our weird sleep patterns, is the equivalent of 3:30 a.m. to most of you), I heard an unfortunate soul down on the sidewalk talking loudly to himself. We’re a floor up from ground level, so I wasn’t particularly concerned but I wished he’d shut up so I could get back to sleep. I jammed my earphones deep into my ears and cranked up a British show on architecture that is so boring and soothing that it puts me to sleep. I dozed off. Then the voice sounded like it was in the room with me and there was rustling. As in it sounded like the man in question was dragging palm fronds around my living room in a re-enactment of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. I forced my eyes open, rolled over—my nightshirt riding up and exposing my backside—and there right outside my personal living room was the be-hard-hatted head of a tree trimmer.

 

He was not proselytizing nonsensically but instead telling his work buddy the best methods to climb a tree. (Take note: always plan your climb ahead of time. Visualize.)

 

I went from pleasantly asleep to embarrassed (exposed backside, remember) to frothing-at-the-mouth angry in less than 60 seconds. Surely this is an unprecedented array of emotions for so short a time?

 

Though Seattle—the Emerald City—is very green and tree-inclined, we do not live on a very emerald-y block. We have one, full tree outside our window that is so thick and lovely that birds sit on it regularly and sing to us. The tree offered much needed shade during the heat wave two weeks ago. With this tree, a few months a year, we have the illusion from certain angles that we live in a tree house, and in summer, if one of us forgets our robe, we can streak across the living room post-shower with little worry that the Millennials in the 14-story building across the street will see our aging, naked flesh.

 

Those days are over. The tree now looks like the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree only with a few leaves and zero ornaments. No self-respecting bird will ever sit on it again. I wanted to yell at the man in question, but I’m pretty sure I have no authority over the official tree trimmers of Seattle, so instead, I pulled the sheet over my head (and my backside) and I seethed for two hours until I fell back asleep (after they’d thrown the tree limbs into a very loud wood chipper and done additional trimming with a chainsaw).

 

Added disappointment: now that the shade of the tree is gone, our filthy windows are on display in the sunlight. (This perpetual sunlight that plagues Seattle in summer and further agitates my mood.) They haven’t been washed on the outside in the eleven years since Z moved in because no building manager has made it a priority. So basically, Z and I are now living in Ralph and Alice Kramden’s gray, depressing Honeymooners apartment in a New York City tenement.

 

In addition to this, I’m a little exhausted from the rollercoaster of emotions that is the current political climate in America. On the personal front, I’m delightfully happy. I’m teaching. I’m writing. I love reunifying with Z after three weeks in Indiana, and I enjoy his summer break because we have more hours of the day to hoot it up together and love each other up.

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Who wouldn’t want to come home to a man like Z and this basket of treats?

But then there is the national news and the distress that it causes. One day I’m worried about immigrants being booted from the country, including my husband. The next day I’m wondering if we should do research on where the nearest nuclear fallout shelter is. The day after that I’m weeping because actual Nazis doing actual Nazi salutes are spreading their hate on American soil. (Even if we were too young to remember World War II and those Nazis, weren’t we all raised on Indiana Jones? Wasn’t the premise of those movies Nazis are bad and we must put our lives on the line to fight them? The mind boggles that this is even a thing we are discussing nationally.)

 

Thus, emotional whiplash sufferer.

 

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After the attack. There used to be 50 more branches here and one of Snow White’s birds sitting there singing.

My state pride

 

When I was growing up, it was not out of the ordinary to hear an uncle tell a joke about someone living in Kentucky in which the Kentuckian was presented as being a bit of an idiot. For much of my childhood, I believed it to be an inherent truth that Kentuckians (other than my Uncle Clay who was born in Kentucky and wickedly clever) were not as smart as we were. One of my favorite jokes was about a Hoosier who yelled across the Ohio River to a Kentuckian who was hoping to get to the other side and offered to shine his flashlight so the Kentuckian could walk across the water on the beam of light. The Kentuckian hollered back, “I’m no fool! I know when I get half way across, you’ll turn the light off.”

 

So it was some shock to me as an adult to discover that Indiana is the butt of a lot of jokes. In particular and for reasons I don’t understand, Missouri apparently tells a lot of Dumb Hoosier jokes. Shows like The Middle don’t really highlight our strengths, and since we often come in on the wrong end of nationwide surveys and statistics about weight and education, not to mention backward-thinking legislation, we don’t exactly cover ourselves in glory either.

 

I tell you this so if you do feel it necessary to read the next paragraph and say, “Well, what do you expect? She’s from Indiana?” you should know that I’m already aware of your derision. I understand the tendency to mock.

 

Last month when I came home from Indiana, I had fourteen un-shucked ears of corn in my suitcase.

 

Go ahead. Laugh. You can’t hurt me with your ridicule and here’s why: Indiana sweet corn is hands down the best sweet corn there is out there, and my Aunt Jean’s sweet corn—freshly picked the morning of my flight in this case—is the best sweet corn in Indiana. And furthermore, if you are eating only one ear, or worse, a half an ear at a time, you are a fool. Indiana sweet corn must be eaten by the plateful. It should be your entire meal. Coat it in butter, salt it up, and worry about your pants fitting and your blood pressure spiking when corn is out of season because it will be, all too soon.

 

And no. Sweet corn from Washington does not “taste the same.”

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The. Best. Corn. Ever.

My forgetfulness

 

While I was still home, Mom and I drove north to see cousins of both the Hoosier and Irish variety. The Irish ones were in country for a graduation, and they were staying in a vacation rental in Douglas, Michigan. I hadn’t seen the parents for two years and it had been more like eight since I’d seen the offspring graduate in question, so it was a delightful afternoon catching up with them. We decided to go across the water to Saugatuck for lunch, and afterward we walked around the quaint artsy town that felt a bit like Cape Cod. The cousins asked if we’d been there before and we assured them we had not. We oohed and aahed at the tree-lined streets, the quaint cottages, the shops of art and books and fudge.

 

It was new to us, this sweet little coastal enclave. Later, Mom and I confessed to each other that we had gotten simultaneous senses of déjà vu but we shrugged it off. It just reminds us of pictures we’ve seen from New England we decided.

 

The afternoon was full of stories from Ireland and a lot of truly delightful conversation that so transported me to the west of Ireland that on the drive home (fortunately on the interstate so I was inclined to stay on the correct side of the road), I briefly forgot that I was actually in America and not Ireland. I kept wondering at how green and magical everything in southern Michigan looked and expected to see stone walls and sheep.

 

It was very discombobulating.

 

Later that night when we were back in our hotel room, Mom said, “You know, I think we have been in Saugatuck. We stopped there on the way home from Grand Haven a few years ago.” She was right. Somehow neither of us had been able to piece together a coherent memory of it when we were actually there, but everything we were oohing and aahing over had already been oohed and aahed over nine years ago.

 

How do you forget an entire town you’ve actually been in before? How do you forget you aren’t in Ireland when you’re driving down a U.S. highway?

 

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Inishbofin or South Central Michigan, you decide.

My choice to buy these shoes though no one forced me & I wasn’t on drugs:

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My false sense of my own intelligence

 

When I got back from Indiana, it was Hudge’s birthday and she decided to celebrate by treating herself, our friend Providence, Z and me to an Escape Room experience down in Belltown. None of us had ever done one. Among us, we have eight graduate degrees (come spring), one of us has a PhD, one of us did some work in “intelligence,” and at least one of us was raised on Trixie Belden mysteries, so I was feeling confident that we’d escape within the designated 60 minutes before we’d be “killed” by poison gas. I considered the possibility that we might even break records. We were instructed before going into the Victorian-inspired room of a supposed explorer that we could ask questions and hints would appear on the screen that was our countdown clock.

 

Friends, it was not pretty. I can’t believe that they use escape rooms as a team-building exercise because it did not feel like we were building a team. It felt like we were four headless chickens. And if I were being observed specifically, I think an employer might have fired me on the spot because I was not displaying my best qualities. I felt annoyed with myself but also everyone else for not being smarter and quicker. I got stroppy with Z who kept asking the game master (who gave cryptic help at best) for clues, which for reasons I can’t explain, felt like cheating and made me cross. (It should be noted that of the four of us, Z was the only male and the only person willing to ask for help, so I’m not sure what that says about Z or the notion that men would rather die at the side of the road than ask a passerby for directions.) When we had ten minutes to go, I wanted to sit down, put my head in my arms, and just tell the game master we gave up because it was clear we were not going to “win.” It was not a gold star Girl Scout behavior moment.

 

Also disturbing: at one point, we had to get on our hands and knees and crawl through a low space, and I discovered that I am now of an age where crawling is uncomfortable and best avoided. Something I’ve been doing since I was a baby is now, basically, a skill that is lost to me.

 

Finally, once we’d been gassed and the game master came in to talk us through our foul-ups and missed hints, my competitiveness re-animated. I got obsessed with other escape rooms I could try. I downloaded a puzzle on my iPad that I believed would make me a better contender next time I find myself in a locked room, and finally, I became particularly obsessed with an escape room in Cincinnati that has my surname in the title. I wondered if I should try to gather my family members together at the holidays and we could try to escape together. (Though in retrospect, we might hate each other—or at least they might hate me—when it’s all over.)

 

My choice to teach a class on writing and procrastination

 

You know me. You know my issues with deadlines and daily writing schedules and writing productivity. I think you can see the problem with this.

 

My inability to stay focused

 

Yesterday, a mini-van drove past with something like “Graffiti Be Gone” written on the side of it, and for a full fifteen minutes after it passed me, I considered that perhaps this is a business I should get into. I’m never good at imagining practical work that offers a real world service, and in Seattle, where graffiti abounds, this would be a real growth market. I considered how I might showcase my skills, to whom I might advertise, what the logo would look like. I even imagined the money I would make from this venture: how much it would be, what I would do with it, and how there might even be write-ups about me in trade magazines. I would win the equivalent of the Pulitzer for graffiti removal.

 

And then I realized in the midst of my reverie that I have never excelled at any sort of physical labor and I don’t know the first thing about graffiti removal. Do you just paint over it? Scrub it really hard with OxiClean? No idea. It’s the sort of thing I’d have to phone my Virgo mother for: Mom, what do you think I should use to get the Anarchy symbol off my front door?

 

(FYI, she would recommend dishwashing detergent. Right now, it is her go-to cleaning supply. I can’t think of the last time she recommended anything other than Lemon Fresh Joy. Most recently, it removed a mystery stain from my sofa arm. You should try it on everything from carpet stains to whatever you just dripped down your front while eating your lunch. It’s amazing.)

 

Anyhow, your takeaway should be this: if you have graffiti on your premises, don’t call me because I don’t have a clue what to do about it.

 

I do this sort of thing all the time. Often it’s for jobs I absolutely know I DO NOT want. Jobs that require you to stand all day or be outside under the sun holding a sign in a construction zone that says “SLOW.” I’ll worry about this. How ill-equipped I am for this work as if it is actually going to be my job. I consider how badly I’d feel at the end of the day. Whether or not I’d get along with the other workers. And then there is this moment that is the equivalent of waking from a nightmare when I realize, “Oh, wait. No one is really expecting me to get a job on a construction site. It’s okay. And some of those people who are doing that work actually enjoy it and have real skill at it, so you don’t even have to feel badly for them, Beth, because they have different strengths and proclivities than you do.”

 

Also, I should probably point out that when I had this Graffiti Be Gone daydream, I was sitting in Starbucks with Z having a conversation about the recent ugliness in Charlottesville. That is: I was in the middle of a conversation, and mostly holding up my end of it, yet inside my brain I had started a business for which I am badly equipped. Is there a drug you can take to stop this sort of behavior? Would a fidget spinner help?

 

No wonder then that halfway through a good many of our conversations, I will have to stop the words coming out of my mouth and say to Z, “Huh?” because it is suddenly clear to me that not only have I not heard him fully, I don’t even know what I’m talking about.

 

My refusal to admit when I don’t understand something

 

My tech whiz brother was here for a week, and as is our custom, Z and I pepper him with questions about tech issues we don’t understand. Earlier this year when he was visiting he made our Netflix stream more efficiently by hooking up some cables (a.k.a. “magic”). On the occasion of this trip, Z decided to ask him about BitCoin, the crypto-currency that you may have recently read about because if you had invested a thousand dollars in it four years ago it would be worth something like four gazillion dollars now. I don’t understand what it is. I don’t understand where it comes from. And I’m particularly unclear on how someone—some governing body—isn’t controlling it because it is my firm belief that the world tends towards chaos and thus this is a recipe for disaster. My brother spent ages trying to explain it, reading descriptions of it to us, offering analogies from which my non-tech brain should have been able to draw comparisons. At the end of the conversation, Z had some working knowledge of it, but I was in a full-on, feet-dug-in hrrmph because clearly, it is the stupidest thing to have ever been invented if I can’t easily grasp what it is and how it works.

 

My confused loyalties

 

I’ve spent more than a few minutes worrying about what I will do if the Seahawks and the Oakland Raiders play each other this football season because while I love the Seahawks, the reason I fell in love with them was Marshawn Lynch, and now he has taken his own particular brand of briefly-retired skill and quirky humor away from us and to his hometown. A decade ago if you’d asked me where the Seahawks were from, I would have said, “I dunno. San Diego? It’s a baseball team, right?” But now, I feel like my boyfriend just announced he’s taking someone else to the Homecoming dance.

 

Oh, Marshawn. We hardly knew ye.

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It still pains me not to see him in blue and green. Photo: Rick Scuterl/AP

My “breedism”

 

I love dogs and the only thing that really gets me out of the house for a walk is the promise of seeing the neighborhood dogs. Even though I know it is wrong, I need for a dog to look a certain way or it pains me. They don’t have to be purebred, but they need to not be pointy. They need to not be yappy. They need to look like they’ve got some intelligence going on behind the eyes (although I do not insist they have a working knowledge of Bitcoin). I am not particularly afraid of any dog and will hold my own with a pit bull or a German Shepherd or a Doberman so long as it isn’t frothing at the mouth to get to me. That said, I will cross the street to avoid a Chow. I don’t trust them and I don’t like their demeanor. Not only have I known ones with lightening-quick mood changes but the fact that they look like bears with blue tongues makes me uncertain that they are even canine.

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An appropriately shaped Skampy of Zimbabwe

My indecisiveness

 

I currently have twelve books I’m reading. Twelve. And that doesn’t count the numerous titles I plan to “get back to soon” that I started and jettisoned ages ago.

 

My need to rank things

 

I have an ice-crunching addiction that is, perhaps, the hardest thing about me for Z to deal with, which is saying a lot because there’s a lot about me that could be construed as “troublesome.” His ears are sensitive but my iron-poor blood cries out for glasses and glasses of ice to crunch on a daily basis. I get as excited about a good cup of ice as I used to get excited about a hand dipped Jif-infused peanut butter milkshake. Despite this frustration of Z’s, he regularly brings me bags of ice and I am constantly rearranging which brands and purveyors of bagged ice that I prefer in Greater Seattle (Fuel Star followed closely by Ready Ice are currently at the top). I try to have conversations with him about what restaurants have the best ice and what makes good ice (not too frozen, a little air) despite the fact that I know the subject pains him because it reminds him that he will be listening to me gnaw through half a bag while we’re trying to watch Game of Thrones.

 

My obsessiveness

 

I am watching Game of Thrones from beginning to the current episodes again for approximately the fifth time. Does anyone need to see anything five times? No. But I’m obsessed with the storytelling and want to know what was said in Season 1 that is now coming to fruition. (Also, I’m thinking Arya needs to add a few more names to her hit list. Some from the show. Some from my life. That early-morning tree torturer seems like he might be a good candidate, and I’m none too happy about a fellow on Facebook who recently suggested that my mother should “Get a clue.”)

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It’s on First Hill, not Westeros, but still something the Mother of Dragons might want in her home.

My inability to know when to end things

 

I have trouble with knowing when a visit or a phone conversation should end. I keep talking long past the point of interest by myself or the other party simply because I have no skill at dis-entangling myself. (For that matter, I once went on one date with someone with whom I saw zero future but somehow ended up in a three-and-a-half-year relationship because neither of us could figure out how to pull the plug after a year.)

 

This blog post is another example.

 

Hopefully at this juncture, you have enough evidence to determine for yourself my mental state and whether or not you’d feel comfortable sitting next to me on a cross-country bus trip.

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Little 3rd Grade Classroom on the Prairie

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Future tree-ring counters: me, Mrs. Turner, Cher-a-lyn Ford, Kevin Mathews (Photo from The Palladium-Item)

 

I was an introverted only child with high sensitivities, so everything about elementary school disagreed with me. I hated the noise, the feel of the cheap gritty brown paper we had to draw on, using the lockless bathroom at the back of the classroom where any unthinking dolt might ignore the octagonal sign that I’d flipped from “go” to “STOP” thus flinging the door open to expose me sitting there on the child-sized porcelain. I hated the near daily lectures about how badly behaved “we” were, and worse, the moment when the teacher would inevitably flip off the lights and snarl “BURY THEM!” and we were meant to not only put our heads on our desks but hide our (horrible, badly behaved) faces in our arms. (I spent those ten to twenty minutes each time it happened wondering a) if the teacher realized I was good and not one of the criminals in question b) if legal intervention could be used to right the injustice of all of us being punished because of one or two bad eggs and c) if it was possible to suffocate from having your nose buried in your own elbow crease.) I hated the smells in the cafeteria, the smell of the paste in the big jar, and the smell of the red rubber ball as it smacked into my face when we played Dodge Ball. There was much to hate.

 

In the mornings, Mom would have to work hard to cajole me out of bed. On more than one morning, she dressed me as I performed what I now recognize as the passive resistance moves people use when cops are trying to drag them away from a protest. Some mornings I would whine, “Why do I have to go?” I felt I wasn’t learning anything she hadn’t already taught me or that I wasn’t gleaning from the stack of library books on my nightstand. School seemed stupid and I didn’t mind groaning about it before 8 a.m. I probably deserved a swat on the backside or the pursed lips of disapproval, but instead, Mom would good naturedly answer my tedious query with, “Because you’re the principal.”

 

Good Lord, elementary school was boring. Aside from the things I outright hated, it was so repetitious and slow. I’d leave every day with a Little House book tucked under my arm so I could disappear into Laura’s pioneer life as soon as I finished my assignments, and if I didn’t have my nose buried in a book then I was staring out the window wishing for the sweet release from my incarceration when the final bell rang. I could draw from memory the views from each classroom because everything on the other side of the glass looked so much sweeter and alive than anything that was happening inside the four cinder block walls of my various classrooms.

 

But then third grade happened. Jessie Turner was my teacher that year at Finley Elementary, and suddenly Mom didn’t have to try to jam my uncooperative foot into a sock because I was up, washed, dressed, and ready to go before she’d had time to get ready herself. What a glorious year that was.

 

Since Mom called me to tell me a few weeks ago that Mrs. Turner had died, I’ve been thinking a lot about her and the classroom she created and what magic she wrought that made 1975-1976 the best academic year of my life and shaped the person I wanted to become. I can’t separate the individual from her classroom environment or from her lessons, but what I do know is that it was evident she was enthusiastic about her job, invested in her students, treated us like humans, allowed for zero dull moments, and required only that we be kind and curious. I can’t remember a single instance when we were barked at to bury our heads or treated like miniature convicts. On the very worst day—one of our members had decided to cut the strings on the loom where we were learning how to weave, thus ruining our joint tapestry—she sat at the front of the room, not looking up at us, fiddling with a book in front of her with tears visible in her clear, blue eyes, and said, voice cracking, how disappointed she was. Though I hadn’t been the guilty party, I wanted to throw myself at her feet and apologize, and I suspect the rest of my classmates felt the same because we were subdued for the rest of the day. Having disappointed her mattered to us because she mattered to us.

 

 

Mrs. Turner’s classroom was a study in stimulation. The walls were filled with posters, artwork, handicrafts, charts. There were a series of “stations” lining the room where we would read or weave or investigate the caterpillar that nibbled on leaves while we waited for it spin its cocoon. She rarely sat, but if she did, it was in front of us—not behind her desk to keep herself protected—but at a long, low table on which were piles of books and magazines and a mesh cage that contained a praying mantis and the egg mass we were waiting to see hatch. There wasn’t a spot in the room where our eyes would land on a blank space. I never had an urge to stare out the window and wish I were free while I was her student because we were so busy inside those walls.

 

She was never hemmed in by those walls either and saw the classroom not as a physical space. She frequently took us outside, marched us around the neighborhood—the oldest one in Richmond—and showed us living history: a side street where bricks hadn’t been covered with pavement, the star brick sidewalks that had been there for over a century, the old street names (Market & Marion) embedded on the corner of a house from a time before the streets had been boringly renamed 6th and C and those names written on ugly green signs on poles. She walked us past the old German cottages and Italianate houses and had us count out every seventh row of short bricks to help us identify buildings from a certain time period. She taught us to read and draw maps that we carried with us, and when we weren’t having history lessons, we were observing insects, wildlife, learning to count the rings of a tree trunk, and then expected to speculate about what might have been going on in the world when we got to that centermost ring where the tree had begun its life. She took the entire class to Camp Clements and there we hiked and made dioramas and had a campfire before falling into damp sleeping bags on stiff bunks. It is, perhaps, the only time in my childhood when I wasn’t homesick on an overnight, and I suspect that is because I was too busy to realize I missed my own bed. Plus, why would you want to make yourself miserable when you were so happy to be in Mrs. Turner’s presence?

 

My Little House long-dress-and-sunbonnet-wearing dreams were fulfilled because it was America’s Bicentennial. I regularly went to class decked out like Laura Ingalls Wilder (missing the irony that Laura hated her sunbonnet and would have never voluntarily worn one). In addition to our regular studies and the nature studies Mrs. Turner included in our curriculum—we did a host of activities to celebrate America’s birthday. We wove on a loom. We ground corn on a Native American grinding stone borrowed from the museum (and, sadly, returned broken because of too vigorous grinding) and then made cornbread after our hard work, which we slathered with butter we had churned. We carded wool, learned about spinning, and made nine-patch quilts. At her insistence, we memorized a poem called “Indian Children” that forced us to think about who had lived where we were now—and she told us when we were 50 we would still remember it. (It is the only poem I’ve ever memorized and she was right, I can still recite it.) She made me keep my first journal and taught me how to bend language to my will in order to create a cinquain (a sort of elementary-friendly haiku) that instilled in me a love of puzzling out the best words to use and where to use them.

 

She was a whirlwind in the classroom, moving from one space to the next in a cloud of the eucalyptus cough drops she sucked, and we were sucked into her vortex. We followed her where she went and had little opportunity to let our minds wander.

 

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Mrs. Turner as I knew her and in her youth, looking all Sundance-y!

At her memorial service, I was looking at old photographs of her and realized my fascination with the women of the Sundance Catalog likely stems from her influence 40 years ago. Though she wasn’t inclined to prairie skirts and cowboy boots, she dressed like a woman who, if she hadn’t been teaching 3rd graders the importance of ecology in east central Indiana, would have been hiking in the mountains or investigating cacti on some mesa somewhere. She was often in pants and shoes that wouldn’t hinder trekking, maybe a vest, and she regularly had on turquoise jewelry, which looked exactly right on her.

 

I was particularly entranced by the synchronicity that surrounded a silver ring she wore on her finger because it bore her initials; she explained one day that it had belonged to a good friend who had had the same initials until she got married, and then the ring made it’s way to Mrs. Turner. (I was so entranced by the meaning of that ring—the initials, the connection to another—that the following year I wore a ring with an “M” on it that I’d found in a bag of junk jewelry that someone else was casting off. I was, apparently, a weirdo even as a child as there was no “M”, lowercase or uppercase, in my name, but I wore the ring happily, and determined that I’d marry a man with an “M.” While I don’t think I chose Z because his surname begins with an M, it does make me feel a little 10-year-old-girl giddy that a ring I haven’t seen in years was prophetic. That’s nearly as good as having a friend with your initials share her ring with you.)

 

Mrs. Turner shared herself with us. She told us about the year she and her husband and children had lived in Alaska, how they’d have to bring the car battery into the house at night if they had any hope of the car starting in the morning, how beautiful and cold and empty it was. She spoke of the Eskimo people there and brought in a pair of goggles made from caribou hooves or antlers with tiny slits used to prevent snow blindness. She told us about the children’s novel her husband had written, The King Bear, about a boy growing up on a homestead in Alaska, and she lent me a copy so I could read it myself. I was in awe: an actual human person I knew married to a real live author. She talked about her children, talked about her childhood, told us about the wider world. One day she told us about the years when she and her family had lived in the mountains of Colorado, how beautiful it was, how much it meant to her, but how she wasn’t sure—again, her eyes damp, her voice cracking—that she would ever want to see it again because so many people were moving there and ruining that natural world she loved so much.

 

I’m not sure if before 3rd grade I’d ever been allowed to see my teachers as humans with loves and frailties, but it made a tremendous impact on me, and affected the way I saw the world. Made me notice when some of my less exotic bits of Indiana were bulldozed for parking lots, made me long to see distant places like Alaska and know more about people past and present from all walks of life.

 

She was the most compassionate teacher I had in elementary school. She saw us all as individuals and tried to meet our needs. In the spring, we wove baskets and she encouraged us to give them to our parents for Easter, but my parents were divorced, so she let me weave a second so I didn’t have to choose. One day she had gotten to the chapter in By the Shores of Silver Lake in which Laura’s bulldog Jack dies, and she asked me if I would read it to the class for her because the dog’s death upset her. I sat at her place at the long, low table, read solemnly and considered for the first time the possibility that though I was an introvert, it actually felt good to be at the front of a classroom. She recognized that a few of us needed more stimulation, and so she gave us tasks to perform: backdrops for the Christmas pageant that needed painting, seasonal decorating for the showcase window by the door, a play based on one of the Little House books (written, directed, and starring yours truly). There were other activities custom crafted for students with other likes and talents too, and I don’t think a single one of us felt ignored or left out. We trusted her because we knew she had our best interests at heart.

 

She was inspiring and we were inspired. Because she treated us with respect and expected us to be interested in the world around us, we (mostly) were respectful and interested. I left her classroom wanting to be a teacher, wanting to write, wanting to study history, and wanting to be as curious about the world as she was daily.

 

I was lucky in that my mother worked for the school system and so Mrs. Turner wasn’t lost to me completely the day I left her classroom. Though I didn’t see her with any regularity afterward, there were occasions when I’d be lucky enough to re-enter her orbit. In particular, I remember a visit to the beautiful brick Federal where she lived and as soon as I walked into it I was inspired because it was filled with bits and pieces of things that were of interest to her and her family. There were items I recognized as things she’d brought in to share with the class (those Alaskan snow goggles!) but also books, antiques, old family photos, an abandoned hornet’s nest. Her house was like her classroom with the added bonus of a ghost named Lydia who occasionally wreaked havoc. I closed my eyes and tried to soak up Lydia’s vibes, but couldn’t keep them closed because there was so much to see, so much I wanted to remember. Like her classroom, I felt charged by her living space. It was electric with ideas, with history, with feeling.

 

Though I hadn’t seen her for ages, when I got engaged eight years ago, I knew I wanted her at the wedding so I sent off an invitation. It was a cold December evening, she was now walking with a cane, and I can only imagine there were other ways she would have preferred spending a Saturday night, but she had her daughter bring her and the night was all the happier for her presence. I was glad, too, that she got to meet Z.

 

That’s the kind of teacher she was: one who would come to your wedding 33 years after you were her student and make you feel like your life event—your happiness—mattered deeply to her. Still.

 

My senior year of high school after friends and I had gone to see The Breakfast Club we suggested to a teacher there who was in charge of the National Honor Society that she should see the movie because it explained so well what it felt like to be a teenager in the 1980s. She shook her head, visibly cowered, and said, “Oh, no. I wouldn’t want to have to see that. I don’t want to know.” My public school education was adequate. I had other excellent teachers who shaped my worldview and inspired me, a couple of whom I stay in touch with and consider friends. But during the thirteen years I was in school, I had more teachers like the one who visibly shrank at the idea of having to understand her students better. They wore armor to protect themselves from us. They coasted through class sessions so they could get to the after-school coaching gigs that had drawn them to teaching in the first place. They saw us as would-be criminals who had to be contained, herded, de-toothed. We were a generation that was not delighted in. Many of them just wanted us to bury our heads so they wouldn’t have to look at us, see our faces, recognize us as individuals.

 

But not Jessie Turner.

 

She changed my life. I’m sure she changed more than mine. While I wouldn’t want to paint my little elementary school as bad or rough, we were—most all of us—poor. Of the elementary schools in Richmond, mine would have been one with more kids on free lunch, more kids that experts would predict would end up incarcerated because of “statistics,” more kids who weren’t going to be on track for college, more kids who no one expected to amount to much. If she saw us that way, she didn’t let on. For that single, glorious year, we were important and we were treated as if we were the same as everyone else.

 

Though I wouldn’t like to call it luck because the lucky thing would have been if she’d lived another 86 years, I was relieved that her memorial service happened to fall at a time when I was back home in Indiana so I was able to go, able to say goodbye, to introduce myself to her family and tell them what they already knew: how special she was, how much she mattered, what a difference she made to all of us. I loved looking at the photos from her life, reading a snippet from a journal that her children had put out, seeing a quilt students had made with messages written on it about how she’d changed their lives too. There was even a letter I’d written her twenty years ago out on a table for the world to read. It was a thank you that I’d written after an exercise in The Artist’s Way had forced me to name the person—outside of family—who had shaped me most. In the funeral home, the Bee Gees were playing in the background. There were flowers, balloons, bubbles. It felt like she was there and I could see her in her children. Certainly, she should have been there, celebrating and being celebrated.

 

A few days before the memorial service, I had lunch with C, a favorite former student of mine, whom I hadn’t seen for ten years. I recognized on the first day of her first class with me that C was different. Her energy and enthusiasm were catching. The world and the people in it fascinated her and she was hungry to gobble up all the knowledge she could. Now, she’s ten years deep into being a public school teacher. She’s done some inspiring things with students to get them to give back to the community, to the world at large, to respect people who are just like them but different.

 

Our lunch was a sort of lovefest. We both have great appreciation for each other, so we sat there laughing, eyes getting damp as we tried to express gratitude, faces red with embarrassment and heads shaking off praise heaped on by the other. The truth is, I am in awe of C. She is the kind of teacher I dreamed of being but don’t have quite enough energy or complete lack of cynicism to be. Even so, she insisted that she was inspired in my class, that she learned a lot, that she tortures her students with things I taught her or nuggets of information I passed on to her. It was humbling, and I don’t record it here to toot my own horn. I’m a good teacher. I can own that. But I’m not great. I’m not the teacher I planned to be back in third grade when I was learning at the feet of the master. I am plagued with demons of self-doubt, procrastination, discombobulated thinking on any given day. My lesson plans are as likely to be written on the back of an envelope as in a notebook and there will never be PowerPoint slides to accompany a lecture. It is unlikely that I’ll ever dedicate my free time to ushering students around on field trips or to conferences or to perform public service. I would never take them camping. I’ve got limitations.

 

Before meeting her end on the Space Shuttle Challenger, the teacher Christa McAuliffe said, “I touch the future. I teach.” Because she was so publicly and heroically dead, I didn’t roll my eyes like I wanted to the first time I read that line. It seems like something that is so full of itself that it should be too embarrassing to think let alone cross-stitch on and hang above your desk. I would certainly never say it about myself. In retrospect though, I suspect I was applying it to the average teachers I’d had. The ones who inspired me only to be good and get my homework in on time because I didn’t want to be hollered at. When I read McAuliffe’s quote, I wasn’t thinking about the few stellar teachers I’d had.

 

I sure wasn’t thinking about Jessie Turner.

 

Here’s the thing: anything C was praising me for while we had lunch? That was some quality, some nugget of wisdom, some way of teaching that I learned from Mrs. Turner (or a teacher who came later who had her qualities and thus I flitted around like a moth). I didn’t become Mrs. Turner. I couldn’t. No one could. But whatever magic it is she worked back at Finley Elementary certainly helped me be a conduit so a few of my students could carry the best bits of her towards infinity.

 

How lucky are we?

 

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An Antidote to Careful Living

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Today, I would like to talk to you about coasters.

 

You know what I mean, right? Those little bits of tile, slate, or cardboard that you use to protect your hardwoods from the sweaty bottom of your glass?

 

When I was growing up, Mom had a set of fruity ones of coiled raffia-esque material. For years, she only had one of the more polite, roundy fruits (an apple? an orange?) out for use because a) it went with her Early American décor and b) our end tables were Formica, and therefore impervious to the sweat from my Kool-Aid mug or a (glass) bottle of Coke no matter how icy  nor how long it sat there. However, the wooden bookcase next to the chair where most guests sat was maple, and therefore, at risk for water rings, hence the coaster.

 

One day I discovered that this coaster was from a set that Mom kept secreted in the drawer of the end table. This seemed like a remarkable discovery to me, and though I can’t remember the other sister-fruits, the one that made my heart race a little was a series of tiny coiled circles that added up to a cluster of grapes.

 

It was, ohmygosh, purple! Clearly Mom had either failed to recognize it’s majesty OR she was saving it for very special guests, like Indianapolis TV personality Cowboy Bob or, even, possibly, the president, should either of them happen to stop by our apartment in Richmond. I suspect I tried to encourage her to use it. (Mom is a great preserver of things that are “good” and to be used or worn “for something important” and I rail against this: if you have something nice, you must use it. Use it all up. If tomorrow never comes, then you’ve enjoyed your best blouse or your best teacup.) Though I don’t remember how I was alerted that this grapey treasure I’d found was off limits, the case was closed: the “good” coasters stayed in the drawer and never, to the best of my memory, ever saw the light of day.

 

But I knew they were there, those beautiful, unused grapes, just waiting to be liberated and fulfill their purpose in life.

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Photo Credit: Reluctant Girl Scout Mother (see how pristine the grapes are!)

 

I tell you this unnecessary story so you’ll know this about me: I am a coaster person. I believe in them. I believe you should try to have attractive ones that either match your personality or that are, at the very least, souvenirs from some travel/ favorite pub. Despite having been raised with those impenetrable Formica end tables, I was encouraged to respect hardwood and would no more think of putting a sweaty glass on a wooden table—my own or someone else’s— than I would take a box cutter to it. It’s barbaric.

 

At my former teaching job back in Indiana, each office was supplied with a set of truly depressing tan metal office furniture, including one bookcase (like that would be enough for all of my books), a rattle-y desk, and lateral filing cabinet. It was as far removed from my idea of a university as you can imagine. I draped scarves over surfaces, I covered the filing cabinet with magnets, I bought a little wooden table to put near the chairs where students would come to chat, and when my George W. Bush stimulus check arrived in 2008, I stimulated the economy by buying some not-that-expensive and only-vaguely-wooden-ish office furniture that looked like Frank Lloyd Wright designed it instead of the imagineers at Target. I wanted to be transported to another kind of academic office—the kind where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis could sit around talking about hobbits and wardrobes when they weren’t teaching. And more importantly, I wanted my students to feel welcomed there and to feel like they were some place besides the bank trying to get a short-term loan.

 

On the whole, I was satisfied with my creation, particularly when someone new would walk in and use the word cozy or when an old student would email me and tell me that he or she missed sitting there across the faux oak, talking about their work.

 

That said, I was regularly in a state of consternation and apoplexy because people—and not just students—would come in with their oversized, dripping Big Gulp cups, look directly at the coasters I had out for their use, and then choose—deliberately choose—to set the cups or bottles on the table. This forced me into a position wherein I had to decide if my strong desire for friendliness and hospitality would win out over my equally strong desire not to have water rings on my surfaces.

 

And this brings me to the question that has been plaguing me for awhile: why, when we see or read a character who insists on someone using a coaster, are we immediately meant to assume that person is prissy, uptight, tedious, and annoying? Isn’t that a bit unfair? Isn’t it really the guest who assumes he or she can leave their mark on your belongings who is the problem? A cretin? Maybe even passive aggressive?

 

I haven’t come up with an answer for this yet, but I think it has something to do with injustice and lazy writing.

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Barbarous hoards have left glasses here, coasterless.

 

Lately, as Z watches me spend hours on a one-page piece of writing that doesn’t really matter, he has been trying to direct me towards Voltaire’s Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I am a weird perfectionist in that the perfectionism only applies to certain areas. My kitchen floor is rarely clean, for instance. You can’t see the top of Melvin, our coffee table. In high school, anything less than an A in a class I cared about would have gutted me, but I was perfectly content with a B in biology because I had no desire to dissect a frog.

 

But writing is my Waterloo. A single sentence in an email could take twenty minutes if I let myself, and I can’t tell you the number of times Z has walked into the room and seen my face all pinched and twisted while I stare at the screen or the notebook in front of me and said, with alarm, “What’s wrong?” Nothing is wrong except the words in front of me aren’t perfect.

 

I’m not sure how my quest for the perfect sentence and coasters are related except I’m sure they are.

 

Maybe it’s self-protection—I don’t want anyone to point out that I’ve misused a word or missed an opportunity for some lovely imagery. Criticism is the water-ring on the coffee table of my writing.

 

Ugh. That was a terrible metaphor.

 

We had a weekend heat wave here in Seattle, and since I knew it was a weekend-only heat situation I didn’t spiral into my Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder Depression (which Z will insist is NOT a thing and which, I am here to tell you, IS a thing). I did get completely addled from the heat though. It’s a bit like that old public service announcement where someone breaks open an egg on the hood of a car that has been sitting in the sun, the egg fries,  and then a commanding/ parental voice says, “Hot enough to fry an egg ? THEN IT’S HOT ENOUGH TO FRY YOUR DOG’S BRAIN.”

 

As PSAs go, I guess it was an effective one in that even in the dead of winter I used to worry that if I ran into CVS to get toilet paper and left Mac in the car that there would be some reflection of light that might turn 30 degrees into 100 in the two minutes I was inside.

 

Clearly, I’ve never been that strong with the science.

 

If it gets over 74 degrees my brain synapses start working with the sluggishness of a sloth. I’m extra clumsy. I can’t think of words. Z will ask a simple question like Do you want a glass of water? and you’d think he’d asked me to solve a geometry proof whilst riding a unicycle. I have no answer. He makes me a drink and then for good measure brings me a wet cloth to put on the top of my head to cool my core temperature down.

 

At one point on Sunday, Z and I were writing out some cards to friends and family for various reasons, and I kept putting words on the page that made no contextual sense and then I’d have to invent a whole second part of the sentence that made it seem like it was all planned out that way. I was so delusional from heat that I thought I’d gotten away with it, but then even Z—who is so supportive of everything I write that I sometimes distrust his praise—shook his head and raised an eyebrow as if I’d lost my mind.

 

Monday, it cooled down, which was a relief because I teach on Monday nights in a room that must formerly have been a terrarium, but the heat fog in my brain was still hovering. The critiques I wrote took twice as long as usual and were likely less coherent. I sketched out some lesson plans in my notebook with my trusty green pen and discovered that what the syllabus said we were meant to be learning I’d already taught the week before. I scratched down some other possible lecture points and activities, packed my bag, and headed out the door.

 

Without the notebook.

 

Class was fine. (I am good at improvising.) I’ve loved re-discovering how much the classroom agrees with me, and even beyond that, how much I like working one-on-one with someone to get their writing to a stronger, sharper place. This group is very enthusiastic and very forgiving of my tangents, which is good, because ¾ of the way through class I looked down and realized that the green pen I’d been writing lecture notes with in my notebook was still nestled in my cleavage. It had come with me even if the notebook was still back at the apartment.

 

I looked at it, plucked it from it’s resting place casually, as if I were brushing a stray hair off my shoulder, and went right on with the critique. I suppose I could have left it there and hoped no one noticed, but it was my favorite pen and I write better last-minute marginal notes with it while a critique is in progress.

 

This attitude—this ability to improvise, to not be bothered by a snafu or poorly executed phrase—this is the thing I need to embrace in lieu of perfectionism and self-protection.

 

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, yes. But also, if offered, always use the coasters.

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Can I offer you a drink?

 

 

Summer of a Dormouse

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When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation), sleep, eating, swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning—how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse.

                                       –Lord Byron, journal 7 December 1813

 

 

 

Uh oh. I’m quoting Byron. This can’t be good.

 

We’ll get there, but first, can we please talk some more about my eyes? Will you think less of me if I obsess some more about that ophthalmology appointment I had two months ago that resulted in my unfortunate bus trip and even more unfortunate selection of Frames for the Deranged? You don’t mind, do you?

 

What you need to know:

  • I have wonky eyes—one is very near-sighted, one is slightly far-sighted.
  • I have gone to the same eye doctor since I was twelve years old.
  • I am loathe to change health care providers of any sort because I like to know about them and them to know about me and for each of us to recognize the other in the Kroger parking lot. I’m small town like that.
  • I am a lover of history and tradition (well, the good traditions—not the crappy ones like sexism, racism, or no white shoes after Labor Day. This is America. You should be able to wear whatever color of shoes you want whenever you wish to do so!)
  • Did I mention I’ve gone to the same eye doctor since I was twelve?

 

Also, unrelated to eyes, you should know that Z sent me home to Indiana for two weeks because he knows that I get twitchy and growly if I am too long away from my own ones, the straight line of a Midwestern horizon, and the sound outside my window of something more natural (songbirds, cows, coyotes, whatever) instead of leaf blowers, sirens, and the domestic disputes of strangers. When I go home to Indiana, I get nostalgic. I am sometimes gripped in the vise of melancholy.

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Indiana aloft

In general, I have a lot of feelings.

 

Which is probably why—for reasons that are still a mystery to me—I found myself sitting in my old ophthalmologist’s parking lot crying big, snotty, snuffily tears that left yellow dye streaming down my cheeks because he’d just dilated my pupils.

 

I am such a mess.

 

Back in March, back in Seattle—despite the fact that I love Dr. B, the eye doctor I’ve been seeing since I was in 7th grade—I determined that it was time to get a new ophthalmologist because my eyes and I live in Seattle and because I (wrongly, it turns out) assumed that our vision insurance was only good in Washington. I wasn’t thrilled about not going to Dr. B, but I also was not thrilled with how little I could see at the bookstore or grocery because my eyes weren’t adjusting to different distances. So I made an appointment at the place where Z had gone because a) he had a good experience with a different doctor who worked there b) it was two blocks away and wouldn’t require a bus ride.

 

The new doctor was young and she seemed thorough, though she wasn’t what I would call personable. While I sat in her chair, I felt real pangs of homesickness for Dr. B. She asked me no questions and she seemed uninterested in answering any of the ones I had. She announced abruptly that I had dry eyes (I did that day—I hadn’t slept the night before but it’s not a standard condition for me), and when I questioned her about this, she shrugged and said, “Well, you have them now.”

 

And then the kicker, “It happens to women your age.”

 

There was something about the way she said “women your age” that unnerved me. In her tone was both the sense that I was 93 and thus shouldn’t expect to have well-behaved eyes at this point and also the certainness that she would never be so careless–as I had been–as to allow herself to age past 35.

 

Then she glanced over at my records, noted that I had good insurance coverage, and determined that I needed a test to confirm her dry eye diagnosis and to investigate my mismatched optic nerves. When I questioned her about the latter she said it could be nothing or it could be an indicator of something more sinister and it was worth having checked out. I thanked her for her expert opinion, scheduled the appointment for my further tests, and left with a box of complimentary eye drops.

 

All day the appointment niggled at me. I’m a fairly compliant patient. I almost always defer to the doctor’s expertise and try to do what they suggest, though I sometimes forget to comply. (I’m still not wild about the extra-strength fluoride toothpaste my dentist says I need.) But the more I thought about the dismissive way she diagnosed me, the more cheesed off I got.

 

And that side-eye she gave my insurance form before scheduling the additional tests? Hmm. That did seem dubious. The fact that she didn’t ask me if I had been suffering from allergies or sleeplessness lately before offering her diagnosis seemed like bad medicine to me too, and there was very little interest in my history and no suggestion that perhaps I should have my old records sent to her so she could see if I have, historically, mismatched optic nerves. When I got home and looked her up and discovered her special area of interest was dry eye, my dubiosity grew. After a few days of this, I canceled the appointment for further tests and decided I’d go see my old ophthalmologist next time I was in Richmond. If he said there was a problem, I’d reschedule the tests.

 

When I was twelve, I went to his partner for one visit during which I was forced into a pair of unattractive glasses because the guy insisted I “wasn’t ready” (meaning mature enough) for contacts yet. He was young and handsome, but he treated me like an ignorant kid and since I came out of the womb as a 40 year old and he knew nothing of my maturity level, I turned against him. I would come to hate the glasses, struggle with them (as in struggled with how much I hated them and how I looked in them), and am convinced that my dismissal of (bordering on hatred for) “pretty boys” stemmed from that interaction with him, his big blue eyes, and permanently feathered hair. When I went back in for a follow-up and his bearded, less hip, slow-talking partner, Dr. B., stepped in (looking like Gerry Adams only without the IRA connections), I realized I’d gotten the wrong guy; Dr. B was the one for me. I convinced my mother to let me switch permanently, and now it’s almost forty years later and he’s still my ideal eye doctor.

 

For an hour now I’ve been trying to outline for you the reasons why he has been the best eye doctor for me, but I’m failing, both because I find it indefinable and also because I have absolutely no idea why you would care.

 

I wouldn’t say he’s a guy about whom I know much or who knows much about me in a non-ocular sense. His goal always seemed to be appropriately focused on the health of my eyes and betterment of my vision and not so much winning me over with his charm. Honestly, I’ve never known if his low-toned responses to me meant that he liked me, disapproved of me, or was completely indifferent. (I was pleased in 2010 when he mentioned that he’d seen my wedding announcement in the paper. I quite liked the idea that briefly on some Sunday in the spring he was sitting at home having a cup of coffee and the Palladium-Item forced him to think about the girl with the wonky eyes that he’d been tending to for over three decades.)

 

I appreciated the way he’d come into the exam room, take the book I was reading from my hands and say—whether I was twelve, twenty, or forty—“Let me put your homework over here.” I appreciated the lozenges he sucked that clicked against his teeth as he asked me which set of letters was clearer. I appreciated the display of antique eyeglasses on the shelf that indicated he had an interest in history, and the juxtaposition of those with some children’s art of eye glasses that hung on the wall. He always told me exactly what he was going to do and he always answered my questions as if they were reasonable ones to have.

 

In college, when I admitted that I was rarely wearing my single contact (wonky eyes only need the one) because I was getting too little sleep, he shrugged and said, “Can you see okay?” I told him I thought I could and he said, “With your eyes, you don’t really need to wear that contact. One eye will fill in the gaps of the other if you don’t correct it, so if the contact bothers you, don’t wear it.”

 

I was not in trouble for bad vision behavior as I expected! Instead, I could make my own choices! Freedom!

 

While I sat in the largely unchanged waiting room a couple of weeks ago, Boz Scaggs’s song from Urban Cowboy played on the Muzak and I texted Leibovitz: it is still 1980 in Dr. B’s office—I’m listening to “Look What You’ve Done to Me. Remember when we went to see it. I think it was our first movie together. We had a volley of texts about the places in our lives where time seems to stand still.

 

Because the Muzak had transported me to a time three decades ago when I smelled perpetually of Love’s Baby Soft and my lips were greasy with Bonnie Belle lip balm, when Dr. B appeared a little later in the exam room—taking my book from me and setting it in the chair with his trademark phrase—I felt shocked to see his hair greyer and his pants worn higher. I’d heard his wife had had a spill and hurt herself and asked after her and learned she was having some other health issues that drove home the fact that time had passed.

He was older.

I was older.

Life really is only the length of a summer of dormouse.

 

The exam was like any other exam I’ve ever had. He was perhaps more careful because he knew of my concerns from the Seattle doctor, but he said, “Your eyes don’t look dry to me.” And after some photos and some pupil dilation, he said, “Your optic nerves look exactly like they always have.” I was relieved.

 

But then when I got ready to go, I had this sudden realization that Dr. B can’t be an eye doctor forever. At some point, he’s going to want to retire. And my eyes, which are aging, are, at some point, going to need to have more regular attention from someone who is geographically closer to me than Richmond, Indiana. There was a lump in my throat as I gathered my things, and then Dr. B did the most unexpected thing ever, which is this:

he hugged me.

 

So I stumbled into the lobby and paid as quickly as I could because I knew I was on the verge of a full-on, existential, snotty sob. I unlocked my car and sat there in it, honking my nose into a tissue. I finally pulled myself together, drove through the neighboring park, and had to pull over and have another round of weeping. There’s probably a word for this that I can’t think of, but it was simultaneously horrible and satisfying to be weeping in a public place while squirrels and geese loitered by my car in case I had some spare bread to toss their way.

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Opportunistic goose

I’m still not sure what all the emotion was about. We’re all getting older seemed to be a theme, but it was something else too. A goodbye to all that, maybe. I tried to explain to Leibovitz later but failed. I was never one of those divorced daughters who had “daddy issues.” I had “dad” issues, I suppose, but I was never looking for a father in all the wrong places to misquote another song from Urban Cowboy. Dr. B was not a father stand in. I had a father I saw much more regularly than I had eye exams, plus I had a stepfather, grandfathers, uncles, and filling in all those gaps heroically, I had a mother who did her job and a man’s job too, so I was okay in that department I think.

 

And yet–maybe there is something here–I’m finding as layers of people above me peel away and fly off to heaven that I miss that authority. I miss there being an adult out there somewhere who knows more than I do, who has some answers, who has a calm voice and lozenges.

 

I’m reminded late on election night last November when Leibovitz texted me and said her daughter—now in college—had said with great concern as the returns came in with different results than what we were hoping for, “What do we do now?” As in, who is in charge now?

 

We had no answers to give her because the truth is, no one. When you hit a certain age, you realize that those authorities in whom you’ve placed all of your trust, all of your belief, your sense of right? Well, they are just people.

 

Temporary arrangements.

 

Summer of a dormouse.

 

The one, less melancholy note from my experience is that while I was being escorted back to the exam room, Dr. B’s assistant looked at my new glasses and said, “Ohhh, I like your frames.” I felt vindicated for that earlier choice that seemed sub par. I’ve been wearing my glasses with more authority, pulling them off my face with aplomb, and wishing I could strut around town in them without tripping over my own feet (but they are, alas, just computer glasses and not meant for walking or strutting).

 

And then there’s this vision-related non sequitur: when I returned to Seattle, Z announced that security cameras have been installed in all the common areas of our apartment building because of some thievery or hooliganism. While I quite like the idea of Big Brother watching the Evil Doers, I’m less thrilled with the notion that if I grab Z inappropriately in an otherwise empty hallway, our building manager will see it, and Z himself admitted that he was concerned his pants would venture too far south when he was bending over to retrieve clothes out of the dryer.

 

We live in interesting times.

 

I feel lucky that while I’m living my own “downright existence” I’ve had connections–some close, some fleeting–with people who, for whatever reason, move me.

Next time, there will likely be less weeping and more complaining about heat and tourists. Brace yourselves.

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I complain, but would you look how gorgeous Puget Sound is?

The Chicken of Productivity

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You might want stand back from your screen as I have been laid low by bronchitis, and I’d hate for you to catch it. I’m convinced I picked this one up on the bus when I was off to get the new glasses, but it could have come from anywhere and it is taking a long time leaving.

 

It arrived on little cat feet a few days before Z and I were in loco parentis for my cousin’s seventeen-year-old daughter and her friend, who took their first solo trip to us. Possibly it started as a run-of-the-mill bus cold but trying to keep up with teenagers transformed it. All I know is I’ve grown bored with it, bored with the cough syrup (the flavor of which has not been improved upon since I was a kid despite all other sorts of advances in medical science), and bored with the addlepated thought-processes that plague me when I’m on antibiotics and codeine.

 

The worst part though is that this illness of mine made me feel really old.

 

I am accustomed to having young people treat me as if I’m youthful and cooler than their parents. I attribute this quality to having had the “cool mom” (who did NOT make casseroles or force a bedtime and to whom my friends wanted to tell their problems) and so I learned by observation. Over the years, I have enjoyed this distinction, but I may have finally pressed against the outer limits of those descriptors.

 

I was always about twenty paces behind these two energetic Hoosier-lings, and I was always out of breath. Multiple times Mere stopped, peered back at me and said with great concern, “Are you doing okay?” in the same tone I used to use when talking to my poor grandmother who had pulmonary fibrosis.

It didn’t take long before I was just waving them off for an hour or two of shopping and sight-seeing on their own while I drank Fiji water and ate cookies at Barnes and Noble and waited for them to text me that they’d exhausted the stock at Forever 21 and had not been accosted by big city ruffians.

 

Add to this that I had to ask them pointed questions about how they used Snapchat in their daily lives and what various make-up products were for at Sephora (Seattle requires very little make-up of me and I’ve lost some skills), and it’s clear to see my fate was sealed. My coolness has always been debatable, but “youthful” is no longer an adjective that belongs to me either. Alas.

 

All this to say, this will not be an energetic blog full of twists and turns and themes. I’m just going to offer a hodgepodge of thoughts and happenings and you can skip over the bits that bore you. It’s possible I won’t even come to a point when I get to the end, but I’m running out of days to post an April blog and I need to try out the latest addition to our family.

 

Here she is:

 

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That’s Erma Bompeck, a $3.99 kitchen timer from World Cost Plus. After hearing about how Lauren Graham employed a timer to help her get her memoir written, I decided the Pomodoro time-management method for Getting Crap Done might be a boon to me. That said, I couldn’t get jazzed by the now-famous tomato-shaped timer made popular with that method. I do not like fruits masquerading as vegetables, and when I tried using the Pomodoro app on my phone, every time it buzzed and I had to re-set it, I’d find reasons to check my mail, update my Facebook status, or play a game of Royal Envoy.

 

The Chicken of Productivity sat on the end table, roosting for five days with no name. Z tried valiantly to assign her Roscoe P. Chicken but his ignorance of poultry biology (she is clearly NOT a rooster) was alarming and I felt a little annoyed that he, who names everything in our house from our various blankets to my engagement ring (Fluffito and Ring-ring, respectively) should feel it his right to name MY chicken. Plus, I wasn’t having her twirl around on her base with the name of a bumbling, racist sheriff from Dukes of Hazzard. No. These are trying racial and political times, and I will not be celebrating such tomfoolery with my Chicken of Productivity.

 

I felt I needed the support of a female, time-keeping muse. I considered Eudora Welty or Virginia Woolf, but in the end I remembered my college mentor, Gibb, who suggested that I should be the next Erma Bombeck (Erma’s job was not open nor was she ill at the time, so I’m not sure why he thought I could just walk in with my pristine, no-experience post-college resumé and take hers). I liked the Erma Bombeck shout-out to Gibb who believed in my quirky writing, and I liked the simplicity of channeling Erma, a funny woman who wrote some articles of consequence and some of no consequence. Erma got a clean slate every day with her syndicated newspaper column, and I doubt if anyone really remembered or faulted her for the stinkers. Since I’m trying to remind myself to err on the side of imperfection-but-done instead of near-perfection-but-never-completed, the name seemed inspired.

 

 

There’s something about Erma Bompeck’s face that harkens back to my Fisher-Price barnyard, and I’m hoping that by having her stare at me for the 25-minute increments during which I write, that I’ll begin to think of it as “fun” instead of “existential-crisis-in-the-making.” So here are my first 25 minutes of focused writing under Erma’s gaze. (The only downside is that because of that overactive amygdala of mine, I’ll jump out of my pants when the buzzer goes off.)

 

 

Here are the thoughts I’m trying to harness right now:

 

  • There was a robbery downtown an hour ago that left two police officers shot (wounded and recovering thank goodness) and so the helicopters are buzzing the apartment and jangling my nerves.
  • I just read yet another article about empaths and while I’m not 100% sure I am an empath, I do know that amygdala of mine makes me “sensitve.” I am beginning to wonder if the city is just too much for me. For instance, that helicopter sound has my ears vibrating and my gut churning because those poor worried cop families and what if the helicopter crashes into the downtown and what made armed robbery seem like a good idea a block from the federal building and why are 236 new people moving to Seattle every day and at what point is the city just going to belch some of us out?
  • My new glasses are making me hold my head just so so I can see the screen, and I wonder is it better to see things clearly but be a slave to your corrective lenses so you get a crick in your neck or is it better to squint and increase the likelihood of crow’s feet?
  • My new glasses look much better than I was anticipating and it seems a shame they are computer lenses so I can’t walk upright in them and wear them out in public. Should I have ordered them with all-purpose lenses, thus allowing me the chance to impress people with my hip, green tortoiseshell-ness? Would I have kept up better with teenagers if I could have worn these glasses?
  • Will Z notice if I eat a chocolate egg out of his Easter basket since I have depleted my own?
  • The Messy Drawer needs cleaning and how long exactly should I keep the iPod charger for my giant, antiquated 2006 iPod that will no longer charge? Also, if I decide to throw it out, must I find a place that recycles electronic stuff? Where is such a place? If I just “accidentally” drop it into the trash, will I be fined by the city? Are quandaries like this why the Messy Drawer is messy?
  • Also, if I throw the half-burned candle with the dodgy wick out that is taking up prime real estate in the Messy Drawer will this unleash some natural disaster that will require said candle and thus I will all be at fault for the disaster?
  • Will Z notice that the bright blue one-egg pan I gave him for Christmas got burned up yesterday and lost it’s sheen when I failed to realize the pasta I was cooking was on a different burner and so all I was cooking was the blue right off his new pan?
  • Are Lucky Charms really that much less healthy than microwaveable maple and brown sugar Quaker Oats? There are oats. There is sugar. Wouldn’t it all come out about the same but I’d get to embrace my Irish heritage and feel youthful with the former?

 

It takes a while to swim to the surface of that kind of brain soup. Also, Erma has dinged her first ding, so now you know how slowly I write. Next.

 

 

Last year, I may have told you that I discovered Vivian Swift, my favorite illustrated memoirist, was going to be in Seattle, and for reasons I can’t explain, I took it upon myself to invite her to stay in the writing studio here at Chez Girl Scout. It was a little insane. I knew her only from her books and she didn’t know me at all. In my message to her, I assured her that I was neither a weirdo nor an asshole, told her where Z taught, gave her the link to my blog and our address so she could do a little research on us to determine if we were either of those things, and then I paced around the house fretting because a woman on Long Island that I’d never met was probably at that moment laughing with her husband about the complete loon on the other side of the country who was delusional enough to think she’d want to stay with strangers who could, for all she knew, have a dungeon or web cams adhered to objet d’art around the studio.

 

When I extended the invitation, it was a strange internal knowing I had: that I needed to make this offer and that it would be good for my soul. Somehow, I also knew—even though it was beyond logic—that she would ultimately say yes. And sure enough, two hours later, she emailed and said she was having a year of saying “yes” and so, yes.

 

Those 48 hours with her in residence were a delight last May. I loved talking to her about writing and art. Z and I went to hear her read. We drank tea that morphed into several Alice B. Toklas cocktails on the patio of the Sorrento Hotel on an evening when the weather was perfect except for about 27 drops of rain that fell mysteriously from a cloudless sky. When she left, I felt lighter. I felt better about my writing and my life. I saw the city in a new way. We didn’t magically become besties and we aren’t texting each other multiple times a week now to complain about husbands or talk about new ways we might style our hair, but it was a really satisfying moment in a spring that had been largely scary, upsetting and otherwise tedious, and it gave me faith that it is still possible to spend time with someone previously unknown to you who feels familiar and real.

 

Maybe this is something all extroverts know instinctively, but it was a surprise to me.

 

While I wasn’t entirely duplicating that experience this month with an old college friend, there were some similarities. True, A and I had known each other since he was a friend’s roommate our sophomore year. We had spent a semester together in a truly horrible sociology class (boring, poorly managed, and erratic and we were ill-behaved because something in the professor triggered a Lord of the Flies response in us). But after that year, we didn’t see each other so much, and then graduation happened and if someone had asked me where A had ended up, I would have said, “I don’t know. Probably back in Virginia. Or did he live in North Carolina? I can’t remember. One of those places.” While I still—all of these years out—believe I am still a student at AU and thus fully expect the president of the university to demand we all return for a mandatory chapel convocation at which point I suppose I might have bumped into A in the lobby of Reardon Auditorium, it seemed more likely that our next contact would be one of us reading about the other’s death in the alumni magazine.

 

Now, with social networking, it is difficult to imagine a time when I didn’t know what ¾ of my high school graduating class had at Pizza King last Friday night (Note: Royal Feast and breadsticks. Always breadsticks) even though I’m on the other side of the country, but in the late 1980s, we were apparently just so sloppy-rich with friends that it was easy enough to assume there would be more and more and more to fill up spaces left by the ones we accidentally lost track of that summer day when we marched out of the auditorium with our diplomas in our hands.

 

Ah, youth.

 

So when A and I had a brief conversation on Facebook and he mentioned that he and his husband were going to be in British Columbia, I had a very similar Vivian Swift knowing. I knew I would invite them to come visit and I knew they would come, but more than that, I knew it was something I needed even though I had no idea why I needed it.

 

Z was particularly perplexed after I had asked if he’d mind if we had houseguests. “Who is this now? Why don’t I know those names?” He seemed a little dubious when my description didn’t offer rich detail and I said something vague like “we had a class together once in 1986” as if I had invited a faceless student from that two-week intensive composition course I taught at the technical college in 1997 or the sharp-tongued, deeply tanned woman I sold shoes with one summer in 1986 to come stay with us.

 

But Z is nothing if not supportive of my dreams, and he could see the glow in my eye. So, he shrugged and said sure, and thus it transpired that A & T would drive down for dinner, spend the night Chez Girl Scout, and then head back to their holiday rental across the border.

 

In the days leading up to their arrival I was giddy with anticipation though there was no rational reason for giddiness. Instead, I should have been nervous. A and I had known each other for such a brief time, without much opportunity for anything akin to a deep conversation because we were always in a group of people, yukking it up. Who was he really? And what was left of the 1987 Beth that he would recognize? One of my sharpest memories of him involved him sitting under an Amy Grant poster in a dorm room wearing a new kelly green shirt that he hadn’t yet laundered and that had turned his skin an eerie shade of green. That didn’t seem like enough to base an evening’s worth of conversational topics on.

 

For all I knew, I’d just invited someone I wouldn’t like at all into our house and we’d have to spend 36 hours making small talk and gritting our teeth and pretending that we like death metal or fusion cuisine. Or maybe they’d get one look of the likes of us and realize we were not their kind of people. (Z has taken to wearing Crocs everywhere he goes these days because of a self-diagnosed foot condition that he swears is only comfortable when he is wearing the equivalent of small, rubbery laundry baskets on his feet.) And yet, I had none of these worries because I just knew it would be excellent.

 

The minute I saw A on my stoop, it was as if no time had passed at all. I immediately turned into an ill-behaved golden retriever, wagging my tail and nearly leaping on the pair of them. They stood in the Girl Scout Writing Studio & Guest Quarters for a full ten minutes, no doubt tired from their drive, while I fired questions at them about their trip, their life together, what A had been doing the last 28 years, what T does for a living, where he’s from, when they got together, etc. It wasn’t until Z used his wife-calming voice and said, “Honey, maybe they’d like to settle in before you start the inquisition?” before I took a breath.

 

It was a short visit, but—for me (and for Z who told me multiple times how much he liked the pair of them)—it was exactly what I needed after this wet winter that has never wanted to end, my bronchitis-addled body, my fuzzy brain. We didn’t even spend much time reminiscing since we had so few shared memories, which was probably a great relief to Z and T. Instead, we talked about art and architecture and books and TV shows and our weddings and our hometowns and politics and travel and dogs and twenty other things. It was exactly how I knew it would be even though there was no way to know it.

 

I love these little mysteries, the synchronicities, the warmth from unexpected places. Now that I am old no longer young, I find that instead of concerts or amusement parks or the acquisition of some material item, these are the moments that make life rattle and hum for me. I was even comfortable with the tiny ache I felt that we live on opposite sides of the country and so won’t be making this a regular occurrence. Though hopefully it won’t be another 28 years.

 

I’d be really impressed with myself if I wrote these paragraphs out in two 25-minute increments and Erma had solved all of my writing woes. Last month I bought a new broom I was really excited about for a few days and then one day I realized the floor was no cleaner because I hadn’t actually used it. Sometimes I get myself new tools with the mistaken notion that they’re actually going to do the work for me.

 

I’m probably going to need a larger-sized and fiercer animal timer to keep me focused. Something with claws and fangs that sits on its haunches waiting on me to walk away from the keyboard so it can pounce. And it won’t be named anything like Roscoe either.

 

 

Veering Toward Wonderment

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Z and I were once on a bus after returning a rental car and a guy got on selling batteries that we suspect he’d just lifted from the drugstore behind the bus stop. The bus was crowded and it was one of those days when I was feeling very much that metro buses are not that far removed from the ones you see in the movies, creaking through the mountains of Central America, packed full of people, their luggage, and a host of chickens and goats. I like a quiet bus and as such, was hoping the guy would realize no one was interested in purchasing his wares and sit down.

 

And then suddenly, this man said to the battery guy, “Lemme see those?” and the next thing you know, the two are shooting the bull and the man is digging in his wallet to pull out some bills to give to the battery guy. It was like a very public drug deal only without the drugs. Z and I looked at each other, fascinated by the notion that business transactions like this were happening on the #21. What makes you sell batteries on a bus? What makes you realize you need batteries while on a bus? The mysteries of life are many.

 

When I’m my best self, this is the attitude I’ve found most helpful when riding the city bus: instead of annoyance, veer toward wonderment. A woman gets on the bus with a stack of books and a hamster in a cage? Do not worry about the hamster getting loose and crawling up your rain coat. Instead, ask yourself if the woman often takes her hamster on jaunts, if she reads the books to the hamster. Really ponder the questions. Then consider using her for story fodder.

 

But often I am not my best self. Perhaps I’ve complained to you about my Bus Feelings before. I am not anti bus. I’m all for my taxes paying for a metro system that allows people to transport their carcasses around the city, but my enthusiasm for the bus is one of a belief that other people should ride it and Z and I should not. My greatest joy would be to move my car, Hildegarde von Bingen, from my folks’s driveway in Indiana so we could leap into her at any given moment and drive wherever we want. In this fantasy the roads are miraculously traffic free because all other humans are using public transportation.

 

My reasons for hating the bus are varied, but by and large those reasons can be boiled down into two categories:

 

  • Control: I have none. Will I have a seat? Will it be crowded? Will it be really hot or really cold? (It’s never 68 degrees.) Will music be pouring out of someone’s earphones at Metallica levels? Will someone be cursing and threatening a brawl? Will someone be shouting into their phone like it’s a walkie talkie? HOLD IT UP TO YOUR EAR. WE SHOULDN’T HAVE TO HEAR BOTH SIDES OF YOUR BORING CONVERSATION. Will someone’s dog be licking my foot? Will a baby be screaming or thwacking my leg with a sticky lollipop? There’s no way to know the quality of the ride you’ll have until you get on the bus at which point you’ve lost autonomy.

 

  • Germs: I do not want any. People are dirty. Some by preference and others by necessity of their hard lives. They cough without covering their mouths, they dig into their noses before pulling the stop-request cord, they rest their greasy heads against the windows. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m this close to instituting a policy wherein Z and I both have to wear “bus pants” like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory because I don’t want our pants that have been on the bus sitting on our sofa. Especially after I read the article about how rarely people—even people with relatively good hygiene—wash their blue jeans. We’re talking six months. People brag about this as if it’s normal. It’s not normal. My most recent pair of Levi’s encouraged me not to wash them with any regularity lest their structural integrity be damaged. (Doesn’t this mean you aren’t selling a very good product if by using it the purchaser increases the likelihood that said product will fail to perform as expected? Also what’s with the the passive-aggressive way the label implies if the jeans fail to withstand regular laundering it will be all my fault.) WASH YOUR JEANS; BUTTS ARE DIRTY.

 

Bottom line: I do not love the bus. On the days I ride the bus, I often get off thinking less of humanity and their bad habits and worse hygiene.

 

Nevertheless, it is a necessity of city life, and last week I found myself on a bus trundling up Broadway because of a recent unfortunate eye incident of mine.

 

I’ve got weird eyes and have had since I was in 7th grade. One is so near-sighted I can’t read the big E on the eye chart and the other is minimally far-sighted. Over the years, I’ve treated this ailment with glasses and a single contact, both of which I wore haphazardly until my ophthalmologist and I agreed it was pointless. I can see fine so long as no one tall sits in front of my good movie eye at the theater and I can read a book so long as there is good light over the shoulder of my book eye. (There was an unfortunate incident in grad school caused by my low-quality depth perception when I drove over an entire bale of hay because I thought it was just a little straw in the road, but I like to think that was a one off.) The eye doctor even assured me that this would be an advantageous eye situation when I hit middle age because I basically have eyes that already work like bifocals. And sure enough, for the last several years as my friends had to pull reading glasses out of their purses to read the menu at Cheesecake factory, I could squint just right and read the fine print.

 

But apparently I’ve hit some point of no return now because when I go to the bookstore, no matter how I contort myself, I cannot browse titles. It’s all a blur. While I can read fine, that middle distance is a killer, so I’ll often pull off a brightly colored book from the shelf, pull it close to my eyes, and then discover it’s a book on squirrel mating habits or the gross national product of Papua New Guinea when what I had in mind was a collection of Joan Didion essays or a Marian Keyes novel. Usually when I go to the bookstore now, I just browse through the journals with all of their nonthreatening blank pages and think about the words I would write there if the journal were mine. It’s much less frustrating to do this.

 

I finally went to an ophthalmologist here and she told me what I need now is a pair of “computer glasses.” She explained that all-day glasses for my wonky eyes would do me no good, but I should be wearing something for that middle distance when I’m in a bookstore or working on my laptop.

 

Because they aren’t glasses I will wear all day, it seemed like a good opportunity to try my hand with a style that is fun. Over the weekend, Z and I looked at some frames and I settled on a bright red squarish pair, though we decided I’d come back later in the week because the shop was so busy and we had a weekend life we wanted to live instead of standing in line to place my order.

 

Thus my bus ride a few days later.

 

There were only about ten of us on the bus, and at a stop not far from my house, a guy got on in a rumpled red track suit. He had on Coke bottle glasses, big earphones that were plugged into a phone he was carrying in a long narrow box. In the box were some tatty DVD cases, signs that said “restrooms  for customers only,” and a small board with coat hooks screwed onto it. He himself had a permanently startled expression and a back pack that had crawling out of it’s pockets and zips a ruler, an electrical cord, a big spray can of air freshener, and a golf umbrella without a handle.

 

It was a fascinating conglomeration of items, though I was particularly drawn to the coat hook board for reasons I can’t explain. Had he pried it off the wall somewhere? What kind of space would he be hanging it up on? Did he have a coat to hang on it? Did he have a home in which to hang it?

 

I had a lot of questions about the coat rack.

 

I’m easily overwhelmed by the sadness I perceive in other people’s lives sometimes, and I was on the verge of having to look away so I didn’t end up weeping on the #60 because of the sorrowful plight I’d imagined for this guy. He wasn’t dirty and he didn’t seem to be responding to any voices in his head, so I’m uncertain why I determined his life was a misery except for his expression and the fact that his shoelaces were mismatched.

 

An older man in a ball cap started to exit the bus and stopped in front of Track Suit Guy and told him what a good-looking coat rack he had there in his box. The guy couldn’t hear the older man because of the earphones and I thought to myself, “Just move on, old man. Don’t engage him. He’s probably nuts.” Track Suit Guy pulled off his earphones and the older man repeated himself. Track Suit Guy looked down at his coat rack and said, “You can have it” in the softest, sweetest, most sane voice. “Take it,” he said.

 

For half a second, I felt a flash of shame. If someone on the bus admires anything of mine, my inclination is to say a cool thank you and then pull the item closer to me for protection. Even with a mismatched bunch of junk like this guy had, I can only assume he had imagined some use for it or he wouldn’t have been carting it around the city, and yet he seemed almost eager to part with it in order to please a perfect stranger.

 

Frankly, I felt a little indignant on his behalf when the older man said, “Well, thank you,” picked up the coat rack and walked off the bus.  I come from a place where people offer you things and you have to say “no” about six times before you can comfortably accept their offer of a cool drink, yet in a single second, goods changed hands, and the two parted company with no protesting or no sense from Track Suit Guy that his offer had been polite but insincere. The coat rack out of his possession, he went back to fiddling with his earphones and reshuffling the remaining items in the narrow box.

 

Wouldn’t the world would be an interesting place if we carried around arbitrary items and handed them to whatever person admired them or had use of them? Not that I’ll be doing that anytime soon. I like my things. But it would be a fascinating way to live your life.

 

People are glorious amazing.

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Though not IN the bus, we see this guy around town doing what we believe might be Mt. Rainier worship. He is always pointed towards the south and he’s always in the middle of the crosswalk.

 

I have some decision-making deficits that tax Z because I often stand gawping when he asks something simple like “what do you want for dinner?” or “what do you want to watch?” Even so, I felt very good about the prospect of marching into the eye place, plunking the fun red glasses on the counter, and saying, “I want these.” I could do this without Z standing next to me, nodding his approval. I was sure of it.

 

The place was deserted except for the two women working there, and they devoted all of their attention to me. The red ones were nice, they said, but they were a little tight on the bridge of my nose. How about these?

 

I probably had on 60 pairs of glasses in the span of 90 minutes. They were very patient with my indecision and didn’t try to overwhelm me with their opinions. Yet after an hour, I succumbed to their coos of approval when I put on a pair of purple tortoiseshell glasses. The glasses did look stylish and fun, I thought. They did bring out the green in my eyes because purple is a natural complement to green. The shape seemed right for my face, neither too square nor too round, though it was not a shape I could have identified in my 10th grade geometry class.

 

I snapped a selfie to show Z later, plunked down the money, and ordered those frames. The woman helping me also ordered the green frames that weren’t in the shop because she said I might like those even more, and she could switch the lenses out if I do. I felt really thrilled with my glasses experience and the nice women who had so helpfully led me to the most attractive pair.

 

I strutted down Broadway to meet Z, quite pleased with myself for making a choice without him. I popped into Dick Blick to get some markers and thought how I’d soon be able to hold my own with all the art students there because my glasses are so hip. I stopped in the bookstore to look at the blur of books one last time before I return next week with glasses that will make each title readable. I met Z at the drug store and told him about my adventure and showed him the photo I’d taken.

 

He took one look at it and laughed a short, hard laugh. It was the kind of laugh he could not have held in if he’d tried. It was like a sneeze. I don’t know that he actually said this with his mouth, but even if he didn’t, the message was clear:

 

Girl, you look crazy.

 

I wanted to be cross with Z for not saying what I was expecting which was either “You look cute!” or “Good choice, Sausage!” but with the evidence in front of me after I’d grabbed my phone back and stared at the photo, how could I be mad? He was not wrong.

 

I looked unstable. The glasses were huge. They looked black instead of purple and thus way too dark for my pale, pale Irish-American face. Also, apparently my face is crooked or my ears are uneven, and thus the glasses were sitting in a way that made my eyes look off-kilter, like something Picasso would paint. Looking at the image on my phone, I was reminded of a mentally handicapped girl in my hometown when I was in my twenties who wiped off trays at McDonald’s with great pleasure and authority. I always loved her enthusiasm and her sweet nature, but it is not a look I’ve aspired to all these years.

 

My thoughts returned to Track Suit Guy and how possibly I’d misjudged him and his life circumstances when I’d been racked with that wave of sadness earlier on the bus while studying the junk in that narrow box. Maybe there was nothing wrong with his life outside of his unfortunate glasses and his mismatched shoelaces. Maybe he was just a guy getting through his day, being pleasant to strangers and not being judgmental when one of them took him up on his offer. Maybe I should try to be more like him.

 

Maybe my new glasses, hideous as they will no doubt be, can help me remove these filters so I see things more honestly and with less judgment.

 

Though I seriously doubt that they’ll make me enjoy the bus.

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Get on the bus.

 

 

An Embarrassment of Dragons

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Puget Sound, the Cascades, and a view from the Boatyard Inn.

Last week Jane and I—from our respective homes 2,344 miles apart—sat in on a webinar featuring the blogger/writing coach Lauren Sapala that was all about transforming the “dragons” that keep you from your best writing and your best life. I’m a big fan of Lauren’s work with personality type and writing styles. (She has a description of what it is like to be an INFP writer—which is what I am—that brought me to tears because it so aptly explained the soup that my brain is when it’s trying to focus on a single idea to write about or trying to dish servings of that word soup up into appropriately sized and non-melty containers. It’s a mess here in my head, people. A real mess.) This webinar was exactly what I needed as I try to get myself out of what I can no longer call a “writing slump” as it is clearly now more of a lifestyle choice.

Can you see the slides? I can’t see the slides, I’d text. Jane would text back, There are slides? Where are the slides? My screen is just blue. It was nice being there—wherever “there” was—with Jane. One of the things I will never stop missing as I age is the closeness of friends from my youth. I miss being in each others’ space. I miss staying up too late and talking about love and life. I miss the dramas that now just seem ridiculous. So these moments of connection with old friends—even if they are now more often electronic—delight me.

Texting Jane during webinar lulls also gave me flashbacks to our shared college computer programming class, for which we were both ill prepared and bad performers primarily because our class notes were comprised of notes to each other about everything but class. It was also nice to have her along for the ride because over the years we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time discussing our own and each others’ personality types and quirks in epic emails to each other. We are ever hopeful that we’ll make some life-transforming discovery at some point. Instead we make small ones that we adopt for a time and then move on when we are not magically transformed.

Since I’d read nothing ahead of time about this theory of dragon-based writing blocks, I had some preconceived ideas about those that might be my most likely foes.

Dragons I expected to have:

 

  • Dragon of Procrastination
  • Dragon of Disorganization
  • Dragon of Obsession about Political Facebook Posts
  • Dragon of Netflix Binging
  • Dragon of Unnecessary Reorganizing (because having my sweaters and Fiestaware plates in ROYGBIV order sometimes seems more important than writing)
  • Dragon of Spending Blocked-Off Writing Time On Epic Emails to Jane

 

Sadly, these were not the options presented. Sadly, it was clear from Lauren’s description that I had not one but four and a half of her dragons of writing blockage and none of them were all that funny or flattering.

Dragons I do have:

 

  • Stubbornness
  • Impatience
  • Self-destruction (more of a historical dragon for me, so I give it a half point)
  • Self-deprecation
  • Arrogance

 

I’ve read a lot of medieval literature and a fair amount of fantasy, and by those standards, having four-and-a-half dragons to do battle with is a considerable challenge. Possibly one I’m not equipped for. Plus, I’m still struggling with the notion that I can be both self-deprecating and arrogant.

It’s that last one that I scored the highest on that I’m struggling with most. Don’t arrogant people walk around all day thinking they are the cat’s pajamas? I’ve never felt like I was the cat’s anything. I avoid mirrors like a vampire. I assume other writers are more prolific and more deserving than I am. The few days a year I dare to wear this huge, artsy ring that is made from a geode, I get embarrassed almost immediately and so turn the glittery bit toward my palm so no can see it and think I’m getting above my raising.

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Were I arrogant, this is how I would expect to look. (Photo credit of Sundance Catalog)

I’ve spent several days since the webinar considering ways I might act superior. I DO think severe bangs are a bad choice for everyone. I DO NOT like it when people make Scottish terriers wear clothes. I DO believe I’m right in my criticism of ¾ of modern art. I feel strongly that you should use the Oxford comma. But is that arrogance or just some random opinions I’ve cobbled together over the years?

Regardless, Lauren Sapala’s webinar was good and her advice seemed sound, and I recommend you read her book if you are an NF and I recommend you read her blog if you are a writer of any Myers-Briggs type.

She offered some sound suggestions about vanquishing dragons and for that big ugly one at the end of my list, one of the best ways to beat down the arrogance is to recount your embarrassments from the past and just sit with that embarrassment instead of making excuses for why you shouldn’t feel bad or why it was really the fault of someone else that you made a fool of yourself.

In the interest of my healing and growth, I offer you a buffet of recent mortifications.

  • At the beginning of the month, Leibovitz came out to celebrate her own Birthday of Some Significance. While Z and I were waiting for her at the airport—where there had recently been some impromptu protests about the immigration ban—a friendly fellow with a cardboard sign came up to ask us if we knew where the protest was. I engaged him in conversation as he stood there shifting his giant “Jesus is Weed” sign from one hand to the other. I was unsure why that particular sign seemed important at a potential anti-immigration protest in a state that legalized marijuana a few years ago, but still, who was I to judge? (See? Totally not arrogant! Totally accepting of differences!) I asked a few questions and clucked and nodded and smiled as he talked. And talked. And then I heard this very tiny voice coming out of the side of Z’s mostly closed mouth and it said, Stop talking to him. He’s crazy. And then I realized that of course Z was right. In the span of our conversation this guy had told me about how “they” had jammed his cell phone and that’s why he couldn’t find the protest. The same “they” had also made it impossible for him to find silver prices on the web because he was investing his non-weed money in the metal market because he didn’t trust the dollar. “They” were doing some other things to him that didn’t make sense to me but clearly agitated him. For the duration of our conversation nothing he had said—including his protest sign—made sense and yet I had failed to notice that he was either delusional, under the influence, or both.
  • Leibovitz and I took off the next day for an overnight on Whidbey Island so she could wake up on her birthday to beautiful views. On the way, we stopped for a long walk on Double Bluff Beach. The wind was cold, so I jammed my knitted Scottie cap down over my ears, stuffed my hands into my favorite stripey fingerless gloves from the Sundance catalog, and meandered with her along the beach. A pair of eagles soared and cried above us. It was a perfect afternoon and I was so glad to be with her, talking about life.

The next afternoon—after a leisurely Leibovitz Birthday morning in which we ate hummus and olives for breakfast because we didn’t want to leave the Puget-Sound-Snowcapped-Cascade-Mountain view to get real breakfast—I discovered that one of my favorite stripey gloves from the Sundance catalog was missing. I searched everywhere while growling my disappointment. The gloves were a gift and because I can neither wiggle myself into the gorgeous non-Midwestern-sized-woman clothes Sundance sells nor afford the home furnishings and other doo-dads they offer, these gloves were my one touchstone to the life I fantasize about living. That is, a life of a Sundance catalog model living a Sundance catalog fantasy life. A life wherein I am thinner and younger and have fabulous sun-bleached hair and look like I know Important Truths while I stand around in my textured Light and Love cardigan, my gauzy Mystic Meadow skirt, and some distressed cowboy boots that are new but look well worn, all as I stare into the distance where, no doubt, there is a palomino pony beyond the horizon that I have either just ridden or am about to ride.

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Don’t mind me, I was feeling chilly and decided to take a hike draped in this hand-knitted blanket.

I don’t even know why I think I’d be happy in this life: I don’t like the outdoors much, horses make me nervous, I’m not a big fan of the American Southwest, and I’m pretty sure these catalog women are aficionados of salads and country music, neither of which appeal to me. But still, it’s a dream of mine and it was lost with my glove.

  • Me telling you the catalog fantasy isn’t even the most embarrassing part of that story. The embarrassing part is that I returned to every shop and restaurant we’d been to the day before as well as the Langley City Hall asking if anyone had seen my missing glove. I’d hold up the one still in my possession so the person could see how truly special it was and I why I wanted the pair reunited. I left my name and phone number with a city official as if someone would turn in one lonesome glove. I sighed a lot. And then when Leibovitz and I got back to the city and headed out to dinner with Z, I put on a coat that I had not even taken to the island and there in the pocket was the errant stripey glove. I’d only ever had one glove while on Whidbey Island; its partner had always been safely back in Seattle waiting for me. Clearly, I was delusional as I traipsed the streets of Langley looking for it as was the guy with the Jesus is Weed protest sign.
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If I had this horse, it would help me find my missing glove. (Photo: Sundance)

  • An added embarrassment to the above story is that for a full two days afterward I insisted to Z that I HAD had the errant glove on the island, that I remembered putting it on on Double Bluff Beach, and therefore, surely the fairies were messing with me by stealing it, flying it to First Hill, and stuffing it into the pocket of my coat. My Irish coat that I bought in Ireland. (Hence fairies.) Why would I do this? I am mostly a rational person, yet I firmly believed for two days that the only explanation involved the mythical beings of Éire stealing my belongings and then returning them.
  • Additional embarrassment and possible evidence of real arrogance: I see from Spellcheck that “stripey” should be spelled “stripy” but I don’t like the way that looks like “strippy” (also not a word) and thus I am refusing to use standard spelling.
  • Twice I broke into spontaneous dance that embarrassed me, the dancer, and Z, the witness.
  • I had an entire conversation with a server at a restaurant, explaining how I needed my burger to be prepared and I was smiling and joking so he would maybe not spit in my food since I had a special order. When he walked away, Z said, “Honey, you need to wipe your nose.”
  • I discovered I’ve been using hoi polloi wrong my entire life. I thought the hoi polloi were the arrogant rich people (who probably order things out of the Sundance Catalog regularly) who didn’t want to interact with common folk.
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Not a member of the hoi polloi. (Photo: Sundance)

  • Z was lugging two heavy bags of groceries home while I was in charge of the umbrella and the key. When we got to the building door, a tenant was coming in with her bicycle and I was so busy letting her know that I was friendly and helpful in a door-holding kind of way that I slammed the interior door in Z’s face, thus trapping him in the vestibule with the groceries. I was halfway down the hall with a big smile on my face for being so helpful when I heard him saying through the door, “Baby? Baby? Can you get the door.” (Z can call me Baby because he says it ironically. Don’t judge me for allowing it.) And then when I let him in he couldn’t stop teasing me about how I was so enamored with the idea of being a helpful neighbor that I’d completely forgotten him.
  • I sent a watercolor card of a scene from Seattle painted by a local artist to Jane and family for the loss of a beloved pet only to discover that the artist had chosen to include a graffiti-covered wall in the background on which was scrawled, “Only the strong survive.”
  • And then there is Tuesday. Last week our building manager told us that she’d be making appointments to inspect apartments to check for things that needed fixing. I was glad she’d given us the heads up because I’m not that strong a housekeeper. Z and I are clean, but we are a messy people. Z is not without sin, but I am admittedly the more messy, so there are stacks of books toppling over, at least three different notebooks going, power cords tangled by the sofa, clothes I put on and shed as my personal temperature changes draped haphazardly on furniture, etc. So it’s always good for me to know ahead of time when someone will be coming to the house so I can race around throwing things into tote bags, shoving them behind a door, and thus offering the illusion of order. (Maybe this is arrogance? Not letting guests see that we live like pigs?)

Because of a three-day weekend and some projects that were started and left unfinished, some laundry done but only half put away, some “delicates” drying from hangers hooked over doorsills, some cooking experiments of Z’s that I enjoyed eating but had yet to clean up after, some wilted flowers from Leibovitz that were now neither beautiful enough to warrant display nor dead enough to warrant the trash, some bonus books to our already teetering stacks…because of all these things the house was not looking its best. Also, there was yet another mouse sighting and so Z had set up his Mouse Wall to encourage the mouse to stay in the kitchen and not skitter into our bedroom. (And no, Z is not a fool. He knows the mouse can scale the wall but he does it out of love for me so I will feel safer while sleeping, which is really all border walls do: make fearful people feel safer even though fences and walls often don’t achieve those goals and can be costly and unattractive.) Still, I thought, as I trundled off to bed, it will be easy enough to pick up in the morning while I wait to hear when the inspection will be.

Recently, I have been on an insomnia bender possibly caused by anxiety about a possible teaching gig after a three-and-a-half-year classroom hiatus, but more likely caused by some late night weed-free-but-highly-caffeinated brownies I’ve ingested. At 4:30, I was still not asleep, so I got up and took a sleeping pill. In the morning, I heard Z talking to the building manager in the hallway and I felt a little cross that they weren’t having the appointment-making conversation in her very tidy office downstairs instead of within my earshot so early in the morning. I sighed, settled in for more sleep, and then the bedroom door flew open and the light came on. I expected to see Z, but instead, it was the building manager and the handyman.

“OH NO!” she said. “YOU’RE HERE! I KNOCKED. YOU DIDN’T ANSWER.”

She and Z had not been chatting in the hallway. She and the handy man had been in the apartment checking our pipes for leaks and our smoke detectors for batteries. Z had been at work for hours. She skittered out of the house faster than the mouse skitters back under the refrigerator when Z swats at it with rolled up detritus from our coffee table.

To say I was mortified to be found in bed by someone other than Z at a 11 a.m.—to have been so zonked out from a sleeping pill that I didn’t hear the knock at the door or people in my home, to have been seen in my own personal bed by a woman I have heretofore only had benign conversations with about mouse infestations and her Yorkshire terrier—is an understatement.

This is the sort of thing that NEVER happens to those Sundance Catalog women.

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Not the tidy and artful bed I was found in by the building manager. (Photo: Sundance)

I spent the rest of the day hiding in the apartment with the chain on the door and the curtains drawn. I wrote an Email of Agony to Jane to tell her of my shame. Jane’s house is always lovely. She would never have a mouse wall in a doorway or last night’s dishes in the sink. Jane would never be in bed at 11 a.m. But Jane is a good person and I knew she would not point this out to me, even if she did believe making me feel more embarrassed might help on the road to my ultimate self-improvement.

This is ONE WEEK’s worth of embarrassments. I can’t say I feel particularly good or unburdened about having told you any of these stories. But if I did have a Dragon of Arrogance? That thing has been smote.

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Reunited and it feels so good.