Category Archives: Art

Tiny Hands Injures Her Neck

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They don’t make skies like this in Seattle.

It’s Mom’s last day in Seattle after a three week visit, which was preceded by a 5 week visit of mine to Indiana, so I’m starting the morning with my “Fall Décor” lights set on high-beam, two strong cups of tea, and some Lizzo so I won’t feel the sadness that I will likely feel tomorrow when we point her towards her gate at SEATAC and wave goodbye.

 

Stupid Lizzo.

 

Thanks to Lizzo’s contagious upbeatness, I spent the last three days in phone hell instead of enjoying Mom’s presence here. A couple of weeks ago I discovered that if I drank tea in the morning, sprayed myself with the Aveda Pure-fume that is supposed to open up my 5th chakra of communication, and listened to a Lizzo playlist on my way to class that I was transformed into the instructor I’m meant to be. That is, this magical elixir makes me as extraverted as I’m capable of being AND able to come up with near-perfect examples, analogies, and author and book titles when class discussion goes down a twisty path.

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Autumnal energy booster.

In fact, the magic lasts even after class and so that is why on Tuesday, “Truth Hurts” blasting into my ears as I walked home with a bounce in my step, it seemed like a perfectly natural thing to pick up a plastic Coke bottle that someone had tossed on the ground.

 

This is not something I normally do. Normally, I look at litter—which enrages me because it’s so senseless—and think, they really need to clean this place up.

 

They.

 

Earlier in Mom’s visit we’d been to the Convention Center to see the Northwest Water Color Society’s exhibit and while we were there, the youth of the world were out marching in protest of the deplorable state of the environment. Mom and I stood peering out at them a few streets away as traffic backed up, spewing exhaust into the atmosphere, and I felt a little teary as I watched them. A woman walked up to see what the fuss was and said something that could have been supportive or sarcastic and Mom said something sagely back like, “Why shouldn’t they be protesting? It’s their world.”

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It doesn’t look that impressive from this distance, but we were impressed.

When you don’t have children of your own you sometimes forget that you are not “young people” or “the youth” that you have always felt you were. It’s a surprise to realize that your own mother doesn’t see the world as yours anymore, so much as she sees it as something for some younger generation.

 

It’s also shocking to wake up one day and realize that the children of the world aren’t just mad at the people you were mad at when you were their age but they are actually mad at you. And you’ve got no leg to stand on because you were pretty Gen X apathetic and emo through most of the 80s and 90s and aughts and only got very marginally woke when you moved to a city with a plastic bag ban and curbside recycling and composting. (And don’t tell these children or the city Trash Sheriff, but you don’t compost because you live in 500 square feet and hate fruit flies and justify this failure of yours with the knowledge that you have no car, have not filled the landfill with the diapers of your imaginary children, are unfashionable and thus keep your clothes for decades instead of sending them to a landfill, and fly somewhat less than the average upwardly mobile Seattle.)

 

Later, on that bright, caffeinated, Lizzo perky day, while I was walking down the street, saw that plastic bottle and thought this they would finally do something and pick it up and throw it away, I felt good about this choice. I was a block from home and so I could  wash my hands and thus the germs of whatever cretin had last touched the bottle, and I knew that if I put it where it belonged, it would not roll ten blocks down the hill into Elliott Bay and choke a baby Orca. It was a win for the environment and a win for my belief in myself as a decent human being.

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The Orcas beneath this ferry are NOT choking on at least one plastic bottle because of me.

 

And then my ancient, petite iPhone jumped out of my pocket when I bent over and skittered across the sidewalk. The screen spider-webbed and only 1/10th of the display worked—and not the helpful bit of display wherein I could turn Lizzo off or check my text messages but instead the part that showed my battery was at 86%.

 

On the plus side, I was in such a good mood that I dealt with it. I threw out that bottle, made an appointment to get it fixed, and then used powers of reason to deduce that paying $70 (or more, if fixable) for a six year old phone that had been slowing down anyhow was perhaps not the best use of money. I even maintained my calm when I discovered that the fabulous replacement phone I’d been fantasizing about for six months would cost what a new MacBook Air would cost. (Things have changed in the six years since I bought a phone.)

 

With optimism, I got online and ordered a pre-loved older phone that was a couple of generations newer than my old one and by all reports online was “the” old phone to get. (Added benefit: a few moments of sanctimony as I thought about how much better I was for reusing someone else’s phone and not depleting the world of extra minerals for a brand new one. You’re welcome, Earth!)

 

I was even surprisingly perky about living two whole days without a phone and spent time reflecting on life before 1992 when I got my first “car phone.” It was in a giant carry-on sized bag that sat beside me on the seat in case there was a roadside emergency. I stood at the bus stop listening to music in my head—still Lizzo— and pondered how back in my day you’d just go out into the world untethered to technology and it never occurred to you that it wasn’t “safe.” If you had car trouble, someone would probably rescue you or you’d walk somewhere and borrow use someone’s phone and help would come.

 

It was a different world. Now if I forget my phone and walk five blocks from the apartment, Z growls at me and makes me feel like I’ve been juggling the kitchen knives again.

 

I maintained the good humor until the new, “pre-loved” phone arrived. It’s lovely and does all the things I want it to do even if it is 4 generations behind whatever is the hot new powerful thing. But it is also giant and every time I pick it up, all I can think about is Donald Trump needing two hands to drink that normal-sized bottle of water. I’ve always thought I had big hands for a woman, but I guess not. I can’t balance the thing in one hand and text—it’s a two-handed situation now and it won’t fit in the wallet I bought for my money and my old phone three weeks ago, and since I currently don’t have a case for it, I’m carrying it in a protective recycled pencil pouch from a women’s cooperative in a developing country and refusing to take it out unless there is carpet and soft furnishing underneath me.

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New phone for giants next to cracked, reasonably sized phone.

Yesterday, I peppered my Millennial students with questions about how they manage their giant phones, some gianter than mine, and they looked at me the way I used to look at Great Aunt Clara when I had to explain that you could now get money right out of an ATM and didn’t have to talk to a bank teller or anything. Apparently you just hold it and appreciate that the movies you’re watching on Netflix are easier to see than they were on that old 5c. What a stupid thing to complain about, their expressions said while their mouths said, “I know” as they nodded their heads to humor me.

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Self-explanatory.

 

While I was in Indiana, I had dinner one night with Leibovitz, Little Leibovitz home for a week before starting grad school, and Baby Leibovitz home from her first year of college. It’s been awhile since I’ve been with all three of them at once, and it still surprises me when I visit Leibovitz’s house and the girls aren’t there, so I was glad the planets aligned. Frankly, their having grown up still jolts me. I spent a lot of time with them when they were little, then Z arrived on the scene and distracted me somewhat, and I woke up one day and L.L. was no longer begging me to “do projects” and B.L. was no longer carrying her pink blanky, and so on this particular night it was still surprising to be sitting across from these creatures I met on the day they came into this world and now they are beautiful and clever and have lives of their own that I know nothing about. They are wise in all the ways I remember being wise when I was 20 only they seem to be going places I never was.

 

On this occasion, they tried to convince me their cauliflower crust pizza was just as good as a real pizza crust and even though I know it is categorically untrue that anything made of cauliflower can be as good as bread, I want to believe. We laughed, talked about school and the winding down of summer, while I sat there and tried not to behave creepily while I admired their perfect skin, particularly the bit under their eyes that is unlined and bagless. Was my skin ever that smooth and un-aged?

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You know what’s better than cauliflower? Sweetcorn fresh from my aunt’s field.

 

At some point, their mother told me that she’d water skied for the last time this summer. She realized it wasn’t worth it—she doesn’t have the back for it anymore, etc. and in a brief second I saw this look pass between the girls and I heard my mother and her friends two decades ago talking about new aches and pains. I too, had probably glanced at whatever of my contemporaries was nearest and gave that look. That look that says, Here we go again with the aches and pains talk. Older people are so single-minded and unaware.

 

Suddenly, I felt like a wizened crone, and so decided to to lay some truth on the girls: “You think you’re always going to be the age you are right now, but one day you are going to wake up and you’re going to be this age and it’s going to shock you because inside you’ll still feel 20 but your body won’t feel 20 at all.”

 

And even that sounded like something I know I heard my mother say 20 years ago. They laughed and said they knew, but of course they don’t know. You can’t know when you are young that you won’t always be young. The future feels so far away.

 

On the drive home, I was on a hamster-wheel of thought that went How’d I get here? Why aren’t they still in diapers? Weren’t Leibovitz and I just putting them to bed early so we could talk about real life stuff without havng to spell it out? Weren’t Leibovits and I just their age?

 

It seems fitting to me that the first 45 record I ever bought was Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” and oh, how those opening lines about time slipping into the future fascinated me as a ten year old even though I didn’t quite understand. (And yes, Steve Miller, but it could have been worse—my 3rd grade friend’s first 45, bought at the same time as mine from the now defunct Elder-Beerman department store, was “Muskrat Love”, a song that has blessedly fallen from radio playlists for a reason.)

 

Other than the phone, the other distraction while Mom has been here in Seattle, which has kept me from being fully present and focused on her is that before I left Indiana, I injured my neck.

 

I’m saying I “injured” my neck because that will make you think I was working construction, building something important, and there was an accident with some rebar and I was damaged and now am collecting workman’s comp. The truth is, I slept on it funny. Or turned it too quickly. Or shrugged my shoulders too vigorously when someone asked me where I wanted to go for dinner. I don’t even know what happened, but one day I was in agony and I stayed that way for two and half weeks.

 

I had a couple of massages that briefly helped, but then the muscles would turn themselves back into a Celtic knot after a few hours and I’d be popping Advil, some Class A narcotics I had from kidney stones of yesteryear, and none of it touched the pain. It was the kind of agony that is not so bad that you have to go to a room to be by yourself to whimper in peace, but it was the kind where when you are with other people you can’t really focus on their words or make plans for Big Fun in the City, and you talk over much about the number of pain you are in on that inane pain scale when your husband asks how you feel. All you can focus on is your body and how it used to work so nicely and now is wrecked and may never be the same.

 

After a visit to the doctor, I was sent to physical therapy up the street where a nice therapist called Laurel (who I highly recommend) has worked on the muscles and made me do exercise.  Though it still twinges at times, I finally feel normal again but I may never backpack across Europe, and, frankly, I could do without her telling me how all of my muscles are connected because I don’t like to think about anything under my skin all that much.

The upside: my posture hasn’t been this good since I saw that episode of “Brady Bunch” as a kid when Marcia  was walking around with a stack of books on her head.

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Dear Street Artists: please don’t force me to think about my own inner workings.

 

Because Seattle is a young city, most the people at this therapy joint are young and are having muscles iced and heated and manipulated that they clearly strained while free climbing or running marathons. They’re in appropriate, attractive athletic wear and even though injured, they are doing vigorous stretches and strengthening exercises. Meanwhile, I am sitting in a chair in a cardigan tilting my neck from side to side and holding it for 30 seconds at a time and Laurel is saying, “That looks great!! Keep it up!”

 

I’m ashamed of myself for how pleased I was the day I saw a woman there who appeared to be older than I was, sitting at a table sorting beads from one bowl to another, and I thought with some satisfaction, “At least I still have my fine motor control!” As if this is all some kind of competition—who is oldest, who is strongest, whose hands are big and dexterous enough to hold their phones and regular sized bottles of water that they’ll fail to recycle.

 

So now I am here with a brain no longer addled with pain or obsessed with what phone is most cost effective and environmentally friendly—and which case will protect it best when it slips from my tiny, ancient hands—and it is time for Mom to leave. We are spending our last day together here painting, considering that maybe we should shower and dress before Z gets home from work, and with her worrying her suitcase won’t zip or will be too heavy and me insisting that it will all be fine even though I don’t know for sure, but I think—in my “youth”–that I know more than she does about the weight of things.

 

At some point, Z will come home, will get out the luggage scale, and will find out if she’s good to go or if we have to find a second suitcase for her to lug home a few books she got for her birthday that cost less than the fee for an additional bag.

 

Hopefully the truth won’t hurt. But it usually does.

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To Tiny Buzz Lightyear, even my tiny phone would be too much to deal with.

You Are Here

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This mural is on a building I pass on the way to work. Usually, I’ve got a crease in my forehead as I think about the things I need to cover in class or remember someone’s essay I forgot to respond to or am obsessed with some other worry. Then I see this and it never fails to make me laugh at myself. Most of the stuff I spend my time fretting over is pretty insignificant. As am I in terms of some of the old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.  As is this blog entry. It’s the end of May. I haven’t blogged in yonks. This isn’t a real blog, but I’m hoping it will keep you sated until the next real one.

 

  • I am, yes, still angry about the end of Game of Thrones. The only reason I am still carrying my direwolf totebag is because of my deep and abiding affection for House Stark generally and Arya and Jon Snow specifically.

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  • I am, yes, worried about Kit Harington, who is reportedly not handling the end of the show very well and has checked himself into rehab. I have watched a lot of interviews with him and poured over articles hoping that my concern from afar and Rose Leslie’s love from “anear” is healing his heartache.

 

  • I am, yes, re-reading Game of Thrones in an attempt to find evidence that should George R.R. Martin ever write his own end to the series it will be different than what the showrunners just put us through. I’m highlighting and taking notes and am generally embarrassed by how much I’m geeking out over this. (Z is being very patient. Also, he’s been instructed to quit calling me Khaleesibeth.)

 

  • I am, yes, already complaining about summer. It’s been warm here with a big unrelenting sun hanging in a cloudless sky (other people are excited about this). Yesterday when I got to my class in a brand new building, the AC wasn’t working. Unlike the old building, this one has no interior windows to open because it’s climate controlled (in theory). We pushed tables and chairs out on the courtyard patio for an al fresco class experience during which we were under the SEATAC flight pattern (roar), next to a nonfunctioning but still thrumming AC unit (dull roar), and some guy in the building behind us kept leaning out the window and retching loudly (gross). Also, I kept trying to put my hair up with a pen the way writer’s do when they are dug into the work and can’t go rustle up a hairclip out of a drawer, but like many things taught in the How to Be a Girl-Writer camp that I never attended, it is a skill I have never achieved, so I’m pretty sure I just looked like one of the Weird Sisters in MacBeth, stirring a metaphorical caldron with a broomstick handle, stringy hair framing my face as I toiled, and thus lessening my credibility as I lectured on point of view in the short story.

 

  • Today I realized that I don’t know how to use our toaster. Apparently in nine years of marriage I have never done my own toasting. The blueberry waffle I was attempting to heat kept popping up, still frozen. Instead, I heated it in the microwave from which it emerged a crunchy hockey puck. Today’s menu: hockey puck, three strips of fake bacon, and one scrambled egg with a small piece of shell. Delicious.

 

  • I’ve belatedly discovered Lizzo after listening to an interview Terry Gross did with her recently, and I’ll admit that I kind of want to pick a fight with Z tonight (maybe about the toaster and subpar waffle) so I can burst into song: hair toss, check my nails… It’s not the kind of music on my regular rotation, but I keep thinking how differently my twenties would have looked if I’d had Lizzo singing a little truth to power and encouraging me to walk out the various doors of my youth that I should have walked out of more quickly. (Alas, she was only six years old when I needed her most, and now I don’t want to walk through any door if Z is on my side of it. Even if he came into this marriage with that cantankerous toaster.)

 

  • At our last class last week, a student presented me with this awesome tote because she knew about my affection for Joan Didion. (Jane said to me when I sent her a pic, “How wonderful that we live in a time when there are totes for every interest we could possibly have in the world.”) Ever since I’ve got it, I’ve been considering ways to jazz it up so it looks even more like Didion—I’m thinking sunglasses, beads, a cigarette.

 

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  • I’m headed to Indiana next week because it’s been calling to me. One of my students this quarter was from Indiana and we were bonding each week over the things we miss about it, plus I scored 100% on the “Are You a Hoosier?” quiz on Facebook (no doubt generated by Russians trying to figure out how to game sugar cream pie to Putin’s advantage). I’m looking forward to it. I’m dreading being sans Z. You’ve heard this story before so I’ll spare you.
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My student & I bonded over my Hoosier tumbler of choice. (It’s more about the blue than the chocolate, I swear.)

  • In addition to sating the urge to be in my hometown, my trip home came about when my paternal cousins, an aunt, and I decided we needed to have a genealogical get-together. I am currently ill prepared for it. When we set it up, I was imagining that I’d morph into an organized person who went with a binder of newspaper clippings, extended family trees printed off for everyone, and photos compiled in chronological order. Instead, I’m probably going with my laptop and a recently re-opened Ancestry.com account and a dream that some, better future Beth will be prepared for the next time we get together. (Future Beth astounds me with the things she can accomplish.)

 

  • When planning said genealogy weekend, I realized belatedly that for two decades we’ve had all of our reunions at the Scottie Dog house, which I no longer have access to since Mac has gone to the Happy Hunting Ground and his parents have moved to the desert. So when you picture us together— talking about Great Great Grandmother Ellen Kelly who left Ireland during the Famine and had a baby girl on the high seas whose birth is marked “Atlantic” on census records—please imagine us gathered around a queen sized bed in a Holiday Inn room instead of on the screened porch with a view of a woods and a pond.

 

  • Do moths bite? Because I have some bites that are itching and the only insects I’ve seen in the apartment are moths trying to feast on my knitwear. I think maybe moths bite.

 

  • On Easter weekend, Providence and I paid a lot of money to spend six hours at a spiritual retreat led by The Artist’s Way guru Julia Cameron, meant to get us in touch with our creativity. In the ‘90s, I was a devout follower of Cameron, and even now I teach students about the magic that happens when you write daily “morning pages” (stream of consciousness writing for 20-30 minutes a day). It was a period of my life when I felt extra creative and so I was anxious to get a tune-up with the master herself. Providence and I both pictured ourselves rotating between listening to Cameron’s wisdom and journaling for the whole day. I imagined soft lighting and cups of tea. Instead, it was a crowded hall where we had to fight for seats, and it was an introvert’s nightmare. Rather than reflection, Cameron did very little talking and instead made us do an exercise in small groups of strangers where we listened to their answers to some of her rapid-fire prompts and then wrote out tiny encouragements on ripped up bits of notebook paper. The idea was that we’d all go home with some inspiration and a sense that we had a right to create when we read what strangers had said to us, but it was hell. I did a few rounds of it with a smile plastered to my face because I was committed to getting the most out of the experience, I really was. But then it became apparent that all we were going to do all day long (other than occasionally sing choruses of songs Cameron had written) were “popcorns” with different groups of people. Providence and I were hoping it would change after lunch, but when we returned and Cameron started with, “Okay, get in a group of four people you don’t know” Providence let out an audible blasphemous expletive, which made me snort with laughter. It was, hands down, my favorite part of the day. I did not leave with any new inspiration, though I did come to the conclusion that at this age, I know my own mind and will not be cowed into activities dreamed up by an extrovert and made to feel like I’m faulty because I hate it. I’m not sure that nugget of wisdom was worth $150 and the stress of trying to find parking  around Green Lake, but that was my take-away.

 

  • And yes, two of my four Cameron books have been deposited in one of the Tiny Libraries that dot the neighborhood. And yes, they were deposited with glee.

 

  • My passport expired and because the Department of State isn’t exactly efficient these days, I decided to get a new one immediately. I waited until a day when my skin looked particularly glowy and my hair had some bounce. I put on my best color, and marched to the UPS store. I felt confident that it would be a good photo, even as the camera in use kept sliding down the pole on the tri-pod. At the very least, I believed there was no way this photo could be worse than the last one—taken on a boiling hot day ten years ago at a CVS when I was angry because two weeks before my departure and after several calls the passport folk admitted the good photos I’d sent in had been damaged and I had to resubmit and rush new ones to them if I had any hope of making my residency in Dingle. That photo is a red-faced Beth who all but has a cartoon “$%&# &%@” above her head. So really, there was no way this pic was going to be worse—the temp was cool, I was coiffed and had put on make-up, and I was feeling chipper. And then the UPS guy showed me the pic and said, “Will this do?” and I realized that though this decade has been the happiest of my life, my face did not get the memo that “happiness = youthful appearance” and my brain did not get the memo that when ten years passes it shows. I could have demanded he re-take it, but it was clear to me my jowls were not his fault. So I shrugged and said, “I guess that’s what I look like,” paid my money, shoved it in an envelope, with my old angry passport, mailed it off, and marched back home. Now I wait. Fortunately, I don’t need a passport for Indiana. Yet.

 

  • There’s a new Corgi-Australian Shepherd mix puppy in the neighborhood and I keep bumping into it and forcing its mother to talk to me. I don’t think she really wants to, but now that I’ve lived here nine years I’ve decided I’ve got to be the change I wish to see in the neighborhood, and that change is people with dogs talking to me and, occasionally, letting me pet said dogs.

 

  • Every few weekends, Z and I have a little adventure by way of taking the bus or lightrail to some neighborhood we haven’t really explored. We walk around. We get a drink. We try to look like non-threatening new neighbors instead of people who don’t belong. Some days we find views. Other days we find gorgeous houses. Sometimes we find archy shrubberies or discover we aren’t that far from the lake.
  • Mom and I have started painting together every Monday. When I say “painting together” I mean she paints in Indiana and I paint in Seattle at roughly the same time and then we email each other our efforts and praise each other and feel good about ourselves because we’re doing something more than watching videos of baby elephants trying to sit on people’s laps. My goal is that my efforts turn out something like this—little sketches from photos I took on past travels:

 

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Unfortunately, some of my attempts are abject failures. This was supposed to be Z. He was not impressed:

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  • Z sent me a string of texts today in which he was hooting in person and with laughing emojis because he was watching people walking past his office and get flapped at by some nesting crows who don’t understand about college campuses and right of way. I reminded him that Jon Snow got a scar from a crow and then I quit laughing because I started feeling sorry for Kit Harington again.

 

And now we have arrived where we began, the outer edge of that ancient tree stump. Not a particularly significant location in history, but here we are.

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The Bug-Eyed of Notre Dame

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Yesterday, a writer-client I’m working with came into my studio with news that Notre Dame was on fire. Her voice was mournful, and I’ll admit that I was doing calculations re: the proximity of my cousin G, who works at a neighboring campus in South Bend, when the writer said, “The spire is down” and then I knew she meant the French one, not the Fighting Irish one in northern Indiana that I’ve been to periodically since childhood.

 

She filled me in on the details and my heart sank. We turned to her work and I spent the next two hours delighting in her words and ideas, and was able—thank you Headspace app—to stay focused on the words at hand though my brain kept trying to slink back to the idea of Paris without Notre Dame, of history without that particular touchstone.

 

As soon as she left, I watched the footage and had a loud, honking weep. I felt all twisty with grief and briefly considered walking up the street to St. James Cathedral until I looked at the clock and realized mass would be in session and what I wanted was quiet and contemplation in a beautiful space, not words and ritual. So I cried some more, ate some peanut butter crackers, and got on with my life. Like you do.

 

Here’s the thing: I’ve never been to Notre Dame. I’ve never been to Paris. I’m not really Catholic. My only experience with The Hunchback of Notre Dame was watching the Disney version only because I was interested in how Demi Moore would play Esmerelda. If I’m watching a historical movie in which the English are fighting the French, I root for the English. (If the English are fighting the Irish, that’s a whole other thing.) Despite four years studying French, the only phrase I’ve committed to memory is les belles vaches du Normandie (that’s the beautiful cows of Normandy for those of you who are not bilingual like I am), and I can wish a guy I knew in 8th grade who has spent his adult life in Paris Happy Birthday en français if I double-check the spelling with Google Translate before hitting “post.”

 

So I’ve been thinking about why I shed more tears over timber and stone than I did over the last five mass shootings in the U.S. or the forest fires last summer, and I’ve isolated it to a few reasons why it seemed so terribly sad to me, a person who has self-ostracized from France because I fear being sneered at by Parisians who think Americans are gauche.

 

I am a self-reflective person, so let’s get that category of over-indulgent mourning out of the way.

 

Notre Dame has been on my bucket list since 1981 when I stumbled into Madame Rutkowski’s French I class in high school. I’ve always assumed at some point I would get to France. I imagined I would admire the cathedral and then make my way to Chartres, Reims, Rouen, Mt. Sainte Michel, and I would end in the Louvre and only then truly worship at the altar of art. I did not like Madame Rutkowski, and she did not like me much. But I realized later in my life that she was an incredible teacher even though most of us were mediocre students at best, and if she were still alive, I would write her a note and tell her that, thank her for making me interested in French history, architecture, art, Roman aqueducts, boules, Le Petit Prince, the sites of Paris and the fantastical way the city unrolled like a snail shell from the oldest arrondissement where I wanted to start my exploration. These are the reasons—not the language or her or even Audrey Hepburn—that I came back for French II and French III.

 

And so, let’s be honest, that weep was for myself. It seems clear now in the light of the next day that Notre Dame will rise from the ashes. Whether it is fixed up in my lifetime, and whether I happen to be in Paris when it’s open to the public is another story. But even if it is, I will be keenly aware that parts of it are now a facsimile and it won’t feel the same. It’s illogical, but I’ll know. When I was at Canterbury Cathedral looking at the steps that were worn away by penitent pilgrims who had crawled up them on their knees for centuries, I was moved. Those steps could be replaced with something new made to look old, sure—the same smooth, uneven dips in the stone could probably be duplicated with a machine of some sort—but I would know it was a fabrication.

 

Which brings me to the second reason for the tears of Notre Dame. I hate when history is lost to us. The picture that got me going in the first place was the one shot up in “The Forest” that featured all the wood that had been there for centuries. Even though I assume your average tourist couldn’t go up to that peaky bit of the attic and rest her cheek on the timbers, the idea that she could until yesterday and now she never will be able to wrecked me. Who touched those beams? Who made sure they were hewn to specifications so they fit where they were supposed to? Who got damaged backs and hands and feet moving those heavy timbers before there were mechanized pulleys and cranes? I would feel this same way if the fire had engulfed some centuries-old hovel that had housed peasants. It’s not about the grandeur—it’s the loss of that connection with people from all those yesterdays ago.

 

The news today is that one of the particular problems with a rebuild is that the forests that supplied the oak for that skeleton have all but disappeared because humans kind of suck and don’t let things grow when there’s a profit to be made off of old-growth forest—and sure, “The Forest” was maybe an early pillage of the forests, but I can forgive a little of that if it’s used for something beautiful and meaningful and lasting. I love a touchstone with the past, and while I’m happy to focus on how all is not lost—and how no one died—yesterday the loss seemed too much to absorb. Like an erasure of generations of people and events. Goodbye.

 

And finally, there is the thing that made me howl loudest when I re-watched that spire fall, wondering what would be left when the fire was quenched. What I’m beginning to realize at this late juncture in my life is my “thing”: I need for the world to be beautiful. I don’t like ugliness in general (Z can attest to this as my eye automatically goes to whatever is hideous or wrong with the city on our nightly walk), but more specifically when something beautiful dies because of natural disaster or human ignorance or arrogance, a combustible cloud of grief and rage builds inside me. I feel like Nancy Kerrigan crying WHY? after her knee was whacked, thus dashing her dreams.

 

We don’t really do beauty anymore, do we? Not the beauty that requires craftsmanship, forethought about future generations, purpose outside of making a buck. Instead, we do serviceable. Or interesting. Or ironic. Or provocative. We’re so busy looking forward, disdaining the past, that we don’t realize that our buildings and our sculptures and our uppercase Art has more to do with causing a stir now than it does to satisfy an inner need for beauty. So when something lovely, something painstakingly crafted via nature or human hand, disappears, it feels visceral.

 

I become obsessive and start harping on things like pole-barn churches being built on formerly beautiful pasture or the buildings in Seattle that have artful edifices and courtyards that are callously bowled over for un-interesting steel and glass to house the elite people who can afford a vista, with no concern about how it looks on the outside to the those of us forced to stare at it daily. The view out for the few is all that matters.

 

That massive, ridiculous staircase sculpture—an ode to consumerism and wealth— in New York City’s Hudson Yards is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

Vessel at Hudson

Maybe its beautiful if you’re a bee. Or a cyborg.

I don’t hate it. It’s interesting. I suppose were I to climb it the views might be spectacular, though there are certainly more picturesque and striking views in other parts of Manhattan. I can see how tired parents might love exhausting their children on those 154 flights of stairs. But there is nothing there as groundbreaking as a flying buttress. It doesn’t please the eye so much as entertain it. If it imploded tomorrow or eight centuries from now, it wouldn’t be a huge loss to civilization. I’m never going to sit on one of those steps and get chills because it feels holy, the way I once did in the interior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex in Buffalo (maybe the last period in the modern era when true craftsmanship was still celebrated) or get tears in my eyes when I see light streaming through the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome.

 

I know. I know. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

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People love Portland, Oregon—they have a sort of revered affection for it that I’ve never caught. Maybe it isn’t Portland’s fault, my lack of enthusiasm for it. I have had a series of unfortunate events there beginning with my first trip when Z and I were engaged. I loved him to bits, had no question about my future with him, but I’d begun having “The Terrifications” about leaving home. Other Portland failures on that trip included my early disappointment in how much like a warehouse the famous Powell’s Books looked, when what I really want in a bookstore is a few leather wingbacks, a fireplace, and a learned Person of Letters smoking a pipe and reading some dense tome while I browse nearby.

 

I was similarly disappointed in my inability to locate Voodoo Donuts.

 

Also, we happened upon a parade of naked bicycle riders, a sight almost more disturbing than Notre Dame burning yesterday. All that pale, jiggle-y flesh daring us to find fault with it as it bumped down the street.

 

Subsequent trips have been no more pleasant, have included repeat disappointments with Powell’s, inability to locate the donuts, and an overwhelming sense that everyone there isn’t as interested in showering as they are in other parts of the country AND the sure and certain knowledge that my having noticed this means that I’m too square and superficial to fully understand Portland and its celebrated weirdness. The last trip, last summer, ended unceremoniously when I had a full-on panic attack while I was driving home during rush hour. My brain was fizzing and pinging because there were too many people—in my lane, on the road, on the planet—and they were sucking up my oxygen and seemed hell-bent on making sure I never ever got home.

 

Also, if I’m being completely honest with you—a policy of mine—I have to admit I do not really like Portland’s poster boy, Fred Armisen. He makes me more uncomfortable than naked bicyclists and rush hour traffic in an unkown city combined. And no, I don’t know why.

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King Street Station, Seattle

A few weeks ago, Z and I took the train to Portland, which was a labor of love. I was itching to see my friends from my old MFA program, who were in town for AWP. It had been five years since I’d seen some of them, more years for others, so seeing Chickpea, Quill, Geeg, and the Beard was worth whatever pain and suffering Portland was prepared to dole out.

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A little ambiance at King Street Station, Seattle

Our trip started in Seattle’s King Street Station, which was built when things were still made to be beautiful at the turn of the last century, designed by a firm that would later go on to be associated with Grand Central Station in New York City. When Z moved here 12 years ago, it was being renovated after years of disrepair and “modernization” had wrecked it (plaster reliefs, tile mosaics, and marble replaced with sheetrock and dropped acoustical tile because when is that not a good idea?). But now, it’s grand and old timey again, and I’m sure people would argue that it’s inefficient, but I feel really endeared to the way that train travel—the tickets, the assigning of seats, the check-in and boarding process—is so analog. Everything is paper, a lot of it handwritten. All of it adds up to a sense of how things used to be and, frankly, it seemed less tedious than waiting in line to board a plane.

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I wanted to steal one of each of these.

What was disappointing, however, is that when we were actually on the train, we were looking forward to lunch in the dining car. We were both expecting linen table cloths and Hercule Poirot, but instead we got the equivalent of concession stand and some crowded stools, so we staggered back to our seats with our hotdogs and drowned our disappointment in the view of Puget Sound and a few glimpses of the Olympic Mountains on an otherwise grey day.

 

In Portland, we stayed at the Woodlark Hotel, a building that had been an old hotel, then had been slated to be demolished years ago, but someone with foresight (and money) rescued it, and opened it recently—nicely remodeled. The desk clerk happily informed us we’d been upgraded to a space with more light, so I swung the room door open with relish only to discover a king sized bed with a path around it (i.e. the same as our own bedroom at home), a “closet” that was brass pipes jutting out of the wall, and a desk and chair built for young Swedish children (unfortunate for Z since he had papers to grade while I was swanning around with my friends). It did have the promised window with a view onto the busy street below, and I decided to appreciate how bijoux it was and how much I preferred it to a modern, air-tight space with no sense of itself.

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Hotel closets have never been so stylish and accessible!

Also, the fine folk at the Woodlark were so proud of the wallpaper in our room that it was duplicated on the coasters, room key, and the home screen of the TV. For four days I felt like I was in a steampunk jungle.

 

Whenever I see this particular set of friends, I’m surprised by how it feels like we said goodbye a month ago and no time has passed. We quickly dive into conversations about writing and life and memories from a decade ago when I met them as a homesick first semester nonfiction writer. They were all considerably younger than I was and almost done with the program, but they invited me in and that made all the difference. They saved the experience for me—made it fun, instead of an ordeal, taught me the ropes of handling the sometimes grueling residencies, and bought me a birthday tiara to help me celebrate my 42nd birthday the year The Terrifications began in earnest.

 

I’d like to regale you here with amusing anecdotes from those three days, but the truth is, it wouldn’t be interesting or entertaining: inside jokes originally constructed after too much alcohol, conversations about writers we like/loathe, stories about bodily functions and housekeeping. We went to Powell’s Books and I liked it better as I wandered around with Quill and Chickpea, recommending books to each other—focusing primarily on display books because they were face out and required no bending over. We weaved around streets looking for a place where my unsophisticated palate could be sated with something that wouldn’t completely bore them. I tried to find my bearings on the streets that all seemed the same to me (I never could figure out which direction was north, where the center of town was, or come to a conclusion about why a city so much smaller than Seattle seemed to have twice the homeless population.) We went to the river, a serviceable working river, but no beauty. My favorite bit, the Portland sign in Old Town that’s the shape of Oregon with a deer leaping away, as if it too is frightened of Fred Armisen.

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A serviceable river. I do love those little bridge turrets!

Chickpea and Quill made it a goal to get me, finally, blessedly, to Voodoo Donuts, where we waited in a long line while looking at pictures of the donut treasures awaiting us—donuts covered in breakfast cereals, bacon, bubble gum, and shaped like joints and rude body parts. Getting a treat there is an event, though Chickpea was chastised by her server for ordering a single donut, “just so you can say you’ve been here” which was kind of off-putting. Surely half the people in that line were there so they could say they’d been to this temple of donut worship.

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My final review: Voodoo donuts are okay. I don’t really get the hype. I know it’s blasphemy for someone living in the Pacific Northwest to say this, but I’d rather have a Krispy Kreme.

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At least there’s one thing I can tick off my bucket list.

 

Our first night visiting our friends, Z and I rode the light rail back to the Woodlark. A security guard at the train station when we arrived told me it’s the best light rail system in the U.S. and maybe it is. (I can’t really judge—Seattle’s isn’t very complex or expansive.) But I didn’t love it. I’m used to riding public transportation, I’m used to the odd squabble, the random strings of curses at no one in particular, dogs of all varieties sometimes growling at each other. But on our ride home—at a respectable hour—a preppy looking dude with a black eye got on and began fake-punching and mouthing off to other people on the train. He wasn’t a racist, he said, but he was Special Ops and could throw the two guys at the back—who were Black—off the train if he wanted. There was a lot of back and forth between the three of them, and one of the guys said, “Dude, you’ve already got a black eye.” Later, they got off the train, shuffling past the instigator, and one guy mumbled, “I’m out of here. I can’t go to jail tonight.”

 

This left Z and me and a few other people further away for him to perform for. Whatever he’d been smoking or sniffing made silence an impossibility for him. He sidled up to us, asked Z if he was a doctor, and without really waiting for an answer said he was a doctor. A Special Ops doctor who worked for the CIA. We kept our eyes trained on the floor, hoping he’d catch a clue. But he kept up with his rambling chatter. Too close. Too unstable. He flexed a muscle and told me to feel it. I finally looked at him and said sarcastically, “No thanks.” He said to Z, “She’s got big eyes.” (Z insists he said, “She’s got big, beautiful eyes” but I’m pretty sure it was just “big eyes” said in the same sneering tone that Billy McGathey once used on me in 7th grade Home Ec not to look at him with my “bug eyes.” (I’m not sure why me looking at him was a problem—mostly I was just unimpressed with his seamstress skills and certain that my big eyes weren’t actually buggy.)

 

I don’t know if Z knew things with this guy were likely to get worse, or if he could sense that his wife was a middle-aged woman with occasional hormone instability and two Long Islands in her gullet. I wasn’t afraid of this swaggering, black-eyed twerp, and what’s more, I kind of wanted him to threaten us because I felt suddenly fierce with rage that he’d fake-punched a miserable looking guy in front of us, forced the squabbling guys behind us to listen to his bullshit about not being a racist when the first people he swaggered up to were people of color, and making the few remaining people on the train stare at the floor trying to make themselves small targets for his inebriated malice. I haven’t been to a gym in 7 years nor have a lifted anything heavier than a laundry basket in recent years, but I felt so angry at how ugly he was being that I was yearning to pop him on the nose.

 

I also suddenly wanted to talk about myself in the third person after punching him: Big Eyes has spoken.

 

I’ve never hit anyone in my life and I’m wildly uncoordinated, so it wouldn’t have ended well. The swaggering, black-eyed twerp and I have Z to thank for ushering me to the door at the next stop where he and I stood on the corner for ten minutes waiting for the next, less crazy train.

 

Because Z had a lot of work to do and because of the distaste I now felt for both the light rail system and Evening Portland in general, the last night there, I took an Lyft out to meet my friends. I chatted all the way to the ‘burbs with the driver, a transplant from Atlanta who had come out two years ago to help her college-student daughter adjust to her new west coast life. She was friendly and chatty and I was hepped up on caffeine. She said Portland wasn’t really working for her. It had been an adventure and she was glad to come out to help her daughter, but her daughter was making her own way now and she herself wasn’t really making any friends. When she moved in, she had introduced herself to her neighbors because she thought it would be nice if someone would maybe notice if a burglar was crawling in her window or she was dead on the doorstep, and she’d like to reciprocate that favor. Instead, they politely blinked at her and then shut their doors. She shrugged. Maybe she’d try Portland, Maine, next, she said. So I told her that I’d gone to grad school there, that that’s where I’d met these friends I was visiting, that I thought she might like it, but it would be very different from Atlanta too.

 

Chickpea and I sat around the rental unit for a couple of hours while the conference goers were off getting themselves registered. We talked about Maine and dogs while she cut up crudités and I gave myself a sort of Tarot reading with Quill’s new faerie cards. (It was unsuccessful, though the faeries indicated I perhaps had an unhealthy relationship to the outdoors. Which is true. I’m kind of allergic to it.) The others arrived, we stuffed ourselves with snacks and then left for supper and stuffed ourselves with food at the paleo, dairy-free, gluten-free restaurant where it seemed to be a requirement of the other customers and the staff to wear big, knit caps. Two of us were leaving the next morning, the other three were staying for the conference.

 

I hate this, the goodbyes. I waved farewell as they crossed the street, climbed into my Lyft where the music was soft and the driver was silent. He wove through the traffic while I wiped away a few tears. The Portland sign glimmered in the distance as we crossed the river. How can you miss people who you’ve really only ever been with for maybe forty days of your life all told?

 

It makes no sense. It also makes no sense that an ancient building I’ve never seen in a country where I’ve never been can move me to tears, whether standing intact or aflame.

 

It’s all illogical. But it’s my heart.

 

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Union Station, Portland

Five Shades of Grey

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Lies I regularly tell:

 

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

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

 

  • “I’m fine.”

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

 

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

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

 

  • “Money isn’t important.”

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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One of these things is not like the other.

I don’t know why I did this.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

There is a Light and it Never Goes Out

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

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

 

Outrages this year that have been frustrating me:

 

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

 

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

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No peeking, Bridget!

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

 

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

 

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

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Look away from the screen, Bridget!

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Like that’s a thing.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Huff singing optional at Winterlights, Lilly House, IMA

Other things I’m confused about….

 

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

 

Baby Leibovitz is a senior in college now.

 

Time passes and you don’t even realize it.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Lilly House, Winterlights, IMA

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Drumming Unicorn of Elliott Bay and Other Terrors

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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I told you it was glorious.

 

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

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Best enjoyed from a safe distance.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The kitty? THE KITTY?!

 

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

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This is NOT a “kitty”!

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

 

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

 

Like my parents, he thought my overreaction was hilarious.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Here’s her note:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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In Dog Time

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The dark clouds keep hanging, don’t they? They have been in the city anyhow. The mood has not lifted for weeks, and as the marches and protests have lessened, there’s only the heavy feeling of resignation in their place.

 

For Thanksgiving, Z and I rode the bus to a friend’s house for a pleasant celebration and while we were there, the rain was pelting the house, some WWII big band music was on the radio, and I had this idea of what it must have been like in 1942 when Americans were fighting a war. What a great comfort that must have been to sit by a warm fire, listen to music, talk with good friends.

 

Then the evening was over and Z and I had to slog up a few blocks of a hill to get to the bus stop in a drenching rain, and as I walked past the little Craftsman bungalows with lights burning on dry interiors and where cars were parked in driveways and none of the inhabitants had to stand in the rain waiting for a bus, I thought some really uncharitable four-letter thoughts about those people.

 

So much for feeling gratitude.

 

Dogs and dog metaphors are my solace these days. My daily joy is when I leave the house between 5 and 6 in the evening to walk up to campus to meet Z. If you are a dog person who is without a dog, can I recommend walking in a city neighborhood between 4:30 and 6:30 when the dogs are being walked and all those tails are wagging?

 

You can have your sunrise or your sunset, but Dog Time is the best time.

 

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Mac, with snow nose.

A few weeks ago when I was feeling particularly blue, I ran into Higgins and his mom. Higgins is a Scottish terrier who reminds me of Mac. Like most Scotties, he’s not particularly interested in giving me more than a cursory greeting when there are bushes to sniff and vermin to patrol, so his mother and I say a couple of pleasantries to each other and then walk on. But the sight of him lifts my spirits just as much as a nuzzle from a more people-focused dog.

 

Z and I don’t have a dog for reasons that seem clear on some days and less so on others. This month it has seemed like a bad, bad idea to live a dogless life. I’ve followed so many dog groups and pages on Facebook that there are now more pictures of strangers’ dogs on my feed than there are of people I know.

 

The practical reasons we don’t have a dog for me are that we travel a lot and don’t have the disposable income right now to spend on a chic Seattle doggie retreat. The practical reasons for Z are that we have no yard and he suspects (probably rightly so) that I would not be the one popping up early in the morning to walk the dog in the rain. Also, Zimbabwean dogs are outside dogs and Z is not entirely on board with the way Americans push them around in strollers and dress them up like children. No matter how much I promise not to do these things, he doesn’t believe me.

 

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Skampy of Zimbabwe

We do have imaginary dogs: a Scottish terrier named Finley and an English bulldog, like the ones Z’s family raised when he was a kid, named Luigi. We have conversations about how we will train them, what our policies will be in off-leash dog parks, and whether or not we’ll let them eat table scraps. I do online searches about whether bulldogs and Scotties even like each other, but these dogs of ours, much like our imaginary children, are perfect: well behaved, best friends, come when called, and are terribly clever.

 

This next part is not a dog story, though it is about good behavior.

 

When I was an adolescent, Mom had one of those new-fangled decorative write-on-wipe-off memo boards on which she had written the Janis Joplin line, “Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all you’ve got.” I studied this for ages. All of those “yous” seemed inelegant to me, plus I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant or what my divorced, hard-working mother was warning herself against. Eleven-year-old me understood the concept of having to compromise between two ideas or two desires and settle on something in the middle that is mediocre. I understood having to compromise to get along with my gaggle of boy cousins, who always seemed to want to be outdoors when all I wanted to do was stay inside playing with our Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman dolls. (That compromise usually looked like me doing what they wanted because there were more of them and I was the only girl until I was ten.)

 

But I wondered, how do you compromise yourself?

 

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Mac and Lilly, being themselves on a ramble.

Because I’m from the Midwest, I am “nice.” Or I have a nice veneer anyhow. As I’ve written about before, to be Midwestern—at least from my perspective—is to get along with those you encounter, to smile when they say something you disagree with (or make a joke of it at the very least), to purposely not hear them when they say something rude or bigoted or misogynistic, to help someone move house with a smile on your face even though you’d rather be doing just about anything else with your Saturday, and periodically, you have to pretend that watching some truly untalented kids play T-ball in a cornfield on a sweltering evening is as good as life gets.

 

Is this a compromise, this good behavior? To tell these little lies, is that compromising myself?

 

I ask, because I’m heading to Indiana this weekend for the holidays. For the last few weeks, I’ve been walking around Seattle with the equivalent of an ACME safe hanging over my head, but it’s easy enough to feel a kinship with the people here whose paths I cross because I can see—sometimes almost literally because of their gender or skin color or disability—that they too have ACME safes over their heads as well. But I don’t know what I’m going to see or how I’m going to feel when I get home surrounded by people who don’t think they have ACME safes over their heads. Will the nice kick in? Will I growl at them? Will I hide in the house and go the Emily Dickinson route?

 

Once when I was a child I was at the Indianapolis Art Museum in the Impressionist gallery, and Mom and the adults we were with had moved ahead. I was hanging back, mesmerized by a small bronze sculpture, a figure of a person. I reached out and touched the toe. It was so beautiful and full of mystery. In an instant, a very businesslike (but not unkind) security guard walked past me and said, “Please don’t touch the art.” My hands snapped like I’d touched a hot stove, and I clutched them behind my back for the rest of the visit, afraid that I’d get mesmerized by another sculpture or painting. I was mortified that I’d misbehaved in this cathedral of culture. I didn’t even confess my sin to Mom.

 

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Future art toucher with Ting the Pekingese.

I tell you this so you’ll know that I know how to behave in an art museum. I am quiet. I touch nothing. I keep my critical comments to myself if anyone is within earshot.

 

This fall while Mom was here, we made our way to the convention center, which has rotating artwork lining the halls of the open third floor. As luck would have it, it was my favorite exhibit that comes around yearly of children’s book illustrations.

 

The Washington State Convention Center is no art museum. It’s often full of tourists and conference goers or people like me who primarily use it because the escalators make a trip from downtown up to First Hill effortless. Most other people there are oblivious of the artwork as they crowd their way from one conference session to another. The day we went it was relatively empty, so we could linger where we wanted without bothering anyone or being bothered by others.

 

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Bubbles of Zimbabwe

All of the art is easily accessible with the exception of two short sections where there is a ramp with handrails. The incline is almost non-existent and I suspect the handrails are there purely as decoration, in case there is a lawsuit should someone fall. On the one side of the floor, Mom and I both stepped behind the railing so we could look more closely at brushstrokes and signatures. On the other side, just as I popped behind the handrail, the security guard—who sits on a stool by the restroom to make sure only conference attendees use the toilets there—told me I wasn’t allowed behind the rail.

 

I popped out obediently, but I looked around the expanse of the third floor with an eyebrow raised and asked her why not. What was so special about these five pictures that I couldn’t get as up-close to them as I could the others? I happily follow rules if they make sense, but this was senseless.

 

She settled onto her stool to tell me in great detail why. Two sentences in, it dawned on me she wasn’t a docent and the longer she talked, the more apparent it became that  everything she said was made-up. There was no logic involved, so I started to walk away. She raised her voice, calling me back sharply, “Do you want to know the reason or don’t you?” It was said in that voice that a couple of really officious teacher’s aides had used when I was in elementary school, as they tried to cow us into submission even though they knew (and we knew) they had no real authority over us.

 

I said, “Sure,” but I could NOT bring myself to turn my face or my attention back to her. What she was saying was boring and nonsensical. I let out a single non-committal noise, which she could interpret as understanding if she chose (but which secretly meant, “please shut up; you’re talking crap”). Finally, she was quiet and I moved on to the next set of rail-less illustrations.

 

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Mac & Luther, best buddies, would have sniffed beyond the handrail.

Mom was ten paintings behind me, and I heard the woman say something to her like, “That’s okay. I get it all the time.” Later, Mom insisted the woman was responding to Mom’s “thank you” and that she had not apologized for me. To the best of my knowledge, Mom has only ever lied to me about Santa Clause, so I’m forced to believe her. But when I heard that woman speak to my mother in that tired, nobody-respects-me voice, my face flamed and I felt nauseous because I knew—regardless of what Mom had said or what the toilet monitor was referring to—that I had embarrassed Mom with my rudeness. The Beth she raised is a person who would nod her head, do as she was told, and smile politely even if she knew she was right and the speaker was wrong. That Beth was raised to bite her tongue while ill-behaved children mistreated her toys. That Beth was raised to be, above all else, polite. I didn’t have to perform song and dance numbers for people. I didn’t have to eat vegetables. I had next to no chores. My single job as I was growing up was to be well-behaved, a guide that until now has served me well.

 

Yet here I was, a middle-aged woman, being shirty with a woman whose job monitoring the public toilets of Seattle could not have been pleasant.

 

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Seattle Irish Wolfhound, perhaps the most dignified dog on Earth.

Later, I made some excuse for myself to Mom about how living in the city has started stripping away my manners. That when you are daily surrounded by so many people who want to talk over you, cut into a line in front of you, hoot their horns because they think they know best how you should be driving your car or crossing a street, you lose the nice.

 

But probably the stripping away began before I moved to Seattle.

 

Several years ago a friend told me I wasn’t as nice as I thought I was. I can’t remember what it was in reference to, but it took me aback. This was in the days before therapy when my default setting was “how can I be the person who will most please you?” instead of being myself. I never thought of myself then as “nice” but certainly as someone who tried to give people the version of me that they most seemed to want. Slowly, layers of façade came off over years of talking to a shrink. Some people didn’t notice. Others did and didn’t like it.

 

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Man and dog in Central Park, big rain, no dark clouds.

So here I stand at the tail end of my own annus horribilis. No, my palace didn’t burn down, but it has been a year full to the brim with medical bills I didn’t ask for, a family health crisis that was terrifying, dead celebrities I’m missing, humans being ungodly to each other across the globe, Native Americans having to withstand tear gas and rubber bullets to protect their own water, forest fires raging in one of my favorite spots in Appalachia, a country—my country—making my husband feel unwelcome and my brother feel unsafe, and a president-elect who demonstrates with his own mouth and fingers the worst human qualities on a daily basis. And what I’m finding because of this year is that the last layer of that Midwestern filter has been peeled away.

 

After having talked to other female friends, I’ve learned that I am not alone in this. One friend who rarely cusses can’t keep the profanity inside herself. Another told me she’s done being bossed around by people or forced to rise to their expectations of her as a woman. A third, who has never been a gun nut, is seriously thinking about buying a firearm because she’s tired of not being taken seriously and thinks her state’s open-carry law might make her words have more weight. Others felt rifts around their family Thanksgiving table that they aren’t sure will ever be repairable.

 

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Hoosier Shepherd

My friends and I are being gentle with each other, but to the outside world, we are less so. At the very least, we are wary and self-protective.

 

So this trip to the heartland is going to be interesting. I’ve never been in Indiana without the bit of “nice” jammed between my teeth. Will I growl at people? Nip at their hands? Stick my head under the sofa with my backend to the world? Or will I fall back into old patterns without meaning to? Who knows.

 

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This is not a dog, but the same principle applies.

What I’m hoping for is to find some dogs to spend time with because the only real light I’ve gleaned from the world in the last three weeks (especially since the Gilmore Girls reunion was a little disappointing) is that dogs are always just 100% themselves. They don’t put on airs. They’re great judges of character. They are completely oblivious to politics. No one is their president.

 

They’re just content to be.

 

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Scottie puppy, Salthill Prom, Galway

I’m going to try to be. To enjoy my mother who knows my heart and shares my sadness, who gave me the twin messages of the importance of good behavior and not compromising yourself, and now the two are duking it out.

 

There might be some misbehavior. There might not. But right now, it’s Dog Time.

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Be forewarned: this is what a tantrum from me could look like.

 

 

The Sound of One Hand Complaining

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One of my elementary school classmates maintained a certain level of grime on his hands that was masterful. How a kid managed to have hands and forearms that looked like he spent his days elbow-deep in a car engine instead of doing multiplication tables, I never figured out. His sister was squeaky clean, so it seemed like a personal style choice rather than a desperate living situation, though in the school I went to, either was possible.

 

In 5th grade, our teacher decided that hygiene should be on this kid’s list of accomplishments, and so there was a day when he was sent to the sink to scrub his hands in hot water. When he was done, he looked—for what might have been the first time—at the veins that pulsed beneath his pale skin and he said with alarm, “Mr. Moore! My guts is showin’!”

 

I don’t really like body talk. In fact, I don’t like thinking about my body’s inner workings at all. Sometimes, I can feel my heart beat and I wish it would stop so I’d be less aware of it, until I realize that a stopped heart would be counter productive to my general enjoyment of life. I’ve gone off entire, delicious meals because a dinner companion chose that moment to describe in detail some wound or ailment.

 

All this to say, I understand this kid’s alarm at seeing his own visible “guts” or even the idea that he had innards at all. And also to say, excuse me if I don’t go into a lot of detail telling you about how two weeks ago I ended up in the ER across the street with an impassable kidney stone, my first ever overnight hospital stay since my own birth, and two knifeless surgeries, one of which decimated the thing with sound waves. The RN said the stone was the size of a 2-carat diamond, but I imagine it the size of the Death Star and those sound waves as the laser shot from the X-wing fighter that brought Star Wars to a satisfying conclusion.

 

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I’m proud to say I walked to the ER instead of wasting precious fossil fuels.

What led me to this sad end to summer besides a genetic predisposition to kidney stones and a Midwestern diet rich in red meat? Here’s an idea.

 

Like most belief systems, I’m rarely in with both feet. Or if in with both feet, I’m only wading and never let the water rise past my navel. I’m a Christian of the sort that means something to me but would not impress the Pope or Ted Cruz. I’ve read books on Buddhism and tried meditation, but after a few minutes I always determine that thinking my thoughts is infinitely more preferable than thinking nothing at all, so I give up the practice. I have two yoga tapes and took a class once, but the only pose I mastered was corpse.

 

A couple of decades ago, I started reading Mind Science guru Louise Hay’s books on positive thinking The Power is Within You and You Can Heal Your Life. In general, it agreed with me. It just makes good sense that if you spend your life sitting around kvetching about what you don’t have/can’t do, you aren’t really doing anything that’s going to help alter that reality. It was uncanny to me how if I looked up my ailments on her handy healing chart, the thought-sin I’d committed almost always sounded exactly right. For example, I kept having accidents that required stitches on my feet, and sure enough, on her chart, this indicated a fear of moving forward, which seemed an accurate diagnosis since I was in my 30s and still living with my folks.

 

But then five months after Z and I got married, I got a diagnosis that could have been potentially devastating, and I felt angry that according to Louise Hay, I had caused this myself with my crappy thought patterns of self-blame and failure to enjoy life. (FYI, the least helpful thing you can ever say to a person who has just gotten a shitty diagnosis is that they probably got it because they ate the wrong food or had the wrong thought. Here’s what you should say: I’m sorry. This sucks. I am here for you. Tell me how you’re feeling, and if you don’t feel like talking, would you like to borrow my dog and scratch its ears? That’s it. There’s no reason to say anything else or try to solve an unsolvable problem.)

 

So Louise and I parted company. Until two weeks ago, when I looked up kidney stones and read: “Lumps of undissolved anger.” Also because I’d had to delay the Death Star blasting that first week because of a urinary tract infection and had to take high-powered antibiotics that put me off my food for ten days, I looked up UTI too and read: “You are pissed off.” My old friend Louise may be on to something.

 

Below, please find photographic evidence as to why this kidney stone was my destiny.

 

Exhibit A: Summer in Seattle

 

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Yeah, yeah. It’s beautiful. But when it’s 98 degrees out, I don’t care.

 

Temperature-wise, I’ve had little to complain about this summer. But we did have a heat wave the week before my unfortunate situation, which left me stuck in the house for days. I was unwilling to venture out because of the heat, because I was barely dressed, but mainly, because my hair looked like this:

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That is clean hair there, in case you were thinking it looks like I need a shower. And I’m giving you the “artistic” Warhol filter because at this age, I prefer not sharing photos of myself in which I am not wearing sunglasses. (Another thing to be ticked off about: my disappointing middle aged under-eye area.) My world is soft focus whenever possible.

 

Aside from the heat, I am bitter that I haven’t been back to Indiana to see Joy, my fabulous friend and hair-do doer, hence the truly deplorable state of my roots. Also, there are at least eight strands of grey in there now and I am NOT happy about that development. NOT HAPPY AT ALL.

 

Exhibit B: Sky Theft

 

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Oh, goody! Another building that looks like all the others where there used to be a view of Queen Anne. Thanks, Skanska.

In case you’ve missed the news reports or the high pitch of my whining, Seattle has been having a building boom . Our neighborhood alone has approximately twelve of these “Notice of Land Use” signs and if the signs aren’t there it means they’ve been taken down and the cranes and bulldozers have moved in. (Note: every sign has been tagged like this, which I like to believe is a subtle form of protest and not simply graffiti artists looking for a canvas.)

 

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None of these tags are mine. I swear.

The most recent one to go up is next to the cathedral’s little garden, where St. Francis stands guard over the tomatoes and lettuce. I don’t eat anything in this garden because I don’t really believe in vegetables as a food group, but it’s presence makes me smile when I’m out walking, and now, it’s going to be a high rise a full of chic pods no one who currently lives here will be able to afford. (I’m feeling increasingly like the Gallaghers in Shameless in how much I loathe gentrification, how much I’d like to take a baseball bat to these signs or set a car on fire. But don’t worry. My fear of incarceration is much higher than my desire for a neighborhood garden or an unobstructed view of the sky.)

 

I have not been able to wear sandals all summer because there is so much construction in Seattle that there is debris everywhere. The three walks I’ve had in flip-flops have resulted in splinters and more of a hobble than a healthy stride, so now I’m clunking around First Hill in matronly shoes with support and sturdy soles.

 

Also, all of this construction has left our little 1920s apartment building with a mouse infestation, and these are not timid country mice. These are bold and ballsy mice who peer at Z from the kitchen with a “What are you lookin’ at?” expression on their little faces.

 

It turns out, I prefer my mice in the artwork of Beatrix Potter, wearing trousers and sipping tea.

 

Which brings me to:

 

Exhibit C: Neighborhood Art

 

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I guess it gets cold at night?

One of the delights on First Hill is the Frye Art Museum. There are a lot of reasons I like it—though I don’t go often enough—including the fact that it is only three blocks from our apartment. Also,  I get overwhelmed in standard-sized art museums but this one is bite-size, thus perfect for my attention span. Also: FREE. Also, the first time I went there they had an R. Crumb exhibit and I find his cartoons hard to look away from though I don’t necessarily want to hang Mr. Natural on my wall.

 

The Frye is on a tree-lined block and adjacent to another cathedral-filled and tree-lined block that I particularly love because when I’m walking there, I can imagine First Hill before its soul was snuffed out by buildings and sprawling hospital complexes. I can imagine fancy families leaving their fancy houses (now almost all replaced by big apartment buildings) and strolling to mass, enjoying the view of Elliott Bay with Bainbridge Island in the distance (now blocked by skyscrapers unless you stand in the middle of the street and look quickly before the #12 bus hoots at you).

 

So four weeks ago when we were on our walk, Z and I sauntered past this construction site behind the Frye, I was livid: another 20-story buildling, more people in the neighborhood, probably some trees taken down, more grit in my shoes.

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I can hardly wait to see what this will be.

 

Oh, how I growled. And then I saw this:

 

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That’s right, folks. This here pile of dirt with the security light and the crumbled hunk of asphalt is actually genuine, bonafide art.

 

To recap…

 

Art:

 

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Not art:

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See the difference? Me neither. As if the city isn’t going through an ugly enough growing phase, please, by all means, use your art to make it even uglier. This is like giving your gawky eleven-year old an extra big pair of horned-rimmed glasses and suggesting a diet that will increase the acne he already has and then maybe, for added fun, a hairstyle from 1952 and a pocket protector.

 

And now, I find I must return to my recurring beef, also related to neighborhood hideousness:

 

Exhibit D: The Seattle Parks Departmet

 

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First Hill Park, an oasis in the concrete.

Seattle has some gorgeous parks that put the best parks in other cities to shame. It also has some innovative parks, like nearby Freeway Park, that literally put a lid on a little section of I-5. It is very shady, walled by cascading fountains that drown out the sounds of the interstate and of the city (and your screams), and a thick carpet of grass, which we don’t see much of here in the heart of the city.

 

For me, cathedrals and parks in a busy city serve the same purpose: they are a respite from the busyness and ugliness of urban life where a person can get in touch with with the divine, whether natural or theological. They are quiet havens where a person—particularly an introverted one—can recharge and prepare for more time spent in the overcrowded, concrete jungle. They are spaces that are open to all, regardless of race or social class or mental stability.

 

The only reason I slightly prefer a park to a beautiful old cathedral is because dogs are allowed in parks, though I do miss the smell of incense.

 

So, to be clear: Beth loves parks. Also, Beth watched all the seasons of Parks & Rec, so understands what the Leslie Knopes of this world are up against in terms of budgetary constraints, public safety, and community involvement.

 

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The only thing this color makes me want to do is go swimming.

That established, the Parks Department sometimes makes dubious choices, like the previosly blogged about Parks to Pavement project (which, I’d like to note, grammatically, should be called “Pavement to Parks”), wherein perfectly good parking spaces (pavement) are stolen, painted a hideous shade of turquoise, and some folding-chairs-in-bondage are set up (“park”). They are not shady. They are not peaceful. You are basically sitting in traffic, praying to God that the plastic poles they’ve screwed into the ground will keep you safe from the cars whizzing by. My “favorite” is the one on our street that is a mere five feet from the lush and peaceful Freeway Park. You know, a real park and not a parking space. A parking space we can no longer use the ten times a year we rent a car.

 

This summer, signs went up in the real park, the little neighborhood First Hill Park (above), that it was going to be renovated. The park sits next to one of the few remaining old mansions that used to flourish on First Hill in the 19th century, and when you walk past it, it feels old world. It also gives you the notion that the Stimson-Green Mansion has an actual yard. There are trees. There are stately black benches and lights. It’s pleasant to look at.

 

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Stimson-Green Mansion, a pleasant reminder that First Hill used to be beautiful.

That said, it’s a bit problematic in that because of Seattle’s large homeless population, it is often inhabited by people who have made it their home for the day or the night. Which stinks. It stinks for them that this is how they have to live and it stinks because there’s no way anybody else is going to send their kids there to play. Nor are Z and I going to pack a picnic and set up camp amongst the needles and trash for an afternoon and greedily gobble ham sandwiches next to people who maybe haven’t eaten today. So we just walk past it and admire the beauty and eat our ham sandwiches in the privacy of our own home.

 

Except now there have been meetings and the Parks Department is trying to figure out how to make the park more vibrant and usable. (Read: how do we entice non homeless, non IV drug users into our green space, thus making it less pleasant for the people currently using it?) There have been several meetings and reports, and what’s going to happen is something like this:

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That’s right. In what used to be a gorgeous, green, London-esque park, there is going to be a ping pong table. Or a shuffleboard court. Or some children’s play equipment. Some of the green will get dug up so some seating for movie nights and concerts can be put in place. Probably flowers and bushes will be ripped up. (There is talk of a dog water fountain, and I wouldn’t mind seeing that.) So, sigh. Good bye beautiful little park I like to walk past. I wish we were channeling our monies and energy into solving homelessness instead of just putting a ping pong table over the top of it.

 

Exhibit E: No Smoking

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Our building has gone no-smoking. Z and I are both non-smokers. He’s asthmatic and I’m legitimately allergic to cigarette smoke, so this should be a good thing for us. Our apartment gets smokey because we’re next to the front stoop where people like to congregate on Saturday nights and light up, and the hallway often smells like a Grateful Dead concert since pot was legalized here a couple of years ago. So we aren’t particularly sad about the building’s new smoke-free policy, though, because we are children of smokers,  we both do have a lot of sympathy for those who just want to get their nicotine fix but have to dance around the city trying to find a spot where they can do it that isn’t 25 feet too close to a door or open-air restaurant. Ever since the hospital across the street made it’s campus smoke-free, we’ve felt equal parts sympathetic to the folks in scrubs loitering outside our door and annoyed that the hospital cares about the health of their patients and staff but not so much about the health of their neighbors who can’t have their windows open in 90 degree heat.

 

Anyhow, we thought the building’s new smoking ban might be a boon, but instead, it’s just wrecked our coping mechanisms. Some people are breaking the rules (smoke in the hallways and on the stoop) and others are trying to follow the letter of the law by standing 25 feet from the front door which is right under our open front windows. (And this is to say nothing of the commuters who congregate in front of the building for three hours at night waiting on the express bus, smoking the cigs they’ve been banned from having all day and talking loudly on their cell phones.) So, we’re currently in a lose-lose scenario because our old plan of closed back windows and open front ones no longer works. Basically, to keep our apartment in our non-smoking building smoke free, we’ve got to shut all the windows and pant in front of the fan.

 

I guess we could go to the park and play ping pong to get some fresh air.

 

Exhibit F: Facebook

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Facebook has taken great joy in reminding me what I was doing a year ago. Z and I have been having a quiet, working summer at home with the smoke and mice instead of a jetsetting summer visiting the countries we love. It hasn’t been a bad summer, but it hasn’t been as glorious as a week in London, a week in Wales, and two weeks in my beloved Ireland. Yet every day, there is Facebook, with an update of all the good times we could be having if only someone would invent a time machine and take us back to Galway or Aberystwyth.

 

But really, if you want to know why I got a kidney stone bigger than my engagement ring logged in my innards, here is the reason:

 

Exhibit G: Millenial Rejection

 

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Please, feel free. Pick the meat right off my bones.

Nobody likes rejection. I’m not special in this regard. But earlier in the summer I read a call for a residency for writing and teaching that I really wanted. It was a long shot. I don’t have a huge publication list behind my name, but I knew I could give them what they wanted for their student-writers who need feedback. I’m beginning to see that as much as I believe I was meant to heave a keyboard beneath my fingers or a pen in my my hand, I also was meant to work with people on their own writing: to help them find their voice, patch the holes in a plot, say something more authentic or more beautiful than they’ve already said. I’m good at it. I am not a particularly confident person, but I know this is one thing I do well. And when I’m working on someone else’s writing, that’s all that matters. I’m not trying to figure out how to get them out of my office so I can get back to my own writing. I’m not trying to figure out how I can use their ideas for my own gain. I’m just 100% committed to whatever it is that they are committed to. (Even if some of their crappy sentences make me groan internally.) When I’m teaching or mentoring, I feel exactly the way I do after Thanksgiving dinner: completely sated. Only I don’t need larger pants.

 

When the rejection came, I was disappointed. I might even have cried, not because I didn’t get my way or didn’t “win,” but because I really really wanted to be in the position of pouring over someone else’s writing and helping them shape it again. As I said in my last post, I’m beginning to realize how much I miss my students, and this seemed like a way to stop that missing.

 

Then I re-read the form rejection letter, and I got angry because it was badly written. There were grammatical errors, but what bothered me more was the careless way it had been written with no thought to word choice or intent. It sounded like it was written by someone who didn’t  read instead of by someone who purports to love writing. And then when I did further investigation and saw a photo of the group who had likely made the decisions, I felt angry that they all looked about twenty-three. Of course twenty-three- year-olds can make good choices. (I like to think the anaesthesiologist I had last week who appeared to be about twenty-five was capable of accurate and lightening-quick decisions anyhow.) In this case, however, seeing all those judge-y, line-less faces, all I could think was what in the hell do you know about what good writing and good teaching is?

 

I raged for a day and then I did the reasonable thing and put some plans into action so I can get what I want (re: writing and teaching), and then just while I was about to feel satisfied with my quick recovery rate from disappointment and anger, I threw up. Between waves of pain, Z and I trekked up the hill and across the street to the ER to find out what Louise Hay could have told me if I’d just looked at her book: You have a kidney stone because you’ve spent the summer pissed off, and you were so pissed off, you created a kidney stone too big to pass.

 

Now that my figurative guts are showin’, everything seems brighter and more pleasant. The weather cooled and it’s possible to imagine a few months with the windows shut, blocking out smoke. Z reports from his solo walk today that the dirt-pile artwork was carted away. Based on Facebook’s over-zealous announcements, we’re nearing the end of last year’s happy memories. I’m a few days away from a trip to Indiana where I will see people I love and miss AND have my hair cut and my roots (and those eight strands of grey) covered.

 

I’m writing. I’m editing. I’m not throwing up.

 

I’m alive.

 

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Get-well flowers from Leibowitz coupled with painkillers and Z’s ministrations made it all tolerable.

The Ill-Planned Grand Tour: Part IV (A Shrewsbury Short)

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Shrewsbury, England

Shrewsbury, England

After some trial and error, Z and I have a policy that when we travel we spend at least two nights in any given place, though we believe three nights is better.  With one night, the place you stop is really just a waiting room for the next leg of the journey. With two nights, you are either coming or going. With three, you can settle in a little, maybe unpack part of your suitcase, return to a favorite pub, feel familiar enough with a few places that if someone asks for directions you aren’t lying if you point them up a particular street. Shrewsbury was my first experience with a one-night stand that worked perfectly, despite rain that wouldn’t stop.

Sometimes it’s good when you break your own rules.

Train stations in England seem to be universally designed for discomfort so you’ll spend as little time there as possible. Euston is no exception. We like to arrive extra early when we are departing, so the lack of seats, general chaos, and giant digital board everyone stands gawping at, wasn’t exactly welcoming. Fortunately, we had splashed out an extra $18 for first class tickets which meant we had access to Virgin’s upstairs lounge.

As it turns out, one reason you should pack light when traveling in Europe (or possibly anywhere but North America) is the size and quality of the elevators. Our hotel’s elevator in London felt cramped if another couple got in with us, but the one shuttling us and our five bags of varying sizes up to the first class lounge where we are promised snacks and free wifi is basically the size of a phone box built for two. It is glass, so we watch an elderly couple ascend to the floor above us and then descend because they can’t figure out how to escape the pod. We laugh knowingly with the people in line behind us. Clearly this couple is a pair of boobs, unschooled in basic elevator mechanics. Eventually, the box returns empty and Z and I stuff ourselves in, press the button, and chug slowly upwards. I lean against the wall while we wait for the journey to end—clearly hamsters on a wheel somewhere are powering this thing. Suddenly, the lift stops. We can peer down at the people below us, and we have an idea of our destination above us, but there is no movement. There also isn’t room to dig for the Xanax I’ll need if we are going to be indefinitely stuck in this glass coffin. Then I see a sign about keeping clear of the walls, which aren’t moving with the lift, so I shift myself away from the wall and the elevator starts moving again. When we see the couple that had gotten stuck before us, I look at them and mentally retract my “boob” description. (After spending an hour in the lounge eating our lunch, we opt to descend via the staircase, with Z makes multiple trips to collect our bags and I make a mental list of all the ways we can and will pack lighter next time.)

The trip to Birmingham is delightful with views of bucolic fields and little hamlets, though I find it impossible to stay awake. As someone who often has insomnia, I would be the first in line to buy a bed that is created to simulate both the sound and movement of a train or ferry. I can’t keep my eyes open. At Birmingham, the peace of the first leg of the journey is shattered. The station is crowded and under construction. The platforms are labeled in an orderly fashion except our platform, which is as mysterious as Harry Potter’s platform 9 ¾. When we finally spot a set of escalators that looks like it might lead us to where we need to be, we discover the train is about to leave without us and have to run, rolling our luggage as fast as we can. In movies, running for a train always looks romantic and exciting. In reality, it’s awful. I’m huffing and puffing and my new four-wheeled suitcase doesn’t want to go the direction I’m going. The only car we can reach before the train pulls out is the last one where all the other late arrivers have poured themselves. We are sandwiched with all of our luggage in the little entryway amongst a group of similarly out-of-breath people, including a friendly young woman with a baby in a pram. Every time the baby threatens to whimper, she shoves a Cadbury Finger in his mouth and I worry that he’ll choke but am appreciative of his chocolaty agreeableness. Eventually, a seat opens up that the chivalrous Z directs me to though he has to stand  for another half hour.

Prince Rupert Hotel, Shrewsbury

Prince Rupert Hotel, Shrewsbury

Fortunately, the minute we step out of the station and into Shrewsbury, all of our traveling angst disappears. It is exactly the town I’ve wanted to spend a day in even though two days ago I wasn’t sure I’d ever even heard of Shrewsbury. It is medieval with all the little twisty lanes and crooked buildings you could want, and there are flowers everywhere. Our hotel, The Prince Rupert, is on Butcher Row, right across from a a lingerie shop, where spinning mannequins display intimate apparel in the Tudor-era building. A small, picturesque church stands on the corner. Prince Rupert was the grandson of James I and our hotel was his home. It is slightly less luxurious than the website photos indicate, but it is quirky and charming and we aren’t unhappy with it, threadbare as it is.

 

Spin ladies, spin!

Spin ladies, spin!

 

Full disclosure: we booked the hotel when we read that it had an elevator. The excessive nature of our luggage situation makes an elevator a real boon. Then we see the elevator. My mother’s nearly useless, too-small coat closet is bigger than this lift. It doesn’t take a genius to surmise we aren’t both going to fit into it at once, so we take separate trips up and I refuse to ride it for the rest of our stay. (When we leave the next day, I help Z cram the luggage into the tiny thing, then cram Z into the tiny thing, kiss him goodbye just in case, and then race downstairs for the reunion.)

 

The Dingle

The Dingle

We spend very little time in the room because we have very little time in Shrewsbury. After a quick tea at Camellia’s next to the hotel (where I re-discover my love of crumpets), we head into the winding, medieval streets, snapping photos at every turn because the whole place looks like the set of some historical movie. Ultimately, our destination is the Quarry. Unlike it’s name and the quarry where Fred Flintstone earns his living there in Bedrock, this Quarry is a large, gorgeous park that butts up against the River Severn. Inside the Quarry is a gated off section called The Dingle, wherein there are some of the most gorgeous flowers I have ever seen. The brochure we read earlier boasted three million blooms. I don’t know who does the counting, but they may have underestimated.

The Dingle

The Dingle

There’s a formal garden, a beautiful pond with fountain, artfully arranged trees and shrubbery, and various memorials to England’s war dead. The school children must have recently done a unit on the animals who were in service and gave their lives (though perhaps didn’t volunteer to do this!) during the First World War, so in one section of the garden there staked to the ground are children’s drawings of various enlisted animals.

 

Few people speak of the elephants who valiantly gave their lives during the Great War!

Few people speak of the elephants who valiantly gave their lives during the Great War!

Once we leave the Dingle, we see a statue of Hercules that is quite stunning. He used to live in town but in order not to offend the ladies, he was situated so his nethers faced away from the center of town so the “fairer sex” need only see his bare bum. Now, he is living in the Quarry, happily displaying his fig leaf to all. We walk around the Severn, speculating about whether the building we see on the hill is where native son Charles Darwin and Michael Palin went to school (it wasn’t) and greeting passersby as we circle the town.

 

Hercules and his fig leaf

Hercules and his fig leaf

It is the perfect leisurely antidote to the hubbub of London. After dinner at an Italian restaurant with Darwin-themed wallpaper, we stop at Waitrose (a grocery chain) to get a few supplies like bottled water because we don’t know if they’ve replaced the pipes in the hotel since Prince Rupert’s era, and then we call it a night. I have a little trouble sleeping after I read in the hotel brochure that there have been some hauntings.

The next morning we get a late start, check out of the hotel but ask them to look after our luggage, and have a very un-picturesque brunch at Burger King. Surely this alone is proof that I am not a fabulist. A fabulist would have invented something much better, but we want cheap and we want quick because Shrewsbury Castle awaits.

Shrewsbury Castle

Shrewsbury Castle

A smallish and not-that-ornate red sandstone building, Shrewsbury Castle’s original parts date back to the 11th century, though there have been several additions to the present incarnation. My love of castles is largely based on fairy tales and the Fisher-Price castle I had as child that had turrets and a moat and a fire-breathing dragon kept in a dungeon behind a portcullis. This castle is a little less romantic in that it now houses the Shropshire Regimental Museum. It is an impressive collection of uniforms and other military artifacts from the 18th century to the present day (if you can be impressed by such things). Z looks over the displays contentedly, while I try to find more personal elements to distract me from the ceremony of regimental life: a description of life for the wives of the soldiers, letters penned at the front (whichever front it is), photos of individual soldiers. In a huge case full of swords and uniforms, I zero in on a wooden spoon, hoping for some domestic connection, only to discover it was the “prize” for worst bugler.

The wages of bad bugling.

The wages of bad bugling.

We make our way to a room where weddings are held where a photo album of past brides and grooms is displayed. It seems a dubious place to begin married life, surrounded by the accoutrement of war. The photos in the archway by the heavy, ancient-looking door are stunning though.

Doorway to wedded bliss?

Doorway to wedded bliss?

Very little of the castle’s history seems to be covered here other than in a small, stuffy room where there are panels with the castle’s early days recorded there. I’m fascinated to discover that the battles covered in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I are directly related to the battlefields near the castle.

View from Laura's Tower

View from Laura’s Tower

Z and I walk the castle grounds, hike up to Laura’s Tower, where there are great views of Shrewsbury, and then find ourselves in a rainstorm, huddled under our cheap London umbrellas. Since we’ve checked out of the hotel, we’re homeless until our train leaves for Wales in the evening. We see the library across from the castle, housed in a beautiful old building—the former school of Charles Darwin—and so go there to write postcards and wait out the rain.

Chuck sitting around his alma mater

Chuck sitting around his alma mater

While it seems a silly place to spend our precious Shrewsbury time, I love being inside this space with people who aren’t tourists. It has been repurposed cleverly. Ancient-looking beams and other architectural elements have been kept intact. I’d happily spend the whole afternoon here, perusing books, but we have items on our list that we want to tick off: a visit to the chemist’s to get some antihistamine cream for some mosquito bites I’ve acquired, a stop at two stationery stores, a bookstore, and Neil’s Yard, a store I discovered in London in 1992 that sells a variety of potions in cobalt blue bottles. Also, there is the matter of me wanting to stop back by a shop where a gorgeous William Morris coverlet is on sale, though Z declares it “ugly” and I spend the rest of the day, in vain, explaining the merits of Morris designs.

Clearly Z needs new glasses

Clearly Z needs new glasses

Ultimately, we end up in a sleepy pub where we kill time happily for a couple of hours, eating lunch, having a drink, writing more postcards, watching local people interact with each other. It’s a perfect pub in that I think we are the only tourists in residence. It’s dark but cheerful, and one of the customers has his little dog with him. The rain buckets down but we don’t care—we are warm, cozy, and dry.

Cozy pub of the day

Cozy pub of the day

Because the rain won’t let up, we leave the pub and scurry back to yesterday’s tea room so I can have another round of crumpets, then we make our way to the hotel where we camp out in the lobby for 45 minutes while waiting for our taxi to take us to the train bound for Wales. No doubt there are more experiences to be had in Shrewsbury (certainly there were more stores and cafes to visit, and with another day or two, I might have won Z over on the issue of William Morris bedding), but I’ve enjoyed this lazy, rainy day, killing time in what is one of the most picturesque towns I’ve ever been in. I’m glad we broke our own rules.

Shrewsbury, we hardly knew ye!

Shrewsbury, we hardly knew ye!

 

 

 

 

 

The Ill-planned Grand Tour: Part 2

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In 1988 when I flew to London with some of my classmates from Anderson University, the song that was stuck in my head was Kate Bush’s “Oh England My Lionheart” which had the most gorgeous, historical and literary lyrics and the refrain, “Oh! England, my lionheart/I don’t want to go.” As we boarded our plane for home, at least half of us were mentally humming this song. We weren’t ready to say goodbye to this city that existed for us previously only on the pages of the books we were studying.

 

As Z and I walk along the Thames, by Parliament, up Whitehall past the statue of Charles I staring forever towards the place where he lost his head, through the tombs in Westminster Abbey where Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I are stretched out side by side despite a lifetime of distrust, imprisonment, and conflicting religious ideologies, what song is in my head? Why, Fergie’s “London Bridge” with lyrics that I won’t repeat here because my mother-in-law reads this blog. It will NOT leave my head. I walk around looking at sights that quicken my heart while mentally, there’s Fergie, getting her groove on: All my girls get down on the floor/back to back drop it down real low.

 

This difference pretty much epitomizes the alterations that twenty years can make on a place. I’m not sure if those differences I see are primarily in my head or if they are in the city itself. Certainly, London has changed. I need only look at the skyline across the Thames to South London to see the difference. Skyscrapers, the London Eye (a massive Ferris wheel built to celebrate the Millennium that wrecks that old world feel I loved so long ago, though demonstrates what a modern tourist destination London is), and the general hubbub makes the south side of the river suddenly seem like the place to be instead of the stuffy historical sites on the north side. (We stay on the north side.) Also, though one of my previous trips was during the tourist-laden summer, London feels positively stuffed to the gills with people. There is no room for us on the tours, on the sidewalk, in the Tube. I can’t decide if this is my age, the fact that now that I live in a city I’m no longer as enamored with them as I used to be, I’ve become a claustrophobe in middle age or because the EU and globalization have turned the city into the world’s oyster. Also, a new development since 1992: at least ¾ of the people we pass have their faces buried in their smart phones with no awareness that the throngs are having to dodge their zombie-esque lumber down the middle of the sidewalk.

 

At one point, I actually think but don’t say, “London may be due another plague to thin this herd.”

 

Lest it seem like I haven’t enjoyed myself and don’t love this city, fear not. Z and I have had a great time. It’s hard to see a red double-decker bus, a red phone box (a few less since last time I was here), or the iconic red mailboxes without catching a little London fever. Samuel Johnson said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, and I’m inclined to agree. I will never be “over” London, though I do wonder if Dr. Johnson was ever tired IN London as we have been, and if he didn’t ever long for a little respite in the Lake District. Certainly, at the end of our days, we’re happy to stumble into our hotel room.

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Our hotel, The Regency, in South Kensington, is delightful. Its location just a few blocks from the Tube is why we picked it, but when we walked up to it we knew we’d be in good hands. Queen’s Gate Avenue is a wide, flower-lined street with Georgian homes that lead into the Queen’s Gate in Kensington Gardens. Though the room is small and the water pressure is non-existent, the quirkiest thing about it is the high tech light system that the hotel staff is very proud of. If you get up in the night, the lights sense your movement and pop on. This would be handy if you were in a room by yourself, but with two people, it’s unsettling to have the lights flash suddenly because your spouse needed to make a late-night trip to the loo. The hotel is quiet and they accommodated my ice addiction by bringing me a bucket of ice every night. (Though on the last night, I only got a glass of ice, much to Z’s delight. He couldn’t quit laughing at my disappointed face.)

 

In Seattle, the city parks planners have recently started a “parks to pavement” movement, the result of which means on our block of First Hill we’ve lost about six parking spaces that have been painted aqua. They chained some jaunty folding chairs to sign posts and we’re meant to think it’s a park (and it’s worth noting, it’s five feet from a non parking lot park). But you only need to be in London about five minutes before you see proper parks, both big and small before you realize that Americans often don’t really do parks right at all. The ones in London are under huge canopies of trees and there is everywhere evidence of landscape design. Aside from the big parks, there are also little “squares” in the midst of Georgian row houses that are private for the residents around the block. It’s a bit disconcerting to be on the outside of the locked gate looking in, but it must be such a delight to live across the street from one and know that you have access and can find therein a park that is less likely to have litter strewn about, needles cast aside, and a safe haven from the stress of the city. There should be more of these everywhere and not just in wealthy neighborhoods. It seems like it would foster a sense of community more than our little patch of aqua pavement. If we went to a park every day of our stay here, I’d ask to go to two.

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On our first jet-lagged afternoon, Z and I head off to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens (the two parks bleed into each other and even my pop-up map is vague about where one ends and the other begins, but combined they are larger than the whole of Monaco!). Henry VIII created Hyde Park for hunting, and London is all the better for it. Marble Arch in Hyde Park was my very first tourist stop in 1988, so I’m always happy to return there, even in a gentle rain. Z and I stop for photo ops at the Albert Memorial, created by Queen Victoria to pay tribute to her beloved husband, and I remember in college how silly she seemed to have gone into a mourning that lasted the rest of her life though her husband died when she was 42 and she would live to be nearly 100. Standing there with Z, it makes much more sense to me now that a woman who ruled half the geographic world would feel she’d lost her own when her husband died. Is it possible that I’m more romantically inclined in middle age than I was as a twenty year old?

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While in the park, we walk along the serpentine–a swan-laden lake that twists and turns—and we visit Peter Pan, pass the Italianate garden that looks like it belongs in another country. It’s a peaceful re-introduction to London.

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The next morning, we manage to get ourselves to what was previously my favorite place in London: The Tower. It’s a fortress comprised of multiple buildings that span centuries in architecture and that was the backdrop for some of England’s more grisly history, including the place where wives lost their heads simply because Henry VIII had in mind to wed another and where people whose faiths differed from the monarch’s were put to death for heresy. When I was 21, this place sizzled for me. I walked along the parapet where Elizabeth I walked when she was being held prisoner by her sister and felt alive, like I was somehow touching the past. I watched the ravens hopping freely across the green and recited to myself the myth that if the ravens leave, the Tower will fall. (They haven’t left because their wings are clipped, and now, sadly, they are in cages.) I traced Jayne Grey’s name, carved in the wall by her husband before the pair of them were beheaded at the end of Jayne’s 9 day reign as queen and got choked up. I stared at the Crown Jewels and imagined which crown I’d get to wear when Prince Edward finally saw sense and married me. Full disclosure, I also stared at Henry VIII’s codpiece and wondered if I could get Edward to don similar armor periodically to keep things spicy.

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On this August day, the Tower is crawling with tourists. Since last I was here, they’ve built a souped up tourist center and started charging a lot more, including a “voluntary donation” that is in the price posted! There are lines for the Crown Jewels that snake around the White Tower and leave Z and I shaking our heads: I’ve seen them before and he isn’t that interested, so we move on. They’ve refurbished apartments above Traitor’s Gate that belonged to Edward I, which are fascinating in their medieval-ness. In other places, I feel disappointed that “improvements” have been made to entertain children—unnecessary sound effects that make it impossible for me to do my own imagining, a lot of hands-on feeling of feather ticks and metal soldiers’ helmets, and an array of animal sounds from the menagerie that used to live there. I understand the inclination to make history come alive so young people will be interested, but what I notice is most of them could care less about the history and simply want to move from experience to experience. I feel sad for them that they live in an age when grown-ups feel they must entertain children instead of helping them develop imaginations that can fill in blanks, but mostly I’m sadder for myself and Z. There is no time or space now for reflection about politics, faith, war and affairs of the heart without hearing “tigers” growling and the clang of swords from a mock joust. Even Tower Green, which used to have a sort of tacky chopping block to illustrate where heads were lost now has a beautiful monument made of glass and stone with a lovely poem etched into it and a sculpture of a pillow.

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I’m still unsure how I feel about this. The poem is nice and offers a sort of benediction for those who have become cartoon characters in the history books of our minds, but it’s a little too pretty. For me that chopping block was jarring reminder in such a beautiful setting that the Tower wasn’t all banquets and Tudor-era tennis.

 

But still, why am I complaining about any of it? For an American whose history barely goes back 200 years, it’s amazing to stand in a structure that has existed since William the Conqueror in the 11th Century. I get chills standing in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula knowing that two of Henry VIII’s wives lie beneath the floor, heads no longer intact, and can’t be having much of a peaceful rest with all the tourists that trek through on a daily basis.

 

Because I’ve always wanted to walk along the Thames—mistaking it, I suppose, for the Seine—Z and I leave the Tower and walk towards Parliament on the Thames River Walk. It is a longer distance than our pop-out map indicates, and more to the point, London is a boom town with a lot development happening along the river, so we walk twenty feet and then have to circle around construction; walk another twenty feet, circle around. It’s hot. We are tired. Honestly, I prefer the Thames in my mind. As we walk away from Tower Bridge, towards London Bridge, Fergie cranks up in my head, and I sigh. I think I’m missing 1988 London. Possibly, I’m missing 1588 London.

I’m Fergie Ferg. Me love you long time.

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