Category Archives: Art

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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Girls Growing Up

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Dear diary.

Dear diary.

If it weren’t a sin to make additions to the Bible, I’d probably implore the folks at Zondervan to include a verse that reads something like: Woe unto the adult woman who happens upon her junior high diaries and reads them, for she will be sorely mortified.

 

I found the red calico receptacle of my seventh-through-twelfth-grade thoughts on the bookshelves while I was back home in Indiana babysitting Mac the Wonder Scottie. I tucked it into my suitcase before I returned to Seattle, anxious to see what messages I had had for Future Beth. Because I had no such biblical warning and because I was a bookish girl who was overly concerned with grades and my future, I assumed that I would discover raw genius on the pages. I also suspected that early 1980s Beth had a clearer perspective on who her essential self was before she was shaped and twisted by the outside world. I settled in to read these nuggets of teen wisdom with anticipation.

 

Sadly, what I discovered was that aside from having truly atrocious handwriting, the only thing in my head was apparently boys. Pages and pages about my feelings for and the merits of this boy or that boy. Boys whose names no longer can bring an image to my mind. Boys I barely knew. Boys who likely didn’t know me at all. Sentence after sentence of heartfelt evaluation of the various boys in my school, in my youth group, boys I had known for all of 15 minutes when we were visiting family friends out of town. I had a vivid and completely imaginary romance with a mortician’s son from one of those trips. In one entry, I marveled that I had not gotten depressed when Mom and I went to the wedding of “S”—“S” was the son of a friend of my mothers who was about six years my senior and with whom I had never once had a single conversation. It is a mystery as to why it seemed likely his nuptials would have made me blue.

 

It was hard not to be retroactively disappointed in myself. Z suggested I should be kinder to the younger Beth because she was just behaving age appropriately, but it took me a good two days to get over the shock of realizing that I hadn’t been some writerly savant. I was no Anne Frank. No junior Virginia Woolf. No teenage girl Pepys. I sure wasn’t writing pages about my career dreams or my hopes (outside of boys) for the future, which disturbs me greatly because I know in 7th and 8th grade I was obsessed with getting a 4.0 GPA, I learned to play string bass because the orchestra had no bass player, I took piano lessons, played a flute, loved art, read, thought regularly about college, and wanted to know everything about the world and the people in it. But none of that is recorded. No one would ever know from the evidence before them in the red calico journal that I had a brain in my head or aspirations beyond convincing the boy I liked to like me back instead of hitting me on the arm so hard I’d have bruises.

 

(What was that about? Who was I then that I’d let a guy sock me in the arm and not flatten him. I blame his dreamy blue eyes but am thankful that after about three weeks of the daily arm slug, I determined that he “wasn’t really the guy for me.” Ya think?)

 

The whole time I was reading my journal, I kept texting my oldest friend, Leibovitz, to tell her what 1980something me was concerned about, what she’d been up to, who was annoying us in 7th grade.

 

“You just danced with J.T!” I’d text, to which she would reply, “Oh, don’t remind me.”

 

Possibly, my texts were annoying. Her oldest daughter was about to graduate from high school but I was so immersed into the early 1980s–wondering if I’d be more appealing to the boy of the week if I asked for a pair of Bass Weejuns for Christmas—that I couldn’t even fathom a Little Leibovitz existed at all, let alone talk coherently about her high school graduation. It was as if the last thirty odd years never happened (and it may explain why this weekend I bought a pair of Tom Mcan tasseled mocs for $12.99 on a K-mart clearance rack even though, my mother pointed out, I made fun of her for wearing the same in 1998). I did not need a DeLorean to go back to the future; I was wedged in it.

 

Plus, I admit, I did not like the way Little Leibovitz had recently made me feel ancient. While I’d been home, I took her out to dinner—something I did more regularly when she and her sister were little and I was still living in Indiana. She’s beautiful and seems supremely confident in ways I could not have mustered at her age (or now). Maybe she doesn’t feel like she has the world on a string, but it seems like she does. We chatted about school and her summer and college plans. After we were finished eating, I offered to take her out for dessert or to the mall or something. She shook her head and said no thanks, and then it hit me: Little Leibovitz had been humoring me. She didn’t need me to drive her around town: she has her own car, a rich collection of friends, a busy social life. My offering of taco chips and boring old-people questions about her future plans was not the draw it might have been a decade ago.

 

The thought of her in a cap and gown made me feel old and I wanted to keep on feeling like I’d just seen Urban Cowboy for the first time. (One advantage to not having children of your own is that you can more easily live with the delusion that you are ageless.)

 

A few days after reading my journals, I started reframing what I’d read there. Yes, I did talk obsessively about boys, but on a second thought, it was not random, mindless chatter. I was analyzing and evaluating them like I was a detective or a zoologist: what were the subject’s good qualities? Bad qualities? Did those qualities mesh with mine? What was the likelihood of our future contentment? I was picky and dis-inclined to flirt. As my detecting progressed, I moved more quickly reached the “not the guy for me” evaluation and moved on. I seemed to know exactly the sort of person I wanted in my life and I was willing to wait for him. Which is a good thing since it took Z a few plane rides and three decades to arrive on the scene.

 

If I had the superpower of time travel, I’d put a Post-It in that diary for 12-year-old Beth to read that said something like, “Honey, calm down. It’s going to be a few years before you find the right one. Why not jot down some current events while you wait?”

 

 

I'm certain my dog-eared copy of _The Preppy Handbook_ did not allow for shoes from K-mart.

I’m certain my dog-eared copy of _The Preppy Handbook_ did not allow for shoes from K-mart.

 

 

Our Fake Life

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A week ago, Z and I embarked on a road trip from hell to get to southern Oregon to celebrate the 90th birthday party of a family friend of his. Forty-five minutes in, I had a skinned knee, we’d had to return one rental car in need of engine maintenance for another, and we’d been in a high-speed fender bender on I-5 that could have been deadly but instead was just nerve-wracking. It was pouring with rain and while a shaky Z pointed the car to downtown Tacoma so we could grab lunch and collect ourselves after the incident, we considered the possibility that we weren’t meant to make the journey. We both wanted to go home and pull a blanket over our heads and send our apologies to the Birthday Girl.

 

I’d been looking forward to the trip ever since we’d made plans, but after this start, I’m honestly not sure what made us climb back in the car and keep driving south other than a shared belief that you need to get back on the horse that threw you. Well, that and a desire to fulfill some fantasies.

 

Though I grew up content to be the only child in our little apartment, I was fascinated by larger families and some of my favorite TV viewing included families where there were more than the American Dream recommended 2.5 children: “The Brady Bunch,” “The Waltons,” and “Eight is Enough.” There was something about all that noise and hubbub and ability to disappear in a crowd of siblings that intrigued me. Because it was just Mom and me coasting our way through the 1970s, we often found ourselves staying with friends and living on the periphery of other people’s lives. While I was never disappointed to return back to our quieter, more peaceful existence, when we were staying with family friends, I loved observing what life in a larger sort of family might be like. One of the more fascinating qualities to me was that the larger the family the more able it seemed to incorporate additional honorary members. In our little apartment of two, if we had a guest, it was an Event. But we once spent an entire summer with family friends and while we were staying with them, two other people were also summer guests and seemed to barely affect the functioning of the family other than the number of chairs that had to be pulled up around the table. I consider these expeditions into a larger tribe to be a highlight of my solitary childhood.

 

When I married Z and moved to Seattle into another apartment of just two, I wasn’t thrilled about the loss of easy access to “my people”—my cousins, my friends, and those above-mentioned family friends. I did, however, inherit family friends of Z’s who at the time were living near Seattle. A few decades earlier, the Birthday Girl and her husband had been staying in Z’s hometown as part of a service group—think Doctors Without Borders—for retired professionals, where her husband was offering his knowledge to the local paper mill. Z was soon to leave for college in America, so when Z-ma found herself playing bridge with this American woman, she had a lot of questions for her. A friendship was forged and the Birthday Girl and her family provided Z with the sheets and towels he didn’t have room to bring in his suitcase. Later, they hosted young Z on his first trip to the Pacific Northwest, where he met the family. It seemed fortuitous a few years ago that Z got a job in Seattle that put him in close proximity to these family friends.

 

My first Thanksgiving away from Indiana—when I was weepy because I missed home but insisted it was only because I couldn’t find the box-mix of gingerbread I’d been eating since I had teeth—was spent with the Birthday Girl and part of her family.  I was happy to feel connected to someone out here. We all sat around a huge round table with a large Lazy Susan in the middle of it, spinning helpings of food around to each other. I looked at the members present and imagined the life they’d had together and apart in this other hunk of the country, and because I was on the outside looking in, all I could envision was something akin to a more contemporary Norman Rockwell.

When we would visit the Birthday Girl, I’d ask her about her life as a young woman, a young mother, a grandmother. I was itching to hear her stories about going to work at Oak Ridge when the US government was piecing together the atomic bomb, how they’d lived in Mexico for a time, how she, who had done a lot of volunteer work for Planned Parenthood, had ended up with an astounding number of grandchildren and great grandchildren. I’d study the artist’s renderings of the various houses the family had lived in that hung along her stairwell and look fondly at the wedding photos of all her children that hung above the piano.   I loved her house and the way I felt cared for there while looking out at Puget Sound. I even loved the spread of magazines on her coffee table: National Geographic, The Atlantic, and Smithsonian that made me feel better informed just by being near them.

 

A few years later after her husband had died, she relocated to Oregon to be nearer her daughter. Z and I felt a little bereft. It’s not that we saw her daily or weekly, it’s not that we talked to her with any regularity, but knowing that she was nearby made us feel connected to something beyond our small city life. Not long after she left we found ourselves driving near her house and it was almost more than we could bear to know she wasn’t inside, having a cocktail and reading those magazines.

 

I-5 South thru Oregon

I-5 South thru Oregon

So, despite the accident, we headed south and both of us had some mini-version of PTSD wherein we felt certain that every car and big rig was about to careen into our lane and sideswipe us. The traffic was slow. The rain never let up. Fog set in, and though we should have been at our destination before the sun went down, the trip took two hours longer than it should have, so I was steering the dented car up and down mountains in the dark. It wasn’t “unsafe” in that the traffic by then had thinned out, but it was unnerving because the wipers were sub par and the unfamiliar road with twists and turns offered no view into the distance so we could anticipate where the road was taking us.

 

Eventually, we reached the Birthday Girl and her family, where we were greeted as if we were part of the clan instead of interlopers. We caught up with various family members, watched its newest members tumble around on the floor, talked to the most recent crop of young adults about their plans for the future. It was chaotic and loud and fun. We stole a couple of hours with the Birthday Girl herself and were happy to see her looking healthy and willing to talk about the books she’s reading and her bridge games and specific memories we asked about. It might not be our family, but it felt like a real gift to be included in this one’s big milestone celebration. Our only regret was that Z-ma wasn’t able to be with us so the pair of them could see each other again.

 

TouVelle House, Jacksonville, OR

TouVelle House, Jacksonville, OR

We were the only residents our first night in the TouVelle House B&B, a gorgeous Arts & Crafts mansion decorated with period furniture and trimmings. Normally, wherever I stay, I feel like my room is “mine” and the only time I’m in a lobby or shared living space is when I check in or check out or, if in Ireland, someone is feeding me a big Irish breakfast. But this place was too beautiful to go scurrying up the steps to our suite. Z and I came in from the rain, shook off our raincoats in the huge entry hall, made hot drinks for ourselves in the darkly paneled dining room, and then settled down on the Stickley-esque furniture next to the fire in the expansive living room. I’ve always admired Arts & Crafts houses but felt it would be too difficult to live a modern life in one while making it look the way it was meant to. But this night was our chance to try it on for size. The fire crackled while we talked about politics and world events and the annoyance of the drive down. Neither of us were making a mad dash upstairs to our screens… in fact, it was as if we were living in a pre-screen era. We refilled our mugs and talked some more. In the flickering light, it was easy enough to pretend it was our house and this was any ordinary Friday night for our more sophisticated alter egos.

 

The next morning, we shuffled downstairs to the gourmet breakfast and chatted with the owner, who looked entirely too young to own a house so grand. I peppered her with questions so I could better understand what a day in the life of an innkeeper is like, and because I’m always curious about how people ended up where they are. She was friendly and we felt well cared for as she made suggestions for the day’s activities and offered to make us a to-go breakfast for the next morning since we hoped to be headed home before the regular breakfast would be served.

 

TouVelle House, Jacksonville, OR

TouVelle House, Jacksonville, OR

Other than the potential nightmare at the beginning of the trip, the weekend was a dream. A sort of fantasy. Because the TouVelle House was not ours, I didn’t have to think about how the property taxes would get paid or how much it cost to heat such a big space or whether any of the beautiful artwork might “accidentally” end up in a guest’s suitcase. (There was a clock there I really wanted to bring home!) I only had to sit by the fire and slide into the 400 count sheets and pretend it was mine. I could pretend the owner was our friend who was feeding us not because we paid her but because she wanted us well-fed and happy. I could pretend that big, unwieldy family a few blocks away was my own without having to jockey for time to myself or ferry someone to a doctor’s appointment or look at the breadth and depth of the family history and wonder what my place in it was. I could just let it all wash over me and for a minute try on a different sort of life.

 

When we come back to Seattle, I’m always a little indifferent. If I’m with Z, then that is home, but there are other places that call to me and so I don’t often walk into the door of our little apartment with the same exhalation of relief that I do when I return to my folks’ place in Indiana, for example. Even though the drive back was kinder than the trip down to Oregon, when we crested the hill on I-5 and saw Seattle splayed out before us, I felt a little flutter beneath my ribs.

The spell was broken, but I didn’t mind.

TouVelle House, Jacksonville, OR

TouVelle House, Jacksonville, OR

Betty MacDonald Had a Farm, E-I-E-I-O

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Mom is visiting us for three weeks, and to celebrate her birthday, Z and I decided to treat her to an overnight on the farm of one of her favorite authors. Betty MacDonald wrote The Egg & I, her memoir of time spent on the Olympic Peninsula raising chickens, in 1945. A movie was made from the book and starred Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert and was followed by a string of “Ma and Pa Kettle” movies that were based on back woods characters Betty described in her book. (She was later sued by people who believed she had based the unflattering but beloved Ma and Pa on them). Though I’ve never actually read this particular book, I grew up feeling like I knew the author. Mom was often reading passages from one of the books and telling me anecdotes from Betty’s life as if they were old friends. (The author died in 1958.) I did, however, read her series of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, which I was convinced were the American answer to Mary Poppins, so I had my own “Betty love” going on.

 

When Z and I stay somewhere, we study the descriptions and photos on VRBO and airbnb as if we are buying the property instead of just staying there for a night or two. I’m pickier than he is and because I’m what they call a “Highly Sensitive Person” I’m affected negatively by ugly things or dirty things or even spaces that seem too much to belong to someone else. My ideal spot to stay is one that looks like one of those little IKEA display rooms, where you can imagine living your life without having to think about how anyone else has maybe trimmed his toenails on the sofa.

 

So when we’re looking for a weekend getaway, Z will often find a spot he thinks looks perfect, but I’ll see a throw pillow with a color scheme that makes my skin crawl or a poster of an eagle on a back wall, and I’ll insist we keep looking. I can’t express this enough: I am not a princess. Really, I’m not. But I have a lot of feelings and other people’s things affect how I feel and when I’m on a little vacation, I don’t want to have to deal with turmoil inside of me just because a chair is scratchy or there is bad lighting. I had to quit going into antique stores a few years ago when I realized I always left depressed and a little obsessed about how wasteful and tacky we are as a people. So online photos of potential digs have to give me a good vibe before I’ll send the payment information.

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The Betty MacDonald Farm Bed and Breakfast website has a few beautiful photos, but it’s a little short on specifics. So when Mom and I arrived after a twenty-minute ferry ride from West Seattle, we didn’t know what to expect. Finding it felt like an adventure in itself because we weren’t exactly sure where we were going and other than a very generic “LODGING” sign on the main road with an arrow, Vashon is not a neon-light or billboard sort of place that will direct you anywhere. You “discover” things on the island, which is part of its charm. Other things you will discover: quiet and an easy slowness that would be honked out of existence in Seattle.

 

We were greeted by the owner, Judith, who gave us brief directions up to the third story of the barn and a warning to shut all the doors to keep the animals out, particularly a mother raccoon and her babies who had been trying to find some indoor accommodations. Mom and I hauled our bags up the multiple stairs, and as I was dragging my stuff up, I was thinking, “Oh, geeze. We’re staying in a barn.” Now, it was clear from the website that we’d be staying in a barn, I had specifically made a reservation and paid to stay in a barn, but somehow in Seattle I was imagining something less barn-y. No spiders, no feeling of the hundreds of chickens that used to live there, something in the shape of a barn but with dry-wall and track lighting to illuminate my way. (Before you judge me, please re-familiarize yourself with my camping adventures through the ages here and here.)

 

And then we popped up into the loft and we instantly moved from “barn” to “antique store.” The loft was vast as it was literally the barn loft that went from one end of the three-story barn to the other in a big open space. It held a full kitchen, an antique bed, various gorgeous bits of tables and chests and bookcases, this giant dual-couch construction made out of wood and covered with woolen carpets that looked like it belonged in a bunk house on the range, a wood stove, and a table laid out with Spode for our meals. There was not a horizontal surface that wasn’t covered with books, and the bookcases were all full as well. Good books. Books you wanted to lose yourself in, or at the very least flip through and then order a copy for yourself. The couches faced the wall of windows, which overlooked the six-acre farm, Puget Sound, and the idea of Mt. Rainier that was out there under the cloud cover.

 

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Initially, I sat on the sofa staring at the view with my lips pursed, uncertain if I should be pleased or disappointed. The bunk house couch was surprisingly comfortable. The view couldn’t have been better and I loved being in this “writerly” space, but there was absolutely no way for my highly sensitive brain to pretend that this place was the blank canvas of a slicker vacation rental cottage. There was absolutely no way to imagine that it was my personal living space because it was so filled with the owner’s belongings. So I kept sitting there, thinking.

 

Mom was excited, soaking up the view from the balcony, as well as a good bit of weather since it was misting a little bit. When she finally had to come in because it got too wet and cold to reasonably sit outside, she started foraging for books, creating a huge stack in front of herself, and then curled up on her section of the bunkhouse sofa and started reading.

 

Imagine Mt. Rainier in the distance. We did.

Imagine Mt. Rainier in the distance. We did.

The books were too hard to resist. My lips un-pursed a little. I got my own stack, and we spent the night reading and talking, and never did get around to watching The Egg & I video that the owner had at the ready should we want to steep ourselves in Betty MacDonald’s life a little more.

 

I’m not sure when exactly the scales in my brain tipped towards “pleased.” The quiet and view certainly worked some magic on me. And the sheets in the little bedroom helped because I’ve never felt anything so soft and crisp (except for the impossibly fluffy towels that were waiting for us in the bathroom, along with robes and African baskets filled with everything we could need to pamper ourselves). Possibly the fact that Mom, who was on the other side of the door sleeping in the main loft got momentarily freaked out because something was on the roof, and then we fell into hysterics like we were at a slumber party when we realized the sound she heard was not the mother raccoon trying to break in but was really just me turning the pages of a Country Living article about Corbin Bernsen’s house.

 

No, I think it happened well before that, when I was looking at all the stacks of books, and all the little nooks and crannies where you could cozy up with a book or a writing pad. It is hard not to hanker for a good reading and writing space, and this one was the best. The place is too unique to turn your nose up at it. Plus, it was clean and our every need was anticipated. By the time I fell asleep I felt like I was spending the night at my grandmother’s house, cozy and well-cared for. And when I woke up the next morning after a perfect night’s sleep on a very comfortable bed, I felt sad that we’d only booked the single night.

 

Mom and I sat on the porch the next morning so entranced with the view and the books we wanted to skim before leaving that we failed to shower and make ourselves breakfast. Showering and eating could happen after check-out time when we’d made our way back to the grit of the city. (Z would be none the wiser about our slovenly choices because he’d still be at work.) We begrudgingly packed up our things, tidied up after ourselves, and trudged down the stairs to the car.

 

The Betty MacDonald Farm B & B

The Betty MacDonald Farm B & B

I made my way over to say hello to the adorable Irish terrier who lives on the property and ran into Judith. I asked her a few questions about the farm and the island, and she started what turned into a fascinating history and horticulture lesson. Mom joined us, and an hour later we knew how to get a start of hydrangea, more about Betty MacDonald’s life, more about the history of the island, the personality of Irish terriers, and the property itself. We even got a peek of the cottage on the ground floor so we could see if we’d like to stay there in the future. (It was cozy too and called to us, including a beautiful old claw-foot tub, perfect for reading that was situated in the bathroom surrounded by windows so you could read, sip some wine, and stare at the Sound and Mt. Rainier. If we ever tried to book a weekend there and couldn’t get the loft, we’d be perfectly happy in the house.) It was the perfect ending to a delightful 24 hours.

 

By the time we climbed into the car and made our way back to the ferry, I was solidly in love with the place and wondering when we could come back. I’ve no doubt that there are people who arrive on the farm and don’t adjust to its quirky self and wish they’d stayed in one of those IKEA-furnished cottages where everything is new and personality-neutral. But for me, I was glad I was able to hit the pause button on my own peculiarities and enjoy the gorgeous peculiarities of the Betty MacDonald Farm B & B. I sincerely doubt that I’ll ever find another place like it, and isn’t that what we should be out here doing? Acquiring unique experiences instead of the cookie-cutter ones?

Betty MacDonald's Underwood

Betty MacDonald’s Underwood

Flashback Friday: Little Brownstone on the Prairie

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[Oh, the irony of this post from eight years ago, particularly when bumped against the one from earlier this week.]

 15 July 2006

Last night I was feeling “troubled” about my silly life as I went to sleep, which is a fairly frequent occurrence. Usually the troubledness has to do with my age, my living situation, my marriage/partner/dating and motherhood status. Other things get factored in based on the latest magazine article I’ve read or Dateline exclusive I’ve watched. Last night, after messing with a picture shelf my mother and I were hanging above my desk and trying to figure out which of my 20 works of art I was going to hang on the little hunk of wall that is left in my room, I was feeling particularly freaky. I have friends who are bitter because their houses aren’t brand new and don’t have granite countertops or swimming pools or room for a home office, but all of them have managed to get more than four walls to hang things on.

 

This isn’t about some people being luckier or having more than me. I know if I wanted to make it a priority I could maybe get myself eight walls, so I’m not talking about jealousy here. If I wanted to give up the frequent flying and the handmade furniture and the Sundance catalog jewelry, I could buy a little house and hopefully have enough money left over to pay a boy (preferably a shirtless one) to come and do things for me like hang picture shelves. I could.

Anyhow, I woke up this morning, looked at all my stuffed-full bookshelves and realized, I’m living in a brownstone circa 1945. I always imagined living a writer’s life in a big city where I couldn’t afford anything but a bedsit so all of my worldly possessions would be in the one room, and for reasons that are unclear, I always imagined doing this in the post war era. And now I realize that’s what I’ve got. Only without the city, without radiators (thank you, Jesus), without loud neighbors, and without a book contract. I AM Helene Hanff. I am whatever the bookish sister’s name was in My Sister Eileen. I just can’t go walk my dog in Central Park (partly because I don’t have my own dog), and I still have not developed a taste for coffee and cigarettes, both of which figure prominently into my 1945 brownstone fantasy.

Also, in this fantasy, I have a throaty laugh and I know how to dance.

I really am amazed by people who figure out how to settle into a place. At almost 40, I’m still trying on locations for size. For instance, I now know I do not want to live in Aspen, even if I do become a billionaire. In fact, you can scratch ‘anywhere in Colorado’ and ‘the Rockies’ right off the list of possibilities. It’s gorgeous there. The quality of life is good. I understand the fervor of John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High, but it is not my place in this world. There is too much sun and too many people happy to be outdoors, risking their lives on guardrail-less roads, in treacherous rapids, and while battling wildfires.

While I was at Aspen Summer Words, my friend Heather drove me up Independence Pass so I could see the Continental Divide. On the way up I told her how beautiful the landscape was and she said, “I know. When I see these mountains my heart just opens right up.” My heart wasn’t opening–not for those mountains–but I liked the emotion with which she spoke. It’s how I feel about the West of Ireland, Chicago, East Tennessee, London. There are places you belong and places you don’t belong and I live in fear that I’ll accidentally end up in a place where I don’t belong, where my heart not only won’t open up but instead will seize because of the ugliness or inhospitably of the people or landscape. For instance, the two hours I was waiting for my return flight from Phoenix, I kept thinking, “This is a dead place. People aren’t supposed to live here.” Yet people do. And some people love it. My grandparents loved it. But they sure didn’t pass those genes down to me. (Nor the genes that would make camping seem like a good idea, for that matter. Nor the ones that would make me good with money or able to cook.)

When I figure out how to get myself to 1940s Manhattan, I’ll let you know.

A Good Girl’s Praise of Courtney Love

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A couple of weeks ago I spent an entire morning trying to compose a perfect post celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Hole’s album, Live Through This. My attempt was an epic failure in that every line I wrote made me sound either angry or clueless. I’d write a line. Read it twice. Stare out the window. Imagine someone reading it and thinking less of me. Delete it.

 

It was not easy going.

 

Nor could I determine to whom I was writing since I already knew how I felt and since Courtney Love detractors would lob all the regular criticisms (ranging from her craziness to her talentless-ness to her a bad mothering skills) regardless of what I typed out, and since my own mother—my most loyal reader aside from Z—was likely to say, “Courtney who?” what would the point be of writing a praise hymn to a two-decades old grunge anthem anyway?

 

I gave up and wrote my friend Jane an email instead. Forget the anniversary. Enough people online had mentioned it in passing that it’s not like Courtney herself was waiting for me to post.

 

Z, who hates grunge and doesn’t understand how this album could have ever been the soundtrack to my life, was particularly puzzled by why the last several days Courtney Love was wailing on the stereo whenever he’d get home from work, why I kept grousing under my breath all week that the “real” anniversary we should be commemorating instead of the 20th anniversary of Love’s husband’s suicide is the release of this album, or why I seemed kind of angry at the world for no real reason.

 

We are a “pop” couple. Though I spent years despising bubble gum music, he has shown me in our four years of marriage the pleasure of listening to music that doesn’t make me sad or angry: music that literally goes in one ear and out the other and in the process might make my body move a little more rhythmically. Before Z, there was mostly angry feminist music, Irish rebellion music, a little punk, some classic rock throwbacks, Van Morrison (for the love), and for a period of time, a lot of Nanci Griffith that left me in tears every morning as I’d drive through Indiana cornfields on my way to work because the storytelling was so sad and true. Before Z, I liked to feel affected by whatever I listened to. But then Z arrived on the scene and he runs about 50 degrees happier and 42 degrees less complicated than me, and after I banished his country music to his office, we found happy, common ground in the land of Gwen, Gaga, Fergie, Katy Perry, and whoever else Pandora dished up for us on related channels.

 

But pop didn’t cut it while I was having my Courtney Love epiphany. I spent way too much time listening to interviews with Love, reading reviews of the album, and remembering 1994 and how I would drive down the road screaming the lyrics to “Gutless” or “Violet” at full volume, full of some weird rage that didn’t really fit the circumstances of my life: I wasn’t a heroin addict, I didn’t have a suicidal spouse or a baby people didn’t think I was fit to raise, I had a newly minted master’s degree in fiction writing, good friends, and good health. (Plus, I had just discovered the internet, roughly five minutes before many other women had, and so I was experiencing what I like to call my “Belle of the Ball” era, which was a glorious though short period when men were falling in love with my words and no one was expecting any nude photos because modems just weren’t that fast yet. It was the Golden Age for a smart girl who was good with language.) What was there for me to rail against? But the rage then was real, and even last week when I was trying to piece together all of these retroactive feelings, I was, at the very least, cranky as I tried to name what those twelve tracks had meant to me all those years ago.

 

The week before, I’d gone to hear an Important Writer talk about structure in creative nonfiction. We were there, stuffed onto tiny plastic chairs in a dark, crowded room, waiting to hear this man’s brilliance. The room was full of his devotees who were all a-twitter and he announced that he was about to read an essay that he’d written for us the night before while sitting in the café at Elliott Bay Books drinking wine. Maybe if I hadn’t paid $10 for the privilege of hearing him talk at length on a topic he’d only bothered to start thinking about the night before while drinking, or maybe if his devotees weren’t cooing quite so loudly, this wouldn’t have annoyed me, but he did and they were. I felt distanced from him. He didn’t help matters much by referencing multiple male authors and only two females, thus reminding me that my own writing will never count quite as much as a man’s, though I’m not sure why since it’s hands that usually do the writing, not genitalia.

 

During the course of the two hours, I simultaneously loathed him, loathed his devotees—all wearing some variation of a writer uniform (including one or more of the following items: black, pilled sweaters, pencils as hair props, giant glasses, ironic T-shirts so obscure only a select group of people could possibly understand, and boots)— and loathed myself for not being more talented, fabulous, and appropriately attired.

 

Despite the fact that the Important Writer did not know me, I was certain he would judge me harshly or, worse yet, ignore me entirely, and so I spent much of my time there feeling angry. And while I was feeling angry at him, I started feeling angry some more at any male artist or critic who dares to criticize a female one. Not because female writers and actors and painters are above criticism, but because so many of them do it in this dismissive way against which it is impossible to argue and which seems to be relegated only to females. (More enraging yet, the male artist or critic who doesn’t notice female artists at all. In an email during this week of angst, Jane reminded me that in college one of our male instructors started a lit course announcing that we wouldn’t be reading any female writers because history had yet to produce any worth studying. Maybe I’ve been carrying that annoyance around since I was 19.)

 

 

At the Important Writer’s presentation, I suddenly realized that a few years ago when I was applying to MFA programs, I had applied to his program and one other, which was less well-regarded than his. Based on some voice memory, it occurred to me that it was the Important Writer himself who had phoned me at my office to tell me the happy news that I’d been accepted. There was pleasure in his voice, as if he had just handed me the keys to some kingdom of which he was already a resident. I thanked him but told him I’d decided to go with a slightly less well-regarded, definitely less well-known program, and he momentarily lost all power of communication. Clearly no one had ever rejected his offer of a place at the table with him and his cooing devotees. He spluttered and finally managed to get out a, “Well. Okay then.”

 

Since making that decision almost six years ago, I’ve second-guessed myself countless times. The program I chose was largely nurturing, and though there were plenty of male mentors there—from many of whom I learned much—there was a decided “feminine energy” at this school. Since my graduation, I’ve wondered about my choices. Did I skip “the best” because I didn’t believe in myself? Was I afraid I couldn’t handle something more cutthroat, more “masculine”? Had I sabotaged my career simply because I’d wanted the opportunity to spend a residency in Ireland? Did I purposely avoid what might have been a “harder” program? What was wrong with me that I’d make such an impetuous decision based on nothing more than intuition with no basis at all in logic?

 

Aside from hearing the Important Writer, it was a week in which I was doing a lot of self-questioning for a variety of reasons including how good of a host and friend I am to how good of a wife I am in any given week (I get full marks for love and devotion on the Z front, but I think you know my record on the Domestic Arts and general productivity). There was a lot going on in my head in terms of whether or not I was good enough at any of the things that I generally believe are my better qualities.

 

Good. Things get twisted up in my head around that word because “good” was always my thing. It’s what I was. I was a good child, a good student, a good girl, a good friend, a good writer, a good teacher, a good listener. The problem with being the kind of good I was (and the kind of good I still struggle with daily) is that it was—is— always contingent upon someone else’s opinion of me and the quality of that goodness. They are the ones who are the deciders about whether I’ve hit the mark, those strangers and teachers and critics and loved ones and friends. And while I value the opinions of some of these people, I don’t ever want their view of me to matter more than my view of myself.

 

 

When I left the auditorium last week after hearing the Important Writer, my step was lighter than it had been going in. For one, he hadn’t rejected me five years ago—I had rejected him. But more importantly, it was clear after having listened to him that I would not have thrived in his environment or under his tutelage. I would have spent two and a half years feeling angry and either stupid or shunned as I tried to meet some goal of his or his idea of what it means to be a good writer, a literary writer. My intuition hadn’t failed me. I’d done exactly what I wanted when I made the decision about which program was best for me and ignored various voices of reason (none of which were in my own head). I was fine and finally the second-guessing could stop.

 

There are advantages to being good (the lack of track marks, legal battles, and bad celebrity tweets to name a few), and probably attempting goodness is so tightly coiled around my Midwestern DNA that I couldn’t change now if I wanted to. Yet, when I hear 1994 Courtney Love screeching and misbehaving and not giving two shits about whether other people think she is a good person—a good girl—a part of me still remembers that unfettered satisfaction of wailing along side her voice, breaking the speed limit (slightly) as I careened down country roads in my Dodge Omni, and imagined myself as the sort of woman who knew what she wanted and took it without waiting for someone else to hand it to her with a gold star for good behavior affixed to it. A small part of me still aspires to that kind of honesty, ugly and unattractive as it might be at times, standing there in its too-short baby doll dress and smeared make-up, looking less pretty than people would like, making no apologies for wanting to be the girl (good or bad) with the most cake.