Our too-many-dollars-a-month Oh La La apartment has a lovely view and nice big windows with plenty of light, but what it doesn’t have is screens.
Other people who are not on the tasting menu of Mosquito Café can probably live without screens here, but I am both starter and main course on their menu, which means last year we used the AC a lot when we didn’t really need to. This year, however, we had a plan: Velcro tape and mosquito netting!
Is it attractive and befitting Oh La La’s standards? Absolutely not. Is it effective? Based on the number of mosquitos stuck to it on the outside, absolutely. Do I feel guilty about the deaths of the mosquitos who can’t always figure out how to get out from between the window and the net? No, I do not. They’ve had a campaign to either kill me or at least make my life miserable for years now. In the words of Samuel L. Jackson’s character in A Time to Kill, “Yes I think [they] deserve to die and I hope [they] burn in hell.”
Also, as a non-scientist, I spend a weird amount of time thinking about the purpose of different creatures in the Circle of Life, and I’ve made as much peace as I can with things that creep me out like snakes and other reptiles, but is there ANY purpose to a mosquito besides spreading ill-will and disease?
The “screen” that I installed just this morning next to my desk makes me feel cut off from my neighbors across the street. The view is not as clear, which they might think is a boon, but what it means for me is less watching cats stretch in windowsills or seeing the pre-schooler on the eighth floor who moved in with his family recently. He peers out the window and I have imagined having a friendly wave that develops into one of those feel-good videos you see on social media of the kindly older neighbor who makes life more fun for the youngster by putting on puppet shows from afar.
Before the mosquito net went up, one evening I saw his parents chasing him and his little sibling around like a little family locomotive on a circular track to nowhere. It was a moment I wish I could film and then send them—those non-occasions you forget to record—but even if I could, all arrows would point to me being a creepy threat to their privacy.
Now, with the mosquito netting up, we’ll never make a connection. He is a tiny ghost and to him I probably look like a bear writing its memoirs.
Things rarely look the way I imagine they will anyhow, so why would this be different?
Over Memorial Day weekend, I convinced Z that we should make our first trip to Elliot Bay Books now that he is boosted and I’m Evusheld-ed. Because it was the holiday weekend, I imagined everyone out hiking in the mountains or off at a cookout or picnic, Z and I having the bookstore to ourselves, so comfortable with the lack of people that we even would dare to take off our masks.
Hardy har har.
Everyone in Seattle was in the store. Every. Single. One. And they were all exactly where I wanted to be. It was an entire store of Freebreathing Readers. It’s the most people I’ve been around in a long, long time and while I wasn’t actively hating them at mosquito levels, I really did wish they’d leave. Especially the ones glued to their phones who weren’t even browsing. At one point I was upstairs near the bargain tables and believed there was no oxygen getting through the tight weave of my N95, so I considered tossing the books in my arms and racing outside to pull the mask from my face. (My second thought was, how am I ever going to fly again so long as we’re all poison to each other?) It just wasn’t what I’d been picturing for us on our first outing into the world.
Here. Let me re-direct myself to the brighter side.
Was out in public for first time in months and months and months!
Was in a BOOK STORE that is one of my all-time favorites!
Was able to touch books I have only read about in the New York Times!
Had over a $100 worth of gift cards from 2019!
Had a full punch card which meant $20 off my spending!
Found three books and a magazine I wanted!
Did not die of a near panic attack—Lexapro must be working!
Did not spend all of my gift cards on the 3 books and one magazine and so can go back to buy more at a hopefully less busy time!
The books are just staring at me, calling to me even, but I’ve been busy reading other things and have had to put them on pause. Don’t they look inviting though?
I loved the poetic sentences and thoughts in Melissa Febos’s Abandon Me, and so can’t wait to read these two books of hers. The Tracy Chevalier was the only book of hers on the shelf and I fell in love with the cover even though I’d gone there to get one of her other titles. I find her usual mix of history, imagination, and feminism to be exactly what suits me when I’m looking for a story to lose myself in.
Z went in with less gift-card-buying power than I had and, as usual, left with more books because he’s a thrifty shopper and I usually get suckered in by the new releases or, at least, new in paperback. He’s a much faster reader too, so it probably comes out in the wash.
Here, he would probably like for me to tell you that he is only allowed one IKEA 12×12 square in our bookcase system for his books, which sounds grossly unfair on its face given the sheer number of 12×12 squares we have for “my” books. (May it please the court, if his books are good ones that he passes on to me because he thinks I’ll like them, they make their way into the General Collection and the number of books on Zimbabwe and novels and memoirs by African writers in general have pride of pace on the top center shelf right at eye level. Also, though I abhor stereotypes about only children because I’ve found them not to be particularly accurate, it’s worth noting he knew what he was getting when he married me.)
Speaking of Z, he also would like for you to know that in my last post I made it sound as if he were the dog gatekeeper in this marriage—putting an electric fence between me and the canine object of my desire. That is not true. The deal I made with myself was that I wouldn’t let myself get a dog until I finished the memoir. It’s easier to make it seem someone else is keeping me from the things I want instead of my own brand of slow-writing and semi-regular procrastination. Do not blame Z! He is blameless!
Last week Leibovitz and I talked on the phone while she waited to hear if Baby Leibovitz–with a recently minted college diploma—had landed in Australia for an internship. It seems like only a few months ago she was toddling around the Leibovitz house dragging her pink blanket with her, making everyone laugh, which was her special baby medicine to make everyone around her feel better/happier than they already were.
I understand now—all these years later—why so many older people had opinions about what I should be doing with my life when I graduated. They cared about me, yes, but also, there is something about a young person going out into the world on an adventure you wouldn’t have tried yourself at 22 that makes you want to live vicariously through them, waste none of the time you did, make none of the mistakes, miss none of the opportunities. You kind of want do-overs and the only way to have them is vicariously, and thus the over-investing in someone else’s life choices.
And now I realize linking the stories about Gauze Boy and Baby Leibovitz and my fascination with them and the lives they are leading makes me sound like I’m about to build a Gingerbread House and lure them in for a snack. Maybe forget everything I just said about both of them. And please believe me when I say I have no cages here and am not firing up any ovens to bake a Youth Pie.
You know I don’t like to use the kitchen.
What I have been fantasizing about lately instead of anti-aging pastries is traveling. I’ve always been the absolute happiest in life when my next trip was already an idea in my head, even if it was a weekend away at a cottage somewhere. I liked thinking about what I’d pack, which books I’d take, and I’d toy with the idea of taking no electronics and then laugh at myself because, of course I’d be taking my laptop, iPad, and phone, as well as my headphones, and booklight. It’s like meditation to me. Watching packing videos on YouTube lulls me into one of the best sleeps.
And that’s not even planning what I’d do when I got there, even though usually what I do is berate myself for not reading or writing or painting more. Or going out and pretending to be an extrovert and chatting to the locals. (Why enjoy yourself when there’s an opportunity for self-flagellation away from home.)
Anyhow, none of that is happening because everyone in America is vacationing this summer and so hotels and house rentals are either not available or a bajillion dollars here in Puget Sound. Car rentals are hard to find and, again, when you do, instead of our preferred $14.99 a day at Enterprise, they’re more like $200 a day. And you all know what gas is like right now. This is one of the few times I’ve actually been glad that we’ve lived the last 12 years Carless in Seattle and aren’t having shock at the gas pump like everyone else. But it is currently limiting our options.
So I’ve been trying to figure out ways that we can make a staycation seem exciting even though we’ve been staycationing since March of 2020. I was considering hanging mirrors to reflect light in a different way or putting on a different bedspread or rearranging the furniture so we feel like we’re somewhere else.
Enter World Traveler Hudge, who has offered us an opportunity to stay on her houseboat for a bit when she’s out of town doing research. It’s two-miles away and I can see part of the water her houseboat is on from my window here at Oh La La (one that is NOT covered in netting), but it will be a whole different world. Hopefully next time I report to you, I’ll have stories of waterfowl and boat traffic and walking through a neighborhood that isn’t “downtown adjacent.” I’m already looking forward to a time in the future when I can say, “When we lived on the houseboat” without lying, even though what we’re really doing is staying on a floating home.
That said, I have some potential bug-bite concerns and am already mentally packing mosquito nets. Once when we were staying on a houseboat on Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe, Z and our family and I were sitting on the upper deck as the sun set, listening to waves lap against the boat. And then suddenly, as if an alarm had gone off, a cauldron of bats flew into the sky. My sister-in-law let a cheer and said, “Get ‘em, guys” and the bats feasted on any mosquitos who might have been thinking of snacking on us.
There were so many things on that trip that amazed me and that stick with me, but that one—the discovery that a creature I’d associated only with haunted houses and vampires could be so helpful—is one of my fondest memories.
You know, I’ve made no deals with Z or the universe about finishing any writing projects before getting a pet bat. Maybe if we had a small, cute one, I could forego mosquito nets henceforth, open up the views, cast aside the insect repellent, and various fairy tale concoctions–lavender, vitamin B, white clothing, Avon’s Skin So Soft–that I put my trust in to make me less delicious. We’ll see.
Wherever you are, I hope you are well, bite-free, and traveling with a full tank and unobstructed views.
Neighbors from the Seattle University art department.
Recently, I started my Writing for Procrastinator’s class at Hugo House—a favorite of mine to teach—and I’m finding myself in the unfortunate position of not having taken my own advice for the last three months. I’ve written at least five partial blog posts, but then I make the mistake of reading the news and my mind gets funky. Like a lot of us, I sit and stew in the news’s aftermath and wonder what the point of any of it is. And then I distract myself with writing, or reading, or watching the hummingbirds that come to our window daily like well-dressed drones, peering into our windows.
Me telling you about my new glorious votive candle seems trite in the face of war, disease, pestilence, etc. Who cares if I’ve discovered the perfect chocolate bar and pen when we’re all clearly in a hand basket headed straight for hell.
But also, who wants to read—let alone write—more words about how rotten the world is at the moment? Maybe it’s the muchness of information that exists in all of our lives now, but at the moment, it feels like there are enough people writing about the horrors out there, enough people reminding us that we shouldn’t be enjoying X because the Ukrainians can’t or because people suffering Long Covid can’t remember that a chickadee is their favorite bird or whatever. There were enough people weighing in on the Oscar slap heard ‘round the world that I really, REALLY don’t need to add my two cents.
Also, I’m reading Coll Thrush’s 2007 Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place (highly recommended for anyone who lives or knows Seattle, and for anyone interested in blasting away the myth that the indigenous people of what would become the United States disappeared and weren’t a part of the shaping of urban centers). With practically every page I turn I’m reminded that what we’ve been living through the last few years is just life. I’m only halfway through the book, but it’s all pretty relatable: the virus in question is small pox, the clashes are between cultures, yes, but also different ways that “the Bostons” (aka settlers) envisioned the future of Seattle, etc. There really is nothing new under the sun, something it would do me good to remember when I close my eyes and ignore the news.
Let’s call the above five paragraphs what they are: me finding fault with the things that occupy my mind so you will be less inclined to find fault with me and how I’m writing about the frivolous instead of the important.
The Big News on the Beth-n-Z frontier is that I won the lottery and get to have the Evusheld shot next week that will bring my wonky immune system up to something more akin to “normal” and thus—with precautions—I can maybe see a friend or two, maybe visit my beloved Elliott Bay Books for more books by local authors or on local history. Also, there is a breeder of the rare and delightful Glen of Imaal Terriers in town and she has invited me over to meet her first litter of puppies to see if they can woo me away from my Scottie love. By now, I suspect the puppies are all spoken for and Z is not in a pet-ownership mood yet, but it’s coming people. It’s coming. I’m tired of looking at people around the city with their cute dogs and badly behaved dogs and bedraggled dogs and well-dressed dogs, and wondering when I’m going to be adult enough to say, this…this is what I want in my life. Once I have this magical shot, visiting a stranger who lives on Queen Anne to see some puppies can actually happen and though nothing will come of it, it’s a step closer to me stamping my foot and pointing out the faulty logic my mother (in the 1970s) and Z (in the 20nows) have both presented me with re: the impracticality of having a dog in an apartment.
In case you are unfamiliar with the breed, here is one of the wee beasties—Jill–that I follow on Instagram. In at least half the posts she has a stick twice her size jammed in her mouth, and it astounds me that someone else’s dog—and a dog that lives on the other side of the world at that—delights me so much.
Last month, Chickpea sent me a package that was the fabulous surprise of not only the perfect Scottie dog pen but also a Saint Stevie Nicks votive candle, and I see that as a positive sign about better days ahead. Or at least the days right in front of me that I—right this minute—can enjoy as they present themselves.
Stevie is now living in the “Lady Magic” corner of my desk where I keep my inspirational baubles and reminders that though I was raised in a patriarchal religion it’s okay if I have touchstones with the Eternal Feminine. You’ve been introduced to some of the relics there and others might be new to you. At the moment, those items include: three different containers full of my favorite pens and paint brushes; a photo of Bailey, the first Scottie dog I truly loved; another of me, aged four, typing away on my mother’s Olympia typewriter despite having only a few spell-able words in my brain and no idea what a narrative arc was; a third photo of my parents in 1966 when I was still baking and they were young, happy, and looked exactly like younger versions of themselves; a prayer card of Joan of Arc, believing in her visions and ready for battle; at least one set of prayer beads draped over a shrine I’ve made to Our Lady of Perpetual Help; a wooden file box with index cards in it for places to send my work and notes about what is circulating and what has been rejected.
I also recently added Crow Oracle cards (designed by Seattle artist MJ Cullinane) that I use to start writing sessions by selecting a card and seeing if it gives me a new way to look at my work. Today’s card: Anomaly—a depiction of a white crow—sits on my computer so I’ll see it throughout the day and ponder the notion of differences, of what is “normal” and what stands uniquely alone.
Stevie will be at home here. All that is missing is Blue Pearl incense, which I can’t burn because of Oh La La’s policies against open flames and because Z and I have lungs that do not appreciate incense of any variety. Even so, I took a chance and briefly lit the Stevie votive in the bathroom with the fan on because I had a great grandmother who believed that unlit candle wicks were bad luck, and I’ve adopted it as my own superstition. It was lit just long enough to blacken the wick and not long enough for the smoke detector or Deputy Z to notice and report me to the management.
It’s good to have things to rebel against when you light a candle—oh so briefly—to a rock goddess.
Look at her. Nobody can wear a hooded cape or red lipstick like Stevie. And I’d like my 13-year-old self—who was always on the lookout for backward masking and Satanic symbolism on my LPs in the early ‘80s—to take note that that pentagram on her chest is not upside down and therefore not shaped like a goat’s head and therefore nothing to be concerned about re: Satanism. Stevie has been many things but the reason she scores a place in the creativity corner is because she has such confidence in her lyrics’ right to exist. And nobody dare question her fashion choices.
You need someone like her in your corner when you are a woman of a certain age who has erred on the side of caution re: expressing yourself. Stevie has never erred on the side of caution. She has written the tortured love songs (which, I posit, no one truly understands—least of all Lindsay Buckingham) and they have been hits.
There’s another new development in Lady Magic Corner: a bottle of Waterman Encre Bleu Sérénité ink.
As a messy person, I’ve never taken to fountain pens in the past. The ink always ended up all over my hands and seemed too fussy when a person can just use a ball point or felt tip pen. Also, their tendency to scratch was a problem for me and sometimes they seemed too show-offy. If I don’t have on a top hat and spats when I go to an (imaginary) board meeting in a room paneled in solid walnut, then I have no right to such a fancy writing implement.
That single semester I was an art major in college was marred by a first assignment that involved three of my least favorite things: outdoors, a blistering sun, and a scratchy drawing utensil. As a class, we had to go to a farm and draw something there that inspired us in pen and ink. The only thing that inspired me was the promise of the end of the two hours and a trip back to campus, but I scratched out a massive scene of a rickety shed and some rusty farm implements. An aunt who would to support my art, had it framed and hung it over her sofa for years. When she died, the drawing returned to me, and even now I can’t look at it without feeling my nerves made electric and raw from the feeling of that pen on the paper.
So me having a bottle of blue ink on my desk is somewhere near anomaly, but when a friend’s artistic teenager suggested a fountain drawing pen, I bought the pen and the ink and then I fell in love. Not with the pen—though it is smooth and nicely weighted—but with this gorgeous blue ink and the glass bottle it came in.
See that bright, cobalt line on the outer edge of the bottle if it’s held up to the light? I can’t get enough of it. This particular color has been my favorite my entire life, so while it is unlikely I’ll start writing in my journal with a quill, just looking at the blue ink sloshing around inside the glass makes me feel all the feelings. It’s the exact opposite of that scratchy pen I had to use in Drawing 101 when I was 18 while I slapped at mosquitos in a hayfield. I can feel something akin to those same nerves crawling up the back of my neck, but it’s the good kind of hair-raising electricity.
None of these descriptions are saying what I mean. Let me try again. To see cobalt blue—whether it is my engagement ring when it catches the light or the ancient jar of Vicks VapoRub from a time when it was still in glass—is to leave my body and float above it, clutching my sides in ecstasy much like Snuffles from Quick Draw McGraw cartoons:
Also in the color department, for my birthday in January, Z got me the Cariuma OCA sneakers that Helen Mirren has been seen in. When I put them on for a daily walk I get another little thrill. Until I saw them, I had no idea that I hoped to one day wear something that Dame Mirren has been spotted in (excluding her costumes from Excalibur in 1981), but here I am. Ecstatic about rubber-toed Kelly-green tennis shoes and shocked that droves of people aren’t stopping me on the street to find out where I got them. I know it’s a kind of fashion blasphemy, but they are prettier than Chuck Taylor’s and they plant some trees with every order.
Don’t tell Z, but now I’ve got my eye on another pair in an exquisite shade of Periwinkle. Somewhere in his future is a wife who has a different color of sneakers for every day of the week that she puts on in the morning to walk a dog.
These are silly things. Maybe signs that I’m just a consumer or my belief system is problematic. Or in finding joy in plastic Scottie pens and new shoes and the color blue I’m kind of…shallow. But when you find things that delight you when there are so many arrows, bells, and exclamation points calling your attention to the ugly, to the battlefields, islands of plastic floating in the Pacific, and the sick or dying, I like to remind myself that while these things are true, so is beauty, so is delight, so is love.
Normally, this time of year I’d have some stories to tell about Mom’s annual birthday trek to Seattle, how much I love fall, how I dragged Z to an orchard though he doesn’t understand the appeal since you can buy cider at the grocery, big plans for Z’s birthday, etc. But like last year, Mom had to give the trip a miss because of COVID threats and because her offspring (that’d be me) may or may not have immunity to the virus after receiving a second try at getting vaccinated. I’ve been nowhere except to get said vaccines and I’ve only seen Z in the flesh and everyone else via Zoom since mid-August. This was Zs second boring Pandemic Birthday, where we stayed in, watched TV, and he washed his new birthday socks. Woo hoo.
Also, I’m avoiding the news because it’s rarely good, so unless you’d like to hear me talk about Squid Game, the Great British Bake-Off, and whether Noodle the TikTok pug is having a Bones or No Bones day, what you’ll be getting this month are random thoughts and questions I’m wrestling with at the moment.
Z and I have trash bags full of our freshly laundered clothes layered with lavender-scented dryer sheets because I read moths don’t like lavender. We’ve been dealing with a moth infestation for months, which wasn’t so strange at our old place with windows that didn’t close tightly and that seemed like they had been in the apartment longer than we had, maybe even since 1923 when the place was built. But it is very odd here at Oh La La because we’re basically living in a non-spherical biosphere.
We’ve made our apartment as hostile an environment for them as possible, short of installing the moth-equivalent of those non-roosting bird spikes that I hate to see on eaves around the city. Those seem so mean-spirited, but apparently if pigeons moved into our apartment, I’d be installing spikes everywhere because my compassion doesn’t extend as far as holes (or pigeon crap) in my woolen Irish acquisitions: two woolen blankets, an Aran sweater, my favorite winter coat, and a pair of forest green cashmere gloves that I bought in Waterford in 2006 and wear so rarely that they are still like new but just knowing I have a pair of cashmere gloves makes me feel like a grown-up (even if I got them on a clearance table at the history museum there). No. There I draw the line.
I’m reading Colum McCann’s novel Apeirogon wherein he tells the true but partially fictionalized story of two grieving fathers—one Israeli, one Palestinian—who are friends and working towards peace. The format he uses is with numbered cantos (sort of like this) that add up to 1,001, as in The Thousand and One Nights. Some of the sections are meaty narrative. Others are a single sentence. Some are just photos. Some are all about the main story of the two fathers and their dead daughters and their conviction that with communication and recognition of the Other as human, peace can be attained. Some cantos talk about birds or slingshots or François Mitterrand. I like miscellany and McCann’s style, so for the most part the structure works for me.
At other times I wonder if all the numbers and pauses and details don’t get in the way of the story. Also, the beauty at the heart of the story doesn’t have anything to do with McCann and so much more to do with these two men, Rami Elhanana andBassam Aramin, and the stories that conflict forced onto their families. So, I go back and forth on this issue about whether it’s a great book that everyone should read or if I’d be as moved had I read an article about the men. I have no idea where I’m going to land on this once I’ve finished the book.
A thousand-and-one numbered sections seems like a lot. Is it genius? Is it arrogance? Is it something in between?
Also, I’m beginning to question why I believe I must land on one or the other.
The summer JFK Jr.’s plane went missing on a trip to Hyannis Port for his cousin Rory’s wedding, I got asthmatic bronchitis. Going upstairs to my bed was overwhelming because I had so little breath and even less energy. Once I made it up to my bedroom, I’d climb in bed for a nap and thought I wouldn’t ever go downstairs again because of how awful it was to gasp for breath trying to do something I’d been able to do just fine a few days before as if there would always be plenty of air to breathe.
I spent a lot of time thinking about these mythical creatures—the Kennedys—while I convalesced. I had learned about them as a child in the same way I learned about Snow White, Santa Claus, Abraham Lincoln, my great-great grandmother, Amelia Earhart, and Jesus. They were all equally cartoon-y and real to me and people whose stories were worth studying.
Mom had a book of photos of JFK’s life, and I would study the ones of him with his arm around his daughter, playing with his kids in the Oval Office, some fuzzy images from the Zapruder film, and that iconic photo of his toddler son saluting his casket.
It was hard to believe that that toddler was now missing at the prime of his life. Because I loved Arthurian Legends, there was part of me that had always believed JFK Jr. was the Boy Who Would Be King, never mind his main political overture had been starting a magazine about politics for people who didn’t know much (or care) about politics.
I also felt weirdly mournful for Rory too, and how her wedding day had been wrecked and how it’s not the kind of thing a bride can complain about without seeming like a selfish whiner: that one time my cousin ruined my wedding by going missing. At the time, I knew nothing about her, but with my new computer, I asked Jeeves to tell me all about her, and discovered she was the youngest of RFK’s children, a year younger than I was, and so young, in fact, that she had never met her own father because he was assassinated six months before she was born.
I didn’t believe in things like curses though the tabloids were regularly talking about the “Kennedy curse” whenever a Kennedy died in a tragic way. But when you added up all the sadness that one family had it seemed unlikely that they’d find John John’s plane parked in a hangar somewhere while he, his wife, and his sister-in-law were grabbing a lobster roll at a roadside stand on a whim.
On my last outing into the world, Providence, Hudge, Z and I went to Camano Island for a picnic. We sat under tall pines, listened to Puget Sound licking the shore, annoyed occasionally by the noise of a boat or seaplane that passed, and we rejoiced that at last we could all be together, have our masks off, and share a meal. It was such a magical day that I even had a rare Scottie dog sighting when an older man walked his pup near us. A friend refers to those heady days this past summer when it felt briefly like COVID was behind us as “Hot Vax Summer.” This day had all those hallmarks: it was beautiful and so nice to be reminded of all the things I love about the Pacific Northwest and have seen so little of for the last year and a half.
Is it worth noting that I am reading Apeirogon with my eyes on my iPad and listening to it on my phone simultaneously, which may be why the book works for me? McCann’s Irish accent and use of the pause makes it sound more like poetry than it might if I were only reading it on the iPad and hearing the words with my eyes. In fact, I wonder if I had the book in my hands if I’d be annoyed by the structure and the weight of so much extra.
There’s a new puppy across the street who has his own little patio-kingdom to explore. When he first arrived, I thought he was a Lab. Then his hair got longer and he seemed more like a Golden Retriever. Then the fur got curlier and Z and I speculated that it was some make or model of a Doodle. Now that I can see his paws, I’m wondering if he’s going to be a Pyrenees. It feels like all of those possibilities still exist in him though—the different breeds, the different personalities. He is adorable no matter what he turns into.
Unless you are the calico cat who lives with him.
We are still ordering groceries and having them delivered. Z is a good husband. He really wants to get back to QFC in person so he can squeeze mangos and check eggs for cracks before he puts them in the cart, but he wants to keep me safe until we find out what my antibody status is.
When the groceries arrive it’s always a bit like opening a grab bag to see if you “won” something good or if you got a dud item. Yesterday, the guac got replaced and we were sad, but then when he pulled it out of the bag, we discovered it had been replaced with a bigger tub of guac, which felt like a win. Other items feeling less like a win: the sale grapes ($2.99) being replaced with grapes that must be magic because they cost $9.99. Somehow, we ended up with three loaves of bread. And the mystery we can’t quite solve is why we ended up with a huge brick of cheese (HUGE) when cheese hadn’t been on the order at all. Maybe the shopper thought gobs of real cheese was a great replacement for the fake cheese I have to eat that the store rarely has, or maybe he thought since we had almost ten-dollars-worth of grapes, we needed cheese as an accompaniment.
You can plan all you want, but you never really know what you are going to get in this life.
I had a mild reaction to the second vaccine that left my nose dripping, my head aching, and me sleepy. One night I fell asleep listening to Colum McCann narrate Apeirogon and I dreamed I was having an intense conversation with a handsome man I was trying to woo (Z did not exist in this dream—forgive me Z) as he stocked shelves and racks at a high-end men’s store. It was the kind of store I never go into and he was the kind of small-boned man with overly gel-ed hair- that I never had interest in. In the dream I realized why. He wouldn’t quit flitting and he wouldn’t quit talking. My sense was that he was always this way, but on this occasion of me following him from display to display and trying to get a word in edgewise, he wouldn’t shut up about the tensions between Israel and Palestine. I’d try to ask a question or add my own thoughts on the matter, and he kept droning on and on as if I weren’t there.
I have never felt so unseen. I kept checking to make sure I wasn’t a ghost.
When I woke up, I realized it was just Colum McCann reading his own novel into my ear to put me to sleep, clueless that anyone was on the other side of his recording trying to have a conversation with him in her dreams. I turned off Colum and went back to a more peaceful slumber.
The lifespan of a female moth is around 30 days.
Because it was still technically summer when Providence, Hudge, Z and I went on the picnic, I wore sandals. I was imagining a beach with sand that we might walk on, but instead, when we headed to the water after lunch, I discovered the beach was covered in golf ball and baseball sized rocks that were nearly impossible for my shoes to manage. The three of them in their more sensible shoes moved up the wrack line, and I sat on a log and watched the waves of Puget Sound. To be “alone” in nature for a time was blissful. Spiritual even.
Though I was ecstatic inside, apparently my outsides weren’t satisfactorily expressing this, because a man who walked by with his wife jolted me out of my moment with a shout, “Smile! It’s not that bad!” I looked at him and he was so pleased with himself for having dumped a load of his brand of sunshine on my otherwise delightfully grey day.
Even though I’ve been a feminist since birth, when a stranger man—and it’s always been men because women never tell other women to smile—has commanded me thusly, I’ve felt that I was failing to present myself in a pleasing way, as if that were my job, though I am not a model nor am I in the hospitality industry. The line I hate the most is, “It can’t be that bad!” There are two reasons I hate this.
I was born with a resting melancholic face, and I always look kind of the way I imagine Jane Eyre looked when she had to leave Thornfield Hall because the man she loved and nearly married had failed to mention his current wife’s existence in his attic.
How does the speaker know the person hasn’t just had a terrible day or gotten devastating news? They never say, “Oh my goodness! You look so sad. Is there anything I can do to help? Would you like half of my Snickers?” No. They say, “Smile!” as if your face is theirs to shape to their liking.
And now, the Crone years are upon me and I long for a sword that I could brandish in the faces of the offending parties and tell them to move along and accost no frowning woman ever again or I will hunt them down and teach them what chivalry really is.
After searching our apartment thoroughly—opening drawers, flipping through our hanging clothes, carefully inspecting pillows and the underside of three wool rugs—I finally discovered that the moths had been living rent-free in the vacuum that we keep in the coat-closet-slash-“laundry room.” The very vacuum I’d just carefully run all over the rugs to suck up any moths keen to set up a homestead. Also, it turns out, after cleaning up our previous apartment last November before we turned in the keys, we brought this very vacuum to the new apartment and promptly forgot to change the sweeper bag. Or rather, I thought I changed it but did not. And then we got our loyal robovac, Angus, and kind of forgot about the old upright anyhow because we haven’t been so concerned about deep cleaning since we aren’t having guests in.
Basically, we let the moths gestate in the closet for nine months, and now we are reaping what we accidentally sowed.
Given how addicted I am to the National Zoo’s current “Cheetah Cam” maybe I should ask if it’s possible to set up a Moth Cam
The cat across the street periodically comes onto the patio and sniffs around, and inevitably, the puppy discovers the cat is not in the apartment and comes bounding out, searching for it, and then barks at it. The bark could be anything from a joyful attempt to get the cat to play to a territorial reminder that the patio is his. What I do know is the cat braces herself for the onslaught. She turns her back to the dog, even if it means she’s facing the brick wall, and her body—though it doesn’t move—appears to be in her best facsimile of a you-don’t-exist-to-me stance. I am mostly a dog person because I’m allergic to cats but I feel badly for her and think about how her life must have seemed ideal before the puppy arrived, took over her territory, tried to tell her how to behave. I keep hoping I’ll look out one day and they’ll be curled around each other in inter-species companionship.
The neighbors probably think I’m spying on them, but it’s really all about their animals. They could be doing naked fire dances in their living rooms, and I’d only be interested in whether or not the dog’s tail was getting too close to the flame.
That’s a lie. There are new human arrivals five floors up from the puppy and the cat. It’s a woman and man who have modern but stately furnishings, like real grown-ups and not people who picked a room at IKEA and re-created it in their own apartment. I have this feeling that it is a mother and son, even though that seems so unlikely. The son could be 16 or 26 and she could be 24 or 64 from my vantage, but her hair is nearly white or platinum blond and short and she’s always buzzing around cleaning things up while he stands eating over the sink. Usually, she has a phone crooked on her shoulder. Does anybody do that anymore who is Gen X or younger? Crook a phone? Talk on a phone? It doesn’t matter, but we so rarely see people our age or older in these buildings because they all headed for the suburbs years ago.
In 2005 I was at a writer’s retreat at Kinnitty Castle in Ireland, and Colum McCann led a session on the work that goes into one of his novels, where story ideas come from, the writing life. At the time, he was telling us about the research he did with the unhoused population in a major city, how he spent some nights with them under a bridge, the conversations he had.
Women were swooning as if George Clooney were suddenly in our midst.
That night he danced in the castle pub with my friend Isabella who was in her 70s at the time, and I was charmed by their flirtation, by the way he treated her with respect and as if this dance was just as important as some dance he might have had in his youth when he was hoping to score. He was enchanted by her just as so many of those in our group were enchanted with him. I loved him a little for that because I too was enchanted with Isabella. She and I spent a lot of time together at the castle, and I invited her to go to Galway with me for a couple of days at the end of our week-long workshop. At the time, I was feeling old and unwoo-able at 38, she told me—using her psychologist’s authority, her warmth as a new friend, and her New Yorker’s no nonsense—“If you lived in New York instead of Indiana, you’d just now be thinking about settling down, finding a partner, starting a family if you wanted. You’re young.” Then she proceeded to tell me about the man she’d most recently had a fling with. She’d always mourn her husband, she said, but there was a lot of marrow to be sucked from life yet for her and thus, by default, for me.
It doesn’t sound like much of a message, maybe, but I quit worrying about my age quite so much that day and when I think of the kind of older woman I want to be, Isabella is one of the people I think of.
I miss Isabella.
Since the summer of asthmatic bronchitis and search and recovery missions, I’ve had pneumonia. I can’t really distinguish between the two conditions except to know that I hope to never get either again. Both of my grandmothers were on oxygen, one because of emphysema and the other because of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. My father and his brother died of lung cancer. I worry about lungs. My lungs. The lungs of people I love.
Because my pulmonary system is related to people who have bad luck with their own, I’ve locked myself in my tower while I await the All-Clear signal from the CDC or the Fully- Vaccinated-with-Antibodies signal from my doctor.
Around the time of my self-imposed quarantine, a two-person parole board in California recommended Sirhan Sirhan for parole. In a statement decrying this recommendation that was written by Rory Kennedy and five of her siblings, they address not just the loss of their father that shaped their family but the loss to America. My mother hadn’t had books about RFK’s life and assassination to fascinate me as a child, so I’d never considered how the country—the world—might have been had he lived. He inspired the daughter he never met to make documentaries about people marginalized for one reason or another. What else might he have inspired if he’d been given a chance?
What might anyone who has died unnaturally because of violence or their own or someone else’s bad choices have accomplished if only they’d been able to live their lives fully?
The busy woman in the modernly furnished apartment looks like she’d make a good pie. I worry that she’s lonely. Or has an unhealthy obsession with freshly washed windows.
I imagine our neighbors peering into our apartment and feeling relieved that we appear to be moving with our many bags of clothes stacked in the living room. We are not a blinds-down people and sometimes in the morning we are not a pants-wearing people either. Sometimes our coffee table has books and papers and bowls of fruit stacked on it. Sometimes there are random things slung into the arm chair so we can never sit in it. We watch a lot of TV in relaxi clothes and I imagine they don’t approve of our lifestyle.
People are less interested in us than you think they are. Z says this with authority, as if it is a truth universally acknowledged. But that doesn’t explain why I care about the ages of my neighbors, why the dog barks at the cat, and why I believe that the across-the-alley neighbors put up curtains shortly after we arrived. There is disapproval and dislike in those curtains.
A word of advice: never ask someone who has just lost a family member to a lung ailment if that person was a smoker. The only purpose it serves is to make the speaker—almost always a nonsmoker—feel safe. At least I won’t die of a lung ailment because I’ve never smoked, they must think while the person they’ve asked is fighting the urge to growl in their general direction.
What I didn’t admit and what shames me a bit is this: I smiled at the man on the beach when he commanded me to do so. Even now, I smiled.
I found out Isabella died on her birthday when I went to check her page on Facebook to see what she was up to. We hadn’t had a real conversation in five years, just periodic check-ins over email, but I felt gutted and played that old, tiresome game with myself of self-blame about all the ways I take love and friendship for granted, as if it will always be there for me.
In an effort to avoid any real controversy, my high school U.S. history class spent more time on Tammany Hall and the Teapot Dome Scandal than on anything that happened after the Great Depression. Thus, we avoided much of WWII, all of Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and Watergate. So I didn’t learn anything useful about who Bobby Kennedy was or what he might have done or who killed him and why.
From my post-parole hearing “research” (thank you, Google), I learned that Sirhan’s mother believed he was traumatized in childhood by the Israeli-Arab conflict and by his brother’s death, which was caused when a military vehicle swerved to avoid gunfire, and that in 1989, the New York Times quoted Sirhan as having said his only connection to Robert Kennedy was Kennedy’s support of Israel to the physical detriment of Palestinians.
Lately, when I want to ask if some recently dead-by-COVID person had gotten the vaccine, I try to fight the urge. It’s an apples and oranges comparison, but I am daily trying to remind myself to err on the side of compassion. People make bad choices. I have made plenty myself.
Now, I’m slowly emptying the bags of clothes and reinstalling them in drawers that I sprayed so thoroughly with lavender oil that I coughed the rest of the day. I have no idea what moth lungs look or feel like, but if the hangers-on know what’s good for them, they’ll fly out the window or sit on the coffee table and watch Hulu with us instead of noshing on our fibers.
I never know if there are real connections where I see them or if I just need to believe they exist to manage life.
We were an odd band of writers at Kinnitty Castle. It wasn’t a group I should have felt comfortable with—a man who was on the Forbes 100, a Countess, various people with second homes, a woman who lived near me in the Midwest but was dismissive for reasons that had to do with either her recent MFA or the fact that she’d been born in Ireland—I knew instinctively that she was not going to warm to me.
Still, I fell in love with some of those people who were so different from me.
During one workshop (and days before Colum McCann showed up and danced with Isabella), there was a dust-up when a piece being discussed could be construed as anti-Semitic. Because I loathe discord, I can no longer remember specifically what it was or whose piece it was, but I do remember Isabella’s raised voice, the tears that welled in her eyes, as she pointed out the injustice of how the writer had characterized a Jewish character or the nonchalance with which the person had written about the Holocaust. She had lost family in the Holocaust. She herself had come to America as a refugee when she was a child. Later I would learn—because I hadn’t ever had to consider it before this because of the luck of my birth and place in history—how difficult it was to be a refugee in America. How difficult to be Jewish at a time when America hadn’t exactly put out the welcome mat for people who were attempting to escape the Nazis.
I was just an observer. It wasn’t my trauma. And yet, seeing how it affected Isabella all these years later—an ill-worded passage in someone’s novel manuscript . . . Even now, I have no words for the effect it had on me. But it made me wish I could always only see the humanity– the layers of sadness and joy and wisdom and wonder—in every person whose path I cross.
After the nurse calls to tell me that the vaccine four months ago didn’t take, I do yoga.
Despite having the vaccine in April, I have no Covid-19 antibodies to protect myself, had none when I thought I did and went on a cross country trip with Z to see my family, had none on our daily walks sans masks out doors in Seattle when we got back, or when we had friends over…finally, or when we had houseguests again…for the first time in our new space. Suddenly, I feel like a lone, limping kudu on the veldt surrounded by a pride of hungry lions.
At the moment, my doctor and the fine scientists on the case are trying to figure out what’s next for people like me who have wonky immune systems. I fall into a weird category that isn’t yet covered by directives from the FDA or the CDC. Because I had the J&J vaccine, it’s not time for a booster yet. I can’t officially cross-vaccinate though that has some promise of working. I could lie to some pharmacist somewhere and try one of the other jabs, but I’m a terrible, terrible liar and don’t think I should have to in order to protect myself. But there is nothing I can do at this moment, so I pull down the blinds and tie-up my hair and chew on the side of my mouth.
For what it’s worth, I can’t really do yoga either. I am 54. I am round. I’m standing on the rubber mat I ordered seventeen months ago when the pandemic started, which I have used exactly three times since then. Twenty years ago, I took 3/4s of a yoga class in a claustrophobic studio in Richmond, and then September 11th happened and though yoga would have probably been the right response to deal with the grief and the fear, I chose instead to sit at home, watch CNN Headline News on a loop, and stress eat. I wanted to be alone with my feelings, not stretching in a room with 20 strangers. A few years later I bought a DVD of Megan Garcia’s that taught yoga to the non-lithe, and I did it periodically on my own but only ever really excelled at Corpse pose, which was at the end of the routine when New Age music came on and you were meant to lie there, dead to the world, not thinking anything.
But today, after the call, after I shake the dust from my purple mat, I, do the poses I memorized from the DVD all those years ago. I’m not good, but instead of critiquing myself, I think about how I’m safe in our apartment, how I can take care of my body in this way even if there’s nothing else to be done other than stay home for now. Again.
I start with sun salutations, which I do, but as I stretch upward, I think about how half of those states we drove through in July—me finally, joyously seeing the world again—were places where a lot of people don’t believe in wearing masks, barely believe in the virus, and absolutely won’t be getting the vaccine even if their names are entered in a lottery. If I’d known in June that I had no antibodies for the virus, we would have stayed in Seattle, I wouldn’t have gotten to see Mom, my family, a few friends, or the country between. Because I didn’t get sick and have no report that I made anyone else sick inadvertently, I’m glad I was ignorant. Ignorance really is bliss. It was a good month that reminded me of what normal might look like at some future time. Maybe this is what it is like for the people ignoring guidelines and arguing against mask mandates. Just press on with your regular life until you are either on a ventilator or your fabulous immune system sees you through. Maybe if I hadn’t answered the phone I could still be living like this, free-breathing and not wanting to stab people who cough on me or Z or anyone else I love.
When we got back from our trip, I was just starting to embrace the idea of the city again. The Delta Variant hadn’t yet kicked up, I thought I was fully vaccinated, and suddenly it seemed possible to walk in strange neighborhoods, to take a Lyft without worrying that I might end up on a ventilator, to hop in a car with Providence and Hudge and go to Camano Island for the day and picnic by the Sound. I was no longer envying people in suburbs with yards or in the country with acres or even people in the city with their own cars who could drive safely in their auto-bubble and feel like they are still part of the world. It was a relief to feel cautiously optimistic about rejoining society.
But it’s a month later, Delta is everywhere, my defenses are apparently down, and I’m back on the 9th floor peering down on First Hill as I Cat & Cow my way toward isolated health.
As a caveat, I feel like I should tattoo on my forehead, Lucky. I know how lucky I am that I don’t have to leave the house to work, that I have healthcare, that I happened to be in a study checking into the viability of the vaccine with people who have immune systems like mine which allowed me to find out that I needed to take extra precautions in the first place. I’m lucky I live in the city I do and in the country I do where vaccines are available. Twenty years ago—not long after that yoga class—I bought an air freshener for my car that said “LUCKY” in Celtic letters over a four-leaf clover. I never win the lottery, but I’ve felt lucky for a long time. I even feel lucky that I’m an introvert and so being “stuck” at home isn’t the worst punishment in the world.
But after the phone call from the nurse, it is not until I am slumped into Child pose—legs pulled up under gut, hands stretched forward, palms and face pressed against the mat, my breath making me hotter than I already am—that I have a flash from elementary school. It’s something I haven’t thought about for decades. The lights snap off, and the usually pleasant Mrs. Murray barks, “Bury them!” and all of us know we have to make a fortress with our arms that covers our faces because she’s sickened by the sight of us.
When we are forced to bury our heads, there’s been a real transgression. It is different than the days when everyone is a little too chatty and she has us put our heads down for a few minutes so we can calm down. When we are commanded to bury our heads, it feels a lot like she hates us. Like she would be perfectly happy if we disappeared inside our own arms and were never seen again.
In 1973, I comforted myself with the knowledge that I was not the reason we were forced into this solitary confinement made of our own flesh though my natural instinct was initially to assume that it was my fault. I was not a goody-two-shoes particularly, nor was I pleased with myself that I behaved the way we were supposed to. It is in my nature to want things to be calm and easy, and the hijinks some of my classmates got up to never held much allure. If there were going to be negative consequences, why do a thing?
Let’s face it. I was kind of a boring kid. I wasn’t what you’d call dynamic or even all that energetic. I was interesting the way a turtle is interesting: you spend a lot of time waiting for it to make a move and then it pulls into itself and you forget that it’s a creature and not a stone.
I hated it when we had to bury our heads because it meant I couldn’t read or doodle or stare out the window at the single ancient tree that was outside the window. As it was, school bored me and to have these things that made it tolerable removed from me caused an almost physical pain. Even now, when I’m watching a show and some prisoner gets sent to solitary, I can remember my own exhalations ricocheting off the desk, finding no real space to escape in the tomb of my arms, and bouncing back onto my face convincing me that if I didn’t die of boredom I would likely suffocate. I could probably handle solitary as long as I went in with some books and a journal and a little radio. But all that nothing? Save me.
I was quiet on the outside, but oh, was I dramatic in my own head.
We had a very soft-spoken social worker who would periodically come to our class to do presentations. I was privileged enough to have lived my life without needing or knowing what a social worker was and because her appearance in our classroom was so rare and seemingly arbitrary, I couldn’t quite figure out what the point of her was. Everyone in the elementary school world had a specific purpose—librarian=books, nurse=temperature being taken, secretary=the gateway home when the temperature taken was too high, and so on. But I couldn’t figure out why Mrs. Cobine would very occasionally show up or what I was supposed to do with the information she shared since there would be no follow-up, no quiz, no adjacent reading or art project.
She had salt and pepper curls, beautiful blue eyes, and a soft voice. I recognized her as a benign, caring force in the universe, and she certainly wasn’t going to shut off the light and instruct us to disappear ourselves. But still, why had we been ushered into the library—surrounded by books I wanted to read—to have these soft conversations about feelings.
I was particularly dubious about the box she brought with her that held a dolphin puppet, a tape recorder, and some drawings to illustrate the story being told on the recording. Because she seemed so kind, I wanted to like those lessons, but they were not Scooby-Doo caliber. They were, instead, one of those activities that adults force upon you so you can learn a lesson. I didn’t blame her for these educational interludes—I could tell from the box she carted around that this was something that had been foisted onto her the same as it was being foisted onto us. I wanted what she was selling us to be true, but I was a child who doubted things.
On two of my remaining braincells, I’ve kept the song from one of these lessons. Instead of repeating in my head “inhale…exhale” as I contort myself on the yoga mat, I start to hum the song. This one was about teamwork and involved a sort of goodwill pirate that Duso the Dolphin visited who was trying to get his ship loaded or unloaded or in dry dock or something, and the song was this:
“Come down here and help,”
said Blooper to his crew.
“You can do things in a group
you can’t do just with you!”
Back then, I remember looking at my classmates who were incapable of going a week without doing something bad that forced the whole class to sit in the dark with our heads folded into our arms on our desks. It seemed unlikely that the group of us could achieve anything together other than a decent kickball team at recess. Even as a first grader I could see that we all had our own agendas, our own weaknesses, our own proclivities that meant it was unlikely we would ever get whatever prize promised to be at the end of just “working together.” It sounded easier than it was.
Unless you are moving or throwing a pitch-in or you are Amish and there’s a barn raising on your calendar, I’ve never really believed that many hands make light work business. Many hands mostly make work subpar and everyone leaves thinking it would have been better if they’d been in charge except the person who is sleeping under a tree and hasn’t done anything at all. (He’s usually pretty happy with how things turn out, I guess, even if the result is a C-.)
Whoever heard of a pirate called Blooper anyway?
Generation X is, perhaps, especially inclined to cynicism, and I am genetically predisposed to it. I also have these occasional Pollyanna moments. I like Fox Mulder, I want to believe, and the two duke it out. When the pandemic first started, I was imagining us all banding together like people did during World War II for the greater good. Victory gardens and cheerful rationing and women giving up stockings for parachutes and learning how to rivet stuff.
And there for a while when the pandemic started, it seemed like everyone was making masks and banging pots and clapping for healthcare workers and being careful of each other while we waited for a vaccine, so I was hopeful. But, of course, it wasn’t everyone, it just seemed that way because I was stuck in an apartment on a liberal street in a liberal city where people value science and kind of value other people.
During the yoga session, I work through other poses whose names I can now only guess at and instead of wondering if my form is even close to what it is supposed to be (it is not), I think about how this is the first time since I was diagnosed eleven years ago with that wonky immune system that I’ve genuinely felt the weight of my condition and how I am at the mercy of others.
I still hate group projects. I’ve got no faith in every one holding up their end of the deal.
Instead, I hold a Plank pose for five long breaths for the first time ever and remind myself that this will be temporary—both the pose that my arms are shaking through and this incarceration. I prefer doing yoga this way to that stuffy room in 2001. Good thing I am an introvert. Eventually, one hopes, there will be a vaccine cocktail that works or the virus will get bored and go wherever old viruses go to die, and I can come down from my tower with a better outcome than the Lady of Shalott. (I thought my youthful fascination with this Arthurian character was all about unrequited love, but I see now it was practice for 2020 and onward.)
Then finally, the long-awaited Corpse pose. I close my eyes and relax. The yoga is done. I can tick it off my list. I am in my own home, surrounded by books, paper and pens, a laptop, a view, and Z, and no one is shutting off the lights and shouting, “Bury them.”
I’ve discovered that swiping through TikTok videos in the morning is the perfect way to stay cozy in bed. I give myself ten minutes and then look at the clock and a half hour or hour has passed, which is disturbing, but I keep telling myself this is just winter behavior. It is cold. The flannel sheets and Z snoozing next to me and radiating heat are too inviting for me to willingly bound out of bed the minute my eyes open.
One drawback (of the many) to beginning the day this way is the frequency with which some videos use earworms to highlight whatever antics are going on in the video. For three days now I have had a few bars of Beyonce’s “Halo” stuck in my head on a loop. It. Will. Not. Go. Away. Yesterday, I thought maybe if I listened to the entire song instead of just those bars it would finally exhaust itself but all it did was make Z start humming it too. There are worse songs, but I’d like to move on in my life now.
My recent desire to stay in bed an extra hour was exacerbated by the Big Snow we had that lasted a couple of days. We’re in much better shape than the rest of the country in this regard—now it feels like spring is afoot—but for those two days of snow, the city felt magical and Z and I were thrilled with our new perch here at Oh Là Là, looking down on snow-covered streets and not having to go out on un-shoveled sidewalks. We did venture up to the roof deck and threw a snowball and attempted a snowman with snow that would not pack, but for the most part, we just stared out the window like a couple of kids who had never seen snow before.
Oh, and I did a jigsaw puzzle because snow days are perfect for that and I still miss RBG.
During the snow days, I got unnaturally concerned with the well-being of a neighbor who lives across the street. Please note (and believe): I am not a peeping Tom. I am not hoping to see any fights, naked bodies, or assess whether my neighbors wipe their noses on their sleeves. Still, when you are living in the sky and working at a window, occasionally your gaze will fall on the neighbor who has a lovely big St. Bernard thrilled with the snow or the neighbor whose cat peers down from the 12th floor as if everything on First Hill belongs to him.
Occasionally, my eye lands on the woman whose blinds are never closed, who sleeps on the sofa with the lights on instead of under her Marimekko duvet in the bedroom. After the first quick glance months ago, I’ve wondered about her. What’s the deal with the sofa? Did she have a bad break up and can’t face her bed alone? Why the lights on at night? Is she afraid of something? Has someone threatened her?
So the other day when I did my quick morning glance before settling into work, I saw her lying on the floor, and my pulse quickened. What had happened to her? I glanced again and the position she was in was really awkward, so I worried that she’d hurt herself. Or, horrors, someone had hurt her.
I instantly started thinking of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, wheelchair bound and stuck in his apartment, passing the time by looking at his neighbors with a telephoto lens. When he sees what he believes to be a murder take place, no one will listen to him.
Recently, a pair of eagles have been flying over our building, so my mini-binoculars were on the desk. I have never used them to look in anyone’s apartment and when I do use them, I make over-exagerrated motions so anyone peering at me can see that I am only looking up at the sky and not trying to peer into their living spaces. It occurred to me that if this woman was compromised, I might be the only person knew it, so I allowed myself to fake look for the eagles in the sky above Lake Union and then do a slow but continuous spin in my chair and briefly train the binoculars on her apartment.
As it happens, I did not have to call 911. The body on the floor was not hers. In fact, it was not a body. In fact, it wasn’t even on the floor. It was an oversized knitted blanket stuffed into and spilling out of a basket.
I haven’t had my eyes checked for a year and a half. It might be time.
PART THE SECOND
Because Z himself is also magical and amazing like snow in Seattle, the number of times I’ve had a crush on a “celebrity” since we got together is almost nil, but I’m finding myself disturbingly attracted to the bobble-headed @therealindiandad. Initially, I didn’t know why. I mean, his cartoon head is handsome, I guess, but other than the fox in Robin Hood I don’t make it a habit of crushing on cartoon characters. But then one day Z was bossing me up (in a very loving, comical way) and we were laughing, and I realized it’s because watching @therealindiandad joke-chastise @sheenamelwani while Z is still sleep is the next best thing to having Z awake. They remind me a lot of each other, though I’m relieved Z doesn’t have a bobble head. Z was disturbed by this news until I pointed out to him that his bobble headed doppelgänger is not the father of the woman he chides but the husband and the two of them are laughing so much and having such a good time that they feel like good company these days, particularly when so many posts are full of rage or sadness.
When I finally do shut off TikTok, drag myself out of bed, and head to the study, I’m immediately greeted with annoyance because this is the last space in our apartment at Oh Là Là that has refused to organize itself since our November move. I seem to just keep moving the same items in a circle around the room. A stack of things on the ottoman gets moved to the Napping Cloud and sits there for two weeks, and then I move the items on the bed to the floor so I can nap. Then it’s time to run Angus the robotic vacuum so I pick the stuff up off the floor and put it on the ottoman. I think the problem is I haven’t found a home for these final bits of our life: photos, art, and frames we aren’t using right now, stacks of paper I don’t know where to file, knickknacks in the windowsill, tote bags full of projects I have yet to finish, etc.
And in the center of this still messy space is The Desk: the black hole that sucks in and spews out chaos threefold.
This isn’t a new subject for me—I’ve always had trouble with organizing the place I write and teach. I could clean it up for a photo op, but no sooner is the pic posted than the mess starts building again. It’s one of the things that annoys me most about myself: not just that I can’t be neater but also that I can’t fully embrace my messy tendencies without chastising myself. And because the desk is an exact replica of the inner workings of my mind, I’m also annoyed that after all of these years I also can’t just embrace the rich alphabet soup that is my thought process and instead am convinced there must be something wrong with me.
My desk is really a 6 foot cherry dining table with one tiny drawer and a faux drawer with a keyboard ledge in it. When I ordered it two decades ago, I’d just read a book about how people with my brain type were no good with things that were put away and we just need to see everything in front of us in stacks. The book’s premise was that creative types have different brains and were fighting a losing battle in trying to make traditional 1950s-office-systems-with-filing-cabinets-and-in-and-out-trays work for them.
The theory was a good one—and remains true…if my house keys are under a piece of mail, say, the keys cease to exist for me and I start to make plans about how I’ll have to live the rest of my life without locking the door. But when I embraced this new way of organizing, I imagined myself being tidier than I actually am. I was picturing a soft focus desk with a stack of three books, a cup of tea (even though I don’t drink it that often), and an artful lamp so I could write until the sun came up. I imagined a vast expanse of empty desk, glossy wood grain encouraging me to put only beautiful words on the page.
Alas. It never looks like that.
There is never an empty space where I could suddenly do a project or a puzzle. Instead, there are layers. If I dig down, I’m reminded that a month ago I was really interested in learning how meditation can be different for women than men, I was organizing things to put in a scrapbook, and I was planning to frame a couple of pictures. If I dig further still, I’d discover a gift card for Elliot Bay Books and a receipt for something I bought Z for Christmas. A jar of pickled onions, I think.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to the Poet Friend on the phone and told her how frustrated I was, and she—a tidy Virgo—suggested that I get an empty box, put everything on my desk in the box, dust and oil the surface of the desk, and then put back only the things I use. For two days, it was the desk I imagined it would be when I bought it. But now, I have this box of “essential things” on the floor:
And the desk is now looking like it’s former, messy self.
I’ve taken very little out of the box of essentials, so what I did was find more/different “essentials” to fill the surface. Nature and Beth abhor a vacuum.
Current essential items on desk:
glass desk lamp filled with my mother’s childhood marbles
Row of “must have near me” writing books held in place by Scottie dog book ends from Poet Friend
clock with big numbers so I always know how late I am to a Zoom appointment
Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls tin can now containing pens, scissors, letter opener from elementary Swedish penpal Cecilia, and two beaded Roses from Zimbabwe
1972 Christmas present clipboard from my maternal grandmother given to me because of my love of drawing but now used for class notes and other things I want to remember but eventually forget about and discard
On a six foot desk, this seems like a reasonable amount of items and all you really need for a desk to function, but I’m not done yet.
An anatomically correct metal bulldog with spiked collar and butt door that raises for insertion of a tea light candle if Oh La La allowed candles and I wanted to illuminate a metal bulldog
An ashtray from a bar bearing my surname purchased on eBay 20 years ago even though I don’t smoke
a two-handled tea cup/soup bowl which I use on different days for:
my prayer beads
clean watercolor water
a vaguely royal looking red box in which I intend to keep bits of paper with notes jotted on them of things I don’t want to forget but that currently holds only a Serenity Prayer key chain of indeterminate origin and a postcard of Wales from a boy I never met but with whom I tried to hae a romantic online relationship in 1994
a handmade Scandinavian-looking pottery gnome holding a warm pie next to a toadstool because she looks capable and happy
a shallow light blue dish with my grandfather’s rosary in it. I’ve had the beads for almost twenty years and still haven’t learned all the components of the rosary because the 50% of me that was raised Catholic never got to those lessons
a chicken timer named Erma to keep me writing
a series of gemstones the names of which I can never recall and must then dig in The Box to read the leaflet that came with them reminding me what each crystal is good for. My favorites so far: amethyst and tiger eye
a deck of Farber-Zerner tarot cards because I like the art and like to use them for a focusing practice before I write even though I don’t really know that much about tarot and don’t want my future told. (I’m in it for the metaphors.)
three books on tarot because why have one when you can have three?
my new set of prayer beads (sodalite to encourage intuition, focus, and creativity)
my old set of prayer beads (cobalt blue glass, made when I found out my father was sick, the color of which calms me)
a rock that fits perfectly in my palm that Z found for me on San Juan Island
a Bluetooth speaker
a statue of a pig with a quote from Winston Churchill about the superiority of pigs, which reminds me daily not of Churchill or of pigs, but of my college mentor, Gibb, who loved pigs, particularly his boyhood pig, Jipper, who would meet him after school when the bus dropped him off
a tiny painting I painted last year of a young girl squeezing through the Eye of the Needle in a church ruin in Dingle
an envelope that likely contains a home colorectal screening test that I have been ignoring for a year but because I’m partly a responsible person and thus haven’t thrown it out but I keep thinking Tomorrow Beth will take care of it and do the responsible thing
a Venus of Willendorf statue
a holy card of Joan of Arc
class notes, printed readings, and dogeared pages of book passages I want to share with my students
a paisley beanbag from my childhood with a tag hand stitched on it that says “Wayne County Historical Museum Richmond, Indiana” that I like to play with while I’m lecturing and have had since I was about five
So where exactly would I put the stuff in the box (notebooks, ShellE the stuffed turtle, my hairbrush, various pics, notebooks, small clipboard, empty box of chocolates with my last name on the lid, to-do list notebook, notebook from my Swedish penpal circa 1978, an Apple box for my AirPods because Apple boxes are just too good to get rid of, a wooden file box that has half a screenplay written on notecards inside that I started with a friend twenty-five years ago and which I keep meaning to put elsewhere and use the box for some other important non-computerized filing, and a variety of pottery dogs.
I need an intervention.
Lately I’ve been writing every morning with my newly discovered family of fellow INFP/J creatives and we often spend time talking about how our brains work, how differently we are wired from most of the population, and what the insides of our heads look like. We’ve talked about how when we are writing or drawing or doing some other kind of creating, we are out there just loosely tethered to earth and when Ground Control calls us back down to have a conversation about cornflakes or the funny meme they just saw, it’s really, really hard for us to make that adjustment. It’s hard to acclimatize back to earth’s atmosphere.
In my life, I’ve had what I would classify as two and a half visions. One was holy. One was comforting. And then this one from my childhood when I was staying with my grandmother that until now I’ve never been able to interpret.
It was just the two of us together on a Saturday morning, and I was lying upside down on the davenport, my head nearly touching the floor as I took in the new perspective of the acoustic tile and how the dropped ceiling into the hallway would make a stair step if her pink mobile home were upside down. (I’d been exposed to The Poseidon Adventure at a young age and was fascinated by how normal things would be transformed if flipped upside down. Please note, Gene Hackman was an early celebrity crush. A man who was convicted that he could get you to a place of greater safety—what was not to like? Even better than @therealindiandad.) As I hung upside down, Grandma was across from me in the kitchen, where she always was. I never saw the woman sit down until I was a teenager.
Then suddenly, without planning it, I was on the ceiling. I don’t know if this would be classified as an out-of-body experience or a vision, though probably most people would say it was just the fancy of a child, but I felt myself floating in this upside down landscape—the only thing keeping me earth bound was the ceiling—and my grandmother was frantically reaching up towards me, kind of hopping up and down trying to grab ahold of me, and pull me back towards earth as if I were a balloon that had escaped. It was so real. Then I came back to myself and my real grandmother was asking me which cartoon I wanted her to put on the TV because I wasn’t hovering above her after all but was lounging on the sofa expecting her to serve me by turning the channel to Scooby-Doo. We grandchildren were so spoiled.
The vision was weird and for years I’ve wondered what it was, what had or hadn’t happened, and then it just sort of folded into my life like the time I was stung under the arm by a bee or the time I fell out of a tree and had the wind knocked out of me and thought I’d killed myself. It was just an event in my life: that time I was floating on the ceiling and Grandma pulled me back to earth.
But now? I think the universe was trying to give me a metaphor for how I’d spend the rest of my life, trying so hard to listen to step-by-step instructions or remember a list of five items to pick up at the grocery or to stay engaged in a conversation or stay focused on my non-creative work, but always, I find myself somewhere other than where I’m supposed to be living between my own ears. Then I come back to myself and the other person hasn’t noticed I was gone. Or, if they are Z, they have noticed and they think I’m a bad listener or lackadaisical worker or a bad bet if they want me to pick something up for them at the store. But they love me despite my human frailties.
It’s been a real boon to know 60-90 minutes a day I’m going to be getting together with these people I’ve never met in real life (and were it not for the pandemic would never have met on Zoom) and they get it. One of us will say, “Have you ever…?” and everyone else will nod in agreement and the conversation will flow. And then we write. And when the host tells us it’s been an hour, most of us are startled because we’ve been out there on our own individual tethers. But also, together.
Goodness knows what the totality of 2021 is going to hold for us. I don’t even want to guess about the future (I told you those Tarot cards are not about knowing the future), but my goal for this year is to embrace my quirks, to work around whatever ear worm has burrowed into my head, and if my neighbors appear to have been murdered, to check in on them even if I feel foolish (or criminal) afterward when I realize their knitted throws were never in any danger.
In the remaining ten months of 2021, let us all be kind to ourselves and laugh whenever we find cause.
There’s a car out front that has stalled and the driver keeps trying and trying to get it started but the engine won’t turn over. Or catch. Or, well, go. It’s been so long since I’ve driven a car anywhere (almost 9 months) that I can’t remember the proper terminology, but what I know for sure is that it seems like a metaphor for this blog, for the 18 previous blog attempts I’ve made since May, and, let’s be honest, for 2020 as a whole. It’s like the year didn’t get started and we just had to push it to the curb, sit, and wait for AAA.
And now it’s October and AAA has been taking its sweet time rescuing us.
Fortunately, it’s not quite rush hour yet or there would be cars behind this guy honking their horns and telling him to get stuffed, as if he intentionally chose to make them go around him. I feel like I should go down and offer to help him push his car, but he’s not wearing a mask and I’m still wearing my nightgown and UGG boots (a sexy, sexy look on the over-fifty set) even though it’s 4 p.m. So instead, I’ll do what I’ve been doing since March and just stare out the window and wait for something about this scenario to change.
It’s not a perfect metaphor, I guess, because this year has not exactly stalled. The hits just keep coming when you get right down to it. The fact that I haven’t really written since May isn’t from lack of trying. No sooner would I start a post on whatever the latest worry or “event” was, then something else would happen making what I’d written seem suddenly less timely or worthwhile. Were I quicker writer who didn’t need to let my work steep before sharing it, you might have been reading entries about what it was like to live in Seattle during the protests against police brutality and systemic racism that resulted—for a time—in the creation of the police-free CHOP Zone not all that far from our apartment. You might have read about the fires here and in Oregon and California that left the city with unhealthy air for almost two weeks while we were in the middle of a heat wave sans AC. You might have read about how the pier downtown where we have taken the most photos of the Sound over the last decade collapsed. You might have read about my stepdad’s surgery and the two weeks that followed wherein I tried not to call daily to see if he was demonstrating any COVID symptoms. You might have read about my sadness about the passing of RBG (and what the means for women and people who aren’t corporations) or a host of other people who have died since last time we met here. More recently, there’s been grief in the extended family, though I’m not yet ready to write about that, and so I guess that shouldn’t be counted in this list, other than it’s made the prospect of writing a blog post—about how disappointed I am that the Just Born candy company wont’ be making Halloween or Christmas Marshmallow Peeps because of the pandemic—seem extra trite.
Ditto the trite but bothersome news that the store we go to most often—Bartell Drugs, which is a local chain that treats its employees well, carries local products, and has been around for 130 years—has decided to sell itself to Rite Aid. The letter they sent out to their loyal customers said nothing would change, but, of course, everything will change. It might take a couple of years for it to get that unique Rite Aid smell—cheap laundry detergent, off-brand candy, and desperation—but it’s coming. As is the 21-story building that will block our view (and possibly the sound of the bells that please me daily) of the beautiful St. James Cathedral. As will the new bus route that’s going to add a lot of noisy, dirty traffic to our already noisy, dirty street.
These are mere trifles compared to the other stuff happening in the world—to people we know and don’t know—and our country and the global environment, and so what’s the point of complaining? But I don’t like change or discord and we are in a long, ugly season of both these days.
So, I was good there for a few paragraphs. It seemed like maybe the car was finally going to start and I could tootle on down the road, but here I am again, stalled. Z and Hudge are honking at me to get a move on, but I clearly need a jump. Or gas for the tank. Or a complete engine rebuild.
What I’d most like to do is to hire a chauffeur and shout “Home, James” from the backseat while I sip a Moscow Mule and wait for the car to drive over the Rockies, through the Great Plains, and over the Mississippi towards my own ones. One of my chief beefs this summer has been seeing people on social media enjoying their vacations, time with family, and mask-less interludes with friends. Some days, I’m even passive-aggressive about it and won’t like those pictures. Z and I would both like to be with our families, with each other’s families, sitting on a beach, crowded or otherwise, but we don’t think it’s smart given my wonky immune system, Mom’s compromised one, and Zimbabwe has had closed borders for quite awhile even if we were feeling brave enough to go see Zma. I realize some people think we’re being excessively cautious. Aside from not wanting to get the virus, we’re also trying to be halfway decent citizens.
If it seems like I’m patting myself on the back for our virus virtue, I’m not. This is one time I’d very much like to not follow the rules. But neither of us are made that way, so here I am, watching a car in the middle of 9th Avenue try and try to get itself started.
Another metaphor we had to work with this summer was Chicken Little worrying about the sky falling when the ceiling in our kitchen literally fell in. Neither of us were in the kitchen—and were, in fact, across the hall asleep and didn’t realize it had happened until the next day—but it was a mess. Like car jargon, I’m also bad about house construction terminology, but we could see the rough boards above and it pulled down enough plaster where the walls joined the ceiling that we got a glimpse of the wallpaper that had been up there possibly since 1923 when our building went up. Never have two people been so happy that they are renters instead of owners, I can tell you that. Our maintenance guy and an associate had it fixed, the light re-installed, and the paint on within a day, and all we had to do was clean up some forgotten chunks of rubble.
We assumed it would be a much bigger deal and there must be some dire cause—oxen living in the apartment above us having a dance party, perhaps—but our building guy shrugged and said, “It’s an old building. It happens.” Now I’m eyeing all of our ceilings with alarm, and I suddenly understand why most of the 1990s and early 2000s were spent with my mother staring at her own ceilings and making her disapproving, I-don’t-like-the-look-of-that-crackface. I always assumed it was an irrational fear of hers, but it turns out sometimes the sky does fall.
Sorry for doubting you, Mom.
If I sound depressed or cranky, I’m not. I’ve got appropriate intermittent rage and sadness mixed in with a few scoops of joy and a lot of “I’m alright.” In January I started anti-anxiety medicine in what has proven to be my second best ever piece of intuition (after knowing instantly that I would marry Z whether he agreed to it or not). When I casually mentioned to my GP that I’d been having some trouble riding crowded buses and a particularly dastardly elevator with no buttons inside (where was it going to take me? Who knew? Maybe it was one of those Willy Wonka deals that would burst through the ceiling), the doctor said clearly anxiety was having a negative effect on my life and here, try some pills. So I started them and then the pandemic struck and while I have no idea how I’d behave on a crowded bus because I no longer ride the bus, I have noticed that in the last 9 months I spend a lot of time hearing horrible news and feeling something akin to sadness or dismay, and then moving on with my day. Maybe this is how normal people have always been functioning and I didn’t realize it and took everything personally—someone else’s misfortune felt like mine, some story about something like murder hornets had me thinking, “Well, this is it then. This is how we’re all going to die.” And now it’s more like, “Huh. That’s too bad. Do we have any more M&Ms or is it time to put in another order with the grocery?”
Oh good. The car outside has gotten started and tootled off. I no longer have to berate myself for not being a more helpful citizen. Farewell, metaphor. Drive safely.
It’s a day-to-day existence, this life we’ve been living, isn’t it? Of course it always has been, but before we could distract ourselves with book sales and concert tickets and planned trips. This Covid Time is very “Here I am in this moment. Now it’s the next moment. And the next.” It feels Zen in some ways, though I wouldn’t say it’s the peaceful, easy feeling I always imagined accompanied a Zen mindset. But I am very much aware that I’m one Netflix binge and grocery order away from either an existential crisis or enlightenment. (My money is on the former.)
Some days Z and I are so busy with work and our internal thoughts that we barely have the energy to talk to each other in depth. And other days, that’s all we do. This morning, we were lying in bed, not all that interested in getting up in the grey, cold late morning, and so we talked and then found ourselves randomly singing multiple verses in not-quite-harmony of “This Old Man/Knick Knack Paddywhack”, a song I haven’t thought of since listening to the Fisher-Price record player belonging to my cousins Jimmy and Ben circa 1972. It was weirdly delightful.
Of course we’ve spent the rest of the day asking ourselves why we feel so behind with work, but I’d rather be a little harried in the afternoon than to have missed that musical moment with Z.
I thank the pandemic for those moments. For Zooming with friends and family. For really appreciating students and reading their work because it seems more important than ever that they are doing it and we are spending time together talking about the significance of their words (and truth). For all of the adorable pandemic puppies that people have been walking. For realizing how much you really like seeing the lower half of the faces of perfect strangers and how you’ll never take a casual smile with a passer-by for granted again. From my desk, I can see the top of Columbia Tower, which is the tallest building in Seattle. During the smog from the fires, I couldn’t see it. Now it’s back, and when I look at it, I take a deep breath and feel grateful for clear air and that building even though on most days I’m mentally shaking my fist at all the high-rises that block the sky.
Several years ago, a counselor I was seeing told me that every morning he wakes up and knows his “next pain in the ass is already in the mail.” His point was, I think, you’re never going to achieve nirvana, Beth. There’s always going to be something on the horizon that is headache or sadness. At the time, I thought maybe he needed to see a counselor because it seemed kind of a pessimistic way to look at life. I was young(ish) then. I wanted to figure myself out so everything in my life would be perfect. But now I think I understand what he was saying. Back then, I was incapable of hearing the implied “but” that came with his statement. This sucks, but also, there are the _____________(moments of spontaneous song, the puppies, photos of a friend’s new grandchild, an extra long phone call home).
I’m trying to focus on the but alsos.
Last week, while I was trying to wrap-up this blog entry with my silent writing group of complete strangers that I met in a writing course I took with Lauren Sapala in August—a class I loved and a community I’m appreciating more and more each day—Z was across the hall talking on the phone with our building manager. When my writing session was over, I packed up my stuff in my basket and made the long commute across the hallway to our “real” apartment, where he told me he had both good and bad news.
The bad news? We have 30 days to get out of our twin apartments, where we’ve lived together for the last ten years (or, alternatively, where we’ve spent the first decade of our married life) because there’s some structural unsoundness. The good news involved some reimbursement for our troubles, which, at the time, didn’t strike me as being remarkable or worthwhile because I could only picture us homeless.
It seems only fair to withhold from you the story of my frustration that in the midst of this news, Z was fussing about where his slippers were and how cold his feet were because it casts him in a bad light. I was losing my mind, wanting more details, wanting him to tell me something that would calm my heart rate, and he was fussing and faffing looking for his half-dead slippers. Finally, he returned to the subject at hand. See how nice I was there, to protect him and not tell you about how it went on for what seemed like minutes and minutes and minutes?
Initially, it was really hard to imagine living anywhere else. We’ve been so happy here. Until I found it had some structural compromises, I’ve loved the crooked walls and windows that don’t quite shut, and quirky faucets. I’ve liked being in a building so old that it creaks and “talks” even if it’s meant I share washers and dryers with all the other building residents or I’ve been doing dishes by hand for the last decade, much to the chagrin of my once-attractive nails and hands. I’ve loved our weird set-up with our writing studio/guest apartment/extra-large-storage-space-across-the- hall.
It’s unconventional and meant we had a lot of guests, including me randomly inviting a writer I’d read and loved but never met to come stay with us for a few days while she was on a book tour. I’m relatively certain she wouldn’t have been inclined if we just had a spare room, but because she had autonomy, I got to meet her, have some drinks with her, and now we send each other emails and snail mail periodically because, well, I care about her now because she’s real to me. And I’ve loved wondering about the people who lived here in the 1920s when the building was new. Were they doctors or nurses at the neighboring hospitals? Flappers? Were they reading The Great Gatsby? Could any of them fathom the stock market crash? Prohibition? A second world war? That one day Seattle wouldn’t be a sleepy logging town? There’s history here, and like living in its dust and crumbled plaster.
So it was a long, sad weekend. I kept looking at everything I’d miss. We took tours at a few places, and then landed on an apartment so unlike any place I’ve ever imagined myself wanting to live that I still can’t believe we’re doing it. I’ll give you the low-down in the next post once we have the keys and have figured out how many of our worldly goods get to come with us.
Now that we know where we’re landing though—and we’ll be in the same neighborhood—I’m making lists of things I won’t miss here at our first home together: the constant diesel grit on everything from the buses that idle out front, the late-night parties that sometimes happen on the stoop by our bedroom window, the postage-stamp-sized closet, unlocking the garbage dumpster because America is so messed up we think our trash is a treasure. And admittedly, the alley is cleaner now that no one is dumpster diving, but it still feels wrong to me every time I click that lock.
These continue to be weird, weird times. I hope this finds you well, be-masked, and managing.
For reasons known solely to my subconscious, I can only write now if I have on this $5 hat purchased in December 2010 when Z and I were on our way to Zimbabwe and got stranded in a wintry New York City with nothing warm to wear. This probably tells you all you need to know about my current state of mind.
Taking that six-month blog hiatus turns out to have been a very bad idea because last fall when it started, there were things to write about. I’d been places (Indiana, Baltimore, Long Beach, Indiana again) and done stuff (taught some classes, gone to some events, seen some people), and had some thoughts (since forgotten).
But now, this is what I’m doing:
I’d feel better about this if these guys had one of those circus nets under them.
No, I’m not washing windows. I just couldn’t quit watching these men washing windows on the 14-story apartment building across the street last week. I had essays to critique and to write and chores to do, but this got all of my attention.
The guy on the right was working slowly and methodically. If you want clean windows with no smudges, I’m guessing he’s your man. The other guy on the left was more fun to watch because he was zipping around from side to side and dropping down quickly on his ropes and generally putting on a performance, but I’m pretty sure those windows would be cleaner if he’d taken a Labrador puppy up with him and let it lick the glass. Still, if there’d been a hat on the ground for tipping purposes, I’d probably have dropped in a few bucks because he was mesmerizing—like Spiderman with a squeegee.
I should turn my desk to face the wall because there is no end to the distractions on 9th Avenue. For instance, I just saw a young woman walk across the street with a stuffed panda twice her size hoisted over her shoulders. Where’d she get it? No stores are open. It’s not fair season yet.
Also, there must be something on one of the leaves of the big tree out front because I keep seeing people stop to study it and two people took pictures and I’ve been speculating about what it might be—some secret message? A death hornet? (Because those are a thing now, in case it seemed like we didn’t have enough to worry about.)
Finally, I’m glancing suspiciously at all the cars parked across the street in the special “park here only if you work at the hospital” gratitude parking spaces and feel certain that not everyone over there actually works at the hospital because they aren’t wearing scrubs and sometimes have dogs with them that they are walking. If they don’t head directly to the hospital, I purse my lips in disapproval.
This is the minutiae that now fills my days. Perhaps your days are similar re: whatever is outside your windows leads you down rabbit holes. Or perhaps your house is full of children or an unruly roommate or partner whose chewing is making you crazy, thus there’s no time to look out your window. Or maybe you are one of those frontline workers who should be afforded the primo parking spots who can’t look out of a window because you are busy keeping us healthy and fed and our garbage cans emptied. Thank you.
When you can’t do anything else to help: construction paper!
I can only speak for myself, and what I’m realizing is this: when you are forced to slow your life down and limit your line of sight, it’s amazing how much time you can spend looking at stuff you would normally not even notice. As it turns out, I’ve made a discovery that I may well be uniquely qualified to tolerate this pandemic lock-down.
At the beginning of the year, I celebrated my birthday back in Indiana. Initially, Mom and I had big plans for a little road trip or at least a movie, and in the end, we decided we were really tired and would rather go home and talk and nap and eat the remaining pieces of Christmas candy. It suited me fine, though had I known the incarceration that would soon be upon us, I might have pushed us to find the energy for a more public celebration.
To commemorate our most important collaboration of getting me born all those Januaries ago, I forced Mom to drag out my baby book so I could see who sent well wishes, the newspaper announcement that I’d arrived and to whom, the little envelope with my tiny fingernail clippings and a lock of my hair. It’s a book I looked at periodically when I was a child because it seemed to point to the notion of me as a celebrity—I mean, it was a book…I love books!—and it was all about me. But now that I’m older it’s more of an archaeology mission. Was I already me when I was born? Was I full of a multitude of possibilities or was my destiny already written? More importantly, as I age, I want to see mention of the people who inhabited my life at its beginning but who are no longer here.
In addition to the ephemera of me and the memories of my own dearly departed, Mom had also recorded this on a page labeled “Special Aptitudes” my primary skills:
Look at me–setting the world on fire from 20 months on–I was destined for celebrity!
Mom has always been heavy with the praise, which may have given me a false sense of my own specialness because I was shocked to discover that for a baby book that covered my first seven years, there were only three things listed there that set me apart from other plebian children, and one of those—coloring within the lines—was really just a matter of decent hand-eye coordination and rule-following.
The thing is, these three skills of mine are basically the same now as they were then, and thank goodness because now that we are neck-deep in Covid-19, sitting and staring at books, magazines, and “especially Christmas catalogs” is helping to pass the time. (I wish. What I wouldn’t give for a 1973 Sears Christmas “wish book” right now.)
Move over, Pooh Bear. I want in that swing!
When Governor Inslee instituted his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” initiative at the end of February, I made plans for all the things I’d get done: the writing, the crafts, new skills, cleaning. Z and I put up a giant-sized Post-It note on the front door we’d no longer be using. On the note were three columns: one list of fun activities we could do at home (games, puzzles, renting movies we’d been meaning to see, reading, etc.), one a list of household chores, and a third short list of joint projects we’ve been meaning to tackle from paying our taxes to writing a book together.
We’ve pretty much checked off everything in the fun column in the first two weeks and have added a second giant Post-It, on which we record the license plates we see on our daily “health” walk—we’re playing the pandemic version of the license plate game and have only nine more states to get. We keep discovering the same license plates over and over again because nobody is doing a lot of driving so cars stay parked in our neighborhood for weeks at a time. I’m so tired of getting excited about Iowa only to get home and discover we already have it. I’ve given up hope that we’ll ever find Rhode Island and West Virginia.
Meanwhile, the other two columns on our to-do list remain unticked. We haven’t even done laundry because a) the thought of using the shared washers and dryers in the basement is unpalatable b) we are kind of tired. The pile of dirty clothes and sheets is now high enough that it impedes the opening of our sock drawer, so soon we’ll be going sockless. Thank goodness it’s almost May.
My point here is that it’s clear to me now that I was always destined for a certain lack of productivity—there’s proof of that in the baby book. This is basically what I have to work with. If you need me to color or annotate your books or stare out your window and think deep thoughts, I’m uniquely equipped to excel in this capacity. It doesn’t seem like much to offer the world when it’s in such dire straits hough.
That said, I assumed even with my innate low-energy that with two months or more stretching in front of me, I’d finally finish knitting that sweater I’ve been working on since 1999, get all of my class notes into a three-ring binder, read through the stack of books I got for Christmas, finish filling in our wedding memory book from a decade ago, and some other surprises.
But I haven’t done any of those things. I started to clean out a bag I had stuffed full of detritus but how that ended up was detritus all over the coffee table instead of in a bag.
Thank goodness the governor has given us another month of lock-down; maybe I can still turn this ship around. Though that baby book seems kind of prescient, and I’m already wondering if that new yoga mat is going to be used given that it didn’t come standard-equipped with a version of me that actually does things.
In the meantime, here are the things that are keeping me sane:
This is my to-read-immediately stack, as opposed to the to-read-imminently stack behind my head in the window sill.
The books in line to be read next.
Every year this seems magical.
This view greeting me when I dare to venture to the drugstore for my “nerve” pills.
Admittedly, I’d have been happier if it were a Hoosier rabbit with big ears, but in a pinch, this one will do.
Seeing emboldened wildlife on our daily walk.
My Big Fat Greek Puzzle.
Traveling through the magic of puzzling.
A candle that was lit at the same time as candles were being lit in Zimbabwe and around the world.
Not library scented.
Spring’s aromatic beauty.
Not a commentary on the reading material.
Never knowing what you’ll find in the Little Free Library.
The nightly 8 p.m. cheer for health care workers. Usually, we’re in the house banging pots and pans, but on this night we happened to be on our walk.
These signs that are popping up all over First Hill.
Is it you, Michelangelo?
This Honey Bucket has lost is way.
Ditto. (Also, thumbs up for traffic-less streets when you are a pedestrian.)
Elliott Bay, how I miss you!
The idea that Puget Sound is still out there and one day we will be able to take a ferry ride on a cloudy day and it will look like this.
Artwork by Henri Lebasque
Stolen images and memes.
Masks made by a friend and shipped priority so we could go out into the world.
Be well. Stay safe. Rely on your own special aptitudes to get through these strange days. xoxo
Yesterday, a writer-client I’m working with came into my studio with news that Notre Dame was on fire. Her voice was mournful, and I’ll admit that I was doing calculations re: the proximity of my cousin G, who works at a neighboring campus in South Bend, when the writer said, “The spire is down” and then I knew she meant the French one, not the Fighting Irish one in northern Indiana that I’ve been to periodically since childhood.
She filled me in on the details and my heart sank. We turned to her work and I spent the next two hours delighting in her words and ideas, and was able—thank you Headspace app—to stay focused on the words at hand though my brain kept trying to slink back to the idea of Paris without Notre Dame, of history without that particular touchstone.
As soon as she left, I watched the footage and had a loud, honking weep. I felt all twisty with grief and briefly considered walking up the street to St. James Cathedral until I looked at the clock and realized mass would be in session and what I wanted was quiet and contemplation in a beautiful space, not words and ritual. So I cried some more, ate some peanut butter crackers, and got on with my life. Like you do.
Here’s the thing: I’ve never been to Notre Dame. I’ve never been to Paris. I’m not really Catholic. My only experience with The Hunchback of Notre Dame was watching the Disney version only because I was interested in how Demi Moore would play Esmerelda. If I’m watching a historical movie in which the English are fighting the French, I root for the English. (If the English are fighting the Irish, that’s a whole other thing.) Despite four years studying French, the only phrase I’ve committed to memory is les belles vaches du Normandie (that’s the beautiful cows of Normandy for those of you who are not bilingual like I am), and I can wish a guy I knew in 8th grade who has spent his adult life in Paris Happy Birthday en français if I double-check the spelling with Google Translate before hitting “post.”
So I’ve been thinking about why I shed more tears over timber and stone than I did over the last five mass shootings in the U.S. or the forest fires last summer, and I’ve isolated it to a few reasons why it seemed so terribly sad to me, a person who has self-ostracized from France because I fear being sneered at by Parisians who think Americans are gauche.
I am a self-reflective person, so let’s get that category of over-indulgent mourning out of the way.
Notre Dame has been on my bucket list since 1981 when I stumbled into Madame Rutkowski’s French I class in high school. I’ve always assumed at some point I would get to France. I imagined I would admire the cathedral and then make my way to Chartres, Reims, Rouen, Mt. Sainte Michel, and I would end in the Louvre and only then truly worship at the altar of art. I did not like Madame Rutkowski, and she did not like me much. But I realized later in my life that she was an incredible teacher even though most of us were mediocre students at best, and if she were still alive, I would write her a note and tell her that, thank her for making me interested in French history, architecture, art, Roman aqueducts, boules, Le Petit Prince, the sites of Paris and the fantastical way the city unrolled like a snail shell from the oldest arrondissement where I wanted to start my exploration. These are the reasons—not the language or her or even Audrey Hepburn—that I came back for French II and French III.
And so, let’s be honest, that weep was for myself. It seems clear now in the light of the next day that Notre Dame will rise from the ashes. Whether it is fixed up in my lifetime, and whether I happen to be in Paris when it’s open to the public is another story. But even if it is, I will be keenly aware that parts of it are now a facsimile and it won’t feel the same. It’s illogical, but I’ll know. When I was at Canterbury Cathedral looking at the steps that were worn away by penitent pilgrims who had crawled up them on their knees for centuries, I was moved. Those steps could be replaced with something new made to look old, sure—the same smooth, uneven dips in the stone could probably be duplicated with a machine of some sort—but I would know it was a fabrication.
Which brings me to the second reason for the tears of Notre Dame. I hate when history is lost to us. The picture that got me going in the first place was the one shot up in “The Forest” that featured all the wood that had been there for centuries. Even though I assume your average tourist couldn’t go up to that peaky bit of the attic and rest her cheek on the timbers, the idea that she could until yesterday and now she never will be able to wrecked me. Who touched those beams? Who made sure they were hewn to specifications so they fit where they were supposed to? Who got damaged backs and hands and feet moving those heavy timbers before there were mechanized pulleys and cranes? I would feel this same way if the fire had engulfed some centuries-old hovel that had housed peasants. It’s not about the grandeur—it’s the loss of that connection with people from all those yesterdays ago.
The news today is that one of the particular problems with a rebuild is that the forests that supplied the oak for that skeleton have all but disappeared because humans kind of suck and don’t let things grow when there’s a profit to be made off of old-growth forest—and sure, “The Forest” was maybe an early pillage of the forests, but I can forgive a little of that if it’s used for something beautiful and meaningful and lasting. I love a touchstone with the past, and while I’m happy to focus on how all is not lost—and how no one died—yesterday the loss seemed too much to absorb. Like an erasure of generations of people and events. Goodbye.
And finally, there is the thing that made me howl loudest when I re-watched that spire fall, wondering what would be left when the fire was quenched. What I’m beginning to realize at this late juncture in my life is my “thing”: I need for the world to be beautiful. I don’t like ugliness in general (Z can attest to this as my eye automatically goes to whatever is hideous or wrong with the city on our nightly walk), but more specifically when something beautiful dies because of natural disaster or human ignorance or arrogance, a combustible cloud of grief and rage builds inside me. I feel like Nancy Kerrigan crying WHY? after her knee was whacked, thus dashing her dreams.
We don’t really do beauty anymore, do we? Not the beauty that requires craftsmanship, forethought about future generations, purpose outside of making a buck. Instead, we do serviceable. Or interesting. Or ironic. Or provocative. We’re so busy looking forward, disdaining the past, that we don’t realize that our buildings and our sculptures and our uppercase Art has more to do with causing a stir now than it does to satisfy an inner need for beauty. So when something lovely, something painstakingly crafted via nature or human hand, disappears, it feels visceral.
I become obsessive and start harping on things like pole-barn churches being built on formerly beautiful pasture or the buildings in Seattle that have artful edifices and courtyards that are callously bowled over for un-interesting steel and glass to house the elite people who can afford a vista, with no concern about how it looks on the outside to the those of us forced to stare at it daily. The view out for the few is all that matters.
That massive, ridiculous staircase sculpture—an ode to consumerism and wealth— in New York City’s Hudson Yards is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.
Maybe its beautiful if you’re a bee. Or a cyborg.
I don’t hate it. It’s interesting. I suppose were I to climb it the views might be spectacular, though there are certainly more picturesque and striking views in other parts of Manhattan. I can see how tired parents might love exhausting their children on those 154 flights of stairs. But there is nothing there as groundbreaking as a flying buttress. It doesn’t please the eye so much as entertain it. If it imploded tomorrow or eight centuries from now, it wouldn’t be a huge loss to civilization. I’m never going to sit on one of those steps and get chills because it feels holy, the way I once did in the interior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex in Buffalo (maybe the last period in the modern era when true craftsmanship was still celebrated) or get tears in my eyes when I see light streaming through the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome.
I know. I know. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
People love Portland, Oregon—they have a sort of revered affection for it that I’ve never caught. Maybe it isn’t Portland’s fault, my lack of enthusiasm for it. I have had a series of unfortunate events there beginning with my first trip when Z and I were engaged. I loved him to bits, had no question about my future with him, but I’d begun having “The Terrifications” about leaving home. Other Portland failures on that trip included my early disappointment in how much like a warehouse the famous Powell’s Books looked, when what I really want in a bookstore is a few leather wingbacks, a fireplace, and a learned Person of Letters smoking a pipe and reading some dense tome while I browse nearby.
I was similarly disappointed in my inability to locate Voodoo Donuts.
Also, we happened upon a parade of naked bicycle riders, a sight almost more disturbing than Notre Dame burning yesterday. All that pale, jiggle-y flesh daring us to find fault with it as it bumped down the street.
Subsequent trips have been no more pleasant, have included repeat disappointments with Powell’s, inability to locate the donuts, and an overwhelming sense that everyone there isn’t as interested in showering as they are in other parts of the country AND the sure and certain knowledge that my having noticed this means that I’m too square and superficial to fully understand Portland and its celebrated weirdness. The last trip, last summer, ended unceremoniously when I had a full-on panic attack while I was driving home during rush hour. My brain was fizzing and pinging because there were too many people—in my lane, on the road, on the planet—and they were sucking up my oxygen and seemed hell-bent on making sure I never ever got home.
Also, if I’m being completely honest with you—a policy of mine—I have to admit I do not really like Portland’s poster boy, Fred Armisen. He makes me more uncomfortable than naked bicyclists and rush hour traffic in an unkown city combined. And no, I don’t know why.
King Street Station, Seattle
A few weeks ago, Z and I took the train to Portland, which was a labor of love. I was itching to see my friends from my old MFA program, who were in town for AWP. It had been five years since I’d seen some of them, more years for others, so seeing Chickpea, Quill, Geeg, and the Beard was worth whatever pain and suffering Portland was prepared to dole out.
A little ambiance at King Street Station, Seattle
Our trip started in Seattle’s King Street Station, which was built when things were still made to be beautiful at the turn of the last century, designed by a firm that would later go on to be associated with Grand Central Station in New York City. When Z moved here 12 years ago, it was being renovated after years of disrepair and “modernization” had wrecked it (plaster reliefs, tile mosaics, and marble replaced with sheetrock and dropped acoustical tile because when is that not a good idea?). But now, it’s grand and old timey again, and I’m sure people would argue that it’s inefficient, but I feel really endeared to the way that train travel—the tickets, the assigning of seats, the check-in and boarding process—is so analog. Everything is paper, a lot of it handwritten. All of it adds up to a sense of how things used to be and, frankly, it seemed less tedious than waiting in line to board a plane.
I wanted to steal one of each of these.
What was disappointing, however, is that when we were actually on the train, we were looking forward to lunch in the dining car. We were both expecting linen table cloths and Hercule Poirot, but instead we got the equivalent of concession stand and some crowded stools, so we staggered back to our seats with our hotdogs and drowned our disappointment in the view of Puget Sound and a few glimpses of the Olympic Mountains on an otherwise grey day.
In Portland, we stayed at the Woodlark Hotel, a building that had been an old hotel, then had been slated to be demolished years ago, but someone with foresight (and money) rescued it, and opened it recently—nicely remodeled. The desk clerk happily informed us we’d been upgraded to a space with more light, so I swung the room door open with relish only to discover a king sized bed with a path around it (i.e. the same as our own bedroom at home), a “closet” that was brass pipes jutting out of the wall, and a desk and chair built for young Swedish children (unfortunate for Z since he had papers to grade while I was swanning around with my friends). It did have the promised window with a view onto the busy street below, and I decided to appreciate how bijoux it was and how much I preferred it to a modern, air-tight space with no sense of itself.
Hotel closets have never been so stylish and accessible!
Also, the fine folk at the Woodlark were so proud of the wallpaper in our room that it was duplicated on the coasters, room key, and the home screen of the TV. For four days I felt like I was in a steampunk jungle.
Whenever I see this particular set of friends, I’m surprised by how it feels like we said goodbye a month ago and no time has passed. We quickly dive into conversations about writing and life and memories from a decade ago when I met them as a homesick first semester nonfiction writer. They were all considerably younger than I was and almost done with the program, but they invited me in and that made all the difference. They saved the experience for me—made it fun, instead of an ordeal, taught me the ropes of handling the sometimes grueling residencies, and bought me a birthday tiara to help me celebrate my 42nd birthday the year The Terrifications began in earnest.
I’d like to regale you here with amusing anecdotes from those three days, but the truth is, it wouldn’t be interesting or entertaining: inside jokes originally constructed after too much alcohol, conversations about writers we like/loathe, stories about bodily functions and housekeeping. We went to Powell’s Books and I liked it better as I wandered around with Quill and Chickpea, recommending books to each other—focusing primarily on display books because they were face out and required no bending over. We weaved around streets looking for a place where my unsophisticated palate could be sated with something that wouldn’t completely bore them. I tried to find my bearings on the streets that all seemed the same to me (I never could figure out which direction was north, where the center of town was, or come to a conclusion about why a city so much smaller than Seattle seemed to have twice the homeless population.) We went to the river, a serviceable working river, but no beauty. My favorite bit, the Portland sign in Old Town that’s the shape of Oregon with a deer leaping away, as if it too is frightened of Fred Armisen.
A serviceable river. I do love those little bridge turrets!
Chickpea and Quill made it a goal to get me, finally, blessedly, to Voodoo Donuts, where we waited in a long line while looking at pictures of the donut treasures awaiting us—donuts covered in breakfast cereals, bacon, bubble gum, and shaped like joints and rude body parts. Getting a treat there is an event, though Chickpea was chastised by her server for ordering a single donut, “just so you can say you’ve been here” which was kind of off-putting. Surely half the people in that line were there so they could say they’d been to this temple of donut worship.
My final review: Voodoo donuts are okay. I don’t really get the hype. I know it’s blasphemy for someone living in the Pacific Northwest to say this, but I’d rather have a Krispy Kreme.
At least there’s one thing I can tick off my bucket list.
Our first night visiting our friends, Z and I rode the light rail back to the Woodlark. A security guard at the train station when we arrived told me it’s the best light rail system in the U.S. and maybe it is. (I can’t really judge—Seattle’s isn’t very complex or expansive.) But I didn’t love it. I’m used to riding public transportation, I’m used to the odd squabble, the random strings of curses at no one in particular, dogs of all varieties sometimes growling at each other. But on our ride home—at a respectable hour—a preppy looking dude with a black eye got on and began fake-punching and mouthing off to other people on the train. He wasn’t a racist, he said, but he was Special Ops and could throw the two guys at the back—who were Black—off the train if he wanted. There was a lot of back and forth between the three of them, and one of the guys said, “Dude, you’ve already got a black eye.” Later, they got off the train, shuffling past the instigator, and one guy mumbled, “I’m out of here. I can’t go to jail tonight.”
This left Z and me and a few other people further away for him to perform for. Whatever he’d been smoking or sniffing made silence an impossibility for him. He sidled up to us, asked Z if he was a doctor, and without really waiting for an answer said he was a doctor. A Special Ops doctor who worked for the CIA. We kept our eyes trained on the floor, hoping he’d catch a clue. But he kept up with his rambling chatter. Too close. Too unstable. He flexed a muscle and told me to feel it. I finally looked at him and said sarcastically, “No thanks.” He said to Z, “She’s got big eyes.” (Z insists he said, “She’s got big, beautiful eyes” but I’m pretty sure it was just “big eyes” said in the same sneering tone that Billy McGathey once used on me in 7th grade Home Ec not to look at him with my “bug eyes.” (I’m not sure why me looking at him was a problem—mostly I was just unimpressed with his seamstress skills and certain that my big eyes weren’t actually buggy.)
I don’t know if Z knew things with this guy were likely to get worse, or if he could sense that his wife was a middle-aged woman with occasional hormone instability and two Long Islands in her gullet. I wasn’t afraid of this swaggering, black-eyed twerp, and what’s more, I kind of wanted him to threaten us because I felt suddenly fierce with rage that he’d fake-punched a miserable looking guy in front of us, forced the squabbling guys behind us to listen to his bullshit about not being a racist when the first people he swaggered up to were people of color, and making the few remaining people on the train stare at the floor trying to make themselves small targets for his inebriated malice. I haven’t been to a gym in 7 years nor have a lifted anything heavier than a laundry basket in recent years, but I felt so angry at how ugly he was being that I was yearning to pop him on the nose.
I also suddenly wanted to talk about myself in the third person after punching him: Big Eyes has spoken.
I’ve never hit anyone in my life and I’m wildly uncoordinated, so it wouldn’t have ended well. The swaggering, black-eyed twerp and I have Z to thank for ushering me to the door at the next stop where he and I stood on the corner for ten minutes waiting for the next, less crazy train.
Because Z had a lot of work to do and because of the distaste I now felt for both the light rail system and Evening Portland in general, the last night there, I took an Lyft out to meet my friends. I chatted all the way to the ‘burbs with the driver, a transplant from Atlanta who had come out two years ago to help her college-student daughter adjust to her new west coast life. She was friendly and chatty and I was hepped up on caffeine. She said Portland wasn’t really working for her. It had been an adventure and she was glad to come out to help her daughter, but her daughter was making her own way now and she herself wasn’t really making any friends. When she moved in, she had introduced herself to her neighbors because she thought it would be nice if someone would maybe notice if a burglar was crawling in her window or she was dead on the doorstep, and she’d like to reciprocate that favor. Instead, they politely blinked at her and then shut their doors. She shrugged. Maybe she’d try Portland, Maine, next, she said. So I told her that I’d gone to grad school there, that that’s where I’d met these friends I was visiting, that I thought she might like it, but it would be very different from Atlanta too.
Chickpea and I sat around the rental unit for a couple of hours while the conference goers were off getting themselves registered. We talked about Maine and dogs while she cut up crudités and I gave myself a sort of Tarot reading with Quill’s new faerie cards. (It was unsuccessful, though the faeries indicated I perhaps had an unhealthy relationship to the outdoors. Which is true. I’m kind of allergic to it.) The others arrived, we stuffed ourselves with snacks and then left for supper and stuffed ourselves with food at the paleo, dairy-free, gluten-free restaurant where it seemed to be a requirement of the other customers and the staff to wear big, knit caps. Two of us were leaving the next morning, the other three were staying for the conference.
I hate this, the goodbyes. I waved farewell as they crossed the street, climbed into my Lyft where the music was soft and the driver was silent. He wove through the traffic while I wiped away a few tears. The Portland sign glimmered in the distance as we crossed the river. How can you miss people who you’ve really only ever been with for maybe forty days of your life all told?
It makes no sense. It also makes no sense that an ancient building I’ve never seen in a country where I’ve never been can move me to tears, whether standing intact or aflame.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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:
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.
The catalog of ways my writing gets derailed is as large as the Oxford English Dictionary though the pages with entries for “email that must be sent” and “drawers that must be organized” are the most dog eared. Currently, I have a thumb injury caused by a knife in the dish water, and I’ve bandaged that thing up so it looks like the oversized digit of hitchhiking Sissay Hankshaw/Uma Thurman in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. It has slowed my typing down considerably even though it turns out the only thing you use your thumb for when typing is the space bar.
But even before the thumb situation, I had a font-related writing derailment.
I saw a snarky T-shirt on Broadway hat said, “I bet you use Helvetica.”
I use Helvetica.
I’ve been using Helvetica since 1994 when I got my Mac Performa and determined Helvetica the best font of the six or so on offer back then. Clean lines. Easy to read. Classic. Once I settle on a “good thing” I usually don’t revisit it, but that T-shirt unnerved me.
You have no idea how much time I can spend googling things like Why does Helvetica suck? Or what are the best fonts?
I find myself at a crossroads in my life wherein I must either change so I don’t seem quite as old as I’m beginning to look, or I must commit to my idiosyncrasies and admit that I no longer care to be current. Not that I’ve ever been on the cutting edge of anything, but my goal, in as much as I have one, is simple: avoid being a laughingstock if possible.
It may be a battle I’m destined to lose regardless of my age. I’ve always been out of step, and now is no different than any of the other decades of my life. I was a fussy, prim teenager who was incapable of being carefree or rebellious, and now that I’m middle aged, I’m behaving the way I should have when I was 17. While the style mags all indicate I should embrace re-purposed furniture from a thrift store and add some spikey plants, a see-thru chair, and a bookshelf full of globes (where the books should go), I hanker for the ambiance of some television small town judge’s family room circa 1955. Heirloom furniture and deep armchairs with actual arms. I’m no fashionista, so though my drawers are stuffed to the brim, I basically wear the same uniform every day—a cable-knit hoody sweater, Levi’s, and a pair of UGGs with hide laces that look like something Daniel Boone might have worn. (If it is warm out, I wear as little as possible accompanied by a snarl.) There is nothing about my “look” that is cultivated. It’s comfortable and serviceable and, hopefully, non-descript. Best of all, when I’m wearing it, I feel like myself.
Which is how I’ve always felt about Helvetica.
If I were a more confident person, I probably would have rolled my eyes at the judgey anti-Helvetica T-shirt disrespecting my font and moved on, but I’m not confident. I almost always assume that there are cool kids at a lunchroom table somewhere in the universe who are deciding right now that 90% of what I have and do is all wrong. Why these imaginary brats hold sway in my head is a question I can’t answer.
Plus, I started thinking about the judgments I’ve made against people for their font choice or their tendency to trends. Typewriter fonts are too precious and those peek-a-boo shoulder shirts aren’t really working for anybody and make me worry about shoulder melanoma. (Also, I’ll confess that though a hundred different style guides tell me that Chuck Taylors are always a good choice, I never see them on adult, non-basketball-playing humans over 22 without thinking they should try a boat shoe instead. We all have our opinions.)
Maybe I’m only thinking about things like “classic” and “style” because for Christmas, Mom got me this gorgeous little book, Classic Style: Hand It Down, Dress It Up, Wear It Out by Kate Schelter. I’m probably not the target reader (see above description about my fashion choices), but I love the watercolor sketches of the things Schelter and a few style icons she’s interviewed offer up as their classic go-tos. It’s got me thinking about that old William Morris adage “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” and now I’m looking at the stuff in my closet and dotted around our apartment and finding some of it dubious.
Beyonce waiting for her Cinderella story to unfold.
For instance, I’ve been giving Beyonce, the metal chicken that sits in our living room (and who is named after The Bloggess’s significantly larger metal rooster) the side-eye. She’s not really beautiful. We knock her off her perch regularly and she dents up the wooden hand-made Shaker nesting boxes she sits on. On the other hand, we got her as a companion to the metal rooster, Bob Johnson, who sits on the other side of the room and I do find him, if not beautiful, then at least aesthetically pleasing, and he makes me smile, thus covering the “usefulness” category as well. Somehow, it seems wrong to deprive Bob and Beyonce of their love just because she’s less attractive and I got her on markdown in the Meijer garden department. Bob was liberated from a gallery and thus was a more pricey, graduation gift from Z that we found in New Mexico. She can’t help it that she doesn’t have the breeding of Bob, and I admire him for overlooking this.
Beyonce is still waiting for this guy to put a ring on it.
There are other things on the side-eye list too.
Why would anybody need these? What does it all mean?
I’m not sure why I’ve been collecting these little Wade ceramic doo-dads out of Z’s tea boxes. I don’t really like the colors and it seems kind of weird to have a tiny space shuttle, old-timey scuba helmet, White House, and pine tree/arrowhead sitting in my windowsill, but each time he opens a new box of tea it reminds me of the childhood joy of getting a prize in a box of Fruit Loops. So there they are, looking down on 9th Avenue in all their tiny, muted glory as if they are prized possessions.
I don’t know what to do with the 28 tote bags I have. They’re useful, but will I ever have need for 28 at one time? Shouldn’t I thin the herd? Thumbs up to the Winter is Coming direwolf and Andy Warhol soup can totes and thumbs down to the free London Review of Books one I got at a conference?
I keep thinking I’ll come up with a system for these wooden file boxes that will make them useful, but instead, I throw things in them like the notecards of a would-be screenplay that seemed like a good idea one night at midnight and less of a good idea once the sun was up. They’ve been in one file box for ten years and I’ve never looked at them. Mostly I dust the boxes when guests come and thus they serve as tiny coffins for story ideas that have never re-animated.
I could go on like this, but you get the idea. That once again, instead of doing the business of writing, I’m avoiding it by bandaging my thumb and worrying about fonts, and speculating about how classic or unclassic my “style” is. Because that’s what really matters in my life. Sure it is. (Well, wound care matters, I guess, in that if I lose my thumb to gangrene, all of my words will run together what with no digit to operate the space bar.)
Classic Style has sent me down a memory lane I wasn’t planning to traverse too. I think I’ve mentioned before that when I was an impressionable 13 year old, I got my hands on a copy of Lisa Birnbaum’s satirical Preppy Handbook and didn’t realize it was satire. Instead, I used it as a bible. I wanted to be preppy. I don’t mean I wanted to wear Izods with the collars up. I mean I desperately wanted my family to transform over night into one of those country-club-belonging east coast families that went sailing and attended Ivy League schools and summered on Nantucket. It wasn’t the money I cared about, but I cared about the class, the breeding, the well-readness and the well-educatedness. Since I couldn’t rearrange my Midwestern reality into that, I read the books Birnbaum said were non-negotiable for preps (Love Story, Catcher in the Rye, The World According to Garp), I fretted about whether my monogram should feature the “E” of my given name or the “B” of my everyday “Beth.” Somehow, I managed to get a pair of Tretorn tennis shoes and tried to wear away the right toe as if I dragged my toe when serving a tennis ball (instead of actually, you know, learning to play tennis and getting the Preppy Handbook required roughed-up toe legitimately), and I crammed my maturing body into little boy’s polo shirts because they were cheaper than those made for women, and they fit my nearly non-existent budget even though they didn’t really fit me.
So as I read Classic Style, I find myself reverting to my 7th grade girlhood. I feel the envy and the inability to measure up to those satirical guidelines. And I’ll admit it, I’m kind of hating on Schelter—an honest to goodness prep—for forcing that on me. True, I now have my own set of required L.L. Bean Boat & Tote bags, but Kate Schelter, one assumes, has actually used hers for boating and toting instead of for storing half-read Poets & Writers magazines under her desk. You can’t buy preppyness (or class) it turns out.
But please note: Schelter’s illustrated questionnaire of the creative director, Stephen Keefe, listed Helvetica as his favorite font, alongside his vintage Persol sunglasses and Gucci loafers!
As I bundled up to meet Z and Hudge for happy hour on Monday, I was thinking about Schelter and her perfect style as I wrapped my rainbow-hued scarf around my neck, tugged on my rainbow-striped gloves, and pulled my rainbow knit cap down over my ears. These items don’t match, in case it sounds like they do. The colors are all of different hues, I just like the spectrum even though I would never have dressed this way in 1981. The useless strings that dangle from the earflaps slapped against my chin as I thought about how no one with real style would leave the house dressed as I was unless it was Pride week.
I climbed onto the #2 bus and as I was putting my wallet into my bag, the guy across from me—an Albus Dumbledore look-alike who appeared to have fallen on hard times—complimented me on my obnoxious hat.
I touched the hat and thanked him. He swayed and shifted in his seat in a way that indicated to me he was probably already half-lit. Then he leaned across the aisle and presented a banged-up blue plastic lighter and said, “Want to trade it for this lighter.”
I did not and said so politely. It seemed rude to ignore him, so I gave him more information than he needed—that Z and I got these hats—Z’s a more “manly” forest green—right before we got married and so I have a sentimental attachment to it (and therefore, nothing against the lighter he had on offer). I restrained myself from telling him that I secretly believe the hat to have magical properties because a few days after I bought it and a few days before our wedding, I face-planted on an icy sidewalk and instead of ending up with the bruise or concussion I should have had, the hat made my head bounce so I was able to get married without stage make-up.
The guy shrugged and leaned back in his seat, arm along the back as if he were driving a 1970s Cadillac. As if to say, he liked the hat, sure, but it was nothing to him if I couldn’t see the benefits of his proposed trade. He flipped his maroon and gray striped scarf over his shoulder jauntily.
My instinct then was to run down the checklist perpetually in my brain of “was it bad of me that I just did this selfish thing of wanting to keep my own belongings to myself?” (The curse of a self-aware only child is the need not to behave the way people expect you to.) I looked at the guy while he was looking out the window and was happy to see that his coat looked warm, gloves jutted out of his pocket, and his scarf was long enough to cover his head if the temperature dropped. He didn’t need my magic hat; he just liked it. And I didn’t need his lighter, which appeared to have no magical qualities at all, (though the ability to carry potential fire in your pocket is a kind of magic). Things were even enough between us that I didn’t have to spend the rest of the day feeling guilty for not being more generous.
He saw me eying his scarf and leaned forward again, rubbing the ends between his fingers, and pointing out to me that the colors are the same as those of Oxford University’s Christ Church (orGryffindor’s, I thought). Then he mumbled some things about Oxford and it seemed to me that he said he’d studied there and maybe that’s where the scarf had actually come from, though I can’t be sure because his monologue was low and zipped from topic to topic. There were kernels of sanity and sobriety in what he said, but there were enough words I didn’t catch that I also don’t know if he was a fabulist or if he’d had some academic life that went awry.
He talked. I smiled and nodded and hoped I wasn’t agreeing to some other trade that wouldn’t suit me. I am known for agreeing to things I don’t want because I nod my head when I don’t understand someone and the next thing I know I’m having a meal I didn’t order or hideous fake nails glued to my own natural ones.
I looked at him more closely. His hair was wild. He was carrying what looked like a freshly laundered mattress pad in a see-through tote. He was picking bits of fluff of the knee of his trousers fastidiously, and he was definitely striking a pose there on the #2 as we bumped up Seneca. He flipped the scarf over his shoulder again and looked out the window as if we were on a weekend leisure drive in Oxfordshire. He might have initially looked like a homeless Dumbledore to me, but as I often discover about my fellow bus riders, there was more to him than met the eye. And the man had style.
If he has cause to use Helvetica, I bet he does it unapologetically.
Just two crazy middle aged kids enjoying Puget Sound in their magical knitted hats.