Category Archives: Indiana

Anti-Malarial Dreams III: A Procrastinating Adventurer Realizes She’s on an Adventure

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Last month here in Seattle we had a couple of weeks of freakish winter weather that made me feel like I was back in Indiana. Two nights before it was scheduled to come, Z and I went to the grocery and we found bare shelves and a crazed herd of humans, preparing themselves for what we were both certain would be four-hours of snow-covered streets that would soon melt.

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The cupboards were bare.

We were wrong.

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Like some African animals, Seattle snow is not easy to photograph.

I know it doesn’t look like much, and were I in Indiana with my Indiana boots and my Indiana coat and my flat, flat Indiana horizon, I’d have been out in it, dusting off my car and driving to work. But the thing about snow in Seattle is that we have something like 7 snowplows and steep inclines in all directions. The few times I ventured out in my shoes that are fabulous for rain, I discovered they were not fabulous for snow and ice and I slid all over the place, felt ancient, and locked myself into the apartment afterward vowing not to go out until the snow melted.

 

Even since it’s melted, it’s been unseasonably cold. No one else here seems to notice. They’re running around in lightweight jackets or no jackets at all, but even bundled up in hats with earflaps, scarves, and mittens, Z and I feel like the wind whipping up the hill off the water is made of knives.

 

Apparently we’re a spectacle. One night we were having a walk and some 20-year-old snarked to his friend, “They’re ready for winter.”

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These people are prepared for Snowpacalypse, but the guy in the hoodie looks like he might be snarky.

My vow to stay indoors until the snow melted should have, perhaps, also included a clause about staying in until the complete disappearance of know-it-all hipster youth too.

 

 

I had the big plans last summer to write regular installments during and about our trip to Zimbabwe (with an Ireland chaser), and then I got waylaid with pneumonia and a variety of other events and moods that I recognize now as excuses. So far, I haven’t continued Anti-Malarial Dreams because I don’t feel like I can do that trip justice. Whatever I write will disappoint me, could annoy Zimbabweans I know and love, say too much about the students we were traveling with, say too little about the people we encountered, be dishonest by not telling you the things that troubled me on the trip or be too honest by over-sharing.

 

In the realm of fight or flight responses, I have chosen neither and instead have just been frozen, a white tail dear in the high-beams of an SUV.

 

I’m teaching Writing for Procrastinators this term, a class I designed precisely for people like me who have a lot to say and some ability to say it, but who scare themselves into silence. One of the students last week said he’d been writing a lot since taking the class, but he was too nervous to send his work to me for comment. I told him he shouldn’t do that to himself because in this particular class and with this particular instructor (me), the stakes are pretty low. He nodded and said he’d try to find the courage to send me something this week, and I realized maybe I ought to practice what I preach. The stakes here are pretty low. If you jeer and throw rotten produce at me to demonstrate your displeasure, it’s just going to hit your computer screen anyhow, right?

 

 

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Our first day in town with the students after visiting Z-ma’s school, we go to Sacred Heart Cathedral for a tour, a tour I suggested Z take us on because I love a good cathedral. It’s not as grand as St. Patrick’s in New York, or even St. James, which is up the street from us in Seattle, but it’s lovely. Thomas, our guide, gives us a quiet tour and when he isn’t talking we stroll around, looking at the statues and artwork. The Catholic students in our group spend a few minutes in prayer. There’s no smell of incense, no real statuary, no Stations of the Cross, and for these reasons and maybe some others, it feels almost like a church that was built for one denomination in the distant past and has recently been taken over by another. But I’ve read the history and know it’s always been Catholic, it has multiple services—some in English, some in Shona, and one in French/Portuguese.

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So peaceful.

Providence, Hudge, and I stand in the balcony and look at the artwork above the high altar, and Providence notices that almost all of the images in the church are of white people, which I can’t really work myself up into any sort of righteous indignation over because when it was built, it was built for white people who weren’t really planning on inviting congregants of color inside.

 

What’s more curious to me, however, is that the artwork has remained the same since independence.

 

Another curiosity: a small brass plaque on the wall where one of the Stations of the Cross would be in any other cathedral. It says only “The Five Irishman,” and we’re left to wonder who they were, if they put up the plaque because they dedicated something to the church or if they are being remembered here, likely by other people long gone. For some reason, I picture them as New York style firefighters or cops, immigrants who ended up in Africa instead of the Americas, who would be played by Denis Leary or Aidan Quinn.

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Well, okay then.

Z tells me that his aunty and uncle, both from Italy, had their funeral services here, and because I knew Z when his aunty died, suddenly I have my own fabricated memories. I can picture a service in this church. I can picture Z’s relatives there, mourning the loss of a woman I wish I’d had a chance to meet. I can picture Z walking behind her casket, even if he didn’t. The mostly empty cathedral comes alive in my mind with prayer and ceremony and sadness.

 

I wish I could ask his aunty if she knew the Five Irishman.

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Later in the day, we go to Harare Gardens where I’m slated to teach a lesson to the students about reflective writing, a task I’m not that excited about because it’s been awhile since I’ve taught 20-year-olds, and also because Z, Providence, and Hudge will be there to hear what I have to say, and the jig will be up. It turns out the Imposter Syndrome from which I sometimes suffer travels with me.

 

On the walk to our meeting place with the students, Z tells Providence, Hudge, and me about how the park looked when he was a child. It was a showplace. He points towards where a playground was, the restaurant that sounds like it would have been Harare’s answer to Tavern on the Green, he notes where fountains were, how lush it was, how well manicured. When he was a child, it was a destination.

 

Now, it is overgrown. It’s still lovely in that way that anything green in the midst of concrete is lovely, but now it’s wild and uncontrolled. The benches are broken, the paved pathways are crumbling, there is litter everywhere. There are people everywhere. Men and women in suits and dresses who seem to be headed to meetings, mothers with children, people who appear to have fallen on hard times, who remind me of the homeless people back in Seattle who populate our parks.

 

The park feels like a metaphor for Zimbabwe. It’s a place of wild beauty that has seen better days, has seen worse days, and the people inside it are getting on with their lives while we Americans look at it with our western eyes and pass judgment in one form or another.

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My pictures of Harare Gardens are subpar, so here, have an orchid from Z-ma’s garden.

We find our way to a clearing with a rickety bench where I perch myself next to Providence, and the students find places on the grass to sit with Z. I give a little talk and try not to worry that what I’m saying is obvious and too simplistic for these sophisticated Seattle students, or that Providence and Hudge, who recently paid me to edit a project of theirs won’t wonder what they were thinking handing their words over to a poser like me. I give the students a writing exercise before I talk some more.

 

A little boy with huge eyes sizes us up, comes over, and puts his hand out. He wants money. It’s early in the trip and the students—all women—are trying not to interact with people as if they themselves are ATM machines, though it’s clear that this one is hard for them. The kid is, possibly, the most adorable boy in all of Zimbabwe. He’s maybe five, seems to be on his own, and he’s got this casual nonchalance that is charming. There’s nothing desperate or angry about him. Instead, he looks like he’s got the world on a string and no real cares. A few of the students shake their heads no at him apologetically, and he stuffs his hands in his pockets and looks like he’s going to whistle, it’s no big deal to him they don’t want to part with their money. Then he spies Providence, who must look like an easy target, and he tries his hand with her. She tells him no but offers him a breakfast bar that she’s fished out of her backpack, and he seems happy with it. We assume this will be the end of it and he’ll wander off, but instead, he finds a spot on the grass with the students and sits down, as if he’s part of the class. It’s distracting. The students smile at him, snap some photos, ignore their writing assignment. But also, his presence there seems somehow more important than anything I could say to them about using descriptive language.

 

He stays with us until the session is over and we dust ourselves off and talk about where we’ll have lunch. The boy wanders off towards a group of people who are either people he knows or his next marks. He turns to us and waves goodbye, big smile. The students talk amongst themselves about their concerns for him, wonder why he isn’t in school, where he sleeps at night, if he’s starving. Z, ever the voice of reason, points out that his clothes are clean, his shoes are in good condition, he himself is clean, and that someone clearly cares for him, even if it’s unclear why he has free reign of Harare Gardens at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday. Somehow, I don’t feel worried for him. There are other kids—older kids—who have clearly been forced onto the streets that we see begging at intersections, sitting around in small herds, barefoot, dusty, cold, and those kids make my heart ache. This one? He’ll be okay, I tell myself.

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The bench I taught from was 68% more rickety.

Z sends the students off to find lunch and we make our way to Not-Tavern-on-the-Green, the Parkview Restaurant. Before we get to the door, the students have rejoined us. Where they were feeling adventurous the day before in the confines of the elementary school, it’s easy to see that the muchness of the city is overwhelming to them. I would be overwhelmed if Rick weren’t leading me around, and we’re happy enough to have the students with us.

 

Though the restaurant had been fancy in its day—which you can see from the large, now be-curtained windows that used to look out on the park, the architectural elements on the interior, the plastic plants where real ones no doubt used to reside—it is a shadow of its former self. Initially, we wonder what we’re getting ourselves into—is the place clean? will the food be edible? are we going to regret this choice?—but the server is friendly, at least half the tables have other customers, and though the restaurant serves primarily Zimbabwean dishes, when we look at the menu we see that the vegetarians in our group can find something to eat, and my four-year-old’s palate will be happy enough with some chicken and French fries.

 

Before our food is brought out, the server comes over with a bowl, some napkins, and a sort of red plastic watering can so we can wash our hands. I’ve eaten out in Zimbabwe before but always at places that are more “modern” (read: Western, read: places white people are comfortable), and because I’m still meditating and trying to live in the moment, I don’t let the weirdness of this—a stranger standing over me, pouring a stream of water onto my hands while I rub them—affect the look on my face. I tamp down the questions that are humming in the back of my head like, “How clean are hands without soap?” and “How long has that water been sitting out and where did it come from in the first place?” and “Is it rude, once you’ve washed your hands like this to then get out your hand sanitizer?” Later, I ask Z if this is something that he is used to that I’ve somehow missed out on during previous trips, and he explains that this is a traditional Zimbabwean restaurant and this is the custom, but no, this isn’t something that is normally done at the restaurants where we’ve frequented.

 

It’s one of those moments when I realize that though this is my third time in Zimbabwe, what I know about the place could fit on about five grains of sand. Later in the trip, Z and I will eat at an “Italian” restaurant in the Chinese mall where the menu offers SNAIL A’LA FRENCH (we get spaghetti instead) and when the server comes over with the little pot of water and bowl for hand washing, I feel victorious and slightly less like a big, anxiety-ridden American.

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When we leave the restaurant and head off to our next activity on the Avenues, where various embassies are, we see our little friend from the earlier who waves at us again, smiles, then skips off in the direction of an adult who may or may not be connected to him.

 

On the Avenues, Z gives the students an assignment—to find and take pictures of political posters for the upcoming election. It’s part of a bigger discussion they’ll have later about the media, but also Z’s attempt to send them off on their own for awhile so they aren’t trailing after him like he’s a mother duck. Part of the experience of a short study abroad class like this is to force the students into situations that make them a little uncertain, a little uncomfortable.

 

Ritual pre-lunch hand washing has been enough uncertainty for me though, so I stick with Z, Providence, and Hudge as we investigate a couple of pharmacies, looking for some supplies that got left behind in America. At one, Providence asks about a brightly colored package of what appears to be gum by the cash register—what’s the flavor? is it tasty? some question like that—and the cashier momentarily looks embarrassed and then says, “They’re condoms” and we all, together, burst into laughter.

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My photos of the tree-lined streets of The Avenues are similarly bad, so here, have a bushman painting from Lake Chivero.

We kill time while the students do their homework by walking along the tree-lined streets, looking at the barbed wire and other fortifications around the U.S. Embassy, and notice, suddenly, that Z has sent the students out on a fool’s errand. There are no political posters in this area. Security is much tighter because of the embassies in general and the U.S. Embassy specifically. In the rest of Zimbabwe, there’s not a pole, tree trunk, fence, or rock that hasn’t had a poster of one sort or another pasted or nailed to its surface. The students are tenacious enough, though, that they venture a bit further afield and find a few. While we wait with them for our G-taxis to take us back to the “compound,” we’re tag-teamed by multiple people asking for money. They are as tenacious as the students despite our wan smiles and head shakes, and we’re all relieved when we climb into our taxis and head home, where, behind bars and high walls we can feel like ourselves and not have to navigate the difficulties of a new culture, of poverty, and of being identifiable as dopey, stingy Americans with bottomless wallets that are sealed shut.

 

That night, Z and I have dinner with his brother and sister-in-law at Vali’s (more of those delicious meat pies!), and it is one of my favorite evenings because it is so laid back and there is no having to “extrovert” with students or guides or strangers. Though it’s chilly, we sit outside under one of the propane heaters and talk easily. The proprietor and my brother-in-law know each other, and start ribbing one another. My sister-in-law and I talk about the kids and the dogs and complexities of figuring out the best way to pay for things in a country that has a shortage of paper money. In retrospect when I try to figure out why this is one of my favorite memories of the trip, what I come back to is that we had nothing but time stretching in front of us. The class had just started, their house was within walking distance of our little compound, and so we didn’t have to pack a year’s worth of conversation into an hour. It was one of those moments like I have in Indiana when I get a taste of what our lives might look like if we didn’t live so many miles away from family, moments when there isn’t a clock ticking down in the background.

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A sky that would make Magritte envious.

The next day we leave Harare behind for a few hours and with two hired SUVs and drivers, and Z, Hudge, and me in Z-ma’s ridiculously high truck, we head for a game drive at Lake Chivero. This is a place I’ve been before a few times and one that is important to Z’s family because his father and aunt both had their ashes spread there, not far from the bushman paintings. The paintings sit between the lake and the picnic ground, where we eventually gather with students who reject the Zimbabwean fruit Z has on offer because though it might taste sweeter than anything in America it does not look perfect, like it would in a market in the U.S. Z shakes his head and loads the fruit back into the truck for us to eat later. They’ll be forced to pee in the bush because the public toilet is out of commission and so many years removed from when it was working and useful that it is preferable to be showing the world your backside than to be in that dark, spider-infested facility. They’ll snap photos by the lake and demonstrate interest and warmth towards Z as he sprinkles rose petals on the spot where his aunt’s ashes were sprinkled and then on the lake itself where his dad’s were sprinkled three years before I met Z.

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I love a flightless bird. So much easier to get a snap.

But before any of this, when Z, Hudge, and I are rocking and jerking along the uneven road, trying to spy game, while the newer SUVs eat the trail of dust we leave behind us and where they stop for photos when we throw our hands out the windows to point to an ostrich or a zebra they might have missed, I have this moment of complete contentment and pleasure. It’s a perfect day and these minutes feel like the sort that get filed away in some scrapbook of Perfect Moments that you drag out on rainy days and remember happily. It is sunny, the windows are down and blowing my hair, Z’s capable hands are on the steering wheel, our conversation is easy, swelling and silent depending on the proximity of the animals we want to see.

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Waterbuck, the most unfortunate of the African buck because it comes with a target right on it’s backside.

And there is a voice inside my head, laughing, you are in Africa, you are in Africa, you are in Africa. The sheer impossibility of a girl—who wept her way through Girl Scout Camp, who avoided new experiences whenever possible, who went to college an hour away from home because anywhere further afield would have pulled that tether too taut, who has envied nearly every person she’s encountered who has lived a more adventurous life—riding in this truck with this man and that friend on a continent I assumed I’d only ever see in movies or reruns of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, it was… magical.

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I find giraffe to be one of the hardest animals to spot, which is counterintuitive since they just stand around eating leaves with those giant necks of theirs.

It helped that of the three of us, I was the best game spotter. It pleased me because I remembered our first trip to Lake Chivero eight years before when a giraffe would have to be nearly flicking its tail in my face before I could see it, and now I was seeing . . . everything. (And I didn’t even have my glasses on.)

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If you ever see a job listed for photographers of animal backsides, please let me know. (I was pleased that I spotted this rhino though–they look a lot like rocks.)

A Tally of Creatures Spotted on Game Drive

 

  • warthog
  • ostrich
  • fish eagle
  • sable
  • tsessebe
  • waterbuck
  • impala
  • rhinoceros
  • giraffe
  • zebra
  • baboon
  • wildebeest
  • cheeky monkeys
  • one man’s shoe, abandoned and forlorn
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These shy creatures can be similarly difficult to spot in the wild.

The following day is similarly excellent to me. The students are out on a solo project, interviewing vendors at the local flea market (more handicrafts than the used goods you might expect at an American flea market, though there are booths with clothes, books, video games, etc. as well), so Z, my sister-in-law, and I find ourselves headed cross town to another pharmacy that has promised to have the needed supplies we failed to get earlier in the week. My sister-in-law hangs between the seats, giving Z directions, and pointing out where she used to pass time while waiting to pick the kids up from school, the lovely property where she grew up, a new restaurant she heard was good. She’s got an infectious laugh, and I feel similarly lucky to have these moments that feel something akin to carefree, something akin to what it might have been like if I’d happened to be in Zimbabwe three decades ago, when we were the age of the students on the trip.

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And then the weekend comes, the students fly off to Victoria Falls, and the four of us climb into Z-ma’s truck and point it towards her house. We stop on the way to get petrol and because we’ve got crisp American dollars we get to go to the head of the queue and I think wryly of the old American Express slogan, membership has its privileges. The line for those who are paying with Ecocash snakes out the drive and towards the highway, longer than any fuel line I’ve ever seen. Though six months later, we’ll see video footage of lines that twist and turn around city blocks, hear stories of people who wait out all night to get petrol and when they arrive at the pump discover they can only have a few liters. Z and I will be tucked back into our carless, Seattle life before there are riots and gunfire over these shortages and other concerns that will plague the country. But for now, we have a full tank, and so we head home to Z-ma.

 

As the wind whips my hair while we drive down the Bulawayo Road—passing the balancing rocks, the man holding aloft puppies for sale, the rocks and trees and fences plastered with political posters, the goats running to or away from home, the combis pulling over to let riders off, the school children meandering home in their uniforms, the women in business dresses and housedresses with briefcases in hand or babies strapped to their backs, the pylons whose wires carry electricity from Lake Kariba to Z-ma’s house—my head is still singing: you are in Africa, you are in Africa, you are in Africa.

 

And I am.

 

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There is a Light and it Never Goes Out

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

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

 

Outrages this year that have been frustrating me:

 

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

 

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

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No peeking, Bridget!

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

 

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

 

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

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Look away from the screen, Bridget!

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Like that’s a thing.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Huff singing optional at Winterlights, Lilly House, IMA

Other things I’m confused about….

 

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

 

Baby Leibovitz is a senior in college now.

 

Time passes and you don’t even realize it.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Lilly House, Winterlights, IMA

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Whom the Bag Tolls

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Seattle and Vera Bradley do not belong together. Look at that map trying to leap out of the pocket from embarrassment.

As the flight to Indiana from Seattle (via Las Vegas) landed, I was momentarily mortified by my choice of carry-on bag, a giant, pink and green quilted Vera Bradley tote that I inherited this  last year. It both delights and repulses me, and I’m not sure what to do with these conflicting emotions.

 

Hint: this blog post is not really about the merits or demerits of Vera Bradley, but let’s start there.

 

On the pro side:

  • Best carry-on bag ever. It has pockets in spades and helps me be more organized than I deserve to be. Everything I might need is within easy reach and is easy to locate. Also, it is not a bag you forget or get mixed up with someone else’s at a taxi stand. Queen Elizabeth wears bright colors so people will be able to see her easily in a crowd, and that’s pretty much the modus operandi of anything made by Vera Bradley. It will be seen.

 

On the con side:

  • Everything else.

 

I am a person who spent one of my first paltry paychecks from the public library on a leather field bag from Banana Republic because I needed that bag to be the truth of my life. In reality, I was wearing stirrup pants, oversized sweaters, and a headband while I checked out romance novels to the inhabitants of my hometown, but in my mind, I was an adventurer, a writer, a sojourner. The bag looked like something Hemingway would have carried, and though I didn’t love Hemingway, I loved the romance of the way he lived his life: the travel, the passion, the skirmishes. Even, God help me, the bullfights.

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Ernest _wishes_ he had a field bag so fine.

In the almost 30 years since I bought that bag, there have been a lot of others, but they’ve mostly been a variation on a field bag theme: a shoulder strap, a flap, pockets in which to keep pens and notebooks. Most have been canvas since that first purchase because it turns out that leather is heavy and my shoulders ache.

 

My life never did get bullfight-y. I’ve traveled some, but I don’t camp out. I don’t usually carry binoculars. I’ve never tied a kerchief around my neck or had cause to start a fire upon which to roast a trout caught with my bare hands. But the dream lives on.

 

This pink and green bag is not the dream. If I still lived in the Midwest, I could carry it and I’d fit in because half the female population of Indiana carries one of these things since the Vera Bradley headquarters is in Fort Wayne. I’d blend right in. These bags are usually bright and floral and thick with padding. They look like a quilt on your great grandmother’s bed, if your great grandmother had been dropping acid when she stitched it together. You can spot them a mile away. Without binoculars.

 

You don’t see these bags in Seattle. I would never carry it out of the house unless it was to get in a rental car and drive to some other, less urban place. It’s too bright for Seattle. Too feminine.

 

And truth be told, I no more fit the Vera Bradley mold than I do the Hemingway field bag mold. Women who carry Vera Bradley have children, go to church, make casseroles, vote differently than I vote. When I carry this bag I feel exactly the way I felt when I went to a friend’s Sangeet several years ago and a Mehndi artist tattooed my hand with henna. I loved the design and the way it curled from my wrist and across my hand and up my index finger. It was beautiful, and looking at it made me happy because it had been a happy night of celebrating her impending wedding.

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Poser. Posing.

But also, it felt wrong on my skin. Like I was playing at something that didn’t belong to me. Not my culture. Not mine. Not “me.”

 

So as the plane taxied to the gate in Indianapolis, I had my pink bag sitting on my lap and though it was not an accurate representation of who I am, I was okay with it. Here, no one was going to look at me oddly or know I was a poser. I was home and this homely bag that I love and hate was at home too.

 

Except that for the duration of the flight I’d been watching the woman across from me who was very busy, juggling a laptop, an iPad, and her phone while she did some sort of work that looked interesting. (Read: it didn’t seem to involve spreadsheets.) I was a little dubious of her because every one of her toenails was painted different colors and with different designs, like tiny nautical flags, and she was wearing drawstring camo pants and high-heeled sandals that were similarly camo.

 

That is: it was not a look I aspire to.

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Ahoy, matey!

But also: she seemed to have this golden light emanating from within. I can’t explain it. She wasn’t tan, really, but her skin was honeyed, and her hair was blonde, and though it may have come from a bottle, it looked more like hair angels would have. She gave off the vibe of money and the flight attendants flitted around her whenever she requested something as if she were somebody, all of which seemed kind of a weird for a Southwest flight. Nobody is first class on Southwest. It’s steerage all the way.

 

So while we were waiting for the jet bridge, I noticed how attractive her backpack was. It was black or dark grey and kind of sleek. It had a subtle design on it that I couldn’t make out, and I was suddenly obsessed. If I had this bag, I was convinced that I would somehow be myself. No. If I had this bag, I would become a better version of myself. I would have the golden light, the honeyed skin, the angel hair. I would be able to juggle three devices on a flight as I did Important Work, while simultaneously commanding the attention of the attendants. I’d be younger, more successful, thinner, and richer. I even suspected that if I had this bag, suddenly the nautical toenails and camouflage clothing would make perfect sense.

 

Clearly, it was a magic bag.

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It looked more impressive on the plane.

I looked at my hand-me-down Vera Bradley, sitting there on my lap like a giant, quilted watermelon, and I wanted to cry. How had I gotten this flight so wrong? How had I gotten my life so wrong? What stupid, stupid choices I’ve made that led me to this place where my Midwestern-sized ass was squished into a plane seat and I had the quintessential Midwestern bag perched on my doughy Midwestern knees. I was meant to be somebody. Doing something important.

 

It was 90 some degrees out and I was already red faced and sweating. And old. Somehow, I’d gotten really old on this flight.

 

As we stood up to deplane and she threw her magic backpack over her shoulder, I asked her what kind it was. It wasn’t too late! I could still transform my life!

 

She wasn’t impolite, but she looked me up and down, making note of my bag, the worn Keens I had my air-puffy feet stuffed into, my big wide white and red splotched face, and she tilted her head and gave a little smile that wasn’t really a smile but more of a “Lady, you couldn’t afford it.”

 

Then she said, “It’s Louis Vuitton.”

 

I didn’t blanche, though it surprised me because usually Louis Vuitton’s primary feature is self-referential design so you notice the giant LVs before you even see the accessory. It is a brand I have loathed for a long time because it’s always so pleased with itself. But this bag was subtle. Tricky. I told her again how lovely it was. And she said, “Yes, it’s an investment piece.” The implication being that she’d really splurged on this and wasn’t it shameful. Another head tilt and this time a conspiratorial smile.

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I wonder who the manufacturer of this handbag could possibly be?

This made me like her momentarily because it reminded me of that leather Banana Republic bag I couldn’t really afford but splurged on anyway when I was 22. It was a dream I wanted to be true. I can understand trying to buy a lifestyle. She was a kindred spirit.

 

She then picked up her purse and I saw it was Louis Vuitton. As was her oversized belt. As was the shopping bag she pulled out of the overhead compartment.

 

Kindred spirit, my eye! She was a junky. A Louis Vuitton addict. I was not disappointed to see her disappear into the airport, and when I looked up the backpack in question online and saw that it cost almost $3,000, I laughed out loud. You can fly to Zimbabwe for less than that.

 

What’s more, if I get a scuff on my 30-year-old field bag, it’s character. It’s a story. If you scuff a $3,000 Louis Vuitton backpack, your “investment” is in tatters.

 

I’d rather go to Zimbabwe than have a $3,000 backpack I might leave on a train. Not that it’s an either/or proposition. I suppose you could take a backpack so expensive to Zimbabwe, but why would you?

 

I don’t really know what the moral of the story is if there even is one. I’d like to tell you that I’ve embraced that psychedelic bag and my Midwestern essence completely, but that would be a lie. I’m still not carrying this thing out into the streets of the city. Call me superficial.

 

Or it could be something about not judging a book by its cover or a woman by her accessories. In these dark days when tribalism is wrecking the world, it’s one of the worst things we can do—not getting to know someone but instead making assumptions about them because of their bumper stickers or the color of the their skin (or ball cap). But. It can be a useful shorthand that makes it a bit easier (and sometimes safer) to navigate life and find the people with whom you can breathe more easily when you are exhausted from the hard work of trying to love your neighbor as yourself.

 

I could write another six paragraphs about how I wish I were more like Z, who knows exactly who he is and doesn’t have these wardrobe crises every six months like I do. He marches out of the house every day in his Crocs and frayed jeans and if anyone judges him for it, it’s their problem, not his. But he’s a man and it just isn’t the same, is it? So I’m giving that a miss too.

 

Maybe all this really is is a plea to Vera Bradley to please, in the name of all that is good and righteous, make your multi-pocketed tote bag in material that blends in in the Pacific Northwest and doesn’t advertise a person’s ability to make casseroles.

 

If that bag were grey or khaki, I’d be in business.

 

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There’s a giraffe out there somewhere. Zimbabwe, 2010.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Developments on the Northwestern Front

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There are new developments here on the Pacific Northwestern front.

 

Veins in my forehead.

 

I don’t mean like I’m angry and you can see the contours of a vein sticking out of my forehead in a telltale sign that I need to do yoga to de-stress. I mean I just looked in the mirror and thought I had a newspaper ink smudge by my hairline. Only I wasn’t reading a newspaper. Nor have I been canoodling with a chimney sweep while Z is at work.

 

And it’s not a good delicate blue-vein-on-a-milky-forehead Michelle Pfeiffer style circa Frankie and Johnny. No. It just looks like I need to go wash my face.

 

I was calm about this because another recent development is that I started meditating almost two weeks ago. I’ve been an avid Not Meditator for years. While I acknowledged that it’s likely a beneficial practice, it seemed an impossibility because focusing on my breath makes me hyperventilate, and I’ve always had an aggressive resistance to someone—anyone—telling me what to think (or not think). But a friend said the Headspace app changed her life, so I thought I’d give it a try. I can’t say it has changed my life yet, but there is something so soothing and pleasant about the speaker’s accent that I find I look forward to my “daily practice.”

 

Before you get wildly impressed with me, please know I’m only doing it five minutes a day and suspect ten minutes a day will be my limit because, well, it’s kind of boring. But still, me doing anything nine days in a row that I know is good for me but am only marginally interested in is quite an accomplishment.

 

Other developments in the PNW: I’ve become obsessed with watching packing videos on YouTube. That’s right. I willingly give up 5-to-10-minute increments of my day to watch people pack clothes into a carry-on suitcase for three-week European vacations. It is mesmerizing. I rarely learn anything new. I’ve been mastering the fine art of packing and rejecting the mantra less is more for decades now, so I don’t watch to learn anything. But, oh, is it satisfying to watch someone take a heap of clothes, fold them up, and shove them into a suitcase. I’m also curious to see what items people deem necessary for such travel. Please note, usually these suitcase packers are young women so petite that they could fit their entire wardrobe inside an empty box of saltines.

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Today’s development was that I left my card in the ATM without realizing it until 20 minutes later and then nearly had a full-fledged anxiety attack at the drug store when I reached for my card and realized it was gone. Ironically, I was waiting in line to pick up my anti-anxiety meds (that I’m always anxious about not being allowed to have—it’s a snake chewing it’s own tail this anxiety thing, let me tell you). I did not want to appear twitchy in front of the pharmacist lest he alert my doctor that I shouldn’t be allowed anymore of these pills, but once they were in my hand, I hightailed it back to the bank where I was assured the card would be accessible but I had to wait a few minutes for the banker to fetch it for me.

 

This is a weird thing to say about a bank, but I find ours a soothing place usually. The tellers are always friendly, it feels local even though it isn’t, and they’ve always got Dum-Dums out in a bowl so you don’t even have to pretend you’ve got a kid outside waiting with your husband to score one, and no one looks at you sideways if you root around for a strawberry or ginger ale one. But for reasons inexplicable to me, the anxiety that kicked into gear at the drug store did not dissipate even though I’d been assured the card would be returned to me very soon. I got hot. My heart pounded. A lady was hollering at a teller about the bank not treating her right, ratcheting up my stress. I started to worry about bank robbers (something I haven’t actively worried about since about 1977). I worried about how I was going to get packed before my 5 a.m. flight to Indiana, if I could stand being away from Z for two weeks. (This last one I do every time I have to be away from Z, so it was not abnormal, though perhaps abnormal to be twitchy in the bank lobby as I worried about it.) So what I know now is that even with 52 total minutes of meditation under my belt, it did not soothe me.

 

Finally, the woman brought my card out.

 

She’s helped me before—mostly with laundry quarters, but once because I’d made a math error that meant my account was empty for the exact 15 minutes the bank thought it should not be and slapped me with an overdraft fee that she kindly reversed. I like her. She’s thorough and friendly and I think of her as a contemporary though she’s probably in her twenties. I felt better as soon as my card was zipped back into my wallet. I was a little uncomfortable, however, because while all I needed for her to do was use her magic banker key to open the ATM and get my card, she somehow managed to pull up my information and decided she had some products to sell me based on the numbers she saw in our accounts. If it had been another teller or banker, I might have been annoyed, but I like her, so I asked her some questions. She answered them.

 

Why I often feel obligated to apologize to bank staff that I am not good enough with my money to be a millionaire is beyond me, but I do. For all I know, this woman has four roommates, has her credit cards maxed out, and lives on ramen noodles. Why do I assume that someone with a bank nametag on is automatically more fiscally responsible than I am? No idea, but this is how I am. So I said something like “ha ha, I’m not so good with financial stuff.” I loathed myself for saying it. It’s the same voice I use if someone has to change my tire or unclogged my sink, “ha ha I’m such a dolt I can’t manage to master basic gettin’-through-life skills ha ha ha.”

 

What I loathed more was what she said to me with a very kind smile on her face. What she said was this:

 

“Oh, that’s okay! That’s how my parents are too!”

 

Her parents? HER PARENTS? She thinks I’m the same age as her parents?

 

I probably am the same age as her parents, but it pains me that this is the correlation she made. Instead of recognizing me as a fellow apartment dweller who must suffer the slings and arrows of the communal laundry room, she sees me as an aging parent who never got her banking crap together so she could move on up to a condo downtown with the washer and dryer right in the unit.

 

I’ve kind of gone off her now.

 

What else is new on First Hill? Our trees out front bloomed. More construction went up around us. Belle visited from Indiana and she and I had some writerly adventures, including her guest appearance in my Writing for Procrastinators class. I edited three dissertations, attended Hudge and Providence’s dissertation defense (congratulations!), picked up a new coaching client, helped Z index his book (which will be out in July—expect to hear shouts of joy from our vicinity!), and taught a session on reflective writing to some of Z’s students.

 

Oh yeah. And we booked airfare for a month in Zimbabwe this summer. So excited to see Z-ma , Z family, Z friends, and Skampy. And a cherry atop that triple-layer cake: we’re going to “swing by” Ireland on the way home for ten days.

 

Also, when I wasn’t meditating, watching packing videos, or having public anxiety incidents, I logged a lot of hours watching the Royal Wedding. A lot of hours. Before the wedding. During the wedding (which started at 2:30 a.m. out here). And after the wedding.

 

The thing I hate most about a Royal Wedding after you put all that time in and the happy couple drives off in their horse drawn carriage is the realization that you haven’t been invited to the reception and you aren’t getting any cake.

 

So, this isn’t much of a post, but I’ve got to go pack my bag, adjust my thermostat for Indiana’s humidity, and spend my last remaining hours of May with Z.

 

Summer is upon us, friends, and what that means is there is a 78% chance my next post will be complaining about the heat.

 

 

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Skampy of Zimbabwe

 

Santa’s Helper

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Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis

It’s late and I really want to post a Christmas blog for you (kind of like Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas Day TV broadcast), so be forewarned: this entry is going to be less elaborate and twisty than usual because I’ve given myself a deadline of blog post by sunrise on Christmas Eve.

 

Have you ever had one of those December evenings when you find yourself chasing a stranger girl wearing a Santa hat through the aisles of Meijer insisting that she let you help her?

 

No?

 

Midwinter has been weird this year for me, so it wasn’t that surprising. The night before I was sitting at a Quaker meeting house, learning about meditation from a Buddhist wearing a gorgeous blue meditation blanket while I tried not to fall asleep and tip over onto my former shrink who had invited me to attend. A few days before that I was hugging a guy who was homeless in downtown Indy (I’m not really a stranger hugger, fyi, so this is abnormal behavior for me). Before that, and this is probably what should have alerted me to the fact that it was not a normal December, at the airport, I said goodbye to Z—who would be leaving for Zimbabwe for a month the next day—and I DID NOT CRY as I headed off to Indiana solo. I miss him like crazy, but for the first time in 16 years, I said goodbye to him at an airport without feeling the need for a sob. You know, like a grown-up.

 

Also, I usually start rocking out to the Christmas tunes the minute the Thanksgiving dishes have been cleared, but since I got to Indiana, the only CD I’ve listened to in my car is Jethro Tull’s 1977 album Songs from the Wood. It’s been on a continuous loop. I haven’t listened to it this much since my senior year of college when I had a crush on a Tull fan at the exact same moment that I found six Tull albums at Goodwill and believed at the time that this meant he and I were destined to be together. This time of year, I am usually found in my car, zipping past the Christmas lights of Indiana and belting out songs from Dean Martin’s Christmas album, but instead, I have been singing “Jack in the Green” over and over at the top of my lungs and feeling urges to go to a Renaissance Festival and give Z a pair of leather breeches and deer-hide boots for Christmas.

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(This photo rudely stolen from Wikipedia.)

I missed Z more than usual at Meijer today when the young girl in the Santa hat appeared beside me with a wide, vacant stare, and said, “I can’t find my mom.” Z is stupendous in a crisis. I believe this is because in my youth while I was reading confessional poetry written by women who would later commit suicide, Z was learning to lifeguard and how to perform CPR and generally be an upstanding citizen instead of someone who feels her feelings every second of the day. He’s not exactly MacGyver, but I have no doubt that in a crisis he could figure out how to land a plane, defuse a bomb, or set a compound fracture. He’s that guy.

 

Who I am, though, is the person who looked at this poor kid—Santa hat bobbing as she twirled her head from side to side looking for her mom—and sighed deeply before saying, “Let’s see if we can find her.” I don’t know what the proper response should have been exactly, but the fact that that sigh was so deep is pretty damning.

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Who doesn’t love a Me Christmas?

After the sigh, I briefly felt pretty pleased with myself that this kid had recognized in me a helper, someone who looked trustworthy and good at locating missing parents. But it pretty quickly became apparent that I was just the first warm body she bumped into.

 

Everything about Santa Girl was vacant, God Bless her. She couldn’t answer my questions about where she’d seen her mom last, how much time had passed, or what her mom had been shopping for at the time they were separated. Had Z been with me, he would have had the store on lock down, hunkered down next to the girl so he was looking directly into her lusterless eyes, and come up with a plan to reunite her with her parent. Instead, she was stuck with me. My plan, when I realized she wasn’t going to be helpful in tracking down her mom, was to find a store clerk who could take care of this problem for both of us. We walked through a few aisles, her hat bobbing from side to side, and then I spied an older guy wearing the requisite Meijer gear.

 

He looked benign, but I didn’t feel right about dumping a little girl off with a strange man in case it scared her or he was a serial killer, so my plan of a quick escape was nixed.

 

He was a guy who had clearly been through this drill with someone else’s kid before, because he knew what to do. He asked Santa Girl her mom’s name, and thankfully, she knew that. Then he paged the woman. The minute he said Santa Girl’s mother’s name over the loudspeaker, the child looked horror stricken for a second and then she took off running away from us, away from what was likely to be a crabby reunion with her mother, and away from the spot where he’d directed her mother to meet us.

 

I’m not much of a runner unless a bear is chasing me. Fortunately, Santa Girl wasn’t a runner either in her fleece boots, so I was able to keep her in my line of sight as she darted in and out of aisles, looking frantically for her mother. Part of me wanted to shrug and say, “Oh well. She’ll sort herself out,” but the louder part knew that it was important she not dart out the door and into traffic and that she not be terrified, running haphazardly through the frozen foods section. The store clerk who had made the announcement was right behind me, and then somehow in front of me, and though Santa Girl would not listen to my pleas to return to me, when the clerk spoke to her with a kind but authoritative voice, she stopped dead in her tracks. When he called her to him, she came. When he put his arm around her shoulders lightly to direct her back towards the rendez-vous point, she transformed from one of the wild horses of Chincoteague into a tamed creature on a lead. It was amazing.

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I don’t have any horse photos at the ready, so here, look at our wedding cake topper from 8 years ago.

In the time it would have taken me to weigh the pros and cons of putting my hands on a stranger child, this guy instinctively did exactly what she needed to calm down. The way Z would have.

 

It would be so nice to have useful skills like these.

 

We rounded the corner and her mother spied us. There were other kids in and around the car. It was probably two, but it has multiplied in my memory to at least five. I feared Santa Girl would get hollered at, or maybe even smacked, but instead her mother said dryly, “Well, well, well. Who do we have here? It’s Katelyn.”

 

Not Santa Girl. Katelyn. Katelyn who possibly needs one of those child leashes when going out in public.

 

Godspeed, Katelyn.

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Blue Christmas.

What I haven’t told you about this interlude is that I had on sort of loose fitting jeans. And apparently I had on malfunctioning underwear, because somewhere between Katelyn darting off at the sound of the loudspeaker and us doing the perp walk with her back to her mother, my underpants had somehow rolled themselves down to my knees, forcing me into a sort of waddle.

 

After my brief charge was returned to her mother, I considered the possibility that I should trudge the half a mile to the women’s toilets to readjust whatever had sprung itself loose in my Levis, but it seemed so much easier to waddle to the checkout, waddle to my car, and drive myself home to take care of all the unfortunate bunching.

 

Had Katelyn’s mother been friendlier, I might have offered advice about how mis-sized underpants could be used to keep her young fugitive in check.

 

This is not the blog post I planned as a holiday token of my affection for you. I had big plans for a richly woven tapestry of Christmas angst, long-time friendships, my 8th anniversary spent alone, Z in the “new” Zimbabwe, and homelessness. In the end, I realized that present would have been more about pleasing myself and less about entertaining you.  And frankly, it would have been kind of depressing.

 

So instead, you get underpants.

 

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Mom’s tree, which is 10,000 more spectacular up close but my camera won’t cooperate.

 

Whatever you are celebrating this solstice season, I hope you are celebrating well with people you love, festive headgear, the music of your choice, and foundation garments that don’t roll down.

 

 

 

Hope Wrapped in Plastic

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

 

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

 

When will this fresh hell be done?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Here’s something else that is concerning.

 

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

 

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

 

 

Hitler.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Photo credit: _The Telegraph_

 

 

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

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That’s not just a car ride to Cincinnati.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

My current state of mind

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Thus, emotional whiplash sufferer.

 

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

My state pride

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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The. Best. Corn. Ever.

My forgetfulness

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It was very discombobulating.

 

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

 

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

 

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Inishbofin or South Central Michigan, you decide.

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

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My false sense of my own intelligence

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

My choice to teach a class on writing and procrastination

 

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

 

My inability to stay focused

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

My refusal to admit when I don’t understand something

 

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

 

My confused loyalties

 

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

 

Oh, Marshawn. We hardly knew ye.

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

My “breedism”

 

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

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An appropriately shaped Skampy of Zimbabwe

My indecisiveness

 

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

 

My need to rank things

 

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

 

My obsessiveness

 

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

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

My inability to know when to end things

 

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

 

This blog post is another example.

 

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

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Little 3rd Grade Classroom on the Prairie

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But not Jessie Turner.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I sure wasn’t thinking about Jessie Turner.

 

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

 

How lucky are we?

 

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An Antidote to Careful Living

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Barbarous hoards have left glasses here, coasterless.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Ugh. That was a terrible metaphor.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Without the notebook.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Can I offer you a drink?

 

 

Summer of a Dormouse

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

                                       –Lord Byron, journal 7 December 1813

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

What you need to know:

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

 

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

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Indiana aloft

In general, I have a lot of feelings.

 

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

 

I am such a mess.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

He was older.

I was older.

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

 

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

 

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

he hugged me.

 

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

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Opportunistic goose

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Temporary arrangements.

 

Summer of a dormouse.

 

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

 

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

 

We live in interesting times.

 

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

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

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