Category Archives: Richmond

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?

Elegy for the Rebel Alliance

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Because I’m from farm country where people don’t like to tempt fate by bragging about how great they feel or how well their crops are faring, we will answer vaguely when asked how we are doing with something like “fair to middling.” The most positive we can usually muster is “not bad.”

 

This drives Z crazy that I’m not naturally more positive and more willing to trust the benevolent God I profess to believe in most days. But I’m telling you, it’s in the DNA: don’t tempt fate.

 

So when people were saying at the beginning of December—prematurely, in my mind—that this year had been a bad one and they were glad it was over, I thought to myself, it isn’t over yet, people. Be careful, or this year is going to show you that you know nothing.

 

But they kept on with their proclamations as if the year were done, and now we’re supposed to head into 2017 without Carrie Fisher.

 

If I’m honest, this angers me as much as it makes me sad. In the same year I lose out on the chance of the first female president (a smart, qualified woman I admire, no less), I also have to face the specter of potential fascism—or at least a whole lot of presidential ignorance, misogyny, and bigotry—threatening to swallow my country whole without Carrie Fisher to comfort and inspire me with her sharp, wry take on it all. Couldn’t we have maybe lost one of our less treasured celebrities? Death could have ridden away with all of the Kardashians and Justin Bieber slung across the saddle of his pale horse and most of us wouldn’t have batted an eye. But Carrie Fisher? Really?

 

Screw you, 2016. Screw. You.

 

There are so many layers of Carrie Fisher that I will miss that I can’t really fathom exactly what I’ll miss most. I loved her writing. I loved her advocacy for mental health. I loved her honesty about her life both in her books and her interviews. I loved her little-known and short-lived talk show, Conversations from the Edge (and every time there was a hole in the late night talk show hosting line-up, I’d think Give it to Carrie Fisher! Carrie Fisher! But instead, we’d get more white guys because women can’t do late night hosting for some reason. Maybe because of our ovaries or something?)

 

I could write a blog post on each of these elements of her professional life. Maybe multiple blog posts on each of these even. I’m sad about the loss of her in all of the above capacities.

 

But what my brain keeps circling around tonight is Leia.

 

Leia is dead. Leia is dead. Leia is dead.

 

If it is possible to have a crush on an entire movie, in 1977, I had a crush on Star Wars. Thinking about any scene in the blockbuster gave me butterflies that summer, and the butterflies were not focused on Luke or Han or any one person. It was the whole of the movie: the jawas, the Tuskan Raiders, the droids, the landscapes, the light sabers. All of it. I thought about it a lot. I read the book. I got the action figures for Christmas. When the sequel came out three years later, having the agony of that wait finally sated was glorious.

 

I dare say I was not alone.

 

In college, I took a class structured around Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth in which there were plenty of contemporary references to Star Wars, and I discovered all of the reasons why Star Wars had captured the world’s imagination all of those years before. Essentially, the movies relied on a narrative that appears in myths throughout the ages and across cultures. We loved this movie so much because it was written in our collective unconcious.

 

My feminism at the time was in its infancy, but even so, I recognized how problematic it was for me that these myths—old and new—seemed to be about the boys. It was the hero’s journey, not the heroine’s. Women present in the journey were there only to help or hinder the male protagonist on his path: the Crone, the Temptress, Mother Nature. They had no real identities or stories of their own.

 

Later, after grad school, I would attend a seminar on the hero’s journey and when I raised the question about what a female protagonist’s journey might look like with the speaker who had written a famous book on the subject, I was met with some hemming and hawing, and then some lame correlation with a motherhood journey that annoyed me because if that’s the only journey a woman can expect to go on, it’s still all about the men: either the ones she gives birth to or the ones she lets get a leg over.

 

So I feel a little ashamed that it wasn’t until recently when Z and I re-watched the original trilogy that I began to recognize that Leia is the real hero of the movie, not Luke. It wasn’t until then that I began to imagine how much more interesting the movies would be if we’d gotten more of Leia’s story, if we’d spent more time on scenes with her instead of all those scenes with a moody Mark Hamill hanging out with Yoda in that swamp.

 

It also occurred to me how important Leia had been to me and my idea of a female protagonist, whether in fiction or on my own less interesting journey. It wasn’t until I saw her stuffing that hologram of herself into R2D2 for the hundredth time, rallying the Rebel Alliance that I could see how lucky I was to grow up with this image in my head: a princess, sure, but mostly just a woman with a smart mouth, and a smarter mind,  who wasn’t afraid to pick up a blaster if the situation called for it. She’d ask for help if she must, but she wasn’t sitting around waiting for someone to rescue her like the Disney princesses I was raised on.

 

Also, she gives, doesn’t get kisses.

 

 

 

When I hear “Princess Leia” I immediately picture that first, white-gowned Leia with the cinnamon rolls on her head and a mission on her mind: to save her people. Soldier Leia and bikini-clad Leia were of less interest to me because those versions of her were in service to someone else’s story (or fantasy—I never don’t cringe when I see her in her tiny gold bikini chained to Jabba the Hutt. The way she rescues herself is perfect, but all those moments before where she is an object to Jabba–and male viewers–are as intolerable to me as Han being frozen into a giant coffee table). Though I’ve seen arguments today about her latest incarnation as a general is her best role because she’s self-made instead of titled is problematic to me. Since we don’t get to see her earn her title, she is essentially one man’s (estranged) wife and another man’s mother.

 

 

What I’ve written here is more of an elegy for Leia Organa than it is an elegy for Carrie Fisher. True, Leia is just a character and the character is not the actor who plays her. Jody Foster was George Lucas’s second pick for Leia, and it is likely that had the stars aligned differently, none of us would have liked the movie less if we’d never known Fisher’s Leia was a possibility.

 

But that ten-year-old girl who is still alive and well inside of me? She cannot separate the two entities. It is still nearly impossible not to see all the ways that Carrie Fisher and Leia were the same person. They looked the same, sure, but more importantly, they shared that same acerbic wit. It seemed they had the same values. The same work ethic. The same need to call people out on their crap. (Possibly, they shared a similar taste in disappointing men.) Whatever be-bunned Leia did for me as a girl, Carrie Fisher as herself did for me as an adult woman.

 

They seemed to know themselves and their place in the universe inherently. You can’t really ask for a better role model for a ten-year-old girl or a middle-aged woman. At a time when girls were still being praised for good behavior, having someone to look up to on the big screen who would rebel against injustice was important. It’s still important.

 

So this is me, begging you not to taunt 2016 in it’s remaining three days. The year is not over. We can’t afford any other significant losses. We need our light bearers, our rebels, our artists to help us face whatever is in front of us.

 

Leia is dead. Leia is dead. Leia is dead.

 

 

 

Hoosier Ecclesiastes

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For the last ten weeks, I’ve been in Indiana, sleeping in the bedroom of my girlhood home while my mother recuperated from a stem cell transplant. It’s a pretty scary and significant medical ordeal if you are unfamiliar with it, but she was in good hands at IU Health in Indianapolis. The day my stepfather and I brought her home with her brand new immune system I felt like I got a teensy inkling of how nerve-wracking it must be to bring a baby home from the hospital for the first time. Everything seemed like a danger. I got on Facebook and threatened to taze anyone who stopped  to see her or even thought about breathing their germy breaths on her. I fielded all calls because she didn’t have the energy to answer. (A bath would require a two-hour nap afterward, so there was no bonus energy for entertaining even her favorite people.) I stayed away from everyone myself—even perfectly healthy friends—because I was afraid I’d catch some bug  and give it to Mom.

 

I did my best to assure her that she’d feel like herself again eventually—as the doctors had promised—even though I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about and Mom clearly knew it. Also, the Domestic Arts are not really in my skill set. I rubbed all knobs and switches with antibacterial wipes as if I were sprinkling the house with holy water. I had to try to figure out what food would taste good to her, and then felt like a failure (but also slightly relieved because it required no cooking) that the main thing that she could tolerate was Cherry Garcia. There was the ER trip after she broke out in hives for no good reason and the ensuing fear that she was rejecting a platelet transfusion. There was the frustration of her not acting quite like herself—no interest in TV, in conversation, in reading—and worrying that my “real” mother would never come back. There was the night my step-dad ended up in the ER and then the hospital for a few days and I felt torn between which parental unit I should be with—there’s the true curse of the Only Child…there’s only the one of you to go around.

 

Then there was the date of my return ticket to Seattle at the end of three weeks and my sense of impending failure: what sort of daughter leaves her mother to answer her own phone, fend off visitors, and go to a germy grocery to buy her own Cherry Garcia? I’ve never completely come to terms with the normal guilt I feel from moving to the other side of the country, but now? Ugh. At night when when I was alone in the bedroom of my teens, I’d feel cranky with myself that when Z and I got engaged eight years ago I didn’t at any point think that I could say, “Yes, of course, I’ll marry you, but I’m not leaving Indiana. We’ll buy a house with more square footage than any apartment we could ever afford in Seattle and we’ll learn about things like caulking and lawn mowers together and I’ll teach you to hate Daylight Savings Time, appreciate Mellencamp lyrically,  and to be more tolerant of the 14-haired mustaches so popular here on  Hoosier youth.” But I didn’t say any of those things then, hence the post-transplant-impending-flight-back-to-Seattle frustration.

 

Fortunately, Z is always clever, thoughtful, and clairvoyant about my feelings. He called one night to say he thought I should stay in Indiana awhile longer and since his sabbatical would be starting soon, he’d join me for a few weeks in Indiana. (Right now we will not discuss the state of my feminism—weak, apparently—and how I needed him to make this decision instead of me making it for myself. I’ll save that for some later blog post when I’m feeling more self-fulfilled and we can all just laugh at silly, silly Beth and her inability to name the thing she wants. Ha ha ha. But let me tell you, there were tears.)

 

Z arrived and went with me on my regular trips to restock ice cream and we all watched reruns of “King of Queens” every night. Mom started to laugh more and to want to eat things not made by Ben and Jerry’s. After she got the okay from her oncologist, we’d go out for dinner and I quit looking at her as if she were a toddler about to put a bobby pin in a light socket. Z and I took a road trip to Minnesota to see a friend get married. I texted Mom photos of every state line we crossed, interesting roadside attractions, a church where Laura Ingalls Wilder attended, landscape photos so she and I could try to scientifically determine if the flatness of Iowa was equal-to-or-greater-than the flatness of northern Indiana. She seemed interested in the world. When we got back a week later, there was a massive stack of books next to the sofa; she’d read every one of them while Z and I were away. Suddenly, when we’d enter the room, she’d be peering into a book through the $1 bright green reading glasses we stuck, as a lark, in her Easter basket.

 

I don’t know how you parents do it—not crowing about every achievement your child has made—because I was telling complete strangers, “Mom is reading again!” while they looked at me with confusion. Seeing her stack of recently read books is one of the sweetest sights ever. She was back. I won’t say it made it easy to leave her a week later, but it definitely made it easier.

 

It was a weird trip home. One of those strange moments in time where great joys (a mother on the road to recovery, the announcement of a cousin’s new baby, good health news from Zimbabwe about Z-ma who had been living under a potentially very dark medical cloud, another family friend whose post-cancer surgery scan was all clear, young people counting down the days until their driver’s licenses/ graduations/weddings) bump up against terrible sadness. There was a lot of drama and loss in the local community while I was home, and it was not lost on me that while I got to leave on the happy note of a mother who was nearly herself again , some of my cousins were called in to be with their own mother who is critically ill.

 

It was two-and-a-half months full of all the things that make being human glorious and terrible.

 

So now I’m three days back in Seattle, and I’m suffering my usual culture shock. Monday morning I was lying in my old Indiana bed, looking out the window at the long shadows of the trees in the backyard that were stretching west towards a cornfield, listening to birdsong, and feeling amused by a cheeky cardinal who desperately wants in my parents’ house and hangs on the screen, peering in, flapping his wings. This morning in Seattle, I woke to the bus out front that idles there during rush hour, waiting to dump off a host of workers at the neighboring hospitals. Outside my screen, there’s been one domestic altercation, one woman weeping because something unfortunate happened to her backpack, and at least five sirens. And let me not forget the early morning leaf blowers because at some point cleaning the street and sidewalk with a near noiseless broom became passé and you apparently aren’t really cleaning anything if you don’t have a leafblower strapped to your back causing a racket before the more artistic types among the citizenry are ready to get out of bed (ahem). Since I’ve moved here, there’s never not the sound of traffic, dogs, humans. There’s never not something unfortunate in the street to step over: trash, dog crap, or someone passed out in a doorway. If a bird were tweeting here or pecking at the window, I’d never hear it.

 

This is not to say I hate the city. In a week or two, I might like it again. No doubt the next time I leave it, I’ll feel a little blue about being parted from its company.

 

But today is not that day, and the news that Prince just died—thus sealing the door on the vault of my youth forever—isn’t helping. Other people who knew the intricacies of His Purple Majesty’s guitar licks and the nuances of his lyrics will be writing about him for the next weeks with passion, but I was never more than a middling-level fan who knew his major hits, his full name, can quote a line or two from Purple Rain, believed his Super Bowl halftime show to be the best in memory, and who still feels happy if one of his songs comes on the radio. But I don’t deserve to say much about him because I haven’t put the time in. I never went to a concert. Never read an unofficial biography. Never really “got” his movies. Didn’t follow his Princetograms. I’m glad that his music was playing as part of the soundtrack of my life, and I’m glad that when I hear one of his less-played, more raunchy songs, I still get the devilish thrill I did when I was a teenager as I sing along, that I’m still waiting for my mother to say, “Beth Lynn!”

 

And I’m glad that I never go to a wedding without mentally finishing the officiant’s “Dearly beloved…” with Prince’s “we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”

An electric word, life.

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The Ill-planned Grand Tour: Part I

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My first trip to London was in 1988 with a small group of my fellow liberal arts majors and my beloved mentor, Gibb. I’d just read 84 Charing Cross Road, I was 3/4 of the way done with a lit degree that focused heavily on British Lit, I was studying British history as an elective, and I had an unhealthy attachment to the Royal Family. (Specifically, I was sure I was meant to be one of them and was holding out hope for Edward.) It was my first trip abroad and as soon as I discovered that the ability to read a train schedule, a guidebook, and a metro map opened up a person’s world exponentially, I was hooked. And so a love affair that began in books was finally consummated.

Four years later, a family friend agreed to act as tour guide for Mom and me, and we spent two glorious weeks living in a house owned by Stephanie, an Austrian octogenarian who was friends with the doctor who delivered Prince Charles and knew from first hand experience that Winston Churchill’s wife’s  Siamese cats had ugly dispositions. Her three-story brick house was on Muswell Hill and on the first day there we looked out the back windows to discover not just rose-covered walls but also a community bowling green where men dressed in whites looked like something straight out of a Merchant Ivory film. In America at the time, we were obsessed with all things British, all things Victorian and Edwardian. It wasn’t just Mom and me; entire stores were dedicated to bringing a little 19th Century British class to our ranch houses and condos. Though the city was modern, it was as if the plane that carried us across the Atlantic had also been a time machine. Because of the lady of the house’s age and social class and the length she had owned her beautifully appointed home, we could, at the very least, pretend we were in pre-Blitz London. At night, I’d eat biscuits and work on a needlepoint project I’d purchased at Liberty while Stephanie and I would watch TV. In my twisted memory, instead of viewing episodes of East Enders though we were listening to the wireless and hearing news about impending troubles in Europe. We were delighted one day when Stephanie was in a tizzy because she couldn’t find her hat for Royal Ascot, and the next day, we were lucky enough to see the entire Royal Family leave Windsor Castle for the big race. They were waving and all be-hatted, while we stood along the road, cheering and clapping and taking blurry photographs. (Sadly, Edward did not notice me, and one of us noticed how miserable poor Diana looked despite the fact we were all about to be surprised by her tell-all biography and impending separation.)

Because Barb, our tour-guide friend, had traveled extensively, I studied her actions carefully. She carried a small backpack so she was always ready with a rain coat, London A to Z, and space to shove bread and cheese from Sainsbury’s for lunch on a train to Dover. She understood the Tube and planned well a day’s itinerary so no time was wasted. I could do this, I thought, unadventurous as I was. I was in my early twenties and determined not to spend the rest of my life in Richmond, Indiana, waiting on the Barb’s of this world to take me to the places I wanted to see.

When Mom and I left, we had an extra suitcase full of all the bits of England we’d purchased in gift shops in an attempt to take the experience home with us. In our carry-on luggage alone, we had three teapots. All these years laters, it remains one of the Big Moments on the timeline of our respective lives.

Seven years later, I fell in love with Ireland and never once looked back  across the Irish Sea to England’s green and pleasant land. I became obsessed with Irish literature and Irish history, and the best I can do to explain this is to compare it to the difference between a first love and a soul mate. There would always be a tiny corner of my heart that belonged to England, but I was in love with Ireland body and soul, and because England had been, over 700 years, badly behaved towards Ireland, it was like realizing that first love of yours was actually a bully who’d been taking your (eventual) soulmate out into the school parking lot and beating him senseless while you were eating a cheese sandwich in the cafeteria. In 1998, I started seeing Ireland exclusively and I never regretted my decision. The landscape, the literature, the people—it all felt like mine. The first week I was there, it occurred to me that  I’d spent my twenties looking for the right man when really what I should have been doing was looking for the right place in the world. Ireland was that place. If I could have easily moved there, I would have. Because I couldn’t,  after every return back to America, I’d start planning my next trip, enlisting other people to go with me, traveling solo if the situation dictated it.

So now Z and I are spending a month traveling through England, Wales, and Ireland, while he does research and I write and stare at views and buildings that quicken the heart. It is the most ill-conceived, ill-prepared for trip ever because we’ve had to postpone it twice and didn’t know until two weeks ago that it was even going to happen because of visa issues. (If you have a US passport, might I recommend you take it out of its hidey-hole and kiss and bless it for the ease of travel it provides–not all passports are created equal). Also, the day I decided to extend my trip to Indiana by a week, we got the news that this trip was a go. I don’t regret being home to visit Mom and her ailing back and to help my stepfather celebrate his 70th birthday, but what this means is I was back in Seattle for just two and a half days before we had to be on our Heathrow-bound flight. And finally, in the eleventh hour, I thought I was coming down with shingles again, which would have thrown a further kink into all of our plans. While in my suitcase there are the clothes and equipment for every conceivable weather condition and natural disaster, the rest of the trip has only the vaguest of outlines. Barb nor my Girl Scout leader would be proud with my planning and preparedness levels at this moment. Case in point, we seem to be in London on the brink of both a train and Tube strike, which could make things interesting.

But even with delays and missed connections and the realization there’s no way to do “it all” in just a few weeks, I’m looking forward to reconciling my past love with my current one and sharing both (plus Wales!) with Z, who is better than any Windsor prince, any day, any time.

Stay tuned.

Girls Growing Up

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Dear diary.

Dear diary.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

Flashback Friday: Lowered Expectations

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Mac, soon to be usurped by Z.

Mac, soon to be usurped by Z.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

[I’m now wearing a whole different style of jeans with a whole host of other fashion problems, but please remember this was eight years ago and don’t judge me too harshly.]

Last week, a precocious kindergartner at the school where my mother works began a conversation with her teacher in that way you do when you assume the person to whom you are speaking has had exactly the same experience as you. The conversation starter was this: “You know when you poop your pants on purpose and your grandma gets mad….”

This delights me (mostly because I am not the grandmother, I suspect). I love the lack of self-awareness, the belief that of course EVERYONE has done just this thing and understands the negative repercussions.

And so I begin this blog….

You know when you buy a pair of low-rise jeans, even though you know you shouldn’t….”

It is typical of me to finally buy into a fashion trend when it is on its way out, and while I know my body is not suited to it from various aesthetically displeasing experiences in dressing rooms across America, I found a cheap pair of jeans I liked and they just happened to be low-rise, and now I have become one of the those Midwestern-shaped women who spends her day hiking up her pants. . . . while shopping, while teaching, while talking to the Vice Chancellor of Information Technology. I don’t know what I was thinking. I am a child of the 80s and as such jeans belong somewhere right at or slightly above the navel. I am not a mother, but I am most comfortable in Mom Jeans.

And we won’t even speak of the ill-advised underwear I bought to accompany the jeans. No we won’t.

Z is in the air, winging his way toward me for a long Valentine’s weekend, though come Sunday it will seem like the shortest weekend in history. He has already been delayed by a couple of hours, and I’m annoyed that an airline snafu is cutting into my time with him. I’m half-tempted to call Northwest and say, “Work with me people!!!”

As luck would have it, I’m at the Dog House for the rest of the month, babysitting, while my Scottie’s parents are off on a cruise of South America. My fantasies of putting the house to good romantic use have already been dashed. The nice thick white carpet in front of the fireplace that would be good for a picnic–or let’s be honest, making out–has been ripped up and replaced with very trendy hardwood and no area rugs. The hot tub is broken. It’s 3 degrees out, so the sweet walks on our old, friendship-only stomping ground cannot be re-dedicated to this new incarnation of us unless we bundle ourselves up like the little brother in A Christmas Story. I’m beginning to suspect the Scottie Dog is not going to approve of the two of us in a romantic relationship, and I’ve already begun envisioning all the ways he will try to break us up, kind of like Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills did to Brian Keith and their potential new step-mother in The Parent Trap. He’s a good dog, but he is an only child. [In fact, Z gave Mac a very sweet talk about how love was expansive and Z was not replacing Mac in my heart. Mac had none of it and promptly hopped in bed, wedging his way between the two of us with his back side pointed in Z’s general direction.–RGS, 2015]

Also, you know when you order a box of chocolates from England for your sweetheart that depict various acts from The Kama Sutra and then you start to second guess yourself and wonder if what initially seemed funny and mildly naughty is really just in poor taste, reeks of desperation and might make the object of your affection go off you completely? Yeah, well. . . .

That’s it. I am officially lowering my expectations for the weekend.

But I am NOT wearing the low-rise jeans.

Reading Between the Lines

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cocoa

Today, my only job in the whole world is to make edits to an essay I wrote on Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” so I can resubmit it to a nice editor at a new journal on the study of creative nonfiction.

 

My. Only. Job.

 

I do not have to do dishes. Laundry can wait. I have no tiny noses or bottoms to wipe, and Z will not be expecting a four-course meal when he gets home from work (mainly because he knows I can’t cook). My editing projects are either done or not ready to be started.

 

No one is expecting me to finish a TPS report at the office. There is no office.

 

More specifically, this job is not even a complete overhaul of an essay. The editor said after the first five pages that my essay “roars.” I don’t exactly know what that means except “to roar” sounds like the opposite of “to suck” so apparently most of the essay is on the right track, which means 13 pages of it are okay. Maybe even good. But those first five pages? Meh. I’m not bitter about this criticism. I’m a big fan of revision. But I’m clueless as to how to fix these pages, never mind on any given day I write five page emails to Jane before my eyes are fully open. (Tuesday two weeks ago was extra easy because we had a lot to say about Reneé Zellweger’s surprising new face).

 

Also, I’m sitting in the café at the Elliott Bay Book Co., a place I normally delight in. Everywhere I look there is someone on a laptop that looks like mine, though with cool ironic stickers that I’m too chicken to put on my own MacBook, and none of these people appear to be blocked. In fact, right this minute, I’m just paranoid enough to believe that every one of them to a person is also writing about Joan Didion and doing it far better than I ever could.

 

I’m realizing now that writing in a bookstore is not good for my psyche. I can see all those books on the shelves, with all their perfectly published words, taunting me. What’s your problem? they seem to be saying. Just get it done.

 

But I can see this writing day for what it is: over. Instead, I’ll tell you about other words on a page that came somewhat easier and had recent fruition.

 

Back when I was just giving up on my quest to earn all the Girl Scout badges ever, I started reading teen magazines. My favorite was ‘Teen, which had very informative columns that offered advice on love and friendship and sex. I also read Seventeen, though I found its fashion advice dubious because it was too avant-garde for Richmond, Indiana. (Sweatshirts paired with skirts weren’t happening yet, and I could never believe that red and pink should be worn together—colors should be complements and shouldn’t be reminiscent of Valentine’s Day.) In one of these magazines, you could send in your name and address and be paired up with a pen pal.

 

It wouldn’t be my first pen pal. Mom had carefully arranged for me to have a Swedish one because she had had a Swedish pen pal when she was my age and she felt they were superior (and there was a lovely array of Swedish candies and doo-dads that got sent my way on the holidays from Cecelia—so, good choice there Mom)! Through a Trixie Belden fan club, I’d acquired a fun-loving girl from Colorado whose dachshund Barney I was jealous of (I lived in a “no pets” apartment with a “no pets but fish” mother). Through school, I acquired a West Indian, and two Canadians, one of whom seemed to delight in copying out sexy passages from trashy novels I wasn’t yet cleared to read and another who sent me a photo of herself with a goat. The most exotic was Glenda from Zambia, who came via the TV show, Big Blue Marble. I loved getting her thin, light blue airmail envelopes and reading about a world so different from mine that it could hardly be imagined. With Glenda, I was concerned that she was in danger of being murdered by Idi Amin because I didn’t fully understand the vastness of Africa (or even that Africa wasn’t a single country). After a few months or a few years, all of these pen pals and I developed differing interests and the letters got fewer and further between until they disappeared completely. I tried reconnecting with Cecilia a decade ago and managed to find her, but she admitted her English was not what it used to be and since I had not learned Swedish, there was nowhere to go with the old friendship except fond memories of her colorfully decorated envelopes and the Carl Larson inspired life I had imagined her living.

 

But my teen magazine pen pal, C., from a province in Canada that was roughly above my head (how I thought about geography in 1980, sadly no joke), was something different. We were a good pairing: both introverted, goodish girls, book-inclined, and studious. We wrote each other dutifully about the classes we were taking, the books we’d read, the music we were listening to, and for some reason a tradition that has stuck ‘lo these many decades, a list of Christmas presents received. Our letters might have become less frequent as we got older, but we both made an effort to write at least at Christmas to check-in. In retrospect, I think it was my first experience with what would later become a weird sort of computer-age norm: talking to a total stranger about your life and developing this odd sense of knowing them even though you’d never really met them.

 

Five years ago when Z and I were compiling our wedding guest list, I have no idea what made me ballsy enough to send an invitation to someone I’d never actually met. Who does that? But it seemed weird not to send C. an invitation when technically, she’d been my (pen) friend longer than any of my real life friends who would be there. I never imagined that she and her husband would brave the winter roads to come to our December wedding, but they did. I’d like to say that as soon as we saw each other it was like we were reunited long-lost friends, but the truth is, there were a lot of people at the wedding, my tiara was cutting off my circulation, and I’d had too much to drink to be a proper good hostess. I did, however, feel honored that they’d come, and because I am the sort of person who is often in awe of other people, during a few of my more “aware” wedding moments, I was envious of her sophisticated dress and the ease with which she and her husband glided around the ballroom. (Z and I had exactly one dance move that we put on repeat for the duration of our first dance.)

 

Last week, C. and her husband incorporated a visit with us into their travel plans to the Pacific Northwest. She texted me updates as they—more adventurous than we have ever been—hiked Mt. Rainier and through the Olympic National Park and ate meals that my bland, 4-year-old-inspired palate would not even consider. We met them for dinner in Belltown on the first night, and I admit while I was excited at the prospect of actually getting to spend time with the real person, I was also wishing there were some sort of pill I could take that would give me an evening’s worth of extroversion and gregariousness. C. and I are clever introverted women, however, who married men with communication skills, so they got things rolling for us, and soon it did not feel at all like strangers meeting for dinner. This night turned into two more meals together during their time in Seattle and some good conversation.

 

The thing that most struck me after we’d said goodbye on the last day of their visit was that I was saying goodbye not to a new acquaintance but to an old friend. C. was exactly how I’d imagined her for all these years, not because I’m wickedly intuitive but because she’d represented herself so well in the letters she’d written over three and a half decades. I knew what she looked like from photos and our brief interactions during our wedding weekend, but I wasn’t at all surprised by those things you shouldn’t be able to tell about someone you’ve only ever corresponded with: how she carried herself, how she spoke, her quiet but quick wit, the way she and her husband interacted. I felt what can only be described as deep affection for the pair of them–these “strangers”–as they walked down our steep hill towards the lightrail that would carry them  to the airport and then back home to Canada.

 

If you ask me, telling yourself true is the best writing any of us can do.

 

Happy Birthday, Baby

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Yours truly, age one.

Yours truly, age one.

 

Last May when I was in a pet store with my half-brother and his family, my three-year-old niece Bridget and I were perusing a rack of pet-themed cards when she decided she wanted to find her daddy. I was so engrossed in the photos of pug dogs in lipstick and feather boas that I said, “Okay. He’s over by the fish” without once thinking maybe a three-year-old should have an adult escort. A few minutes later my brother came up to me and said, “Um, have you seen my daughter?” Panic. We found her a few seconds later midway to the fish with her face pressed against an aquarium full of gerbils, but I momentarily felt like the world’s worst aunt. So maybe it’s not surprising that I’ve been having such a good time in Indiana that I not only forgot to write a real post, but I also forgot that my baby, The Reluctant Girl Scout, turned one-year-old on the 18th. She’s twelve months old and walking and talking and I totally forgot to commemorate the moment with a snapshot. Oops.

 

I like to think if I had an actual human child I wouldn’t be so forgetful—failing to celebrate its birthday, leaving it in its carrier on the trunk of the car as I drive off down the road towards some exciting destination—but one has to wonder.

 

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been a year since the Xanax Safari to Zimbabwe inspired me to start this thing. My optimistic self thought I’d post every day and so at the end of the year I’d be sitting on a heap of posts and the whole world would be reading me; my pessimistic self thought the likelihood that I’d forget to post at all once the trip to Africa was over was high. So the reality here that I’m still writing but somewhat less frequently than I meant to is both cause for celebration and regret. Though in my defense, there are a lot of non blog-worthy days when I’m just sitting around the house wondering if there’s a better way to organize the plastic bags under the sink.

 

The three weeks in Indiana have been excellent. The first two weeks we were staying with my beloved Scottie Fairy God Dog, Mac, at his beautiful house while his parents were in Norway. I’ve been staying at this house with Mac and his Scottish predecessors since I was 18, which is to say, a whole lot of years. I love the house, an L-shaped ranch that is situated on the wooded property in such a way that it feels very, very private and remote even though it is in the middle of town and there’s a Famous Recipe Fried Chicken less than a quarter mile away.

RGSpond

When you’ve stayed in someone else’s house for such a big part of your life, it is strange how it gets woven into your fabric as if it were your own. I’m not really talking about ownership of the property or the things inside but the place itself.

 

It’s the perfect house for entertaining, and with Mac’s parents’ blessing, I’ve done some entertaining there. My extended family has been there enough in both sunshine and in shadow that they think of it as my house (and Mac as my dog) and periodically we have discussions about whether, should the owners ever sell, we should pool all of our money together and buy it so we’ll continue to have such a peaceful, lovely place to gather.

 

Over the course of a few decades, it’s remarkable how many life events have unfolded there: affairs of the heart begun and ended, friendships begun and ended, baby showers and wakes, family reunions, phone calls both joyous and devastating, holidays, a trip to the ER after a fall through a screen door in the midst of what seemed like a promising date. (Oh, fortuitous, fortuitous accident.)

 

Lately, whenever I stay there, I’m afraid it will be my last time. Mac is no spring chicken. His parents threaten to move west permanently. I live on the other side of the country now, so my schedule and their vacation schedule aren’t always in sync.

 

Mac on his evening constitutional.

Mac on his evening constitutional.

 

When you are living your life at 18, you think it will always be exactly as it is and you rail against it. You fail to enjoy fully the bounty (of someone else’s gorgeous house, of friends and family, of little dogs and gray cats) in front of you because you yearn for your own adventures, your own houses, in places far away. And then you wake up in the middle of your life and realize that nothing is static and maybe you should appreciate that view more, rub the Scottie dog’s ears a few more times, take a picture of the crane about to lunch on a fish in the pond, be grateful for each visit with friends, each dinner with family, any chance you get to be in a place you love. The birthdays that come unbidden.

 

RGScrane

 

Flashback Friday Night: Snakes I Have Loathed

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Horrible, Scottie-eating snake.

Scottie-eating snake. A cobra, perhaps? A python? Something horrible.

(Earlier today, I was forced to stare at a metaphorical snake and my blood ran cold. Fortunately, it wasn’t feeling any animosity toward me and so slithered away to sun itself on a rock somewhere. Even so, this seemed a timely post from eight years ago when I was staying at Mac the Scottie Wonder Dog’s house.)

 

15 June 2006

I hate snakes. Call it irrational, girly, predictable, whatever you want, but I  think all snakes should die, or, when I’m in a more goodwill-toward-all sort of mood, then I would be satisfied if they were all quarantined on an island somewhere so I could easily avoid it. I don’t feel this way about spiders or mice–in fact, I regularly spring the mouse traps set at the Dog House because it seems like bad, bad karma to eighty-six something so cute who is just out there trying to make a living like the rest of us.

But snakes are a different story and I’m not even from a part of the world where they are poisonous.

Several years ago I had a grandmotherly student who was not a native speaker of English. I was fond of her despite how difficult her papers were to decipher. Aside from the ESL issues, her thoughts often seemed jumbled and it was difficult to figure out how the ideas were connected. She once wrote a paper in which she talked frequently about “sneaks.”  For an evening, I tried to piece together what she really wanted her paper to be about. I pictured people who were out to get her, sneaking around her neighborhood, maybe painting racial epithets on her garage door or rifling through her garbage in the early-morning hours, co-workers sneaking behind her back and trying to make her life difficult. I wondered briefly if perhaps her husband had been sneaking around on her but she was afraid to write boldy about such a personal betrayal and so made her essay vague in order to protect herself.

After the third read-thru, it dawned on me that “sneaks” were really SNAKES. It was, perhaps, the strongest paper she ever wrote for the class, her hatred of snakes seemed to help her unify her thoughts.

Today, I let Mac out and two seconds later heard this awful caterwauling on the kitchen deck. I looked out in time to see a giant snake coiled up and ready to lunge at my sweet Scottie. Mac has a ferocious bark and tenacious spirit, and while both of these things should have scared the snake off, neither did. I called the dog in but the snake then glared at us through the patio door, still coiled and ready to strike. He opened his mouth, wide, to show us what he was made of. Mac whimpered, desperate to tear into this invader. I poked at the glass and made noises meant to scare it off, but the snake just stared at me, sitting on its snake-haunches, on the verge of attack. It didn’t leave until Mac and I walked away from the window and let it “win.” I haven’t let the dog out since.

(And yes, I did have to go through that paragraph and make it gender neutral because I always think of snakes as “he.”)

There are a lot of fantastical things in the Bible–people turning to pillars of salt, burning bushes, walking on water–but I’ve never had a problem with believing any of it. Today, though, I’m thinking the whole Garden of Eden story is a real crock. What self-respecting woman would talk to a snake? I just don’t think it would happen. They are all side-windy and slithery and awful. I can see how Eve might have been hoodwinked by a honey-tongued snake-like fruit salesman, whispering in her ear and telling her that his apples were better than anyone else’s while he twirled his moustahce, but an actual, honest-to-goodness snake? I don’t think so. I like to think the mother-of-us-all would have been cleverer and looked for a way to avoid a serpent confrontation.

At school, I regularly have students–almost always female, usually those with tattoos of pentagrams who smell of patchouli–who insist that snakes are wonderful, loving pets, but I never believe them. You can’t curl up with a snake and watch old Frasier reruns, like the Scottie Dog and I did last night. What you can do with a pet snake is take it out of its aquarium in an attempt to make guests uncomfortable. That’s about it. I’ve always thought how awful it was that cats were regularly murdered in medieval times (and beyond) because they were associated with witchcraft. How ignorant and heartless, I’d think. But snakes? If there were an anti-snake mob out there with the torches and  zeal? I’d probably join in, shouting and shaking a cudgel, ready to make the neighborhood safer.

Except for the part where I might actually have to face one of the sneaks. Ugh.

 

On Cousins and Only Children

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Not me and G, Puget Sound, 2014

Not me and G, Puget Sound, 2014

 

The cure for what has been ailing me (homesickness, friendship distress, caffeine withdrawal, and general malaise) came this past week in the form of a seven- day visit from my cousin G. If you don’t have a cousin like her, then I give you permission to go berate your aunts and uncles right this minute for not producing one for you. Such a person really should be an unalienable right mentioned in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

 

What did we do all week? I don’t remember. We walked by the water a lot, including a lovely long wade (or “paddle” as Z calls it) in Puget Sound. We went to bookstores and yarn stores and ate things we shouldn’t. We spent an afternoon on Hudge’s houseboat. Saturday night we went to the Seattle International Film Festival’s showing of the South African film Leading Lady, and had the added bonus of “Billy” from Ally McBeal sitting in the same row as us. (Other than taking some blurry photos, we acted nonchalant with this brush with B-list fame.)

 

But mostly, we just talked. Yesterday I woke up and realized she wasn’t still in residence, and I felt decidedly ho-hum about life in her absence. It was good to have a paisano in the house.

 

Though I acquired two half-brothers as a young adult (and am now reaping the benefits of aunthood), I was an only child for the whole of my childhood. I was not one of those lonely, pitiful characters in literature like Jane Eyre who has no family, but instead grew up a few miles from my cousins on my mother’s side, which meant weekends and summers in the country with them, avoiding cow pats as we played in the fields, demanding one of the endless Eskimo Pies my grandmother kept in the freezer, rubbing my allergy-inclined face onto the fur of barn kittens, and riding a garden tractor/go-cart/Radio Flyer train around the barnyard while dressed in our best parade finery (which mostly involved fancy hats and Nerf balls stuck under our shirts, Dolly Parton style). From these cousins, I learned a little of the positive side of what it might be like to have siblings (the camaraderie! the similar family experience! the Eskimo Pies!) with only a hint of the dark side (the arguments! parentally-forced sharing! the hair pulling!) Often now that I’m in Seattle and feeling a longing for home, it isn’t lost on me that I’m not missing home so much as I’m missing 1974 in a tire swing at my grandparents’ house, waiting on the cousins to arrive and the fun to begin.

 

G was not one of these cousins. Since my parents divorced when I was young and since all of my cousins on Dad’s side lived in different parts of Indiana, I often felt less connected. I went through a period of time when I wasn’t even sure if I belonged anymore, like somehow those cousins with their intact families were more legitimate than I was.

 

Once a year or so, we’d all get together and it would take awhile for me to feel satisfactorily reacquainted with them. Because I was the baby girl, I was often in awe of my older cousins, studying how they dressed, what they did, what they read and listened to, and then attempted to incorporate it all into my life. From these paternal cousins, I developed an affection for horror movies (for a time), miniature golf, Shakespeare and John Irving novels, and, randomly, the Carpenters and the Beach Boys even though we were really too young for this to be “our” music. I loved these cousins, but they were more like exotic, affectionate strangers than the closer, more sibling-like connection I had with my cousins back home in Wayne County.

 

I can’t pinpoint when the magic happened on my dad’s side of the family. It was after we were all out of college but before the family funerals started adding up. For me, it was as if a switch was flipped and suddenly I realized how much I genuinely liked these cousins. We didn’t grow up together. Our lives had evolved differently. And yet, we were somehow connected. I’m convinced that if I’d never met them and then bumped into them at a cocktail party, I would have gravitated to all of them intuitively. They’re smart, well read, wickedly funny and somehow. . . familiar.

 

G’s familiarity is still a source of wonder to me. Six years separate us and our life experiences have been very different, yet we get each other. One of us might say, “I think I’m weird because I …” and before the sentence can be finished, the other is nodding her head and admitting to doing or thinking the same thing. Maybe it’s because we’re both Capricorns or share a bunch of similar letters on the Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator. Maybe it’s just genetics. I don’t know. All I do know, is the day of my father’s funeral when I was sitting on the front “immediate family only” pew feeling very alone, I looked behind at G with what must have been a face of misery, and she nodded, knowing intuitively what I needed, and without saying a word, skooched herself out of the crowded row she was in, and came to sit beside me, leaning in and making the whole rotten experience bearable. Who doesn’t feel lucky to have that in her life? Could a sister have offered me more than that?

 

Right after I met Z, she is the one I took to scope him out and see if I was delusional or if he seemed like he had potential. He was working a bean-bag toss at the university Homecoming carnival and had no idea he was under surveillance. She gave him an enthusiastic thumbs up and kept giving it, years later after everyone else’s enthusiasm for Z was waning, and even mine was beginning to ebb because he was operating on what I would later learn was “African time.” Five years after the bean-bag toss when I was starting to feel mostly done with him, she dragged me out to buy new Z-catching eye shadow and gave me a pep talk about destiny, and a few weeks later, he told me his heart had shifted. (It was awesome drugstore eye shadow—if you have unrequited love, I recommend it.)

 

So a few years later when Z and I got married, it was only natural that I’d want G, who had been there on the worst day, to be my “best woman” on the best day. She even patiently gave in to my desire that she be gussied up like a Disney princess, along with me, never mind our middle-agedness and how we should have been wearing something more subdued and matronly, like grey pantsuits, instead of sparkle and shine.

 

When someone tells me they plan to have only one child, I never feel badly for that kid. The only downfall I can remember to my “only” status was the assumption by people that an only child was naturally bratty and spoiled. (It’s worth noting that these people making these claims always had multiple ill-behaved children.) Instead, I loved being just me. Loved the pockets of solitude and being treated like a little adult instead of one of the wildings in Lord of the Flies.

 

But maybe I can say I loved being an only child simply because I was rich with cousins. A cousin-less life sounds much less enticing to me.

 

Now if I can just get the other eleven to visit.