Category Archives: Procrastination

The Chicken of Productivity

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You might want stand back from your screen as I have been laid low by bronchitis, and I’d hate for you to catch it. I’m convinced I picked this one up on the bus when I was off to get the new glasses, but it could have come from anywhere and it is taking a long time leaving.

 

It arrived on little cat feet a few days before Z and I were in loco parentis for my cousin’s seventeen-year-old daughter and her friend, who took their first solo trip to us. Possibly it started as a run-of-the-mill bus cold but trying to keep up with teenagers transformed it. All I know is I’ve grown bored with it, bored with the cough syrup (the flavor of which has not been improved upon since I was a kid despite all other sorts of advances in medical science), and bored with the addlepated thought-processes that plague me when I’m on antibiotics and codeine.

 

The worst part though is that this illness of mine made me feel really old.

 

I am accustomed to having young people treat me as if I’m youthful and cooler than their parents. I attribute this quality to having had the “cool mom” (who did NOT make casseroles or force a bedtime and to whom my friends wanted to tell their problems) and so I learned by observation. Over the years, I have enjoyed this distinction, but I may have finally pressed against the outer limits of those descriptors.

 

I was always about twenty paces behind these two energetic Hoosier-lings, and I was always out of breath. Multiple times Mere stopped, peered back at me and said with great concern, “Are you doing okay?” in the same tone I used to use when talking to my poor grandmother who had pulmonary fibrosis.

It didn’t take long before I was just waving them off for an hour or two of shopping and sight-seeing on their own while I drank Fiji water and ate cookies at Barnes and Noble and waited for them to text me that they’d exhausted the stock at Forever 21 and had not been accosted by big city ruffians.

 

Add to this that I had to ask them pointed questions about how they used Snapchat in their daily lives and what various make-up products were for at Sephora (Seattle requires very little make-up of me and I’ve lost some skills), and it’s clear to see my fate was sealed. My coolness has always been debatable, but “youthful” is no longer an adjective that belongs to me either. Alas.

 

All this to say, this will not be an energetic blog full of twists and turns and themes. I’m just going to offer a hodgepodge of thoughts and happenings and you can skip over the bits that bore you. It’s possible I won’t even come to a point when I get to the end, but I’m running out of days to post an April blog and I need to try out the latest addition to our family.

 

Here she is:

 

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That’s Erma Bompeck, a $3.99 kitchen timer from World Cost Plus. After hearing about how Lauren Graham employed a timer to help her get her memoir written, I decided the Pomodoro time-management method for Getting Crap Done might be a boon to me. That said, I couldn’t get jazzed by the now-famous tomato-shaped timer made popular with that method. I do not like fruits masquerading as vegetables, and when I tried using the Pomodoro app on my phone, every time it buzzed and I had to re-set it, I’d find reasons to check my mail, update my Facebook status, or play a game of Royal Envoy.

 

The Chicken of Productivity sat on the end table, roosting for five days with no name. Z tried valiantly to assign her Roscoe P. Chicken but his ignorance of poultry biology (she is clearly NOT a rooster) was alarming and I felt a little annoyed that he, who names everything in our house from our various blankets to my engagement ring (Fluffito and Ring-ring, respectively) should feel it his right to name MY chicken. Plus, I wasn’t having her twirl around on her base with the name of a bumbling, racist sheriff from Dukes of Hazzard. No. These are trying racial and political times, and I will not be celebrating such tomfoolery with my Chicken of Productivity.

 

I felt I needed the support of a female, time-keeping muse. I considered Eudora Welty or Virginia Woolf, but in the end I remembered my college mentor, Gibb, who suggested that I should be the next Erma Bombeck (Erma’s job was not open nor was she ill at the time, so I’m not sure why he thought I could just walk in with my pristine, no-experience post-college resumé and take hers). I liked the Erma Bombeck shout-out to Gibb who believed in my quirky writing, and I liked the simplicity of channeling Erma, a funny woman who wrote some articles of consequence and some of no consequence. Erma got a clean slate every day with her syndicated newspaper column, and I doubt if anyone really remembered or faulted her for the stinkers. Since I’m trying to remind myself to err on the side of imperfection-but-done instead of near-perfection-but-never-completed, the name seemed inspired.

 

 

There’s something about Erma Bompeck’s face that harkens back to my Fisher-Price barnyard, and I’m hoping that by having her stare at me for the 25-minute increments during which I write, that I’ll begin to think of it as “fun” instead of “existential-crisis-in-the-making.” So here are my first 25 minutes of focused writing under Erma’s gaze. (The only downside is that because of that overactive amygdala of mine, I’ll jump out of my pants when the buzzer goes off.)

 

 

Here are the thoughts I’m trying to harness right now:

 

  • There was a robbery downtown an hour ago that left two police officers shot (wounded and recovering thank goodness) and so the helicopters are buzzing the apartment and jangling my nerves.
  • I just read yet another article about empaths and while I’m not 100% sure I am an empath, I do know that amygdala of mine makes me “sensitve.” I am beginning to wonder if the city is just too much for me. For instance, that helicopter sound has my ears vibrating and my gut churning because those poor worried cop families and what if the helicopter crashes into the downtown and what made armed robbery seem like a good idea a block from the federal building and why are 236 new people moving to Seattle every day and at what point is the city just going to belch some of us out?
  • My new glasses are making me hold my head just so so I can see the screen, and I wonder is it better to see things clearly but be a slave to your corrective lenses so you get a crick in your neck or is it better to squint and increase the likelihood of crow’s feet?
  • My new glasses look much better than I was anticipating and it seems a shame they are computer lenses so I can’t walk upright in them and wear them out in public. Should I have ordered them with all-purpose lenses, thus allowing me the chance to impress people with my hip, green tortoiseshell-ness? Would I have kept up better with teenagers if I could have worn these glasses?
  • Will Z notice if I eat a chocolate egg out of his Easter basket since I have depleted my own?
  • The Messy Drawer needs cleaning and how long exactly should I keep the iPod charger for my giant, antiquated 2006 iPod that will no longer charge? Also, if I decide to throw it out, must I find a place that recycles electronic stuff? Where is such a place? If I just “accidentally” drop it into the trash, will I be fined by the city? Are quandaries like this why the Messy Drawer is messy?
  • Also, if I throw the half-burned candle with the dodgy wick out that is taking up prime real estate in the Messy Drawer will this unleash some natural disaster that will require said candle and thus I will all be at fault for the disaster?
  • Will Z notice that the bright blue one-egg pan I gave him for Christmas got burned up yesterday and lost it’s sheen when I failed to realize the pasta I was cooking was on a different burner and so all I was cooking was the blue right off his new pan?
  • Are Lucky Charms really that much less healthy than microwaveable maple and brown sugar Quaker Oats? There are oats. There is sugar. Wouldn’t it all come out about the same but I’d get to embrace my Irish heritage and feel youthful with the former?

 

It takes a while to swim to the surface of that kind of brain soup. Also, Erma has dinged her first ding, so now you know how slowly I write. Next.

 

 

Last year, I may have told you that I discovered Vivian Swift, my favorite illustrated memoirist, was going to be in Seattle, and for reasons I can’t explain, I took it upon myself to invite her to stay in the writing studio here at Chez Girl Scout. It was a little insane. I knew her only from her books and she didn’t know me at all. In my message to her, I assured her that I was neither a weirdo nor an asshole, told her where Z taught, gave her the link to my blog and our address so she could do a little research on us to determine if we were either of those things, and then I paced around the house fretting because a woman on Long Island that I’d never met was probably at that moment laughing with her husband about the complete loon on the other side of the country who was delusional enough to think she’d want to stay with strangers who could, for all she knew, have a dungeon or web cams adhered to objet d’art around the studio.

 

When I extended the invitation, it was a strange internal knowing I had: that I needed to make this offer and that it would be good for my soul. Somehow, I also knew—even though it was beyond logic—that she would ultimately say yes. And sure enough, two hours later, she emailed and said she was having a year of saying “yes” and so, yes.

 

Those 48 hours with her in residence were a delight last May. I loved talking to her about writing and art. Z and I went to hear her read. We drank tea that morphed into several Alice B. Toklas cocktails on the patio of the Sorrento Hotel on an evening when the weather was perfect except for about 27 drops of rain that fell mysteriously from a cloudless sky. When she left, I felt lighter. I felt better about my writing and my life. I saw the city in a new way. We didn’t magically become besties and we aren’t texting each other multiple times a week now to complain about husbands or talk about new ways we might style our hair, but it was a really satisfying moment in a spring that had been largely scary, upsetting and otherwise tedious, and it gave me faith that it is still possible to spend time with someone previously unknown to you who feels familiar and real.

 

Maybe this is something all extroverts know instinctively, but it was a surprise to me.

 

While I wasn’t entirely duplicating that experience this month with an old college friend, there were some similarities. True, A and I had known each other since he was a friend’s roommate our sophomore year. We had spent a semester together in a truly horrible sociology class (boring, poorly managed, and erratic and we were ill-behaved because something in the professor triggered a Lord of the Flies response in us). But after that year, we didn’t see each other so much, and then graduation happened and if someone had asked me where A had ended up, I would have said, “I don’t know. Probably back in Virginia. Or did he live in North Carolina? I can’t remember. One of those places.” While I still—all of these years out—believe I am still a student at AU and thus fully expect the president of the university to demand we all return for a mandatory chapel convocation at which point I suppose I might have bumped into A in the lobby of Reardon Auditorium, it seemed more likely that our next contact would be one of us reading about the other’s death in the alumni magazine.

 

Now, with social networking, it is difficult to imagine a time when I didn’t know what ¾ of my high school graduating class had at Pizza King last Friday night (Note: Royal Feast and breadsticks. Always breadsticks) even though I’m on the other side of the country, but in the late 1980s, we were apparently just so sloppy-rich with friends that it was easy enough to assume there would be more and more and more to fill up spaces left by the ones we accidentally lost track of that summer day when we marched out of the auditorium with our diplomas in our hands.

 

Ah, youth.

 

So when A and I had a brief conversation on Facebook and he mentioned that he and his husband were going to be in British Columbia, I had a very similar Vivian Swift knowing. I knew I would invite them to come visit and I knew they would come, but more than that, I knew it was something I needed even though I had no idea why I needed it.

 

Z was particularly perplexed after I had asked if he’d mind if we had houseguests. “Who is this now? Why don’t I know those names?” He seemed a little dubious when my description didn’t offer rich detail and I said something vague like “we had a class together once in 1986” as if I had invited a faceless student from that two-week intensive composition course I taught at the technical college in 1997 or the sharp-tongued, deeply tanned woman I sold shoes with one summer in 1986 to come stay with us.

 

But Z is nothing if not supportive of my dreams, and he could see the glow in my eye. So, he shrugged and said sure, and thus it transpired that A & T would drive down for dinner, spend the night Chez Girl Scout, and then head back to their holiday rental across the border.

 

In the days leading up to their arrival I was giddy with anticipation though there was no rational reason for giddiness. Instead, I should have been nervous. A and I had known each other for such a brief time, without much opportunity for anything akin to a deep conversation because we were always in a group of people, yukking it up. Who was he really? And what was left of the 1987 Beth that he would recognize? One of my sharpest memories of him involved him sitting under an Amy Grant poster in a dorm room wearing a new kelly green shirt that he hadn’t yet laundered and that had turned his skin an eerie shade of green. That didn’t seem like enough to base an evening’s worth of conversational topics on.

 

For all I knew, I’d just invited someone I wouldn’t like at all into our house and we’d have to spend 36 hours making small talk and gritting our teeth and pretending that we like death metal or fusion cuisine. Or maybe they’d get one look of the likes of us and realize we were not their kind of people. (Z has taken to wearing Crocs everywhere he goes these days because of a self-diagnosed foot condition that he swears is only comfortable when he is wearing the equivalent of small, rubbery laundry baskets on his feet.) And yet, I had none of these worries because I just knew it would be excellent.

 

The minute I saw A on my stoop, it was as if no time had passed at all. I immediately turned into an ill-behaved golden retriever, wagging my tail and nearly leaping on the pair of them. They stood in the Girl Scout Writing Studio & Guest Quarters for a full ten minutes, no doubt tired from their drive, while I fired questions at them about their trip, their life together, what A had been doing the last 28 years, what T does for a living, where he’s from, when they got together, etc. It wasn’t until Z used his wife-calming voice and said, “Honey, maybe they’d like to settle in before you start the inquisition?” before I took a breath.

 

It was a short visit, but—for me (and for Z who told me multiple times how much he liked the pair of them)—it was exactly what I needed after this wet winter that has never wanted to end, my bronchitis-addled body, my fuzzy brain. We didn’t even spend much time reminiscing since we had so few shared memories, which was probably a great relief to Z and T. Instead, we talked about art and architecture and books and TV shows and our weddings and our hometowns and politics and travel and dogs and twenty other things. It was exactly how I knew it would be even though there was no way to know it.

 

I love these little mysteries, the synchronicities, the warmth from unexpected places. Now that I am old no longer young, I find that instead of concerts or amusement parks or the acquisition of some material item, these are the moments that make life rattle and hum for me. I was even comfortable with the tiny ache I felt that we live on opposite sides of the country and so won’t be making this a regular occurrence. Though hopefully it won’t be another 28 years.

 

I’d be really impressed with myself if I wrote these paragraphs out in two 25-minute increments and Erma had solved all of my writing woes. Last month I bought a new broom I was really excited about for a few days and then one day I realized the floor was no cleaner because I hadn’t actually used it. Sometimes I get myself new tools with the mistaken notion that they’re actually going to do the work for me.

 

I’m probably going to need a larger-sized and fiercer animal timer to keep me focused. Something with claws and fangs that sits on its haunches waiting on me to walk away from the keyboard so it can pounce. And it won’t be named anything like Roscoe either.

 

 

Of Minutiae and Lack of Momentum

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Ethan Currier’s rock art, Bainbridge Island, WA

 

I’ve been waiting for a day when the news isn’t so horrendous that I can blog about frivolous things without feeling superficial, but it’s becoming apparent that I could be waiting a very long time for that day to dawn. In the interest of not letting the terrorists, racists, misogynists and general practitioner haters “win,” I’m just going to write. Just going to go right on as if in the midst of the world ending it’s perfectly reasonable to be talking about things like houseguests and having to pretend the trolley system in Seattle is a viable means of transportation and how my friend Jane nearly ruined my life by forcing me to read The 12-Week Year. Forgive me.

 

Aside from all that ails the world, here is my list of beefs today:

 

  • It’s supposed to be in the 80s next week and you know how much I hate heat.
  • Hudge invited us to an outdoor movie tomorrow night, which sounded like fun, except I pretty much can’t be outside in the evening anymore unless I go in full-on beekeeper garb to ward off mosquitos; I am the sad combination of delicious and allergic.
  • The high-rise across the street from us is putting in new windows. Did you know that installing new windows requires a buzz saw at 8 a.m.? Me neither. Also, at the rate of two-windows-per-day, it’s going to be a loud, peace-less summer here on First Hill.
  • The election. The mean memes. The idiots.
  • People on Twitter are shouting that little Prince George should be sent to jail because in his just-released 3rd birthday photos, he appears to be feeding his dog Lupo some ice cream. He’s 3. His parents aren’t idiots. I’m guessing if it was intentional, then it’s probably a vet-approved iced doggie treat, but even if it wasn’t and Lupo licked that lump of ice cream, dogs eat truly terrible and disgusting things on a daily basis. The likely result will be either nothing or a single puddle of dog crap that someone (who is not the Duke or Duchess) will have to clean up. This is NOT animal cruelty. (What do people get from this online righteous indignation? I imagine them walking around all puffed up and proud of themselves after posting their “wisdom” but they’re really just self-satisfied idiots who can’t read a situation. Kind of like the warriors who “liberate” dogs trapped in cars even though the dog in question is not in distress—because it’s November—and the owner has been gone all of two minutes.)
  • A mouse is trying to move into our apartment.
  • Why DID Seattle try to sell us on the perfection of above-the-traffic monorail travel at the 1963 World’s Fair but then choose in the 2000s to cast their lot not with the monorail—a futuristic and therefore superior mode of travel that shows up in virtually every sci-fi movie ever made—but instead with a nod to yesteryear and a streetcar that holds fewer people than a bus and is stuck in the same rush hour traffic that all the cars and city busses are in, except on a track so it can’t even navigate obstacles? Mind the gap.
  • Someone washed and dried what appears to have been the innards of a hamster cage in the communal machines in our basement and didn’t bother to clean out the woodchips, animal fur, and chocolate chips. (I’m pretending they are chocolate chips. Please don’t tell me they aren’t chocolate chips.)

 

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Graffiti encouragement, Seattle

 

Jane, who is one of my oldest friends from college, suggested that I should read Brian P. Moran’s The 12-Week Year, and it is exhausting me. The principle behind it is good: most of us put off goals and projects until the 11th hour, so instead of giving yourself a long time to get something done, give yourself a short time and impress your friends and neighbors with how much you have accomplished.

 

In theory, it agrees with me. I am a procrastinator by nature and almost anything I’ve ever accomplished in my life—from a master’s thesis to stacks of student papers graded—happened in that magical eleventh hour when suddenly my thoughts, my energy, and my ability to solve problems would somehow work together to get me across the finish line just before the due date arrived.

 

In practice, I’m having to make out goals and lists of tasks, and then do those tasks to accomplish the goals, and then assess my progress on the tasks and the goals both daily and weekly. It is seriously cutting into my relaxing time. I’ve never been particularly good at anything close to a long-range plan, which explains in large part why I forgot to have children and have never really achieved the perfect capsule wardrobe.

 

The fatal flaw in my embracing of the 12-week year, however, was my idea that Z might like it too since he isn’t teaching this summer.

 

Z is much more task oriented than I am. He gravitates toward routine and is a creature of habit. The salad days of our summer are now over because of my stupid suggestion. No longer do we stay up until 3 and sleep until noon. No longer do we lounge on the couch watching episodes of “The New Girl” we’ve already seen twice. No longer do I have graham crackers and beef jerky for breakfast, because he’s got me on an oatmeal and banana system to help with the 12-week goal of “better health.” Do you know how much less fun this breakfast is than Pop-tarts or a bowl of Lucky Charms? (If he were writing this, he would tell you that the oatmeal has to be nuked so I’m basically eating an oatmeal cookie and we’re sharing the banana. Also, he would want you to know that I am very dramatic.)

 

After the banana, when I’m just starting one of my eight-page emails to Jane or a witty Facebook update, he ushers me next door to the writing studio, where he sits down and instantly goes to work.

 

Mac used to have to scratch his bed for five minutes and then turn in circles three times before settling down to sleep, and I’m similar with writing. Only I’ll spend about an hour putzing around online or reorganizing my paper clips and Post-it pads. Often, I have to re-read something I’ve already written years ago and consider its merits and failures, or read something someone else has written to get in the right frame of mind. And then I have to sit and think about what I want to write.

 

I could spend DAYS doing this. It is hard, hard work, the trying to write, and the results are inconsistent. Sometimes, while I’m trying, I actually do write something. But sometimes, at 6 o’clock, Z will slam shut his laptop and say, “I’m done” and he’s accomplished 15 things and I’ve still only written two sentences. Correction: two sentences I hate. Maybe I’ve also doodled a picture of Virginia Woolf in my notebook if it’s a really good day. He’ll ask me what I’ve done with my time, and I have absolutely no idea. No. Idea. I sat down. I started thinking my thoughts and now it’s 6 p.m.

 

Until we started this program, Z had no idea how much time slips through my fingers. He’d come home from work, ask what I’d done all day, I’d say, “I wrote” and because I had no goals written down where he could see whether they had a check next to them or not, he was none the wiser. Possibly he was suspicious since in the three years since I quit teaching and started working for myself he has never come home from work and had me place an entire manuscript into his hands. But now, for sure, he knows he is married to the least productive person in Christendom.

 

Last week I was reading a novel in which two women accidentally killed a man (he wasn’t very nice, so it was no great loss) and they had to clean up the mess and hide his body before the lady of the house returned home. It was set in the 1920s, so there was no Roomba or Dyson sweeper, no Lysol wipes, and I can only assume neither of them were doing Crossfit, so the heavy lifting had to be hell. Yet somehow, through sheer determination and hard work, they moved his carcass out of the parlor and into the alley, cleaned up all evidence of scuffle and bloodshed, and hopped into bed pretending to be asleep when Madame returned an hour later.

 

As I was reading it, I did not think what a tragedy it was. Nor did I feel fearful about what would happen when the cops discovered the body. I didn’t even worry about the bits of bloody apron that got buried in the ash pile, just waiting to be discovered. Instead, all I could think was, I must never kill anyone because I wouldn’t have the energy to clean up the mess.

 

A good life lesson, perhaps, but probably not what the author was going for.

 

And since I’m confessing all of my sins of laziness and haphazard lifestyle choices, let me add that last night I got an email from the Seattle Public Library requesting volunteers for homework help with school-age kids who are speaking English as a second language. As soon as I saw it, I realized that I probably ought to volunteer because I don’t do much of anything for the local community except complain to the parks department when they make bad projected plans for existing green space or steal parking spaces, paint them blue, and pretend it’s a park.

 

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Ridiculous “park” five feet from real park with trees and water fountains.

So it is with great shame that I confess to you now how relieved I was to discover at the bottom of the email that the closest library within walking distance was not participating in the program. It was like the most glorious snow day radio announcement of the 1970s and ‘80s liberating me from a day of school: all the free time I thought I was going to lose was suddenly mine again!

 

Other joys this week: aside from recommending books that are quality-of-life-ruiners, Jane and her family flew cross country and came to my noisy, congested, but sometimes glorious city for a few days. In another life, I should have been a tour guide. I love offering people suggestions about what to do, leaving helpful maps on the coffee table, having some candy bars in a dish waiting for them. I love introducing my people to new places.

 

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Space Needle, Seattle

Mostly though, I just loved having them here. I may be six years deep into this Seattle experiment, but it feels so good to have people around who know me in the context of my natural habitat, where there is no need to explain myself, apologize for my Midwestern-sized butt or Midwestern values or the way I say “pen” and “pin” so they sound like the exact same word.

 

I don’t have to work so hard to hold back my essential self, in other words.

 

It felt good to talk to them. To see their offspring growing and thriving. To take them on the Bainbridge ferry and stand on the bow of the upper deck and look down at a woman with dreadlocks holding her pet duck up so it could enjoy the sea spray. To have mutual friends from college over for a dinner that was nicely cooked and presented by the Great and Talented Z, so the whole lot of us could sit around reminiscing about life when it seemed less violent and ugly. It was violent and ugly then too, but we were young enough to believe that with Bono’s three chords and the truth and our own starry-eyed optimism, things were going to get better.

 

Some things did get better. When I went to college, Apartheid was still a thing. LGBT students on our campus had to keep themselves closeted or could be kicked out and they certainly had little hope of having rights equal to their straight classmates once leaving campus either. AIDS was still a death sentence instead of a chronic condition. When we graduated—we women of Anderson University—we’d be making 65 cents to the dollar that our male classmates were making, and now we’re up another thirteen cents (though we’re spending most of that on waxing). If people are being harassed by anyone because of the color of their skin, gender, the uniform they wear, their accent, etc., we’ve often got access to video coverage, shining a light on injustice and sent out over the internet while it happens. We’ve had our first black president and our first female presidential nominee.

 

We’ve seen the surface of Mars.

 

It’s easier (and sadder) to look back at all the things we were too naïve to know then: that the Challenger wouldn’t be the worst televised national tragedy in our lifetime, that terrorism would become real to us, that we’d get mired in a 15+ year war that shifts geography but shows no signs of stopping, that something as magical as the internet would highlight some of our ugliest human tendencies.

 

We didn’t even know what a Kardashian was or that they’d be trying to weasel their way into our homes on a daily basis.

 

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A girl and her duck.

When asked if the glass is half full or half empty, I’m inclined to recognize that what you have in your hand there is half a glass of something to drink, which is better than nothing but not quite as good as full-to-the-brim. But with the company of Z and good friends, my glass was full this week, even with buzz saws across the street, hamster cage dumpings in the washing machine, and the realization that I’m too lazy and discombobulated to clean up a crime scene.

 

Peace be upon us.

 

RGSthesound

Puget Sound

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Hey There, Little Red Riding Hood

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“Alas for those girls who’ve refused the truth: the sweetest tongue has the sharpest tooth.

—Jack Zipes Little Red Riding Hood and Other Classic French Fairy Tales

 

 

I’ve been lost in the writing woods for a few months, hence the lack of blog posts or tangible proof that I’m a writer. For the last hour, I’ve been jotting down lines for this little ditty and then immediately deleting them. I stare at the screen. Make a list of things I think I want to say. Crunch through a cup of ice (which feels really productive even if it is bad for my teeth). Stare at the screen. Read a chapter of a book. Write a line. Delete it. I keep reminding myself that this is a single blog entry and not the opening lines to a novel I hope will win a Pulitzer Prize, but still, the words won’t come. Z will be home in three hours and I have zero faith that this post—let alone an essay I’m trying to finish and ship off—will be done before his key is in the door.

 

Even eating the last remaining strip of Easter Marshmallow Peeps has failed to get the juices flowing.

 

Last fall while Mom was visiting Seattle, we were at a fabric store because the elastic on a skirt I wanted to wear had gone rogue. While I was supposed to be finding the necessary repair tools, what I found instead in the kid section was the most delightful Red Riding Hood material. A more sophisticated woman might see it and think it would look nice in someone’s nursery, but I saw it and felt certain that my life would not be complete until I had it whipped up into some curtains to hang in my writing studio.

 

When I showed the material to Mom and asked her if she thought it would be hard for me to make into curtains, we both knew that what I really meant was, “Could you do this for me, pretty please?”

 

Poor Mom. I can’t tell you how many of my hair-brained projects she has gotten roped into because I have great faith in both her skills and her love for me. Could you just paint my bedroom that perfect shade of blue? Could you just make me a mirror out of flattened out soda cans? Could you just design, carve a linoleum block, and hand print all of my wedding invitations, even if it gives you temporary carpal tunnel? The fact that she never says no to me is testament to what an excellent (long-suffering) mother she is. Were our roles reversed, I’d probably say something like, “Honey, why don’t you find a YouTube video that will show you how to do it yourself?”

 

Thus, my favorite Christmas present of the year from Mom was a bank of café curtains that have transformed my little writing studio.

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I grew up on fairy tales, both the sanitized Disney and the grimmer versions where badly behaved step-sisters were inclined to get their eyes plucked out. Though I liked the ones that ended with princes and castles, Little Red Riding Hood was always my favorite. As an introverted only child who tried hard to follow the rules, I loved Red’s solitary walk through the forest, her purposeful journey to get to her destination with a basket of treats for her ailing grandmother, her stylish outerwear. Though admittedly, I could never imagine my over-protective mother sending me out into the woods on my own when she knew there were sinister forces lurking behind trees.

 

A lot of the time when I’m writing, I feel like Red, trudging through the forest, hoping to stay on the path, attempting to avoid wolfish distractions. Often, I fail. It seems only fitting that she should be there with me in my writing studio, while I try to stick to a plan.

 

When I would teach a fairy tale unit in my composition class, we’d often end up talking about Red Riding Hood and the various endings that befall her depending on the teller of the story. With most other folk tales, I’m always keen to know the oldest, most original version because I see that as the “true” one. But with Red Riding Hood, I don’t care how it ends. It doesn’t matter to me whether she is eaten whole by the wolf and either digested or rescued by a woodsman and his sharp ax just as she begins simmering in gastic juices. I don’t even really care if she saves herself. (Okay, okay. I hope she saves herself.) For me the real crux of the story is that moment when she must choose between following the rules given to her by her mother (“never talk to strangers” and “stick to the known path”) or whether she will follow what I always believed was a Midwestern cultural imperative to be polite. On the surface, the wolf demonstrates no savage tendencies, and in most versions he isn’t even trying to get her to leave the path. Instead, he offers to accompany her once he knows where she’s heading, and it is very difficult for a girl to say, “No thanks” without feeling rude. Even so, when I read the story, I want to shout at her, “Ignore him! Tell him nothing!”

 

It occurs to me now, that pre-Z, this might explain why my dating life was so abysmal. On multiple occasions the most benign of men might say hello to me or ask me a question as a sort of opening line, and instead of being flirtatious in return, I could see only wolfishness in the eyes, a salacious sheen on the teeth, and I would run—sometimes literally—the other way. I have no doubt, the “danger” was all in my head. Often I give Z a hard time that he made me pursue him for so long before he was willing to admit we belonged together, but the truth is if he had seemed even the least big eager, I’d have zipped away at lightening speed. Well played, Z. Well played.

 

Monday I went down to the International District to sit in the waiting room of a doctor’s office while Z was inside getting some results from a routine doctor’s visit. It’s not our neighborhood and not a doctor we are familiar with. Though the receptionist and nurse were friendly to me while I sat there, I felt out of my element. It was just me sitting across from a fish tank that appeared not to have as single fish in it, reading the signs plastered on the walls in English and then trying to find meaning in the Chinese characters beneath the English letters, as if I were finding a pattern to crack the Enigma Code.

 

A tall, older guy came in, moaning and dragging his leg behind him. Oh no, I thought. Drama. I hate public drama and there is too much of it in the city. He dragged himself up to the window and said something to the receptionist and they both started laughing. Tension broken. He wasn’t really in pain—he was waiting for test results too—and he’d just been trying to add a little levity to the day. He sat down across from me and waited. I poked around on my cell phone.

 

He sort of relaxed against the wall and started singing low and sultry like Barry White: Girl, come on back to my place. You know we’ll have a good time. Girl, come on back to my place….

 

Sexy as I was there in my green fleece hoody, un-brushed hair and big middle aged Midwestern body, I felt fairly confident that he wasn’t singing to me. And even if the amazing Z hadn’t been on the other side of that door, I wouldn’t have been inclined to follow this guy out into the concrete forest that is Seattle if he had been making up this song just for my ears. There was a certain confidence he emanated that seemed related to his belief that his dulcet tones would stir something up in the women of the International District, and that confidence annoyed me.

 

I stared at my phone like I was cramming for an exam, like I was deaf and couldn’t hear this serenade that filled the small room. (Never has an article about global warming been so mesmerizing.) I could not allow myself to look up. I could not do what I normally do in a doctor’s office and smile at the person sitting across from me before quickly looking elsewhere lest I see overly interested in what might be ailing them. It felt dangerous. The guy sang several more choruses—all with similar lyrics—before letting out a big yawn and then asking the receptionist to be let into the back to use the restroom. My sense when I heard the yawn was that he found my response uptight and boring, though in all likelihood this entire storyline was unfolding in my head only. Even so, when Z came out, I nearly leapt into his arms.

 

This is why I need to brave the forest in my mind, sit at the desk, get the words in my head out onto the page. Because if I leave those words inside for too long, it just gets weird.

Flashback Friday: Little Brownstone on the Prairie

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

 15 July 2006

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Cure for the Simple Life

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When we got engaged, we looked at two-bedroom rentals within walking distance of campus because we needed more space than Z’s little 1920s one-bedroom apartment offered. With his three pieces of Craig’s List furniture and five batik wall hangings from Zimbabwe, the place looked spacious, but I come with a certain amount of baggage. I wasn’t prepared to begin a new life in a new city without my precious things: Amish-built furniture, objet d’art, childhood sock monkey, a herd of bulky Irish sweaters (too hot to wear in Seattle, fyi, but I like having them available should the weather take a turn), and the cloud of paper that follows me wherever I go, like Pig Pen’s dust. If we had stuffed all of my things into his apartment, we would have instantly been candidates for Hoarders: Newlywed Edition.

 

I loved Z’s apartment. Loved the woodwork and the big bank of windows overlooking a shady tree, how it felt to live smack in the middle of things, but most importantly, I loved its oldness, its crookedness, its sense of history. I imagined a bevy of nurses living here in the 1930s, walking to work at one of the many hospitals here on First Hill. I imagined what it might have been like for them to look out our windows and down to Elliott Bay, a sight we can’t see now because of a high rise full of partying youth that sits between us and the ferry-laden waters. It seemed like a simpler time, and I liked being in Z’s apartment pretending we would be living a simpler life together.

 

Neither of us are that strong at math, but when the apartment across the hall from his became available, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that it was cheaper to rent an entire bonus apartment in an old building whose only modern conveniences are electricity and running water than it was to rent one of those new, two-bedroom places with leather furniture and cappuccino machines in the lobby, triple-paned glass, walk-in closets, dishwashers, and personal washer-dryers that aren’t shared by the building’s inhabitants in a basement that some days smells like Satan’s backside. We decided immediately that the apartment across the hall would be a writing studio for me, a place to keep our newly acquired Kitchen-Aid mixer for our “baking center” (a use that had “failure” written on it before I ever tried my first batch of cookies—I’m not that strong a measurer, and it turns out a ring on a finger does not instantly make a woman domestically inclined), and guest quarters should family or friends decide to trek across the globe to see us. My only concern was that should Immigration Services ever get wind of our two-apartment lifestyle, they might make assumptions about our marriage that are untrue. (Though if they stopped by for tea and saw how often the bonus apartment is used as a storage facility, then they would believe! It is often nearly uninhabitable because of picnic gear, off-season clothing, stacks of finished books waiting to find homes, half-finished craft projects, and the other detritus of our life together. Plus Hudge parks her bike there when she rides over for a visit.)

 

The problem with having two living spaces separated by two locked doors is that often I simply forget to go to the other space. The apartment where we live our lives is like a Nest of Inertia, and I often find it nearly impossible to lift myself off the sofa and walk across the hall to write at my desk, as if there are 100 lb. weights holding me down. I have this idea in mind that if those locks did not exist, I would wake up every morning and skip across the hall, plop down at my desk, and write for a giddy eight hours before skipping back “home” to greet Z when he returns at the end of the day. Instead, I think about going to the studio. I think about the light I love and how much I want to be there at the desk, and still, I sit under the weight of the identical apartment that feels more like home. It seems lonelier in the studio that has less of Z in it, which makes no sense. Both apartments are empty—Z is at work. What’s more, I LOVE my writing space. I feel like myself—my pre-married self, my childhood self, the self I was before I was born—when I am at this desk, yet too many days I deny myself the joy of being here and instead curl up in a ball on my corner in the Nest of Inertia and write. Or worse, I don’t write and instead just think about writing and hate myself a little. Or even worse still, I don’t write, don’t think about writing, and instead, invent things to do that have nothing to do with writing at all, like reorganizing the cutlery drawer.

 

There is no time I like my writing studio more than when we have a house guest who takes up residence in it and so being in it to write is no longer a viable option for me. My brain becomes electric with ideas. My fingers physically ache to be on a keyboard that is sitting on my desk. The books that surround the desk suddenly feel like all the books I should be reading right this minute. I’m very nearly jealous of our guests because they “get” to live in a space that I have access to  every other day of my life but too often ignore. Their presence, perhaps, frees it from being a lonely place where I am meant to face myself on the page every day and suddenly becomes a vacation getaway, where my ideas suddenly seem 100% more creative. The guests sit on the sofa, and I sit in my desk chair, spinning around while we talk, noticing things on which my eyes would not even land if this were one of my solitary writing days.

 

Last week Belle was here, and we spent time in my studio talking about her latest poetry manuscript and the pile of papers I’m trying to turn into a memoir if only the fog would clear in my brain. While we talked, I spun and scanned like a cheeky six year old sitting in Daddy’s Office Chair, feet off the floor, twirling. The chair would slow and I’d zero in on a particular book I felt a need to steal away from Belle’s domain and drag back to my lair across the hall. One such book was one I bought exactly 24 hours after declaring to Z that I would never, with God as my witness, buy another self-help book again. It is called Simple Steps, and promises on the cover that in ten simple weeks you can gain complete control over your life. It joins a host of other books that promise peace of mind to the Highly Sensitive INFP #4 Child of Divorce who is also an Anxiety-Ridden, Meditative, Mystic Disorganized Writer with big plans to start and maintain an illustrated journal. But this one—only TEN weeks to a healthy, more organized, thinner, stronger, de-cluttered, spiritual lifestyle?–who wouldn’t want that?

 

I remember when I bought the book three years ago, Z just shook his head in amusement. Not only was I already back-peddling on my no-more-self-help-books proclamation, but we’d just gotten married and while Z knows I’m not perfect, he really does not understand why I’m constantly trying to change these inherent parts of my personality. I’ll never be particularly tidy. I’m never going to be the housekeeper my mother is. I’m always going to nod off when I try to meditate. Why can’t I just accept myself the way he does?

 

Who knows. Each self-help book is like a little bundle of hope about the person I could become.

 

Had I been alone in the studio when I re-found this as yet un-read book, what would have happened is I would have started another journal with the plan of changing my life. I would have spent the first week following the authors’ simple steps (Week #1: drink 64 ounces of water a day, walk 20 minutes a day, save $2 a day, and clean out a drawer a week, preferably at a time of day when you are hungriest so you won’t eat anything). Before the day was out, I would have felt exhausted and defeated by this simple list, probably while I was drinking a Coke, and sitting amidst the contents of a half-decluttered drawer.

 

But because Belle was here as witness—and because Belle is wise and knew from the title that this was not a good book for me—it became, instead, a hoot. I skimmed each chapter and would shout out the requirements of each of the remaining nine weeks of the “simple” program, and we’d poke fun at the ideas and howl. Each week added on another list of behaviors and activities to include with the previous weeks’ activities: keep a food journal, do isometric exercises as well as your walk, add another 20 minutes to your walk, work on your posture, do yoga, fix everything broken in your house, redecorate your house with stenciling, quit eating carbs, stretch, clean out your pantry. And my favorite after all of these activities, as if I’d have the energy or inclination: daily serenity time. When I closed the back cover, it was clear that the amount of pharmaceutical assistance I would need to accomplish all of these activities would be toxic, and I’m not convinced I would have had any time left over to bathe daily despite the section on cleansing routine and dental hygiene.

 

Simple my ass.

 

But, it has made my life in this set of little 1920s apartments seem a lot less complicated. Belle has gone home, sadly, but the studio is mine again. Week One: skip across the hall, unlock the door, write.

 

And P.S., other ways I’ve simplified my life include putting Simple Steps on the pile of books heading to Goodwill next time we rent a car.

 

 

 

 

Flashback Friday: Bridget Jones Has a Baby (and I Feel Fine)

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[Since this was written eight years ago, some attitudes have changed. Also, Helen Fielding has given us an installment wherein Bridget Jones becomes a mother, and from all reports, it isn’t pretty. I’ve refused to read it because I prefer the Bridget Jones of my late youth.]

Monday, May 29, 2006

It’s Memorial Day and I’m tired of thinking about the war dead, the high cost of crappy plastic cemetery flowers, and why it is everyone else I know has cookouts but I mostly have bowls of Fruit Loops.
So let’s talk about babies. It seems timely. The media can finally quit telling us that Baby Jolie-Pitt is about to be born, has been born, has been given the name of a Golden Retriever, has been made an honorary Namibian princess, etc. (The downside, of course, is that we’ll be back on Britney-watch.)

Also, in other celebrity baby news, it seems Helen Fielding, the author of _Bridget Jones’s Diary_, has just had her second child at 48. I like this story because it gives me almost a decade to  keep motherhood on the table. I keep a list of “older” mothers just in case–at some later date–I need a role model.

That said, today I visited a friend who recently had her first baby. A little over a year ago the two of us got together for the ballet and dinner, where she confessed that she was thinking of having a baby but she really wasn’t sure she wanted to, had never wanted kids, had never seen herself as a mother, etc. (I encouraged her, for the record. It seems like a thing you are supposed to do if you can.) Then about three weeks later she wrote that she was pregnant and so she guessed the decision had been made. Before Baby, we met in bars and talked about men and what we wanted to do with our lives. Today we met at Bob Evans. On the surface, she looked as fresh and well-organized as she always has, but something was off. She seemed scattered and a little unsure of herself. She kept apologizing. She confessed that she knows nothing about babies and so still has no idea if he is exceptional or below average in what he does, though what he does mostly is chew things and smile. She said that while she used to think about climbing the corporate ladder, she now suddenly wants a job where she can work less than 40 hours a week and wear comfortable shoes. I felt both sorry for her and a wickedly envious. There’s this cocoon around a mother and a new baby that third parties  can’t quite penetrate.

She’s younger than I am and I (being so very old and so very jaded) have lived through several of these get-togethers in the first six months of Baby’s life and it is wrist-slittingly tedious while the two of you try to re-navigate your friendship since you are no longer in the same boat…or floating on the same body of water. I’m sympathetic to how hard this transition must be for the parents. In fact, on a couple of occasions with close friends, I’ve enjoyed watching the transformation and hearing about the feeding schedule and quality of diaper contents and the features on the Bebecar Stroller (which costs more than my first vehicle) and how really, you just can’t be a GOOD parent without a Diaper Genie. I take mental notes so I can have rational discussions about things I know nothing about with whomever has the next baby. And maybe I take notes in case my ovaries are as hearty as Helen Fielding’s. Maybe.

I’ve always wanted to be one of those cool single people who “understands” the trials and tribulations of marriage and a childless one who totally “gets” what it is to be a mother, so admitting any of this is like blowing my own cover, but here it is: when friends have babies it totally sucks. At least it does in the early days because suddenly the glow of the spotlight shining on the baby is just wide enough to shine a bit on you and expose something you’ve never known before about your own life, which is this: it is silly and insignificant. I want to be clear: this has nothing to do with the mothers’ attitude. For instance, my friend today generously praised my writing and asked several questions about my life, but then when I went to tell her, the baby would coo or shake his stuffed cow and we would both stop mid-sentence and grin at him like a couple of idiots. She asked what I’d been up to, and nothing I’ve been up to seemed noteworthy. Perhaps if I was making scientific discoveries or brokering peace in the Middle East I wouldn’t feel this way, but mainly what I’ve been doing is eating Fruit Loops on Memorial Day and that hardly qualifies as news. I’ve been to Ireland. I’ve taught some classes. I’ve flirted with some men. But how can we discuss that when she so recently brought new life into the world and here it is sitting before us, filling its diaper?

We gave up after awhile. We made faces and weird sounds at the baby and assured each other regularly that he really is the most beautiful, smartest, and most cheerful baby ever. When I pulled away, he was screaming at the top of his lungs, his mother looked pained at the thought of the hour long drive she had in front of her.

I cranked up the Pearl Jam in my own car where there were no little eardrums to worry about, which is another kind of satisfying.

Getting in on the Ground Floor

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"Love & Loss," Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle

“Love & Loss,” Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle

On the flight to Indiana, the woman sitting next to me asked me to watch a video about a company she works for because she felt like it could change my life. She was young, friendly, dressed to the nines, and I liked her watch, so I agreed. The product itself was intriguing—it was some sort of natural compound that has been scientifically proven (and even talked about on a network investigative news show) to improve health and longevity—but the point of the video was not to sell me the product so much as to sell me the company. Just as my brain was thinking, This is a pyramid scheme, the video said yes, this could be called a pyramid scheme, but then insisted that all business is a pyramid scheme with a CEO at the top raking in the big money and the peons at the ground floor doing the grunt work, and it was said so enthusiastically that I was momentarily forced to believe it was true and that I should get in on the ground floor. Everything is a pyramid scheme. Pyramids are awesome! Fortunately, my better sense prevailed (around the time Donny Osmond appeared on screen, though he was looking remarkably well-preserved) and I was able to muster up the courage to tell her I wasn’t interested. Pyramid schemes only work if you get in on the ground floor, and it was pretty clear to me that this pyramid was already 3/4 built.

She turned her attention to the guy sitting next to her. I spent the remainder of the flight bouncing between pity for a woman gullible enough to believe she’s going to become independently wealthy shilling snake oil, and pity for myself because I never can wholeheartedly buy in to a cause or a product or a belief system. I might attend services, but I never drink the Kool-Aid, and while some might say this is smart, what it really means is that I’m riddled with doubt on a lot of levels.

 

On the return flight to Seattle, I was relieved not to be sitting next to someone trying to sell me something. My seatmate looked like a high school senior and was expressing annoyance that the fleece she’d ordered hadn’t arrived in time for her trip. She told me she would be spending the next two weekends with friends, hiking around the Pacific Northwest, and during the week she’d be at a conference. She looked like maybe she was a dolphin trainer or something, so I was surprised when she told me she had an MBA from Carnegie-Mellon, lived in D.C., and did something that sounded vaguely important and international. I’d love to tell you what her job was, but I didn’t understand what she was talking about. She was speaking clearly and wasn’t using polysyllabic jargon, but the words that she strung together made no sense to me, and what’s more, I couldn’t get my brain to shut off while she was talking. Instead, inside my head was a roar, This is just a girl and she knows more about the world than you do. This girl is going places. This girl has a plan for her life.

 

She told me about this artist community in Mexico where she’d done an internship and where a lot of Americans emigrate, and my brain roared, This girl knows about a place you should know about but don’t. I asked where she’d done her undergraduate work, and it was a college that I’d considered for about 15 minutes when I was 15 before I knew about things like “out of state tuition”. I asked how she liked it, why she chose it, and she explained that she’d picked it solely because of its excellent intern program in D.C. because she knew she was interested in international business and the nation’s capitol would be a good place to do that. My brain roared, When you were thinking about that college, it was only because you liked the way the campus looked in the brochure photos. What’s wrong with you?

 

 

She wasn’t intimidating. She didn’t seem particularly wise. She asked me if I thought it was crazy that she’d come to Seattle without a raincoat or an umbrella. (Answer: duh, yes.) She was just a person, young enough to be my daughter probably, but full of information about the world that I don’t have. I was relieved when she plugged in her earphones  and started watching the in-flight movie, which was Spiderman, if for no other reason than so my brain would quit roaring at me.

 

It was a weird way to bookend my trip home. I went in feeling smarter than the posh, pyramid sales person, and I left feeling old and dumb (and pessimistic about a stranger’s choice of outerwear for nine days in the Pacific Northwest). As I walk around Seattle, where the average age is something like 30, I’m feeling past my prime and not nearly clever enough. I’m going to have to spend this first week back in the city Googling things like “Gen X” and “generational beliefs” and “multiple intelligences” and figuring out all the ways I’ve still got it going on.

 

Hopefully, after the research is in, I won’t come to the conclusion that I made an error in not signing up for a new career with Donnie Osmond and the anti-aging pyramid sales woman.

Now is the Springtime of Our Discontent: A Dog Story

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RGSMac

 

Seattle Beth always has big, big plans for Indiana Beth. When she’s in Seattle, she makes lists of all the people she will see and the boxes she will rifle through in her parents’ attic and the epiphanies she will have while she is in her natural habitat. But Indiana Beth always has other ideas. Indiana Beth mostly wants to sit around staring out the window, chatting with her family, reading books that got left behind in the Great Move. Inexplicably, on this trip, Indiana Beth has been obsessively doing jigsaw puzzles on her iPad. Like an old person.

 

Seattle Beth is disappointed in Indiana Beth.

 

Frankly, I’m disappointed in both of them: the one for not realizing the limitations and proclivities and the other for being so incredibly lazy.

 

I was supposed to fly back to Z on Tuesday, but had an unwelcome 24-hour bug that made air travel seem like a bad idea. I was disappointed not to see Z on schedule and disappointed not to get to claim the first class seat to which I’d been upgraded. But I’m never sad to spend more time at home. Luckily, Mom has taken over my pet sitting gigs with Mac the Wonder Scottie, and so the bonus days in Richmond were spent with him at his gorgeous house. What’s a little stomach discomfort when you get to sit on a screened porch staring at a pond and woods with a little Scottish Terrier under your chair?

 

As soon as I realized that I needed to skip the flight and rebooked for three days later, Seattle Beth started making plans again. Maybe I could still clean out a closet, write a book proposal, post a blog a day, go on hour long walks of a vigorous nature, meditate, do yoga, find inner peace, come up with an idea for world peace.

 

It’s a lot to accomplish in three days, especially when there is a lovely view and a porch.

 

Mac is always initially excited to see me. He does his happy dance and his special growl-talk and we’re both overjoyed to be together again, and so we love on each other and then fight over his scruffy hedgehog. I’ve been watching him since he was a puppy and now he has a beard that makes him look like a wizard, so it is safe to say we know each other well. I know that if I say “Get the monkeys” when I open the door to let him out, he will go tearing into the yard set on chasing away the imaginary beasts even though he should know by now that there are no monkeys. (Mac hates monkeys even though he’s yet to come face to face with one.) He should also know that I am not what you’d call an energetic person.

 

Like Seattle Beth, he becomes discontent, and I can only assume that the source of this discontentment is me. I read too much. I sit and stare too much. Mom and I talk too long about things like the influx of buzzards. Finally, he sighs and turns his back on the pair of us and has a nap. I’d kind of like to teach him to play Words with Friends to take some of the pressure off of me. I’m not a good entertainment director. Once you have the walk and the hedgehog tug-of-war and the meal and the snacks, what else is there really? I’ve long been convinced that if I could show him how to read, he’d be so much more content.

 

Other sources of discontentment on this my last day in Indiana: a Ku Klux Klan rally in neighboring Centerville. I’m horrified and disgusted. And frankly, Mac is too. He seems to have a strong desire to sneak into the rally and tug white sheets off of participants, exposing them for the cowards and fools that they are. Maybe this explains the buzzard problem.

Flashback Friday: Biopic

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[Like all writers across America, I’ve been working on my application for an Amtrak Writing Residency, and the week before I was recovering from a writing conference. What this means for you, is back-to-back flashbacks. I’m getting back on the writing horse this coming week. Promise.]

 

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Last night I watched Walk the Line, and it occurred to me that the main reason Johnny & June Carter Cash had time to write songs, make up prison identities,  get high, divorce their spouses, fall in love with each other and play to an audience is because to supplement their creative inclinations they did NOT have to grade 85 papers four times a semester. They didn’t have students stopping by their offices telling them stories so sad (and unfortunately true) that they then had to shut the door and have a cry once the student left.

They didn’t have to go to faculty meetings.

I fear I’ve just opened up a portal in the universe wherein my job will be sucked because it sounds as if I’m ungrateful and I don’t like it. [Oh, 2006 Beth, you have no idea what havoc you just wreaked!] Before that happens, let me say I DO like it. I really do. I’d prefer a book on the bestseller list so successful that I could buy Neverland Ranch, but barring that, my job is the best way to supplement a creative lifestyle. Of course no one is going to make a biopic of my life. Even Joaquin and Reese are now entitled to their very own E! True Hollywood Story episodes, but the life of a writing lecturer is never going to make the big or small screen.

When I have three stacks of papers to grade, it seems insurmountable. It’s as if I’ve never graded before & I can’t imagine how I’ll ever slog through them. I think of all the things I need to do like organize my files or weed my books or put my photos in decorative boxes. I eat food I’m not hungry for. I get bitchy and want to smack a lot of different people who probably don’t deserve it.

Like for instance, people who aren’t concise when they speak. People who, before they will ever give you the first line of their story so you can decide how interested you are in it, will spend five minutes trying to figure out if it (whatever ‘it’ is) happened on Monday or Tuesday. People who talk slow and pause between words. People who talk about their neighbors that I’ve never met. People who think how much head lettuce costs at Kroger is a valid topic of conversation. None of these things is worthy of my wrath, but when I have stacks of papers to grade and minimal time to spend on my own thoughts, I don’t want the air crowded up with stuff that doesn’t matter. Just–please in the name of all that is holy–cut to the chase. You missed class because your tire went flat? Tell me that. One sentence. Thank you for sharing–now please step away from my office door. In the time it takes me to listen to the average why-my-paper-is-late excuse, I could have written a companion piece to “Burning Ring of Fire.”

Other reasons I’m crabby today: my dearly beloved purple iMac died. I haven’t had a technician look at it to perform last rites, but I know a death rattle when I hear it. This one, for instance, sounds like the fan purring but the hard drive not engaging. And no magical Mac chime to let me know all is well in the universe. I use it only for email and playing Snood while listening on the phone to people who commit one of the conversational sins in the above paragraph, but I love it. It’s so grapey. So roundy. Has been there with me thru the good and bad.

I’m trying not to think about all the files that are on it that aren’t backed up that I have likely lost. This is no one’s fault but my own and it disappoints me that when I learned this lesson seven years ago it didn’t stick.

When a computer dies, it’s like a place got sucked up into heaven that you can no longer visit. My mother has my old Mac Performa–it is, essentially, the one I bought in grad school in 1994 with a few minor modifications. Sometimes I turn it on and have memories wash over me of life from that time. (A much slower time.) Papers written. Emails shared with the two people I knew who actually HAD email. Wallpapers that decorated my life. Strange men talked to before a lot of women had clawed their way online, which made me a hotter commodity than I have ever been at any other time in my life. It’s like revisiting a playground from a school you used to attend. Not that I have first-hand experience with this–the playground of my youth is now a parking lot.

No movies are going to be made about this kind of loss either.