Category Archives: Random Conversations with Strangers

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This mural is on a building I pass on the way to work. Usually, I’ve got a crease in my forehead as I think about the things I need to cover in class or remember someone’s essay I forgot to respond to or am obsessed with some other worry. Then I see this and it never fails to make me laugh at myself. Most of the stuff I spend my time fretting over is pretty insignificant. As am I in terms of some of the old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.  As is this blog entry. It’s the end of May. I haven’t blogged in yonks. This isn’t a real blog, but I’m hoping it will keep you sated until the next real one.

 

  • I am, yes, still angry about the end of Game of Thrones. The only reason I am still carrying my direwolf totebag is because of my deep and abiding affection for House Stark generally and Arya and Jon Snow specifically.

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  • I am, yes, worried about Kit Harington, who is reportedly not handling the end of the show very well and has checked himself into rehab. I have watched a lot of interviews with him and poured over articles hoping that my concern from afar and Rose Leslie’s love from “anear” is healing his heartache.

 

  • I am, yes, re-reading Game of Thrones in an attempt to find evidence that should George R.R. Martin ever write his own end to the series it will be different than what the showrunners just put us through. I’m highlighting and taking notes and am generally embarrassed by how much I’m geeking out over this. (Z is being very patient. Also, he’s been instructed to quit calling me Khaleesibeth.)

 

  • I am, yes, already complaining about summer. It’s been warm here with a big unrelenting sun hanging in a cloudless sky (other people are excited about this). Yesterday when I got to my class in a brand new building, the AC wasn’t working. Unlike the old building, this one has no interior windows to open because it’s climate controlled (in theory). We pushed tables and chairs out on the courtyard patio for an al fresco class experience during which we were under the SEATAC flight pattern (roar), next to a nonfunctioning but still thrumming AC unit (dull roar), and some guy in the building behind us kept leaning out the window and retching loudly (gross). Also, I kept trying to put my hair up with a pen the way writer’s do when they are dug into the work and can’t go rustle up a hairclip out of a drawer, but like many things taught in the How to Be a Girl-Writer camp that I never attended, it is a skill I have never achieved, so I’m pretty sure I just looked like one of the Weird Sisters in MacBeth, stirring a metaphorical caldron with a broomstick handle, stringy hair framing my face as I toiled, and thus lessening my credibility as I lectured on point of view in the short story.

 

  • Today I realized that I don’t know how to use our toaster. Apparently in nine years of marriage I have never done my own toasting. The blueberry waffle I was attempting to heat kept popping up, still frozen. Instead, I heated it in the microwave from which it emerged a crunchy hockey puck. Today’s menu: hockey puck, three strips of fake bacon, and one scrambled egg with a small piece of shell. Delicious.

 

  • I’ve belatedly discovered Lizzo after listening to an interview Terry Gross did with her recently, and I’ll admit that I kind of want to pick a fight with Z tonight (maybe about the toaster and subpar waffle) so I can burst into song: hair toss, check my nails… It’s not the kind of music on my regular rotation, but I keep thinking how differently my twenties would have looked if I’d had Lizzo singing a little truth to power and encouraging me to walk out the various doors of my youth that I should have walked out of more quickly. (Alas, she was only six years old when I needed her most, and now I don’t want to walk through any door if Z is on my side of it. Even if he came into this marriage with that cantankerous toaster.)

 

  • At our last class last week, a student presented me with this awesome tote because she knew about my affection for Joan Didion. (Jane said to me when I sent her a pic, “How wonderful that we live in a time when there are totes for every interest we could possibly have in the world.”) Ever since I’ve got it, I’ve been considering ways to jazz it up so it looks even more like Didion—I’m thinking sunglasses, beads, a cigarette.

 

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  • I’m headed to Indiana next week because it’s been calling to me. One of my students this quarter was from Indiana and we were bonding each week over the things we miss about it, plus I scored 100% on the “Are You a Hoosier?” quiz on Facebook (no doubt generated by Russians trying to figure out how to game sugar cream pie to Putin’s advantage). I’m looking forward to it. I’m dreading being sans Z. You’ve heard this story before so I’ll spare you.
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My student & I bonded over my Hoosier tumbler of choice. (It’s more about the blue than the chocolate, I swear.)

  • In addition to sating the urge to be in my hometown, my trip home came about when my paternal cousins, an aunt, and I decided we needed to have a genealogical get-together. I am currently ill prepared for it. When we set it up, I was imagining that I’d morph into an organized person who went with a binder of newspaper clippings, extended family trees printed off for everyone, and photos compiled in chronological order. Instead, I’m probably going with my laptop and a recently re-opened Ancestry.com account and a dream that some, better future Beth will be prepared for the next time we get together. (Future Beth astounds me with the things she can accomplish.)

 

  • When planning said genealogy weekend, I realized belatedly that for two decades we’ve had all of our reunions at the Scottie Dog house, which I no longer have access to since Mac has gone to the Happy Hunting Ground and his parents have moved to the desert. So when you picture us together— talking about Great Great Grandmother Ellen Kelly who left Ireland during the Famine and had a baby girl on the high seas whose birth is marked “Atlantic” on census records—please imagine us gathered around a queen sized bed in a Holiday Inn room instead of on the screened porch with a view of a woods and a pond.

 

  • Do moths bite? Because I have some bites that are itching and the only insects I’ve seen in the apartment are moths trying to feast on my knitwear. I think maybe moths bite.

 

  • On Easter weekend, Providence and I paid a lot of money to spend six hours at a spiritual retreat led by The Artist’s Way guru Julia Cameron, meant to get us in touch with our creativity. In the ‘90s, I was a devout follower of Cameron, and even now I teach students about the magic that happens when you write daily “morning pages” (stream of consciousness writing for 20-30 minutes a day). It was a period of my life when I felt extra creative and so I was anxious to get a tune-up with the master herself. Providence and I both pictured ourselves rotating between listening to Cameron’s wisdom and journaling for the whole day. I imagined soft lighting and cups of tea. Instead, it was a crowded hall where we had to fight for seats, and it was an introvert’s nightmare. Rather than reflection, Cameron did very little talking and instead made us do an exercise in small groups of strangers where we listened to their answers to some of her rapid-fire prompts and then wrote out tiny encouragements on ripped up bits of notebook paper. The idea was that we’d all go home with some inspiration and a sense that we had a right to create when we read what strangers had said to us, but it was hell. I did a few rounds of it with a smile plastered to my face because I was committed to getting the most out of the experience, I really was. But then it became apparent that all we were going to do all day long (other than occasionally sing choruses of songs Cameron had written) were “popcorns” with different groups of people. Providence and I were hoping it would change after lunch, but when we returned and Cameron started with, “Okay, get in a group of four people you don’t know” Providence let out an audible blasphemous expletive, which made me snort with laughter. It was, hands down, my favorite part of the day. I did not leave with any new inspiration, though I did come to the conclusion that at this age, I know my own mind and will not be cowed into activities dreamed up by an extrovert and made to feel like I’m faulty because I hate it. I’m not sure that nugget of wisdom was worth $150 and the stress of trying to find parking  around Green Lake, but that was my take-away.

 

  • And yes, two of my four Cameron books have been deposited in one of the Tiny Libraries that dot the neighborhood. And yes, they were deposited with glee.

 

  • My passport expired and because the Department of State isn’t exactly efficient these days, I decided to get a new one immediately. I waited until a day when my skin looked particularly glowy and my hair had some bounce. I put on my best color, and marched to the UPS store. I felt confident that it would be a good photo, even as the camera in use kept sliding down the pole on the tri-pod. At the very least, I believed there was no way this photo could be worse than the last one—taken on a boiling hot day ten years ago at a CVS when I was angry because two weeks before my departure and after several calls the passport folk admitted the good photos I’d sent in had been damaged and I had to resubmit and rush new ones to them if I had any hope of making my residency in Dingle. That photo is a red-faced Beth who all but has a cartoon “$%&# &%@” above her head. So really, there was no way this pic was going to be worse—the temp was cool, I was coiffed and had put on make-up, and I was feeling chipper. And then the UPS guy showed me the pic and said, “Will this do?” and I realized that though this decade has been the happiest of my life, my face did not get the memo that “happiness = youthful appearance” and my brain did not get the memo that when ten years passes it shows. I could have demanded he re-take it, but it was clear to me my jowls were not his fault. So I shrugged and said, “I guess that’s what I look like,” paid my money, shoved it in an envelope, with my old angry passport, mailed it off, and marched back home. Now I wait. Fortunately, I don’t need a passport for Indiana. Yet.

 

  • There’s a new Corgi-Australian Shepherd mix puppy in the neighborhood and I keep bumping into it and forcing its mother to talk to me. I don’t think she really wants to, but now that I’ve lived here nine years I’ve decided I’ve got to be the change I wish to see in the neighborhood, and that change is people with dogs talking to me and, occasionally, letting me pet said dogs.

 

  • Every few weekends, Z and I have a little adventure by way of taking the bus or lightrail to some neighborhood we haven’t really explored. We walk around. We get a drink. We try to look like non-threatening new neighbors instead of people who don’t belong. Some days we find views. Other days we find gorgeous houses. Sometimes we find archy shrubberies or discover we aren’t that far from the lake.
  • Mom and I have started painting together every Monday. When I say “painting together” I mean she paints in Indiana and I paint in Seattle at roughly the same time and then we email each other our efforts and praise each other and feel good about ourselves because we’re doing something more than watching videos of baby elephants trying to sit on people’s laps. My goal is that my efforts turn out something like this—little sketches from photos I took on past travels:

 

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Unfortunately, some of my attempts are abject failures. This was supposed to be Z. He was not impressed:

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  • Z sent me a string of texts today in which he was hooting in person and with laughing emojis because he was watching people walking past his office and get flapped at by some nesting crows who don’t understand about college campuses and right of way. I reminded him that Jon Snow got a scar from a crow and then I quit laughing because I started feeling sorry for Kit Harington again.

 

And now we have arrived where we began, the outer edge of that ancient tree stump. Not a particularly significant location in history, but here we are.

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The Bug-Eyed of Notre Dame

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Yesterday, a writer-client I’m working with came into my studio with news that Notre Dame was on fire. Her voice was mournful, and I’ll admit that I was doing calculations re: the proximity of my cousin G, who works at a neighboring campus in South Bend, when the writer said, “The spire is down” and then I knew she meant the French one, not the Fighting Irish one in northern Indiana that I’ve been to periodically since childhood.

 

She filled me in on the details and my heart sank. We turned to her work and I spent the next two hours delighting in her words and ideas, and was able—thank you Headspace app—to stay focused on the words at hand though my brain kept trying to slink back to the idea of Paris without Notre Dame, of history without that particular touchstone.

 

As soon as she left, I watched the footage and had a loud, honking weep. I felt all twisty with grief and briefly considered walking up the street to St. James Cathedral until I looked at the clock and realized mass would be in session and what I wanted was quiet and contemplation in a beautiful space, not words and ritual. So I cried some more, ate some peanut butter crackers, and got on with my life. Like you do.

 

Here’s the thing: I’ve never been to Notre Dame. I’ve never been to Paris. I’m not really Catholic. My only experience with The Hunchback of Notre Dame was watching the Disney version only because I was interested in how Demi Moore would play Esmerelda. If I’m watching a historical movie in which the English are fighting the French, I root for the English. (If the English are fighting the Irish, that’s a whole other thing.) Despite four years studying French, the only phrase I’ve committed to memory is les belles vaches du Normandie (that’s the beautiful cows of Normandy for those of you who are not bilingual like I am), and I can wish a guy I knew in 8th grade who has spent his adult life in Paris Happy Birthday en français if I double-check the spelling with Google Translate before hitting “post.”

 

So I’ve been thinking about why I shed more tears over timber and stone than I did over the last five mass shootings in the U.S. or the forest fires last summer, and I’ve isolated it to a few reasons why it seemed so terribly sad to me, a person who has self-ostracized from France because I fear being sneered at by Parisians who think Americans are gauche.

 

I am a self-reflective person, so let’s get that category of over-indulgent mourning out of the way.

 

Notre Dame has been on my bucket list since 1981 when I stumbled into Madame Rutkowski’s French I class in high school. I’ve always assumed at some point I would get to France. I imagined I would admire the cathedral and then make my way to Chartres, Reims, Rouen, Mt. Sainte Michel, and I would end in the Louvre and only then truly worship at the altar of art. I did not like Madame Rutkowski, and she did not like me much. But I realized later in my life that she was an incredible teacher even though most of us were mediocre students at best, and if she were still alive, I would write her a note and tell her that, thank her for making me interested in French history, architecture, art, Roman aqueducts, boules, Le Petit Prince, the sites of Paris and the fantastical way the city unrolled like a snail shell from the oldest arrondissement where I wanted to start my exploration. These are the reasons—not the language or her or even Audrey Hepburn—that I came back for French II and French III.

 

And so, let’s be honest, that weep was for myself. It seems clear now in the light of the next day that Notre Dame will rise from the ashes. Whether it is fixed up in my lifetime, and whether I happen to be in Paris when it’s open to the public is another story. But even if it is, I will be keenly aware that parts of it are now a facsimile and it won’t feel the same. It’s illogical, but I’ll know. When I was at Canterbury Cathedral looking at the steps that were worn away by penitent pilgrims who had crawled up them on their knees for centuries, I was moved. Those steps could be replaced with something new made to look old, sure—the same smooth, uneven dips in the stone could probably be duplicated with a machine of some sort—but I would know it was a fabrication.

 

Which brings me to the second reason for the tears of Notre Dame. I hate when history is lost to us. The picture that got me going in the first place was the one shot up in “The Forest” that featured all the wood that had been there for centuries. Even though I assume your average tourist couldn’t go up to that peaky bit of the attic and rest her cheek on the timbers, the idea that she could until yesterday and now she never will be able to wrecked me. Who touched those beams? Who made sure they were hewn to specifications so they fit where they were supposed to? Who got damaged backs and hands and feet moving those heavy timbers before there were mechanized pulleys and cranes? I would feel this same way if the fire had engulfed some centuries-old hovel that had housed peasants. It’s not about the grandeur—it’s the loss of that connection with people from all those yesterdays ago.

 

The news today is that one of the particular problems with a rebuild is that the forests that supplied the oak for that skeleton have all but disappeared because humans kind of suck and don’t let things grow when there’s a profit to be made off of old-growth forest—and sure, “The Forest” was maybe an early pillage of the forests, but I can forgive a little of that if it’s used for something beautiful and meaningful and lasting. I love a touchstone with the past, and while I’m happy to focus on how all is not lost—and how no one died—yesterday the loss seemed too much to absorb. Like an erasure of generations of people and events. Goodbye.

 

And finally, there is the thing that made me howl loudest when I re-watched that spire fall, wondering what would be left when the fire was quenched. What I’m beginning to realize at this late juncture in my life is my “thing”: I need for the world to be beautiful. I don’t like ugliness in general (Z can attest to this as my eye automatically goes to whatever is hideous or wrong with the city on our nightly walk), but more specifically when something beautiful dies because of natural disaster or human ignorance or arrogance, a combustible cloud of grief and rage builds inside me. I feel like Nancy Kerrigan crying WHY? after her knee was whacked, thus dashing her dreams.

 

We don’t really do beauty anymore, do we? Not the beauty that requires craftsmanship, forethought about future generations, purpose outside of making a buck. Instead, we do serviceable. Or interesting. Or ironic. Or provocative. We’re so busy looking forward, disdaining the past, that we don’t realize that our buildings and our sculptures and our uppercase Art has more to do with causing a stir now than it does to satisfy an inner need for beauty. So when something lovely, something painstakingly crafted via nature or human hand, disappears, it feels visceral.

 

I become obsessive and start harping on things like pole-barn churches being built on formerly beautiful pasture or the buildings in Seattle that have artful edifices and courtyards that are callously bowled over for un-interesting steel and glass to house the elite people who can afford a vista, with no concern about how it looks on the outside to the those of us forced to stare at it daily. The view out for the few is all that matters.

 

That massive, ridiculous staircase sculpture—an ode to consumerism and wealth— in New York City’s Hudson Yards is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

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Maybe its beautiful if you’re a bee. Or a cyborg.

I don’t hate it. It’s interesting. I suppose were I to climb it the views might be spectacular, though there are certainly more picturesque and striking views in other parts of Manhattan. I can see how tired parents might love exhausting their children on those 154 flights of stairs. But there is nothing there as groundbreaking as a flying buttress. It doesn’t please the eye so much as entertain it. If it imploded tomorrow or eight centuries from now, it wouldn’t be a huge loss to civilization. I’m never going to sit on one of those steps and get chills because it feels holy, the way I once did in the interior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex in Buffalo (maybe the last period in the modern era when true craftsmanship was still celebrated) or get tears in my eyes when I see light streaming through the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome.

 

I know. I know. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

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People love Portland, Oregon—they have a sort of revered affection for it that I’ve never caught. Maybe it isn’t Portland’s fault, my lack of enthusiasm for it. I have had a series of unfortunate events there beginning with my first trip when Z and I were engaged. I loved him to bits, had no question about my future with him, but I’d begun having “The Terrifications” about leaving home. Other Portland failures on that trip included my early disappointment in how much like a warehouse the famous Powell’s Books looked, when what I really want in a bookstore is a few leather wingbacks, a fireplace, and a learned Person of Letters smoking a pipe and reading some dense tome while I browse nearby.

 

I was similarly disappointed in my inability to locate Voodoo Donuts.

 

Also, we happened upon a parade of naked bicycle riders, a sight almost more disturbing than Notre Dame burning yesterday. All that pale, jiggle-y flesh daring us to find fault with it as it bumped down the street.

 

Subsequent trips have been no more pleasant, have included repeat disappointments with Powell’s, inability to locate the donuts, and an overwhelming sense that everyone there isn’t as interested in showering as they are in other parts of the country AND the sure and certain knowledge that my having noticed this means that I’m too square and superficial to fully understand Portland and its celebrated weirdness. The last trip, last summer, ended unceremoniously when I had a full-on panic attack while I was driving home during rush hour. My brain was fizzing and pinging because there were too many people—in my lane, on the road, on the planet—and they were sucking up my oxygen and seemed hell-bent on making sure I never ever got home.

 

Also, if I’m being completely honest with you—a policy of mine—I have to admit I do not really like Portland’s poster boy, Fred Armisen. He makes me more uncomfortable than naked bicyclists and rush hour traffic in an unkown city combined. And no, I don’t know why.

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King Street Station, Seattle

A few weeks ago, Z and I took the train to Portland, which was a labor of love. I was itching to see my friends from my old MFA program, who were in town for AWP. It had been five years since I’d seen some of them, more years for others, so seeing Chickpea, Quill, Geeg, and the Beard was worth whatever pain and suffering Portland was prepared to dole out.

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A little ambiance at King Street Station, Seattle

Our trip started in Seattle’s King Street Station, which was built when things were still made to be beautiful at the turn of the last century, designed by a firm that would later go on to be associated with Grand Central Station in New York City. When Z moved here 12 years ago, it was being renovated after years of disrepair and “modernization” had wrecked it (plaster reliefs, tile mosaics, and marble replaced with sheetrock and dropped acoustical tile because when is that not a good idea?). But now, it’s grand and old timey again, and I’m sure people would argue that it’s inefficient, but I feel really endeared to the way that train travel—the tickets, the assigning of seats, the check-in and boarding process—is so analog. Everything is paper, a lot of it handwritten. All of it adds up to a sense of how things used to be and, frankly, it seemed less tedious than waiting in line to board a plane.

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I wanted to steal one of each of these.

What was disappointing, however, is that when we were actually on the train, we were looking forward to lunch in the dining car. We were both expecting linen table cloths and Hercule Poirot, but instead we got the equivalent of concession stand and some crowded stools, so we staggered back to our seats with our hotdogs and drowned our disappointment in the view of Puget Sound and a few glimpses of the Olympic Mountains on an otherwise grey day.

 

In Portland, we stayed at the Woodlark Hotel, a building that had been an old hotel, then had been slated to be demolished years ago, but someone with foresight (and money) rescued it, and opened it recently—nicely remodeled. The desk clerk happily informed us we’d been upgraded to a space with more light, so I swung the room door open with relish only to discover a king sized bed with a path around it (i.e. the same as our own bedroom at home), a “closet” that was brass pipes jutting out of the wall, and a desk and chair built for young Swedish children (unfortunate for Z since he had papers to grade while I was swanning around with my friends). It did have the promised window with a view onto the busy street below, and I decided to appreciate how bijoux it was and how much I preferred it to a modern, air-tight space with no sense of itself.

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Hotel closets have never been so stylish and accessible!

Also, the fine folk at the Woodlark were so proud of the wallpaper in our room that it was duplicated on the coasters, room key, and the home screen of the TV. For four days I felt like I was in a steampunk jungle.

 

Whenever I see this particular set of friends, I’m surprised by how it feels like we said goodbye a month ago and no time has passed. We quickly dive into conversations about writing and life and memories from a decade ago when I met them as a homesick first semester nonfiction writer. They were all considerably younger than I was and almost done with the program, but they invited me in and that made all the difference. They saved the experience for me—made it fun, instead of an ordeal, taught me the ropes of handling the sometimes grueling residencies, and bought me a birthday tiara to help me celebrate my 42nd birthday the year The Terrifications began in earnest.

 

I’d like to regale you here with amusing anecdotes from those three days, but the truth is, it wouldn’t be interesting or entertaining: inside jokes originally constructed after too much alcohol, conversations about writers we like/loathe, stories about bodily functions and housekeeping. We went to Powell’s Books and I liked it better as I wandered around with Quill and Chickpea, recommending books to each other—focusing primarily on display books because they were face out and required no bending over. We weaved around streets looking for a place where my unsophisticated palate could be sated with something that wouldn’t completely bore them. I tried to find my bearings on the streets that all seemed the same to me (I never could figure out which direction was north, where the center of town was, or come to a conclusion about why a city so much smaller than Seattle seemed to have twice the homeless population.) We went to the river, a serviceable working river, but no beauty. My favorite bit, the Portland sign in Old Town that’s the shape of Oregon with a deer leaping away, as if it too is frightened of Fred Armisen.

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A serviceable river. I do love those little bridge turrets!

Chickpea and Quill made it a goal to get me, finally, blessedly, to Voodoo Donuts, where we waited in a long line while looking at pictures of the donut treasures awaiting us—donuts covered in breakfast cereals, bacon, bubble gum, and shaped like joints and rude body parts. Getting a treat there is an event, though Chickpea was chastised by her server for ordering a single donut, “just so you can say you’ve been here” which was kind of off-putting. Surely half the people in that line were there so they could say they’d been to this temple of donut worship.

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My final review: Voodoo donuts are okay. I don’t really get the hype. I know it’s blasphemy for someone living in the Pacific Northwest to say this, but I’d rather have a Krispy Kreme.

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At least there’s one thing I can tick off my bucket list.

 

Our first night visiting our friends, Z and I rode the light rail back to the Woodlark. A security guard at the train station when we arrived told me it’s the best light rail system in the U.S. and maybe it is. (I can’t really judge—Seattle’s isn’t very complex or expansive.) But I didn’t love it. I’m used to riding public transportation, I’m used to the odd squabble, the random strings of curses at no one in particular, dogs of all varieties sometimes growling at each other. But on our ride home—at a respectable hour—a preppy looking dude with a black eye got on and began fake-punching and mouthing off to other people on the train. He wasn’t a racist, he said, but he was Special Ops and could throw the two guys at the back—who were Black—off the train if he wanted. There was a lot of back and forth between the three of them, and one of the guys said, “Dude, you’ve already got a black eye.” Later, they got off the train, shuffling past the instigator, and one guy mumbled, “I’m out of here. I can’t go to jail tonight.”

 

This left Z and me and a few other people further away for him to perform for. Whatever he’d been smoking or sniffing made silence an impossibility for him. He sidled up to us, asked Z if he was a doctor, and without really waiting for an answer said he was a doctor. A Special Ops doctor who worked for the CIA. We kept our eyes trained on the floor, hoping he’d catch a clue. But he kept up with his rambling chatter. Too close. Too unstable. He flexed a muscle and told me to feel it. I finally looked at him and said sarcastically, “No thanks.” He said to Z, “She’s got big eyes.” (Z insists he said, “She’s got big, beautiful eyes” but I’m pretty sure it was just “big eyes” said in the same sneering tone that Billy McGathey once used on me in 7th grade Home Ec not to look at him with my “bug eyes.” (I’m not sure why me looking at him was a problem—mostly I was just unimpressed with his seamstress skills and certain that my big eyes weren’t actually buggy.)

 

I don’t know if Z knew things with this guy were likely to get worse, or if he could sense that his wife was a middle-aged woman with occasional hormone instability and two Long Islands in her gullet. I wasn’t afraid of this swaggering, black-eyed twerp, and what’s more, I kind of wanted him to threaten us because I felt suddenly fierce with rage that he’d fake-punched a miserable looking guy in front of us, forced the squabbling guys behind us to listen to his bullshit about not being a racist when the first people he swaggered up to were people of color, and making the few remaining people on the train stare at the floor trying to make themselves small targets for his inebriated malice. I haven’t been to a gym in 7 years nor have a lifted anything heavier than a laundry basket in recent years, but I felt so angry at how ugly he was being that I was yearning to pop him on the nose.

 

I also suddenly wanted to talk about myself in the third person after punching him: Big Eyes has spoken.

 

I’ve never hit anyone in my life and I’m wildly uncoordinated, so it wouldn’t have ended well. The swaggering, black-eyed twerp and I have Z to thank for ushering me to the door at the next stop where he and I stood on the corner for ten minutes waiting for the next, less crazy train.

 

Because Z had a lot of work to do and because of the distaste I now felt for both the light rail system and Evening Portland in general, the last night there, I took an Lyft out to meet my friends. I chatted all the way to the ‘burbs with the driver, a transplant from Atlanta who had come out two years ago to help her college-student daughter adjust to her new west coast life. She was friendly and chatty and I was hepped up on caffeine. She said Portland wasn’t really working for her. It had been an adventure and she was glad to come out to help her daughter, but her daughter was making her own way now and she herself wasn’t really making any friends. When she moved in, she had introduced herself to her neighbors because she thought it would be nice if someone would maybe notice if a burglar was crawling in her window or she was dead on the doorstep, and she’d like to reciprocate that favor. Instead, they politely blinked at her and then shut their doors. She shrugged. Maybe she’d try Portland, Maine, next, she said. So I told her that I’d gone to grad school there, that that’s where I’d met these friends I was visiting, that I thought she might like it, but it would be very different from Atlanta too.

 

Chickpea and I sat around the rental unit for a couple of hours while the conference goers were off getting themselves registered. We talked about Maine and dogs while she cut up crudités and I gave myself a sort of Tarot reading with Quill’s new faerie cards. (It was unsuccessful, though the faeries indicated I perhaps had an unhealthy relationship to the outdoors. Which is true. I’m kind of allergic to it.) The others arrived, we stuffed ourselves with snacks and then left for supper and stuffed ourselves with food at the paleo, dairy-free, gluten-free restaurant where it seemed to be a requirement of the other customers and the staff to wear big, knit caps. Two of us were leaving the next morning, the other three were staying for the conference.

 

I hate this, the goodbyes. I waved farewell as they crossed the street, climbed into my Lyft where the music was soft and the driver was silent. He wove through the traffic while I wiped away a few tears. The Portland sign glimmered in the distance as we crossed the river. How can you miss people who you’ve really only ever been with for maybe forty days of your life all told?

 

It makes no sense. It also makes no sense that an ancient building I’ve never seen in a country where I’ve never been can move me to tears, whether standing intact or aflame.

 

It’s all illogical. But it’s my heart.

 

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Union Station, Portland

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

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

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The cupboards were bare.

We were wrong.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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So peaceful.

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

 

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

 

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

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Well, okay then.

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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The bench I taught from was 68% more rickety.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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A sky that would make Magritte envious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tally of Creatures Spotted on Game Drive

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

And I am.

 

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For Whom the Bag Tolls

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

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

 

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

 

On the pro side:

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

 

On the con side:

  • Everything else.

 

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

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Ernest _wishes_ he had a field bag so fine.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Poser. Posing.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Ahoy, matey!

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

 

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

 

Clearly, it was a magic bag.

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It looked more impressive on the plane.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Then she said, “It’s Louis Vuitton.”

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Drumming Unicorn of Elliott Bay and Other Terrors

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There’s someone who sometimes puts on a rubber cat mask and plays French music on an accordion down by the market, appropriately in front of Left Bank Books and to the left of a florist that has big displays of exotic looking flowers. It’s probably only because the music reminds me of the movie Amélie, or maybe it’s because the “cat” plays with such gusto, but I love seeing it.

 

Somewhere, I have a fuzzy photo of it that I snapped for you, but I can’t find it, and since you can’t see it moving jauntily in time to the tune, hear the music, smell the flowers, dodge the tourists headed to Pike Market, it wouldn’t make much of an impression anyhow.

 

So just believe me when I tell you this accordion playing cat is comic, yes, but also kind of glorious, and if you are ever in Seattle, you should try to see it and drop a buck in its accordion case.

 

Oh, wait. Z is invested in your understanding the glory of this cat (even though he is allergic), and found this photo online:

 

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I told you it was glorious.

 

But down on the waterfront there’s this other person who wears a rubber unicorn head and bangs the hell out of some upturned buckets and shakes his head wildly as he pounds out a beat, and I find it completely—and irrationally—terrifying. As in I grab Z’s hand if I’m not holding it, and if I am, I squeeze it harder, and try to hurry us along.

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Best enjoyed from a safe distance.

The sun might be setting, but it is still daylight. The unicorn is all wrapped up in the music and likely bears none of us ill will, plus there are plenty of people around even if it did. And still, I get chills that I can only equate to my first irrational fear, which was the Lincoln-Mercury TV ad that had a cougar that would rest on top of a sign and then let out a fierce roar as the announcer said, “At the sign of the cat.” I was a toddler, and the first time I saw that commercial I burst into tears. This may well be one of my first memories.

 

I can still hear the jingle Lincoln-Mercury  leads the way and get chills.

 

I ask you, is this not terrifying? Watch until the very end of the video.

 

My parents thought my overreaction to this ad was either hilarious or adorable, and so when the commercial came on—and it was always on—they would say, “Look Bethy! It’s the kitty!”

 

The kitty? THE KITTY?!

 

Eventually, I got used to the commercial but would sometimes feign terror in an attempt to recreate their original delight, though I didn’t have to feign much because just now when I was sifting through clips of those commercials to show you, I was, let’s just call it, uneasy.

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This is NOT a “kitty”!

Last night Z and I were doing laundry in the building’s basement. It is not a horrible laundry room—I’ve been in much creepier ones, specifically two in Chicago that were reminiscent of murder scenes in a horror flick. It is bright blue and well lit and has cameras in it. In general, I’m not afraid to be down there by myself. Even so, last night Z stayed behind to collect our items from a sluggish washer and sent me upstairs with the dry clothes to commence folding. I had the laundry bag in one hand and the doorknob in the other as I was leaving when he called after me because he needed another quarter. He was the only other person in the room. I know his voice. There was no chilling music playing. We hadn’t been talking about anything creepy or watching a police procedural with a serial killer. He said a very non-threatening, “Babe, I need another quarter.”

 

And yet I screamed. He might as well have been Freddie Krueger or the Wicked Witch of the West saying, “I’ll get you, my pretty!”

 

Like my parents, he thought my overreaction was hilarious.

 

I have an hyperactive amygdala, which accounts for the shrieks and squawks when I’m surprised, but I also have an overactive imagination which accounts for my inability to sort my fears into tidy categories like: irrational, rational, and rational but improbable. To me, everything is a possibility because I can imagine it is. So while I know everyone has to deal with the fears they might have about losing loved ones, jobs, health, new or strange situations, global nuclear annihilation, etc., I’m pretty sure the bulk of the population doesn’t worry about unicorn drummers chasing them down the waterfront. They don’t worry that a sewer rat is going to pop out of their 2nd story toilet on a Wednesday afternoon. They don’t worry that if they get rid of that one ugly sweater they really don’t like anyhow that one day they’ll be in a situation in which they have no sweaters and desperately need that ugly one to keep them warm.

 

They don’t—I’m guessing—fear talking to a stranger because they will never be free again to have their own thoughts but will instead spend the rest of their lives listening to this stranger chunter on.

 

Which brings me to the Silent Reading Party at the Sorrento Hotel. I love the Sorrento, which is near our apartment building. It’s loaded with old world charm—a dark lobby with a fireplace, wood paneling and deep sofas that harken back to a Seattle I wish I’d known. While it doesn’t seem like a quirky place, on the first Wednesday of every month it hosts said silent reading extravaganza and people wait in line for a place to sit and crack open a book. I’ve been meaning to go to it for as long as I’ve lived in the city, but I never have because it seems like such a weird thing to do: sit in a room full of strangers a block from your actual apartment and read in a dimly lit room in silence.

But also, like that accordion playing cat…how glorious. Every month I mark it on my calendar. Every month I “accidentally” forget to go.

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Aside from the weirdness, here are the main reasons I haven’t gone:

 

  • What if there are rules you have to follow that I don’t know and am then chastised for not following?
  • What if I hate it?
  • What if I meet someone there who ropes me into becoming part of their book club or writing group or cult and I’m never free again?

 

These are pretty much the fears that have shaped my life:

  • not knowing rules/breaking rules I didn’t know existed/being chastised for breaking said rules
  • hating something/being bored by something that I’d previously thought I would enjoy (ex. calling Z from the restroom at intermission of Wicked and begging him to phone in a bomb threat so I wouldn’t have to watch the second half) and still having to sit through the rest of the event
  • getting trapped by other people because I don’t know how to excuse myself or say no

 

 

A college classmate of Z’s who I know emailed to see if I’d be interested in going to the silent reading with her. We were both English majors and the few times we’ve seen each other, we’ve talked about books. This seemed like a win because I wouldn’t have to go to the Sorrento alone, she had been before and thus knew the rules (don’t talk between breaks or you might get shushed!), and we would be there to read so were she inclined to try to get me to join a cult she’s in*, she’d be shushed when trying to hypnotize me. Likewise, if some stranger tried to rope me into their pyramid scheme, she would shush them and save me from having to shill Amway for the rest of my life. So we agreed to meet.

 

Our first attempt was a failure because despite arriving almost 40 minutes before it started, the place was packed. We tried again the following month, and I arrived an hour before it started and was ushered to a long, communal table in the back to wait for my bibliophile partner.

 

I was disappointed. I’d imagined us across from each other in two solitary wingbacks by the fire in a room—I will admit—that was virtually empty, save for a lone man with a newspaper and aroma-less pipe in a similar wingback on the other side of the room. Instead, the reality was that we would be sitting at a long table reading across from strangers who I imagined to be 87% smarter, cooler, and more literary than I am. What’s worse, I had no idea what the etiquette was of talking to people at the communal table before the actual reading began. Was it encouraged? Expected? Mandatory? Rude to attempt?

 

I felt like I was at some reading cafeteria on the first day of junior high. What to do?

All around me people who seemed to know each other buzzed and chittered and seemed thrilled to be there, and all I could think about was how soon I could order a cocktail and how soon after I finished it I could escape.

 

The woman across from me asked if I’d been there before, and admitted that she wasn’t even from Seattle but had read about the event and thought it was too weird not to attend. She was exactly the kind of stranger I’m happy to bump into because she was friendly without immediately assuming that I wanted to spend the rest of the evening listening to her talk. A man came up and sat at the corner of the table between us, and asked about her cocktail so he’d know what to order. He had been to the Silent Reading Party before and said that he invites friends but then tells them he won’t save a spot for them because it makes him uncomfortable and seems unfair since, at this point, people were lined up outside hoping to score a spot to perch so they could read. I decided I liked him too. He was similarly undemanding and pleasant.

 

My friend arrived and we ordered appetizers and drinks and passed time before the witching hour by talking to each other and asking our new neighbors questions. The woman was from Brazil and had been traveling for the past 18 months to see a bit of the Americas. There were only two stops left on her trip: Chicago and New York, and she wondered if we had any suggestions.

 

I have many, many opinions about what is best and least best to do in Chicago, but on the spot, I could think of nothing outside of taking the architectural boat tour on the river, which may not even run in March. She looked at me expectantly since I’d just blathered on about how it was my favorite city in the U.S. and I had nuthin’. Ride a boat in what will inevitably be a Midwestern deep freeze when you are there. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

 

The man said he loved to read but had no time to read, so once a month he came to the Sorrento for himself. He’d been reading the same Ruth Rendell novel for months. I admired his backpack. He admired the novel I was reading, Here We Lie, by my friend Paula Treick DeBoard, and took a photo of it so he could read it whenever he finally has time to finish the Rendell. I forced everyone to look at my name in the acknowledgements and congratulate me as if I had written the book myself. (It is really good. You should probably read it. And also, admire my name.) The piano started playing and the silent reading began. (Note: it is silent in that no one talks, but there is delightfully unobtrusive piano music. At one point I heard a very classical version of what I think of as Darth Vader’s theme song, The Imperial March.)

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All of Paula’s books are my favorite, but right now, this one is my most favorite.

Despite the fact that Paula’s book is riveting, I couldn’t concentrate. Instead, I was horrified because what kind of city advocate am I if I can’t even cough up five things someone should do in a place that I love? I ripped a page out of my journal and started listing things she should do in Chicago, views to admire, buildings with architecture I adore, the miniature Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, which line of the L to ride for the best vantage, which bus would cart her up Michigan Avenue, etc. I passed the list to her. She read it and smiled. I read Paula’s book and stuffed focaccia bread in my mouth. Soon she shoved a piece of paper across the table and whispered, “We’re like school girls, passing notes.”

 

Here’s her note:

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I was already in awe of Jacqueline because of her solo traveling adventure, but I was further in awe because she clearly enjoys interacting with strangers and finding out their opinions about what is worthwhile to investigate. She wasn’t worried I was going to try to get her involved in a pyramid scheme or join a cult. She was just enjoying humanity.

 

There was a break and she packed up the journal she’d been writing in and asked the server for the bill. The Ruth Rendell man said he’d like to pay for her drink and the food she’d ordered. She thanked him, but said no, and though my superior intuition and his excellent backpack had figured him for a safe bet, I realized that if I were traveling alone, I wouldn’t want arbitrary people buying treats for me no matter what they were reading. He said, “I insist. You are our guest here.” She thanked him, thanked us for the travel advice and told us to have a good evening, and then left.

 

I don’t know what it was about that wording of his, but I could feel my eyes get full and my face flush. You are our guest. There were two things there that I liked: the notion of a visitor to the U.S. as a “guest” but also the way he used that “our.” As if he were including me, my friend, all of us at the communal table—even the people at the end so far down we couldn’t talk tot hem or even see what they were reading, everyone in the Sorrento, everyone in Seattle, everyone in the country…and saying, we’re glad you came!

 

After Jacqueline left, I leaned over and thanked him for buying her meal and drink. It certainly hadn’t crossed my mind to do it, though I had considered asking if she had a blog so I could spy on her travels. I told him that I appreciated it because of Z and how he’s feeling these days about this country he loves but doesn’t always feel welcome in anymore, and about how good it was for me to remember that this is what I love about Americans—that at our best we’re friendly instead of suspicious, generous instead of showing everyone the holsters under our jackets.

 

He waved me off. He said he’s traveled a lot and people have always been welcoming to him and he likes to welcome other people. But just the same, I thought it was such a lovely gesture that the memory of it warmed me all week, as did the memory of Jacqueline investigating the Americas and deciding that something as quirky as a silent reading party was worth her time.

 

I’m never going to prefer solo travel, though I’ve done it and would again if the only alternative was staying safely at home. I’m never not going to squawk and screech when something gives me a fright, even if it’s my own husband asking for a laundry quarter.

 

Most of us are inclined to fears of some sort, and we have to figure out how to best navigate them. I would argue—with myself, with you, with the world—that life is going to be more fulfilling if we focus on the accordion-playing cat moments, and—even if we do have to race past the rubber-headed unicorns banging drums—we shouldn’t let those moments shape our days, influence our interactions with strangers, make us isolate ourselves completely for safety’s sake. The world is too big and weird and wonderful to cut ourselves off from that. It’s kind of glorious.

 

*She is very nice and very rational and not cult inclined. This is just hyperbole.

 

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On Fonts, Style, and Albus Dumbledore

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The catalog of ways my writing gets derailed is as large as the Oxford English Dictionary though the pages with entries for “email that must be sent” and “drawers that must be organized” are the most dog eared. Currently, I have a thumb injury caused by a knife in the dish water, and I’ve bandaged that thing up so it looks like the oversized digit of hitchhiking Sissay Hankshaw/Uma Thurman in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. It has slowed my typing down considerably even though it turns out the only thing you use your thumb for when typing is the space bar.

 

But even before the thumb situation, I had a font-related writing derailment.

 

I saw a snarky T-shirt on Broadway hat said, “I bet you use Helvetica.”

 

I use Helvetica.

 

I’ve been using Helvetica since 1994 when I got my Mac Performa and determined Helvetica the best font of the six or so on offer back then. Clean lines. Easy to read. Classic. Once I settle on a “good thing” I usually don’t revisit it, but that T-shirt unnerved me.

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You have no idea how much time I can spend googling things like Why does Helvetica suck? Or what are the best fonts?

 

I find myself at a crossroads in my life wherein I must either change so I don’t seem quite as old as I’m beginning to look, or I must commit to my idiosyncrasies and admit that I no longer care to be current. Not that I’ve ever been on the cutting edge of anything, but my goal, in as much as I have one, is simple: avoid being a laughingstock if possible.

 

It may be a battle I’m destined to lose regardless of my age. I’ve always been out of step, and now is no different than any of the other decades of my life. I was a fussy, prim teenager who was incapable of being carefree or rebellious, and now that I’m middle aged, I’m behaving the way I should have when I was 17. While the style mags all indicate I should embrace re-purposed furniture from a thrift store and add some spikey plants, a see-thru chair, and a bookshelf full of globes (where the books should go), I hanker for the ambiance of some television small town judge’s family room circa 1955. Heirloom furniture and deep armchairs with actual arms. I’m no fashionista, so though my drawers are stuffed to the brim, I basically wear the same uniform every day—a cable-knit hoody sweater, Levi’s, and a pair of  UGGs with hide laces that look like something Daniel Boone might have worn. (If it is warm out, I wear as little as possible accompanied by a snarl.) There is nothing about my “look” that is cultivated. It’s comfortable and serviceable and, hopefully, non-descript. Best of all, when I’m wearing it, I feel like myself.

 

Which is how I’ve always felt about Helvetica.

 

If I were a more confident person, I probably would have rolled my eyes at the judgey anti-Helvetica T-shirt disrespecting my font and moved on, but I’m not confident. I almost always assume that there are cool kids at a lunchroom table somewhere in the universe who are deciding right now that 90% of what I have and do is all wrong. Why these imaginary brats hold sway in my head is a question I can’t answer.

 

Plus, I started thinking about the judgments I’ve made against people for their font choice or their tendency to trends. Typewriter fonts are too precious and those peek-a-boo shoulder shirts aren’t really working for anybody and make me worry about shoulder melanoma. (Also, I’ll confess that though a hundred different style guides tell me that Chuck Taylors are always a good choice, I never see them on adult, non-basketball-playing humans over 22 without thinking they should try a boat shoe instead. We all have our opinions.)

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Maybe I’m only thinking about things like “classic” and “style” because for Christmas, Mom got me this gorgeous little book, Classic Style: Hand It Down, Dress It Up, Wear It Out by Kate Schelter. I’m probably not the target reader (see above description about my fashion choices), but I love the watercolor sketches of the things Schelter and a few style icons she’s interviewed offer up as their classic go-tos. It’s got me thinking about that old William Morris adage “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” and now I’m looking at the stuff in my closet and dotted around our apartment and finding some of it dubious.

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Beyonce waiting for her Cinderella story to unfold.

For instance, I’ve been giving Beyonce, the metal chicken that sits in our living room (and  who is named after The Bloggess’s significantly larger metal rooster) the side-eye. She’s not really beautiful. We knock her off her perch regularly and she dents up the wooden hand-made Shaker nesting boxes she sits on. On the other hand, we got her as a companion to the metal rooster, Bob Johnson, who sits on the other side of the room and I do find him, if not beautiful, then at least aesthetically pleasing, and he makes me smile, thus covering the “usefulness” category as well. Somehow, it seems wrong to deprive Bob and Beyonce of their love just because she’s less attractive and I got her on markdown in the Meijer garden department. Bob was liberated from a gallery and thus was a more pricey, graduation gift from Z that we found in New Mexico. She can’t help it that she doesn’t have the breeding of Bob, and I admire him for overlooking this.

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Beyonce is still waiting for this guy to put a ring on it.

There are other things on the side-eye list too.

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Why would anybody need these? What does it all mean?

I’m not sure why I’ve been collecting these little Wade ceramic doo-dads out of Z’s tea boxes. I don’t really like the colors and it seems kind of weird to have a tiny space shuttle, old-timey scuba helmet, White House, and pine tree/arrowhead sitting in my windowsill, but each time he opens a new box of tea it reminds me of the childhood joy of getting a prize in a box of Fruit Loops. So there they are, looking down on 9th Avenue in all their tiny, muted glory as if they are prized possessions.

 

I don’t know what to do with the 28 tote bags I have. They’re useful, but will I ever have need for 28 at one time? Shouldn’t I thin the herd? Thumbs up to the Winter is Coming direwolf and Andy Warhol soup can totes and thumbs down to the free London Review of Books one I got at a conference?

 

I keep thinking I’ll come up with a system for these wooden file boxes that will make them useful, but instead, I throw things in them like the notecards of a would-be screenplay that seemed like a good idea one night at midnight and less of a good idea once the sun was up. They’ve been in one file box for ten years and I’ve never looked at them. Mostly I dust the boxes when guests come and thus they  serve as tiny coffins for story ideas that have never re-animated.

 

I could go on like this, but you get the idea. That once again, instead of doing the business of writing, I’m avoiding it by bandaging my thumb and worrying about fonts, and speculating about how classic or unclassic my “style” is. Because that’s what really matters in my life. Sure it is. (Well, wound care matters, I guess, in that if I lose my thumb to gangrene, all of my words will run together what with no digit to operate the space bar.)

 

Classic Style has sent me down a memory lane I wasn’t planning to traverse too. I think I’ve mentioned before that when I was an impressionable 13 year old, I got my hands on a copy of Lisa Birnbaum’s satirical Preppy Handbook and didn’t realize it was satire. Instead, I used it as a bible. I wanted to be preppy. I don’t mean I wanted to wear Izods with the collars up. I mean I desperately wanted my family to transform over night into one of those country-club-belonging east coast families that went sailing and attended Ivy League schools and summered on Nantucket. It wasn’t the money I cared about, but I cared about the class, the breeding, the well-readness and the well-educatedness. Since I couldn’t rearrange my Midwestern reality into that, I read the books Birnbaum said were non-negotiable for preps (Love Story, Catcher in the Rye, The World According to Garp), I fretted about whether my monogram should feature the “E” of my given name or the “B” of my everyday “Beth.” Somehow, I managed to get a pair of Tretorn tennis shoes and tried to wear away the right toe as if I dragged my toe when serving a tennis ball (instead of actually, you know, learning to play tennis and getting the Preppy Handbook required roughed-up toe legitimately), and I crammed my maturing body into little boy’s polo shirts because they were cheaper than those made for women, and they fit my nearly non-existent budget even though they didn’t really fit me.

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So as I read Classic Style, I find myself reverting to my 7th grade girlhood. I feel the envy and the inability to measure up to those satirical guidelines. And I’ll admit it, I’m kind of hating on Schelter—an honest to goodness prep—for forcing that on me. True, I now have my own set of required L.L. Bean Boat & Tote bags, but Kate Schelter, one assumes, has actually used hers for boating and toting instead of for storing half-read Poets & Writers magazines under her desk. You can’t buy preppyness (or class) it turns out.

 

But please note:  Schelter’s illustrated questionnaire of the creative director, Stephen Keefe, listed Helvetica as his favorite font, alongside his vintage Persol sunglasses and Gucci loafers!

 

As I bundled up to meet Z and Hudge for happy hour on Monday, I was thinking about Schelter and her perfect style as I wrapped my rainbow-hued scarf around my neck, tugged on my rainbow-striped gloves, and pulled my rainbow knit cap down over my ears. These items don’t match, in case it sounds like they do. The colors are all of different hues, I just like the spectrum even though I would never have dressed this way in 1981. The useless strings that dangle from the earflaps slapped against my chin as I thought about how no one with real style would leave the house dressed as I was unless it was Pride week.

 

I climbed onto the #2 bus and as I was putting my wallet into my bag, the guy across from me—an Albus Dumbledore look-alike who appeared to have fallen on hard times—complimented me on my obnoxious hat.

 

I touched the hat and thanked him. He swayed and shifted in his seat in a way that indicated to me he was probably already half-lit. Then he leaned across the aisle and presented a banged-up blue plastic lighter and said, “Want to trade it for this lighter.”

 

I did not and said so politely. It seemed rude to ignore him, so I gave him more information than he needed—that Z and I got these hats—Z’s a more “manly” forest green—right before we got married and so I have a sentimental attachment to it (and therefore, nothing against the lighter he had on offer).   I restrained myself from telling him that I secretly believe the hat to have magical properties because a few days after I bought it and a few days before our wedding, I face-planted on an icy sidewalk and instead of ending up with the bruise or concussion I should have had, the hat made my head bounce so I was able to get married without stage make-up.

 

The guy shrugged and leaned back in his seat, arm along the back as if he were driving a 1970s Cadillac. As if to say, he liked the hat, sure, but it was nothing to him if I couldn’t see the benefits of his proposed trade. He flipped his maroon and gray striped scarf over his shoulder jauntily.

 

My instinct then was to run down the checklist perpetually in my brain of “was it bad of me that I just did this selfish thing of wanting to keep my own belongings to myself?” (The curse of a self-aware only child is the need not to behave the way people expect you to.) I looked at the guy while he was looking out the window and was happy to see that his coat looked warm, gloves jutted out of his pocket, and his scarf was long enough to cover his head if the temperature dropped. He didn’t need my magic hat; he just liked it. And I didn’t need his lighter, which appeared to have no magical qualities at all, (though the ability to carry potential fire in your pocket is a kind of magic). Things were even enough between us that I didn’t have to spend the rest of the day feeling guilty for not being more generous.

 

He saw me eying his scarf and leaned forward again, rubbing the ends between his fingers, and pointing out to me that the colors are the same as those of Oxford University’s Christ Church (or Gryffindor’s, I thought). Then he mumbled some things about Oxford and it seemed to me that he said he’d studied there and maybe that’s where the scarf had actually come from, though I can’t be sure because his monologue was low and zipped from topic to topic. There were kernels of sanity and sobriety in what he said, but there were enough words I didn’t catch that I also don’t know if he was a fabulist or if he’d had some academic life that went awry.

 

He talked. I smiled and nodded and hoped I wasn’t agreeing to some other trade that wouldn’t suit me. I am known for agreeing to things I don’t want because I nod my head when I don’t understand someone and the next thing I know I’m having a meal I didn’t order or hideous fake nails glued to my own natural ones.

 

I looked at him more closely. His hair was wild. He was carrying what looked like a freshly laundered mattress pad in a see-through tote. He was picking bits of fluff of the knee of his trousers fastidiously, and he was definitely striking a pose there on the #2 as we bumped up Seneca. He flipped the scarf over his shoulder again and looked out the window as if we were on a weekend leisure drive in Oxfordshire. He might have initially looked like a homeless Dumbledore to me, but as I often discover about my fellow bus riders, there was more to him than met the eye. And the man had style.

If he has cause to use Helvetica, I bet he does it unapologetically.

 

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Just two crazy middle aged kids enjoying Puget Sound in their magical knitted hats.

On History and Mystery

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Do you see the missing piece?

 

This weekend, I should have been doing one or more of the following:

 

  • fixing up the writing studio post earthquake proofing
  • creating a syllabus for my next class
  • writing lesson plans for my next class
  • working on a website to sell my wares to the wider world
  • writing this blog
  • cleaning in general
  • cleaning specifically:
    • birthday confetti off the carpet from the first part of the month
    • cobwebs I keep discovering on the ceiling
    • a fan that is more dust than blade at this point
    • the bottom of the kitchen trashcan (Z and I keep hoping “our man” will do it, but it turns out, we haven’t hired a man and thus it’s down to us and we’re each hoping the other will cave first)
  • putting industrial strength patches on the thighs of my favorite jeans
  • figuring out where to get rid of the books I’ve weeded
  • actually getting rid of the books I’ve weeded once I’ve decided
  • preparing for a presentation at a conference in three weeks that Z talked me into and at which I must appear to be knowledgeable and quick-witted though I am feeling neither of these things
  • using the new Panda Planner that has promised to change my life

 

 

What I’ve actually been doing:

 

  • genealogy

 

Probably I should be apologetic about why I am doing this since I have no children with whom to share this ancestral knowledge, but the truth is, I don’t care. I don’t care if my niece and nephew are interested. I don’t care if my cousins are. I see Z’s eyes glaze over when I tell him about some new relative I never knew I had who was a Quaker or a Puritan or a dentist, but I don’t care if it bores him—I tell him anyway.

 

I’m doing it because I’m curious and because history fascinates me, in particular, personal histories that overlap larger, human history. There are good stories there and I like a good story. So every night I open up Ancestry.com and introduce myself to some new person who contributed to the cocktail that is me. God bless them every one.

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A set of my great-great grandparents, their brood, and one awesome tricycle.

While the men’s histories are the easiest to access—them being regularly afforded their own names and the bulk of the attention in Quaker meeting minutes and newspaper accounts—what thrills me most is imagining the women’s stories and what might have been happening between the very few official mentions they get. A long space between children often means some grief, for instance. There’s all sorts of speculation I do about the teenagers who marry older men, the women who audaciously manage to work their maiden names into a first name for one of their children. If I happen upon a photo, I try to peer into the eyes to see if there’s any evident happiness or misery, and if the photo is of a tombstone, I’m curious to see if it is simple or grand, and if she warranted any sort of adjectives: beloved wife, devoted mother, etc.

 

This weekend I discovered that my paternal grandfather’s grandmother, Ellen, emigrated from Ireland in 1849. I’m familiar enough with the stories of my great grandmother Bridget who sailed away from Ireland as a teenager near the end of the 19th century with a blackthorn walking stick in her hand that now belongs to me. I know she married a man much older than she was who had a young son of his own. I know her middle son gave up a future in the priesthood when her husband died so he could earn money to help support her and his baby brother, my grandfather. I’ve met her nieces and nephew in Ireland, skulked around the farm where she was raised and that her great nephew now farms, stayed overnight with her niece and great niece, and stood over the graves of her parents and grandparents. So Ireland was no surprise.

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The Great Grandmotherland, near Caherlistrane, County Galway

But 1849? As soon as I saw that year on the screen, I said a very non-blasphemous Jesus under my breath and my eyes filled up and threatened to spill over the dam. You didn’t come to America from Ireland in 1849 because you wanted a change of scenery or were ambitious. You came because of the Famine.

 

I checked to see if there were children older than my great grandfather and discovered there were two: one born in New York, where they must have landed and tried to earn money enough to head west, and another, before that, born in transit on the Atlantic.

 

Jesus again.

 

Can you imagine? Your first child born in the hull of an overcrowded famine ship, not entirely sure what would be waiting on you when you arrived, except of course, that it wouldn’t be family—or anyone else—with open arms?

 

There’s the added knowledge that while she was pregnant for my great grandfather in West Virginia, her husband did the unfathomable and died at a young age, so there she is, a woman in coal-mining country with two pre-schoolers and a newborn to raise on her own.

 

So she did what you did if you were a woman in those straits and she married almost immediately. No time for a lengthy mourning before looking for a new spouse. No time for a long courtship to make sure the fellow is kind or clever. No chance for pre-marital counseling to make sure you have compatible dispositions. There are mouths to feed and your whole adult life you’ve been running from the Hunger.

 

No wonder I get panicky when there’s no peanut butter or Lucky Charms in the cabinets. No wonder I’ve had a passive-aggressive relationship with food my whole life (it being passive and me being aggressive). That hunger stuff has to get written on a person’s DNA at some point.

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It’s not _really_ Irish, but it is the perfect breakfast food.

So anyhow, that’s where my head is at and may explain why none of the above items on my ticking-off list have been ticked off. It might also explain why this afternoon while I was attempting to re-assemble the writing studio from earthquake-proofing-shambles and listening to The Drovers—an old Chicago Celtic rock band—I heard the opening stanzas to “Kilkelly, Ireland” and before it was all over I was having a loud, snorty cry as I re-hung pictures and stacked books.

 

To be clear, I’ve been listening to The Drovers since I first heard them on the Blink soundtrack in 1993, I’ve seen them in concert in Grant Park on a warm Chicago evening, and I’ve never, NEVER, heard them sing this or any other piece that is so maudlin. Their music is sometimes haunting, but mostly it makes you want to spin around like a dervish, maybe stick it to The Man. So I was blindsided when I heard those opening stanzas. It’s a song I intentionally took off of my Irish playlists because uncontrollable sobbing is not an activity I enjoy.

 

Have you ever heard it? I defy you to listen to it and not have some feelings. “Danny Boy” might make the masses tear up, but those are cheap emotions compared to the ones this song elicits. Supposedly, it is based on a set of actual letters from a father in Ireland to his son who has emigrated around the time of the Famine (the years are a little off, and this bothers me, but once the music swells, I allow for a little poetic license) and it spans several decades. For me, the tears start when the father begins his letter explaining that he’s had Pat McNamara “write these words down.” (As if the longing for loved ones you’ll likely never see again isn’t enough, I’ve the added weep-material of illiteracy.) By the time it works it’s way round to the immigrant’s brother writing the final lines to his brother that the father has died with a “He called for you in the end/Oh, why don’t you think about coming to visit/We’d all love to see you again” I’m a mess. It’s like the old-timey Irish version of “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

 

Please note, a decade ago I once purposely traveled from Waterford to Kilkelly specifically so I could feel the feelz of this song, only to realize when I arrived that I was not actually in Kilkelly but in Kilkenny, which is, it turns out, a whole different place. Instead of walking around mournfully and reflecting on my (then only imagined) Famine-affected relatives, I spent part of the afternoon in a Radley of London shop trying to justify an expensive leather bag with a Scottie dog logo. (I did not win that justification and am still sans a Radley handbag, fyi.)

 

Aside from the stories and extra fierce musically induced weeping because of those stories, the thing I like about this genealogy business is how much it’s like doing a puzzle. It’s the kind of detective work I was born to do because at no point is anyone going to hold me at knifepoint and tell me to quit snooping or else. (Though things did look a little dodgy at the Seattle Public Library yesterday when I was on my way to the genealogy department, so I s’pose it could happen.) It’s amazing the things you can find with a little poking around: a break with the church, a scandalous marriage, an illegitimate child. Sometimes, I’m guilty of assuming that anyone that predated me and my immediate family were just sitting around in long dresses and wearing stovepipe hats and working the land and reading their Bibles, but it turns out they were living real lives and making some desperate (and sometimes dubious) choices.

 

I’d have made a terrible historian though because I get caught up in my flights of fancy. I’ve hit a brick wall with Ellen and can’t find where she was born, who her parents were, and she’s starting to morph into Nicole Kidman in Far and Away, a high born woman who falls in love with a poor country yoke (and Scientologist) and makes her way to America, for good or for ill. She’s become amazing in my mind. Fierce, feisty, kind and generous. But for all I know, she was none of those things. She might have been a stern, humorless mother and who could blame her? She might have always been nagging her second husband to wear his hat and scarf to keep himself well, and who could blame her?

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Great Great Grandmother Ellen

Since January, I’ve been solving a lot of little puzzles. First, I’ve done actual jigsaw puzzles as I like the satisfaction I feel in those five minutes after I’ve completed one and before I realize what a complete waste of time it is since the picture is right there on the box and I didn’t need to actually put it together to see it. But the mystery to be solved here is how is it that the last two puzzles I’ve done have been missing a single piece? They were both new. Where did the rogue piece go? Was it never put in because there’s some malcontent at the puzzle factory who gets joy out of the notion of wrecking some obsessive’s sense of self-satisfaction? Has someone (read: Z, not me) dropped a piece and it’s bounced into a crevice in our crooked apartment? Am I sleepwalking and hiding a single piece to sabotage myself?

 

Other early 2018 Mysteries of the City:

 

 

  • Who is the man who coughs until he throws up EVERY DAY right outside our apartment?
  • How is it that I felt warmer in 8 degree temperatures in Indiana than I do in 42 degree temperatures now that I’m back in Seattle? (The cold out here gets right into your bones.)
  • How is it that despite having weeded almost 100 titles, it has been an impossible feat to get my books back onto their rightful shelves. They’ve reproduced like rabbits and somehow the Irish authors that used to fit neatly into one of 36 tidy IKEA cubes have breached their confines and now require an additional two cubes. Clearly, I need to build a border wall.
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Look at those Irish books, trying to sneak onto other shelves without proper documentation!

  • On a similar note, how is it possible that our south wall was moved in a foot because of the earthquake proofing and suddenly the furniture doesn’t seem to fit now? A foot is nothing really. If you were in one of those trash-compacting rooms in spy movies (or the original Star Wars) and the wall moved in a foot, you wouldn’t really even notice yet that you were in danger of being squished. And yet, what the writing studio looks like now is an implausibility of Wildebeests in one of those “bad” zoos with too-small enclosures. It’s all chair legs and coffee tables and bookcases overlapping each other and it hurts my eyes and heart.
  • If the Parks Department has to paint permanent suggestions on the park suggestion board about what activities people like to do there because the chalk option meant a lot of rude comments and a few dubious artist’s renderings, shouldn’t you just maybe forego the suggestion board and have a mural instead?
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Note: there are no actual roses in this park.

  • Why do drivers in Seattle—a city made of hills comparable only to San Francisco’s—insist on riding other people’s bumpers?
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If my car were in Seattle, it would be sporting this.

  • Do city officials really think they are tricking us when they make real estate developers “save” historical properties and this is how they do it: a shell of old bricks encasing the lower two floors of a boxy steel and glass monstrosity? We aren’t fools.
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Historic preservation Seattle style.

  • Does the new Seattle soda tax of almost 2 cents an ounce (which doesn’t sound like much until you buy a case of Coke) mean that the city really DOES want us to move away? Z is not happy and is now considering the merits of life in Indiana where no government officials pretend to care that much about your health.
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Not pictured: Z, weeping

  • Why do I think every year that a new planning system—no matter how intuitive and inspiring—is going to make me a better person? It hasn’t yet, but hope springs eternal, I guess. When I told Z that I was getting a Panda Planner he laughed out loud. He knows that by March—despite my best laid plans—I won’t be able to find it because it will be hiding in the recesses of a bag I quit carrying in February. (The joke may be on him this year, however, because I brought the bright “cyan” for an extra $4 and it might be more difficult to lose.)
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Precious.

Periodically, Jane and I have discussions about who’s more introverted. This isn’t really a contest because being Most Introverted does not come with a crown or prize money. Despite the likelihood that Jane IS more introverted than I am, she will keep getting herself embroiled in book clubs and social groups that make me feel twitchy when I imagine signing up for something similar. All those people you don’t know, asking boring things like “what do you do for a living?” and “have you read All the Light We Cannot See yet?” (as if not reading it is not an option). But then when I do something like invite near-strangers to stay with us for a week, it’s hard not to argue that I am perhaps slightly less introverted than Jane.

 

Last week I read an article in Irish Central about an Irish woman living in America who has started an immigration awareness campaign of creating buttons for people to wear that say things like “I am an immigrant” and “I’m the daughter of an immigrant.” I liked the idea of this—a sort of political performance art that makes folks recognize that more of the people they pass on the street have connections to immigrants than they realize. So I found her on Facebook to see how I might get one of these buttons for myself since I’ve a real live immigrant sleeping in my bed, and I promptly discovered she lives in Seattle. We messaged back and forth and made tentative plans to get together for drinks because I love Ireland and she and her husband are fond of Zimbabweans.

 

I had to admit to Jane that this is a real conundrum of my life: that I supposedly love being alone and value quiet, chat-free expanses of time so I can live in my own head without interruption, but then I talk to a new person and realize my solitary life behind the walls of my imagination is not enough. Maybe I’m an introverted extrovert. Or vice versa. I need other people—people dissimilar to me sometimes—to make life richer, more intriguing, more thought provoking. It’s one of those things that makes me glad I’m in this city on the edge of a country that—despite everything—still recognizes that it’s richer because of its diversity, not in spite of it.

 

God bless us every one.

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FYI: Immigrant Awareness on Facebook can hook you up with your very own button

 

Santa’s Helper

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Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis

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

 

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

 

No?

 

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

 

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

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(This photo rudely stolen from Wikipedia.)

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

 

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

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Who doesn’t love a Me Christmas?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Godspeed, Katelyn.

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Blue Christmas.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

So instead, you get underpants.

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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Reasons you should not move to the city in middle age:

 

  • Cities are by definition full of young people. You will, thus, by default, seem ten years older than you actually are simply because you aren’t 23 and because you sometimes hobble a little when you stand up abruptly and make your way to the loo. And you (and whomever you are with) will be the only person in your age group at Stout’s happy hour.
  • While you could be reaping the benefits of having worked all your life and thus living in a house with modern conveniences (like a washing machine you don’t have to feed quarters into), you will be living like a college student with one closet the size of a coffin and less square footage than your parents have solely in their living room.
  • There is a lot of walking in a city and some days you are tired.

 

But really, this reason:

 

  • When you find yourself on a sidewalk yelling at a man in the car that almost ran you over you aren’t sure if it is:
    • righteous indignation
    • calluses built up by urban life that make it impossible for you to feel the embarrassment you would feel were you screaming at a stranger in your small Hoosier hometown
    • hormonal

 

Earlier in the month, Z and I were walking around St. James Cathedral, which is surrounded by trees on a block that is relatively quiet and peaceful and gives the illusion of the posh neighborhood that existed there a century ago. (We once saw a man in a dress shirt and slacks sitting on the Cathedral grass with a white goose on a leash, and so I never walk past that lawn without hoping to see him and his goose again, without hankering for the pastoral. I still don’t know if the goose gets daily walks or if they’d been attending mass.) It was a good evening. The heat of the day was gone, Z was still on vacation, and we were about to leave for a three-day beach holiday, so we were in good moods.

 

As we went to cross the quiet street, a car came barreling down on us, much faster than it should have been driving in the neighborhood. It seemed like a high probability that the driver would run the stop sign at the four-way stop and it seemed like a possibility that he’d run us down even though we had the right of way. I grabbed Z’s arm to slow him from the car’s path because he has a tendency to think his fiercely wrinkled brow will stop traffic violators in their tracks. (I think I told you I once saw him shake his umbrella at a car that had driven too far over a crosswalk before stopping.) We skittered out of the guy’s way to safety.

 

Though we didn’t yell at him, we did both fire dirty, dirty looks in his direction once we were safely on the sidewalk. Then we went on with our walk, and just as we had started to continue our conversation, the driver did a U-turn and pulled up beside us. I assumed (oh, naïve Midwestern me!) that he was pulling up to apologize to us, but instead, he had made this extra effort just to berate us for not looking before we crossed the street. (We had looked, plus we had the right of way even if we hadn’t.) With all the wisdom bestowed on him from his man-bun and a beard so large birds could nest in it, he let us know that we were horrible people without the intelligence to cross a street properly and he questioned our political leanings (though we debated later about what he was implying those leanings were). Z briefly engaged him and then quickly disengaged when he realized the sort of person he was dealing with.

 

But I—oh, Reader—I had a fit of pique. I stamped my foot and screamed as he pulled away from us. “You are a DOUCHE!” I shouted. (In my mind, my fist was shaking in the air righteously, but that may be an embellishment my brain has added to the memory.)

 

I don’t like that word, but sometimes, no other word will do, and the combination of his superiority and his choice of hair fashion made it the only appropriate retort. I was seething with rage. Shaking, red-faced. The whole bit. As we went to cross the next street (on the way to the drugstore to pick up my prescriptions for chronic indigestion and “nerves” that city life necessitates), he pulled in front of us, blocking our path, and said, “I guess you’ll have to look now!” He sat there for several seconds before moving forward so we could cross. It took all the willpower I had not to kick his fender, and for an hour afterward I kept replaying it and wishing I had both martial arts training and either a handgun or a sword like Michonne’s on The Walking Dead so I could teach him a lesson. Maybe not kill him, but at least scare the bejeezus out of him. I felt violated and there needed to be retribution.

 

For a week afterward, I had a partial chorus of Tori Amos’s “Little Earthquakes” going through my head, and I hate and I hate and I hate… without ever finishing the line with her more benign elevator music, the way we fight and focusing instead on the various people I pass on the street—in cars, on bikes, on their feet—who are not nice. Who would, if given a choice without legal consequences, do me and others harm because they don’t like the cut of our jib or, well, whatever it is that makes one human seem worthy of your ire. And I hate them for their hatred.

 

While I feel strongly that this was rational urban acting out on my part—the yelling at the be-bunned motorist who taunted us—Mom has been here for three weeks and when I’m juxtaposed against her, I realize that I’ve been hardened in new and awful ways since moving out here. I am not as nice as perhaps I once was.

 

A few weeks before she got here, Z and I passed a man on the street slumped so far over in his wheelchair that his head was nearly touching the sidewalk and didn’t even notice because there are so many folks on our little elevated hunk of Seattle who are in various states of drug-addicted slumber. It wasn’t until we got further down the block and heard a woman behind us say to the man, “Sir? Sir? Are you okay?” that we realized perhaps that was the more human response to another human in crisis. (In our defense, if Z did this every morning on his walk to work, he’d be late for class because the numbers of these people are so many, and I am often in a fog of imagination and internal thought that makes the outside world somehow less real than what’s happening in my brain. I’m as likely to walk past Eddie Vedder’s blue, blue eyes without noticing as I am someone asking me for a buck, so it’s not that I’m predisposed to ignoring those in dire circumstances. I’m an equal opportunity ignorer.)

 

But Mom. Mom is a good person. She is not an extrovert nor is she someone who seeks out people in need so she can feel good about herself for helping them, but somehow, people gravitate towards her. In the 1990s, she would sometimes accompany me to book readings at Books & Co., in Dayton, Ohio, where Jane would drive up and meet us. Jane and I would have a delightful time chatting with authors who were reading, while poor Mom would get pressed against atlases and encyclopedias as someone with the inability to read social cues would share with her their life story or some mundane personal problem.

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Mom (with yet a new friend).

(She isn’t just a kook magnet. She’s met some interesting people. She befriended a South African in England in 1992 who still calls her on her birthday every year, for example. She knew a woman who was good friends with Judy Garland and would offer Mom reports on Liza Minnelli’s latest news. On this trip, when Z and I picked her up at the airport, she’d made a new Brazilian friend who was unsure where her B&B was on West Seattle, so we drove her there and then later spent a rainy day with her in Edmonds, having lunch, a walk, tea and a chat—learning about Brazil, the woman’s life, her art. I love it when Mom meets someone with whom she shares a connection and someone who seems to recognize that Mom is special herself.)

 

But then on other days during her visit, I’m mostly aware of how much the city has bent and twisted me. Mom and I walked past the door of the apartment building and a supposed delivery man was trying to get inside. Mom, who was behind me, said, “What do I do? Do I let him in?” and I snarled, “Keep walking! We don’t know him!” (In my defense, I probably would have let him in six months ago because he looked benign and he did have an Amazon Prime package in his hands, but the building manager recently installed cameras and I don’t want to be caught on tape letting in the fellow who robs the people in #201.) Mom smiles at people I don’t even notice on the street. She chats with the store clerks I usually only thank. She engages people with small children, cute dogs, interesting handbags.

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So this week when we took the ferry to Bainbridge and then had a “comfort break” in the facilities once we docked, I saw the older, barely-moving woman come into the restroom with help of a ferry worker before Mom did. The woman was making teensy steps with her wheeled walker. She shooed the ferry worker away and then started yelling into the echo-y restroom. As I was washing my hands, my only thought was escape. It seemed to me she wanted to know where the handicapped stall was, so I told her at the end of the row and then darted around her into the lobby. It wasn’t until two-minutes later when Mom still hadn’t come out that I realized what must have happened.

 

It seemed unlikely that they’d gotten embroiled in a conversation because from my vantage, the woman was the sort who barely made sense when she talked. That meant Mom was likely helping her back her wheeled walker into the stall. Poor Mom, I thought. Maybe I should go help, I thought. And then I instantly thought of twelve reasons I shouldn’t, including the smallness of the stalls and how Mom is better with people than I am.

 

Eventually Mom came out pulling the walker as the woman barked at her to go faster even though faster seemed as if it would make the woman topple because of her teeny steps. Mom could have looked at me and rolled her eyes (which is possibly what I would have done—a sort of “solidarity with the sane” move), but she didn’t. Instead, she asked the woman which way she was going. This was a slow process; those steps the woman was taking were teeny, and instead of feeling sympathy for her, I felt annoyance that she was interrupting Mom’s birthday vacation adventure. When we got outside, a woman in the tourist kiosk came over to help so we could get on with our day.

 

As we walked away, Mom said not only had she helped the woman into the stall but because the woman had no feeling in her hands, she had to help her pull her pants down and then up again. This is something I might do to help a loved one or someone under four, but after that, it wouldn’t cross my mind. Good luck with that, I’d think, as I walked away. Underpants are a private business.

 

The thing is, Mom isn’t nurse-like. She doesn’t enjoy this kind of help the way I think some nurse-y types do. She’s like me. We’re both kind of body abhorrent and would prefer not having to think about our own bodies, let alone someone else’s. We don’t really like being in service to other people—it’s not our forte. We’re good at giving directions, making suggestions, and then getting out of the way for someone more inclined to know what to do in a crisis.

 

But Mom has a stronger sense of duty to help other people than I do. Maybe it’s a mom thing. Maybe it’s a Virgo thing. Maybe it’s an her thing. I can still remember a time when I was very small and we were getting gas and a man asked Mom if she could drive him to the hospital. She looked at me in the car—the person for whom she was responsible and around whom her world was forced to revolve—and then she looked at him and told him she couldn’t. For the rest of the day she felt guilty, worried that he hadn’t gotten to the hospital, worried that it was an angel in disguise and she’d just dissed said angel because she, a single mother, was trying to keep her daughter safe from a potential Ted Bundy, who was feigning the need for medical attention. She lamented that she had no spare cash to give him so he could call a taxi, but in 1972 we were lucky if there was enough money to put gas in the tank so we could drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s where they would feed us, let us watch their color television, and where I’d spend the weekend in the country with my cousins and the cows, a wonderful respite for someone who then thought her town of 38,000 made her the City Mouse from the children’s story. There is a freedom from others and their needs in the country that doesn’t exist in the city, though in the city there is more anonymity, so if you must, you can say no to someone, pretend not to hear, drive away from the gas station while they ask someone else to help them to the hospital.

 

I have adopted similar worries to Mom’s. It bothers me every time I scroll past another plea for money on Facebook or side-step an aid worker collecting for Save the Children in downtown Seattle, or tell someone asking that I have no cash on me. (I’ve quit carrying cash so, at the very least, when I say this, it isn’t a lie. And also, Z and I are clinging to our little bit of rented real-estate in a city that has recently been designed to cater only to 23-year-old tech workers and their somewhat larger paychecks.) But I do do those things, those side-stepping and not-hearing things, and the longer I am in Seattle, the more it feels like second nature because the want is so much here. If I were home in Indiana, there is no way I’d walk past a man slumped over in his wheelchair. I’d help an old lady into the Meijer bathroom (though I still probably wouldn’t pull down her pants), and if someone told me they were driving through town and had run out of gas, I’d probably believe them, and if I didn’t believe them, I’d tell them I only had a $5 but they were welcome to it just so I could end my interaction with them more quickly.

 

On our return journey from Bainbridge, as we were disembarking, a fellow in front of us was sort of spinning in a circle. His hair was wild, his pants were down well past his butt, and I growled at Mom under my breath, “DO NOT ENGAGE HIM!” Mom looked startled at my command, but then when we got closer it was clear that he wasn’t deranged or begging but just talking on his phone after having made some poor fashion choices earlier in the day. We made our way home and once I’d locked the door on the city, I felt my guard come down. I felt like myself.

 

But then there is this.

 

Our goal on Bainbridge was to go to the historical museum there to see the exhibit of Ansel Adams’s portraits of law-abiding Japanese Americans who were detained in Manzanar during World War II to “keep America safe.” Forget their citizenship. Forget due-process. They looked like the enemy, President Roosevelt signed an Executive Order, and the “threat” was done and dusted.

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The museum is small and packed full of tidbits from island life, and you feel a bit like you’ve stumbled into someone’s attic where everything has been carefully labeled, so you can skip over the bits of little interest and stare at the bits that fascinate you.

 

When we arrived, there were two women sitting at the front desk. We told them we were there to see the Adams portraits, and they both seemed delighted, and made us feel as if no one else in the history of the museum had come in to see them or gave two hoots about the Japanese internment. We went into the room with the portraits, looked at the ephemera from that time—tags that had been tied to coats and possessions with names and thumbprints (even though these were law-abiding citizens), photos of people going to the ferry and leaving their homes for an uncertain future (some were afraid they would be exterminated), family portraits, letters from the camps to family or neighbors, explaining the conditions, etc. We settled into folding chairs and watched a documentary made by the National Parks Service about Manzanar, and when it was over, one of the two women from the front desk came in.

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She was soft spoken and didn’t want to intrude on our museum experience, but she wanted us to know that she had been seven when President Roosevelt’s Executive Order was signed and the notices that people who were of Japanese descent would be removed. She and her family were sent to Manzanar. She told us about her experiences, how the residents of Bainbridge were the first to go in the country, how half of them came back, how some had neighbors and friends who were good enough to pay their taxes and run their farms so they had something to come back to. (Others lost everything.) She showed us where she was in the ferry dock photo in the sea of people headed off to the unknown. She showed us her sister’s doll—one of the few possessions that she was allowed to take—in a display case. Then she directed me to the old Bainbridge Gardens sign that was visible—if I understand correctly—as you entered the ferry. Then she had me walk behind it and see a message there that had been scrawled on the back by neighbors, one of the first thing the internees saw when they returned. It said, “Welcome Back.”

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This read “Welcome Back” but it was in a corner & this was the best shot I could get in tight quarters.

Not all the stories were good for those returning. Not all people are good, but as the woman talked to us, she kept coming back to this idea: it was a bad time, but not everyone was bad. There was good. There was this sign. There was the local newspaper that had kept everyone back on the island updated on the happenings of their Japanese-American friends.

 

There were good neighbors.

 

I’m not sure where this leaves me and my internal battle with my city armor. I’ll spend the rest of 2017 trying to find that sweet spot between being a good neighbor and being a doormat who gets yelled at by a man under a bun for some imagined pedestrian infraction.

 

Good fences may make good neighbors, but when you live in the city, you have to make those fences on your own, in your mind, in your behavior. And then you have to make peace with the choices you’ve made.

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Veering Toward Wonderment

Standard

 

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Z and I were once on a bus after returning a rental car and a guy got on selling batteries that we suspect he’d just lifted from the drugstore behind the bus stop. The bus was crowded and it was one of those days when I was feeling very much that metro buses are not that far removed from the ones you see in the movies, creaking through the mountains of Central America, packed full of people, their luggage, and a host of chickens and goats. I like a quiet bus and as such, was hoping the guy would realize no one was interested in purchasing his wares and sit down.

 

And then suddenly, this man said to the battery guy, “Lemme see those?” and the next thing you know, the two are shooting the bull and the man is digging in his wallet to pull out some bills to give to the battery guy. It was like a very public drug deal only without the drugs. Z and I looked at each other, fascinated by the notion that business transactions like this were happening on the #21. What makes you sell batteries on a bus? What makes you realize you need batteries while on a bus? The mysteries of life are many.

 

When I’m my best self, this is the attitude I’ve found most helpful when riding the city bus: instead of annoyance, veer toward wonderment. A woman gets on the bus with a stack of books and a hamster in a cage? Do not worry about the hamster getting loose and crawling up your rain coat. Instead, ask yourself if the woman often takes her hamster on jaunts, if she reads the books to the hamster. Really ponder the questions. Then consider using her for story fodder.

 

But often I am not my best self. Perhaps I’ve complained to you about my Bus Feelings before. I am not anti bus. I’m all for my taxes paying for a metro system that allows people to transport their carcasses around the city, but my enthusiasm for the bus is one of a belief that other people should ride it and Z and I should not. My greatest joy would be to move my car, Hildegarde von Bingen, from my folks’s driveway in Indiana so we could leap into her at any given moment and drive wherever we want. In this fantasy the roads are miraculously traffic free because all other humans are using public transportation.

 

My reasons for hating the bus are varied, but by and large those reasons can be boiled down into two categories:

 

  • Control: I have none. Will I have a seat? Will it be crowded? Will it be really hot or really cold? (It’s never 68 degrees.) Will music be pouring out of someone’s earphones at Metallica levels? Will someone be cursing and threatening a brawl? Will someone be shouting into their phone like it’s a walkie talkie? HOLD IT UP TO YOUR EAR. WE SHOULDN’T HAVE TO HEAR BOTH SIDES OF YOUR BORING CONVERSATION. Will someone’s dog be licking my foot? Will a baby be screaming or thwacking my leg with a sticky lollipop? There’s no way to know the quality of the ride you’ll have until you get on the bus at which point you’ve lost autonomy.

 

  • Germs: I do not want any. People are dirty. Some by preference and others by necessity of their hard lives. They cough without covering their mouths, they dig into their noses before pulling the stop-request cord, they rest their greasy heads against the windows. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m this close to instituting a policy wherein Z and I both have to wear “bus pants” like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory because I don’t want our pants that have been on the bus sitting on our sofa. Especially after I read the article about how rarely people—even people with relatively good hygiene—wash their blue jeans. We’re talking six months. People brag about this as if it’s normal. It’s not normal. My most recent pair of Levi’s encouraged me not to wash them with any regularity lest their structural integrity be damaged. (Doesn’t this mean you aren’t selling a very good product if by using it the purchaser increases the likelihood that said product will fail to perform as expected? Also what’s with the the passive-aggressive way the label implies if the jeans fail to withstand regular laundering it will be all my fault.) WASH YOUR JEANS; BUTTS ARE DIRTY.

 

Bottom line: I do not love the bus. On the days I ride the bus, I often get off thinking less of humanity and their bad habits and worse hygiene.

 

Nevertheless, it is a necessity of city life, and last week I found myself on a bus trundling up Broadway because of a recent unfortunate eye incident of mine.

 

I’ve got weird eyes and have had since I was in 7th grade. One is so near-sighted I can’t read the big E on the eye chart and the other is minimally far-sighted. Over the years, I’ve treated this ailment with glasses and a single contact, both of which I wore haphazardly until my ophthalmologist and I agreed it was pointless. I can see fine so long as no one tall sits in front of my good movie eye at the theater and I can read a book so long as there is good light over the shoulder of my book eye. (There was an unfortunate incident in grad school caused by my low-quality depth perception when I drove over an entire bale of hay because I thought it was just a little straw in the road, but I like to think that was a one off.) The eye doctor even assured me that this would be an advantageous eye situation when I hit middle age because I basically have eyes that already work like bifocals. And sure enough, for the last several years as my friends had to pull reading glasses out of their purses to read the menu at Cheesecake factory, I could squint just right and read the fine print.

 

But apparently I’ve hit some point of no return now because when I go to the bookstore, no matter how I contort myself, I cannot browse titles. It’s all a blur. While I can read fine, that middle distance is a killer, so I’ll often pull off a brightly colored book from the shelf, pull it close to my eyes, and then discover it’s a book on squirrel mating habits or the gross national product of Papua New Guinea when what I had in mind was a collection of Joan Didion essays or a Marian Keyes novel. Usually when I go to the bookstore now, I just browse through the journals with all of their nonthreatening blank pages and think about the words I would write there if the journal were mine. It’s much less frustrating to do this.

 

I finally went to an ophthalmologist here and she told me what I need now is a pair of “computer glasses.” She explained that all-day glasses for my wonky eyes would do me no good, but I should be wearing something for that middle distance when I’m in a bookstore or working on my laptop.

 

Because they aren’t glasses I will wear all day, it seemed like a good opportunity to try my hand with a style that is fun. Over the weekend, Z and I looked at some frames and I settled on a bright red squarish pair, though we decided I’d come back later in the week because the shop was so busy and we had a weekend life we wanted to live instead of standing in line to place my order.

 

Thus my bus ride a few days later.

 

There were only about ten of us on the bus, and at a stop not far from my house, a guy got on in a rumpled red track suit. He had on Coke bottle glasses, big earphones that were plugged into a phone he was carrying in a long narrow box. In the box were some tatty DVD cases, signs that said “restrooms  for customers only,” and a small board with coat hooks screwed onto it. He himself had a permanently startled expression and a back pack that had crawling out of it’s pockets and zips a ruler, an electrical cord, a big spray can of air freshener, and a golf umbrella without a handle.

 

It was a fascinating conglomeration of items, though I was particularly drawn to the coat hook board for reasons I can’t explain. Had he pried it off the wall somewhere? What kind of space would he be hanging it up on? Did he have a coat to hang on it? Did he have a home in which to hang it?

 

I had a lot of questions about the coat rack.

 

I’m easily overwhelmed by the sadness I perceive in other people’s lives sometimes, and I was on the verge of having to look away so I didn’t end up weeping on the #60 because of the sorrowful plight I’d imagined for this guy. He wasn’t dirty and he didn’t seem to be responding to any voices in his head, so I’m uncertain why I determined his life was a misery except for his expression and the fact that his shoelaces were mismatched.

 

An older man in a ball cap started to exit the bus and stopped in front of Track Suit Guy and told him what a good-looking coat rack he had there in his box. The guy couldn’t hear the older man because of the earphones and I thought to myself, “Just move on, old man. Don’t engage him. He’s probably nuts.” Track Suit Guy pulled off his earphones and the older man repeated himself. Track Suit Guy looked down at his coat rack and said, “You can have it” in the softest, sweetest, most sane voice. “Take it,” he said.

 

For half a second, I felt a flash of shame. If someone on the bus admires anything of mine, my inclination is to say a cool thank you and then pull the item closer to me for protection. Even with a mismatched bunch of junk like this guy had, I can only assume he had imagined some use for it or he wouldn’t have been carting it around the city, and yet he seemed almost eager to part with it in order to please a perfect stranger.

 

Frankly, I felt a little indignant on his behalf when the older man said, “Well, thank you,” picked up the coat rack and walked off the bus.  I come from a place where people offer you things and you have to say “no” about six times before you can comfortably accept their offer of a cool drink, yet in a single second, goods changed hands, and the two parted company with no protesting or no sense from Track Suit Guy that his offer had been polite but insincere. The coat rack out of his possession, he went back to fiddling with his earphones and reshuffling the remaining items in the narrow box.

 

Wouldn’t the world would be an interesting place if we carried around arbitrary items and handed them to whatever person admired them or had use of them? Not that I’ll be doing that anytime soon. I like my things. But it would be a fascinating way to live your life.

 

People are glorious amazing.

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Though not IN the bus, we see this guy around town doing what we believe might be Mt. Rainier worship. He is always pointed towards the south and he’s always in the middle of the crosswalk.

 

I have some decision-making deficits that tax Z because I often stand gawping when he asks something simple like “what do you want for dinner?” or “what do you want to watch?” Even so, I felt very good about the prospect of marching into the eye place, plunking the fun red glasses on the counter, and saying, “I want these.” I could do this without Z standing next to me, nodding his approval. I was sure of it.

 

The place was deserted except for the two women working there, and they devoted all of their attention to me. The red ones were nice, they said, but they were a little tight on the bridge of my nose. How about these?

 

I probably had on 60 pairs of glasses in the span of 90 minutes. They were very patient with my indecision and didn’t try to overwhelm me with their opinions. Yet after an hour, I succumbed to their coos of approval when I put on a pair of purple tortoiseshell glasses. The glasses did look stylish and fun, I thought. They did bring out the green in my eyes because purple is a natural complement to green. The shape seemed right for my face, neither too square nor too round, though it was not a shape I could have identified in my 10th grade geometry class.

 

I snapped a selfie to show Z later, plunked down the money, and ordered those frames. The woman helping me also ordered the green frames that weren’t in the shop because she said I might like those even more, and she could switch the lenses out if I do. I felt really thrilled with my glasses experience and the nice women who had so helpfully led me to the most attractive pair.

 

I strutted down Broadway to meet Z, quite pleased with myself for making a choice without him. I popped into Dick Blick to get some markers and thought how I’d soon be able to hold my own with all the art students there because my glasses are so hip. I stopped in the bookstore to look at the blur of books one last time before I return next week with glasses that will make each title readable. I met Z at the drug store and told him about my adventure and showed him the photo I’d taken.

 

He took one look at it and laughed a short, hard laugh. It was the kind of laugh he could not have held in if he’d tried. It was like a sneeze. I don’t know that he actually said this with his mouth, but even if he didn’t, the message was clear:

 

Girl, you look crazy.

 

I wanted to be cross with Z for not saying what I was expecting which was either “You look cute!” or “Good choice, Sausage!” but with the evidence in front of me after I’d grabbed my phone back and stared at the photo, how could I be mad? He was not wrong.

 

I looked unstable. The glasses were huge. They looked black instead of purple and thus way too dark for my pale, pale Irish-American face. Also, apparently my face is crooked or my ears are uneven, and thus the glasses were sitting in a way that made my eyes look off-kilter, like something Picasso would paint. Looking at the image on my phone, I was reminded of a mentally handicapped girl in my hometown when I was in my twenties who wiped off trays at McDonald’s with great pleasure and authority. I always loved her enthusiasm and her sweet nature, but it is not a look I’ve aspired to all these years.

 

My thoughts returned to Track Suit Guy and how possibly I’d misjudged him and his life circumstances when I’d been racked with that wave of sadness earlier on the bus while studying the junk in that narrow box. Maybe there was nothing wrong with his life outside of his unfortunate glasses and his mismatched shoelaces. Maybe he was just a guy getting through his day, being pleasant to strangers and not being judgmental when one of them took him up on his offer. Maybe I should try to be more like him.

 

Maybe my new glasses, hideous as they will no doubt be, can help me remove these filters so I see things more honestly and with less judgment.

 

Though I seriously doubt that they’ll make me enjoy the bus.

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Get on the bus.