Category Archives: Urban Life

In the Days Before Sunscreen

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Bee on purple thistle

One of my favorite memories of childhood is when I would get to go swimming with my Great Aunt Clara in the little oval-shaped in-ground pool behind her in-laws ranch house in a respectable-but-not-rich subdivision in Richmond. Her husband’s family was from Kentucky, her father-in-law had worked in a coal mine and had lung problems because of it, and their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren were often there, eating ham and beans or fried chicken, talking about history and politics and current events, and swimming. I learned to swim in that pool, and members of this family—a family that felt like my own but wasn’t quite—stood around the water-soaked cement deck and cheered me on as I swam the length of the pool, a real rite of passage if you wanted the privilege of going into the deep end.

Aunt Clara always wore a navy one-piece suit, nose-clips, and a swim cap festooned with flowers. She liked swimming, but more often than not, you’d see her on one of the plaid floating air mattresses, dangling a hand in the water. She’d order me to push her around, into or out of the sun, and after a particularly restful float, she’d sigh and say, “I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight.” Then she’d pinch the clips onto her nose and roll off the raft and into the water to cool herself.

Aunt Clara wasn’t being snobby—it wasn’t her pool—she was playing a caricature: Eva Gabor in “Green Acres” or one of the Beverly Hillbillies’ snooty neighbors. When she said it, you could imagine a cigarette in a long gold holder and a gloved hand dripping with diamond bracelets.

We’d laugh but we also knew that this was our own stroke of good fortune that we were able—just for that moment—to pretend we were the sorts of people who had their own pool. People who could walk through a sliding door into a backyard of some manse—probably surrounded by palm trees and drenched in California sun instead of maples and a cloudy Indiana sky—into their own massive pool. This borrowed pool and the kindness of others is also why I was able to learn to swim.

Usually after a day at the pool Mom and I would go back to Aunt Clara and Uncle Clay’s, where the air conditioner would be roaring. I would inevitably have a sunburn—it was in the days before we fussed with sunscreen—and she’d put my favorite striped percale sheet on her blue sofa and I would stretch out on it, the coolness of the material a balm, and I’d fall into a deep and delicious sleep. Come to think of it, it is the quality of these post-swim naps at her house that I still chase after and never quite find all these years later.

I’m not sure why I’m telling you this except I got a sunburn on the roof deck last weekend, and it’s made me think about the nature of that nap, the softness of that sheet, the coolness of the air, and that sense you really only get in childhood when some adult person has a salve or a treat that is exactly what you need.

Fire in circular fire pit on roof of tall building, other skyscrapers in the background.
Come warm yourselves by the fires of Oh La La!

This last weekend, Z and I finally lifted our post-vaccine-self-imposed isolation and had friends over on three different days. Our first guests at Oh La La! We headed to the 18th floor roof deck where we scored our favorite table, spread out a table cloth, and then piled a picnic feast Z had put together onto the table. The views were stunning—sky so clear we could even see Mt. Baker in the distance—and I kept wondering how it was that this time last year we were in our 1920s apartment with the ancient, stained linoleum, peering out of windows that hadn’t been recently washed, and now suddenly we’re on top of the world. It was very much an Aunt Clara sort of day even without a pool, though we had the good taste not to ask each other, I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight? We’re still not sure how we got so lucky to be in this space, but we’re enjoying it while it’s ours. And though there are things I loved about the old apartment, we ran into our cheerful and talented former maintenance man who said he’d had a recent report of rats in the old building, so maybe it’s just as well we had to move. Before the rats arrived.

I don’t know if this is scientific or not, but I suspect you burn more easily when you are 18 stories closer to the sun. Z thinks my science is off—does anyone know? Surely the red cheeks of those K-2 and Everest hikers aren’t just because of the cold. Regardless, I might need to invest in a parasol. As it stands, I now have a leather chest and arm that I may never be able to moisturize back to middle-age.

sailboats on lake in front of hillside desnsely covered with trees and buildings.
Crane-free viewing!

A midsummer interlude of happenings:

  • The crane by the lakefront that threatened to build a building that would block our view has been dismantled and the new building is low to the ground and I can still see the sailboats and float planes landing on Lake Union. All the winter worry was wasted energy.
  • We’ve finally ventured into an Amazon Go and discovered the joy of shoplifting. Funds are automatically deducted from my account when we put them in our bag, so there’s no need to check out. Our record so far for a snack fix was 58 seconds in the store. Sadly, it will take much longer to work those purchased Cheetos off my hips.  
  • Angus the Robovac has finally been given free rein in the apartment without my constant clucking and correcting. He’s a good boy. (I need a dog.)
  • Speaking of which, there is a new baby French bulldog puppy in the building who wears a pink sweater and snorts like a pig. She’s DELIGHTFUL.
  • A film crew was using the historic Stimson-Green mansion as a location a couple of weeks ago and the street was blocked off and big trailers were pulled in and there was all sorts of hubbub. I later found out that it was for season two of “Three Busy Debras” which is on Adult Swim and a former student of mine is one of the producers, so that was exciting.
  • We’ve been trying to learn to communicate with our cooling system. It seems to come on at random times whether we need the cool air or not, and we may have to bring in an interpreter from the UN. But even in its most badly behaving times, I keep rejoicing with the knowledge that when it does get hot for those five days or when the forest fires in California wreck our air quality later in the summer, we’ll be able to breathe. Woo hoo.
  • My TikTok addiction is still raging. Z says he never knows what’s going to come out of my mouth. The other day, I said, “This Irish witch I follow said, ….” I’m learning all sorts of things about van life, dancing, fashion for the mid-life set, Celtic witchery, Quakerism, mandala painting, body acceptance, and all the reasons I likely have ADHD.  
  • Z and I are finished with classes for a while and are contemplating a road trip. I’ll keep you posted if we happen upon the World’s Biggest Ball of String.

This whole post-vaccine situation still seems foreign, doesn’t it? Suddenly people here at Oh La La are holding the door open or smiling or letting you pet their dogs. We aren’t crossing the street to avoid every human we pass on our evening walks, and even though it makes me feel like I left the apartment without my pants on, I’m walking in the evenings without a mask. What a weird time. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I think it was that one day we would wake up and the virus would be gone and there’d be bells peeling and rejoicing and ticker tape in the streets like at the end of World War II or something, but of course it won’t be that way. Of course it’s going to be slow and odd and our brains are going to have to adjust.

Or not.

Yellow sign reading "Stay close to anything that makes you glad you are alive."

Obviously, everybody’s pandemic experience has been different, based on where you live, if you know someone who was ill, if you lost someone you cared about, or if you were adjusting to life in Montecito away from Buckingham Palace. But I am curious about the choices that people will make about their lives and how they will live them going into the future. Who will decide to change nothing? Who will change their lives completely? Quit doing a job they hate? Leave particular relationships behind? Quit trying to buy happiness? Turn over some new leaf? After the last pandemic of this magnitude, we had the Roaring Twenties—women went wild, ditching their corsets and doing the Charleston, demanding the vote. Jazz took off. American literature and fashion design, interior design, and architecture—all of that changed significantly. Despite Prohibition there was an excess of drinking, an excess of everything.

There are going to be some interesting stories that people will tell about how their lives changed because of the pandemic. I look forward to hearing them, to reading them, and maybe to living my own. I can’t quite narrow down how things have changed in my own head, though I know they have. I’m writing more. I’m reading more. I’m busier during the day in a good way. I want to keep that going. But also I hope that we will all be recognizing more of those individual moments—a dip in a borrowed pool, a nap on the perfect sheet, a conversation with friends and loved ones that involves a lot of laughter—where we count ourselves rich.

lower legs in pants, blue shoes resting on hammock, sky above and beyond.

In It to Win It: An April Blog in May

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Paper cutout of boy with mountain in far distance.

Despite the pandemic and despite the fact that Z and I just became bona fide re: being released back into society post vaccine, we so far have been living exactly as we were pre-vaccine. And now that we’ve hit the three-week mark we’ve stopped worrying that every headache is a telltale sign of some Johnson & Johnson vaccine shenanigans. So far, so good.

So what I’ve done to prepare for a future wherein I might actually be around other people is wear my “real” shoes on a walk (and by “real” I mean “Danskos” so don’t go picturing Jimmy Choo anything) and my reward was that in the middle of the night I had a muscle cramp in my ankle. Which is a new thing I didn’t know could happen and was clueless about how to get it to stop.

Because my hair was starting to look more and more like the witches at the beginning of MacBeth, Z and I cut it. It’s now an imperfect bob, but I don’t care. In eleven years I’ve never bothered to find a hair stylist here because I prefer getting my hair done in Richmond when I go home. I would fly to the moon to get my hair done with my person, the aptly named Joy, if it meant I didn’t have to make small talk with a stranger. I’ve been going to her since I was 22 and have no intention of stopping now. Until I feel safe climbing on a plane and getting to Richmond, you’ll have to excuse the straggly ends and the grey strands that apparently Joy’s been covering for awhile without telling me.

At the moment, I’m in the process of purging all non-natural fibers from my wardrobe. I realized one of the reasons I’ve been so comfortable for the last 400 days is because I have not worn anything with structure, have not worn anything that does not grow naturally on the planet, and have not had a zipper anywhere near my person. Eventually, I will transition back into what my friend calls “hard pants” so long as they are cotton, silk, or linen (really just cotton—I’m not that fancy), but today is not that day.

Also, because I hang on to clothes forever, I’m looking carefully at the pieces I’ve been wearing for 20 years or so and considering that probably these are the pieces I’m happiest in and should just keep enjoying them or find replacements. Steve Jobs had his black turtle necks—why can’t I have a signature style?

I’m looking at you black hoodie from L.L Bean circa 1994. You’ve been with me through both good and bad times, have been on three continents with me, and you’ve held up well. Thank you.

My next move is to figure out what three or four make-up essentials I’m unwilling to give up and then just refuse to be lured into any more “this will make you look magical” ad campaigns. No Snake Oil for Me in the Post Pandemic, thank you.  From this point on, I’m probably going to look my age. I had a good run for a lot of years—a benefit of having extra adipose tissue, hating the sun, and not having children and thus avoiding worry lines. But eventually age catches up with us all unless we go to extreme measures, and I’m just not extreme. I am going to have jowls and dark circles and bags under my eyes. Used to, I would never go anywhere without make-up and my belief that it hid all of my flaws. At the very least, I’ve always been an eyeshadow, eyeliner, and mascara girl. But can we just admit that mascara is a pain—it’s messy and if it’s not messy you have to rub chemicals on your eyes at the end of the day to get it off. Also, it has never made me look like I have more than 23 eyelashes despite the promises so why bother. I don’t have the upper eyelid situation I used to have, so why keep powdering them with color only to have the color disappear into the recesses of my face folds? (I will cling to my eyeliner, but it is on short notice.) I have always looked ridiculous in lipstick and so I’m just going to own that now and slather my lips with Chicken Poop (really, it sounds gross, but it’s good lip balm) and be done with it.

Basically, I think I’ll just spend the rest of my life pretending that I’m walking around under Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility and it’s going to free up a load of drawer and closet space.

I didn’t mean to be talking about this. Sorry. I’ve distracted myself because of two badly timed advertisements on social media. Instead, I meant to tell you about the houseguest we had for the last two weeks: Our first houseguest at Oh La La.

Paper cut out of boy snuggled in bed.
Stanley was an excellent sleeper.

My cousin’s second grader sent his buddy Flat Stanley to stay with us to be shown around Seattle. About eight years ago we did the same for two other family members, but back then we weren’t sequestered on First Hill, and so we got the expected photos of Flat Stanley at all the tourist spots: on a ferry, at the base of the Space Needle, walking around Pioneer Square, shopping at Pike Market, sauntering along the beach on West Seattle, etc.

This time we were limited. Flat Stanley spent a lot of time on our roof deck looking longingly off into the distance at all of the things we would have shown him if only we weren’t on the short leash or had a car or hazmat suits. (Covid-wise, Seattle is in the Red Zone again and the governor is likely going to move us back to Phase 2.) One day we did venture across the Rubicon that is the Pike-Pine Corridor because I was sure we’d find a decent view of the Space Needle from there without actually going downtown. Like last month when we ventured two blocks beyond our self-imposed boundary, you’d have thought this walk to a neighborhood next to our own was tantamount to trekking to Tangier. I kind of felt like we should have been carrying our passports even though two and a half years ago I taught an afternoon class for procrastinators at the library two blocks over.

Paper cut out of boy on high rise roof deck with city and sunset behind him.
He was a good sport about having to experience the Olympic Peninsula from the roof deck.

It turns out a lot of the thru-streets that used to have a vantage of the Space Needle no longer do because buildings have gone up. When we finally spied our goal, it would have been a perfect shot with the late afternoon sun highlighting the Olympic Mountains in the distance. Except a crane had been erected and kind of blotted the view in a pre-cursor to the final blotting that will take place when whatever monstrosity they are building now is completed.

Paper cut out of a boy with Space Needle, crane, and mountain range in far distance.
On second look, maybe what the crane will be blocking is the mountains.

I know. I know. I now live in one of those monstrosities and my building is no doubt blocking the view that someone else used to have of Lake Union or Elliot Bay. How can I complain? I’m not sure, but I can. At this rate, Frasier Crane’s condo has probably lost its view.

On our walk back home, we passed Neko Cat Café and decided that in all likelihood, that particular type of establishment was surely peculiar enough to Seattle that a bunch of second graders in Middle America would be fascinated, so we snapped some pics there where a cat napped in a hammock. This felt like a real win, like it would make up for all the other fuzzy, crap photos I’d taken of things in the distance.

Paper cut out of boy in front of scooter next to a sign reading "Neko A Cat Cafe" with cat lounging in window.
Riding the cat might be easier than the scooter.

I typed up the letter that will accompany Flat Stanley on return to Indiana via USPS. My brow was furrowed as I clicked away, as if I had a big presentation I had to put together for the Board of Directors at McMahon & Tate. Z seemed a little frustrated that I wasn’t letting him weigh in and that I was hyper-focused on what was only ever meant to be a Post-It amount of info about how far Seattle is from Flat Stanley’s home and what people wear here and one or two photos.

Z shook his head.

I was in it to win. Please note: there is no competition. I will not be awarded a crown and sash as Flat Stanley’s very best travel facilitator. My name will not be included in any Community Notes section of the local newspaper, and there are no cash prizes.  In all likelihood, I won’t see this child until next Christmas at which time Flat Stanley will be some old assignment that is now long over, so it is unlikely that even he will come up to us, shake our hands, and tell us how much he appreciates that we tried to show his buddy the best time we could.

There’s something ugly bubbling inside of me that makes me want to do things the best—I’m not sure if I want a gold star for effort or if I am competitive and want to win, even if it is for something unwinnable. I suspect the former because when I do “win” at something I feel bad about the people I beat, but my maniacal expression while I work towards a finished goal probably looks like it’s all about the competition. You’d have to ask Z.

As for him, he was finally allowed to help me insert a variety of photos and write a sign-off to the class. We folded the letter with photos and Flat Stanley—now folded in on himself—into an envelope, put three Gwen Ifill stamps on that baby, and mailed it. I went back to my doodling and TV watching and promptly forgot the high stakes hosting tournament I’d enrolled myself in minutes before.

Paper cut out of boy on stool with statue of two life size bear cubs playing.
Hopefully the bears of First Hill are set on “gentle”.

I’ve missed having house guests. Stanley didn’t require much of us—I didn’t even have to change sheets on the guest bed—but it was nice to have someone around. He was a very easy guest. I’m looking forward to having a three-dimensional visitor in our new space and see how it goes. I’m still fantasizing about cook-outs on the roof and game days in one of the conference rooms with the Big Table. Possibly if we do that, I will be trying to win. Or maybe I’ll just be trying to play the best game.

One development: some obsessive brain cell of mine had me Googling “cat cafes in Winchester, Indiana” and it turns out there is one there. Those second graders will NOT be impressed with our fancy, bit city notions of how we have things other parts of the country do not.

I wish there were do-overs. They’ve probably never been to a Pinball Museum.

Paper cut out of boy on hammock.
Even paper house guests like a hammock and skyline.

Ground Control to Major Tom

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PART THE FIRST


I’ve discovered that swiping through TikTok videos in the morning is the perfect way to stay cozy in bed. I give myself ten minutes and then look at the clock and a half hour or hour has passed, which is disturbing, but I keep telling myself this is just winter behavior. It is cold. The flannel sheets and Z snoozing next to me and radiating heat are too inviting for me to willingly bound out of bed the minute my eyes open.

One drawback (of the many) to beginning the day this way is the frequency with which some videos use earworms to highlight whatever antics are going on in the video. For three days now I have had a few bars of Beyonce’s “Halo” stuck in my head on a loop. It. Will. Not. Go. Away. Yesterday, I thought maybe if I listened to the entire song instead of just those bars it would finally exhaust itself but all it did was make Z start humming it too. There are worse songs, but I’d like to move on in my life now.

My recent desire to stay in bed an extra hour was exacerbated by the Big Snow we had that lasted a couple of days. We’re in much better shape than the rest of the country in this regard—now it feels like spring is afoot—but for those two days of snow, the city felt magical and Z and I were thrilled with our new perch here at Oh Là Là, looking down on snow-covered streets and not having to go out on un-shoveled sidewalks. We did venture up to the roof deck and threw a snowball and attempted a snowman with snow that would not pack, but for the most part, we just stared out the window like a couple of kids who had never seen snow before.

Man on snow-covered rooftop deck next to snow-covered table--skyscrapers in background and visible snowflakes falling.
Z on the roof deck about to be pelted with a snowball (of sorts).

Oh, and I did a jigsaw puzzle because snow days are perfect for that and I still miss RBG.

Finished jigsaw puzzle of Ruth Bader Ginsburg image in front of American flag with text written at bottom that says "Women belong in all places where decisions are being made."
Nobody ever looked so good in a lace collar.

INTERLUDE

During the snow days, I got unnaturally concerned with the well-being of a neighbor who lives across the street. Please note (and believe): I am not a peeping Tom. I am not hoping to see any fights, naked bodies, or assess whether my neighbors wipe their noses on their sleeves. Still, when you are living in the sky and working at a window, occasionally your gaze will fall on the neighbor who has a lovely big St. Bernard thrilled with the snow or the neighbor whose cat peers down from the 12th floor as if everything on First Hill belongs to him.

Occasionally, my eye lands on the woman whose blinds are never closed, who sleeps on the sofa with the lights on instead of under her Marimekko duvet in the bedroom. After the first quick glance months ago, I’ve wondered about her. What’s the deal with the sofa? Did she have a bad break up and can’t face her bed alone? Why the lights on at night? Is she afraid of something? Has someone threatened her?

So the other day when I did my quick morning glance before settling into work, I saw her lying on the floor, and my pulse quickened. What had happened to her? I glanced again and the position she was in was really awkward, so I worried that she’d hurt herself. Or, horrors, someone had hurt her.

I instantly started thinking of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, wheelchair bound and stuck in his apartment, passing the time by looking at his neighbors with a telephoto lens. When he sees what he believes to be a murder take place, no one will listen to him.

Sky and clouds with two eagles in the far distances. (Arrows drawn on photo to highlight eagles.)
They were both much closer than this but not when I had my camera.

Recently, a pair of eagles have been flying over our building, so my mini-binoculars were on the desk. I have never used them to look in anyone’s apartment and when I do use them, I make over-exagerrated motions so anyone peering at me can see that I am only looking up at the sky and not trying to peer into their living spaces. It occurred to me that if this woman was compromised, I might be the only person knew it, so I allowed myself to fake look for the eagles in the sky above Lake Union and then do a slow but continuous spin in my chair and briefly train the binoculars on her apartment.

As it happens, I did not have to call 911. The body on the floor was not hers. In fact, it was not a body. In fact, it wasn’t even on the floor. It was an oversized knitted blanket stuffed into and spilling out of a basket.

I haven’t had my eyes checked for a year and a half. It might be time.

St. Bernard dog standing in a snowdrift on a city sidewalk.
Sans keg of brandy for snow rescues.

PART THE SECOND

Because Z himself is also magical and amazing like snow in Seattle, the number of times I’ve had a crush on a “celebrity” since we got together is almost nil, but I’m finding myself disturbingly attracted to the bobble-headed @therealindiandad. Initially, I didn’t know why. I mean, his cartoon head is handsome, I guess, but other than the fox in Robin Hood I don’t make it a habit of crushing on cartoon characters. But then one day Z was bossing me up (in a very loving, comical way) and we were laughing, and I realized it’s because watching @therealindiandad joke-chastise @sheenamelwani while Z is still sleep is the next best thing to having Z awake. They remind me a lot of each other, though I’m relieved Z doesn’t have a bobble head. Z was disturbed by this news until I pointed out to him that his bobble headed doppelgänger is not the father of the woman he chides but the husband and the two of them are laughing so much and having such a good time that they feel like good company these days, particularly when so many posts are full of rage or sadness.

When I finally do shut off TikTok, drag myself out of bed, and head to the study, I’m immediately greeted with annoyance because this is the last space in our apartment at Oh Là Là that has refused to organize itself since our November move. I seem to just keep moving the same items in a circle around the room. A stack of things on the ottoman gets moved to the Napping Cloud and sits there for two weeks, and then I move the items on the bed to the floor so I can nap. Then it’s time to run Angus the robotic vacuum so I pick the stuff up off the floor and put it on the ottoman. I think the problem is I haven’t found a home for these final bits of our life: photos, art, and frames we aren’t using right now, stacks of paper I don’t know where to file, knickknacks in the windowsill, tote bags full of projects I have yet to finish, etc.

And in the center of this still messy space is The Desk: the black hole that sucks in and spews out chaos threefold.

This isn’t a new subject for me—I’ve always had trouble with organizing the place I write and teach. I could clean it up for a photo op, but no sooner is the pic posted than the mess starts building again. It’s one of the things that annoys me most about myself: not just that I can’t be neater but also that I can’t fully embrace my messy tendencies without chastising myself. And because the desk is an exact replica of the inner workings of my mind, I’m also annoyed that after all of these years I also can’t just embrace the rich alphabet soup that is my thought process and instead am convinced there must be something wrong with me.

My desk is really a 6 foot cherry dining table with one tiny drawer and a faux drawer with a keyboard ledge in it. When I ordered it two decades ago, I’d just read a book about how people with my brain type were no good with things that were put away and we just need to see everything in front of us in stacks. The book’s premise was that creative types have different brains and were fighting a losing battle in trying to make traditional 1950s-office-systems-with-filing-cabinets-and-in-and-out-trays work for them.

The theory was a good one—and remains true…if my house keys are under a piece of mail, say, the keys cease to exist for me and I start to make plans about how I’ll have to live the rest of my life without locking the door. But when I embraced this new way of organizing, I imagined myself being tidier than I actually am. I was picturing a soft focus desk with a stack of three books, a cup of tea (even though I don’t drink it that often), and an artful lamp so I could write until the sun came up. I imagined a vast expanse of empty desk, glossy wood grain encouraging me to put only beautiful words on the page.

Large desk that is tidy--laptop, neat stacks of books, photo, journal, clock, and glass of water. (Not messy)
The dream.

Alas. It never looks like that.

There is never an empty space where I could suddenly do a project or a puzzle. Instead, there are layers. If I dig down, I’m reminded that a month ago I was really interested in learning how meditation can be different for women than men, I was organizing things to put in a scrapbook, and I was planning to frame a couple of pictures. If I dig further still, I’d discover a gift card for Elliot Bay Books and a receipt for something I bought Z for Christmas. A jar of pickled onions, I think.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to the Poet Friend on the phone and told her how frustrated I was, and she—a tidy Virgo—suggested that I get an empty box, put everything on my desk in the box, dust and oil the surface of the desk, and then put back only the things I use. For two days, it was the desk I imagined it would be when I bought it. But now, I have this box of “essential things” on the floor:

And the desk is now looking like it’s former, messy self.

I’ve taken very little out of the box of essentials, so what I did was find more/different “essentials” to fill the surface. Nature and Beth abhor a vacuum.

Current essential items on desk:

  • glass desk lamp filled with my mother’s childhood marbles
  • Row of “must have near me” writing books held in place by Scottie dog book ends from Poet Friend
  • clock with big numbers so I always know how late I am to a Zoom appointment
  • laptop
  • Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls tin can now containing pens, scissors, letter opener from elementary Swedish penpal Cecilia, and two beaded Roses from Zimbabwe
  • 1972 Christmas present clipboard from my maternal grandmother given to me because of my love of drawing but now used for class notes and other things I want to remember but eventually forget about and discard

On a six foot desk, this seems like a reasonable amount of items and all you really need for a desk to function, but I’m not done yet.

Other “essentials”:

  • An anatomically correct metal bulldog with spiked collar and butt door that raises for insertion of a tea light candle if Oh La La allowed candles and I wanted to illuminate a metal bulldog
  • An ashtray from a bar bearing my surname purchased on eBay 20 years ago even though I don’t smoke
  • a two-handled tea cup/soup bowl which I use on different days for:
    • my earphones
    • my prayer beads
    • clean watercolor water
  • a vaguely royal looking red box in which I intend to keep bits of paper with notes jotted on them of things I don’t want to forget but that currently holds only a Serenity Prayer key chain of indeterminate origin and a postcard of Wales from a boy I never met but with whom I tried to hae a romantic online relationship in 1994
  • a handmade Scandinavian-looking pottery gnome holding a warm pie next to a toadstool because she looks capable and happy
  • a shallow light blue dish with my grandfather’s rosary in it. I’ve had the beads for almost twenty years and still haven’t learned all the components of the rosary because the 50% of me that was raised Catholic never got to those lessons
  • a chicken timer named Erma to keep me writing
  • a series of gemstones the names of which I can never recall and must then dig in The Box to read the leaflet that came with them reminding me what each crystal is good for. My favorites so far: amethyst and tiger eye
  • a deck of Farber-Zerner tarot cards because I like the art and like to use them for a focusing practice before I write even though I don’t really know that much about tarot and don’t want my future told. (I’m in it for the metaphors.)
  • three books on tarot because why have one when you can have three?
  • my new set of prayer beads (sodalite to encourage intuition, focus, and creativity)
  • my old set of prayer beads (cobalt blue glass, made when I found out my father was sick, the color of which calms me)
  • a rock that fits perfectly in my palm that Z found for me on San Juan Island
  • a Bluetooth speaker
  • a statue of a pig with a quote from Winston Churchill about the superiority of pigs, which reminds me daily not of Churchill or of pigs, but of my college mentor, Gibb, who loved pigs, particularly his boyhood pig, Jipper, who would meet him after school when the bus dropped him off
  • some coasters
  • a tiny painting I painted last year of a young girl squeezing through the Eye of the Needle in a church ruin in Dingle
  • an envelope that likely contains a home colorectal screening test that I have been ignoring for a year but because I’m partly a responsible person and thus haven’t thrown it out but I keep thinking Tomorrow Beth will take care of it and do the responsible thing
  • a Venus of Willendorf statue
  • a holy card of Joan of Arc
  • class notes, printed readings, and dogeared pages of book passages I want to share with my students 
  • a paisley beanbag from my childhood with a tag hand stitched on it that says “Wayne County Historical Museum Richmond, Indiana” that I like to play with while I’m lecturing and have had since I was about five

So where exactly would I put the stuff in the box (notebooks, ShellE the stuffed turtle, my hairbrush, various pics, notebooks, small clipboard, empty box of chocolates with my last name on the lid, to-do list notebook, notebook from my Swedish penpal circa 1978, an Apple box for my AirPods because Apple boxes are just too good to get rid of, a wooden file box that has half a screenplay written on notecards inside that I started with a friend twenty-five years ago and which I keep meaning to put elsewhere and use the box for some other important non-computerized filing, and a variety of pottery dogs.

I need an intervention.

Large desk with laptop on stand, stacks of books and notebooks, binoculars, clock, prayer beads, pottery creatures, etc. (Messy)
My desk and mind are kind of like the Hotel California.

Lately I’ve been writing every morning with my newly discovered family of fellow INFP/J creatives and we often spend time talking about how our brains work, how differently we are wired from most of the population, and what the insides of our heads look like. We’ve talked about how when we are writing or drawing or doing some other kind of creating, we are out there just loosely tethered to earth and when Ground Control calls us back down to have a conversation about cornflakes or the funny meme they just saw, it’s really, really hard for us to make that adjustment. It’s hard to acclimatize back to earth’s atmosphere.

In my life, I’ve had what I would classify as two and a half visions. One was holy. One was comforting. And then this one from my childhood when I was staying with my grandmother that until now I’ve never been able to interpret.

It was just the two of us together on a Saturday morning, and I was lying upside down on the davenport, my head nearly touching the floor as I took in the new perspective of the acoustic tile and how the dropped ceiling into the hallway would make a stair step if her pink mobile home were upside down. (I’d been exposed to The Poseidon Adventure at a young age and was fascinated by how normal things would be transformed if flipped upside down. Please note, Gene Hackman was an early celebrity crush. A man who was convicted that he could get you to a place of greater safety—what was not to like? Even better than @therealindiandad.) As I hung upside down, Grandma was across from me in the kitchen, where she always was. I never saw the woman sit down until I was a teenager.

Then suddenly, without planning it, I was on the ceiling. I don’t know if this would be classified as an out-of-body experience or a vision, though probably most people would say it was just the fancy of a child, but I felt myself floating in this upside down landscape—the only thing keeping me earth bound was the ceiling—and my grandmother was frantically reaching up towards me, kind of hopping up and down trying to grab ahold of me, and pull me back towards earth as if I were a balloon that had escaped. It was so real. Then I came back to myself and my real grandmother was asking me which cartoon I wanted her to put on the TV because I wasn’t hovering above her after all but was lounging on the sofa expecting her to serve me by turning the channel to Scooby-Doo. We grandchildren were so spoiled.

Tree-lined city street covered in snow. One person walking in street. Snow-covered cars.
On terra firma.

The vision was weird and for years I’ve wondered what it was, what had or hadn’t happened, and then it just sort of folded into my life like the time I was stung under the arm by a bee or the time I fell out of a tree and had the wind knocked out of me and thought I’d killed myself. It was just an event in my life: that time I was floating on the ceiling and Grandma pulled me back to earth.

But now? I think the universe was trying to give me a metaphor for how I’d spend the rest of my life, trying so hard to listen to step-by-step instructions or remember a list of five items to pick up at the grocery or to stay engaged in a conversation or stay focused on my non-creative work, but always, I find myself somewhere other than where I’m supposed to be living between my own ears. Then I come back to myself and the other person hasn’t noticed I was gone. Or, if they are Z, they have noticed and they think I’m a bad listener or lackadaisical worker or a bad bet if they want me to pick something up for them at the store. But they love me despite my human frailties.

It’s been a real boon to know 60-90 minutes a day I’m going to be getting together with these people I’ve never met in real life (and were it not for the pandemic would never have met on Zoom) and they get it. One of us will say, “Have you ever…?” and everyone else will nod in agreement and the conversation will flow. And then we write. And when the host tells us it’s been an hour, most of us are startled because we’ve been out there on our own individual tethers. But also, together.

Goodness knows what the totality of 2021 is going to hold for us. I don’t even want to guess about the future (I told you those Tarot cards are not about knowing the future), but my goal for this year is to embrace my quirks, to work around whatever ear worm has burrowed into my head, and if my neighbors appear to have been murdered, to check in on them even if I feel foolish (or criminal) afterward when I realize their knitted throws were never in any danger.

In the remaining ten months of 2021, let us all be kind to ourselves and laugh whenever we find cause.

FIN

Blue mala beads in a teacup on a desk.

In the Bleak Midwinter

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Seattle. December 23rd, 2020. (Please note the “12” in the building lights mid photo.)

So this is Christmas. And what have you done?

What I’ve done is make the study smell like a dead sheep.

In 2003, my brother and I went to Ireland to celebrate his 21st birthday and on our last day there, I discovered a sheepskin that I really wanted to buy because it reminded me of the bed Mac, my beloved Scottish terrier friend, slept on at his parents’ house. But the thought of buying an animal pelt repulsed me even though I’d been eating meat and wearing sensible leather shoes on the trip. Still, I couldn’t quit thinking about that sheepskin and how much my own dog would like it—once I got a dog. It seemed like the logical step to the dream I’d been building for myself—a full-time teaching job, a therapist, a new car in which I could see the world (or at least the drivable bits) with a backseat in which both a dog and car seat would fit should I acquire a child and/or a dog in the process. (I wasn’t picky at that point—dog, kid, both…whatever.)

It being our last night in Galway, Steve and I “took some drink” and the amount of drink it took for me to have zero qualms about buying that sheepskin was three pints of Guinness. You’d have to ask my brother, but I have a vague memory of him shushing me at one point, so it’s possible that I was louder than I needed to be when I went to the sheepskin selling shop and bought a fine large fluffy one in case one day I acquired a fine, large dog who might want to sleep on it. I’ve taken comfort over the years when I bury my feet in that pelt that I was not 100% in my right mind when I purchased it.

Fast forward nearly two decades. It’s been living on the floor of the guest bedroom since I moved my things in with Z eleven years ago. Periodically, it would get a bit matted, and I’d fluff it up with the vacuum or rake it with my fingers until it looked respectable again. Though Mac’s mother regularly washed his because he was sometimes a dirty little dog who would get it muddy or full of burrs, I had never washed mine. But every since we moved into Oh La La, it has looked decidedly dingy. The wool was sort of matted together in places and I was thinking even a dirty dog probably wouldn’t want to curl up on it, so why would I want it on my floor.

I asked Mac’s mom how she had cleaned his, and she sent me easy directions (“put it in the washer”) and so I put it in the washer.

What came out was a mess. Despite spinning it twice, it was still sopping wet. (Sheep are really absorbent.) I put it in the dryer for 20 minutes (the super smart dryer suggested it would need to go for at least 95 minutes, so it was in no danger of shrinking) and then I hung it up. It dripped dryish for two days. Z hit it with a hair dryer. It had developed dreadlocks. There was no fluff to it at all. It reminded me a lot of my first disappointing Irish sheep sighting. I was expecting little cotton fluffs on the hillside, but instead, the flocks of sheep were spray painted so farmers would know which ones were theirs, and they inevitably had bits of grass and mud and dung stuck to their coats.

Two days ago, I bought the fleece it’s own brush and started the arduous job of brushing the wool. It was hard work and reminded me of why we don’t yet have a dog (so much work) and it reminded me of carding wool in third grade for the Bicentennial when we were all in training to be modern-day pioneers. After several minutes at my task, it also reminded me that one of the things I learned from carding wool in 3rd grade is that I am allergic to wool. My hands got itchy and red, my eyes started watering, and I wished I’d never started the project.

Also, the bathroom where I was brushing no longer smelled like lovely fruity soaps. It smelled like wet sheep. I sprayed some Opium in the air. Now it smells like a fancy wet sheep.

 I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with myself this Christmas because I wasn’t home in Indiana (or in Zimbabwe with Z and his family) for the first time in my life. When it first became apparent that we’d have to stay in Seattle for the holidays, I thought of things we should do so I wouldn’t get too blue. I vacillated between doing lots of things (make cookies! get a live tree! make a paper chain for said tree! make popcorn balls! play Christmas music every night!) and doing nothing at all. Z was not on board with the latter, but I considered just hiding in the study—the one that now smells like a dead sheep—while he listened to carols and walked around with too much joy in his heart.

We had snow for 15 minutes.

In the end, we had that big move in November and we’ve spent all the days since then trying to get our living space in order. I started writing every day with a group of women from around the world on Zoom. Z and I have both been busy with work too, so there hasn’t been a lot of time to get worked up about Christmases past and where this one is or is not being spent. Instead, we sit at our computers. I race to the study every morning to see my new online writing friends in Australia and England and San Diego and Chicago and other parts of the planet, commiserate with them about being sensitive souls, and then get down to the writing. (Yesterday, one of our members took us out on her parents’ veranda so we could hear the early morning birds in Queensland.) Z writes emails and makes plans for his department. Later in the day, we have our non-work routines—our walks, our projects, our shows, and we check in with friends and family, we say prayers for those who aren’t doing well, and clap our hands when new babies are born and new puppies adopted (not us, we are still sans dog and the toddler down the hall who burns off energy by slapping our door at night as he races the hallways is as much kid as we are up for in our dotage). 

Yesterday we got the news that a close family friend of Z’s had died. She was 95, behaved like she was half that age, and she and her husband were the first Americans to welcome Z to the US when he arrived from Zimbabwe to attend college. Though she and her husband had only just met his parents by happenstance when they were in his hometown, she made sure that when he arrived in Minnesota he had the sheets and towels he would need there. Later, they invited him to their home in Washington State for Christmas. Later still, when he happened to get a job in Seattle, she invited him up to spend weekends and welcomed his new girlfriend  (that’s me) to Thanksgiving, and so my first introduction to Z’s family was his American family-by-proxy.  We were both sad to see her go, but we also feel so lucky that Z got the job here that allowed him to have more time with her over the years, that we were able to celebrate her 90th birthday with her, and that just days before we got this news, her Christmas letter arrived in the mail and was a hoot and demonstrated her spirit and way with words. 

Last week on a clear night, we rediscovered the roof deck here at Oh La La. We hadn’t been up there since the first day we toured the building.  We went up as the sun was setting, and we were shocked by how far we could see. We can see both mountain ranges, we can see Lake Union and Puget Sound, we can see Smith Tower and the Field Formerly Known as Century Link where my beloved Seahawks play. We can see Z’s school and just make out the park on the edge of which Hugo House stands. The lighted TV tower on Queen Anne that is shaped like a Christmas tree stands off in the distance, and various church steeples dot the horizon. We can see the traffic lights on I-5 in the distance, and the planes that are bringing in all of the germy people who just will not stay home like they are supposed to. The apartments and condos near us have lights up, and it is fun to see which ones stand out.A tugboat pulled into Elliot Bay and a ferry pulled out. It was so beautiful. (Except for the germy travelers.)

Today I dared to listen to the most melancholy of Christmas music—some of my favorites, including  “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (Bing Crosby was from Washington and the flip side of that record when it was released was “Danny Boy”—a twofer for the pensive listener and proof enough that Bing had Irish grandparents) and “In the Bleak Midwinter”, and I thought about how I love Christmas and how it is so much like the rest of life. There are things to be truly grateful for, to be excited about, and to get weepy over. Life is hard. The world is hard.

But also, it’s impossibly glorious. And this is what I love about this season—that you can be miserable on the darkest night of the year yet celebrating because the days are going to start getting longer. That you can be enjoying your loved ones and missing your other loved ones. That you can be as thrilled with “Silver Bells” as you are songs that remind you the world isproblematic like “Happy Xmas  (War is Over)”. That you can keep a dreadlocked sheepskin that fills you with revulsion because your imaginary dog enjoys sleeping on it. That you can be sick of the city and then walk out on your newly acquired roof deck and see it for all of its imperfect beauty.

You just don’t get that in any other season.

May God bless us every one!

Zen and the Art of the Stalled Engine

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There’s a car out front that has stalled and the driver keeps trying and trying to get it started but the engine won’t turn over. Or catch. Or, well, go. It’s been so long since I’ve driven a car anywhere (almost 9 months) that I can’t remember the proper terminology, but what I know for sure is that it seems like a metaphor for this blog, for the 18 previous blog attempts I’ve made since May, and, let’s be honest, for 2020 as a whole. It’s like the year didn’t get started and we just had to push it to the curb, sit, and wait for AAA.

And now it’s October and AAA has been taking its sweet time rescuing us.

Fortunately, it’s not quite rush hour yet or there would be cars behind this guy honking their horns and telling him to get stuffed, as if he intentionally chose to make them go around him. I feel like I should go down and offer to help him push his car, but he’s not wearing a mask and I’m still wearing my nightgown and UGG boots (a sexy, sexy look on the over-fifty set) even though it’s 4 p.m. So instead, I’ll do what I’ve been doing since March and just stare out the window and wait for something about this scenario to change.

It’s not a perfect metaphor, I guess, because this year has not exactly stalled. The hits just keep coming when you get right down to it. The fact that I haven’t really written since May isn’t from lack of trying. No sooner would I start a post on whatever the latest worry or “event” was, then something else would happen making what I’d written seem suddenly less timely or worthwhile. Were I quicker writer who didn’t need to let my work steep before sharing it, you might have been reading entries about what it was like to live in Seattle during the protests against police brutality and systemic racism that resulted—for a time—in the creation of the police-free CHOP Zone not all that far from our apartment. You might have read about the fires here and in Oregon and California that left the city with unhealthy air for almost two weeks while we were in the middle of a heat wave sans AC. You might have read about how the pier downtown where we have taken the most photos of the Sound over the last decade collapsed. You might have read about my stepdad’s surgery and the two weeks that followed wherein I tried not to call daily to see if he was demonstrating any COVID symptoms. You might have read about my sadness about the passing of RBG (and what the means for women and people who aren’t corporations) or a host of other people who have died since last time we met here. More recently, there’s been grief in the extended family, though I’m not yet ready to write about that, and so I guess that shouldn’t be counted in this list, other than it’s made the prospect of writing a blog post—about how disappointed I am that the Just Born candy company wont’ be making Halloween or Christmas Marshmallow Peeps because of the pandemic—seem extra trite.

Ditto the trite but bothersome news that the store we go to most often—Bartell Drugs, which is a local chain that treats its employees well, carries local products, and has been around for 130 years—has decided to sell itself to Rite Aid. The letter they sent out to their loyal customers said nothing would change, but, of course, everything will change. It might take a couple of years for it to get that unique Rite Aid smell—cheap laundry detergent, off-brand candy, and desperation—but it’s coming. As is the 21-story building that will block our view (and possibly the sound of the bells that please me daily) of the beautiful St. James Cathedral. As will the new bus route that’s going to add a lot of noisy, dirty traffic to our already noisy, dirty street.

These are mere trifles compared to the other stuff happening in the world—to people we know and don’t know—and our country and the global environment, and so what’s the point of complaining? But I don’t like change or discord and we are in a long, ugly season of both these days.

So, I was good there for a few paragraphs. It seemed like maybe the car was finally going to start and I could tootle on down the road, but here I am again, stalled. Z and Hudge are honking at me to get a move on, but I clearly need a jump. Or gas for the tank. Or a complete engine rebuild.

What I’d most like to do is to hire a chauffeur and shout “Home, James” from the backseat while I sip a Moscow Mule and wait for the car to drive over the Rockies, through the Great Plains, and over the Mississippi towards my own ones. One of my chief beefs this summer has been seeing people on social media enjoying their vacations, time with family, and mask-less interludes with friends. Some days, I’m even passive-aggressive about it and won’t like those pictures. Z and I would both like to be with our families, with each other’s families, sitting on a beach, crowded or otherwise, but we don’t think it’s smart given my wonky immune system, Mom’s compromised one, and Zimbabwe has had closed borders for quite awhile even if we were feeling brave enough to go see Zma.  I realize some people think we’re being excessively cautious. Aside from not wanting to get the virus, we’re also trying to be halfway decent citizens.

If it seems like I’m patting myself on the back for our virus virtue, I’m not. This is one time I’d very much like to not follow the rules. But neither of us are made that way, so here I am, watching a car in the middle of 9th Avenue try and try to get itself started.

 Another metaphor we had to work with this summer was Chicken Little worrying about the sky falling when the ceiling in our kitchen literally fell in. Neither of us were in the kitchen—and were, in fact, across the hall asleep and didn’t realize it had happened until the next day—but it was a mess. Like car jargon, I’m also bad about house construction terminology, but we could see the rough boards above and it pulled down enough plaster where the walls joined the ceiling that we got a glimpse of the wallpaper that had been up there possibly since 1923 when our building went up. Never have two people been so happy that they are renters instead of owners, I can tell you that. Our maintenance guy and an associate had it fixed, the light re-installed, and the paint on within a day, and all we had to do was clean up some forgotten chunks of rubble.

We assumed it would be a much bigger deal and there must be some dire cause—oxen living in the apartment above us having a dance party, perhaps—but our building guy shrugged and said, “It’s an old building. It happens.” Now I’m eyeing all of our ceilings with alarm, and I suddenly understand why most of the 1990s and early 2000s were spent with my mother staring at her own ceilings and making her    disapproving, I-don’t-like-the-look-of-that-crackface. I always assumed it was an irrational fear of hers, but it turns out sometimes the sky does fall.

Sorry for doubting you, Mom.

If I sound depressed or cranky, I’m not. I’ve got appropriate intermittent rage and sadness mixed in with a few scoops of joy and a lot of “I’m alright.”   In January I started anti-anxiety medicine in what has proven to be my second best ever piece of intuition (after knowing instantly that I would marry Z whether he agreed to it or not). When I casually mentioned to my GP that I’d been having some trouble riding crowded buses and a particularly dastardly elevator with no buttons inside (where was it going to take me? Who knew? Maybe it was one of those Willy Wonka deals that would burst through the ceiling), the doctor said clearly anxiety was having a negative effect on my life and here, try some pills. So I started them and then the pandemic struck and while I have no idea how I’d behave on a crowded bus because I no longer ride the bus, I have noticed that in the last 9 months I spend a lot of time hearing horrible news and feeling something akin to sadness or dismay, and then moving on with my day. Maybe this is how normal people have always been functioning and I didn’t realize it and took everything personally—someone else’s misfortune felt like mine, some story about something like murder hornets had me thinking, “Well, this is it then. This is how we’re all going to die.” And now it’s more like, “Huh. That’s too bad. Do we have any more M&Ms or is it time to put in another order with the grocery?”

Oh good. The car outside has gotten started and tootled off. I no longer have to berate myself for not being a more helpful citizen. Farewell, metaphor. Drive safely.

It’s a day-to-day existence, this life we’ve been living, isn’t it? Of course it always has been, but before we could distract ourselves with book sales and concert tickets and planned trips. This Covid Time is very “Here I am in this moment. Now it’s the next moment. And the next.” It feels Zen in some ways, though I wouldn’t say it’s the peaceful, easy feeling I always imagined accompanied a Zen mindset. But I am very much aware that I’m one Netflix binge and grocery order away from either an existential crisis or enlightenment. (My money is on the former.)

Some days Z and I are so busy with work and our internal thoughts that we barely have the energy to talk to each other in depth. And other days, that’s all we do. This morning, we were lying in bed, not all that interested in getting up in the grey, cold late morning, and so we talked and then found ourselves randomly singing multiple verses in not-quite-harmony of “This Old Man/Knick Knack Paddywhack”, a song I haven’t thought of since listening to the Fisher-Price record player belonging to my cousins Jimmy and Ben circa 1972. It was weirdly delightful.

Of course we’ve spent the rest of the day asking ourselves why we feel so behind with work, but I’d rather be a little harried in the afternoon than to have missed that musical moment with Z.

I thank the pandemic for those moments. For Zooming with friends and family. For really appreciating students and reading their work because it seems more important than ever that they are doing it and we are spending time together talking about the significance of their words (and truth). For all of the adorable pandemic puppies that people have been walking. For realizing how much you really like seeing the lower half of the faces of perfect strangers and how you’ll never take a casual smile with a passer-by for granted again. From my desk, I can see the top of Columbia Tower, which is the tallest building in Seattle. During the smog from the fires, I couldn’t see it. Now it’s back, and when I look at it, I take a deep breath and feel grateful for clear air and that building even though on most days I’m mentally shaking my fist at all the high-rises that block the sky.

During the worst of the smoke and when the building peeked through.

Several years ago, a counselor I was seeing told me that every morning he wakes up and knows his “next pain in the ass is already in the mail.” His point was, I think, you’re never going to achieve nirvana, Beth. There’s always going to be something on the horizon that is headache or sadness. At the time, I thought maybe he needed to see a counselor because it seemed kind of a pessimistic way to look at life. I was young(ish) then. I wanted to figure myself out so everything in my life would be perfect. But now I think I understand what he was saying. Back then, I was incapable of hearing the implied “but” that came with his statement. This sucks, but also, there are the _____________(moments of spontaneous song, the puppies, photos of a friend’s new grandchild, an extra long phone call home).

I’m trying to focus on the but alsos.

**ADDENDUM**

Last week, while I was trying to wrap-up this blog entry with my silent writing group of complete strangers that I met in a writing course I took with Lauren Sapala in August—a class I loved and a community I’m appreciating more and more each day—Z was across the hall talking on the phone with our building manager. When my writing session was over, I packed up my stuff in my basket and made the long commute across the hallway to our “real” apartment, where he told me he had both good and bad news.

The bad news? We have 30 days to get out of our twin apartments, where we’ve lived together for the last ten years (or, alternatively, where we’ve spent the first decade of our married life) because there’s some structural unsoundness. The good news involved some reimbursement for our troubles, which, at the time, didn’t strike me as being remarkable or worthwhile because I could only picture us homeless.

It seems only fair to withhold from you the story of my frustration that in the midst of this news, Z was fussing about where his slippers were and how cold his feet were because it casts him in a bad light. I was losing my mind, wanting more details, wanting him to tell me something that would calm my heart rate, and he was fussing and faffing looking for his half-dead slippers. Finally, he returned to the subject at hand. See how nice I was there, to protect him and not tell you about how it went on for what seemed like minutes and minutes and minutes?

Initially, it was really hard to imagine living anywhere else. We’ve been so happy here. Until I found it had some structural compromises, I’ve loved the crooked walls and windows that don’t quite shut, and quirky faucets. I’ve liked being in a building so old that it creaks and “talks” even if it’s meant I share washers and dryers with all the other building residents or I’ve been doing dishes by hand for the last decade, much to the chagrin of my once-attractive nails and hands. I’ve loved our weird set-up with our writing studio/guest apartment/extra-large-storage-space-across-the- hall.

It’s unconventional and meant we had a lot of guests, including me randomly inviting a writer I’d read and loved but never met to come stay with us for a few days while she was on a book tour. I’m relatively certain she wouldn’t have been inclined if we just had a spare room, but because she had autonomy, I got to meet her, have some drinks with her, and now we send each other emails and snail mail periodically because, well, I care about her now because she’s real to me. And I’ve loved wondering about the people who lived here in the 1920s when the building was new. Were they doctors or nurses at the neighboring hospitals? Flappers? Were they reading The Great Gatsby? Could any of them fathom the stock market crash? Prohibition? A second world war? That one day Seattle wouldn’t be a sleepy logging town? There’s history here, and like living in its dust and crumbled plaster.

So it was a long, sad weekend. I kept looking at everything I’d miss. We took tours at a few places, and then landed on an apartment so unlike any place I’ve ever imagined myself wanting to live that I still can’t believe we’re doing it. I’ll give you the low-down in the next post once we have the keys and have figured out how many of our worldly goods get to come with us.

Now that we know where we’re landing though—and we’ll be in the same neighborhood—I’m making lists of things I won’t miss here at our first home together: the constant diesel grit on everything from the buses that idle out front, the late-night parties that sometimes happen on the stoop by our bedroom window, the postage-stamp-sized closet, unlocking the garbage dumpster because America is so messed up we think our trash is a treasure. And admittedly, the alley is cleaner now that no one is dumpster diving, but it still feels wrong to me every time I click that lock.

These continue to be weird, weird times. I hope this finds you well, be-masked, and managing.

Special Aptitudes

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For reasons known solely to my subconscious, I can only write now if I have on this $5 hat purchased in December 2010 when Z and I were on our way to Zimbabwe and got stranded in a wintry New York City with nothing warm to wear. This probably tells you all you need to know about my current state of mind.

 

Taking that six-month blog hiatus turns out to have been a very bad idea because last fall when it started, there were things to write about. I’d been places (Indiana, Baltimore, Long Beach, Indiana again) and done stuff (taught some classes, gone to some events, seen some people), and had some thoughts (since forgotten).

 

But now, this is what I’m doing:

 

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I’d feel better about this if these guys had one of those circus nets under them.

 

No, I’m not washing windows. I just couldn’t quit watching these men washing windows on the 14-story apartment building across the street last week. I had essays to critique and to write and chores to do, but this got all of my attention.

 

The guy on the right was working slowly and methodically. If you want clean windows with no smudges, I’m guessing he’s your man. The other guy on the left was more fun to watch because he was zipping around from side to side and dropping down quickly on his ropes and generally putting on a performance, but I’m pretty sure those windows would be cleaner if he’d taken a Labrador puppy up with him and let it lick the glass. Still, if there’d been a hat on the ground for tipping purposes, I’d probably have dropped in a few bucks because he was mesmerizing—like Spiderman with a squeegee.

 

I should turn my desk to face the wall because there is no end to the distractions on 9th Avenue. For instance, I just saw a young woman walk across the street with a stuffed panda twice her size hoisted over her shoulders. Where’d she get it? No stores are open. It’s not fair season yet.

 

Also, there must be something on one of the leaves of the big tree out front because I keep seeing people stop to study it and two people took pictures and I’ve been speculating about what it might be—some secret message? A death hornet? (Because those are a thing now, in case it seemed like we didn’t have enough to worry about.)

 

Finally, I’m glancing suspiciously at all the cars parked across the street in the special “park here only if you work at the hospital” gratitude parking spaces and feel certain that not everyone over there actually works at the hospital because they aren’t wearing scrubs and sometimes have dogs with them that they are walking. If they don’t head directly to the hospital, I purse my lips in disapproval.

 

This is the minutiae that now fills my days. Perhaps your days are similar re: whatever is outside your windows leads you down rabbit holes. Or perhaps your house is full of children or an unruly roommate or partner whose chewing is making you crazy, thus there’s no time to look out your window. Or maybe you are one of those frontline workers who should be afforded the primo parking spots who can’t look out of a window because you are busy keeping us healthy and fed and our garbage cans emptied. Thank you.

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When you can’t do anything else to help: construction paper!

 

 

I can only speak for myself, and what I’m realizing is this: when you are forced to slow your life down and limit your line of sight, it’s amazing how much time you can spend looking at stuff you would normally not even notice.  As it turns out, I’ve made a discovery that I may well be uniquely qualified to tolerate this pandemic lock-down.

 

At the beginning of the year, I celebrated my birthday back in Indiana. Initially, Mom and I had big plans for a little road trip or at least a movie, and in the end, we decided we were really tired and would rather go home and talk and nap and eat the remaining pieces of Christmas candy. It suited me fine, though had I known the incarceration that would soon be upon us, I might have pushed us to find the energy for a more public celebration.

 

To commemorate our most important collaboration of getting me born all those Januaries ago, I forced Mom to drag out my baby book so I could see who sent well wishes, the newspaper announcement that I’d arrived and to whom, the little envelope with my tiny fingernail clippings and a lock of my hair. It’s a book I looked at periodically when I was a child because it seemed to point to the notion of me as a celebrity—I mean, it was a book…I love books!—and it was all about me. But now that I’m older it’s more of an archaeology mission. Was I already me when I was born? Was I full of a multitude of possibilities or was my destiny already written? More importantly, as I age, I want to see mention of the people who inhabited my life at its beginning but who are no longer here.

 

In addition to the ephemera of me and the memories of my own dearly departed, Mom had also recorded this on a page labeled “Special Aptitudes” my primary skills:

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Look at me–setting the world on fire from 20 months on–I was destined for celebrity!

 

Mom has always been heavy with the praise, which may have given me a false sense of my own specialness because I was shocked to discover that for a baby book that covered my first seven years, there were only three things listed there that set me apart from other plebian children, and one of those—coloring within the lines—was really just a matter of decent hand-eye coordination and rule-following.

 

The thing is, these three skills of mine are basically the same now as they were then, and thank goodness because now that we are neck-deep in Covid-19, sitting and staring at books, magazines, and “especially Christmas catalogs” is helping to pass the time. (I wish. What I wouldn’t give for a 1973 Sears Christmas “wish book” right now.)

 

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Move over, Pooh Bear. I want in that swing!

 

When Governor Inslee instituted his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” initiative at the end of February, I made plans for all the things I’d get done: the writing, the crafts, new skills, cleaning. Z and I put up a giant-sized Post-It note on the front door we’d no longer be using. On the note were three columns: one list of fun activities we could do at home (games, puzzles, renting movies we’d been meaning to see, reading, etc.), one a list of household chores, and a third short list of joint projects we’ve been meaning to tackle from paying our taxes to writing a book together.

 

We’ve pretty much checked off everything in the fun column in the first two weeks and have added a second giant Post-It, on which we record the license plates we see on our daily “health” walk—we’re playing the pandemic version of the license plate game and have only nine more states to get. We keep discovering the same license plates over and over again because nobody is doing a lot of driving so cars stay parked in our neighborhood for weeks at a time. I’m so tired of getting excited about Iowa only to get home and discover we already have it. I’ve given up hope that we’ll ever find Rhode Island and West Virginia.

 

Meanwhile, the other two columns on our to-do list remain unticked. We haven’t even done laundry because a) the thought of using the shared washers and dryers in the basement is unpalatable b) we are kind of tired. The pile of dirty clothes and sheets is now high enough that it impedes the opening of our sock drawer, so soon we’ll be going sockless. Thank goodness it’s almost May.

 

My point here is that it’s clear to me now that I was always destined for a certain lack of productivity—there’s proof of that in the baby book. This is basically what I have to work with. If you need me to color or annotate your books or stare out your window and think deep thoughts, I’m uniquely equipped to excel in this capacity. It doesn’t seem like much to offer the world when it’s in such dire straits hough.

 

That said, I assumed even with my innate low-energy that with two months or more stretching in front of me, I’d finally finish knitting that sweater I’ve been working on since 1999, get all of my class notes into a three-ring binder, read through the stack of books I got for Christmas, finish filling in our wedding memory book from a decade ago, and some other surprises.

 

But I haven’t done any of those things. I started to clean out a bag I had stuffed full of detritus but how that ended up was detritus all over the coffee table instead of in a bag.

 

Thank goodness the governor has given us another month of lock-down; maybe I can still turn this ship around. Though that baby book seems kind of prescient, and I’m already wondering if that new yoga mat is going to be used given that it didn’t come standard-equipped with a version of me that actually does things.

 

In the meantime, here are the things that are keeping me sane:

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This is my to-read-immediately stack, as opposed to the to-read-imminently stack behind my head in the window sill.

 

The books in line to be read next.

 

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Every year this seems magical.

 

This view greeting me when I dare to venture to the drugstore for my “nerve” pills.

 

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Admittedly, I’d have been happier if it were a Hoosier rabbit with big ears, but in a pinch, this one will do.

 

Seeing emboldened wildlife on our daily walk.

 

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My Big Fat Greek Puzzle.

 

Traveling through the magic of puzzling.

 

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Library scented.

 

A candle that was lit at the same time as candles were being lit in Zimbabwe and around the world.

 

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Not library scented.

 

Spring’s aromatic beauty.

 

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Not a commentary on the reading material.

 

Never knowing what you’ll find in the Little Free Library.

 

 

The nightly 8 p.m. cheer for health care workers. Usually, we’re in the house banging pots and pans, but on this night we happened to be on our walk.

 

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These signs that are popping up all over First Hill.

 

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Is it you, Michelangelo?

 

Unexpected finds.

 

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This Honey Bucket has lost is way.

 

Ditto. (Also, thumbs up for traffic-less streets when you are a pedestrian.)

 

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Elliott Bay, how I miss you!

 

The idea that Puget Sound is still out there and one day we will be able to take a ferry ride on a cloudy day and it will look like this.

 

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Artwork by Henri Lebasque

 

Stolen images and memes.

 

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Thanks, Anaïs!

 

Masks made by a friend and shipped priority so we could go out into the world.

 

Be well. Stay safe. Rely on your own special aptitudes to get through these strange days.  xoxo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding True North

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Z surprised me this weekend with an overnight to the Suquamish Clearwater Resort & Casino, which is a ferry ride away from the city and which was a delightful break from noisy, dirty, summer Seattle. We go there periodically on day trips for a little flutter on the penny slots and try our own weird ways to convince the machines to relinquish the dosh, but our systems are largely based on faulty logic and even faultier intuition so we never leave much richer than when we arrived and often leave $40 poorer. But this trip over was even better because he’d booked a room for us in the resort with a water view and we arrived with just enough sunlight left that we were able to drink it in.

 

I forget every year how sometimes it feels like the city lives right in the apartment with us when the windows go up: the bus idling, the dustups, the barking, the leaf blower racket all curled right up on the couch with us.

 

Earlier in the week I had walked to work and in the course of my journey passed three separate men who were talking loudly and angrily to no one visible—one of whom was the most pitiful creature I’ve ever seen, howling like the hounds of hell were coming for him—and, after saying a little prayer of God-please-help-them-find-peace, I marveled at how even if you have your faculties in tact and aren’t under the influence it’s a kind of insanity to walk past such people as if it isn’t happening, as if you are traveling in a triple-paned pod that somehow keeps you removed from the curses and the cries (and what I think was a three block rant about Jeff Bezos and how he’s ruining the city).

 

So I was glad to find myself looking out over Agate Passage Sunday evening. We watched an eagle that may have been nesting in a pine tree in front of us (or may have been a series of eagles that we wrongly referred to as “The Eagle” and “him”) and some sailboats. It was peaceful. Because we were inside—it was warm and mosquitoes were outsidewhatever noises were out there, we were oblivious. I could feel the city lifting off of me.

 

We wanted to maximize our view, so we decided to stay in the room until the sun went down, which meant we missed dinner at the restaurants and had to eat at the 24-hour deli in the casino. And then we played our $20 each on the casino slots.

 

They did not pay out. They do about 10% of the time, and never in the big way we plan for them too. But still, we live in hope, which is half the fun—spending our imagined riches before we ever step onto the casino floor.

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This is from a different casino, but this post was looking text-heavy, so here’s a fancy light and some sticks!

The next morning, I woke up early and while Z was still sleeping I sat on the balcony. No matter what I do on a vacation, I feel I’m doing it wrong. If I’m on the beach, I’m sure I’m missing a view from a ridge. If I’m reading a book, I’m sure I’m missing a heron or a certain shimmer of light. On Monday morning, it was no different. I wanted to write Jane because it had been too many days and I twitch if I go too long without sending her a recap of my week or my latest thoughts on the Enneagram, whatever I’m reading or watching, and the general state of the world. (Jane is very generous in acting as my journal. I need an audience.)

 

After forcing myself to sit there for several minutes, I finally determined I could write her while ignoring the screen and looking at the view in a sort of multi-tasking-with-nature scheme. I did with some success, and it must have looked appealing to the woman on the balcony next to me, because not long after I opened my computer she sat down her coffee, padded into her room, and returned with her own computer.

 

I described the view to Jane, thinking that would keep me rooted in the spot even if technology was sitting on my lap. I told her about the houses you could barely see across the water on Bainbridge Island because the pine trees are so thick, the rocky beach below where a couple of dogs were loping, the way the sky and land around Puget Sound is always pastel in a way that makes my heart do a little flip. This isn’t a view I have daily, and yet I feel I’ve been looking at it enough on our periodic jaunts for the last 13 years that this is the thing I would miss most if we ever left the Pacific Northwest. I would miss the palette here the way I still miss the clean line of an Indiana horizon at sunset.

 

The problem with me getting enraptured with beauty is that beauty and angst reside very near each other in my brain. So while I was looking at the expanse of trees and water and sky in front of me, I was also thinking about all the ways we’re wrecking the planet. I was thinking about the beautiful, historic photos of the Suquamish people—a woman with a basket, a group shot of handsome football players from the early twentieth century, a child in a canoe—that were hanging around the hotel. I had feelings about what was done to them and what the world might look like if they’d been left to their own devices and all the garbage the casino was generating that day alone and about the people inside who were maybe not sticking to the $20 limit that Z and I have.

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I don’t know why my finger is in this photo or why it looks like a snapshot instead of huge portrait hanging above the desk, but this woman’s face is one of the most gorgeous and haunting things I’ve seen. I wonder if she would mind her image plastered around the resort.

It piles up on you, all the worries and ugliness, but the benefit of being somewhere lovely when you think about horrible things is that you can do some deep breaths, watch an eagle make a pass across the water, and push it out of your head for a time.

And I was able to do that until an older (than us) couple settled under one of the umbrella tables beneath the balcony. The be-hatted man bellowed across the lawn at another man, “Which way is north?” The man seemed not to hear him. The be-hatted man and his wife talked loudly between themselves about which way was most likely north as the wife pointed south and said she was sure that was the direction they hoped to locate. I considered yelling down to them but it was early and didn’t seem nice for the people still sleeping in the rooms around us, so I let them fumble with their map and ask a few more people, and then I began to suspect they didn’t really care about the direction they were facing so much as they enjoyed having something to talk about.

 

I started giving Jane a (riveting) blow-by-blow of what the couple was doing. How they ensnared another, equally loud, couple with their query about directions despite the fact they both had fancy phones that probably had compasses, despite the fact that they said to the couple they came regularly and stayed on Sundays and then offered tips of places where they could dine, despite the fact that they lived due north of the resort and surely knew which way home was having just driven south to get where they were.

 

The be-hatted man yelled at a young woman walking nearby, “Nice earrings!” though it was unclear to me how he could see them. She dipped her head and touched her earrings and hurried into the lobby.

 

I hated them. I hated them for their morning chipper. I hated them for their loud voices. I hated them for their need to connect to other humans. What was wrong with people that they had to be so loud all the time, I asked Jane. Why must they fill every silence with words? Did they have no unspoken thoughts?

 

And then I told her that I thought those homophobes who are always suggesting “the gays” should be sent to an island where they could be with each other and not bother “us normal people” had it all wrong. It was the extroverts who should be sent to the island. They could sit at umbrella tables and drink Mai Tais and make loud small talk with strangers all day long. They’d be happier. Introverts would be happier. Surely that would be a win-win!

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I feel certain the fire hydrants on Extrovert Island will look like this. Olé!

I’m sure Jane was thrilled to get my email. I’m always such a beacon of light and happiness.

 

Finally the couple left, Z woke up, we had some tea, and my mood re-brightened. We determined we didn’t want to leave and attempted to secure a room for another night, but the only one available was the $600 presidential suite and our bank account was not presidential. We decided to check out, eat breakfast, come back to the grounds we were overlooking and pretend we were still guests. We commandeered a table under a willow tree right by the water, and set up shop. Z did some work and called Zma. I worked on my too-long email to Jane and made a mental list of all the work I’d tackle when I got home when our mini vacation was officially over.

 

A family with too many ill-behaved kids showed up behind us, and I started type-grousing to Jane. I was particularly disparaging of their rat tail hair-dos and said “’rat tail’ pretty much tells you all you need to know about the parenting style of this family.” They were so loud. The father was bellowing playful orders at them as if they were in their own yard and no one else was around. I started to hate them more than the be-hatted directions guy.

 

Children. Hate.

 

I told Jane I thought maybe I’d hit an age when I was ready to start going to adults only resorts, but then I wondered would that mean we’d be surrounded by a bunch of single Millennials bent on hooking up? Loudly? Around us?

 

“I’m starting to think what I’m really hankering for is a retirement community,” I typed to Jane.

 

Then I looked back at Agate Passage, heard the eagle, and I’d forget to be annoyed by the Loud Others again. And then they left.

 

This is what I think is difficult in the city: there are fewer places of peace and beauty to distract yourselves with when the mongrel hoards are nipping at your heels. It is inspiring and exciting and fascinating, but when someone is screaming in your window you can’t do deep breaths, look at a spot of beauty, and forget that some stranger is encroaching on your peace of mind.

 

Z and I sat out there, inadvertently getting too much sun even though we were in the shade, for over three hours. It was so relaxing. At one point, the Rat Tail Boys returned but Loud Dad wasn’t with them, and they were talking quietly to each other about the bugs and rocks and bits of nature they were seeing like junior scientists. And I thought how lovey they were to be so interested in the world around them.

 

Those few hours on the green with the water lapping gently beside us were the best part of the trip and we weren’t even technically guests of the resort any longer. Maybe that was why it felt so sweet.

 

Maybe we finally figured out a way to game the system.

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Not a bad office for the day.

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

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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