Our too-many-dollars-a-month Oh La La apartment has a lovely view and nice big windows with plenty of light, but what it doesn’t have is screens.
Other people who are not on the tasting menu of Mosquito Café can probably live without screens here, but I am both starter and main course on their menu, which means last year we used the AC a lot when we didn’t really need to. This year, however, we had a plan: Velcro tape and mosquito netting!
Is it attractive and befitting Oh La La’s standards? Absolutely not. Is it effective? Based on the number of mosquitos stuck to it on the outside, absolutely. Do I feel guilty about the deaths of the mosquitos who can’t always figure out how to get out from between the window and the net? No, I do not. They’ve had a campaign to either kill me or at least make my life miserable for years now. In the words of Samuel L. Jackson’s character in A Time to Kill, “Yes I think [they] deserve to die and I hope [they] burn in hell.”
Also, as a non-scientist, I spend a weird amount of time thinking about the purpose of different creatures in the Circle of Life, and I’ve made as much peace as I can with things that creep me out like snakes and other reptiles, but is there ANY purpose to a mosquito besides spreading ill-will and disease?
The “screen” that I installed just this morning next to my desk makes me feel cut off from my neighbors across the street. The view is not as clear, which they might think is a boon, but what it means for me is less watching cats stretch in windowsills or seeing the pre-schooler on the eighth floor who moved in with his family recently. He peers out the window and I have imagined having a friendly wave that develops into one of those feel-good videos you see on social media of the kindly older neighbor who makes life more fun for the youngster by putting on puppet shows from afar.
Before the mosquito net went up, one evening I saw his parents chasing him and his little sibling around like a little family locomotive on a circular track to nowhere. It was a moment I wish I could film and then send them—those non-occasions you forget to record—but even if I could, all arrows would point to me being a creepy threat to their privacy.
Now, with the mosquito netting up, we’ll never make a connection. He is a tiny ghost and to him I probably look like a bear writing its memoirs.
Things rarely look the way I imagine they will anyhow, so why would this be different?
Over Memorial Day weekend, I convinced Z that we should make our first trip to Elliot Bay Books now that he is boosted and I’m Evusheld-ed. Because it was the holiday weekend, I imagined everyone out hiking in the mountains or off at a cookout or picnic, Z and I having the bookstore to ourselves, so comfortable with the lack of people that we even would dare to take off our masks.
Hardy har har.
Everyone in Seattle was in the store. Every. Single. One. And they were all exactly where I wanted to be. It was an entire store of Freebreathing Readers. It’s the most people I’ve been around in a long, long time and while I wasn’t actively hating them at mosquito levels, I really did wish they’d leave. Especially the ones glued to their phones who weren’t even browsing. At one point I was upstairs near the bargain tables and believed there was no oxygen getting through the tight weave of my N95, so I considered tossing the books in my arms and racing outside to pull the mask from my face. (My second thought was, how am I ever going to fly again so long as we’re all poison to each other?) It just wasn’t what I’d been picturing for us on our first outing into the world.
Here. Let me re-direct myself to the brighter side.
Was out in public for first time in months and months and months!
Was in a BOOK STORE that is one of my all-time favorites!
Was able to touch books I have only read about in the New York Times!
Had over a $100 worth of gift cards from 2019!
Had a full punch card which meant $20 off my spending!
Found three books and a magazine I wanted!
Did not die of a near panic attack—Lexapro must be working!
Did not spend all of my gift cards on the 3 books and one magazine and so can go back to buy more at a hopefully less busy time!
The books are just staring at me, calling to me even, but I’ve been busy reading other things and have had to put them on pause. Don’t they look inviting though?
I loved the poetic sentences and thoughts in Melissa Febos’s Abandon Me, and so can’t wait to read these two books of hers. The Tracy Chevalier was the only book of hers on the shelf and I fell in love with the cover even though I’d gone there to get one of her other titles. I find her usual mix of history, imagination, and feminism to be exactly what suits me when I’m looking for a story to lose myself in.
Z went in with less gift-card-buying power than I had and, as usual, left with more books because he’s a thrifty shopper and I usually get suckered in by the new releases or, at least, new in paperback. He’s a much faster reader too, so it probably comes out in the wash.
Here, he would probably like for me to tell you that he is only allowed one IKEA 12×12 square in our bookcase system for his books, which sounds grossly unfair on its face given the sheer number of 12×12 squares we have for “my” books. (May it please the court, if his books are good ones that he passes on to me because he thinks I’ll like them, they make their way into the General Collection and the number of books on Zimbabwe and novels and memoirs by African writers in general have pride of pace on the top center shelf right at eye level. Also, though I abhor stereotypes about only children because I’ve found them not to be particularly accurate, it’s worth noting he knew what he was getting when he married me.)
Speaking of Z, he also would like for you to know that in my last post I made it sound as if he were the dog gatekeeper in this marriage—putting an electric fence between me and the canine object of my desire. That is not true. The deal I made with myself was that I wouldn’t let myself get a dog until I finished the memoir. It’s easier to make it seem someone else is keeping me from the things I want instead of my own brand of slow-writing and semi-regular procrastination. Do not blame Z! He is blameless!
Last week Leibovitz and I talked on the phone while she waited to hear if Baby Leibovitz–with a recently minted college diploma—had landed in Australia for an internship. It seems like only a few months ago she was toddling around the Leibovitz house dragging her pink blanket with her, making everyone laugh, which was her special baby medicine to make everyone around her feel better/happier than they already were.
I understand now—all these years later—why so many older people had opinions about what I should be doing with my life when I graduated. They cared about me, yes, but also, there is something about a young person going out into the world on an adventure you wouldn’t have tried yourself at 22 that makes you want to live vicariously through them, waste none of the time you did, make none of the mistakes, miss none of the opportunities. You kind of want do-overs and the only way to have them is vicariously, and thus the over-investing in someone else’s life choices.
And now I realize linking the stories about Gauze Boy and Baby Leibovitz and my fascination with them and the lives they are leading makes me sound like I’m about to build a Gingerbread House and lure them in for a snack. Maybe forget everything I just said about both of them. And please believe me when I say I have no cages here and am not firing up any ovens to bake a Youth Pie.
You know I don’t like to use the kitchen.
What I have been fantasizing about lately instead of anti-aging pastries is traveling. I’ve always been the absolute happiest in life when my next trip was already an idea in my head, even if it was a weekend away at a cottage somewhere. I liked thinking about what I’d pack, which books I’d take, and I’d toy with the idea of taking no electronics and then laugh at myself because, of course I’d be taking my laptop, iPad, and phone, as well as my headphones, and booklight. It’s like meditation to me. Watching packing videos on YouTube lulls me into one of the best sleeps.
And that’s not even planning what I’d do when I got there, even though usually what I do is berate myself for not reading or writing or painting more. Or going out and pretending to be an extrovert and chatting to the locals. (Why enjoy yourself when there’s an opportunity for self-flagellation away from home.)
Anyhow, none of that is happening because everyone in America is vacationing this summer and so hotels and house rentals are either not available or a bajillion dollars here in Puget Sound. Car rentals are hard to find and, again, when you do, instead of our preferred $14.99 a day at Enterprise, they’re more like $200 a day. And you all know what gas is like right now. This is one of the few times I’ve actually been glad that we’ve lived the last 12 years Carless in Seattle and aren’t having shock at the gas pump like everyone else. But it is currently limiting our options.
So I’ve been trying to figure out ways that we can make a staycation seem exciting even though we’ve been staycationing since March of 2020. I was considering hanging mirrors to reflect light in a different way or putting on a different bedspread or rearranging the furniture so we feel like we’re somewhere else.
Enter World Traveler Hudge, who has offered us an opportunity to stay on her houseboat for a bit when she’s out of town doing research. It’s two-miles away and I can see part of the water her houseboat is on from my window here at Oh La La (one that is NOT covered in netting), but it will be a whole different world. Hopefully next time I report to you, I’ll have stories of waterfowl and boat traffic and walking through a neighborhood that isn’t “downtown adjacent.” I’m already looking forward to a time in the future when I can say, “When we lived on the houseboat” without lying, even though what we’re really doing is staying on a floating home.
That said, I have some potential bug-bite concerns and am already mentally packing mosquito nets. Once when we were staying on a houseboat on Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe, Z and our family and I were sitting on the upper deck as the sun set, listening to waves lap against the boat. And then suddenly, as if an alarm had gone off, a cauldron of bats flew into the sky. My sister-in-law let a cheer and said, “Get ‘em, guys” and the bats feasted on any mosquitos who might have been thinking of snacking on us.
There were so many things on that trip that amazed me and that stick with me, but that one—the discovery that a creature I’d associated only with haunted houses and vampires could be so helpful—is one of my fondest memories.
You know, I’ve made no deals with Z or the universe about finishing any writing projects before getting a pet bat. Maybe if we had a small, cute one, I could forego mosquito nets henceforth, open up the views, cast aside the insect repellent, and various fairy tale concoctions–lavender, vitamin B, white clothing, Avon’s Skin So Soft–that I put my trust in to make me less delicious. We’ll see.
Wherever you are, I hope you are well, bite-free, and traveling with a full tank and unobstructed views.
Normally, this time of year I’d have some stories to tell about Mom’s annual birthday trek to Seattle, how much I love fall, how I dragged Z to an orchard though he doesn’t understand the appeal since you can buy cider at the grocery, big plans for Z’s birthday, etc. But like last year, Mom had to give the trip a miss because of COVID threats and because her offspring (that’d be me) may or may not have immunity to the virus after receiving a second try at getting vaccinated. I’ve been nowhere except to get said vaccines and I’ve only seen Z in the flesh and everyone else via Zoom since mid-August. This was Zs second boring Pandemic Birthday, where we stayed in, watched TV, and he washed his new birthday socks. Woo hoo.
Also, I’m avoiding the news because it’s rarely good, so unless you’d like to hear me talk about Squid Game, the Great British Bake-Off, and whether Noodle the TikTok pug is having a Bones or No Bones day, what you’ll be getting this month are random thoughts and questions I’m wrestling with at the moment.
Z and I have trash bags full of our freshly laundered clothes layered with lavender-scented dryer sheets because I read moths don’t like lavender. We’ve been dealing with a moth infestation for months, which wasn’t so strange at our old place with windows that didn’t close tightly and that seemed like they had been in the apartment longer than we had, maybe even since 1923 when the place was built. But it is very odd here at Oh La La because we’re basically living in a non-spherical biosphere.
We’ve made our apartment as hostile an environment for them as possible, short of installing the moth-equivalent of those non-roosting bird spikes that I hate to see on eaves around the city. Those seem so mean-spirited, but apparently if pigeons moved into our apartment, I’d be installing spikes everywhere because my compassion doesn’t extend as far as holes (or pigeon crap) in my woolen Irish acquisitions: two woolen blankets, an Aran sweater, my favorite winter coat, and a pair of forest green cashmere gloves that I bought in Waterford in 2006 and wear so rarely that they are still like new but just knowing I have a pair of cashmere gloves makes me feel like a grown-up (even if I got them on a clearance table at the history museum there). No. There I draw the line.
I’m reading Colum McCann’s novel Apeirogon wherein he tells the true but partially fictionalized story of two grieving fathers—one Israeli, one Palestinian—who are friends and working towards peace. The format he uses is with numbered cantos (sort of like this) that add up to 1,001, as in The Thousand and One Nights. Some of the sections are meaty narrative. Others are a single sentence. Some are just photos. Some are all about the main story of the two fathers and their dead daughters and their conviction that with communication and recognition of the Other as human, peace can be attained. Some cantos talk about birds or slingshots or François Mitterrand. I like miscellany and McCann’s style, so for the most part the structure works for me.
At other times I wonder if all the numbers and pauses and details don’t get in the way of the story. Also, the beauty at the heart of the story doesn’t have anything to do with McCann and so much more to do with these two men, Rami Elhanana andBassam Aramin, and the stories that conflict forced onto their families. So, I go back and forth on this issue about whether it’s a great book that everyone should read or if I’d be as moved had I read an article about the men. I have no idea where I’m going to land on this once I’ve finished the book.
A thousand-and-one numbered sections seems like a lot. Is it genius? Is it arrogance? Is it something in between?
Also, I’m beginning to question why I believe I must land on one or the other.
The summer JFK Jr.’s plane went missing on a trip to Hyannis Port for his cousin Rory’s wedding, I got asthmatic bronchitis. Going upstairs to my bed was overwhelming because I had so little breath and even less energy. Once I made it up to my bedroom, I’d climb in bed for a nap and thought I wouldn’t ever go downstairs again because of how awful it was to gasp for breath trying to do something I’d been able to do just fine a few days before as if there would always be plenty of air to breathe.
I spent a lot of time thinking about these mythical creatures—the Kennedys—while I convalesced. I had learned about them as a child in the same way I learned about Snow White, Santa Claus, Abraham Lincoln, my great-great grandmother, Amelia Earhart, and Jesus. They were all equally cartoon-y and real to me and people whose stories were worth studying.
Mom had a book of photos of JFK’s life, and I would study the ones of him with his arm around his daughter, playing with his kids in the Oval Office, some fuzzy images from the Zapruder film, and that iconic photo of his toddler son saluting his casket.
It was hard to believe that that toddler was now missing at the prime of his life. Because I loved Arthurian Legends, there was part of me that had always believed JFK Jr. was the Boy Who Would Be King, never mind his main political overture had been starting a magazine about politics for people who didn’t know much (or care) about politics.
I also felt weirdly mournful for Rory too, and how her wedding day had been wrecked and how it’s not the kind of thing a bride can complain about without seeming like a selfish whiner: that one time my cousin ruined my wedding by going missing. At the time, I knew nothing about her, but with my new computer, I asked Jeeves to tell me all about her, and discovered she was the youngest of RFK’s children, a year younger than I was, and so young, in fact, that she had never met her own father because he was assassinated six months before she was born.
I didn’t believe in things like curses though the tabloids were regularly talking about the “Kennedy curse” whenever a Kennedy died in a tragic way. But when you added up all the sadness that one family had it seemed unlikely that they’d find John John’s plane parked in a hangar somewhere while he, his wife, and his sister-in-law were grabbing a lobster roll at a roadside stand on a whim.
On my last outing into the world, Providence, Hudge, Z and I went to Camano Island for a picnic. We sat under tall pines, listened to Puget Sound licking the shore, annoyed occasionally by the noise of a boat or seaplane that passed, and we rejoiced that at last we could all be together, have our masks off, and share a meal. It was such a magical day that I even had a rare Scottie dog sighting when an older man walked his pup near us. A friend refers to those heady days this past summer when it felt briefly like COVID was behind us as “Hot Vax Summer.” This day had all those hallmarks: it was beautiful and so nice to be reminded of all the things I love about the Pacific Northwest and have seen so little of for the last year and a half.
Is it worth noting that I am reading Apeirogon with my eyes on my iPad and listening to it on my phone simultaneously, which may be why the book works for me? McCann’s Irish accent and use of the pause makes it sound more like poetry than it might if I were only reading it on the iPad and hearing the words with my eyes. In fact, I wonder if I had the book in my hands if I’d be annoyed by the structure and the weight of so much extra.
There’s a new puppy across the street who has his own little patio-kingdom to explore. When he first arrived, I thought he was a Lab. Then his hair got longer and he seemed more like a Golden Retriever. Then the fur got curlier and Z and I speculated that it was some make or model of a Doodle. Now that I can see his paws, I’m wondering if he’s going to be a Pyrenees. It feels like all of those possibilities still exist in him though—the different breeds, the different personalities. He is adorable no matter what he turns into.
Unless you are the calico cat who lives with him.
We are still ordering groceries and having them delivered. Z is a good husband. He really wants to get back to QFC in person so he can squeeze mangos and check eggs for cracks before he puts them in the cart, but he wants to keep me safe until we find out what my antibody status is.
When the groceries arrive it’s always a bit like opening a grab bag to see if you “won” something good or if you got a dud item. Yesterday, the guac got replaced and we were sad, but then when he pulled it out of the bag, we discovered it had been replaced with a bigger tub of guac, which felt like a win. Other items feeling less like a win: the sale grapes ($2.99) being replaced with grapes that must be magic because they cost $9.99. Somehow, we ended up with three loaves of bread. And the mystery we can’t quite solve is why we ended up with a huge brick of cheese (HUGE) when cheese hadn’t been on the order at all. Maybe the shopper thought gobs of real cheese was a great replacement for the fake cheese I have to eat that the store rarely has, or maybe he thought since we had almost ten-dollars-worth of grapes, we needed cheese as an accompaniment.
You can plan all you want, but you never really know what you are going to get in this life.
I had a mild reaction to the second vaccine that left my nose dripping, my head aching, and me sleepy. One night I fell asleep listening to Colum McCann narrate Apeirogon and I dreamed I was having an intense conversation with a handsome man I was trying to woo (Z did not exist in this dream—forgive me Z) as he stocked shelves and racks at a high-end men’s store. It was the kind of store I never go into and he was the kind of small-boned man with overly gel-ed hair- that I never had interest in. In the dream I realized why. He wouldn’t quit flitting and he wouldn’t quit talking. My sense was that he was always this way, but on this occasion of me following him from display to display and trying to get a word in edgewise, he wouldn’t shut up about the tensions between Israel and Palestine. I’d try to ask a question or add my own thoughts on the matter, and he kept droning on and on as if I weren’t there.
I have never felt so unseen. I kept checking to make sure I wasn’t a ghost.
When I woke up, I realized it was just Colum McCann reading his own novel into my ear to put me to sleep, clueless that anyone was on the other side of his recording trying to have a conversation with him in her dreams. I turned off Colum and went back to a more peaceful slumber.
The lifespan of a female moth is around 30 days.
Because it was still technically summer when Providence, Hudge, Z and I went on the picnic, I wore sandals. I was imagining a beach with sand that we might walk on, but instead, when we headed to the water after lunch, I discovered the beach was covered in golf ball and baseball sized rocks that were nearly impossible for my shoes to manage. The three of them in their more sensible shoes moved up the wrack line, and I sat on a log and watched the waves of Puget Sound. To be “alone” in nature for a time was blissful. Spiritual even.
Though I was ecstatic inside, apparently my outsides weren’t satisfactorily expressing this, because a man who walked by with his wife jolted me out of my moment with a shout, “Smile! It’s not that bad!” I looked at him and he was so pleased with himself for having dumped a load of his brand of sunshine on my otherwise delightfully grey day.
Even though I’ve been a feminist since birth, when a stranger man—and it’s always been men because women never tell other women to smile—has commanded me thusly, I’ve felt that I was failing to present myself in a pleasing way, as if that were my job, though I am not a model nor am I in the hospitality industry. The line I hate the most is, “It can’t be that bad!” There are two reasons I hate this.
I was born with a resting melancholic face, and I always look kind of the way I imagine Jane Eyre looked when she had to leave Thornfield Hall because the man she loved and nearly married had failed to mention his current wife’s existence in his attic.
How does the speaker know the person hasn’t just had a terrible day or gotten devastating news? They never say, “Oh my goodness! You look so sad. Is there anything I can do to help? Would you like half of my Snickers?” No. They say, “Smile!” as if your face is theirs to shape to their liking.
And now, the Crone years are upon me and I long for a sword that I could brandish in the faces of the offending parties and tell them to move along and accost no frowning woman ever again or I will hunt them down and teach them what chivalry really is.
After searching our apartment thoroughly—opening drawers, flipping through our hanging clothes, carefully inspecting pillows and the underside of three wool rugs—I finally discovered that the moths had been living rent-free in the vacuum that we keep in the coat-closet-slash-“laundry room.” The very vacuum I’d just carefully run all over the rugs to suck up any moths keen to set up a homestead. Also, it turns out, after cleaning up our previous apartment last November before we turned in the keys, we brought this very vacuum to the new apartment and promptly forgot to change the sweeper bag. Or rather, I thought I changed it but did not. And then we got our loyal robovac, Angus, and kind of forgot about the old upright anyhow because we haven’t been so concerned about deep cleaning since we aren’t having guests in.
Basically, we let the moths gestate in the closet for nine months, and now we are reaping what we accidentally sowed.
Given how addicted I am to the National Zoo’s current “Cheetah Cam” maybe I should ask if it’s possible to set up a Moth Cam
The cat across the street periodically comes onto the patio and sniffs around, and inevitably, the puppy discovers the cat is not in the apartment and comes bounding out, searching for it, and then barks at it. The bark could be anything from a joyful attempt to get the cat to play to a territorial reminder that the patio is his. What I do know is the cat braces herself for the onslaught. She turns her back to the dog, even if it means she’s facing the brick wall, and her body—though it doesn’t move—appears to be in her best facsimile of a you-don’t-exist-to-me stance. I am mostly a dog person because I’m allergic to cats but I feel badly for her and think about how her life must have seemed ideal before the puppy arrived, took over her territory, tried to tell her how to behave. I keep hoping I’ll look out one day and they’ll be curled around each other in inter-species companionship.
The neighbors probably think I’m spying on them, but it’s really all about their animals. They could be doing naked fire dances in their living rooms, and I’d only be interested in whether or not the dog’s tail was getting too close to the flame.
That’s a lie. There are new human arrivals five floors up from the puppy and the cat. It’s a woman and man who have modern but stately furnishings, like real grown-ups and not people who picked a room at IKEA and re-created it in their own apartment. I have this feeling that it is a mother and son, even though that seems so unlikely. The son could be 16 or 26 and she could be 24 or 64 from my vantage, but her hair is nearly white or platinum blond and short and she’s always buzzing around cleaning things up while he stands eating over the sink. Usually, she has a phone crooked on her shoulder. Does anybody do that anymore who is Gen X or younger? Crook a phone? Talk on a phone? It doesn’t matter, but we so rarely see people our age or older in these buildings because they all headed for the suburbs years ago.
In 2005 I was at a writer’s retreat at Kinnitty Castle in Ireland, and Colum McCann led a session on the work that goes into one of his novels, where story ideas come from, the writing life. At the time, he was telling us about the research he did with the unhoused population in a major city, how he spent some nights with them under a bridge, the conversations he had.
Women were swooning as if George Clooney were suddenly in our midst.
That night he danced in the castle pub with my friend Isabella who was in her 70s at the time, and I was charmed by their flirtation, by the way he treated her with respect and as if this dance was just as important as some dance he might have had in his youth when he was hoping to score. He was enchanted by her just as so many of those in our group were enchanted with him. I loved him a little for that because I too was enchanted with Isabella. She and I spent a lot of time together at the castle, and I invited her to go to Galway with me for a couple of days at the end of our week-long workshop. At the time, I was feeling old and unwoo-able at 38, she told me—using her psychologist’s authority, her warmth as a new friend, and her New Yorker’s no nonsense—“If you lived in New York instead of Indiana, you’d just now be thinking about settling down, finding a partner, starting a family if you wanted. You’re young.” Then she proceeded to tell me about the man she’d most recently had a fling with. She’d always mourn her husband, she said, but there was a lot of marrow to be sucked from life yet for her and thus, by default, for me.
It doesn’t sound like much of a message, maybe, but I quit worrying about my age quite so much that day and when I think of the kind of older woman I want to be, Isabella is one of the people I think of.
I miss Isabella.
Since the summer of asthmatic bronchitis and search and recovery missions, I’ve had pneumonia. I can’t really distinguish between the two conditions except to know that I hope to never get either again. Both of my grandmothers were on oxygen, one because of emphysema and the other because of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. My father and his brother died of lung cancer. I worry about lungs. My lungs. The lungs of people I love.
Because my pulmonary system is related to people who have bad luck with their own, I’ve locked myself in my tower while I await the All-Clear signal from the CDC or the Fully- Vaccinated-with-Antibodies signal from my doctor.
Around the time of my self-imposed quarantine, a two-person parole board in California recommended Sirhan Sirhan for parole. In a statement decrying this recommendation that was written by Rory Kennedy and five of her siblings, they address not just the loss of their father that shaped their family but the loss to America. My mother hadn’t had books about RFK’s life and assassination to fascinate me as a child, so I’d never considered how the country—the world—might have been had he lived. He inspired the daughter he never met to make documentaries about people marginalized for one reason or another. What else might he have inspired if he’d been given a chance?
What might anyone who has died unnaturally because of violence or their own or someone else’s bad choices have accomplished if only they’d been able to live their lives fully?
The busy woman in the modernly furnished apartment looks like she’d make a good pie. I worry that she’s lonely. Or has an unhealthy obsession with freshly washed windows.
I imagine our neighbors peering into our apartment and feeling relieved that we appear to be moving with our many bags of clothes stacked in the living room. We are not a blinds-down people and sometimes in the morning we are not a pants-wearing people either. Sometimes our coffee table has books and papers and bowls of fruit stacked on it. Sometimes there are random things slung into the arm chair so we can never sit in it. We watch a lot of TV in relaxi clothes and I imagine they don’t approve of our lifestyle.
People are less interested in us than you think they are. Z says this with authority, as if it is a truth universally acknowledged. But that doesn’t explain why I care about the ages of my neighbors, why the dog barks at the cat, and why I believe that the across-the-alley neighbors put up curtains shortly after we arrived. There is disapproval and dislike in those curtains.
A word of advice: never ask someone who has just lost a family member to a lung ailment if that person was a smoker. The only purpose it serves is to make the speaker—almost always a nonsmoker—feel safe. At least I won’t die of a lung ailment because I’ve never smoked, they must think while the person they’ve asked is fighting the urge to growl in their general direction.
What I didn’t admit and what shames me a bit is this: I smiled at the man on the beach when he commanded me to do so. Even now, I smiled.
I found out Isabella died on her birthday when I went to check her page on Facebook to see what she was up to. We hadn’t had a real conversation in five years, just periodic check-ins over email, but I felt gutted and played that old, tiresome game with myself of self-blame about all the ways I take love and friendship for granted, as if it will always be there for me.
In an effort to avoid any real controversy, my high school U.S. history class spent more time on Tammany Hall and the Teapot Dome Scandal than on anything that happened after the Great Depression. Thus, we avoided much of WWII, all of Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and Watergate. So I didn’t learn anything useful about who Bobby Kennedy was or what he might have done or who killed him and why.
From my post-parole hearing “research” (thank you, Google), I learned that Sirhan’s mother believed he was traumatized in childhood by the Israeli-Arab conflict and by his brother’s death, which was caused when a military vehicle swerved to avoid gunfire, and that in 1989, the New York Times quoted Sirhan as having said his only connection to Robert Kennedy was Kennedy’s support of Israel to the physical detriment of Palestinians.
Lately, when I want to ask if some recently dead-by-COVID person had gotten the vaccine, I try to fight the urge. It’s an apples and oranges comparison, but I am daily trying to remind myself to err on the side of compassion. People make bad choices. I have made plenty myself.
Now, I’m slowly emptying the bags of clothes and reinstalling them in drawers that I sprayed so thoroughly with lavender oil that I coughed the rest of the day. I have no idea what moth lungs look or feel like, but if the hangers-on know what’s good for them, they’ll fly out the window or sit on the coffee table and watch Hulu with us instead of noshing on our fibers.
I never know if there are real connections where I see them or if I just need to believe they exist to manage life.
We were an odd band of writers at Kinnitty Castle. It wasn’t a group I should have felt comfortable with—a man who was on the Forbes 100, a Countess, various people with second homes, a woman who lived near me in the Midwest but was dismissive for reasons that had to do with either her recent MFA or the fact that she’d been born in Ireland—I knew instinctively that she was not going to warm to me.
Still, I fell in love with some of those people who were so different from me.
During one workshop (and days before Colum McCann showed up and danced with Isabella), there was a dust-up when a piece being discussed could be construed as anti-Semitic. Because I loathe discord, I can no longer remember specifically what it was or whose piece it was, but I do remember Isabella’s raised voice, the tears that welled in her eyes, as she pointed out the injustice of how the writer had characterized a Jewish character or the nonchalance with which the person had written about the Holocaust. She had lost family in the Holocaust. She herself had come to America as a refugee when she was a child. Later I would learn—because I hadn’t ever had to consider it before this because of the luck of my birth and place in history—how difficult it was to be a refugee in America. How difficult to be Jewish at a time when America hadn’t exactly put out the welcome mat for people who were attempting to escape the Nazis.
I was just an observer. It wasn’t my trauma. And yet, seeing how it affected Isabella all these years later—an ill-worded passage in someone’s novel manuscript . . . Even now, I have no words for the effect it had on me. But it made me wish I could always only see the humanity– the layers of sadness and joy and wisdom and wonder—in every person whose path I cross.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Oh, and I did a jigsaw puzzle because snow days are perfect for that and I still miss RBG.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.)
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:
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.
Every year this seems magical.
This view greeting me when I dare to venture to the drugstore for my “nerve” pills.
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.
My Big Fat Greek Puzzle.
Traveling through the magic of puzzling.
A candle that was lit at the same time as candles were being lit in Zimbabwe and around the world.
Not library scented.
Spring’s aromatic beauty.
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.
These signs that are popping up all over First Hill.
Is it you, Michelangelo?
This Honey Bucket has lost is way.
Ditto. (Also, thumbs up for traffic-less streets when you are a pedestrian.)
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.
Artwork by Henri Lebasque
Stolen images and memes.
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
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 outside—whatever 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.