Category Archives: Urban Life

A Horse with No Name

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Ponygirl

Today, I came into my writing studio, cracked open my laptop and flexed my fingers, ready to roll. Yesterday, in my notebook, I’d jotted down a genius idea at the bottom of a list of things I’m thankful for and I was sure that genius idea was going to make the words flow at record speed. I scrolled down the list anxious to be reminded of what had inspired me and made me feel so confident. Those words:

 

Horses aren’t arbitrary.

 

Well, that was disappointing. I thought it was something better than that. Something that maybe actually made sense.

 

I am not a horsey person. I read one horse book when my adolescent friends were six books deep in that series about the wild horses of Chincoteague. I inherited a ceramic horse collection from someone who had outgrown it, but I never went through a horse phase like a lot of girls do, unless you count my beloved rocking horse, Charger, who betrayed me by getting too small to ride.

 

I’ve ridden exactly one non-plastic horse, a pony really, and I did not feel like we were of one mind. I did not feel whatever it is that horse people feel. The view was nice and I wished I had one, but that was largely about transportation because I was six and a horse could take me anywhere I wanted to go.

 

What a horse could not do, however, was make itself comfortable in a one-bedroom upstairs apartment.

 

I’m in awe of people who ride horses regularly the way I’m in awe of people who ski. It looks like fun at some level, but skis and horses have always struck me as situations you only think you have control over, and so I’ve given both a miss. Life is precarious enough in my mind without me putting my body on something that could gallop me over a cliff or skid me into a pine tree.

 

For these reasons, I don’t think of horses as metaphors when I’m writing because they mostly just aren’t in my consciousness. They’re lovely and powerful and I like the way they smell when I have occasion to smell them once every five years when I find myself in the horse barn at the Great Darke County Fair. But I’m more of a dog and cow person. Maybe a monkey person if I’ve had caffeine.

Not a horse. (Also, not my dog.)

Not a horse. (Also, not my dog.)

My first cousin once removed would ride her horse from her parents’ farmhouse down to my great-grandmother’s when I was a kid, and it seemed to me, the equivalent of Glinda the Good Witch of the North arriving in her giant Oz bubble. It was the stuff of fairy tales—much more magical than my boy cousins driving up the gravel road in a motorized child-sized car (also amazing, but incomparable). We played hide and seek once and none of us could find Carol because she was hiding in the barn with her horse. Perhaps it was shadowy enough to keep her hidden in that old barn that leaned so far to the south that it had to be propped up with a pole (we were warned repeatedly not to go into it and repeatedly we went in anyway), but I think it was something else. Carol and her horse were like one entity. We could not find Carol because there was just one creature in that barn and it was “horse.”

 

Around the same time, a friend of a friend told me the sad story of having to say goodbye to her horse. (She was moving or the horse had to move, the specifics I have forgotten, though—because she was a rare creature like I was in the early 1970s, which is to say a child of divorce—I blamed her loss of horse on her parents’ failed marriage). Her horse was long gone when I met her, yet she spoke of how on the last day with it, she sat in the saddle wearing some special riding hat, maybe covered in flowers, and her friends stood around her and sang. Her longing for the horse was still palpable. It’s been decades since this vicarious heartbreak, but still, I imagine her there, sitting on a horse I never met, weeping because her other half was taken from her.

 

Leibovitz recently did a photo shoot with her beautiful 16-year-old daughter in a beautiful, ethereal dress on a beautiful chestnut horse. Though it pained me to see Baby Leibovitz looking all grown up, it pleased me more to see her—at this age, as she’s just figuring herself out—on one of the horses she’s loved since she was a  tiny girl and she was looking very much herself.

 

Also, I just watched a Martin Clunes documentary on heavy horses (watched largely because I like Martin Clunes and not because of the horses), so I can only assume this “genius” phrase of mine was inspired by these two recent equine-related occurrences—a photo of a favorite kid and a documentary narrated by “Doc Martin”—but goodness knows what I thought I’d do with Horses aren’t arbitrary when I wrote it down. It doesn’t really inspire the Great American Novel. And clearly “blog about horses” isn’t even possible since right now I’ve said all I have to say about horses and we haven’t moseyed down the trail towards anything close to a point.

 

Okay. Here’s a point.

 

I’m stuck. My non blog-writing has been refusing to shape itself into anything resembling coherence. I sit (sometimes) at my gorgeous desk with my city view surrounded by all of my helpful books about writing and other books full of writing that inspires me, and yet I am stuck.

 

Also, there is a perpetual reel of conversation in my head (maybe you’ve noticed) of how I miss home and the city makes me nuts, but then when I consider leaving the Pacific Northwest, I feel unhappy too. Leave this weather and Puget Sound and the mostly snow capped mountains? Why would someone want to do that? I’m zinging between wildly happy (Z inspired, largely, though I’ve read some good books, written chunks of things that please me, and just discovered that Mom has the doctor’s thumbs-up for a visit to us) and angry and/or weepy. (Last week I yelled at a total stranger who was walking like a sloth while reading her phone, serpentining along the sidewalk in such a way that no one could get around her. Her obliviousness enraged me and made me feel trapped, so I growled as I finally stormed past her, “Either walk or read your damn phone!” Z just laughed at me. The woman passed us further up the street, still seemingly oblivious, but her phone had been tucked away. I am not a yeller at strangers unless I’m in my car with the windows rolled up tightly. Yelling is not the Midwestern way! The city is turning me into an animal!)

 

I spend too much time looking backward instead of forward even though if you asked me (you’re asking, right?) I would tell you that this moment right now and the moments surrounding it are absolutely the happiest period of my life.

 

Also, fall is approaching. I’m three years out of teaching. While I don’t miss lecturing, obsessive faculty meetings, or some administrators who will remain perpetually in my Little Book of Hate, I miss my students. God I miss them. I miss talking to them about their writing and how to make it sing. I miss watching them take some truly deplorable crap and sculpt it into something beautiful. I miss them popping into my office to talk about their ideas or ask for advice. I miss hearing their thoughts about some piece of literature, telling them mine, and all of us seeing the text in a new way. I miss recognizing people in some other major during  first year comp and knowing they were meant to be in my classes, and then later having the satisfaction of them stopping by my office to say they’re thinking of switching majors to English. And later still, seeing them in their last semester, finishing up a creative writing portfolio or an Honors Thesis that exceeds both of our expectations. I even miss having those dreaded conversations during advising sessions about the uselessness/utility of an English degree.

 

My first and favorite office.

My first and favorite office.

In short, I don’t really know who or what I am these days. It might be a midlife crisis. Or it could just be something I ate.I’ve always been better at knowing what I’m not than I have been at knowing what I am.

 

Things I know I am not:

  • inclined to work with numbers, in sales, or with bodily fluids
  • an extrovert, an athlete, or a savant
  • a lover of noise, reptiles, or clowns
  • likely to eat vegetables, follow trends, or brush my hair on the regular

 

So that’s where I’m starting.

 

It occurs to me that the reason I’ve remembered these horsey stories for forty years is not because I particularly wanted a horse myself, nor is it because I wanted to be like my idol mystery-solver/horseback riding heroine, Trixie Belden. I don’t even want to climb upon a horse for a photo op (largely because I’m unsure that horses really want to be climbed upon in the first place).

 

No. The reason I can still see my cousin on her horse or imagine the friend of a friend weeping on a horse I never met is because I quite liked the idea of being a horse girl.

 

Horse girls always know exactly what and who they are. Their heads are full of horses and there is no dissuading them or convincing them that an Irish Wolfhound is nearly as big and just as good. They love their horses so much they don’t mind mucking out a barn, swatting horse flies, or doing those 800 things you have to do to keep a horse happy and healthy (things I used to know when I was reading Trixie Belden). There’s no question there. They want to be on the back of a horse, or standing next to a horse with curry comb, or in a house that is adjacent to a barn in which a horse resides.

 

Even now, when I run into my cousin at Meijer or see a Facebook post from that friend of my friend, the first thing I think: horse girl. And the second thing I think: I wish I knew myself as well as you always have.

 

Horses aren’t arbitrary.

Connemara Ponies, Renvyle, Ireland

Connemara Ponies, Renvyle, Ireland

 

Of Minutiae and Lack of Momentum

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Ethan Currier’s rock art, Bainbridge Island, WA

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Graffiti encouragement, Seattle

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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Space Needle, Seattle

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

We’ve seen the surface of Mars.

 

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

 

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

 

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A girl and her duck.

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

 

Peace be upon us.

 

RGSthesound

Puget Sound

 

 

 

 

 

The Ill-planned Grand Tour: Part 2

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In 1988 when I flew to London with some of my classmates from Anderson University, the song that was stuck in my head was Kate Bush’s “Oh England My Lionheart” which had the most gorgeous, historical and literary lyrics and the refrain, “Oh! England, my lionheart/I don’t want to go.” As we boarded our plane for home, at least half of us were mentally humming this song. We weren’t ready to say goodbye to this city that existed for us previously only on the pages of the books we were studying.

 

As Z and I walk along the Thames, by Parliament, up Whitehall past the statue of Charles I staring forever towards the place where he lost his head, through the tombs in Westminster Abbey where Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I are stretched out side by side despite a lifetime of distrust, imprisonment, and conflicting religious ideologies, what song is in my head? Why, Fergie’s “London Bridge” with lyrics that I won’t repeat here because my mother-in-law reads this blog. It will NOT leave my head. I walk around looking at sights that quicken my heart while mentally, there’s Fergie, getting her groove on: All my girls get down on the floor/back to back drop it down real low.

 

This difference pretty much epitomizes the alterations that twenty years can make on a place. I’m not sure if those differences I see are primarily in my head or if they are in the city itself. Certainly, London has changed. I need only look at the skyline across the Thames to South London to see the difference. Skyscrapers, the London Eye (a massive Ferris wheel built to celebrate the Millennium that wrecks that old world feel I loved so long ago, though demonstrates what a modern tourist destination London is), and the general hubbub makes the south side of the river suddenly seem like the place to be instead of the stuffy historical sites on the north side. (We stay on the north side.) Also, though one of my previous trips was during the tourist-laden summer, London feels positively stuffed to the gills with people. There is no room for us on the tours, on the sidewalk, in the Tube. I can’t decide if this is my age, the fact that now that I live in a city I’m no longer as enamored with them as I used to be, I’ve become a claustrophobe in middle age or because the EU and globalization have turned the city into the world’s oyster. Also, a new development since 1992: at least ¾ of the people we pass have their faces buried in their smart phones with no awareness that the throngs are having to dodge their zombie-esque lumber down the middle of the sidewalk.

 

At one point, I actually think but don’t say, “London may be due another plague to thin this herd.”

 

Lest it seem like I haven’t enjoyed myself and don’t love this city, fear not. Z and I have had a great time. It’s hard to see a red double-decker bus, a red phone box (a few less since last time I was here), or the iconic red mailboxes without catching a little London fever. Samuel Johnson said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, and I’m inclined to agree. I will never be “over” London, though I do wonder if Dr. Johnson was ever tired IN London as we have been, and if he didn’t ever long for a little respite in the Lake District. Certainly, at the end of our days, we’re happy to stumble into our hotel room.

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Our hotel, The Regency, in South Kensington, is delightful. Its location just a few blocks from the Tube is why we picked it, but when we walked up to it we knew we’d be in good hands. Queen’s Gate Avenue is a wide, flower-lined street with Georgian homes that lead into the Queen’s Gate in Kensington Gardens. Though the room is small and the water pressure is non-existent, the quirkiest thing about it is the high tech light system that the hotel staff is very proud of. If you get up in the night, the lights sense your movement and pop on. This would be handy if you were in a room by yourself, but with two people, it’s unsettling to have the lights flash suddenly because your spouse needed to make a late-night trip to the loo. The hotel is quiet and they accommodated my ice addiction by bringing me a bucket of ice every night. (Though on the last night, I only got a glass of ice, much to Z’s delight. He couldn’t quit laughing at my disappointed face.)

 

In Seattle, the city parks planners have recently started a “parks to pavement” movement, the result of which means on our block of First Hill we’ve lost about six parking spaces that have been painted aqua. They chained some jaunty folding chairs to sign posts and we’re meant to think it’s a park (and it’s worth noting, it’s five feet from a non parking lot park). But you only need to be in London about five minutes before you see proper parks, both big and small before you realize that Americans often don’t really do parks right at all. The ones in London are under huge canopies of trees and there is everywhere evidence of landscape design. Aside from the big parks, there are also little “squares” in the midst of Georgian row houses that are private for the residents around the block. It’s a bit disconcerting to be on the outside of the locked gate looking in, but it must be such a delight to live across the street from one and know that you have access and can find therein a park that is less likely to have litter strewn about, needles cast aside, and a safe haven from the stress of the city. There should be more of these everywhere and not just in wealthy neighborhoods. It seems like it would foster a sense of community more than our little patch of aqua pavement. If we went to a park every day of our stay here, I’d ask to go to two.

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On our first jet-lagged afternoon, Z and I head off to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens (the two parks bleed into each other and even my pop-up map is vague about where one ends and the other begins, but combined they are larger than the whole of Monaco!). Henry VIII created Hyde Park for hunting, and London is all the better for it. Marble Arch in Hyde Park was my very first tourist stop in 1988, so I’m always happy to return there, even in a gentle rain. Z and I stop for photo ops at the Albert Memorial, created by Queen Victoria to pay tribute to her beloved husband, and I remember in college how silly she seemed to have gone into a mourning that lasted the rest of her life though her husband died when she was 42 and she would live to be nearly 100. Standing there with Z, it makes much more sense to me now that a woman who ruled half the geographic world would feel she’d lost her own when her husband died. Is it possible that I’m more romantically inclined in middle age than I was as a twenty year old?

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While in the park, we walk along the serpentine–a swan-laden lake that twists and turns—and we visit Peter Pan, pass the Italianate garden that looks like it belongs in another country. It’s a peaceful re-introduction to London.

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The next morning, we manage to get ourselves to what was previously my favorite place in London: The Tower. It’s a fortress comprised of multiple buildings that span centuries in architecture and that was the backdrop for some of England’s more grisly history, including the place where wives lost their heads simply because Henry VIII had in mind to wed another and where people whose faiths differed from the monarch’s were put to death for heresy. When I was 21, this place sizzled for me. I walked along the parapet where Elizabeth I walked when she was being held prisoner by her sister and felt alive, like I was somehow touching the past. I watched the ravens hopping freely across the green and recited to myself the myth that if the ravens leave, the Tower will fall. (They haven’t left because their wings are clipped, and now, sadly, they are in cages.) I traced Jayne Grey’s name, carved in the wall by her husband before the pair of them were beheaded at the end of Jayne’s 9 day reign as queen and got choked up. I stared at the Crown Jewels and imagined which crown I’d get to wear when Prince Edward finally saw sense and married me. Full disclosure, I also stared at Henry VIII’s codpiece and wondered if I could get Edward to don similar armor periodically to keep things spicy.

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On this August day, the Tower is crawling with tourists. Since last I was here, they’ve built a souped up tourist center and started charging a lot more, including a “voluntary donation” that is in the price posted! There are lines for the Crown Jewels that snake around the White Tower and leave Z and I shaking our heads: I’ve seen them before and he isn’t that interested, so we move on. They’ve refurbished apartments above Traitor’s Gate that belonged to Edward I, which are fascinating in their medieval-ness. In other places, I feel disappointed that “improvements” have been made to entertain children—unnecessary sound effects that make it impossible for me to do my own imagining, a lot of hands-on feeling of feather ticks and metal soldiers’ helmets, and an array of animal sounds from the menagerie that used to live there. I understand the inclination to make history come alive so young people will be interested, but what I notice is most of them could care less about the history and simply want to move from experience to experience. I feel sad for them that they live in an age when grown-ups feel they must entertain children instead of helping them develop imaginations that can fill in blanks, but mostly I’m sadder for myself and Z. There is no time or space now for reflection about politics, faith, war and affairs of the heart without hearing “tigers” growling and the clang of swords from a mock joust. Even Tower Green, which used to have a sort of tacky chopping block to illustrate where heads were lost now has a beautiful monument made of glass and stone with a lovely poem etched into it and a sculpture of a pillow.

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I’m still unsure how I feel about this. The poem is nice and offers a sort of benediction for those who have become cartoon characters in the history books of our minds, but it’s a little too pretty. For me that chopping block was jarring reminder in such a beautiful setting that the Tower wasn’t all banquets and Tudor-era tennis.

 

But still, why am I complaining about any of it? For an American whose history barely goes back 200 years, it’s amazing to stand in a structure that has existed since William the Conqueror in the 11th Century. I get chills standing in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula knowing that two of Henry VIII’s wives lie beneath the floor, heads no longer intact, and can’t be having much of a peaceful rest with all the tourists that trek through on a daily basis.

 

Because I’ve always wanted to walk along the Thames—mistaking it, I suppose, for the Seine—Z and I leave the Tower and walk towards Parliament on the Thames River Walk. It is a longer distance than our pop-out map indicates, and more to the point, London is a boom town with a lot development happening along the river, so we walk twenty feet and then have to circle around construction; walk another twenty feet, circle around. It’s hot. We are tired. Honestly, I prefer the Thames in my mind. As we walk away from Tower Bridge, towards London Bridge, Fergie cranks up in my head, and I sigh. I think I’m missing 1988 London. Possibly, I’m missing 1588 London.

I’m Fergie Ferg. Me love you long time.

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Post-Apocalyptic Lifestyles of the Timid and Bookish

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Columbia River

Columbia River

There’s been a heat wave burning through the Pacific Northwest, so naturally my pale Irish American thoughts have turned to the dystopian future that is probably awaiting all of us. I’ve barely left the house for five days—let’s be honest: I’ve barely had clothes on for five days—I’ve been reading the world-is-mostly-over-because-of-flu novel Station Eleven, Z and I finished binge watching The Walking Dead, and we went with Hudge to see Mad Max, a movie so aesthetically assaulting that I kept my eyes closed for the bulk of it. So it’s hard to see the weeks’ long streak of 90 degree heat as anything other than a harbinger of bad things to come.

In other words, this is my annual post about how much I hate summer.

Robert Frost may enjoy debating whether the world will end with fire or ice in his famous poem, but I have no doubt that ice will not be the method. It’s going to be one really big, hot sun and not enough fossil fuels to run the last remaining air conditioner on the planet. This might explain why I buy three bags of ice every three days from the drugstore on the corner and then crunch it obsessively all day long, much to Z’s chagrin.

Aside from the heat, one of my fears for my future post-apocalyptic lifestyle is that I was always one of the first people knocked out in elementary school when we played Dodge Ball. I wasn’t particularly quick or athletic, which was a contributing factor, but often I’d stand there making myself an easy target in order to get it over with. I hated waiting for the worst. In high school when my friends and I would play Ditch ‘em in one of the farmyards, I was always perfectly happy to get caught early and spend the rest of the game sitting on a hay bale at home base waiting for everyone else to get corralled. It was preferable to the heart-pounding rush of hiding under a pine tree and hoping no one could hear my anxiety driven loud breathing. Despite having a competitive spirit in the board game arena, I have very little in the physical world. In terms of fight or flight, I’m almost 100% flight unless someone mistreats or underappreciates Z, and then I want to cut them.

So when I watch something like The Walking Dead, I want to be Michonne, the sword-wielding badass who doesn’t need a gun to take out a herd of zombies. You never see anything akin to terror or dread on her face. She’s fueled by rage and some innate desire to survive, and she is always calm and rarely breaks a sweat. However, I know should I find myself jettisoned into a zombie-apocalypse situation– even with years of training–I almost certainly would not be Michonne or her male counterpart, Daryl the bow-hunting-survivalist-tracker of few words. Instead, I would be the sniveling character who a) must be protected b) inevitably ends up a zombie feast when the source of my protection has “gone out for supplies.”

Last week Z and I drove down to our favorite beach hideaway on the Oregon Coast. It’s a little cottage that hangs on a hill overlooking an outcropping of rocks and endless surf. We always pack our swimsuits and then discover that only small children, people in wet suits, and the mildly insane can brave the temperatures. This year the Pacific was particularly cold and I couldn’t even stand to wade for very long. While folks back in Seattle were trying to find the one restaurant in town that has air conditioning, Z and I were huddled under our beach towels trying to stay warm. We were committed to the beach experience, even if it meant sweatshirts with hoods up. I was particularly pleased with my heartiness the day I did brave the water for a quick “paddle” as Z calls it, and then he looked down and noted that my fingernails had turned blue. (I’ve never been so cold I had blue fingernails before—what an accomplishment.) We didn’t really care though. The colder it is there, the more the beach belongs to us and it’s just the escape from the city that I wanted and Z earned after his long hard slog towards his much deserved tenure.

When we first discovered this outpost back when we were dating and I was living in a cornfield, I longed for civilization and every night we’d drive into the nearest town for dinner or a trip to a big box store to buy unnecessary plastic objects so I’d feel connected to humanity. On this trip, however, I had no desire to leave our little cottage and drive somewhere with traffic lights—a sure sign I’ve been too long living in our part of downtown-adjacent and way-too-populous Seattle.

On the trip to our beach haven, we stopped in Astoria, Oregon, the place where Lewis & Clark spent the winter when they were busy “discovering” this part of the world. Now, it’s a town of almost 10,000 residents where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. Then, it was, well, nothing but a vision for westward expansion and commerce. Their trip fascinates me for many reasons. I’m in awe that anyone would look at a wall of wilderness, harsh weather conditions and potentially dangerous situations, and think, hey, let’s see what’s out there. Lewis and Clark probably never had a Dodge Ball strategy that involved letting themselves get thwacked with a ball in the first 30 seconds so the horror would be over more quickly.

I am not a camper or an adventurer. I enjoy the trappings of civilization, even as I am critical of it and all the ways it has really messed up the world. As much as I would love not living in an urban apartment building outside of which a fellow tenant sometimes shouts about the pyramids and unfair rent increases at 2 a.m., I also can’t get excited about a back-to-nature lifestyle that doesn’t involve stacks of books and time to read them and electronic devices and places in which to plug them. I’ve heard when you are conquering new frontiers, there aren’t libraries or a lot of down time, and so other than a little travel, I should be content where I am, five blocks from one of the country’s best independent bookstores, two blocks from a modern marvel of a public library, and surrounded by Starbucks full of people reading real and virtual books. Not to mention the heavy duty extension cord that I cleverly put under our sofa so Z and I have easy access to free plus to charge our devices.

This is a war that constantly wages inside of me: this desire for tranquility, space and a view of the gorgeous sunsets like those outside my parents’ country home versus my love of culture and convenience.

Ultimately, these are my fears about a post-apocalyptic life: I don’t want to have to spend time figuring out how to stay fed and sheltered and cool when I could have my nose buried in a book or a screen showing some excellent television programming. I don’t want to have to work out “reading shifts” wherein someone keeps me safe from zombies or marauders while I read the latest Marian Keyes novel or daydream in front of a vista. It sounds like no kind of life.

Fortunately, I’m well-practiced in how to get out of a game of Dodge Ball.

Oregon Coast

Oregon Coast

Hey There, Little Red Riding Hood

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Flashback Friday: Rip Van Winkle & the Gastritis Queen

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[We return here to a recently reunited, fresh-in-love, Z & Beth. Sadly, things are not going well.]

3 January 2007

I made it to Seattle before the clock struck 12. Just barely. Z and my luggage were both waiting on me, so I felt welcomed. We took a taxi back to his flat, where he had New Year’s champagne waiting as well as those little confetti bottle poppers. By the time we got back there was precious little time to get anywhere fun for midnight, so we watched the Space Needle fireworks display on television. It’s weird to be one of the last places on the planet to experience the New Year. I kept waiting to see Dick Clark, but he’d been in bed for three hours—2007 was already old news by the time it hit the Pacific Northwest.Don’t judge me harshly, but I’m a little superstitious. It’s haphazard superstition. I’d walk under a ladder, but I don’t like a candle in my house with an unburned wick. The whole black cat thing annoys me because it smacks of feline racism. One of my superstitions is that however you spend New Year’s Day will pretty much determine the shape of your year. It’s not looking good for us. Z was still horribly jetlagged, so he slept until 6 p.m. on January 1st. [It is worth admitting here, that I went mentally ill for a few hours and convinced myself that he was pretending to be asleep because he realized he didn’t want to spend any time with me, so there was some cabinet door slamming and a pouty walk up to McDonald’s where I ate alone and wondered if I should book an early ticket back home. I hadn’t yet flown to Zimbabwe and didn’t know about jetlag of this magnitude.–RGS] Once he was up, we walked to his office so he could take care of some things before classes started and then decided to eat at our (formerly) favorite Mexican place. It was not so good as we remembered, and by 3 a.m. I was awake with “gastrointestinal distress.” By the time I woke up the next morning, I was achy and still making regular trips to the bathroom. Between my marathon bathroom visits, we lounged in bed watching Gerald Ford’s funeral. Not really the honeymoon-ette I was planning.

Also, my hair has gone from Meredith Grey to Slobodan Milosevic. Who knew it could get worse?

Z went to work and left me alone with my ailments. He called and suggested I go to the ER around the corner if I felt too bad. I laughed at this. It’s just the flu. We hung up. And then I started thinking about all the symptoms of toxic shock syndrome and how my recently purchased contraceptive sponges could cause said syndrome, read up on it on the internet and discovered I had every symptom except a sunburn-like rash. Hmmm. Intuition told me this was an unlikely diagnosis, but the big warning at the bottom of the box saying “Seek medical attention immediately” scared me. I weighed the evidence. These really were the worst flu-like symptoms I’d ever felt. And would I be achy if it was Mexican food poisoning? I walked across the street to the ER.

If you ever have to go to an emergency room, try to go to one in Seattle. I’m not a regular ER visitor, but based on my experience at my local one in August, I can see a vast difference. Here, I was treated kindly, I was given warm blankets, I was clucked at and reassured. No one made me feel as if I had no business being there. The doctor looked like someone who would turn the heads of both McDreamy and McSteamy’s. She was kind. Kind and beautiful and smart. It was like night and day when I think about the shark-tooth wearing doctor I had to see in the fall and how I felt like I was wasting everyone’s time.

Z came and entertained me, though I kept dozing off from the IV they’d given me for dehydration. The blood work indicated that it was “just” gastritis, so they gave me some drugs, some instructions, and sent me on my way. One of the drugs to stop nausea I vowed not to take: a suppository that Z and I immediately referred to as a “spy pill” like the cyanide capsules that are last resort for secret agents.

So it definitely isn’t the start of 2007 with Z that I was anticipating. He’s been a wonderful care-giver though. I awoke this morning to Post-it notes all over the apartment with well-wishes and numbers where he can be reached and two cans of chicken noodle soup that he had gone out last night in the rain to buy for me. I feel better. The sun is out. My fingers are crossed that he won’t get sick and that the rest of my stay will be good. And also, that my hair will start looking more like mine and less like Meredith Grey’s and now-dead foreign leaders.

A Tale of Two (or more) Christmases

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It’s that time of year when I drag out all the Christmas videos that put me in a happy, Christmas space, and force Z to watch them. I don’t always watch all of them—Little Women often gets a miss because I end up in tears when Beth dies—but, like clockwork, there will be a viewing of Christmas in Connecticut, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, A Holiday Affair, While You Were Sleeping, A Christmas Story, and eventually, my favorite, Moonstruck, which, honestly, I sometimes forget is set at Christmas because it’s also one of my favorite non-holiday movies. The script is great, the writing is tight, the scenery is wonderful, and the acting really was worthy of those Oscars back in 1988. The main thing all of these movies have in common though is the promise of a two-hour block of time when Christmas is exactly how you imagine it should be.

 

As you may be aware, I do my fair share of complaining about city life, but this is the time of year that while I miss home—the city…any city really—comes alive for me.

I first discovered this love for city-life-at-the-holidays in Chicago in the mid 1990s when I’d stand for an hour studying the window displays at Marshall Field’s and Carson Pirie Scott. The displays at Field’s were themed and you’d wait anxiously to see what would be revealed each year: Cinderella, Pinocchio, Wizard of Oz? I could easily get teary-eyed talking about Macy’s take-over of the main Marshall Field’s on State Street and subsequent refusal to retain the historical name and traditions and the bland, seen-it-before holiday decorations that are the new normal, or the Target logo that now hovers over the beautiful ironwork on the Carson Pirie Scott building. So don’t mention those stores to me please. Seriously. Can we just pretend it’s still 1997 and all is as it should be on State Street?

 

When I was in Chicago, I somehow didn’t mind the cold. I’d stand outside, purposeless, watching the ice skaters, guessing what might be in the bags and stacks of boxes people were carrying around on the Magnificent Mile as horns honked in what seemed like a less aggressive, more festive way than at other times of the year. I’d make time to go to one of the free weekly concerts at Fourth Presbyterian, staring up at the decorated sanctuary that was meant to look like the hull of a Viking ship, and listen with pleasure to carols and concertos. Then I’d get cocoa on the second floor of the now defunct Borders bookstore and stare down at the historic Water Tower and watch the carriages there, carting tourists around with horses sporting Santa hats. I was meant to be in the city for a man, but he was often at work or disinclined to venture out of his Bat Cave, so my time there was solitary and oddly delightful. I didn’t need to be doing the carriage riding or the ice skating; I was content to observe it, to walk amongst the revelers, to soak it in. There was nothing about Christmas in that snowy, blustery city that I didn’t love; even the labored breathing from the icy temperatures and difficulty walking on the snow-packed side streets seemed magical.

 

Rockefeller Center, 2010

Rockefeller Center, 2010

 

Chicago set the bar high. Four years ago, Z and I had a blizzard-induced flight delay when we were headed to Zimbabwe, and thus we ended up spending a few nights in New York City. For the first time ever, I finally got to see—in the flesh and electric lights—those famous windows at Macy’s, the tree at Rockefeller Center, wreaths on St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It made our interrupted—and thus shortened—trip to Africa almost worth it. Christmas in New York certainly rivals that of Chicago, but for me, it doesn’t quite win. Maybe a tie. I’ve seen Dublin, Galway, Rome, New Orleans, Harare, Seattle and the closer, Midwestern cities of my youth decorated for the holidays, but Chicago will always be the city that lives inside the flurry-filled snow globe in my brain. I try not to hold that against Seattle, which even managed to produce a few tiny patches of snow this year and get cold enough to keep little driftlets at the bases of about three trees.

 

But it’s no Chicago.

 

December hasn’t impressed me much this year. It’s my favorite month usually, but it seems like the whole world is coming unhinged. Normally, it’s the time of year when you can safely insulate yourself from the ugliness out there so long as you toss some money in the Salvation Army pot outside the door at the grocery and feel grateful for your own bounty. But it’s harder this year. People are mad and unhappy and in pain. There have been nightly protests in downtown Seattle to remind us of this. On the one hand, I want to be annoyed that the protestors made a bunch of kids at a choral concert at the tree-lighting ceremony cry at the beginning of the month, but on the other hand, I am sympathetic to the frustration of a faulty system. I am in awe of people who are inclined to let their voices be heard en masse. When I get outraged about something, I send an email and write in my journal or whine to Z, so this level of commitment and the possibility of being on the receiving end of violence—or at least pepper spray and handcuffs—is something to behold. Certainly, it’s making for a different sort of holiday season.

 

At the beginning of the month, Z and I made our first trip to Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony, to hear the Pacific Lutheran University choir and orchestra perform a Christmas concert. We were excited to finally get into the building that for the last eight years has only served as backdrop while we wait for the #12 bus to pick up our tired backsides and cart us up the hill. I admit that I even had some Moonstruck fantasies that I was Cher and Rick was the (pre-crazy) Nicolas Cage, decked out in our finery, going to see La Bohème at the New York Metropolitan Opera, never mind Z’s lack of tux and my clomping around in Danskos and slacks instead of high heels and red velvet dress. We had box seats which we’d been assured were “awesome” by Hudge, and we were imagining something similar to the seats Princess Di used to sit in, looking down on everyone with a clear view of the stage. The view was good, though not Royal-Family private, but my seat was not befitting a princess or any other human. Possibly a potted plant would have found reasonable purchase there. For the duration of the concert my knees were pressed against the banister, my feet had to be tucked far beneath my chair, and during the portions where the audience had to stand up to sing carols, Z had to help me over to one side so I could stand without toppling over, which made me feel even less like Cher (or Princess Diana) and more like someone’s clumsy, ancient, slightly drunk aunt.

No Leg Room for a Princess

No Leg Room for a Princess

Still, the music drifted up to the rafters and the choir members sang their way out of the auditorium while holding electric candles, and we were both feeling extra Christmassy as we walked home. The flashing lights of cop cars monitoring another night’s protest were at the periphery, blending in with the other twinkling lights of the city. Everything appeared peaceable even if discontent.

 

The following night we went downtown with Hudge and friends of hers to experience the Figgy Pudding Caroling Competition, a yearly event in Seattle, wherein a variety of groups sing for donations that support a food bank and a senior center, and at the end of the evening the loot in the pots is counted and the “winner” determined. Though it is just a few blocks from our apartment, the streets were packed with, according to some accounts, 10,000 or more people. It was fun, in that it was nice to see so many denizens of Seattle happily bumping against each other in Santa hats, happily dropping money into buckets for a worthy cause. But it was overwhelming to my highly sensitive self. All those people! All those sounds clashing somewhere just above my ears so nothing sounded particularly melodious but more like an aural war being waged, or at least a border skirmish. The police were in full force for crowd control and also because there were rumored to be more protests (later, we learned the protestors and organizers worked out a deal since the event was for a charitable cause, so the protest happened later), but it was jarring to see so many cops at such a happy occasion. And then other little wars started happening inside of me, wherein I wanted to tell them to be safe and that I respected how hard their jobs must be while at the same time I wanted to give little smacks to the ones I thought looked most likely to be trigger-happy racial profilers. (Granted, I had no real data to determine who were the good cops and who were the potentially bad cops, but still, my brain raged to various choruses of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and I came to no solution other than to smile at anyone who made eye contact with me.)

 

Figgy Pudding crowd, 2014

Figgy Pudding crowd, 2014

The following day, Z and I had rented a car and found ourselves with some leftover Christmas spirit that we were uncertain how to expend. We tried eating pie, but that wasn’t enough to sate us, so at the last minute, we drove onto a ferry destined for the Kitsap Peninsula for an ill-planned visit to Poulsbo’s tree-lighting ceremony. It was so ill-planned we weren’t sure we would even make it as it was meant to happen as soon as the sun went down, and the sun was sinking rapidly as we dozed in our car, bobbing across across Puget Sound. (Ferry sleep is the best sleep you will ever have, fyi).

 

You may remember my earlier description of Poulsbo, the little Viking-inspired village that was founded by Scandinavians who arrived in the late 19th century for the fishing. It sits right on the Sound and has a quaint downtown with Viking murals and Scandinavian building facades and signs that are in Norse (or an English version of Norse). Z and I arrived just in time, and as we were racing down the hill to the city park by the waterfront, we saw a group of people in a wooded lot, standing around a fire in Viking headdress and furs, making plans for the ceremony. Though we knew during the day they were probably computer programmers or carpenters, it was easy enough to pretend we’d happened upon an encampment of soon-to-be marauding Vikings.

 

We left them where they were and continued down the hill and got to the city park, just in time to see Miss Poulsbo light the village tree. We were imagining some massive fir tree, because the trees grow big and plentiful in western Washington, but no, the tree in question was only about a foot taller than Miss Poulsbo herself, who Z briefly mistook for a snowman because she was wrapped so tightly in a white cape. We’d been imagining something much grander and briefly considered we’d made an error in choosing our evening’s destination. But there was a huge stack of wood in front of us that was intriguing and talk of Vikings escorting Saint Lucia in to light it, so we stood around with the townsfolk waiting. Compared to the night before in downtown Seattle, this group was much smaller, maybe 200 or so people, and many seemed to know each other. Some little boys dressed in skins raced around the wood and a young bulldog made friends with everyone who walked past. We’d recently binged on all seven seasons of “Gilmore Girls” on Netflix, and frankly, Poulsbo felt very Stars Hollow-esque. (Even the emcee was reminding us a little of the insufferable Taylor Doose.)

 

Z and I stood by the waterfront looking at the lighted houses across the Sound. And then, off in the distance, we saw flames coming towards us as the Vikings approached on the river walk, brandishing torches. (A kid behind us thought they were bringing us all giant, roasted marshmallows to help celebrate.)

Saint Lucia? Is that you?

Saint Lucia? Is that you?

 

The anticipation grew as they got closer and people made way for them to get to the wood that would become a proper big bonfire. As they arrived, in their midst were a variety of girls and young women, and we’d be hard pressed to tell you which one was St. Lucia, but my money is on the one with candles on her head because she looked the most regal. (The crowd surged towards the wood and we couldn’t see if Candle Head did the actual bonfire lighting, so I’m still none the wiser.)

 

Vikings lighting the jule fire, Poulsbo, WA

Vikings lighting the jule fire, Poulsbo, WA

Before the torches came down in unison to light the bonfire, one of the Vikings spoke about the meaning of the celebration, the importance of light reaching out in the darkness at a time of the year when the darkness is so vast. Even though it was a fun, silly sort of activity akin to going to a Renaissance Festival, I felt tears threaten because it seemed like the most apt of metaphors this dark, dark year when the world seems to be extra violent and angry and brokenhearted. Maybe this is why it is my favorite time of year despite the crowds and the way my eye starts twitching because I let myself get stressed about buying subpar presents or the guilt I feel that while I’m having a perfectly lovely Christmas, a score of people are depressed or hungry or victimized or not able to be with their families. Z, for instance, will be with me this year instead of in Zimbabwe with his family, and while I’m thrilled that we are together and thrilled that I’m destined for an Indiana Christmas, there is still a certain sadness that we are not with his people too.

 

But as the bonfire got higher and higher, illuminating the darkness around us (and some of the ash threatening to set those of us in nylon jackets ablaze), I was able to push those trickier aspects of the holiday season out of my mind and focus instead on the light, on the freshness of the impending new year and the possibility of the world getting brighter and kinder.

 

It was the best kind of holiday night. Maybe even better than a mid-December on Chicago’s wintry streets.

 

Viking winter bonfire, Poulsbo, WA

Viking winter bonfire, Poulsbo, WA

 

 

Flashback Friday: Secret World

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

[FYI, this entry covers my inaugural trip to Seattle to help my friend Z celebrate his birthday. Keep in mind, at this point, I’d resigned myself to the notion that he wasn’t interested in me as anything other than “good buddy.” I’d been in love with him for four years and the boy just would not budge.]

There’s a reason why Meredith Grey’s hair is so flat and lifeless on Grey’s Anatomy. It turns out, everyone’s hair, especially mine, is flat and lifeless here. I assume it is the weather (rainy with a chance of rain), yet it seems like that would lend itself more to frizz.

I’m here visiting my Zimbabwean. I like saying that. It makes me feel like Meryl Streep in Out of Africa when she refers to the people she makes work on her farm as my Kikuyu. He’s teaching here, and I am in his bed. Before you get notions of me, spent from a night of international passion, you should know that while I was in his bed, he was on the an egg-crate mattress on the floor of his living room.

I ruin all the best romantic scenarios I create for you by telling the truth.

My college friend Jane emailed that her eleven-year-old son came home from school yesterday and said, “I’m just starting to realize that girls have their own secret world, and it’s FREAKY!” The Zimbabwean and I laughed and laughed over that last night when I read it aloud, but I could tell he has no idea. No idea despite advanced academic degrees that we women have secret communication-interpretation skills no Navajo code-breaker could ever crack. So when you open his refrigerator and see he has two Cokes and a package of Dubliner cheese, just for you, you swoon a little even though you’ve sworn off swooning over this particular man. When you lament how awful and Meredith Grey-y your hair looks and he says, “I don’t think so” it is, after several mental contortions, the equivalent of his saying, “Your hair is as the sun shining on the Zambezi, and I wish to spend my days basking in both the glow and beauty of it.” When he refers to his apartment as “our apartment” it is as if he has said, “I want to share my living space for the rest of my days with no one but you.” When he says, “I took off the roll of scratchy toilet paper and bought you the kind that those bears use” it’s as if he said, “I love you so profoundly that I want only the very best—softness, absorbency, and four-ply bathroom experiences—for you.” In this sick, sad world, even his choosing to sleep on egg crates instead of in his own bed with you seems like a declaration of love.

Poor eleven-year-old boy. How can he ever learn to cope in a world where half the population is this indirect, this given to fancy. . . this freaky?

So, Seattle. We walked over half the city last night and so I’m reserving judgment until we rent a car tomorrow and investigate it when my feet don’t hurt. It’s nice. Lots of coffee. The people are friendly. Somehow I had in my head that it would look and feel like Vancouver, but it turns out it’s a whole different place. Yesterday, my Zimbabwean took me to Pike Place Market. While I don’t like fish and do not like to smell them, eat them, watch them, or see them manhandled by the stall vendors, it was a unique experience. Also, there is a lot there that is not fish. Like huge bundles of fresh flowers for $4, and hippies selling art, and little dogs in plaid raincoats, and jam sampling, and fudge sampling, and street musicians singing protest songs (just protesting in general, with an undertone of “This war is unconscionable” and “George Bush sucks” thrown in for good measure), and all sorts of useless crap you don’t need like Oscar Wilde action figures, “Aunt Flo’s Tampon Case,” and cardboard cutouts of William Shatner. From there, we went to Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe, where you can buy other useless things and see oddities like mummified human remains and a stuffed two-headed calf. We took a bus to the Space Needle but opted not to go up because it cost $14 and was cloudy. My cousin G suggested I go up not because the views are spectacular or because it is a piece of post-Populuxe history, but because she didn’t go up when she visited in the spring and apparently the only thing people ask youwhen they hear you visited Seattle is, Did you go up in the Space Needle? I will wait for a sunny day. Or at least a day when there is a chance of sun.

Last night we walked up a San Francisco style hill to see his university. He wanted decorating suggestions for his office as some big wigs are coming to campus today, but it is a hopeless cause. I suggested he buy a plant and an Edgar Allen Poe action figure from Pike Market, but other than adding some doo-dads like that, it is a hopeless sea of glass and giant industrial office furniture in the space of a broom closet. While there, I met the man who hired Z, and he tried to entice me to their wine and cheese reception this afternoon. I will, instead, be buying a birthday card and maybe a cake or some gift-ish thing for Z’s birthday. Extroverts never seem to get that the invitation to spend three hours with total strangers whom you will never see again is like a prison sentence.

After that, we walked up Broadway in search of food and so I could see, as Z put it, “the freak show.” It’s a street that apparently delights in the counter-culture, so in the space of a single block you can see goths, hipsters, drag queens, the heavily made-up, heavily tattooed, significantly pierced and spiked, as well as people randomly dressed like super heroes.

Sadly, the freaks were not out, either because it was too early in the evening or two middle-of-the-week. I will have to save those human oddities for another day, though clearly I’ve got my own little freakshow happening right inside my head and don’t have to walk up any hills to get a front row seat.

 

Snapshots of a Summer

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Alki Point, West Seattle. A beloved escape.

Alki Point, West Seattle. A beloved escape.

 

It’s been a summer of little rain here in Seattle. Many summers are like this and are the reason why you can’t swing a cat without hitting a fair-weather tourist between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Yesterday, we escorted another batch of much anticipated visiting cousins to Pike Market—a place we know to avoid during tourist season—and I’ve never seen it so crowded. At one point, the foot traffic was at a total standstill because there was such a bottleneck by the booth selling lavender sachets. Once people started moving again, if you dared stop to look at any of the other handmade wares, you were in danger of being trampled. We are a family of introverts, so I think all of us were thrilled when we finally pushed our way through and burst into the open. We stood in the park across from the market under the two totem poles breathing deeply and then taking tourist-style photos, because that’s what you do in Seattle on a beautiful day. (And even in the chaos of the market, my cousin did score a bag of morel mushrooms that she was clutching to her chest like Golum because she comes from a dry, mushroom-less place.)

 

I don’t know who is running the rest of the country because everyone seems to be here. Two weeks ago, Z and I rented a car and decided to take our favorite drive down Lake Washington Boulevard, only to discover we couldn’t because President Obama was in one of the fancy houses there on the shore of the lake, doing a little fundraising. The place was on lock down with lots of barriers and a strong police presence. Before moving to Seattle, I can’t say I ever had an opportunity to glance at the POTUS limousine, and now at least twice a year, if I stand on the right corner at the right time, I can flash a peace sign (or a thumbs up if he’s had a hard week) at the Commander in Chief.

 

So I spend a lot of time in summer marking off the days until the strangers who have descended here go home and the still-crowded city becomes more habitable. But then suddenly—because the cousins were arriving, because I knew I’d be going home to Indiana soon, because the temperature and the sunlight were just right—I fell completely and utterly in love with the city. It’s a fleeting love because I am a fickle woman; I know that. I care deeply for Seattle, yet it will never be my soul mate, like a Chicago or a Galway. But I’ve had a couple of perfect weeks where I’ve spent more time delighting in summer in the city than I meant to. And because you hear me whine too much  about this city I  have fond feelings for, I thought you deserved to see a few random delights.

A local gardener attempts to make the place more colorful.

A local gardener attempts to make the place more colorful.

 

This woman had the brightest, yellowest hair I’ve ever seen and she was working on a little corner garden near the grocery where Z and I walk a couple of times a week. When you live in a neighborhood of apartment buildings, seeing this sort of suburban domestic scene with urban flair is a joy.

 

Seattle First Baptist Church

Seattle First Baptist Church

This church spire in our neighborhood always makes me happy. It’s especially beautiful at night. One of the things I love about it is that it makes me feel a certain level of humility/shame because for the first two years we lived here, when we walked past it, I would sneer at it as I made assumptions about what the people inside believed. I was once terrified (and, let’s face it, oppressed, because I was a girl) in a church of this same denomination as a child. But it turns out I was the one being judgmental because this church was the first in the city to marry same-sex couples free of charge when it became legal in Washington to do so. Before that, they hung out rainbow banners about acceptance, insisting that all were welcome. Currently, they have a banner out demanding a living wage for everyone. It is a church committed to social justice, and therefore, a church that makes me feel hope. So whenever we walk past it, it’s a little poke at me to remember to remove the plank from my own eye before I go kvetching about the splinter in someone else’s.

 

Peace Child Statue, Seattle

Peace Child Statue, Seattle

This statue entitled Peace Child draped with paper cranes stands overlooking Portage Bay where it spills into Lake Union. We drive this route a lot and I’ve never seen it, but because we were on foot one day, (and I was growling about our lack of car) we caught a glimpse and stopped to see her. I love surprises like this.

 

University Bridge

University Bridge

On the same walk, Z and I had to stand and wait for the University Bridge to go up to allow a sailboat to pass through into Portage Bay. We stood on the bridge and looked out at all the activity on the water, and it was hard not to feel lucky to live in a place where bridges aren’t static and water abounds.

 

Deck, Eastlake Bar & Grill, East Lake Union

Deck, Eastlake Bar & Grill, East Lake Union

After our walk, we ate at Eastlake Bar & Grill, which has, arguably, one of the best outdoor decks of any place in the city. The views of Lake Union are excellent both from the deck and inside the restaurant and the food and atmosphere is good too. When G was here in June, we ended up eating here three times because, well, look at it!

 

Market Pig

Market Pig

When Z first moved here, there had been one of those competitions—like there are in a lot of cities with different animal shapes—called Pigs on Parade to kick off the centennial celebration of Pike Market. (Rachel the Pig, a big metal piggy bank sits outside of the market and is oft photographed.) So my first days in the city were punctuated with different colorful and clever pigs. (I particularly liked the chocolate one in front of the Chocolate Box.) While the cousins were here, I saw this one still hanging out on a roof near the Market and it made me feel all warm inside, remembering the early days here with Z.

 

Baroness, Best Neon Sign in All of Seattle

Baroness, Best Neon Sign in All of Seattle

 

This is my favorite neon sign in all of Seattle. There are many in my second place list, but this one is on top and is up the hill from where I live so I see it regularly. It’s a little residential hotel across from a hospital. I appreciate that the hotel hasn’t felt compelled to install a more subdued, tasteful sign.

 

Photo 452 of the Space Needle

Photo 452 of the Space Needle

 

 

When friends of mine who’d been living in New York City moved back to Indiana, one of their last purchases (if I remember the story rightly) as they bugged out of the city that had just been traumatized, was a little replica of the Statue of Liberty that took up residence on the mantel of their new house in Indianapolis. I loved seeing it—that integration of their old life and their new one. A sort of symbol of the few years they’d lived in an iconic place during a (sadly) historical moment. If Z and I ever leave Seattle, I think a statue of the Space Needle—probably one constructed of Legos—will decorate our life wherever we land. Seeing it—even on days when I’m homesick—never doesn’t make me happy. Is it an overpriced tourist icon unworthy of my affection? I don’t care. I love the history and aesthetics of it, including the weird, steampunk-ish elevators that look like they belong on a completely different structure. I love this weird human drive to build a huge, elevated viewing platform (see Tower, Eiffel) to celebrate a spectacle like a World’s Fair, and I love that we live in a city that has such a place on its landscape.

 

For me, it isn’t about going up the Space Needle to look out, it’s about seeing it when the skyline comes into view as we drive up I-5 from the airport after a few weeks away, or when we’re taking the ferry back home or when we’re driving back into town from a trip north. There it is, looking all optimistic and otherworldly and a little…delicate, marking “X” on the map of our life.

 

Capitol Hill in the rain

Capitol Hill in the rain

 

And finally, after many weeks of sun, there was a torrential, Midwestern-style rainstorm. Z and I worked at his campus and stopped periodically to look fondly at the blurry outlines of cars and houses, and teasing ourselves with the promise of damper, less crowded days. When we trudged home past our favorite bits of the neighborhood, it didn’t occur to us to complain.

Flashback Friday: Little Brownstone on the Prairie

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rgsroom

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

 15 July 2006

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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