Category Archives: Ugliness

Veering Toward Wonderment

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Thus my bus ride a few days later.

 

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

 

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

 

I had a lot of questions about the coat rack.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

People are glorious amazing.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Girl, you look crazy.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Get on the bus.

 

 

An Embarrassment of Dragons

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Puget Sound, the Cascades, and a view from the Boatyard Inn.

Last week Jane and I—from our respective homes 2,344 miles apart—sat in on a webinar featuring the blogger/writing coach Lauren Sapala that was all about transforming the “dragons” that keep you from your best writing and your best life. I’m a big fan of Lauren’s work with personality type and writing styles. (She has a description of what it is like to be an INFP writer—which is what I am—that brought me to tears because it so aptly explained the soup that my brain is when it’s trying to focus on a single idea to write about or trying to dish servings of that word soup up into appropriately sized and non-melty containers. It’s a mess here in my head, people. A real mess.) This webinar was exactly what I needed as I try to get myself out of what I can no longer call a “writing slump” as it is clearly now more of a lifestyle choice.

Can you see the slides? I can’t see the slides, I’d text. Jane would text back, There are slides? Where are the slides? My screen is just blue. It was nice being there—wherever “there” was—with Jane. One of the things I will never stop missing as I age is the closeness of friends from my youth. I miss being in each others’ space. I miss staying up too late and talking about love and life. I miss the dramas that now just seem ridiculous. So these moments of connection with old friends—even if they are now more often electronic—delight me.

Texting Jane during webinar lulls also gave me flashbacks to our shared college computer programming class, for which we were both ill prepared and bad performers primarily because our class notes were comprised of notes to each other about everything but class. It was also nice to have her along for the ride because over the years we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time discussing our own and each others’ personality types and quirks in epic emails to each other. We are ever hopeful that we’ll make some life-transforming discovery at some point. Instead we make small ones that we adopt for a time and then move on when we are not magically transformed.

Since I’d read nothing ahead of time about this theory of dragon-based writing blocks, I had some preconceived ideas about those that might be my most likely foes.

Dragons I expected to have:

 

  • Dragon of Procrastination
  • Dragon of Disorganization
  • Dragon of Obsession about Political Facebook Posts
  • Dragon of Netflix Binging
  • Dragon of Unnecessary Reorganizing (because having my sweaters and Fiestaware plates in ROYGBIV order sometimes seems more important than writing)
  • Dragon of Spending Blocked-Off Writing Time On Epic Emails to Jane

 

Sadly, these were not the options presented. Sadly, it was clear from Lauren’s description that I had not one but four and a half of her dragons of writing blockage and none of them were all that funny or flattering.

Dragons I do have:

 

  • Stubbornness
  • Impatience
  • Self-destruction (more of a historical dragon for me, so I give it a half point)
  • Self-deprecation
  • Arrogance

 

I’ve read a lot of medieval literature and a fair amount of fantasy, and by those standards, having four-and-a-half dragons to do battle with is a considerable challenge. Possibly one I’m not equipped for. Plus, I’m still struggling with the notion that I can be both self-deprecating and arrogant.

It’s that last one that I scored the highest on that I’m struggling with most. Don’t arrogant people walk around all day thinking they are the cat’s pajamas? I’ve never felt like I was the cat’s anything. I avoid mirrors like a vampire. I assume other writers are more prolific and more deserving than I am. The few days a year I dare to wear this huge, artsy ring that is made from a geode, I get embarrassed almost immediately and so turn the glittery bit toward my palm so no can see it and think I’m getting above my raising.

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Were I arrogant, this is how I would expect to look. (Photo credit of Sundance Catalog)

I’ve spent several days since the webinar considering ways I might act superior. I DO think severe bangs are a bad choice for everyone. I DO NOT like it when people make Scottish terriers wear clothes. I DO believe I’m right in my criticism of ¾ of modern art. I feel strongly that you should use the Oxford comma. But is that arrogance or just some random opinions I’ve cobbled together over the years?

Regardless, Lauren Sapala’s webinar was good and her advice seemed sound, and I recommend you read her book if you are an NF and I recommend you read her blog if you are a writer of any Myers-Briggs type.

She offered some sound suggestions about vanquishing dragons and for that big ugly one at the end of my list, one of the best ways to beat down the arrogance is to recount your embarrassments from the past and just sit with that embarrassment instead of making excuses for why you shouldn’t feel bad or why it was really the fault of someone else that you made a fool of yourself.

In the interest of my healing and growth, I offer you a buffet of recent mortifications.

  • At the beginning of the month, Leibovitz came out to celebrate her own Birthday of Some Significance. While Z and I were waiting for her at the airport—where there had recently been some impromptu protests about the immigration ban—a friendly fellow with a cardboard sign came up to ask us if we knew where the protest was. I engaged him in conversation as he stood there shifting his giant “Jesus is Weed” sign from one hand to the other. I was unsure why that particular sign seemed important at a potential anti-immigration protest in a state that legalized marijuana a few years ago, but still, who was I to judge? (See? Totally not arrogant! Totally accepting of differences!) I asked a few questions and clucked and nodded and smiled as he talked. And talked. And then I heard this very tiny voice coming out of the side of Z’s mostly closed mouth and it said, Stop talking to him. He’s crazy. And then I realized that of course Z was right. In the span of our conversation this guy had told me about how “they” had jammed his cell phone and that’s why he couldn’t find the protest. The same “they” had also made it impossible for him to find silver prices on the web because he was investing his non-weed money in the metal market because he didn’t trust the dollar. “They” were doing some other things to him that didn’t make sense to me but clearly agitated him. For the duration of our conversation nothing he had said—including his protest sign—made sense and yet I had failed to notice that he was either delusional, under the influence, or both.
  • Leibovitz and I took off the next day for an overnight on Whidbey Island so she could wake up on her birthday to beautiful views. On the way, we stopped for a long walk on Double Bluff Beach. The wind was cold, so I jammed my knitted Scottie cap down over my ears, stuffed my hands into my favorite stripey fingerless gloves from the Sundance catalog, and meandered with her along the beach. A pair of eagles soared and cried above us. It was a perfect afternoon and I was so glad to be with her, talking about life.

The next afternoon—after a leisurely Leibovitz Birthday morning in which we ate hummus and olives for breakfast because we didn’t want to leave the Puget-Sound-Snowcapped-Cascade-Mountain view to get real breakfast—I discovered that one of my favorite stripey gloves from the Sundance catalog was missing. I searched everywhere while growling my disappointment. The gloves were a gift and because I can neither wiggle myself into the gorgeous non-Midwestern-sized-woman clothes Sundance sells nor afford the home furnishings and other doo-dads they offer, these gloves were my one touchstone to the life I fantasize about living. That is, a life of a Sundance catalog model living a Sundance catalog fantasy life. A life wherein I am thinner and younger and have fabulous sun-bleached hair and look like I know Important Truths while I stand around in my textured Light and Love cardigan, my gauzy Mystic Meadow skirt, and some distressed cowboy boots that are new but look well worn, all as I stare into the distance where, no doubt, there is a palomino pony beyond the horizon that I have either just ridden or am about to ride.

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Don’t mind me, I was feeling chilly and decided to take a hike draped in this hand-knitted blanket.

I don’t even know why I think I’d be happy in this life: I don’t like the outdoors much, horses make me nervous, I’m not a big fan of the American Southwest, and I’m pretty sure these catalog women are aficionados of salads and country music, neither of which appeal to me. But still, it’s a dream of mine and it was lost with my glove.

  • Me telling you the catalog fantasy isn’t even the most embarrassing part of that story. The embarrassing part is that I returned to every shop and restaurant we’d been to the day before as well as the Langley City Hall asking if anyone had seen my missing glove. I’d hold up the one still in my possession so the person could see how truly special it was and I why I wanted the pair reunited. I left my name and phone number with a city official as if someone would turn in one lonesome glove. I sighed a lot. And then when Leibovitz and I got back to the city and headed out to dinner with Z, I put on a coat that I had not even taken to the island and there in the pocket was the errant stripey glove. I’d only ever had one glove while on Whidbey Island; its partner had always been safely back in Seattle waiting for me. Clearly, I was delusional as I traipsed the streets of Langley looking for it as was the guy with the Jesus is Weed protest sign.
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If I had this horse, it would help me find my missing glove. (Photo: Sundance)

  • An added embarrassment to the above story is that for a full two days afterward I insisted to Z that I HAD had the errant glove on the island, that I remembered putting it on on Double Bluff Beach, and therefore, surely the fairies were messing with me by stealing it, flying it to First Hill, and stuffing it into the pocket of my coat. My Irish coat that I bought in Ireland. (Hence fairies.) Why would I do this? I am mostly a rational person, yet I firmly believed for two days that the only explanation involved the mythical beings of Éire stealing my belongings and then returning them.
  • Additional embarrassment and possible evidence of real arrogance: I see from Spellcheck that “stripey” should be spelled “stripy” but I don’t like the way that looks like “strippy” (also not a word) and thus I am refusing to use standard spelling.
  • Twice I broke into spontaneous dance that embarrassed me, the dancer, and Z, the witness.
  • I had an entire conversation with a server at a restaurant, explaining how I needed my burger to be prepared and I was smiling and joking so he would maybe not spit in my food since I had a special order. When he walked away, Z said, “Honey, you need to wipe your nose.”
  • I discovered I’ve been using hoi polloi wrong my entire life. I thought the hoi polloi were the arrogant rich people (who probably order things out of the Sundance Catalog regularly) who didn’t want to interact with common folk.
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Not a member of the hoi polloi. (Photo: Sundance)

  • Z was lugging two heavy bags of groceries home while I was in charge of the umbrella and the key. When we got to the building door, a tenant was coming in with her bicycle and I was so busy letting her know that I was friendly and helpful in a door-holding kind of way that I slammed the interior door in Z’s face, thus trapping him in the vestibule with the groceries. I was halfway down the hall with a big smile on my face for being so helpful when I heard him saying through the door, “Baby? Baby? Can you get the door.” (Z can call me Baby because he says it ironically. Don’t judge me for allowing it.) And then when I let him in he couldn’t stop teasing me about how I was so enamored with the idea of being a helpful neighbor that I’d completely forgotten him.
  • I sent a watercolor card of a scene from Seattle painted by a local artist to Jane and family for the loss of a beloved pet only to discover that the artist had chosen to include a graffiti-covered wall in the background on which was scrawled, “Only the strong survive.”
  • And then there is Tuesday. Last week our building manager told us that she’d be making appointments to inspect apartments to check for things that needed fixing. I was glad she’d given us the heads up because I’m not that strong a housekeeper. Z and I are clean, but we are a messy people. Z is not without sin, but I am admittedly the more messy, so there are stacks of books toppling over, at least three different notebooks going, power cords tangled by the sofa, clothes I put on and shed as my personal temperature changes draped haphazardly on furniture, etc. So it’s always good for me to know ahead of time when someone will be coming to the house so I can race around throwing things into tote bags, shoving them behind a door, and thus offering the illusion of order. (Maybe this is arrogance? Not letting guests see that we live like pigs?)

Because of a three-day weekend and some projects that were started and left unfinished, some laundry done but only half put away, some “delicates” drying from hangers hooked over doorsills, some cooking experiments of Z’s that I enjoyed eating but had yet to clean up after, some wilted flowers from Leibovitz that were now neither beautiful enough to warrant display nor dead enough to warrant the trash, some bonus books to our already teetering stacks…because of all these things the house was not looking its best. Also, there was yet another mouse sighting and so Z had set up his Mouse Wall to encourage the mouse to stay in the kitchen and not skitter into our bedroom. (And no, Z is not a fool. He knows the mouse can scale the wall but he does it out of love for me so I will feel safer while sleeping, which is really all border walls do: make fearful people feel safer even though fences and walls often don’t achieve those goals and can be costly and unattractive.) Still, I thought, as I trundled off to bed, it will be easy enough to pick up in the morning while I wait to hear when the inspection will be.

Recently, I have been on an insomnia bender possibly caused by anxiety about a possible teaching gig after a three-and-a-half-year classroom hiatus, but more likely caused by some late night weed-free-but-highly-caffeinated brownies I’ve ingested. At 4:30, I was still not asleep, so I got up and took a sleeping pill. In the morning, I heard Z talking to the building manager in the hallway and I felt a little cross that they weren’t having the appointment-making conversation in her very tidy office downstairs instead of within my earshot so early in the morning. I sighed, settled in for more sleep, and then the bedroom door flew open and the light came on. I expected to see Z, but instead, it was the building manager and the handyman.

“OH NO!” she said. “YOU’RE HERE! I KNOCKED. YOU DIDN’T ANSWER.”

She and Z had not been chatting in the hallway. She and the handy man had been in the apartment checking our pipes for leaks and our smoke detectors for batteries. Z had been at work for hours. She skittered out of the house faster than the mouse skitters back under the refrigerator when Z swats at it with rolled up detritus from our coffee table.

To say I was mortified to be found in bed by someone other than Z at a 11 a.m.—to have been so zonked out from a sleeping pill that I didn’t hear the knock at the door or people in my home, to have been seen in my own personal bed by a woman I have heretofore only had benign conversations with about mouse infestations and her Yorkshire terrier—is an understatement.

This is the sort of thing that NEVER happens to those Sundance Catalog women.

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Not the tidy and artful bed I was found in by the building manager. (Photo: Sundance)

I spent the rest of the day hiding in the apartment with the chain on the door and the curtains drawn. I wrote an Email of Agony to Jane to tell her of my shame. Jane’s house is always lovely. She would never have a mouse wall in a doorway or last night’s dishes in the sink. Jane would never be in bed at 11 a.m. But Jane is a good person and I knew she would not point this out to me, even if she did believe making me feel more embarrassed might help on the road to my ultimate self-improvement.

This is ONE WEEK’s worth of embarrassments. I can’t say I feel particularly good or unburdened about having told you any of these stories. But if I did have a Dragon of Arrogance? That thing has been smote.

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Reunited and it feels so good.

In Dog Time

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The dark clouds keep hanging, don’t they? They have been in the city anyhow. The mood has not lifted for weeks, and as the marches and protests have lessened, there’s only the heavy feeling of resignation in their place.

 

For Thanksgiving, Z and I rode the bus to a friend’s house for a pleasant celebration and while we were there, the rain was pelting the house, some WWII big band music was on the radio, and I had this idea of what it must have been like in 1942 when Americans were fighting a war. What a great comfort that must have been to sit by a warm fire, listen to music, talk with good friends.

 

Then the evening was over and Z and I had to slog up a few blocks of a hill to get to the bus stop in a drenching rain, and as I walked past the little Craftsman bungalows with lights burning on dry interiors and where cars were parked in driveways and none of the inhabitants had to stand in the rain waiting for a bus, I thought some really uncharitable four-letter thoughts about those people.

 

So much for feeling gratitude.

 

Dogs and dog metaphors are my solace these days. My daily joy is when I leave the house between 5 and 6 in the evening to walk up to campus to meet Z. If you are a dog person who is without a dog, can I recommend walking in a city neighborhood between 4:30 and 6:30 when the dogs are being walked and all those tails are wagging?

 

You can have your sunrise or your sunset, but Dog Time is the best time.

 

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Mac, with snow nose.

A few weeks ago when I was feeling particularly blue, I ran into Higgins and his mom. Higgins is a Scottish terrier who reminds me of Mac. Like most Scotties, he’s not particularly interested in giving me more than a cursory greeting when there are bushes to sniff and vermin to patrol, so his mother and I say a couple of pleasantries to each other and then walk on. But the sight of him lifts my spirits just as much as a nuzzle from a more people-focused dog.

 

Z and I don’t have a dog for reasons that seem clear on some days and less so on others. This month it has seemed like a bad, bad idea to live a dogless life. I’ve followed so many dog groups and pages on Facebook that there are now more pictures of strangers’ dogs on my feed than there are of people I know.

 

The practical reasons we don’t have a dog for me are that we travel a lot and don’t have the disposable income right now to spend on a chic Seattle doggie retreat. The practical reasons for Z are that we have no yard and he suspects (probably rightly so) that I would not be the one popping up early in the morning to walk the dog in the rain. Also, Zimbabwean dogs are outside dogs and Z is not entirely on board with the way Americans push them around in strollers and dress them up like children. No matter how much I promise not to do these things, he doesn’t believe me.

 

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Skampy of Zimbabwe

We do have imaginary dogs: a Scottish terrier named Finley and an English bulldog, like the ones Z’s family raised when he was a kid, named Luigi. We have conversations about how we will train them, what our policies will be in off-leash dog parks, and whether or not we’ll let them eat table scraps. I do online searches about whether bulldogs and Scotties even like each other, but these dogs of ours, much like our imaginary children, are perfect: well behaved, best friends, come when called, and are terribly clever.

 

This next part is not a dog story, though it is about good behavior.

 

When I was an adolescent, Mom had one of those new-fangled decorative write-on-wipe-off memo boards on which she had written the Janis Joplin line, “Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all you’ve got.” I studied this for ages. All of those “yous” seemed inelegant to me, plus I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant or what my divorced, hard-working mother was warning herself against. Eleven-year-old me understood the concept of having to compromise between two ideas or two desires and settle on something in the middle that is mediocre. I understood having to compromise to get along with my gaggle of boy cousins, who always seemed to want to be outdoors when all I wanted to do was stay inside playing with our Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman dolls. (That compromise usually looked like me doing what they wanted because there were more of them and I was the only girl until I was ten.)

 

But I wondered, how do you compromise yourself?

 

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Mac and Lilly, being themselves on a ramble.

Because I’m from the Midwest, I am “nice.” Or I have a nice veneer anyhow. As I’ve written about before, to be Midwestern—at least from my perspective—is to get along with those you encounter, to smile when they say something you disagree with (or make a joke of it at the very least), to purposely not hear them when they say something rude or bigoted or misogynistic, to help someone move house with a smile on your face even though you’d rather be doing just about anything else with your Saturday, and periodically, you have to pretend that watching some truly untalented kids play T-ball in a cornfield on a sweltering evening is as good as life gets.

 

Is this a compromise, this good behavior? To tell these little lies, is that compromising myself?

 

I ask, because I’m heading to Indiana this weekend for the holidays. For the last few weeks, I’ve been walking around Seattle with the equivalent of an ACME safe hanging over my head, but it’s easy enough to feel a kinship with the people here whose paths I cross because I can see—sometimes almost literally because of their gender or skin color or disability—that they too have ACME safes over their heads as well. But I don’t know what I’m going to see or how I’m going to feel when I get home surrounded by people who don’t think they have ACME safes over their heads. Will the nice kick in? Will I growl at them? Will I hide in the house and go the Emily Dickinson route?

 

Once when I was a child I was at the Indianapolis Art Museum in the Impressionist gallery, and Mom and the adults we were with had moved ahead. I was hanging back, mesmerized by a small bronze sculpture, a figure of a person. I reached out and touched the toe. It was so beautiful and full of mystery. In an instant, a very businesslike (but not unkind) security guard walked past me and said, “Please don’t touch the art.” My hands snapped like I’d touched a hot stove, and I clutched them behind my back for the rest of the visit, afraid that I’d get mesmerized by another sculpture or painting. I was mortified that I’d misbehaved in this cathedral of culture. I didn’t even confess my sin to Mom.

 

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Future art toucher with Ting the Pekingese.

I tell you this so you’ll know that I know how to behave in an art museum. I am quiet. I touch nothing. I keep my critical comments to myself if anyone is within earshot.

 

This fall while Mom was here, we made our way to the convention center, which has rotating artwork lining the halls of the open third floor. As luck would have it, it was my favorite exhibit that comes around yearly of children’s book illustrations.

 

The Washington State Convention Center is no art museum. It’s often full of tourists and conference goers or people like me who primarily use it because the escalators make a trip from downtown up to First Hill effortless. Most other people there are oblivious of the artwork as they crowd their way from one conference session to another. The day we went it was relatively empty, so we could linger where we wanted without bothering anyone or being bothered by others.

 

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Bubbles of Zimbabwe

All of the art is easily accessible with the exception of two short sections where there is a ramp with handrails. The incline is almost non-existent and I suspect the handrails are there purely as decoration, in case there is a lawsuit should someone fall. On the one side of the floor, Mom and I both stepped behind the railing so we could look more closely at brushstrokes and signatures. On the other side, just as I popped behind the handrail, the security guard—who sits on a stool by the restroom to make sure only conference attendees use the toilets there—told me I wasn’t allowed behind the rail.

 

I popped out obediently, but I looked around the expanse of the third floor with an eyebrow raised and asked her why not. What was so special about these five pictures that I couldn’t get as up-close to them as I could the others? I happily follow rules if they make sense, but this was senseless.

 

She settled onto her stool to tell me in great detail why. Two sentences in, it dawned on me she wasn’t a docent and the longer she talked, the more apparent it became that  everything she said was made-up. There was no logic involved, so I started to walk away. She raised her voice, calling me back sharply, “Do you want to know the reason or don’t you?” It was said in that voice that a couple of really officious teacher’s aides had used when I was in elementary school, as they tried to cow us into submission even though they knew (and we knew) they had no real authority over us.

 

I said, “Sure,” but I could NOT bring myself to turn my face or my attention back to her. What she was saying was boring and nonsensical. I let out a single non-committal noise, which she could interpret as understanding if she chose (but which secretly meant, “please shut up; you’re talking crap”). Finally, she was quiet and I moved on to the next set of rail-less illustrations.

 

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Mac & Luther, best buddies, would have sniffed beyond the handrail.

Mom was ten paintings behind me, and I heard the woman say something to her like, “That’s okay. I get it all the time.” Later, Mom insisted the woman was responding to Mom’s “thank you” and that she had not apologized for me. To the best of my knowledge, Mom has only ever lied to me about Santa Clause, so I’m forced to believe her. But when I heard that woman speak to my mother in that tired, nobody-respects-me voice, my face flamed and I felt nauseous because I knew—regardless of what Mom had said or what the toilet monitor was referring to—that I had embarrassed Mom with my rudeness. The Beth she raised is a person who would nod her head, do as she was told, and smile politely even if she knew she was right and the speaker was wrong. That Beth was raised to bite her tongue while ill-behaved children mistreated her toys. That Beth was raised to be, above all else, polite. I didn’t have to perform song and dance numbers for people. I didn’t have to eat vegetables. I had next to no chores. My single job as I was growing up was to be well-behaved, a guide that until now has served me well.

 

Yet here I was, a middle-aged woman, being shirty with a woman whose job monitoring the public toilets of Seattle could not have been pleasant.

 

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Seattle Irish Wolfhound, perhaps the most dignified dog on Earth.

Later, I made some excuse for myself to Mom about how living in the city has started stripping away my manners. That when you are daily surrounded by so many people who want to talk over you, cut into a line in front of you, hoot their horns because they think they know best how you should be driving your car or crossing a street, you lose the nice.

 

But probably the stripping away began before I moved to Seattle.

 

Several years ago a friend told me I wasn’t as nice as I thought I was. I can’t remember what it was in reference to, but it took me aback. This was in the days before therapy when my default setting was “how can I be the person who will most please you?” instead of being myself. I never thought of myself then as “nice” but certainly as someone who tried to give people the version of me that they most seemed to want. Slowly, layers of façade came off over years of talking to a shrink. Some people didn’t notice. Others did and didn’t like it.

 

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Man and dog in Central Park, big rain, no dark clouds.

So here I stand at the tail end of my own annus horribilis. No, my palace didn’t burn down, but it has been a year full to the brim with medical bills I didn’t ask for, a family health crisis that was terrifying, dead celebrities I’m missing, humans being ungodly to each other across the globe, Native Americans having to withstand tear gas and rubber bullets to protect their own water, forest fires raging in one of my favorite spots in Appalachia, a country—my country—making my husband feel unwelcome and my brother feel unsafe, and a president-elect who demonstrates with his own mouth and fingers the worst human qualities on a daily basis. And what I’m finding because of this year is that the last layer of that Midwestern filter has been peeled away.

 

After having talked to other female friends, I’ve learned that I am not alone in this. One friend who rarely cusses can’t keep the profanity inside herself. Another told me she’s done being bossed around by people or forced to rise to their expectations of her as a woman. A third, who has never been a gun nut, is seriously thinking about buying a firearm because she’s tired of not being taken seriously and thinks her state’s open-carry law might make her words have more weight. Others felt rifts around their family Thanksgiving table that they aren’t sure will ever be repairable.

 

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Hoosier Shepherd

My friends and I are being gentle with each other, but to the outside world, we are less so. At the very least, we are wary and self-protective.

 

So this trip to the heartland is going to be interesting. I’ve never been in Indiana without the bit of “nice” jammed between my teeth. Will I growl at people? Nip at their hands? Stick my head under the sofa with my backend to the world? Or will I fall back into old patterns without meaning to? Who knows.

 

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This is not a dog, but the same principle applies.

What I’m hoping for is to find some dogs to spend time with because the only real light I’ve gleaned from the world in the last three weeks (especially since the Gilmore Girls reunion was a little disappointing) is that dogs are always just 100% themselves. They don’t put on airs. They’re great judges of character. They are completely oblivious to politics. No one is their president.

 

They’re just content to be.

 

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Scottie puppy, Salthill Prom, Galway

I’m going to try to be. To enjoy my mother who knows my heart and shares my sadness, who gave me the twin messages of the importance of good behavior and not compromising yourself, and now the two are duking it out.

 

There might be some misbehavior. There might not. But right now, it’s Dog Time.

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Be forewarned: this is what a tantrum from me could look like.

 

 

The Sound of One Hand Complaining

Standard

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One of my elementary school classmates maintained a certain level of grime on his hands that was masterful. How a kid managed to have hands and forearms that looked like he spent his days elbow-deep in a car engine instead of doing multiplication tables, I never figured out. His sister was squeaky clean, so it seemed like a personal style choice rather than a desperate living situation, though in the school I went to, either was possible.

 

In 5th grade, our teacher decided that hygiene should be on this kid’s list of accomplishments, and so there was a day when he was sent to the sink to scrub his hands in hot water. When he was done, he looked—for what might have been the first time—at the veins that pulsed beneath his pale skin and he said with alarm, “Mr. Moore! My guts is showin’!”

 

I don’t really like body talk. In fact, I don’t like thinking about my body’s inner workings at all. Sometimes, I can feel my heart beat and I wish it would stop so I’d be less aware of it, until I realize that a stopped heart would be counter productive to my general enjoyment of life. I’ve gone off entire, delicious meals because a dinner companion chose that moment to describe in detail some wound or ailment.

 

All this to say, I understand this kid’s alarm at seeing his own visible “guts” or even the idea that he had innards at all. And also to say, excuse me if I don’t go into a lot of detail telling you about how two weeks ago I ended up in the ER across the street with an impassable kidney stone, my first ever overnight hospital stay since my own birth, and two knifeless surgeries, one of which decimated the thing with sound waves. The RN said the stone was the size of a 2-carat diamond, but I imagine it the size of the Death Star and those sound waves as the laser shot from the X-wing fighter that brought Star Wars to a satisfying conclusion.

 

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I’m proud to say I walked to the ER instead of wasting precious fossil fuels.

What led me to this sad end to summer besides a genetic predisposition to kidney stones and a Midwestern diet rich in red meat? Here’s an idea.

 

Like most belief systems, I’m rarely in with both feet. Or if in with both feet, I’m only wading and never let the water rise past my navel. I’m a Christian of the sort that means something to me but would not impress the Pope or Ted Cruz. I’ve read books on Buddhism and tried meditation, but after a few minutes I always determine that thinking my thoughts is infinitely more preferable than thinking nothing at all, so I give up the practice. I have two yoga tapes and took a class once, but the only pose I mastered was corpse.

 

A couple of decades ago, I started reading Mind Science guru Louise Hay’s books on positive thinking The Power is Within You and You Can Heal Your Life. In general, it agreed with me. It just makes good sense that if you spend your life sitting around kvetching about what you don’t have/can’t do, you aren’t really doing anything that’s going to help alter that reality. It was uncanny to me how if I looked up my ailments on her handy healing chart, the thought-sin I’d committed almost always sounded exactly right. For example, I kept having accidents that required stitches on my feet, and sure enough, on her chart, this indicated a fear of moving forward, which seemed an accurate diagnosis since I was in my 30s and still living with my folks.

 

But then five months after Z and I got married, I got a diagnosis that could have been potentially devastating, and I felt angry that according to Louise Hay, I had caused this myself with my crappy thought patterns of self-blame and failure to enjoy life. (FYI, the least helpful thing you can ever say to a person who has just gotten a shitty diagnosis is that they probably got it because they ate the wrong food or had the wrong thought. Here’s what you should say: I’m sorry. This sucks. I am here for you. Tell me how you’re feeling, and if you don’t feel like talking, would you like to borrow my dog and scratch its ears? That’s it. There’s no reason to say anything else or try to solve an unsolvable problem.)

 

So Louise and I parted company. Until two weeks ago, when I looked up kidney stones and read: “Lumps of undissolved anger.” Also because I’d had to delay the Death Star blasting that first week because of a urinary tract infection and had to take high-powered antibiotics that put me off my food for ten days, I looked up UTI too and read: “You are pissed off.” My old friend Louise may be on to something.

 

Below, please find photographic evidence as to why this kidney stone was my destiny.

 

Exhibit A: Summer in Seattle

 

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Yeah, yeah. It’s beautiful. But when it’s 98 degrees out, I don’t care.

 

Temperature-wise, I’ve had little to complain about this summer. But we did have a heat wave the week before my unfortunate situation, which left me stuck in the house for days. I was unwilling to venture out because of the heat, because I was barely dressed, but mainly, because my hair looked like this:

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That is clean hair there, in case you were thinking it looks like I need a shower. And I’m giving you the “artistic” Warhol filter because at this age, I prefer not sharing photos of myself in which I am not wearing sunglasses. (Another thing to be ticked off about: my disappointing middle aged under-eye area.) My world is soft focus whenever possible.

 

Aside from the heat, I am bitter that I haven’t been back to Indiana to see Joy, my fabulous friend and hair-do doer, hence the truly deplorable state of my roots. Also, there are at least eight strands of grey in there now and I am NOT happy about that development. NOT HAPPY AT ALL.

 

Exhibit B: Sky Theft

 

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Oh, goody! Another building that looks like all the others where there used to be a view of Queen Anne. Thanks, Skanska.

In case you’ve missed the news reports or the high pitch of my whining, Seattle has been having a building boom . Our neighborhood alone has approximately twelve of these “Notice of Land Use” signs and if the signs aren’t there it means they’ve been taken down and the cranes and bulldozers have moved in. (Note: every sign has been tagged like this, which I like to believe is a subtle form of protest and not simply graffiti artists looking for a canvas.)

 

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None of these tags are mine. I swear.

The most recent one to go up is next to the cathedral’s little garden, where St. Francis stands guard over the tomatoes and lettuce. I don’t eat anything in this garden because I don’t really believe in vegetables as a food group, but it’s presence makes me smile when I’m out walking, and now, it’s going to be a high rise a full of chic pods no one who currently lives here will be able to afford. (I’m feeling increasingly like the Gallaghers in Shameless in how much I loathe gentrification, how much I’d like to take a baseball bat to these signs or set a car on fire. But don’t worry. My fear of incarceration is much higher than my desire for a neighborhood garden or an unobstructed view of the sky.)

 

I have not been able to wear sandals all summer because there is so much construction in Seattle that there is debris everywhere. The three walks I’ve had in flip-flops have resulted in splinters and more of a hobble than a healthy stride, so now I’m clunking around First Hill in matronly shoes with support and sturdy soles.

 

Also, all of this construction has left our little 1920s apartment building with a mouse infestation, and these are not timid country mice. These are bold and ballsy mice who peer at Z from the kitchen with a “What are you lookin’ at?” expression on their little faces.

 

It turns out, I prefer my mice in the artwork of Beatrix Potter, wearing trousers and sipping tea.

 

Which brings me to:

 

Exhibit C: Neighborhood Art

 

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I guess it gets cold at night?

One of the delights on First Hill is the Frye Art Museum. There are a lot of reasons I like it—though I don’t go often enough—including the fact that it is only three blocks from our apartment. Also,  I get overwhelmed in standard-sized art museums but this one is bite-size, thus perfect for my attention span. Also: FREE. Also, the first time I went there they had an R. Crumb exhibit and I find his cartoons hard to look away from though I don’t necessarily want to hang Mr. Natural on my wall.

 

The Frye is on a tree-lined block and adjacent to another cathedral-filled and tree-lined block that I particularly love because when I’m walking there, I can imagine First Hill before its soul was snuffed out by buildings and sprawling hospital complexes. I can imagine fancy families leaving their fancy houses (now almost all replaced by big apartment buildings) and strolling to mass, enjoying the view of Elliott Bay with Bainbridge Island in the distance (now blocked by skyscrapers unless you stand in the middle of the street and look quickly before the #12 bus hoots at you).

 

So four weeks ago when we were on our walk, Z and I sauntered past this construction site behind the Frye, I was livid: another 20-story buildling, more people in the neighborhood, probably some trees taken down, more grit in my shoes.

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I can hardly wait to see what this will be.

 

Oh, how I growled. And then I saw this:

 

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That’s right, folks. This here pile of dirt with the security light and the crumbled hunk of asphalt is actually genuine, bonafide art.

 

To recap…

 

Art:

 

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Not art:

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See the difference? Me neither. As if the city isn’t going through an ugly enough growing phase, please, by all means, use your art to make it even uglier. This is like giving your gawky eleven-year old an extra big pair of horned-rimmed glasses and suggesting a diet that will increase the acne he already has and then maybe, for added fun, a hairstyle from 1952 and a pocket protector.

 

And now, I find I must return to my recurring beef, also related to neighborhood hideousness:

 

Exhibit D: The Seattle Parks Departmet

 

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First Hill Park, an oasis in the concrete.

Seattle has some gorgeous parks that put the best parks in other cities to shame. It also has some innovative parks, like nearby Freeway Park, that literally put a lid on a little section of I-5. It is very shady, walled by cascading fountains that drown out the sounds of the interstate and of the city (and your screams), and a thick carpet of grass, which we don’t see much of here in the heart of the city.

 

For me, cathedrals and parks in a busy city serve the same purpose: they are a respite from the busyness and ugliness of urban life where a person can get in touch with with the divine, whether natural or theological. They are quiet havens where a person—particularly an introverted one—can recharge and prepare for more time spent in the overcrowded, concrete jungle. They are spaces that are open to all, regardless of race or social class or mental stability.

 

The only reason I slightly prefer a park to a beautiful old cathedral is because dogs are allowed in parks, though I do miss the smell of incense.

 

So, to be clear: Beth loves parks. Also, Beth watched all the seasons of Parks & Rec, so understands what the Leslie Knopes of this world are up against in terms of budgetary constraints, public safety, and community involvement.

 

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The only thing this color makes me want to do is go swimming.

That established, the Parks Department sometimes makes dubious choices, like the previosly blogged about Parks to Pavement project (which, I’d like to note, grammatically, should be called “Pavement to Parks”), wherein perfectly good parking spaces (pavement) are stolen, painted a hideous shade of turquoise, and some folding-chairs-in-bondage are set up (“park”). They are not shady. They are not peaceful. You are basically sitting in traffic, praying to God that the plastic poles they’ve screwed into the ground will keep you safe from the cars whizzing by. My “favorite” is the one on our street that is a mere five feet from the lush and peaceful Freeway Park. You know, a real park and not a parking space. A parking space we can no longer use the ten times a year we rent a car.

 

This summer, signs went up in the real park, the little neighborhood First Hill Park (above), that it was going to be renovated. The park sits next to one of the few remaining old mansions that used to flourish on First Hill in the 19th century, and when you walk past it, it feels old world. It also gives you the notion that the Stimson-Green Mansion has an actual yard. There are trees. There are stately black benches and lights. It’s pleasant to look at.

 

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Stimson-Green Mansion, a pleasant reminder that First Hill used to be beautiful.

That said, it’s a bit problematic in that because of Seattle’s large homeless population, it is often inhabited by people who have made it their home for the day or the night. Which stinks. It stinks for them that this is how they have to live and it stinks because there’s no way anybody else is going to send their kids there to play. Nor are Z and I going to pack a picnic and set up camp amongst the needles and trash for an afternoon and greedily gobble ham sandwiches next to people who maybe haven’t eaten today. So we just walk past it and admire the beauty and eat our ham sandwiches in the privacy of our own home.

 

Except now there have been meetings and the Parks Department is trying to figure out how to make the park more vibrant and usable. (Read: how do we entice non homeless, non IV drug users into our green space, thus making it less pleasant for the people currently using it?) There have been several meetings and reports, and what’s going to happen is something like this:

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That’s right. In what used to be a gorgeous, green, London-esque park, there is going to be a ping pong table. Or a shuffleboard court. Or some children’s play equipment. Some of the green will get dug up so some seating for movie nights and concerts can be put in place. Probably flowers and bushes will be ripped up. (There is talk of a dog water fountain, and I wouldn’t mind seeing that.) So, sigh. Good bye beautiful little park I like to walk past. I wish we were channeling our monies and energy into solving homelessness instead of just putting a ping pong table over the top of it.

 

Exhibit E: No Smoking

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Our building has gone no-smoking. Z and I are both non-smokers. He’s asthmatic and I’m legitimately allergic to cigarette smoke, so this should be a good thing for us. Our apartment gets smokey because we’re next to the front stoop where people like to congregate on Saturday nights and light up, and the hallway often smells like a Grateful Dead concert since pot was legalized here a couple of years ago. So we aren’t particularly sad about the building’s new smoke-free policy, though, because we are children of smokers,  we both do have a lot of sympathy for those who just want to get their nicotine fix but have to dance around the city trying to find a spot where they can do it that isn’t 25 feet too close to a door or open-air restaurant. Ever since the hospital across the street made it’s campus smoke-free, we’ve felt equal parts sympathetic to the folks in scrubs loitering outside our door and annoyed that the hospital cares about the health of their patients and staff but not so much about the health of their neighbors who can’t have their windows open in 90 degree heat.

 

Anyhow, we thought the building’s new smoking ban might be a boon, but instead, it’s just wrecked our coping mechanisms. Some people are breaking the rules (smoke in the hallways and on the stoop) and others are trying to follow the letter of the law by standing 25 feet from the front door which is right under our open front windows. (And this is to say nothing of the commuters who congregate in front of the building for three hours at night waiting on the express bus, smoking the cigs they’ve been banned from having all day and talking loudly on their cell phones.) So, we’re currently in a lose-lose scenario because our old plan of closed back windows and open front ones no longer works. Basically, to keep our apartment in our non-smoking building smoke free, we’ve got to shut all the windows and pant in front of the fan.

 

I guess we could go to the park and play ping pong to get some fresh air.

 

Exhibit F: Facebook

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Facebook has taken great joy in reminding me what I was doing a year ago. Z and I have been having a quiet, working summer at home with the smoke and mice instead of a jetsetting summer visiting the countries we love. It hasn’t been a bad summer, but it hasn’t been as glorious as a week in London, a week in Wales, and two weeks in my beloved Ireland. Yet every day, there is Facebook, with an update of all the good times we could be having if only someone would invent a time machine and take us back to Galway or Aberystwyth.

 

But really, if you want to know why I got a kidney stone bigger than my engagement ring logged in my innards, here is the reason:

 

Exhibit G: Millenial Rejection

 

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Please, feel free. Pick the meat right off my bones.

Nobody likes rejection. I’m not special in this regard. But earlier in the summer I read a call for a residency for writing and teaching that I really wanted. It was a long shot. I don’t have a huge publication list behind my name, but I knew I could give them what they wanted for their student-writers who need feedback. I’m beginning to see that as much as I believe I was meant to heave a keyboard beneath my fingers or a pen in my my hand, I also was meant to work with people on their own writing: to help them find their voice, patch the holes in a plot, say something more authentic or more beautiful than they’ve already said. I’m good at it. I am not a particularly confident person, but I know this is one thing I do well. And when I’m working on someone else’s writing, that’s all that matters. I’m not trying to figure out how to get them out of my office so I can get back to my own writing. I’m not trying to figure out how I can use their ideas for my own gain. I’m just 100% committed to whatever it is that they are committed to. (Even if some of their crappy sentences make me groan internally.) When I’m teaching or mentoring, I feel exactly the way I do after Thanksgiving dinner: completely sated. Only I don’t need larger pants.

 

When the rejection came, I was disappointed. I might even have cried, not because I didn’t get my way or didn’t “win,” but because I really really wanted to be in the position of pouring over someone else’s writing and helping them shape it again. As I said in my last post, I’m beginning to realize how much I miss my students, and this seemed like a way to stop that missing.

 

Then I re-read the form rejection letter, and I got angry because it was badly written. There were grammatical errors, but what bothered me more was the careless way it had been written with no thought to word choice or intent. It sounded like it was written by someone who didn’t  read instead of by someone who purports to love writing. And then when I did further investigation and saw a photo of the group who had likely made the decisions, I felt angry that they all looked about twenty-three. Of course twenty-three- year-olds can make good choices. (I like to think the anaesthesiologist I had last week who appeared to be about twenty-five was capable of accurate and lightening-quick decisions anyhow.) In this case, however, seeing all those judge-y, line-less faces, all I could think was what in the hell do you know about what good writing and good teaching is?

 

I raged for a day and then I did the reasonable thing and put some plans into action so I can get what I want (re: writing and teaching), and then just while I was about to feel satisfied with my quick recovery rate from disappointment and anger, I threw up. Between waves of pain, Z and I trekked up the hill and across the street to the ER to find out what Louise Hay could have told me if I’d just looked at her book: You have a kidney stone because you’ve spent the summer pissed off, and you were so pissed off, you created a kidney stone too big to pass.

 

Now that my figurative guts are showin’, everything seems brighter and more pleasant. The weather cooled and it’s possible to imagine a few months with the windows shut, blocking out smoke. Z reports from his solo walk today that the dirt-pile artwork was carted away. Based on Facebook’s over-zealous announcements, we’re nearing the end of last year’s happy memories. I’m a few days away from a trip to Indiana where I will see people I love and miss AND have my hair cut and my roots (and those eight strands of grey) covered.

 

I’m writing. I’m editing. I’m not throwing up.

 

I’m alive.

 

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Get-well flowers from Leibowitz coupled with painkillers and Z’s ministrations made it all tolerable.

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.

 

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Puget Sound

 

 

 

 

 

Politics and Religion

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Whitewater United Methodist Church (Photo courtesy of Val Jennings)

 

Midwesterners often live by the adage that you should never talk about politics or religion. If we don’t live by it, we’ve heard it enough and have probably kicked ourselves at least once for bringing either topic up in “mixed company” only to have the conversation fall flat or get heated in un-enjoyable ways. Were I a better arguer, then maybe I’d love the challenge of heated debate or see such discourse as entertaining, educational or satisfying.

 

But I’m not.

 

I don’t enjoy strife. Z once got in an argument with a peace protestor by Westlake Center, and I skedaddled half a block away from him so I could avoid hearing whatever words he shared with the tired-looking woman with the “Give peace a chance” sign scribbled on cardboard. I’m not sure what I was afraid of: Z is not rude OR hawkish, but he does like clarity and finds idealistic platitudes useless and so wanted to know what giving peace a chance looked like to her in regard to the quagmire the Middle East had become. Still, I didn’t want to hear their words even if it was a pleasant exchange.

 

Were it not unseemly for an adult person to put her fingers in her ears and sing “la la la la” whenever there is a disagreement, I would do it.

 

At home in Indiana, I basically know the rules. I can have a religious or political discussion with a good friend who I already know basically believes what I believe. I know that with my extended family or friends who have differing beliefs, we can ignore uncomfortable topics (the best choice, really) or, if we are feeling brave, each say one conflicting thing politely to the other before we start talking about something innocuous like pie. The objective of these exchanges is that everyone knows there is no ill-will even if someone’s belief system is faulty. The closest I ever got to a political argument was when my uncle, the farmer, sputtered about how difficult the EPA was making his life re: what weed killer he could use on his crops, as if somehow my first-ever vote in the presidential election of 1992 a few months before had caused his headache. Of course even this wasn’t an argument. My uncle said his piece and I said, “Hmmm. I hadn’t considered that,” and then the subject got changed, though neither of our minds did.

 

But this political cycle is like the beast from the Book of Revelation, thrashing around, wreaking havoc where previously there were harmonious relationships. Usually, during the primary season, people who are not on the podium are relatively civil to each other as they try to figure out who would best lead their party of preference. They say things like, I don’t know, I kind of like the look of _______. Have you listened to him? and they save the ugliness for the second half of the year when they want to tear the opposition from limb to limb. But with the help of social media and everyone’s lack of tolerance and increased righteous indignation, this has been the some of the most stress-inducing six months of 2016 (and I’m  including the parts of the year where beloved pop icons died of drug overdoses, terrorists killed people trying to have a good time/do a hard day’s work, and my mother had a stem-cell transplant). One political party has almost completely imploded and the other has turned against itself like one of the more grizzly battle scenes from Game of Thrones.

 

Most of these battles are being fought in the media or on social media. Certainly, my own shouting fits and blood pressure spikes have only come from Facebook feeds and comments sections and not from any “real” interactions with humans. I don’t want to suggest that before Facebook was a regular part of our lives that we were a polite and genteel culture, but surely we’ve gotten ruder, haven’t we? And more full of ourselves? More certain that we are right and if we say something over and over enough times, everyone else will eventually be forced to agree with us because our logic and our words are so superior? Also, I’m not sure what convinced us all that our opinions actually matter and must be heard, like we’ll shrivel up and die Wicked Witch of the West style if we don’t speak our minds.

 

There’s got to be some diagnosis in the DSM-V that explains this lunacy.

 

A couple of weeks ago while I was talking to Mom on the phone, her call waiting went off and she came back, a bit breathless, and said that the church was on fire and she and my stepdad had to go. I sat around the rest of the afternoon feeling like I was waiting on a health report from someone who’d been rushed to the ER. The church is in the middle of the countryside and I knew the prognosis probably wasn’t good; it takes time for firefighters to do their job when they’re called in from the small neighboring towns and villages miles away. Later that night when she reported that the church was still standing but charred on the inside nearly beyond recognition and likely a lost cause, and later still when the photos rolled in, I cried. It felt like a family member had died.

 

I haven’t been in that little white church for probably two decades, and I haven’t attended services there since I was 19, but I always imagined it would be available to me. It is the oldest Methodist church in Indiana, nestled on the outskirts of a teeny village in the country, started at the time of circuit riders. It’s the church my mother and I started attending right after my maternal grandfather died unexpectedly and we were trying to find our way in the world without our patriarch. The church we started attending just before she and my stepdad started dating. It’s the church my great-grandmother went to and the church my great-great-grandparents attended. One particularly hot Sunday morning when I was bored during a sermon, I looked out the opened stained-glass window at the field behind the church and I could imagine the generations before me sitting there, so much hotter in their long dresses and suits, staring out the same window, their horses tied up outside, shuffling feet and nickering.

 

For me, the church was a source of great love and great conflict. Any church for me is that way, really, but this is the church where I came of age and where I first felt those tugs in opposing directions. I longed to belong, but never fully did. I was a divorced kid in a congregation that mostly wasn’t. I was an introvert in a congregation that, it seemed to me, preferred people not too timid to stand up and perform some service. I was living in the city and everyone else was from the country. I played the piano briefly when we lost our much more accomplished accompanist, but I wasn’t really a musician, so even that didn’t feel like the right fit. Plus, I’d spent more Sundays in mass with my father’s family than in a Protestant church until that time, so while I liked the deviations from the script that the Methodist minister took for dramatic effect or because he felt spiritually led to do so, I missed the comfort of the ceremony, beauty, and sameness offered at the Catholic Church.

 

There was an awful lot of politics in the church. People who thought they ran things. Other people who did a lot of the daily maintenance that kept the church running but got none (and asked for none) of the credit and had none of the say. People who had strong opinions about what the youth of the church should or shouldn’t be doing. People who had opinions if you skipped church to go to a Cincinnati Reds game. People who assumed that because you went there you must believe exactly how they believed and vote exactly how they voted. I’d feel crabby some Sundays, but then as the service came to a close we’d all stand to sing the doxology, say our goodbyes, and before getting into our cars and heading home, a sort of peace would descend that felt an awful lot like belonging. Like maybe despite the differences, we were all on the same team. And we were. If someone was in crisis, there were the prayers, the casseroles, the quiet concern.

 

In retrospect, I suspect I was just an emerging feminist trying to figure out what exactly my place was in an institution—or, at least, certainly a little country church—that liked it best when a person fit into a role. Though no one expressly told me my role was to be a good girl until I was a wife and mother or that I shouldn’t be overly interested in the leaders of the Women’s Movement or worldly concerns, it seemed to me that that was the track I was supposed to be on: one that didn’t ask too many questions, shake too many boats, or rattle any cages. So what to do with the secret knowledge that I spent as many Sundays in the sanctuary thinking lewd thoughts as I did concentrating on God? What to do when I felt cantankerous when someone made a request of me about performing some activity (lighting candles, speaking on behalf of the youth group in front of all those people, babysitting in the nursery) that I didn’t want to do? As a female, shouldn’t I be compliant and happily subservient? What to do with the realization that while I wanted to be one kind of person (a good, church-going, rule-following woman who read mostly Christian books and listened mostly to Christian music and shied away from anything too earthly), I also wanted to be myself (someone who devoured all texts, dipped toes into a variety of musical genres, and maybe rubbed up next to a boy I might not marry).

 

I never did make peace with that quandary, but eventually, my desire not to feel controlled outweighed my desire to conform.

 

I’m not sure what my little country church has to do with the 2016 election except on Facebook I read today that I can’t be a Christian if I vote for a Clinton and I also hear regularly in Seattle and online that if I were really a humanitarian—and surely that’s what Jesus was—then I would have chosen Sanders and not a “criminal” as my candidate. My “favorite” criticism this year has been the implication that by voting for a woman, I’m clearly making my choice based solely on our shared gender and have not relied on logic. As if I’m too feather-brained to realize I shouldn’t vote for someone for whom I hadn’t done some research and weighed the options.

 

All of that external judgment shares the same quadrant of my brain as my earlier internal conflicts in church. To be good? To be unapologetically myself? It isn’t lost on me that I’m still just as conflicted about being “good” and getting approval now as I was then, but also just as determined to be true to my own beliefs. The best example of this conflict hashing itself out is my choice this election season to wear a tiny, dime-sized button with a vivid pop-art picture of Clinton’s face that I pin on my purse and can cover up with my hand if I know the person viewing it will get too riled up. I’m not proud of this compromise, but it’s a good Midwestern coping mechanism as deeply ingrained as my need to be viewed as good and my desire to be an independent entity.

 

When I was home this winter, my stepdad would return from Sunday services, and I’d want to hear the news. The church, which was ten times larger when I went there, had dwindled down to a congregation smaller than ten and there’d been talk of closing. When I imagined it in February, I didn’t picture a tiny congregation of which my seventy-year-old stepdad was the youngest member. When I imagine it today, I don’t picture its now-charred remains. Instead, I imagine it when I was 16: people in every pew, friends of mine lighting the candles up front and our plans for the evening’s youth group activity being written about on the week’s program, my step-grandfather leading the singing as my step-grandmother plays the organ or piano, a message I’m half listening to while staring out the window or trying to catch the eye of a guy I have a crush on, maybe communion, an offering, another prayer, the smell of thousands of earlier church services, the doxology that ended it all so well (and that maybe we should be singing to each other now until after November to remember we’re all on the same human team): God be with you ‘til we meet again/by His counsels guide uphold you/With His sheep securely fold you/God be with you ‘til we meet again.

 

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(Photo courtesy of Val Jennings)

 

 

 

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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Saigon Keeps Falling

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Forty years ago today, I remember playing with my Barbies on the braided rug of our living room with our little black and white TV blaring in the background. I was oblivious to whatever was on the screen, so the reports that Saigon had fallen and the Vietnam War was over must not have come during afternoon cartoons. Mom left the living room, stood at the kitchen sink, and sobbed. The newscaster’s announcement was less real to me than whatever drama was unfolding in front of me with the dolls, but the sound of Mom crying was different and distressing enough to halt my play.

 

I followed her into the kitchen and asked what was wrong, and because we are not the sort of women who can beautifully and coherently talk while crying, the only words I remember her eeking out were that the war was over. Though I think of myself even now as a child who had always secretly been an adult, the richness of her sobs momentarily had me convinced that the Vietcong would soon be coming to Indiana because we’d lost the war. I was terrified. I can’t remember how she comforted me: if I was a nuisance interrupting her grief or a welcome distraction. I only remember the sobs and the confusion I felt; surely the war being over was a good thing, so why the tears?

 

My father wasn’t in the military. None any of my uncles went to Vietnam. Though there may have been Vietnamese refugees who ended up in my hometown, none were at my school. I can’t say the war affected my life, but it was the background noise of the first eight years of it. My mother lost high school friends and one of her best friends lost her fiancé. I can still remember standing near his grave, kicking clods of dirt with my canvas shoes, not entirely understanding the level of adult sadness on such a beautiful day with flags snapping in the breeze. It was no more real to me than my GI Joe doll with the missing foot, who had, in my mind, been to Vietnam; he perpetually wore fatigues because he was too muscle-y to fit into Ken’s leisure suits–a good guy but so world-weary only the lesser Barbies with missing limbs or brown hair would date him.

 

So no, it didn’t influence me directly, and I’m not entirely sure why I spent a portion of this morning weeping over forty-year-old news footage of people clamoring onto helicopters, remembering something I didn’t understand when it was unfolding live. But it did give a melancholy flavor to my Gen X childhood, perhaps a weird obsession with China Beach when it aired twenty-five years later, a distrust of military actions, a strange mix of both respect for and wariness of the men my mother’s age who wore bandanas and fatigue jackets and looked down and out.

 

The catalyst for today’s tears was an on-the-scene interview with a man who had tried but failed to help his college friend and family—a friend he’d  met at Washington State University—escape Saigon in those last hours. He was reduced to tears. The reporter tried to suggest that maybe his friend would be okay, but the man stood there, choking back sobs and shaking his head saying, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” I tried this afternoon to figure out some magic way to use Google that would answer the question of whether that man’s friend survived or not; I failed.

 

It’s the same melancholy I felt talking to my old  students returning from the Gulf or from Afghanistan, trying to make sense of the lives they were now supposed to assimilate back into. How I feel when I talk to Hudge about her military career and the affects, both positive and negative, it had on her life. How I feel when I think about the non-military personnel in faraway places just living their lives, trying to get by, while men with money and power–and some with questionable ideals–make decisions that will affect whether those people’s homes will become a battle zone.

 

I wish now–my Barbies packed away lo these many decades–that my over-read, over-reflective brain could make sense of such events. See some pattern, some unanticipated benefit, some reason for pain and suffering so I could say something wise about the disruption of lives that might have been otherwise lived, so I could feel more positive when my cousins’ sons consider joining up, feel more hopeful when they ship out.

 

But I don’t know. I don’t know.

 

 

 

 

Flashback Friday: Bridget Jones in Middle Earth

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

[I’m finding this installment from yesteryear absent a lot of details re: the hows and whys of love. Keep in mind, 2006 Beth had no idea how this story would play out and feared she’d jinx it by oversharing.]

On the way home from Seattle, I started channeling Bridget Jones. It was the only way I could process what had taken place in the previous 24 hours. My Bridget Jones voice went something like this:
Hooray! Am walking through airport, talking on cell phone to actual boyfriend in manner of normal person. Have become person typically despised by solo, singleton travelers—standing still on moveable sidewalk thingy blocking passage to others because so busy talking to boyfriend about important boyfriend things like where his pictures have been hung and what he had for lunch and how my flight was. Hooray. Am part of couple. No longer destined to be spinster, eaten by own dogs. Joy!

Boyfriend? you ask. Yes. It sounds strange to me as well.

In light of my previous post, I don’t really expect you to believe me when I say I wasn’t looking for love. It’s true, but if I were you, I wouldn’t believe me. I’d given up on this man. When I met Z five years ago I drove straight to my oldest friend’s house and said, “I just met the man I’m going to marry.” I meant it, sincerely, though it was a statement I knew I could revoke later when I found out he was gay, had a secret wife in Zimbabwe, or was an axe murderer. But for the record, those words did come out of my mouth the night I met him at a faculty party and thus began a five year journey of love and heartache, 99% of which took place only in my own head and in late night phone calls to friends who care about me and didn’t want to see me miserable. If I’d taken the advice in that awful He’s Just Not That Into You book, I wouldn’t have been walking thru the airport, talking on the cell. To my boyfriend.

It is true I shaved my legs and moisturized before I went to visit him. I bought new underwear. So an argument could be made that I knew, but I did not know anything. I told people at home I was going to Seattle to seduce him, but there was no chance of it happening and my friends knew it. I have the seduction skills of an otter, and I have been making the same claims for the five years I’ve known him with no headway. He was a fortress; my love crashed against his foundations without making so much as a chink. He would remain on his egg crate mattress in the living room. The end.

Only, maybe not. It turns out my ridiculous, ill-advised love and devotion to a man who showed no signs of any interest beyond friendship was wearing away his resolve. It turns out I’m now in a relationship. It turns out I have everything I’ve wanted.

I am happy. I couldn’t be happier. I had, however, forgotten about how approximately three minutes after a man confesses his feelings for you, girl brain kicks in. Girl brain has made it impossible for me to really enjoy my happiness. I can’t concentrate on teaching or grading or committee work. My mother tells me stories and I hear the capital letter at the beginning of the opening sentence and the period at the end of the final one, and that’s it. Meanwhile, Z is in his office, plugging away at work, functioning like a grown-up person, and I have become Sibyl, with at least five distinct personalities, two of whom are normal, functioning adult women and three of whom are different variations on the most anxiety-ridden girlies in all of Christendom.

One minute I am Realistic Feminist Woman (“This is good. Let’s see what happens!”). The next minute I am High School Chick who, in lieu of planning her prom, has turned to thinking about what dishes she and the object of her desire might eat off of one day in some shared living space. [FYI, brightly colored Fiestaware.] Three minutes in I am Anxious Lady (“Why hasn’t he called? Has he been hit by a car or mugged? He’s all alone in Seattle! How will the medical authorities know to call me and tell me his fate?”), and then from there it is an easy slide into Catastrophe Girl (“That’s it! He’s changed his mind! He’s decided he made a horrible mistake,”), and with a little luck, I waft into my Faithful self, who sings two or three choruses of “It is Well with My Soul” and who, for fifteen minute increments, can actually think about other things like the war and whether she should worry about the trans fat in crackers because she believes so completely in this new thing.

But it is hard. There are grooves of disappointment etched so deeply in my brain from previous experience that I am waiting to hear the thud of the other shoe dropping. The long distance nature of this relationship contributes to this. Is he coming here for Thanksgiving? Is he annoyed that I left two personal item thingies in his very orderly, minimalist apartment? Did he wake up Monday and see all the other, hotter women who might have been available to him if only he weren’t tied to me, the Old Ball and Chain? When I suggested a January visit was he just being polite when he said it sounded like a good idea?

On at least six separate occasions I have nearly called him and told him I need more feedback, more reassurance, more love. Despite the fact that a week and a half ago I was a semi-confident creature who was not dependent on anyone else for happiness or sense of self, I now feel like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. I feel greedy and like a bottomless pit of need. I have no doubt that Z can sense me, standing in the dark, rubbing my slimy hands together, and saying, “Precious….”

How sexy is that? I suppose if Z were one of those Lord of the Rings nuts, it might be kind of a turn on, and if the other shoe does drop (please God, no), then perhaps I can find a Middle Earth dating service and search for a man who finds Gollum dead sexy.

This is a sad state of affairs when you begin your blog with Bridget Jones and end it with Gollum . I need to re-channel Bridget. She’s surely not too far out of reach.

Am happy in manner of happy, confident person. Have found perfect love with handsome, international man of mystery. Will be ravished by him soon.

Yes, that’s better.

Precious.

 

Ah, Those Summer Nights: Flashdance Edition

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Flashdance.

Flashdance.

 

To help combat the recent heat wave, Z and I chose to stay in our shady, brick apartment building, wearing as few clothes as possible and watching the movies of our youth while eating popsicles. Like you do. The idea came about last week when we randomly started singing songs from Grease and then we discovered it was streaming on Netflix. From that, we quickly moved to the other music/dance movies that shaped our respective youths: Grease II, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, and, finally, last night, Flashdance.

 

All I have to do is hear those opening bars of “Grease,” and I’m transported back to a adolescent summer when I got my first issue of ‘Teen magazine and thought I’d die if I didn’t get a pair of denim Dr. Scholl’s sandals and one of those aluminum foil mats upon which a person was meant to rotisserate herself until she was deeply tan and thus desirable. I was certain that ownership of those two things would magically transform me into an adult. By the end of the summer, I had the sandals, but my mother, thankfully, could see (as could anyone else who knew me) that my pasty Irish-American skin should spend peak tanning hours under an umbrella. Re-watching the movie this past week brought back many memories, including a mental list I kept of all the sexual innuendos that I didn’t yet know the meaning of, sensed were significant, and of which I hoped to have a legitimate definition before I went to junior high. (This was before urbandictionary.com, back when if you weren’t brave enough to ask some older family member or friend, you had to wait to find out why everyone was making that “oh my goodness!” face when “Greased Lightnin’” played.) The experience of watching all four of these movies was like opening up some scrapbook I forgot I’d kept, chock full of reminders of the way life used to be and all the ways I hoped life would turn out.

 

It was fun to share with Z something that had been significant to both of us back in the day, living on our separate continents, when we were imagining very different futures for ourselves. (I can’t speak for Z’s, but the future I imagined involved me actually being the pastel-sweater-wearing good-girl version of Olivia Newton-John). I sometimes lament that Z and I didn’t know each other in our youth, and I admit there is part of me that wonders if we’d met when we were 10 or 16 or even 20 if I still would have thought, “That’s the one for me!” or if I would have been unable to see his utter rightness simply because he was not a John Cusack, holding a boom box over his head and wearing me down with his love.

 

Dirty Dancing held up as well—better, really—than Grease. There are only two cringe-worthy lines in that film: the oft-used Nobody puts Baby in a corner, and the equally bad (and even more poorly delivered), Go back to your playpen, Baby. This is, however, perhaps the first time I’ve ever wondered why the writers thought it was a good idea to name the heroine Baby in the first place. Metaphorically, it’s just too obvious to be good, and literally, it’s just too…well, seriously, do you know anybody named Baby? On all other fronts, the movie still works, and no matter how many times I watch it, damned if I don’t cry when Baby is in the gazebo with her father telling him she’s sorry she disappointed him, but he’s disappointed her too.

 

For marital happiness, the least said about Grease II the better.

 

Footloose surprised me. A million years ago when I saw it for the first time, all of my girlfriends were going nuts for Kevin Bacon and his spikey hair and skinny tie, but I was too busy obsessing about the ridiculous premise to notice how nice he looked in his Sedgefield jeans. A college campus might outlaw dancing (I went to one of those), but a whole town? And why did it seem so Southern and some of the actors went in and out of southern accents, when those were clearly the Rocky Mountains in the distance? And were they seriously expecting us to believe that Kevin Bacon’s use of quotes from the Bible was anything but self-serving? It didn’t take a theology scholar to recognize a fallacy of false equivalence. I’d been to prom; that dancing had nothing to do with worship.

 

On this viewing, however, even with the extreme no-dancing-no-rock-music town ordinance still in place, the setting and the people felt real and familiar. That little church there in ArkanIowalarado felt a lot like the ones I grew up in, trying to figure out who I was while it seemed plenty of people who didn’t really know me were happy to tell me who I should be. In the scenes where the fire-and-brimstone John Lithgow is preaching, you can feel the misery of a humid Sunday service, when you wish the minister would maybe get to his point more quickly so you could escape to a place with a breeze. On this viewing, Kevin Bacon’s biblical argument didn’t seem quite as weak. John Lithgow seems more sympathetic regarding his reasons for wanting to ban music and dance (and he gains big points for compassionately stopping a book burning). Also, nobody was perfect looking like they would be in a movie now. Their teeth weren’t impossibly white and impossibly straight. They spoke like real people. They looked a little uncomfortable, and not at all like a bunch of teens who would be posting photos of themselves all over the interwebs. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) It surprised me how much Footloose felt like a real portrayal of what it was like to be a teenager in the 1980s, give or take a little gymnastical dance routine in the local feed mill.

 

And finally, there is Flashdance.

 

Oh, Flashdance, you break my heart. Weren’t you once good? Didn’t you have better dialogue? Didn’t you make more sense? Weren’t you plausible?

 

I saw Flashdance with my high school boyfriend, his little brother, and a friend of mine. I was enraptured the 95 minutes it was on the screen and felt like I was the only person in the movie theater. Alex, the heroine, a Pittsburgh “flashdancer” with the dream of being a ballerina is no Sandy from Grease. She is 18 and supports herself welding by day and dancing by night (though she isn’t a stripper—let’s be clear about that!). She lives in a warehouse with her pitbull and she seems not to care what anyone thinks of her. She is feisty. The night she sees her older boyfriend with another woman, she doesn’t go home and eat ice cream and weep passively and sing Hopelessly Devoted to You. No. She gets on her bike, peddles to his house in a tony neighborhood, and throws a rock through his window. But the real story is that with a little prodding by an ancient European fairy godmother figure and her string-pulling older boyfriend, she screws up her courage and tries out for the Pittsburgh ballet, which is her secret dream.

 

Watching Flashdance then, I knew the message of the movie—to be brave and go after your dreams—was one of the truest things I’d ever seen. When it was over, I was breathless (and anxious to get home to start ripping up sweatshirts and incorporating legwarmers more fully into my wardrobe, so I too could look like Alex while I painted and wrote). I said something to the boyfriend with awe in my voice about how good the movie was, and he said, “Eh. It was okay.” His movie tastes ran more along the lines of Conan the Barbarian and Caddyshack. I felt deflated. How could he not know this was possibly one of the best movies of all time? Were his broody silences not artistically driven after all? Were we ill matched?

 

It was very disappointing.

 

Yet here I was, thirty years later, sitting with the far more compatible and fabulous Z on our sofa and feeling very briefly annoyed with him for insinuating that Flashdance wasn’t a good movie. I think of him as a more enlightened creature, and so his lack of reverence for the film kind of hurt my heart. I felt wounded that he wasn’t even giving the movie a chance.

 

But then I started listening to the dialogue and making a list of all the implausibilities, starting with the existence of a club where women danced–with their clothes on–for men who were clearly not patrons of the arts. And yeah, maybe an 18-year-old woman could become a welder, but would anyone have hired her in the Rust Belt when jobs were scarce? I don’t think so. And also, remind me why none of us knew in 1983 that a body double was used to do all the dancing? The only thing I was in awe of this time during the dance scenes was that the body double’s curly wig did not come flying off.

 

Maybe Flashdance wasn’t a good a movie after all.

 

More disturbing to me than the possibility that the movie was not great (nor even good) was the realization that the message of the movie—one that I believed in fervently— was mixed. It purported to be about believing in yourself and your dreams, yet two of the three people who do just that (Richie leaves his fry cook job to move to LA to be a comedian and Jeanie enters an ice skating competition) fail miserably (Richie comes back to Pittsburgh after being booed out of LA and Jeanie falls during the competition and subsequently ends up working in a real strip bar until Alex drags her out). Plus, Alex already is a dancer—trying out for the ballet isn’t that far outside of her wheelhouse. So what exactly was the message of Flashdance? Go after your dreams only if you are the protagonist? Go after your dreams if you have a rich older boyfriend who has connections? There are magical powers in a ripped up sweatshirt, which will subsequently make your ludicrous dreams attainable? By the time it was over, I hadn’t a clue.

 

The moral of my story? There isn’t one. I’m just glad some of those teen fantasies of mine didn’t come true, otherwise I might have missed this perfect weekend of heat wave survival with Z. If the mercury rises again, I suspect there is a John Hughes marathon in our future.

 

P.S. This is not Jennifer Beals

P.S. This is not Jennifer Beals