Category Archives: Writing

Zen and the Art of the Stalled Engine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry for doubting you, Mom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m trying to focus on the but alsos.

**ADDENDUM**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Aptitudes

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

 

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

 

But now, this is what I’m doing:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

The books in line to be read next.

 

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Every year this seems magical.

 

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

 

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

 

Seeing emboldened wildlife on our daily walk.

 

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My Big Fat Greek Puzzle.

 

Traveling through the magic of puzzling.

 

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Library scented.

 

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

 

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Not library scented.

 

Spring’s aromatic beauty.

 

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Not a commentary on the reading material.

 

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

 

 

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

 

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These signs that are popping up all over First Hill.

 

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Is it you, Michelangelo?

 

Unexpected finds.

 

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This Honey Bucket has lost is way.

 

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

 

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Elliott Bay, how I miss you!

 

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

 

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Artwork by Henri Lebasque

 

Stolen images and memes.

 

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Thanks, Anaïs!

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding True North

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Children. Hate.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Not a bad office for the day.

You Are Here

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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My student & I bonded over my Hoosier tumbler of choice. (It’s more about the blue than the chocolate, I swear.)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  • Every few weekends, Z and I have a little adventure by way of taking the bus or lightrail to some neighborhood we haven’t really explored. We walk around. We get a drink. We try to look like non-threatening new neighbors instead of people who don’t belong. Some days we find views. Other days we find gorgeous houses. Sometimes we find archy shrubberies or discover we aren’t that far from the lake.

  • Mom and I have started painting together every Monday. When I say “painting together” I mean she paints in Indiana and I paint in Seattle at roughly the same time and then we email each other our efforts and praise each other and feel good about ourselves because we’re doing something more than watching videos of baby elephants trying to sit on people’s laps. My goal is that my efforts turn out something like this—little sketches from photos I took on past travels:

 

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

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

 

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

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The Bug-Eyed of Notre Dame

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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King Street Station, Seattle

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

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A little ambiance at King Street Station, Seattle

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

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I wanted to steal one of each of these.

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

 

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

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Hotel closets have never been so stylish and accessible!

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Union Station, Portland

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

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

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The cupboards were bare.

We were wrong.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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So peaceful.

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

 

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

 

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

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Well, okay then.

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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The bench I taught from was 68% more rickety.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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A sky that would make Magritte envious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tally of Creatures Spotted on Game Drive

 

  • warthog
  • ostrich
  • fish eagle
  • sable
  • tsessebe
  • waterbuck
  • impala
  • rhinoceros
  • giraffe
  • zebra
  • baboon
  • wildebeest
  • cheeky monkeys
  • one man’s shoe, abandoned and forlorn

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These shy creatures can be similarly difficult to spot in the wild.

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

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

 

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

 

And I am.

 

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Five Shades of Grey

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Lies I regularly tell:

 

  • “I’m sorry!” [patting pockets] “I don’t have any cash with me!”

Translation: I do have cash, but not in my pockets, and I’m not digging in my purse to look for my wallet on Broadway. I hope the next person you ask has more money readily available than I do and is more generous.

 

  • “I’m fine.”

Translation: In answer to your query, “how are you?,” I may or may not be fine, but I’m really not in the mood to get into the intricacies of the inner workings of my brain and how I achieved “fineness” today after battling various anxieties or nuggets of melancholia. Let’s move on to more interesting subjects. How are you?

 

  • “Interesting!” [primarily written in marginal comment of freshman composition papers I have graded]

Translation: It isn’t. But it is the most interesting thing on the page and I really, really want to encourage you, so let’s start with this thing that could potentially be interesting and dig into it. (Note: if I’ve written “fascinating!” I mean it sincerely.)

 

  • “Money isn’t important.”

Translation: It is important —it keeps a roof over a head and creditors at bay—but I’ve been bad at getting it and worse at keeping it, and as a topic, money is a really boring one, so let’s move on to something more intriguing for all of us, shall we?

 

  • “It’s okay.” [in response to an apology]

Translation: Right now, I think it’s okay and I just want things to be normal between us, but there’s a good chance this is going to be coming up again in some journal writing over the next two to eight months. Probably I won’t bring it up to you again though, so you’re off the hook.

 

  • “I wrote.” [usually in response to Z asking, “What did you do today?”]

Translation: I did write today, but it was probably an email and two paragraphs of an idea I had that quickly went south and was absolutely NOT the writing you and I were both imagining I’d be doing when we said goodbye to each other this morning. And it definitely isn’t writing that is going to achieve fame or earn money. Sorry.

 

 

We all have a few of these we keep up our sleeves like aces, I suspect. But I still feel rotten when I put one on the table. As I’ve written about here before, I’m not someone who lies naturally. Largely because I was raised to believe it’s a Bad Thing to do, but also because I stink at it. Even when telemarketers call and ask for Z, I’m pretty sure they know he’s sitting on the sofa when I say he isn’t home from work. I’m not sure what it is that I do that gives me away—a shade of pink I turn, a shift in the eye, a tone of voice—but it happens and I’m found out. Not that it’s a skill I want to hone because I’d rather not be able to rely on it. This is the same reason I don’t own a gun.* I’m sure there are situations when having one would be useful and feel empowering, but I don’t want to have to make that choice.

 

Z is a particularly good b.s. detector. Last week I’d complained of a headache and Z suggested I put Aveda Blue Oil on my forehead. (FYI, Blue Oil is magic. It’s also been discontinued and replaced with a subpar mouthwash colored “Cooling Oil” that probably is almost identical in composition, but I’m put off by the new color and the metal roller ball that is really cold. I hate unnecessary change and almost never see the new thing as superior, so you should probably judge for yourselves.) I’m sure I had a reason why I didn’t use the Blue Oil—I was about to eat and didn’t want that pepperminty smell to interfere with the flavor of my lunch or I was about to read something and knew the vapors from it would render me temporarily blind because you can’t really open your eyes right after you’ve applied it. But an hour or so later he asked how my headache was and I told him I still had it, and when he said, “Did you use Blue Oil?” I said, “Yes.”

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One of these things is not like the other.

I don’t know why I did this.

 

That’s a lie. I do know. I didn’t want to hear that disapproval in Z’s voice. He doesn’t ever understand why I don’t do the thing that is in my best interest (drink the water, sleep at the decent hour, do the yoga, wear the hat on a cold day), and the truth is, I don’t understand either. But I don’t always act in my own best interest and his lip pursing when I “misbehave” is sometimes a reminder of what an abject failure I am at being my best self.

 

So I said, “Yes.” I thought I’d gotten away with it because at the time I was walking ahead of him in the hallway in our apartment building and he couldn’t see my face. But he knew. Z always knows. He said something like, “You did not” and I felt indignant that he’d doubt my (worthless) word, and I said, “I did too!” and then he said, “Let me smell your forehead.” He kind of chased me and attempted to sniff my head while I swatted at him. We laughed. The jig was up.

 

It usually ends this way, these little lies I tell to save face or to feel my own autonomy or to avoid confrontation. The other person knows what I’ve said is codswallop, but unlike Z, they are usually polite enough not to call me on it.

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In case you are thinking Z is a brute, please note these fabulous Post-it page flags were in my Christmas stocking this year. He’s a star.

Though I’m sure there were instances in my childhood when I first learned the lesson that I was no good at lying, the one that sticks in my mind is 8th grade gym class. Though I was no longer her student, “Hitlerman” still ran the girls’ locker room like basic training, and though my male gym teacher didn’t care what we wore, she was not happy that we were allowed to forego our hideous red and white one-piece gym suits and instead wear more generic “athletic apparel” so long as we hadn’t worn said to school that day. It wasn’t a bad rule in that it probably kept the school 50% less stinky because 13-year-olds weren’t wearing sweaty gym clothes into algebra. But one day, I decided to wear in gym the lavender polo shirt I’d put on for school that morning. I looked good in it and there was 0% chance it would get sweaty because I did as little as possible in gym class. “Hitlerman” spied that shirt while I was pulling sweatpants. She asked if the shirt was my “street clothes” and I said, chin jutted out, “No.” I went down to the gym to pretend to play volleyball for 45 minutes.

 

I don’t know why I lied. I don’t know why I didn’t just put on that stupid gym suit in the first place, but there was something about her questioning my autonomy that turned me into a liar. Also, I really liked that purple polo shirt and saw no reason to take it off when I’d just be standing on the sidelines of some sport I didn’t care about feigning interest while my more athletic classmates sweated for both of us.

 

I thought I’d gotten away with it. Back in the locker room, I changed into my jeans, re-laced my shoes, darted down the steps when the bell rang, and there she was, standing in the hall, looking at me sternly. “I thought you said that shirt wasn’t your street clothes?”

 

I have no idea how I replied. She wasn’t my teacher and had no authority over my grade, but I wasn’t a rude or confrontational kid. I fully expected to be court martialed and knew I deserved it even though it was a stupid rule. But other than the disapproval and disappointment plastered on her face, nothing happened to me. She’d never been impressed with my lack of athletic prowess, but the year before she hadn’t shamed me for my half-speed lope up the soccer field or the inelegant floor routine I’d created for myself during our gymnastics unit. She seemed to appreciate that I was a good student who wasn’t athletic. I wasn’t a troublemaker or a smart aleck, and that’s probably how I got good grades in her gym class because what I know for sure is I was not a natural on the balance beam and didn’t deserve an A.

 

But there we were, her knowing now that I wasn’t really that good of a person and me knowing she knew I wasn’t.

 

I didn’t like the way “liar” felt on my skin, and even now I find myself wanting to make excuses for why it was okay for a 13 year old to assert her authority over her own wardrobe and body.

 

The ease with which some people lie—without blinking or twitching or needing to write blog posts about it—disturbs me. If you lie regularly and with vigor, I wonder, do you cease to recognize the truth? Does truth hold any value? And when I look at my toolkit of lies that help me navigate life (or a walk on First Hill), I wonder if those are gateway lies that will one day lead to bigger ones that wreck family or professional relationships or threaten national security. Do those little lies matter? Would it be better if I said a terse “No” to someone asking for money? Would it be a more honest life, though friendless, if I told someone how I really feel about cancelled plans or a sharp retort? (How I feel can get kind of tedious.)

 

Z and I have been watching Season 1 of “The Affair” on Showtime this month. I’m not sure I like it, but I can’t seem to quit it. I am intrigued by the way the show is written. We get a story from the point of view of one of the two main characters and then we get it again, slightly altered, from the other. Initially, it seemed this device was being used so we’d get information the other character didn’t yet have, which is an interesting way to make a viewer or reader feel complicit in someone’s lie. (For example, we know why the female protagonist is so dark and moody long before her love interest. She’s got some secrets.) As the show progresses it becomes apparent that not only do the two points of view fill in holes, but they are actually significantly different. Noah sees himself as a good guy who can’t help who he loves, but sometimes when his paramour, Alison, tells her version of the story you can see that he’s not quite as good as he thinks he is. He’s selfish and single-minded at times, and he doesn’t seem to recognize that Alison has a life outside of him. For her part, Alison blames herself a lot but also sees herself as a basically benevolent force in the universe, but through Noah, we recognize that she is not above being manipulative. The show leaves it up to the viewer to figure out which version is closer to the truth.

 

We can also see the ways in which the characters lie to themselves. In one scene, Noah sees Alison after a long break and she is wearing a white dress and looks radiant. In Alison’s version, she’s wearing more practical clothes and looks a little haggard. Where’s the truth? Is Noah a man too deeply obsessed to see reality or is Alison too depressed to remember rightly that she did look a bit like a fairy princess-temptress? It’s a curious thing to have to consider truth to this degree when watching a show you only clicked on because you’d run through all the available episodes of “Shameless” and “Ray Donovan.”

 

I’ve solved nothing here. Come to no conclusions about the degree to which a lie is socially or personally acceptable. Maybe we all have to decide for ourselves and there’s no gold standard. All I’ve really produced for myself here is another headache.

 

This time I’ll use the Blue Oil. I swear.

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Art installation outside the Salt Lake City convention center that explored opposites and left the viewer to figure out what falls between the two.

 

*Attention would-be kidnappers and attackers: I say I don’t have a gun, but I could be lying.

Anti-Malarial Dreams Part I: Homecoming

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Zim Tally

  • 3 planes taken across 3 continents in 2 days of travel
  • 12 hours of layover in Heathrow
  • 2 items purchased at the Cath Kidston store in Heathrow
  • 1 camera charger left in Seattle
  • 2 travel games left in Seattle
  • 1 Fitbit lost
  • 1 cold caught
  • 3 mosquito bites received (despite excessive precautions)

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This is traveling light for us. Also, those identifying stickers I carefully slapped on our luggage didn’t make it out of SEA TAC.

So, I’m in Zimbabwe in the middle of winter in the middle of the first post-Mugabe election in the middle of a study abroad program that Z is leading and this is what I’m obsessing about:

 

My Headspace meditation app, which has been recording my meditation streak—63 days, people! I’ve never done anything good for me for 63 consecutive days—decided to reset at Day 1 for reasons known only unto itself. Perhaps it’s some sort of Mr. Miyagi “lesson” that I shouldn’t puff myself up with pride about meditating for two months straight or acceptance or everything is change, but the end result is the same: I’m outraged. How dare they rob me of the daily satisfaction I see with the number following my meditation sessions? How dare they make me do math to figure out how many days I’ve “really” meditated instead of their fake lesser number? But most importantly, how dare they remove the impetus for me not to break the streak? Now when it’s 11:30 p.m. and I realize I haven’t yet meditated for the day, how much am I going to care? How much easier is it going to be to say, “Eh. I’ll do it tomorrow.”

 

“Doing it tomorrow” has pretty much been the modus operandi of my life, which might explain the sorry state of my kitchen floor and why I’m wearing my “big jeans” right now instead of the slightly smaller ones. The thing about tomorrow is it never comes around.

 

Maybe the meditation is making me more aware of the present moment though. Certainly during the two-days of travel from Seattle to Zimbabwe, I was the calmest I’ve ever been. On the trans-Atlantic flight I was only mildly frustrated with the Russian seat kickers sitting behind me and during the trans-Africa flight, I was only slightly embarrassed that three years of high school French, a year of college French, and a year of French in grad school did not prepare me to speak en français to my seatmate, a young father who, with his son, had to sit on the opposite side of the plane from his wife and daughter. He seemed good-naturedly distressed by this—as if somehow at the end of the flight she and their daughter might have disappeared—and so he kept popping up, prairie dog style, to see if she was still there, to offer a wave, and then to speak to his son reassuringly, Elle est toujours lá. Not that I would have known if that’s what he was really saying because all I could remember from my extensive French study was how to say, “The beautiful cows of Normandy.” I couldn’t even remember excusez-moi when I sat on his jacket, despite having spent my childhood watching Steve Martin in bunny ears saying just that.

 

Quel dommage.

 

After a little in-flight meditation, a lot of movie watching (I, Tonya is way better than I imagined), and about five hours of sleep, we land, collect our bags, and then leave Robert Mugabe International Airport with Z’s brother. I feel nothing but glad to be back. Normally, on the first and second day of any trip—even to places I am desperate to get back to like home (Richmond) or home (Seattle) or the home of my heart (Ireland)—I often grumble and want to cry or shout because I’m not in my own bed or eating familiar food or smelling familiar smells. I’m like a toddler that way. I blame sleep depravation, but it might just be that it takes me 48 hours to adapt to change. And yet as we leave the airport road, I feel joyous. It’s been five years since I’ve been here and it feels like five years too long.

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Zimbabwe feels different. It could be my imagination or wishful thinking, but something in the air feels lighter, more hopeful than before after too many decades and too many troubles under one leader. Harare is buzzing. There are more stalls selling wares lining the streets. There is more traffic congesting the pot-hole filled roads. People seem busier and more purposeful. It’s election season, and though that brings it’s own anxiety because of past experience—fear, violence, crooked elections—this time, people seem anxious, yes, but also optimistic that Zimbabwe is on its way up.

 

Z and I sit in the garden of my brother-and-sister-in-law and catch up, while we re-hydrate ourselves and enjoy the feeling of not being cramped against prairie dog strangers on a flight. We scratch behind various dog ears and talk about the shortage of cash that has Zimbabweans unexpectedly on the verge of being a modern, cashless society whether they want to be or not. American dollars are the currency here, but they are in short supply. We’re warned not to flash ours. Even if you’ve got thousands of dollars in your bank account here, you’ll be lucky if you can draw out $50 when you go to the bank. And if you are lucky enough to have some dollars you are willing to spend, you’ll get preferential treatment in gas lines (there is a fuel shortage) and you’ll get a better rate when you buy things with U.S. greenbacks instead of Zim bond notes, or EcoCash (“Zimbabwe’s Mobile Money Solution”) and swipe cards, which transfer invisible funds from one bank account to another. In the days to come, we won’t have a conversation with anyone during which the cash shortage doesn’t come up. We are never the ones to bring it up because we know when we leave in a month we’ll have easy enough access to our cash. But for people living here, it is a worry.

 

After our visit, Z and I climb into Z-ma’s truck and point it southwest to head towards his childhood home where Z-ma awaits us. I’ve forgotten how bad the roads are, how Z has to maneuver around dongas (potholes), hoot his horn at the badly behaved drivers. I’ve forgotten the look on his face as he sees his home after he’s been away too long, and it makes me happy to see how happy he is.

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The traffic has really gotten awful in five years. The familiar police roadblocks are all but gone, which has emboldened unlicensed drivers in vehicles that aren’t roadworthy. Z follows the speed limit as cars and trucks zip past us, going lightening fast. As the city flattens out and the countryside rises up—rocks and hills and grass—I note the changes that have appeared. Mr. MaPlanka’s lumberyard has been replaced by a petrol station. There are more houses that have sprung up as sort of bedroom communities to Harare. The Lion and Cheetah Park is now just the Lion Park because the cheetah died.

 

Z and I talk and don’t talk as we take it all in. He was here last in December, so the changes are not new to him. He says, “Well done, Babe” when I name the things we pass that I remember: the old snake park where there is a petrol station, the Somerby Caves where a dog once acted as tour guide to Rick and his family, the farm—still mostly fallow—where family friends lived and worked until they were forced off their land and into a new life in Nigeria.

 

Finally, I see the grain bins in the distance and know that Z-ma’s house is two turns, three rumble strips, and a honk at the gate away. Z points out the changes in his little hometown as we bounce our way to her house. The convenience store attached to the petrol station has changed its name from La Boutique to Bonjour. The car wash—a bucket and a sponge behind a fence—has been moved. There is a building site near the shops and we wonder what the finished product will be. There are big, new churches. Z laughs because a road that was being “fixed” in December is still impassable.

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We’re almost there!

I’m pleased to see that Florence Nighting Girls School is still in business.

 

Like that, we’ve arrived. Z hoots the horn. Eunice opens the gate and greets us warmly. We drive into the yard, past the roses Z’s dad grew, past the cacti, the bonsai, the fruit trees. Skampy stands on the porch behind the gate, temporarily incarcerated until the car comes to a stop, his tail whipping around so much his whole body waggles. And there is Z-ma, walking with a cane now when she’s on uneven terrain because a mysterious dropped-neck ailment has thrown off her center of gravity. But she’s very much herself, bright eyes, big smile, warm welcome, and still walking faster than I do. It’s been too long since I’ve seen her.

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And here I am, in yet another of my homes.

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For Whom the Bag Tolls

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

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

 

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

 

On the pro side:

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

 

On the con side:

  • Everything else.

 

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

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Ernest _wishes_ he had a field bag so fine.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Poser. Posing.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Ahoy, matey!

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

 

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

 

Clearly, it was a magic bag.

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It looked more impressive on the plane.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Then she said, “It’s Louis Vuitton.”

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blue: A Shoe Obsession

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Because I was raised on Yogi Bear cartoons, I like to think I’m smarter than the average bear. When it became increasingly more evident that some of the ads I was seeing in 2016 on Facebook had actually originated in Russia, I preened a little bit because I hadn’t fallen for any of those. I’m one of those annoying people who, when someone posts something mostly ludicrous online, I quickly check Snopes and then tell them they’ve made an error because I don’t want them to embarrass themselves. A few months ago, Mom graciously sent us some potholder-sized square pieces of stretchy plastic that she’d ordered online because the reviews insisted it was less annoying than Saran Wrap and better for the planet, and she knew I’d like that, but when it arrived and I tried it, I discovered that the reason it was less annoying than Saranwrap is because, unlike Saran Wrap, it sticks to nothing at all.

 

Just as I suspected.

 

So it is with great shame that I tell you a few weeks ago I became obsessed. After a barrage of shock-and-awe advertisements I’d seen for these too-expensive turquoise-soled flats that were guaranteed to change my life, I was left quivering with want. My life, I was sure, would not be complete without them. They were guaranteed to give my wardrobe some panache and make me look at least 70% more pulled together.

 

I’ve never paid so much for a pair of shoes. (That’s a lie. I did once, but it was only because I was in Ireland at the time and failed to do the currency conversion correctly.) But the hype surrounding Tieks is phenomenal. Not only are the advertisements slick, but the customer reviews (of which I think I read every one) are almost all raves. Women swear they’ve never had a more comfortable pair of shoes, never had such pain-free feet when walking on the cobblestoned streets of Europe, never needed to wear a different pair of shoes since their Tieks arrived because they are so amazing, never pay for checked luggage when they travel now because you only need one pair of these things to meet all of your fashion needs. They spoke of them with the enthusiam of the recently converted or the newly in love. Most admitted that the price was a little steep, but if you crunched the numbers, the shoes paid for themselves in no time because you’d basically never need another pair of shoes again. Ever.

 

It was hard not to believe.

 

The women who love and wear these things not only love to write rave reviews about them while wearing them, but they also like to post images on Instagram of the shoes, them wearing the shoes, them getting a new pair of the shoes and unboxing them, them admiring the flowers and ribbons that decorate the Tiffany colored boxes the shoes arrive in (so small for a pair of shoes, but the shoes fold up, like small precious foldy-uppy things!), and them (or at least their feet) doing both exciting and mundane things in their new shoes. Both the women and the shoes are photogenic. The shoes come in a rainbow assortment of colors, like Fiestaware for your feet, and the women who wear them appear to be 32 or younger, a size four or smaller, and have beautiful children, husbands, dogs, houses, vacations, and yoga practices. I have yet to see an ugly—or even average—woman photographed in a pair of Tieks, though admittedly, often the women in the photos don’t have heads. .

Blue Tieks from website

I suppose this woman could be wearing a bag on her head because she’s aesthetically challenged, but I bet she isn’t. (Photo from Instagram #tieks)

 

God help me, when I saw these ads multiple times a day, I started to believe that if only I had a pair, all of my shoe problems and wardrobe failures would be solved. I also started to believe that I too would be 32 or younger, 117 pounds or less, and have a beautiful, beautiful life. It’s not the first time I’ve been obsessed, but this was a bad case.

 

I suspect that Z already knew how this experiment would end, but he is a great supporter of my enthusiasms, so after I got paid last month, he said, “I think you should order those shoes you want.”

 

I did tell him how much they cost, but he misheard by $50 and I didn’t correct him. Not because I was trying to put one over on him, but because I was so deep in my obsession that I was too busy to tell him as I poured over the website and the photos and tried to decide what color I should order. Black was the most practical of course, but those fruity flavors and jewel tones looked good too. Mom and I had not one but three phone conversations about what color I should order. I forced Jane to read paragraphs of email about which pair would best suit my Inner Beth and feed my soul. (Jane noted that sometimes when talking about the turquoise soles of the shoes, I spelled it “soul” as if I was starting to believe the shoes were living creatures that were ultimately Heaven bound.)

 

I got agitated and anxious. What if I made a poor choice?

 

Finally, Z looked at me and said, “I think you want the blue. You love blue.”

 

The man knows me so well.

 

My love affair with blue began basically the moment I was able to distinguish colors but before I had words for them. My favorite toys were blue: a stuffed cat—Mewy—whose button eyes had been removed because Mom was afraid I’d choke on them, an extra large hollow plastic spoon sized for a giant that for reasons I’m still unclear on was designated a bath toy, a blue magnetic chalkboard with dubious-looking plastic magnetic children and domestic animals included to stick into the middle of my drawings, and the backside of my Candyland board game that I found infinitely more pleasing to look at than the messy maze of gumdrops and candy canes on the other side. What these blue items had in common is that they were all the perfect shade of blue: a deep, rich cobalt.

 

I had a well-meaning and generous aunt who regularly gave me blue things to please me, but what she didn’t know was that any blue that wasn’t cobalt didn’t even register as blue for me, and alas, her own preferred palette was a pastel one. I’d thank her and demonstrate how much I appreciated the sweater, the blanket, the wall hanging, all the while staring at the blue star sapphire she wore on her right hand and thinking, now that’s blue. (And bless her, when she feared her days here were numbered, she asked if there was anything of hers that I wanted, and I greedily said, “Your sapphire!” and she got a wry, pleased smile on her face, pulled it off her finger, and gave it to me.)

 

A more recent exampleof my blue inclinations are the napkins that Z and I put on our bridal registry 9 years ago that we use almost every day. I like the green fine, but the blue makes me smile every time I see it. Because we re-use the napkins if we’ve had a meal that wasn’t too greasy or crumby, Z uses a green one and I use blue, so we’ll remember whose is whose. On the few occasions when laundry needs to be done and he’s used one of MY blue ones, I’ve felt very territorial about it and have to remind myself that I love him and it’s good to share. (And also, his using it is temporary.)

 

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You can come over to dinner, but please don’t touch the blue napkins.

 

So I ordered the cobalt Tieks, was promised delivery in two days, and I became a woman even more obsessed. Z got hourly updates from me re: where they were now in transit because I kept hitting refresh on my web browser to see where USPS said they were now. And now. And NOW. When I wasn’t stalking them, I was fantasizing about what I’d wear with them. How I would slowly start weeding things out of my wardrobe that wouldn’t go with them. I started re-watching “New Girl” because Jess has a tendency to wear bright blue flats. I wondered if I should have Mom ship my blue, rabbit fur wedding purse from Indiana so I could start carrying it to events around the city. (It was vintage, so I didn’t feel too guilty about it being rabbit—by the time I bought it, the rabbit would have been dead of natural causes, and I believed this would make it mostly acceptable in sensitive Seattle.) On day two of waiting, I tried to balance my cobalt blue Leuchtturm notebook on my foot so I could better imagine how fabulous the shoes would be.

 

There is no way those cobalt Tieks were going to live up to my expectations.

 

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How could whatever is inside of this box NOT be life-changing?

 

When I got a text from the building manager saying a package had arrived, I raced downstairs faster than I’ve moved in a decade. She handed me a decidedly un-shoe-like pacakge, and when I opened it, it was a book someone had sent me. I was happy to have the book, but it was a bit like getting a call in high school from your friend when you were expecting the voice on the other end to be a boy asking you out on a date. Fortunately, a similar text later in the day resulted in shoes.

 

Those reviewers had been right. The packaging was scrumptious, even if it wasn’t my shade of blue. (Though I’ll admit I felt one reviewer had let me down by implying that the flower on the box would be the color of the shoes. I wanted a cobalt flower and instead I got a pink one.) The box was so compact and the shape so un-shoelike, that it enhanced the sense I had that these shoes were better than mundane footwear arriving in a foot-sized oblong box.

 

And inside:

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Look at how precious and foldy-uppy!

 

Oh, that color! Hello Mewy. Hello Giant Spoon. Hello Magentic Chalkboard. Hello Backside of Candyland, Sapphire Rings, Leuchtturm Journal, and Rabbit Purse. Hello every jar of Noxema I ever tried to love the smell of just because of the cobalt container.

 

I wouldn’t let myself try the shoes on immediately. First, I unpacked the box and discovered a handwritten notecard, wishing me great happiness in my new shoes:

 

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Look at all those thin, leggy women and their colorful footwear!

 

The shoes also come with both a teensy bag to stuff the shoes into so they take up no space at all in your purse or luggage, and a bigger bag to carry your high heels in when you switch them out mid-day for cloud-inspired Tieks.

 

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Since I don’t wear high heels, I imagined I would use this to carry flowers and organic fruit home from the market.

 

Because I am a practical woman, I washed my feet before I tried these on because I didn’t want any evidence of myself in the shoes should I need to return them. But I was fairly confident that God would not disappoint me and make these shoes uncomfortable. Yes, that’s right. Instead of considering the possibility that there might be a designer error (them) or an orderer error (me), I just went straight to the Big Guy and assumed He cobbled them Himself, specifcally for me, so all of my cobalt dreams could come true.

 

I’d done my research, so I knew the shoes would stretch, that often when they first arrived, they were tight. But they WILL stretch, the beautiful women told me, and so I walked around the house in them, and after a few hours I realized that they’d have to stretch a whole size in order to be wearable.

 

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement, but almost as soon as I ordered the next size up and started the (remarkbly helpful and easy) return process, the obsessing began again. Z started getting USPS delivery status updates from me while he was at work. I wrote a review for Jane and called my mom to tell her the news, as if we’d just tried out a puppy and had to return it to the breeder after discovering it was a biter but not to worry because a non-biting puppy would be filling our lives with joy soon. I fantasized about all the ways the new, larger size would be perfect.

 

When the second pair arrived, I went through the same ritual and was just as delighted with the packaging and the handwritten note as I’d been the first time. I slipped the shoes on and they felt better than the original pair, though now if they stretched, I wondered if they’d be too big. I walked in circles around the living room, I tried on some skirts to see how they looked. I sent Mom photos, and started imagining my new life in them and how soon I’d be younger, thinner, and more photogenic. I wondered how soon it would be before the beautiful toddler, international travel, and Labradoodle would show up.

 

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Suddenly, our casino-style rug looks muted and disappointing. I wonder if Z will go for a new Tieks-matching carpet?

 

And then I realized this other thing: my toes were throbbing because the leather was so tight across the top of my feet.  And the bottoms of my feet  weren’t very happy either. I was promised that the shoes would feel like wearing sneakers, but I didn’t really even want to walk down to the laundry room in them, let alone up and down the hills of Seattle.

 

Let alone on European cobblestones for a summer spent abroad with the toddler and the Labradoodle.

 

I kept the shoes for a day and berated myself for not having younger, more accomodating feet or a body so light that shoes with no visible means of support could be considered a good idea. I spent an hour looking at sensible shoes on orthopedic websites and saying mean things to myself about how this was clearly what I was destined for if I couldn’t make these blue wonders work. I propped my feet up on the coffee table and considered how they really were lovely and I should keep them to wear when I’m sitting around the house, even though we have a no-shoes-in-the-house policy for ourselves.

 

And then I realized that even sitting with my feet propped up, my toes–which had plenty of room length-wise–were killing me. In fact, I could feel every heartbeat in each big toe, and because I’d just had my blood pressure checked and discovered it was (surprisingly) perfect, I had to admit that this toe-throbbing was not a fault of mine. My toes are not fat and unhealthy.  This was not a sign of an imminent stroke. The shoes just didn’t have enough room in them. Maybe they would  stretch as promised by the Tieks devotees, but in the half century I’ve spent breaking shoes in, I’ve never had to break in a toe box.

 

Also, there was this niggling thought in the back of my head that I’d never talked to any actual women in the real world wearing Tieks. I’d seen ONE pair in Seattle on a woman running to catch a ferry a few weeks before I ordered them (the only way I would have known is because of those turquoise soles), and frankly, I had a feeling she would have been more comfortable in a pair of Adidas or Columbia hiking boots. I started to equate the obsesion and enthusiasm I had for the shoes to earlier iterations of things you can’t buy in stores and must order from “parties,” items made to separate women from their paychecks: basket parties, jewelry parties, candle parties, home decorating parties. I remembered the vague sense of being at those parties and feeling simultaneously like I didn’t really need a $34 basket to keep a bedside flashlight in but certain that if I didn’t have one, my life would be incomplete. And I might stub my toe in the dark.

 

Was it possible that I’d fallen for the organized online enthusiasm that my mom fell for with her  Saran Wrap alternative? Was I no better than the marks who believed what they read about Hillary Clinton running  a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor?

 

Maybe. I don’t know. It was such a great shade of blue though.

 

When Z and I had our walk around First Hill that evening, I told him I thought I needed to send them back. But maybe not–those fantasies of me skipping around Montmartre like a Technicolor Audrey Hepburn hadn’t quite died. I did’t know what to do, I said.

 

“I think you know what to do,” he said. “You just don’t want to do it.”

 

He’s always sensisble. So I did the only sensible thing I could think of which is tell him that he’d mis-remembered the price and I hadn’t corrected him.  Z isn’t the sort of guy who would boss me up and say, “A HUNDRED-AND-SEVENTY-FIVE-DOLLARS! THAT’S RIDICULOUS! YOU DON’T NEED THOSE!” but having spoken it out loud to him, even I had to admit it was ridiculous to be considering non-magical shoes that were that pricey. Especially when Z’s current chosen footwear is a pair of Crocs I got for him at Ross for $18.99. (He also has a pair of $40 “dress” Crocs he wears to more formal occasions.)

 

When I got home, I boxed up the shoes and started the return process. The exchange was friendly and efficient.  Within a week, I had my refund.

 

What I’m left with–aside from a blue shoe sized hole in my wardrobe–is an overwhelming sense of my own ridiculousness. Suddenly I’m more aware of the items social media is flashing in front of me. (That sling bag really does look revolutionary, and that kickstarter ultimate suitcase seems like it might have some answers to my problems!)

 

We’re all just targets. I’m no smarter a bear than the average one. Especially if the bait is blue.

 

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Imagine getting intern credit for fancy card writing.