Tag Archives: city life

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


Screen Shot 2017-09-30 at 3.13.14 PM


Reasons you should not move to the city in middle age:


  • Cities are by definition full of young people. You will, thus, by default, seem ten years older than you actually are simply because you aren’t 23 and because you sometimes hobble a little when you stand up abruptly and make your way to the loo. And you (and whomever you are with) will be the only person in your age group at Stout’s happy hour.
  • While you could be reaping the benefits of having worked all your life and thus living in a house with modern conveniences (like a washing machine you don’t have to feed quarters into), you will be living like a college student with one closet the size of a coffin and less square footage than your parents have solely in their living room.
  • There is a lot of walking in a city and some days you are tired.


But really, this reason:


  • When you find yourself on a sidewalk yelling at a man in the car that almost ran you over you aren’t sure if it is:
    • righteous indignation
    • calluses built up by urban life that make it impossible for you to feel the embarrassment you would feel were you screaming at a stranger in your small Hoosier hometown
    • hormonal


Earlier in the month, Z and I were walking around St. James Cathedral, which is surrounded by trees on a block that is relatively quiet and peaceful and gives the illusion of the posh neighborhood that existed there a century ago. (We once saw a man in a dress shirt and slacks sitting on the Cathedral grass with a white goose on a leash, and so I never walk past that lawn without hoping to see him and his goose again, without hankering for the pastoral. I still don’t know if the goose gets daily walks or if they’d been attending mass.) It was a good evening. The heat of the day was gone, Z was still on vacation, and we were about to leave for a three-day beach holiday, so we were in good moods.


As we went to cross the quiet street, a car came barreling down on us, much faster than it should have been driving in the neighborhood. It seemed like a high probability that the driver would run the stop sign at the four-way stop and it seemed like a possibility that he’d run us down even though we had the right of way. I grabbed Z’s arm to slow him from the car’s path because he has a tendency to think his fiercely wrinkled brow will stop traffic violators in their tracks. (I think I told you I once saw him shake his umbrella at a car that had driven too far over a crosswalk before stopping.) We skittered out of the guy’s way to safety.


Though we didn’t yell at him, we did both fire dirty, dirty looks in his direction once we were safely on the sidewalk. Then we went on with our walk, and just as we had started to continue our conversation, the driver did a U-turn and pulled up beside us. I assumed (oh, naïve Midwestern me!) that he was pulling up to apologize to us, but instead, he had made this extra effort just to berate us for not looking before we crossed the street. (We had looked, plus we had the right of way even if we hadn’t.) With all the wisdom bestowed on him from his man-bun and a beard so large birds could nest in it, he let us know that we were horrible people without the intelligence to cross a street properly and he questioned our political leanings (though we debated later about what he was implying those leanings were). Z briefly engaged him and then quickly disengaged when he realized the sort of person he was dealing with.


But I—oh, Reader—I had a fit of pique. I stamped my foot and screamed as he pulled away from us. “You are a DOUCHE!” I shouted. (In my mind, my fist was shaking in the air righteously, but that may be an embellishment my brain has added to the memory.)


I don’t like that word, but sometimes, no other word will do, and the combination of his superiority and his choice of hair fashion made it the only appropriate retort. I was seething with rage. Shaking, red-faced. The whole bit. As we went to cross the next street (on the way to the drugstore to pick up my prescriptions for chronic indigestion and “nerves” that city life necessitates), he pulled in front of us, blocking our path, and said, “I guess you’ll have to look now!” He sat there for several seconds before moving forward so we could cross. It took all the willpower I had not to kick his fender, and for an hour afterward I kept replaying it and wishing I had both martial arts training and either a handgun or a sword like Michonne’s on The Walking Dead so I could teach him a lesson. Maybe not kill him, but at least scare the bejeezus out of him. I felt violated and there needed to be retribution.


For a week afterward, I had a partial chorus of Tori Amos’s “Little Earthquakes” going through my head, and I hate and I hate and I hate… without ever finishing the line with her more benign elevator music, the way we fight and focusing instead on the various people I pass on the street—in cars, on bikes, on their feet—who are not nice. Who would, if given a choice without legal consequences, do me and others harm because they don’t like the cut of our jib or, well, whatever it is that makes one human seem worthy of your ire. And I hate them for their hatred.


While I feel strongly that this was rational urban acting out on my part—the yelling at the be-bunned motorist who taunted us—Mom has been here for three weeks and when I’m juxtaposed against her, I realize that I’ve been hardened in new and awful ways since moving out here. I am not as nice as perhaps I once was.


A few weeks before she got here, Z and I passed a man on the street slumped so far over in his wheelchair that his head was nearly touching the sidewalk and didn’t even notice because there are so many folks on our little elevated hunk of Seattle who are in various states of drug-addicted slumber. It wasn’t until we got further down the block and heard a woman behind us say to the man, “Sir? Sir? Are you okay?” that we realized perhaps that was the more human response to another human in crisis. (In our defense, if Z did this every morning on his walk to work, he’d be late for class because the numbers of these people are so many, and I am often in a fog of imagination and internal thought that makes the outside world somehow less real than what’s happening in my brain. I’m as likely to walk past Eddie Vedder’s blue, blue eyes without noticing as I am someone asking me for a buck, so it’s not that I’m predisposed to ignoring those in dire circumstances. I’m an equal opportunity ignorer.)


But Mom. Mom is a good person. She is not an extrovert nor is she someone who seeks out people in need so she can feel good about herself for helping them, but somehow, people gravitate towards her. In the 1990s, she would sometimes accompany me to book readings at Books & Co., in Dayton, Ohio, where Jane would drive up and meet us. Jane and I would have a delightful time chatting with authors who were reading, while poor Mom would get pressed against atlases and encyclopedias as someone with the inability to read social cues would share with her their life story or some mundane personal problem.


Mom (with yet a new friend).

(She isn’t just a kook magnet. She’s met some interesting people. She befriended a South African in England in 1992 who still calls her on her birthday every year, for example. She knew a woman who was good friends with Judy Garland and would offer Mom reports on Liza Minnelli’s latest news. On this trip, when Z and I picked her up at the airport, she’d made a new Brazilian friend who was unsure where her B&B was on West Seattle, so we drove her there and then later spent a rainy day with her in Edmonds, having lunch, a walk, tea and a chat—learning about Brazil, the woman’s life, her art. I love it when Mom meets someone with whom she shares a connection and someone who seems to recognize that Mom is special herself.)


But then on other days during her visit, I’m mostly aware of how much the city has bent and twisted me. Mom and I walked past the door of the apartment building and a supposed delivery man was trying to get inside. Mom, who was behind me, said, “What do I do? Do I let him in?” and I snarled, “Keep walking! We don’t know him!” (In my defense, I probably would have let him in six months ago because he looked benign and he did have an Amazon Prime package in his hands, but the building manager recently installed cameras and I don’t want to be caught on tape letting in the fellow who robs the people in #201.) Mom smiles at people I don’t even notice on the street. She chats with the store clerks I usually only thank. She engages people with small children, cute dogs, interesting handbags.


So this week when we took the ferry to Bainbridge and then had a “comfort break” in the facilities once we docked, I saw the older, barely-moving woman come into the restroom with help of a ferry worker before Mom did. The woman was making teensy steps with her wheeled walker. She shooed the ferry worker away and then started yelling into the echo-y restroom. As I was washing my hands, my only thought was escape. It seemed to me she wanted to know where the handicapped stall was, so I told her at the end of the row and then darted around her into the lobby. It wasn’t until two-minutes later when Mom still hadn’t come out that I realized what must have happened.


It seemed unlikely that they’d gotten embroiled in a conversation because from my vantage, the woman was the sort who barely made sense when she talked. That meant Mom was likely helping her back her wheeled walker into the stall. Poor Mom, I thought. Maybe I should go help, I thought. And then I instantly thought of twelve reasons I shouldn’t, including the smallness of the stalls and how Mom is better with people than I am.


Eventually Mom came out pulling the walker as the woman barked at her to go faster even though faster seemed as if it would make the woman topple because of her teeny steps. Mom could have looked at me and rolled her eyes (which is possibly what I would have done—a sort of “solidarity with the sane” move), but she didn’t. Instead, she asked the woman which way she was going. This was a slow process; those steps the woman was taking were teeny, and instead of feeling sympathy for her, I felt annoyance that she was interrupting Mom’s birthday vacation adventure. When we got outside, a woman in the tourist kiosk came over to help so we could get on with our day.


As we walked away, Mom said not only had she helped the woman into the stall but because the woman had no feeling in her hands, she had to help her pull her pants down and then up again. This is something I might do to help a loved one or someone under four, but after that, it wouldn’t cross my mind. Good luck with that, I’d think, as I walked away. Underpants are a private business.


The thing is, Mom isn’t nurse-like. She doesn’t enjoy this kind of help the way I think some nurse-y types do. She’s like me. We’re both kind of body abhorrent and would prefer not having to think about our own bodies, let alone someone else’s. We don’t really like being in service to other people—it’s not our forte. We’re good at giving directions, making suggestions, and then getting out of the way for someone more inclined to know what to do in a crisis.


But Mom has a stronger sense of duty to help other people than I do. Maybe it’s a mom thing. Maybe it’s a Virgo thing. Maybe it’s an her thing. I can still remember a time when I was very small and we were getting gas and a man asked Mom if she could drive him to the hospital. She looked at me in the car—the person for whom she was responsible and around whom her world was forced to revolve—and then she looked at him and told him she couldn’t. For the rest of the day she felt guilty, worried that he hadn’t gotten to the hospital, worried that it was an angel in disguise and she’d just dissed said angel because she, a single mother, was trying to keep her daughter safe from a potential Ted Bundy, who was feigning the need for medical attention. She lamented that she had no spare cash to give him so he could call a taxi, but in 1972 we were lucky if there was enough money to put gas in the tank so we could drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s where they would feed us, let us watch their color television, and where I’d spend the weekend in the country with my cousins and the cows, a wonderful respite for someone who then thought her town of 38,000 made her the City Mouse from the children’s story. There is a freedom from others and their needs in the country that doesn’t exist in the city, though in the city there is more anonymity, so if you must, you can say no to someone, pretend not to hear, drive away from the gas station while they ask someone else to help them to the hospital.


I have adopted similar worries to Mom’s. It bothers me every time I scroll past another plea for money on Facebook or side-step an aid worker collecting for Save the Children in downtown Seattle, or tell someone asking that I have no cash on me. (I’ve quit carrying cash so, at the very least, when I say this, it isn’t a lie. And also, Z and I are clinging to our little bit of rented real-estate in a city that has recently been designed to cater only to 23-year-old tech workers and their somewhat larger paychecks.) But I do do those things, those side-stepping and not-hearing things, and the longer I am in Seattle, the more it feels like second nature because the want is so much here. If I were home in Indiana, there is no way I’d walk past a man slumped over in his wheelchair. I’d help an old lady into the Meijer bathroom (though I still probably wouldn’t pull down her pants), and if someone told me they were driving through town and had run out of gas, I’d probably believe them, and if I didn’t believe them, I’d tell them I only had a $5 but they were welcome to it just so I could end my interaction with them more quickly.


On our return journey from Bainbridge, as we were disembarking, a fellow in front of us was sort of spinning in a circle. His hair was wild, his pants were down well past his butt, and I growled at Mom under my breath, “DO NOT ENGAGE HIM!” Mom looked startled at my command, but then when we got closer it was clear that he wasn’t deranged or begging but just talking on his phone after having made some poor fashion choices earlier in the day. We made our way home and once I’d locked the door on the city, I felt my guard come down. I felt like myself.


But then there is this.


Our goal on Bainbridge was to go to the historical museum there to see the exhibit of Ansel Adams’s portraits of law-abiding Japanese Americans who were detained in Manzanar during World War II to “keep America safe.” Forget their citizenship. Forget due-process. They looked like the enemy, President Roosevelt signed an Executive Order, and the “threat” was done and dusted.


The museum is small and packed full of tidbits from island life, and you feel a bit like you’ve stumbled into someone’s attic where everything has been carefully labeled, so you can skip over the bits of little interest and stare at the bits that fascinate you.


When we arrived, there were two women sitting at the front desk. We told them we were there to see the Adams portraits, and they both seemed delighted, and made us feel as if no one else in the history of the museum had come in to see them or gave two hoots about the Japanese internment. We went into the room with the portraits, looked at the ephemera from that time—tags that had been tied to coats and possessions with names and thumbprints (even though these were law-abiding citizens), photos of people going to the ferry and leaving their homes for an uncertain future (some were afraid they would be exterminated), family portraits, letters from the camps to family or neighbors, explaining the conditions, etc. We settled into folding chairs and watched a documentary made by the National Parks Service about Manzanar, and when it was over, one of the two women from the front desk came in.


She was soft spoken and didn’t want to intrude on our museum experience, but she wanted us to know that she had been seven when President Roosevelt’s Executive Order was signed and the notices that people who were of Japanese descent would be removed. She and her family were sent to Manzanar. She told us about her experiences, how the residents of Bainbridge were the first to go in the country, how half of them came back, how some had neighbors and friends who were good enough to pay their taxes and run their farms so they had something to come back to. (Others lost everything.) She showed us where she was in the ferry dock photo in the sea of people headed off to the unknown. She showed us her sister’s doll—one of the few possessions that she was allowed to take—in a display case. Then she directed me to the old Bainbridge Gardens sign that was visible—if I understand correctly—as you entered the ferry. Then she had me walk behind it and see a message there that had been scrawled on the back by neighbors, one of the first thing the internees saw when they returned. It said, “Welcome Back.”


This read “Welcome Back” but it was in a corner & this was the best shot I could get in tight quarters.

Not all the stories were good for those returning. Not all people are good, but as the woman talked to us, she kept coming back to this idea: it was a bad time, but not everyone was bad. There was good. There was this sign. There was the local newspaper that had kept everyone back on the island updated on the happenings of their Japanese-American friends.


There were good neighbors.


I’m not sure where this leaves me and my internal battle with my city armor. I’ll spend the rest of 2017 trying to find that sweet spot between being a good neighbor and being a doormat who gets yelled at by a man under a bun for some imagined pedestrian infraction.


Good fences may make good neighbors, but when you live in the city, you have to make those fences on your own, in your mind, in your behavior. And then you have to make peace with the choices you’ve made.







The Ill-Planned Grand Tour: Part 3



A friend of mine and I used to be crazy for amusement parks. Every year we’d plan a summer trip around an amusement park, and we’d milk each day for all it was worth. We’d get up early to be with the first group in the gate, we’d attack all of the harshest, most death-defying rides first. We’d stay until the park closed, sweaty, exhausted, feet sore, heads pounding from being shaken and twirled within an inch of our lives. During the day, we’d make fun of the people who were going to “shows” instead of hitting all of the attractions and making themselves feel exactly how we did at the end of a day: sure we’d done all we could and completely sated.

About a decade ago, when middle age had probably arrived but I wasn’t claiming it yet, we went to Disney World and rode some beastly attraction meant to simulate weightlessness in space. I got claustrophobic for the first time in my life—an affliction that has stuck and now requires that I carry relaxi pills when I fly just in case the aisles suddenly seem too full and too close together—and my friend nearly threw up in the barf bags Disney had conveniently provided. The rest of the trip we avoided roller coasters and anything inclined to induce motion sickness. He recovered; I never did. If we went to an amusement park, I’d have heart palpitations and decide that I couldn’t brave a coaster that in my youth would have been a “baby” ride, and the attractions that were more entertainment based seemed like a better bet.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

London is striking me in a similar fashion: in my youth, I would have packed each day full to the brim with activities and thrills, but on this trip, at this age, I’m more interested in calm, quality experiences. I don’t need the dips and thrills. The two hours we spend at Westminster Abbey—looking at what is essentially an entombed eight century (or so) history of England in a beautiful gothic jewelbox—feel exactly like the first trip to England in that I am in complete awe of the political intrigue, royal feuds, religious wars, and writers deemed significant enough to land a burial spot in Poets’ Corner. (I’m happy to report that on this trip Thomas Hardy does NOT have a folding chair on his marker as he did in 1988!) But other than that, my very favorite thing that we do on this trip–the thing that seems so much better than the tourist “excitement”–is having dinner with people we haven’t seen for awhile. It’s not quite a “show” but there’s something about the human connection in a foreign place that pleases me and makes me feel like more than just a visitor, crammed on a tour bus trying to soak up buckets of knowledge and experience before being shuffled off to another.


On the first night we take the Tube to Paddington Station and meet Z’s cousin Jaynie by the statue of Paddington Bear. I’ve never met Jaynie. When Z and I were just friends, I was especially disappointed not to be a couple at the time because he traveled to England for Jaynie’s wedding and I wanted to go, believing completely at the time despite all evidence that one day we’d be together and it was silly not to get the experience of a family event then because of something as inconsequential as his not yet realizing our co-mingled destiny. No invitation was forthcoming, and when he got home and reported that her wedding cake was shaped like Africa, I was bitter not to have seen it. (Incidentally, the idea of this cake would later plant a seed that resulted in our own wedding cake with a zebra bride and groom dressed in a tux and bridal veil.)

Mr. & Mrs. Reluctant Girl Scout

I’m glad to put that missed Jaynie opportunity behind me and forge new ground. Instantly, she reminds me of Z-ma, and I am at ease. She is friendly, chatty, and inhabits her body in a fashion similar to my mother-in-law. Even better than spending time with a Z-ma stand-in and meeting more of his family, I love watching Z interact with his cousin. They haven’t seen each other in six years, yet the easy way they talk to each other is delightful to witness. She’s taken the train in from Oxford (where she is staying for work) just to meet us for dinner. The evening passes too quickly, and as Z and I take the Tube back to South Kensington after she’s caught her return train to Oxford, I marvel at the world we live in: that I—a Hoosier whose horizons never really extended much beyond the Midwest—am married to a Zimbabwean and we live in Seattle but have spent the night at a little restaurant in London visiting his Malawian cousin who lives in Munich with her English husband. I used to believe it was improbable that that little bear from Darkest Peru had made his way to England’s Paddington Station with nothing but a “Please look after this bear” tag attached to his coat, but maybe not.


The next day, after soaking up Westminster Abbey—where I spend too much time thinking about royal weddings and funerals and not enough time soaking up the communion service that is taking place— we walk up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, have lunch in a pub, walk down Charing Cross Road so I can gaze upon #84, the site of one of my all-time-favorite memoirs and movies, though sadly it is no longer a bookstore but is in the process of becoming a yogurt shop or something similarly unbookstore-like. Food is a good way to soothe this disappointment, so we go home via a stop in Knightsbridge so Z can see the food hall at Harrods.  It is something remarkable to behold. There is an entire room full of nothing but chocolate, and children swarm around the counters like something out of Willy Wonka. There is a produce hall, a room full of teas, a room full of fish, half a room full of the most beautiful and delectable baked goods I’ve ever seen. We make our selections (pastries–delicious, delicious pastries) and head to the hotel.

Because Z lives in America, I rarely get to hear him reminisce with someone else about his life before he came to the States or see that “home” look on his face unless I’m eavesdropping on a phone conversation or we are in Zimbabwe with his family. So I’m glad when our dinner with J, a Z-family friend, and the friend’s partner, is so leisurely that we close down the Italian restaurant near the Kensington High Street. I like hearing them catch up, like hearing them remember the details of stories together, and like the fond way they talk about the other’s family. Because the only other time I’ve spent with J was our wedding weekend when I was not entirely of sound mind, I’m also happy to get to know him a bit better too. Again, I marvel at the tenuous way people are connected to other people—how those connections are a bit like a spider web in both their strength and delicacy, but also in the strange, unpredictable architecture of lives intertwined.

The next day, Z and I head to Covent Garden for no real reason other than Z has never been there and it’s in the guidebook as a place where you must go. It is a sort of multi-building art market/flea market that also has upscale shops and eateries. The original market was there in the 1600s with buildings that have clearly been around a few centuries, though this pedestrianized incarnation has only been in existence since the 1970s. I remember it fondly as the place I bought an antique garnet ring, and despite being in my twenties and thus smart enough to know better, I liked to imagine that it had previously belonged to some lady-in-waiting for Queen Elizabeth I and I really got a bargain.


Though I’m not averse to shopping, this trip has not been about acquiring items, so Z and I do a quick spin around the place. We’re lured into another building when we hear an operatic rendition of “Hallelujah.” When we look into the courtyard below us, there is a man in a bowler hat, making balloon animals that he accosts diners and passers-by with, all while belting out gorgeous music. It seems almost wrong to laugh at his antics while he sings so beautifully, but still, we do as he chases people around the courtyard with a giant comb and puffs their hair with a balloon pump, as if he is some sort of insane, singing hairdresser.


Probably I should admit here that my favorite thing near Covent Garden is the shop dedicated entirely to Moleskine journals. I don’t actually buy any while I’m there because I have at least six unused ones back at home in various colors, but I take pictures and I fondle several of them as I try to justify a seventh.

Peter Pan/Alan Cumming @ Leicester Square

Peter Pan/Alan Cumming @ Leicester Square

For lunch, we make a picnic for ourselves at Tesco Express and head to Leicester Square, the center of the theatre district. (We pass St. Martin’s Theatre that has been showing Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap for the last 63 years and at the end of every performance the audience is admonished not to share the secret of who the murderer is; I remember wryly that after seeing the play in 1988 I thought perhaps the real reason the secret had never been revealed was that the play is so boring by the time the murderer stands accused, you no longer care who dunnit). It is hot out and Z and I are grateful for the shade by the fountain, where we munch our food—Z is pleased to have finally scored one of his beloved meat pies and I eat fruit, bread, and crisps, which is as well-balanced as I get—and watch little kids splash around. One little guy looks like across between Alan Cumming and Peter Pan as he slices through the water with an inflatable sword as if he’s vanquishing dragons. I prefer this to standing like cattle in line for another must-see attraction. During the afternoon, Z has to do research, so I sit alone on the Strand, nibbling a pretzel and writing in my journal, though the people-watching possibilities makes it hard to focus on the page.

A Tube strike is on the near horizon, so Z and I make plans to bug out of London a day earlier than planned in order to miss it because neither of us can imagine what the city looks like when it isn’t functioning fully. Our plan initially was to stop in Bath on the way to Wales. On the map it appears to be on the way, but a train schedule reveals that if we go this route it will take ten hours instead of four, so we opt instead to investigate Shrewsbury  simply because it is at mid-point on the journey west (though I refuse to call it Shrewsbury and instead tell people we’re going to Shropshire because it makes me feel like Maggie Smith in A Room with a View).

London Skyline from Primrose Hill

London Skyline from Primrose Hill

On our last day in London, we decide to take in a view suggested by J, plus I want to revisit Regent’s Park and the nearby canals that I remember being fascinated by two decades ago. The only drawback to this plan is the rain, which is bucketing down when we leave the hotel, continues once we get to the park (which means we have the place virtually to ourselves), and doesn’t let up until we are halfway through the park. We have new, matching £6 umbrellas with the London skyline drawn on them, so we don’t mind. The lake we walk around is a bird sanctuary of sorts and the storks remind me of Tony Soprano’s crew, sitting outside Satrielle’s, smoking cigarettes and wise cracking.

Canal near Regent's Park

Canal near Regent’s Park

On our walk to the canals, we pass a guard with a machine gun standing in a driveway to a fancy house. He doesn’t seem bothered by us, but even so, you don’t really want to ask a dude with a machine gun what it is he’s guarding, so we take note of the sign on the gate, Winfield House, and look it up later, only to discover it’s where the U.S. Ambassador lives and was originally a house owned by the Woolworth heiress, Barbara Hutton. I’d wrongly assumed that ambassadors lived in an apartment–maybe in the attic–of the embassy itself.

Eventually, we find the canals, and they aren’t really the way I remembered them. The canals in my memory were full of colorful boats that maybe Johnny Depp circa Chocolat lived in. The only boats we see are full of tourists and none are brightly colored or playing guitar music. We walk along the canal while I try to figure out if this was indeed the canal I saw twenty years ago or if there was some other better, more Depp-inspired canal. I give up and we make our way to Primrose Hill. It’s a big hill and we are used to Seattle’s hills. We stop periodically to look back at the skyline but mostly to catch our breaths before plodding upward. When we do get to the top, the views are stunning. Because I’m never satisfied, I wish I’d seen the view on that trip a few decades ago before so many skyscrapers went up, though I’m happy that we can make out the outline of St. Paul’s, Parliament, and some other choice sights. It’s a good last tourist adventure.

Gloucester Road Tube Station

Gloucester Road Tube Station

Our final social engagement is to meet a friend of Hudge’s (FH, for our purposes) who used to work with Z but has recently taken a job at a sort of think tank in London. Instead of taking the Tube, Z and I decide to walk since it is at the next Tube stop from the one we use and discover that it is actually closer to our hotel than the one we’ve been using. The area is buzzing and has, to my mind, more charm than the street we’ve been walking down daily. Suddenly, I feel terribly sad that our time in London is coming to an end when I’ve only just discovered this whole area that needs exploring. FH arrives and we make our way to a pub that is the exact way you want a pub to be: not sleek and sparse and hip, but instead, worn out wing backed chairs around a table with water rings and stools made from barrels and dark wood everywhere. The people having a pint here seem to belong, and because we are meeting FH, it feels a little like we are here legitimately and not as tourists. The conversation is easy and moves from politics on Z’s campus to politics around the world to what neighborhood FH will be moving to and how he misses swimming off the dock at Hudge’s houseboat. Also, because he’s been a tour guide for my travel guru, Rick Steves, FH chastises me gently for not learning to pack light. “It will change your life,” he says.

Slightly Foxed

Slightly Foxed

When we say goodbye and go our separate ways, Z and I bump into a bookstore that looks intriguing. When I look at the name of it, Slightly Foxed, a light dawns. Slightly Foxed is the publication my mother gets regularly and raves about. It primarily covers books the store-owners believe are worthy of being read, most of which are memoir and autobiography. At least a few conversations with Mom a month cover her latest discoveries from Slightly Foxed. In a split second, I imagine the book bag or coffee mug I’ll get her from there as a surprise, but before I can get too far with the fantasy, I notice the closed sign on the door. I’m so disappointed. If only I’d made the discovery earlier in the week. When I get back to the hotel room, I text her with the news and a photo I’ve taken, and like me, she’s terribly disappointed that I’ve missed my chance to go inside.

Though two days before I would have happily paid money to leave London immediately because the muchness of it all overwhelmed me, while we pack our too-full suitcases and make our final arrangements for the morning’s train trip to Shrewsbury, I feel sad. I don’t know when I’ll be back in London. I don’t know why I’ve been so hard on it. I wish I had just a few more hours so I could eek out a little more juice from the place.

What I do instead to make me feel in control of the situation is set my alarm to go off an hour earlier than needed. The next day, while Z showers and finishes packing, I slip out on a solo adventure into a downpour and walk to Slightly Foxed, stand outside under my umbrella until the store opens, and as soon as I hear the lock click, I head in. For fifteen minutes I scan shelves for titles, look at artwork, and snap photos for Mom. Initially, I feel a little miffed that this store owned by two women seems to be in the hands of a young man, but when I ask if I can take photos for my mother, he warmly encourages them and points out various foxes I should photograph. I make a purchase that seems likely to be one Mom already has, but the book feels good in my hands and won’t take up much room in my suitcase. I tuck it into my coat so the deluge won’t dampen it as I make my way back to the hotel and feel slightly more satisfied.

Maybe when you hit your forties some people don’t need roller coasters for thrills anymore. Maybe it’s okay that a good meal with friends, a park with a view, a well-appointed bookstore surprise, and a good traveling companion are what satisfies.

Shropshire awaits.


Lament of a Fair Weather Fan

Seattle Times headline today.

Seattle Times headline today.

Z and I were downtown this morning, and the city is subdued after yesterday’s Super Bowl loss. For two weeks, the mood here has been like two clicks better than Christmas—the buildings were lit up with blue and green, the “12” flags were flapping like mad…even on windless days, and almost everyone was friendly and feeling like an “us” which doesn’t happen often. The rest of the country arguably finds the Seahawks insufferable, though the perspective here in the upper northwestern corner of the country is that they’re mostly just quirky and misunderstood.

But today? The mood was the exact opposite. It’s been a sunny, warm winter, but today it was gray and rainy, and everyone downtown looked downtrodden and as if they each had their own personal rain cloud right above their heads while depressing Charlie Brown music played. If it hadn’t been so glum, it would have been hilarious.

I don’t like football.   The Sundays my father had me were spent largely in front of a televised game—the Bengals being his team, but really, any team, so long as a game was on. (The only thing worse than football season from my perspective was not-football-season when golf was  on TV. I’m convinced that the background noise in Hell is that of 24-7 golf commentary.) I didn’t like football’s loudness. I didn’t like what looked to me like meanness. And frankly, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why watching a bunch of grown men play a game on TV was more fun than playing Klomp-It or Sorry! with me during our visits with each other.

Football became briefly tolerable while I was in high school and was dating a fullback, whose rudely numbered jersey I got to wear. I went to every game and worried that he’d be hurt and couldn’t wait for the season to be over so his practices would no longer interfere with my own plans for him. Like a good football player’s girlfriend, I played “Powder Puff” the one week—homecoming—when girls were mysteriously declared eligible to play, though the truth is I didn’t know a second down from a second inning and the more athletic girls were mostly annoyed with me and both my ignorance and lack of skill.

I did love that jersey though.

As an adult, I’ve hated football for a variety of reasons in addition to the sound of it in my living room. As a reader and lover of the arts, I hate the way sports takes precedent over things I care about; I hate that the players and coaches and the industry can generate huge amounts of money for pummeling each other into concussions for fun while people teaching tiny kids or college kids, and people providing real services like secretaries and garbage collectors, are sometimes working for peanuts; I hate the above-the-law lifestyle some of the players live; I hate the games’ violence and the violence off the field, sometimes directed at loved ones;  I hate the way normally decent people can turn into real jerks based on team allegiance. It’s an ugly, ugly sport.

But then two things happened:

1) I married Z

2) I moved to Seattle.

Because I met Z a few years after his rugby days were over, I don’t think of him as particularly sporty, but he is. It’s taken some years with him illustrating how sports can enhance a life for me to understand that my anti-organized sports stance was no different than those people who thought I was a loser for constantly having my nose in a book. I have come to see that while I’m sure those athletic girls in high school thought of me as a “waste of space” standing there, mouth agape, while the football was in play, I was just as bad for pigeonholing them because I thought of them as dumb jocks. Maybe they were; maybe they weren’t, but my assumption was if they had athletic prowess, they probably weren’t so bright. Z, the Renaissance Man, has shown me the error of my ways.

And then there is Seattle. A city that is not really all that sporty. We have some teams, sure, but mostly the people here are all about reading some books and screwing around with their computers and drinking some coffee. Maybe hiking somewhere on a sunny weekend. Which somehow makes their love of the Seahawks more tolerable to me because I know it is not the sum-total of their thoughts.

Because of these two elements in my life and the Seahawks’ return to the Super Bowl, I got a little football crazy. I started seeing the beauty in a particular players moves and the remarkable skill involved in hurling a ball somewhere it needs to be or catching a ball that wasn’t meant to be caught. In the last three weeks or so, I’ve read more sports columns and watched more football clips than I have in my entire life. (The only reason I don’t have stats memorized is because I’m notoriously bad with numbers.) I started following Richard Sherman and his girlfriend on Twitter. I read every thing I could on Marshawn Lynch to better understand his reluctance to speak to the press and began to feel like I was channeling Chris Crocker, the “Leave Britney alone!” guy because I felt so defensive of Lynch. I tried to figure out ways to work “I’m just about that action Boss” into daily conversation. I worried about the injuries sustained by Seahawks in the playoffs. And I wondered what kind of gum coach Pete Carroll chews so vigorously.

Two weeks ago for the division championship, Z and I had friends over, whose 14 month old—the tiny Pippi Longstocking—we terrified with our screaming and hopping. They returned for the Super Bowl and it should have been fun watching the game with them and doing our best to convince Pippi that our cheers were all about whatever adorable thing she’d just done instead of a good play or a call in our favor, but for the most part, it was in agony—at least for me. I was a nervous wreck. I felt feverish and twitchy. What if we lost? It’s been such a fun year in a city with Super Bowl champs—I didn’t want  to turn into Super Bowl losers.

It turns out, I’d invested so much time in learning to love the Seahawks and hate the Patriots, that I’d actually begun to think the game’s outcome was important to my life. I was elated when we were ahead, depressed when we were down, and absolutely gobsmacked at the end when a game that could have been the Seahawks’ suddenly wasn’t because of the most head-scratchingly bad play imaginable. The air was sucked right out of the room when Russell Wilson’s pass was intercepted and we all knew the game was over. Pippi started to cry, and though it was her bedtime, I can’t help but feel she was just expressing what all of us were feeling. Then punches started flying on the field and it all just felt so sad and, well, stupid.

The day before the Super Bowl, Z and I were tooling around in a rental car, musing about the NFL and the brain injury issues and some of the other disturbing elements  tied to football, and he said, “You know, we talk about the Romans at the Colosseum like it was barbaric, but we really aren’t as far removed from it as we think we are.” Instantly, I got sucked back ten years, standing in the Colosseum with my cousin G, praying the tour would end soon because the place gave me the heebie-jeebies and I wanted to escape it. Some might argue it was all in my mind (though this was before I saw Gladiator or HBO’s “Rome” so there wasn’t really much in my mind other than a childhood image of a Christian being treated like a human cat toy), but I think there are vibes there—not just of terrified people being torn apart by gladiators or wild animals but of frenzied crowds cheering to see the spectacle, wanting to align themselves with the victors instead of the losers.

It’s a dark, dark place, the Colosseum.

When the game was over yesterday, I told Z that was it. I’m done. Football is over for me. I can’t do this to myself next year, this getting my life all tangled up with the performance of a bunch of men I don’t know, many of whom are only as loyal to the team as their next contract negotiation. Watching a sporting event should not require benzodiazepines. It’s a game. And even if the Seahawks had won yesterday? I’m not getting a Super Bowl ring for all my attention and cheering. So, I’m hanging up my “12” hat and going back to the books and the “30 Rock” binge watching on Netflix.

Except today, when I read that Vegas is already saying Seattle is the favorite to win Super Bowl 50 next year? My heart did the tiniest of flutters.

Snapshots of a Summer

Alki Point, West Seattle. A beloved escape.

Alki Point, West Seattle. A beloved escape.


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


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


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

A local gardener attempts to make the place more colorful.

A local gardener attempts to make the place more colorful.


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


Seattle First Baptist Church

Seattle First Baptist Church

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


Peace Child Statue, Seattle

Peace Child Statue, Seattle

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


University Bridge

University Bridge

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


Deck, Eastlake Bar & Grill, East Lake Union

Deck, Eastlake Bar & Grill, East Lake Union

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


Market Pig

Market Pig

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


Baroness, Best Neon Sign in All of Seattle

Baroness, Best Neon Sign in All of Seattle


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


Photo 452 of the Space Needle

Photo 452 of the Space Needle



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


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


Capitol Hill in the rain

Capitol Hill in the rain


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

Blind Taste Testing

Spoonbridge and Cherry, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

Spoonbridge and Cherry, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden


Probably I signed something tonight before I participated in a two-hour focus group or collected the $100 gift card for my time that swore I wouldn’t divulge the nature of the product being studied. I can’t remember. Mostly, I think what I signed meant if they gave me something that made me break out in hives (or die) I wouldn’t sue them. It’s only the second time I’ve done one of these things. The last time was more fun because it was about trailers for a cable-style TV show and they were clearly trying to figure out how middle aged women felt about guns, rock music, and women in pasties and G-strings. Tonight’s study, alas, was nothing so exciting. Instead, it was all about various non-dairy milk products and what would make us buy one, and then, as the coup de grâce, a taste test so we could say definitively which one we liked most.

I’m an almond milk user and they didn’t foist any cow’s milk on us this evening, but as I write this—after having had a Coke and a delicious pasta dinner prepared by Z—I am here to report that sample A3 has left an aftertaste in my mouth that I just can’t get rid of. I wish I knew what it was so I’d be sure to never, ever buy it when I see it on sale at Bartell. It was like no substance made in nature, though I have little doubt that whatever packaging it’s in suggests that it was made in the forest by woodland creatures (wearing gloves and aprons) of all natural ingredients.

Uh. Horrible stuff.

When I’m thrown into a group like this, I’m always kind of fascinated by the dynamic and shifts in perception as the study progresses. In a non-classroom setting, I invariably initially like no one. I don’t have good reasons for it. I make lots of assumptions about who the individuals are, how they spend their time, and what they might be thinking about me. (For reasons I can’t explain, a lot of my judgment of them and my perception of their judgment of me has to do with nail polish color and handbags.) I didn’t make it beyond Psych 101 in college, but I’m smart enough to know that this is just a defense mechanism. Like too many things in my life, I’m always horrified by how quickly I am reduced to my junior high self, and small group work with people I don’t know is the surest way to get me to 1981. No. I wasn’t going to be impressed with this sampling of humans at all.

But then we went into the room with the two-way mirrors and introduced ourselves and suddenly I couldn’t remember what it was I had against the woman with the odd sternum piercing or why I thought the young girl with the trendy glasses would be snobby. Instead, she had a sweet voice and was apologetic when she liked one of the samples none of the rest of us liked, and Sternum Piercing made all of us laugh with her jokes about how she’d put anything in her coffee if she had a coupon for it. As everyone spoke about what they did or why they drank almond or soy milk instead of cow’s milk, the ice started to thaw a little amongst us. Mid-study, the facilitator brought out some sample packaging and we all gave our opinions and then she unveiled  one brand that most of us had never seen. It was in a plastic bottle that looked like an old-timey milk bottle from an old-timey dairy from some place where cows roamed free and happily gave of their bounty without us having to feel guilty about the quality of their lives. We were all cooing and calling as if she had just uncovered a basket of Labrador puppies instead of almond milk. I have no idea if that particular almond milk was one of the ones we had tonight, but it was clear that ladies feel strongly about retro packaging, and from that point on, the energy in the room changed. We might not all like the same brands of almond and soy milk, but by golly, we know how we want our milk packaged. If she’d told us this brand would be dropped off at our doors by a man in a white uniform, we probably all would have lost our minds.

Finally, seven paper cups of milk were brought in for each of us, and the taste test began. We were instructed not to talk to each other during this part, but then the facilitator briefly left the room (by design, I suspect) and we were like a bunch of bad school kids. We were making audible “ick” noises and showing each other horrible faces and then laughing. Several people gagged dramatically. The woman across from me kept saying, “Uh uh. No way.” One of the ladies who had earlier impressed us with the story of the nearly 30 pounds she has lost since the beginning of the year admitted that the real reason the pounds have come off is because the nurse at the diet clinic where she is going is “fine” and she feels so embarrassed about him measuring her body that she’s been committed daily to making herself smaller and smaller by eating less and less.

When the facilitator came back in and asked what she’d missed, we all looked at each other conspiratorially, and kept mum. As soon as our last vote was cast, we were ushered into the lobby, handed our $100 Visa cards, and pointed towards the elevator. As we filed down the hall I felt genuine warmth for all of these women who had so bravely tasted A3!

The minute the elevator hit the ground floor, however, the spell was broken. We didn’t know each other. Wouldn’t ever know each other. A woman who had been telling me earlier about a previous study she did and her barriatric surgery and how she doesn’t really drink anything but coffee and wine and is unapologetic about it, looked away from me when I smiled at her and prepared to tell her goodbye like we were perfect strangers. Because we were. We were done focusing, and so we headed back out into the city with our city goggles on that blur the edges of every crowd until individuals are no longer recognizable and are therefore easier to navigate.

Who Are You and Why Are You So Reluctant?


When I was a pre-teen in Indiana, I read an article about then TV Heartthrob Dirk Benedict, who said his ideal woman was one who could throw some things into a backpack and spend three weeks with him in the desert without worrying about her hair. I was certain I could do this, despite the evidence in front of me: I hate heat, I’m a pack rat who has never learned the less-is-more rule of packing, and I’m allergic to the outdoors. The only quality I really had going for me, then or now, that would have met his needs was not caring about my hair. I’ve got that one nailed down.

So, I did things like sign up for Girl Scouts, an experience that was mostly torturous. I loved collecting badges and following a code, but I wasn’t crazy about my troop mates, had gastrointestinal distress whenever we had an overnight, and generally looked completely wrong in the uniform. After two months in Troop 91, I should have known it wasn’t for me, but instead, I wanted to add Girl Scout Camp to my list of accomplishments (and also, there was an awesome camping badge), so I signed up for a miserable six days at Camp Wapi Kamigi, where I was damp, homesick, cynical, and just wanted to be home with my mother, watching Dallas.

I still sign myself up for things and then spend the first day and a half crying because I’m homesick and hate it. What’s worse, I have no idea why I do it. For my first forty years, my adventures were mainly of the Girl Scout camp variety and I lived as low-regret as possible. I didn’t marry. I never left my hometown. I took trips to “safe” places for short durations. A lot of my clothes were black.

And then I met the Zimbabwean, and despite all my very best feminist training, I changed everything. For a man. He’s a good one, though to be with him, I had to move to the Pacific Northwest, and I’m now earning (metaphorical) badges in City Life, in giving-up-everything-I-know-for-something-new, in cross-cultural marriage, in travel, in quitting my eighteen year college teaching job for the question mark of a year off writing, and in a lot of stuff I haven’t even figured out yet. While he hasn’t dragged me to the desert yet with only a backpack, he has introduced me to Zimbabwe and a continent I thought I’d only ever see in Out of Africa. He’s introduced me to other things too: being content in a moment, eating an occasional green vegetable, and the value of a well-honked horn in Seattle’s ridiculous traffic. (It seems so impolite. We sometimes still argue about this one.)

What I write here is true, the best I can remember it. Unless it really annoys you. That stuff is all a big lie, meant only for entertainment purposes.