Tag Archives: Memoir

The Ill-Planned Grand Tour, Part VII: Galway, a Girl in a Cape, and a Dream



When I was newly out of college and driving into town to work at the public library—a job I thought I’d love but didn’t—I’d often find myself giving tours to imaginary people riding in my Dodge Omni. I don’t know who the people were or why I thought they’d care about the historic train depot or the various beautiful but poorly attended Victorian churches in my little Midwestern town, but I’d sometimes arrive at work completely uncertain of how I got there because the intensity of my gig as an imaginary tour-guide had made time disappear.


It never occurred to me that this was odd behavior for a 23-year-old woman to indulge in. Certainly, it makes one wonder why I was in hot pursuit of a fiction degree if my imagination couldn’t cook up better fantasies than driving figments around my hometown and pointing out the Tiffany windows at Reid Presbyterian Church. When my college friends (real humans, not imaginary) would visit from out of town, I’d often figure out routes to drive them from one of our two historic neighborhoods to the other, explaining about Richmond’s Quaker heritage, telling them about how at some magical point in its history there were supposedly more millionaires per capita in Richmond than anywhere else in the U.S. I’d point to the old mansions that more recently had been turned into mortuaries and B&Bs as evidence. My friends always indulged me even if they were bored out of their minds.


This wasn’t Richmond-exclusive behavior. I did the same when showing people around my college and grad school campuses, around Chicago after I’d spent years there with some regularity, and eventually around Ireland. Not only did I offer tours to family and friends, but on two occasions I invited people I’d met in other parts of Ireland to come with me to Galway so I could show it off. As an introvert, this behavior was out of character for me: inviting people who were very nearly strangers to come with me on a sacrosanct trip to Galway? But it felt like a venial sin if not a mortal one not to introduce them to this city I love and then point them into Connemara.


I’ve dreamed of giving Z the Grand Tour of Galway since before we were even a couple, so the minute we get off the train I’m hurrying him towards the luggage storage at the station so we can maximize the few hours we have before checking into our B&B. He is heavy laden with suitcases, but even so, I am an oversized border collie nipping at his heels to hurry him along. It is frustrating that we need lunch before my formal tour can begin because there is so much to show him and so little time: in three days we’ll be heading into Connemara and the next leg of our adventure. Already, I’m regretting that I didn’t schedule an entire week here in the City of Tribes.


Free of our luggage, we go across from the station to a pub that looks like it’s been there for two centuries even though I know a decade ago it was a nightclub with sleek, modern decor. It’s deserted, except for the barman who is friendly and fills us in on the upcoming sporting events that have Dublin, Galway, and neighboring Mayo full of excitement for rugby, Gaelic football, and hurling.


Galway is not, perhaps, the most Irish of Irish towns. Historically speaking, it was more English than Irish with a helping of Spanish influence. The course of Irish history was never changed significantly because of anything that happened here, and other than Claddagh rings (those rings with the heart and hands and crown that Irish Americans love), not much is exported out of Galway to make it noteworthy. Yet the twisty old Shop Street, the rapidly flowing River Corrib, the churches, the area by the bay called the Claddagh? It all calls to me. If I don’t get there every few years, I start to twitch.


My plans are thrown into a tailspin when we leave the bar and find ourselves standing in Eyre Square in the midst of a heavy downpour. Because I had all those years of imaginary tour-guiding in the 1990s, I know that the hallmark of a good guide is one who can adapt to circumstances. I hurry Z into the shopping center across from the open park square. He hates shopping centers and is no doubt disappointed with my choice, but I nudge him towards the back where the medieval wall that used to surround the city still stands, incorporated into the heart of the mall. On the one hand, it’s an historian’s nightmare to have something so noteworthy jutting out of a Pennys. On the other, were this wall in America, it would have been ripped down with little thought of preservation. We admire the quirk of it and then head towards the Vodaphone store to see if it’s possible to make our English cell phone magically Irish. It isn’t. The woman who delivers the sad news is so charming that we don’t really even mind forking out the money for another phone. She tells us that the store across the way might be able to help by cracking into our English phone (they can’t) and refers to them as “the likes of them over there” with a dismissive head nod. Though it’s not a phrase unique to Ireland, with her lilt, it sticks with me for the rest of the trip and I try to figure out ways to work it into my own conversation. Phone in hand, we venture back out where the rain has disappeared as quickly as it arrived.



Medieval wall-in-the-mall as decorated for Christmas, 2005.

Petra House is my favorite B&B ever, and that includes some posher places I’ve stayed in Ireland and America over the years. It really does feel like a home away from home.  Over a decade ago I randomly picked it out of a Rick Steves’ tour book when my mother and I were in Ireland, and now it is the gold standard to me of what an excellent B&B should be like: tasteful accommodations, a spotless room, a delicious breakfast, and friendly hosts who make you feel you’re being looked after. Mom and I both had crushes on the owners, Frank and Joan, a couple who embody the “thousand welcomes” that Ireland is famous for. At one point, Joan and my mother were talking so animatedly that they could have been mistaken for girlhood friends, and Frank endeared himself to me on my second visit two years later, when he saw me at the breakfast table and said, “Ah, last time you were here, you were with your mother and were leaving us for Inishbofin. You know, the new dock they were building burned down right after you were there.” This visit is no different, and when Z and I leave in three days time, Frank will walk us out to the car, hand us road maps, tell us to be careful on the narrower, rougher roads of Connemara, and generally make us feel like we’re forlornly saying goodbye to a family member. Other than all meals with my cousins at the end of our trip, we won’t have another meal as delicious as Joan’s either.



Galway Hooker venturing towards Galway Bay

The three days we are in Galway, I walk the legs off of Z. I want him to see it all immediately. Admittedly, I tell some fibs so he readily agrees to walks that are three times as long as he is led to believe. I walk him along the River Corrib, the canal, to the cathedral, the Claddagh where we see postcard-perfect Galway Hookers (red-sailed boats that were used to haul turf to the Aran Islands but now seem to be used to sail tourists around in circles). There is an extra long walk along the Salthill Prom overlooking Galway Bay and the rocky moonscape of the Burren across the water in County Clare. I force Z to sing a chorus of Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl.” When we reach the end of the promenade, I insist that he “kick the wall” like a true Galwegian. Here, I am disappointed that where there was once just a wall and where you could imagine decades of citizens kicking it instinctively, now there is a donation box sloppily cemented into the wall for some charity wherein I’m meant to deposit euros for the privilege of the kick. In protest, I do not deposit coins ( also because I think we might need to take the bus back to the town center because we’re knackered from the walk) but I do spend the rest of the day feeling guilty and uncharitable.



View from our damp dock picnic perch

Perhaps my worst sin against Z is the day I lead him on a long walk past the university to the area where I lived for a summer so we can have a picnic by the river. The walk takes longer than planned, Z is hungry, and when we arrive, the picnic table that had been there over a decade ago has been removed in an attempt to make the youth of Galway behave themselves. The view across the river is still lovely—with the city behind us, we look out across fields, at some oldish stone ruin and larger house. A boat tour glides past us and we wave, happy to be less touristy than the people on the boat. I feel momentarily victorious that I’ve brought us to such a lovely spot, but then, as we lower our middle-aged bones to the dock so we can eat our sandwiches along the river, it starts pouring with rain. Z has a look of annoyed resignation on his face. He’s a trooper though and never says a word about the inconvenience of our lunch, or even the annoying walk to and from our destination during which I have lamented at every turn all the changes that have befallen the UCG campus since I was there last. The biggest sin, as far as I am concerned, is that the pub where the writer Dermot Healy once bought me a pint is no more (much like Dermot Healy himself). But I also lament the trees in the wooded area through which I’d walked to class every day like a modern, thirtysomething Red Riding Hood; they’ve been chopped down and an athletic center built there. It all feels like a travesty of justice. The place should have been laminated after I left. Buoyed from his lunch and a lessening of rain, Z happily sits with me in the inner courtyard of NUI Galway that is modeled on Christ Church at Oxford and lets me reminisce about the summer before I met him when I was here.



In the UCG courtyard, recounting past glories


Z has some research to do on this leg of the trip as well, and the half hour he turns me loose to interview someone, I make a beeline to a shop I like. Within two minutes, the clerk has dropped this rich green cape thing (don’t even think about calling it a poncho) over my head and clearly it is meant for me. Another clerk comes up and says it matches my eyes and when I tell the likes of them that we’ll soon be spending a night in a castle, they both nod their heads and say, “Sure, you’ll be wanting this to wear while you sit by the fire with a glass of wine.” This trip has not been about the buying of mementos, but even so, I’m an easy mark. I hand over my money and the clerk hands me the bag. I’m only half way out the store before I’ve tugged it on—all of this within five minutes of having said goodbye to Z. To my credit, it’s lovely and I do not look as ridiculous in it as I did on the first trip when I bought a thick Aran sweater and insisted on wearing it daily even though it was summer and the sweater was heavy enough to be a winter coat. (Mom wears it as a coat now actually.) I have no doubt any Irish person passing me on the street must have thought then, “Americans are ridiculous.” On this day though, I can only imagine they are all admiring my new purchase and assuming I’m a native Galwegian. When we are reunited, Z grins at me and shakes his head when he sees me sashaying up shop street in it. Because he likes to name things, he dubs it “Capey” and it becomes a sort of family pet for the rest of the journey. Did you pack Capey? Don’t spill Ribena on Capey! Don’t leave Capey behind?



Z with spendthrift wife, elderly passerby, and the beloved Capey


We do the things I always do when I am in Galway too. We poke our noses into the restaurants in the Latin Quarter trying to select the best one. We go into my favorite sweater shops and fondle sweaters we aren’t going to buy. We look in the windows of jewelry stores at Claddagh rings we’ve no use for since I seem to already own three and Z refuses to wear one. We go into St. Nicholas Collegiate Church, a 14th century church said to have been visited by Cromwell. We look at the Spanish Arch and I tell Z about how Columbus popped by Galway when he was off on his exploring adventures. I point out Lynch’s castle, now a bank, where the mayor of Galway hung his own son, who had killed another young man, and the mayor became a recluse afterward. Sometimes serving justice is a heart breaker.


Galway’s Latin Quarter, geared up for the big match

We go to Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop and buy books we’d have to work hard to find in America, including the latest Jack Taylor mystery by Ken Bruen that is set in Galway. Z and I are both big fans of this brutal series, and I know now that he’s seen the city, the books will be even more (horrifying) fun—I’ve spent these three days reminding him of plot points and where I think Jack Taylor lives, where various crimes unfolded, etc. As we’re checking out with our purchases, I spy a Charlie Byrne’s tote and Z gallantly tells the clerk I’d like one; the clerk even more gallantly says, “No charge.” In no time, I’ve filled it with books and postcards and pieces of detritus and added it to the increasing pile of luggage hogging our room at Petra House.



Oh, Charlie Byrne’s–you never disappoint!

On our second night in the city, Z is presented to my cousin Mary and her husband John, who have driven into town to meet us at the hotel where their son Eoin is working for the summer. I see Eoin first, and am shocked that he has grown approximately 12 feet since last I saw him. On my first meeting, he was in “junior infants” (kindergarten) and finagling sweets out of his mother when we stopped to get petrol. It is a real joy to reconnect with all of them since I haven’t seen them for six years, and a greater joy that at the conclusion of the evening when Z and I are snuggled in at Petra House, he tells me how much he enjoyed Mary and John, and I shortly receive a text from Mary telling me that they approve heartily of Z and are happy to see me so happy and healthy. The next night, we have dinner with Mary’s niece Catherine—my “little” second-cousin-once-removed–who introduced me to nearly every cow on her grandfather’s farm when she was about six and now she is a grown-up college student who loves to read and has a wicked sense of humor. Another delightful evening with family, and I feel so happy that all those years ago I was uncharacteristically nervy enough to demand that my grandfather give me the address of his cousins in Ireland so I could claim kin and be the first member of our little American branch of the tree to meet them. What a lucky day for me.


This day is also a lucky one for Z and me because John and Mary take half of our ridiculous amount of luggage back to their house since we’ll be seeing them again, thus relieving us of the Samsonite albatrosses that have been weighing us down. There’s a ferry ride to an island in our near future and I don’t want to be seen as the ridiculous Americans with the steamer trunks for a two-night stay in the Inishbofin House Hotel.



Galway Cathedral window

On our last morning in Galway, Z and I walk down the hill to pick up a rental car—a little red one that we dub the Galway Hooker—and head back to Petra House to settle our bill and collect our luggage. Because I have trouble with The Leaving, I want to insist to Frank and Joan that they tell their next guests they have to find other accommodations because we’re staying another eight nights and just forego the next leg of our adventure. They’ve made us feel so well taken care of, that I even feel a little nervous leaving. Who will be looking after us once we pull out of their driveway? Surely, we need looking after.



Galway Cathedral


Though I’m looking forward to the next leg of our trip—some of it familiar to me, some of it brand new territory—I am loathe to leave Galway. We’ve hit the highlights, but you can’t really settle into a place in three days. I’m lucky to have had those days, but I am greedy and want more. No matter how much time I get here, I always want more. A week. A month. A year. I’m not sure how long it would take me to tire of Galway, but I’d really like to push those outer limits.


After Frank has kicked the tires of the Galway Hooker and waved us off, we head west into Connemara. We’re out of Galway in a matter of minutes, and I distract myself from the sadness with self-congratulations that I was clever enough to have married a man who is used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road as I now have a built-in chauffeur. We wind around the bends and I feel giddy to be doing this with Z, pointing out favorite places of mine from past trips and oohing and aahing over sights I’ve never seen or have forgotten. Though I haven’t hung up my tour guide cap entirely, from this point on, there will be a lot less of me giving Z mini history lessons and a lot more of us discovering places together. Abbeyglen Castle, here we come.



Galway’s iconic swans





Flashback Friday: It Feels Good to be a Gangsta (An Easter Post of Sorts)




Sunday, April 16, 2006
Easter was always hard for me as a child. I’d been taught that I should be pleased about the news of the risen Christ, but what I really cared about was the basket of goodies. Eternal salvation sounded like a good thing, but with Brach’s jellybeans and Marshmallow Peeps right in front of me, it was difficult to see that the less immediate thing was the important bit. I always hoped by devouring one white chocolate cross on a yearly basis, I was participating in a sort of sweet holiday communion that would guarantee a Get Out of Hell Free card later. I never liked white chocolate but ate it out of sense of religious obligation. Just in case.

I say this in the past tense, but even though I know an angioplasty and diabetes are going to be in my future if I don’t cut out the Peeps and other sugary, fat-laden goodness, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around future when the present is so delicious. I’m not a stupid person, but somehow I’ve never gotten how heavily buttered potatoes in front of me now are going to equal too-snug jeans and shortness of breath later. I keep thinking medical science has to have it wrong–that one day they’ll realize Coke cleans out your arteries, that a thick layer of subcutaneous fat around a knee is actually _protecting_ the joint, not putting its owner on the short track to knee replacement surgery.

Last week I saw “Office Space” for the tenth time and somehow the Geto Boys song “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” got stuck in my head. All week. I don’t like Rap, I don’t like those lyrics, but if you could have heard inside my head, that’s what would have been there. On campus on Wednesday as I drove past the one-day-only talking speed limit/radar detector sign and it told me I was four miles over the ridiculous 25 mph limit and said “SLOW DOWN!!” as if I were driving 75 thru a school zone, I curled my lip, shot an imaginary gun at the sign, and thought, “Damn it feels good to be a gangsta.”

Of course part of my cockiness stemmed from my having just seen the campus police SUV parked at McDonald’s.

Today, aside from being Easter, was my maternal grandmother’s 85th birthday. There’s no real story, but I thought I’d make note. She hasn’t felt good for my entire life and now has trouble getting out of chairs and down steps and her redneck neighbors plague her with late night ATV rides, but hey, 85 is one better than 84, and genetically speaking, I’m happy to have had a couple of grandparents who made it to that age even if there is gout affliction and high blood pressure pills. However, I’m hoping I won’t be as thrilled with “Deal or No Deal” as she is. Somehow that just seems like something that would be playing on the televisions that must line the walls of Purgatory. [Grandma died four and a half years after this post was written, but I still think of this as her time of year even though whenever you’d wish her happy birthday she’d give you a “pshaw” face and say, “It’s just another day.”]

While we were eating Easter/Birthday dinner, a family member was revisiting his romantic past. It was a story about a girl who once beat him up for kissing someone else. A girl whose family was likely Midwest mafioso. Then we talked about other people we know who seem to work beneath the radar of the law, who make bank deposits like Carmella Soprano’s $9,999 so it doesn’t get reported to the government, who drive big, expensive black cars, who always pay cash, and who live behind huge iron gates, but if you ask them how they make their living they’ll say they’re on disability or that they sell Hot Wheels on eBay.

Just simple folk, trying to get by.

I don’t know why this intrigues me so much. Despite my four miles over the speed limit last week, I’m the kind of person who would admit to a crime I didn’t commit just because I feel guilty about almost everything. The fact that I use non-rechargeable batteries or don’t recycle peanut butter jars because they are too hard to wash causes me moments of self-loathing. I can still feel my face turn red when I remember being lightly reprimanded by a teacher as a child. I also worry over much that when I make a judgment about someone or something, that perhaps I don’t have all the data. It’s the reason I don’t believe in the Death Penalty–400 eye witnesses could see a man shoot a convenience store clerk point blank and I’d always wonder if maybe it wasn’t the defendant’s doppelganger. I feel guilty. I question. I fret. I would be a jury foreman’s worst nightmare.

Which brings me to another family member acquired through marriage. I don’t have anything against this woman in particular. This afternoon though she and my mother were talking about trouble in the Middle East. It was a non-religious conversation, but this woman said, “Well, it’s all predicted in the Bible that this stuff will happen. The End is coming.” And then, without missing a beat, she said, “Ohhh. Are those Clark’s shoes you have on? Those are so cute.”

My life would be so much easier if I didn’t have to think so hard about stuff. Your reading it would be a lot easier too. No pondering the mysteries of the criminal mind, candy, religion, justice, my own psyche and trying to find meaning in everything. Instead, it would be one stream of consciousness thought after another: “400 dead today in train wreck. Cottonelle on sale at K-mart. Cute shoes!”  It’s another kind of gangster life…where you just live your own life and don’t think too much about it…or anything else. It must feel good. I’ll never know.

Flashback Friday: New Ways to Be Judgmental


Thursday, April 20, 2006

Today I was an interviewer for the mock interviews that are held in the Education Department. I’m not sure why I do this every semester but I suspect it has something to do with the director of the program being the mother of children I babysat for for my first babysitting job. Though we’re colleagues now, she’ll always be the grown-up and despite six years of therapy, I will always be the child who wants to please grown-ups. I’ll watch “Dukes of Hazzard” and “The Incredible Hulk” with your children; I’ll be a mock interviewer for your students. Just give me a hoop to jump thru and the promise of a pat on the head, and I’m there.

I dropped my own Ed major after six weeks in my first Education class as an undergrad. The terminology bored me and the prof talked too slowly. I had no interest in wasting precious moments learning things I didn’t care about when, instead, I could be reading Thomas Hardy and Sylvia Plath. I had no real vision of what a non-education English major career might be, but saying goodbye to terms like “differentiation” and “rubric” was worth every time after I announced the major change that I had to hear my father say, “What? Are you going to be a professional college student?”

I have often wondered if perhaps I wasn’t a bit hasty in dropping the Ed major, but today proved that I made the right choice. A fourth of the time I had no idea what my partner-interviewer or the interviewees were talking about. Learning Mandarin would be easier. Sometimes I feel annoyed by the terms because a perfectly good word like “artifact” which _should_ conjure images of the pyramid that has just been discovered in Bosnia-Herzegovina instead means, essentially, “photos of 4th grade art projects and math worksheets.”

Also, the director kept referring to items on a the question sheet that were “bolded.” I hate when un-poetic words get made up. Made-up poetic words I like. Today, a student shared with me her word for the desire of girls and young women to make real their Disney fairy tale fantasies. She calls it “princessing.” Now that is a good made-up word. She is now getting a divorce and is thus, one assumes, in the final throes of being de-princessed.

There are other reasons I don’t like participating in the mock interviews. Like I hate fake stuff. Like I hate “rating” people. Like sometimes it is difficult for me to stay focused if I’m not interested in something. So for instance, on the comment sheet I filled out after each interview, instead of commenting on their presentations and examples, I found myself wanting to write helpful tidbits like, “Honey, you are over-plucking your eyebrows. It makes you look hard” or “Your hair is overprocessed–pick a color and stick with it.” This is information that I think they need–and having just watched five back-to-back episodes of “What Not to Wear” I feel qualified to give it–but in the interest of professionalism, I restrained myself and responded instead to the next bolded question.

Possibly it is a good thing I don’t have children because the other thing I realized is that I am now so old that these soon-to-be teachers seem much too young to be teaching. If I were a mother I’d have to quit my job so I could home school. On the positive side, in my home school, there would be no differentiation or rubric talk. To my credit, I would limit the princessing.

To reward myself for all of my hard interviewing work, I spent a half hour on iTunes planning the music I would download after my next pay day. While there, I discovered Celebrity Playlists and a whole new way to be judgmental. I surfed through the playlists of various celebs to see who listens to what and their comments about why X is the best song ever. My assumption, initially, was that I’d learn what music is cool in Hollywood. Instead, I lost respect for people I’d previously never had an opinion about. For instance, what would possess Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick to post together and tell us their favorite sex song. I’ve always thought they were a cool couple, but somehow their need to post together annoyed me. Ditto Courtney Cox and David Arquette. (Who’s watching Coco while they’re playing around on the internet, telling us what a good road trip song “Free Bird” is?) I had high hopes for Bill Mahr but he disappointed me. What’s worse, the people I admired who had playlists I would make myself? Well, suddenly they seemed less cool. Shouldn’t they like things beyond the scope of what I (a mere mortal) have access to? To misquote Groucho Marx, I don’t want to be a memeber of a club that will let me play my own music.

I liked Nicole Kidman’s. I can’t say why exactly. It might just be a need to support her in these dark days following the birth of her children’s half-sibling/alien, but I appreciated that she had some Lenny Kravitz on her list and wasn’t pretending he never existed for her. I also liked that Elvis Costello had himself on his own list. Because you know all the musicians were wanting to do that. They were DYING to do it. But it takes a guy in horn-rimmed glasses to pull it off with any kind of panache.

Perhaps in the next six years my shrink and I can work on me becoming the kind of person who would put her music (if she made music) on her own playlist.

A Different Kind of Buzz

Bee Costume, 1978

Bee Costume, 1978


Today we celebrate, or perhaps, bow our heads and offer praise unto the heavens, because this morning we (and yes, that is the royal “we”) got the glorious news that Voldemortress, the woman who helped us decide to leave teaching in order to write, is moving away from our hometown and moving her well-dressed, scheming self to greener pastures at a different university where she will no doubt topple kingdoms in her plan for world domination. No longer will we have the annoying moments of bumping into her when our hair is un-brushed. Nor will we have to worry about being put in a position of needing to weigh our Christian values against our desire for vengeance should she find herself in need of roadside assistance (as we were in December and about which you can read  here: “Christmas with a Carpetbagger”).

Initially, we were not amused. In fact, initially, we were upset on two counts: 1) the obvious, in which our world was rocked for no real reason and now what little reason there was is gone 2) we realized a better description would not have been Voldemortress but instead Voldemort and Cersei Lannister’s soul-sucking love child, and we have denied our readers this image until today. Sorry.

We quickly skipped past all other stages of grief and moved on to revenge fantasies, which involved sending fruit baskets to her new colleagues with a note explaining how best to protect themselves from her Dark Arts. From there, inexplicably, it was Lorde’s song “Royals” playing on a loop in our head for an hour—like an anthem—and this gave us great joy because, hello, we are the protagonists of the song (even if we are thirty years older than Lorde). It is true: We will never be royals, and everyone who knows us knows that we’re fine with this.

And now, we plan to explain to Z that tonight there will be celebratory cupcakes at Cupcake Royale.  Because the queen is dead.

Long live Queen Bee.

Where Beauty Goes to Die




Where I grew up on the edge of Old Richmond (before the neighborhood had “Old” attached to it or fresh coats of paint slapped on the brick cottages and Italianate two-stories to make it seem like an enchanting destination), there were century-old houses in various states of disrepair depending upon the age of the residents and whether they rented or owned, and attached to these houses were long narrow-ish backyards. The yards often had some sort of fencing to delineate one from another, or, in some cases, just forsythia bushes or shrubbery. Our yard had a high wooden fence with alternating boards that made it nearly impossible to look out, though you could press your eye to one of the slats for a narrow peek at the alley that sat behind the yard.


I wasn’t allowed to run wild, so my primary exposure to the alley were these peeks, or watching Mom carry our trash out once a week as I stood on a chair and looked out the kitchen window because I wasn’t wild about her being out of my sight. On maybe two occasions I crossed the alley into the backyard belonging to some neighbor kids who had an elaborate swing set, but because I was an introverted kid, I never really understood the thrill of playing with my peers and preferred instead my books or lurking on the edges of adult conversations, taking notes for future reference of things that really mattered. Plus, Mom never seemed too happy about me taking those few steps across the alley from the safety of our yard to the unknown dangers in the yard of the Joneses. (And there were neighboring dangers.)


So the alley mostly remained a mystery.


As a kid, I didn’t quite understand that the backs of the houses were connected to the fronts of the houses on the next block, so the kids that were growing up on South 8th, to me, were from a whole different neighborhood than I was on South 7th, simply because their houses faced a different avenue. If I started thinking about how our across-the-street neighbors, who seemed much closer than our across-the-alley neighbors, had a whole different set of alley neighbors than I did—people completely unknown to me—well, it was probably as close as a six year can get to tripping on acid. I didn’t need to travel to France; the world seemed vast as it stretched past the borders of our second-story apartment.


It wasn’t until I was much older and had friends who started moving into subdivisions with gorgeously manicured lawns whose ambience was wrecked by the presence of utility boxes or garbage cans out front that I realized what purpose an alley had served and the glorious city planning of yesteryear, creating a warren of pathways in which all the ugliness of human habitation could be hidden. Why would such a wonderful plan be abandoned? Now, unless you live in one of these neighborhoods from the 19th or early 20th century, everyone knows what you got for Christmas when you haul your overflowing Rubbermaid rolling garbage down your drive on December 26th (and they are judging you for using non-recyclable gift wrap).


Then I moved to Seattle, and because our apartment building is perched on a hill, it often makes more sense to enter the building from the alley, so I’ve grown more familiar with it. Because we share it with a hotel that has a restaurant we can’t afford in it, we sometimes open the back door only to find we have to squeeze past a produce truck to get where we’re going. On cold days, one down-and-out guy might be seen warming himself by the hotel vent, his hood up and cinched tight around his face to keep out the rain. We might say hi to each other. One day, I gave him a donut. But usually the inhabitants of the alley are hotel employees, standing around on their breaks, talking animatedly, maybe smoking a cigarette or texting, looking a little sad that they have to go back in for the remainder of their shift.


Until recently, we had a building manager for whom we had some real fondness even though she was odd. She once banged on our window at one in the morning because she’d locked herself out after chasing a surly character down the street who was loitering too near the building. Her apartment in our building was at the back, overlooking the alley. I read some reviews online that talked about how insane she was, hollering out her windows at people rummaging through the dumpsters, chasing people away. While I never witnessed it first hand, it didn’t sound like behavior outside her wheelhouse.


I hadn’t connected these online rumors with the nearly pristine nature of the alley back then, but the first three and a half years I lived here, walking through our alley was little different than walking on the street in front of our building. Though I wouldn’t choose to use it at night alone—mainly because I wouldn’t want to be surprised by someone who was taking shelter from the rain in the covered space where our trash bin resides—I had no opinions about the alley. It was just the quickest route up the hill.


Then, mysteriously, our building manager got replaced by someone younger and more polished. She has a college degree and a poodle and very classic fashion sense. Suddenly, our building has lots of “welcome neighbor” signs dotted around the common areas, though if you bump into her, she either blinks at you like she isn’t even sure you are a tenant or she turns her head to avoid conversation entirely. Her first sin against us was charging us a late fee for underpaying our rent for three months even though she’d never told us our rent had gone up. (It was the holiday and our powers of intuition weren’t up to snuff.) Even so, I’ve been trying to remain neutral about her until more data can be collected. She’s young, I keep telling myself. She’s just learning the job. And then she ignores us when she passes us on the street and I purse my lips.


Other than the new hallway art and area rug and the random monthly newsletters we get with generic health and shopping tips, the only real change I’ve seen since she arrived is the quality of the alley. I can’t imagine “police alley of all misbehavior” was anywhere on her job description and she doesn’t look the sort to chase down any unseemly types wreaking havoc there (nor does her poodle, for that matter), but now at least half the time I leave the apartment I’m greeted with someone standing in the trash, hip deep, digging for treasure. At first I thought it was one of the many homeless people and I chastised myself for feeling annoyed by this. But then I noticed the shoes on one who was hanging over the edge of the bin looked a little too hip. The Levis a little too fresh. These were just dumpster divers. On the one hand, I want to applaud them for finding uses for something someone else has declared useless, but on the other, I want them not to be there, scaring the bejeezus out of me as they pop out of the dumpster like some kind of hipster jack-in-the-box. More importantly, I want them to be tidy about their diving, so plastic bags and bits of cardboard and wrappers aren’t blowing up and down the alley like tumbleweeds.


I have no idea how the old building manager did it, but before her departure, we rarely saw mattresses or old arm chairs losing their stuffing waiting for a trash pick-up that will never come. Now? Our alley has become the place where beauty goes to die. It looks like a used furniture store lining our building and the building across from ours. Often, I think up reasons not to go out the back door, not because I’m “scared” of the alley, but because it’s just too hideous to look at.


Last week, I posted the above photo on Facebook and an old co-worker of Z’s commented: “I think we share an alley, Beth!” It turns out, he’s in the apartment building twenty steps up the hill from us, next to the hotel. Three-quarters of the time I feel insular and a little isolated in this city of over 600,000, but when I saw his comment, I felt like I was back on South 7th.


Maybe we should have a block party out there this summer and get to know our neighbors. There’d be plenty of (discarded) seating.


The Horse You Rode In On



Book-reading horse-rider, Vancouver, BC.

Book-reading horse-rider, Vancouver, BC.

You aren’t asking for excuses about my lack of posts recently, and I don’t have any good ones anyhow, but I still feel compelled to explain myself to you, or at least to Z, who has given me this gorgeous gift of a year of writing, and yet I spend what feels like inordinate amounts of time NOT writing.


Do I have a good reason? Absolutely not. The best I can come up with is that I’m overwhelmed by the muchness of life and my own lack of decision-making ability. This is a regular annoyance of Z’s: my inability to choose a place to eat or a show to watch, but it is just not a skill I have. I often don’t care, and even when I do care, I am certain of only two things: 1) there is a “best” decision to be made 2) I will not make it and will regret it indefinitely.


My plan this past week  or so was to get several full-days’ worth of writing done while Z was finishing up his quarter. I’d completed some editing projects, the laundry was caught up, the dishes were done, and my head felt clear and sharp and ready to get words on the page. Perfect. But then I thought about how I couldn’t decide quite what to write, and so maybe while I figured that out, I’d do just one little thing on my to-do list. It was a little thing, paying an insurance bill, but the day spiraled from there. And then other days have been lost to me because of similar non-reasons. Lather, rinse, repeat.


Here are the things I obsessed about yesterday after opening my bank’s bill-pay window, did internet research on, wrote emails to friends about, and stared out the window trying to solve:


  • What is the best budgeting app I should be using?
  • Instead of a budgeting app, should I just use the old envelope system my grandparents used?
  • If I use the envelope system, which envelopes should I use: the brightly colored ones that might take the sting out of having budgeted only $37 for eating out during the entire month of April, or the vintage charm of the special brown ones I stock up on every time I go to Ireland that might help me harken back to the simpler, belt-tightening times of yesteryear?
  • Will Z approve of the system I choose? The envelopes?
  • Since I don’t have a regular paycheck rolling in right now, what exactly am I budgeting for?
  • That mildew in the bathroom? Is that deadly?
  • What’s the best way to get rid of mildew?
  • Am I the sort of person who loves the environment so much she won’t use bleach to get rid of mildew or am I the sort of person who would use the most poisonous form of it to make sure the bathroom is 100% sanitized for our protection?
  • Once I decide, am I really going to clean the bathroom?
  • How long can I not clean the bathroom before Z will just do it? He’s so much better at it than I am.
  • Does this make me a bad wife? A bad housekeeper?
  • How much money would I need to earn in order to hire someone to take care of my finances? My mildew?
  • What job should I get that would pay me a lot of money while still allowing me plenty of time to write, so I could afford a financial manager and housekeeper?
  • What about Crimea? Should I know more about it than I do (which is about .02%)? Am I bad a person if I don’t read up on it?
  • That crunching sound my knee has been making ever since I fell three weeks ago, is that normal? Should I see someone? Buy one of those braces? Go to the gym? Take glucosamine?


Every day there’s a new spiral to lose myself down, like Alice and her rabbit hole.


I keep thinking I might like to hang out with Thoreau at Walden Pond, unplugged, uncomplicated, just being. But then I remember that I don’t really enjoy the outdoors. Plus, I was a little put off by the idea of Walden Pond when Z and I drove by it two summers ago and there was a big illuminated marquis on the road pointing towards it and flashing “WALDEN POND” as if we were being encouraged to attend a church chili supper. Maybe it was a temporary thing due to summer road construction—I like to think it was anyhow—but the bottom line is, as much as I despise it, I am more a child of electrified signage than I am a child a nature. My idea of spending an afternoon in Thoreau’s old haunt would have been a slow drive-thru with Z in our air-conditioned rental car. Maybe parking under a tree and regarding nature through the windshield, where it’s less likely to make me sneeze. I would have looked at what’s left of it and felt nostalgia for Thoreau’s past and genuine remorse that the natural places on the planet are disappearing at an alarming rate. And then I would have urged Z to drive us back to our hotel where the wi-fi was running quick and strong.


So clearly, persuading Z to live a life of simplicity with me in a tiny cabin in the Pacific Northwest outback (wherever that is—Forks, I think), is not the cure for what ails me.


When we were in Vancouver in January, I fell in love with this weather vane of a man riding a horse backward, reading a book. (I feel certain it is some literary reference I should get, but all Google searches provide me with links on how to ride a horse backward and why I should pedal backward on an elliptical trainer, neither of which seem like a skill I need to develop right now.) The man is so intent on the page, he seems not at all bothered that he is on a horse heading in the wrong direction.


At any rate, this is how I want to write: just doing it, even if I’m lumbering along backward on a half-lame horse whose mildew-encrusted saddle is all I could buy with the money in my “travel expenses” envelope. I want this kind of focus. I want the distractions to be no more bothersome than the fruit flies currently residing in our kitchen, easily swatted and cursed at before we go back to our original activity.


(I wonder if you can use bleach to get rid of fruit flies?)

Flashback Friday: Biopic


[Like all writers across America, I’ve been working on my application for an Amtrak Writing Residency, and the week before I was recovering from a writing conference. What this means for you, is back-to-back flashbacks. I’m getting back on the writing horse this coming week. Promise.]


Sunday, April 02, 2006

Last night I watched Walk the Line, and it occurred to me that the main reason Johnny & June Carter Cash had time to write songs, make up prison identities,  get high, divorce their spouses, fall in love with each other and play to an audience is because to supplement their creative inclinations they did NOT have to grade 85 papers four times a semester. They didn’t have students stopping by their offices telling them stories so sad (and unfortunately true) that they then had to shut the door and have a cry once the student left.

They didn’t have to go to faculty meetings.

I fear I’ve just opened up a portal in the universe wherein my job will be sucked because it sounds as if I’m ungrateful and I don’t like it. [Oh, 2006 Beth, you have no idea what havoc you just wreaked!] Before that happens, let me say I DO like it. I really do. I’d prefer a book on the bestseller list so successful that I could buy Neverland Ranch, but barring that, my job is the best way to supplement a creative lifestyle. Of course no one is going to make a biopic of my life. Even Joaquin and Reese are now entitled to their very own E! True Hollywood Story episodes, but the life of a writing lecturer is never going to make the big or small screen.

When I have three stacks of papers to grade, it seems insurmountable. It’s as if I’ve never graded before & I can’t imagine how I’ll ever slog through them. I think of all the things I need to do like organize my files or weed my books or put my photos in decorative boxes. I eat food I’m not hungry for. I get bitchy and want to smack a lot of different people who probably don’t deserve it.

Like for instance, people who aren’t concise when they speak. People who, before they will ever give you the first line of their story so you can decide how interested you are in it, will spend five minutes trying to figure out if it (whatever ‘it’ is) happened on Monday or Tuesday. People who talk slow and pause between words. People who talk about their neighbors that I’ve never met. People who think how much head lettuce costs at Kroger is a valid topic of conversation. None of these things is worthy of my wrath, but when I have stacks of papers to grade and minimal time to spend on my own thoughts, I don’t want the air crowded up with stuff that doesn’t matter. Just–please in the name of all that is holy–cut to the chase. You missed class because your tire went flat? Tell me that. One sentence. Thank you for sharing–now please step away from my office door. In the time it takes me to listen to the average why-my-paper-is-late excuse, I could have written a companion piece to “Burning Ring of Fire.”

Other reasons I’m crabby today: my dearly beloved purple iMac died. I haven’t had a technician look at it to perform last rites, but I know a death rattle when I hear it. This one, for instance, sounds like the fan purring but the hard drive not engaging. And no magical Mac chime to let me know all is well in the universe. I use it only for email and playing Snood while listening on the phone to people who commit one of the conversational sins in the above paragraph, but I love it. It’s so grapey. So roundy. Has been there with me thru the good and bad.

I’m trying not to think about all the files that are on it that aren’t backed up that I have likely lost. This is no one’s fault but my own and it disappoints me that when I learned this lesson seven years ago it didn’t stick.

When a computer dies, it’s like a place got sucked up into heaven that you can no longer visit. My mother has my old Mac Performa–it is, essentially, the one I bought in grad school in 1994 with a few minor modifications. Sometimes I turn it on and have memories wash over me of life from that time. (A much slower time.) Papers written. Emails shared with the two people I knew who actually HAD email. Wallpapers that decorated my life. Strange men talked to before a lot of women had clawed their way online, which made me a hotter commodity than I have ever been at any other time in my life. It’s like revisiting a playground from a school you used to attend. Not that I have first-hand experience with this–the playground of my youth is now a parking lot.

No movies are going to be made about this kind of loss either.

Flashback Friday: Everybody Else is Doing It So Why Don’t We


[What you might not know if you aren’t from Indiana is that Hoosiers have very strong opinions about Daylight Savings Time. Until 2006, we didn’t participate, but then we accidentally elected ourselves a governor who put that at the top of his to-do list. Some of us still haven’t adjusted.]

1 April 2006

I’m a Hoosier. A lot of us don’t really understand complex theories like fractal geometry and Daylight Savings. With the exception of a dark year in the ’70s, we’ve avoided participating in DST, but then Election 2004 happened and somehow we ended up with a governor who decided the most pressing issue for Indiana was to get us aligned with 47 of the 50 states. One argument he used was that Indiana looked ‘backwards’ not to be on DST when most of the country & a lot of the world does it. Never mind most of us learned from our mothers that just because “everybody” was doing things like jumping off bridges it didn’t mean we should too. But by all means. If Rhode Island is using DST, then sign us up, otherwise we might not get to sit at the popular kids’ table tomorrow in the cafeteria.

There are people who think it is a great idea, mainly because we live on the Ohio border and so for once in our lives, we won’t have to do math just to watch television or make a flight. But then there are people like me who just can’t see the sense of upsetting the internal clocks of humans, livestock and microwave ovens so the governor can work in an extra game of golf.

When I was a kid, my dad and his wife lived across the state line in the land of DST. Because he had me every other weekend, I was at their house when the ritual of pushing the clock hands forward on a Saturday night took place. Because they lived in a city instead of a town, a house instead of an apartment, and were Catholic instead of Protestant, I tended to see DST as yet another difference between us. At the time I somehow thought they were more progressive than we were, pushing that little wrought iron clock hand forward once a year. Maybe the governor is a child of divorce too. Maybe he was just trying to prove something to a Buckeye father. Who knows.

Tonight while re-setting my clocks, I was talking on the phone to my cousin G. She also lives in Indiana and so changed her clocks with me, while we groused about how dumb we think it is and how we can’t believe next year DST will start even earlier at the President’s direction (why not just set the clocks ahead an hour and leave ’em that way permanently with no switch back? If 8 months of DST is a good idea, why not go for 12!). Anyhow, five minutes after we got all of our clocks reset, G. says in a shocked voice, “My God! We’ve been talking for almost 2 hours!” She’d already completely forgotten she’d lost an hour. So obviously it really isn’t that big of a deal. What IS a big deal is this: i cannot figure out how to spend my extra hour of daylight tomorrow. I’m considering lawn tennis.


A Little Lenten Temptation


Thin Mints

Tuesday night Z came home from the store with a bag full of ice cream, chocolate, and potato chips to celebrate Fat Tuesday. We weren’t exactly throwing Mardi Gras beads at each other so it wasn’t really a celebration, but Z is a Lent observer, and the idea of giving up his beloved ice cream for the next six weeks made the junk food buffet a necessity.


Z is good this way: making a promise and keeping it. He’ll only eat ice cream for the next six weeks if he forgets about his vow, and then he won’t let himself off the hook with a shrug. Instead, he’ll extend his frozen dairy fast by one day. Mostly though, he won’t forget.


I, on the other hand, don’t participate. Last night when Z and I were at iHop, the table of people next to us were sporting big black ash crosses on their foreheads as they devoured pancakes and talked about what they’d given up for Lent, and I admit, there is part of me that is envious of that devotion and that adherence to tradition. But I kind of stink at those sorts of things, and it seems better not to set myself up for failure.


When I was growing up,  Mom and I would give our favorite treats up for Lent, but it inevitably felt more like a diet than a religious observance, and mostly I was crabby about it. My last Lenten observance was when I was nine or ten. I’d given up all manner of sweet treats and walked around for a couple of days with a penitent, mournful look on my face that had nothing to do with God and everything to do with how much I wanted a Pop-tart.


That year, my former second-grade teacher had decided that she and Mom were friends and also that we would drive to a neighboring city to meet her twin sister. I remember virtually nothing about the day except I was bored and ready to go home almost as soon as we got there. The twin’s apartment was beige and under-stimulating, as was the adult conversation, and the novelty of seeing my former teacher’s look-alike quickly wore off. But then the twin brought out a plate with Girl Scout cookies on it. In my memory, the room was like a blank canvas with no art, no knickknacks on the coffee table, nothing on which to focus my attention other than the chocolaty, biscuity goodness that sat before me on a white plate.


It is no accident that Girl Scout cookies are delivered roughly around the time that Lent begins. Satan is clearly a consultant for the Girl Scouts of America and has a hand in the cookie delivery schedule.


I lasted about five minutes. Once I caved to temptation, my next battle was eating like a lady and not inhaling all the cookies on the white plate. It was one thing to disappoint Jesus, but I really didn’t want my former second grade teacher to think I was a graceless pig.  Jesus would forgive, but Miss B might gossip about me in the teacher’s lounge and I had this good girl image to uphold. It and good penmanship were the main things I had going for me.


I felt bad about this failure. Not because I’d let God down. I was pretty sure God had other things to worry about, what with the Energy Crisis and the killer bees and various other world events that haunted the edges of my childhood and that I hoped He was working on. No, I felt bad because I realized as I bit into that first Thin Mint, that I would probably always be a person who couldn’t keep promises to herself, particularly where sugary goodness was involved. It seemed better not to set myself up for failure in the future, so I resolved not to observe Lent ever again.


Maybe I’m being too hard on myself, because that vow I’ve actually stuck with.