Sunday, June 29, 2014

Making It Home

Having returned from a 10-day sojourn to the East Coast to visit family and friends, and having slept for 10 hours in my own bed, I'm enjoying the return to my morning ritual: some coffee (French press, how I've missed you), a corner spot on the green couch, the cool morning air impossible to come by in other parts of the country at the end of June. I've got home on my mind.

It's a complicated thing, home: an idea, a time and a place, a collection of experiences. Like the experience of rounding the corner and seeing your lawn, two-weeks neglected, dandelions knee-high and facing the sun, and wondering if your neighbor with the addiction to mowing and leaf blowing sees in those yellow faces a children's choir heralding your return. He certainly does not, and your knowledge of this fact forces you to reassume the weight of ownership. You'll have to mow your lawn today, and you'll have to stock your fridge, and you'll remember that the windows need washing--but how do you remove storms, and does OxyClean leave streaks? The trim needs painting and the fence needs scrubbing and probably some painting of its own. And don't get me started on the room that is not well lit enough to serve much of a function at all and so is both catchall and eyesore. 

That stuff is more house than home, but the two intertwine. One morning several summers ago, the year after my husband moved out, I stood at the sliding glass doors in my kitchen and watched a squirrel rip out the fiber fill of a cushion on my patio furniture. I had seen the table and chairs throughout the seasons before, of course I had: I had walked past them to take out the garbage and recycling; I had observed my dog peeing on them in the dark before bedtime; I had seen them cleansed with rain and dusted with snow. I must have thought, "I need to put that furniture in the garage," but I had never followed through. And then in early July I saw the squirrel busy itself with my cushion, and I felt angry, offended even. That creature was making its nest out of the remains of my own. I shooed the squirrel and put the patio set away, and then I looked around. For a year my house had stood stagnant. The back yard was overgrown. On the floor of the guest room lay the detritus of the moving-out day: empty shoeboxes, hangers, stacks of papers, some books. (When we'd divvied up our possessions, had we determined that those were mine?) On two walls of our bedroom was the green paint selected by me and, because I was pregnant at the time, applied by my husband and mother. "Happy Camper," it was called, but it was always too dark.

Toward the end of that summer my mom came for another visit, and together we cleaned and repainted, for one cannot thrive inside a tomb. 

Olivia Clemens knew this. She was Mark Twain's wife, and oh, how he loved her. When I was a research assistant in graduate school I visited the Bancroft Library and read their correspondence. In the letters, he calls her "Livy" and "Dearest Livy," and he suffers from how much he misses her and their children.

Olivia Langdon Clemens in 1872
From the collection of The Mark Twain House & Museum, Hartford, CT

Two days ago I was at The Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. Such a house. According to the docent, it was a house for entertaining, a house intended to shine at night: the walls stenciled in metallic paint would have danced in the light of the gas lamps, he said; fireplaces would have been lit, their flames refracted by candelabra crystals and reflected in giant mirrors.

The Mark Twain House

It was a house for the daytime, too, for the Clemens girls grew up there. You can see their bedrooms, their school room, and their toys, and you can touch the banister against which they used to crouch when eavesdropping with glee upon their parents' conversations with guests, their father performing all the while because he knew the girls were listening in. The docent asked my daughter how old she is. "Seven," she said, and we learned that all three of the Clemens daughters had been seven inside that house. "What do you think of their toys?" he asked. My daughter shrugged and said, "Good," too shy to tell him what she'd told me, that she'd like to play with those toys.

She couldn't, of course. Aside from the banisters, we were not allowed to touch anything in the house. Here were the children's possessions--blocks, a massive doll house, a baby carriage--scattered and stacked as if recently used by the Clemens girls and ready to be taken up again, but in truth long forgotten, unearthed solely to form a tableau of life as it might have been, as it must have been in the Hartford house.

Twain's writing corner

In Twain's billiard room I felt an urge similar to the one my daughter had had. I wanted to sit at the desk in the corner where Twain had written most of his great books. Across the lawn in Harriet Beecher Stowe's house I had dared to touch three fingers to the table at which Stowe had written Uncle Tom's Cabin, but the Twain docent was more austere than the Stowe guide had been, and besides, Twain's table was out of reach. It was in the billiard room--the final stop on the tour--that the docent told us the story of Susy Clemens, how at the age of 24 she had contracted spinal meningitis while her parents were touring in Europe, and how she had died in this house. Livy Clemens had tried to get home in time to tend to her daughter or else to say goodbye, but travel was slow then, and she did not make it in time. According to our docent, Olivia Clemens never entered the house again.

At the Twain house you can see Livy Clemens's nightgown, mildewed and yellowed yet preserved, and you can buy a crisp, white facsimile for yourself to wear at home. You can stand in the doorway of Susy's bedroom and see, I suppose, the very bed she died in. You can smell pipe smoke. In your own home, too, you can find remnants of those who left the place behind. You can leave them untouched, or you can rebuild.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Finding Myself on Mt. Everest

I've been watching season two of a years-old Discovery Channel documentary series about people who climb Mt. Everest. Some of the climbers are mountaineers, people who have spent years honing their skills, ever with an eye on Everest--the highest of the eight-thousanders--as the ultimate test of their abilities and, should they reach the summit, the ultimate accomplishment. Others are essentially tourists who have paid $50,000 to be ushered up the mountain. The latter type is a problem on Everest, as reported by Jon Krakauer after the disastrous 1996 climbing season and by others more recently. Through its coverage of these mountain tourists, the Discovery show highlights the indecency of the commercialization of Everest. (You can read about the related experiences, tragedies, and injustices of and against Sherpas and Nepalese guides herehere, and elsewhere.)

Tim from L.A. failed to summit the year before and is back again in 2007, determined to meet his goal. As portrayed on the show, he is a foolish man, a blowhard, a kind of white American male that gives white American males a bad name. Tim often faces the camera, pretends to throw something at it, and yells, "Bam!"

Not Tim.

When you climb Everest, you have to do it in stages to adjust to the altitude: up a couple-thousand feet and then down, and then up a few-thousand feet higher and then down, and so on. It takes about two weeks to reach the top. On his final ascent during the 2007 season--in the high climes of the mountain known as the "Death Zone"--Tim slips and breaks his right hand in two places. Scaling a mountain without the use of a hand (and in great pain) is a tall order, but Tim is a self-described "tough guy" and, when his guides, in rather a sneering way, remind him of this fact, he rallies. He's scared, though, and rightly so: as he ascends, the ropes are to his left, so he can hold on; but as he descends, they will be to his right. What will he do?  The expedition guides in charge of Tim work out those details for him and, through some complicated rope work, risk their own lives getting the client up and then getting the client down again. As they do this, the disgust of Russell, the British expedition leader patched in by radio, is palpable. It's impossible to tell if Russell is more disgusted with Tim or with himself for enabling someone like Tim to reach the summit and come back again alive.

Also from L.A. is Becky, a journalist in her mid- to late-40s who caught the Everest bug from Tim when she interviewed him after his first attempt. She's pretty woo-woo but is also a black belt in karate--so, you know, no slouch. Even so, she showed up at Everest without ever having fastened crampons to a pair of boots. This should not be.

It took me about 3 seconds to find this image on
Come on, Becky.

As they plod up the mountain, both Tim and Becky attribute their success to personal strength. Remember, Tim is "tough"--in fact, the toughest guy he knows--and as for Becky, well, she sets the bar high and never backs away from a challenge. Pushed to her physical and emotional limits, she considers quitting but does not because "I don't know how."

These two people are driven by vanity, but, as people will do, they avoid confronting this fact, at least on camera. For example, when Russell kicks Becky off the expedition because her level of inexperience puts the other climbers at risk, she laments how "cold" it is on Everest. "And I'm not talking about the weather," she adds. When Tim reaches the summit, he waves an American flag (with his good hand) and yells, "Yeah! Old Glory, baby!" never pausing to consider that it was a Tibetan and an Australian who hauled his ass to the top, in this way rendering his achievement particularly American but not in the way Tim means.

More haunting than the combined effect of Tim and Becky's stories are those of legitimate climbers David and Fred. These men climb Everest to exorcise demons, David's acquired through no fault of his own, and Fred's apparently called to roost through his own misjudgment.

David was abused as a child, and the first time he summited Everest he did so in the name of abused children everywhere. He meant for his ascent to the top of the world to show these kids that they are not doomed always to be victims of circumstance, that they can, quite literally, rise above. He confesses  that he thought his first summit would "be enough" to release him from the hold of his past. "But it wasn't," he says.

At this point, I imagine David's wife. Does she see? Before his second attempt did she plead with him not to return to the mountain? Did she say, Think of our children? I wonder, too, if David sees, if he realizes that no amount of summits will ever be enough, and I will him off the mountain and onto a therapist's couch. But this is my way.

In the 2007 season David intends not only to summit Everest again but also to do what has never been done: to descend the opposite (the South) side, and then to climb the South side and descend the North, basically, to perform a double-ascent/descent. If he accomplishes this, David believes, he will really show the children that they can overcome.

Initially, he wants to go it alone--of course he does!--but Russell convinces him to bring Phurba Tashi, a highly accomplished Nepalese guide who has summited Everest many times, once even three times in a season. It is a good thing David complies: they find that no one has yet laid fixed lines at the top of the South side, and so Phurba must do so. Ironically, it is Phurba Tashi who guarantees David's survival of the South side Death Zone, and it is Phurba Tashi who drives David forever from the mountain. Upon reaching camp on the South side, David decides to abandon his goal and, further, to retire from mountaineering. By way of explanation he says, Phurba Tashi "is in every way my superior." David knows that had the two of them reached the top of Everest for a second time, Phurba would have had to step aside to allow David the honor of being the first, and solely because David had paid him to do so. David refuses to continue to play a role in the farce.

David is a man of great integrity: he is exceptional and admirable. And in another way, he is like the rest of us, pitiable, deserving of pity. Here is a man for whom, perhaps, nothing will ever be enough, a man who climbed and descended Everest two times because it took two times to prove an abusive parent right: "David, you are in every way my inferior."

Fred is a doctor who, during two separate (failed) summit bids, nearly died on Everest. A photo that the Discovery editing team delights in flashing to viewers shows Fred's nose blackened by frostbite. It has taken two years for Fred to recover sufficiently to try again. The last time around, he diagnosed himself with pneumonia, so in 2007 he must also understand the nature of his suffering. Repeatedly, Fred refers to the summit as "the albatross," an allusion to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." In that poem, an ancient mariner incurs a Sisyphean punishment for killing an albatross and dooming his ship: he must wear the albatross around his neck and forever tell the story of his folly. And here is Fred, revisiting his own past, certain that if he reaches the top, he will shed the albatross and transcend or relinquish his story. He makes it to the summit. Later, when he tells the cameras about it, he references the albatross again, and he cries.

I am an armchair enthusiast. Never in my life will I climb a mountain, and gladly so. But in the stories of those who do, I find myself. I'll bet you do, too. Most of us, thank god, tend not to yell "Bam!" or to say we don't know how to quit--and if you do either of these things, you should probably stop--but we have been every bit the imbecile and the outcast. We have been victims and victors, too, even if not on the grand scale of David and Fred. We are all of us haunted by stories, our own and those of others.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

You say potato's, I say potatoes

I offer this tutorial not to be obnoxious. We all suffer from gaps in knowledge or subject-area aversions. For example, when I see a graph of any kind, my brain shuts off. It's the damnedest thing.

Uh,, you must be kidding me.

I am not a grammarian, and although I teach English I do not know all the rules of grammar. I break a few, sometimes purposely and at other times without even knowing it. For the most part, I believe that if you've gotten your message across, mission accomplished. I also believe that people ought not to foist their idiosyncratic grammatical pet peeves on everyone. My mother--Hi, mom! I love you!--hates it when people say, "I'm standing on line" instead of "I'm standing in line," but there's nothing wrong with saying, "I'm standing on line." It's a regional thing, a colloquialism. It sounds wrong to my mom's ears because she learned to speak in a region where people stand in line.

Here's the thing: some grammatical errors get in the way of the clear communication of your message. Even if the readers of that facebook post or that sign or that email can parse out what you intended to say, s/he experiences a moment of confusion, and I would bet that you are trying to connect with rather than to confuse your reader. (If I'm wrong, carry on!)

I want to tackle the subject of plural (-es, -s) and possessive (apostrophe, apostrophe-s), and since it's a special day, I'm gonna get thematic:

"To all the fathers out there, Happy Father's Day!"

In that line, which you've probably encountered in some permutation many times today, we've got both plural (fathers) and possessive (Father's).

The plural is the easiest nut to crack. When you want to indicate more than one of something, tack on an "s" or an "es." Leave the apostrophe out of it. One father becomes two (or more) fathers. There are irregular plural nouns--for example, we say children not childs when we're talking about more than one of the little critters--but most nouns prefer a simple "s" or "es," and if you've grown up speaking English or a language related to English, you will intuitively know how to render a word plural.

Now here's where things get interesting. The rule about plurals? It applies to proper nouns too. You know what that means? Almost every sign announcing who lives in this or that house is wrong and, more importantly, confusing.

Let's say your last name is Jones, and you want to use the Dremel 1550 VersaTip to burn that badboy into a piece of pine and mount it onto a post in your front yard.

Go for it. Only don't write The Jones's or The Jones unless, like the Fonz, you go by the moniker the Jones.  (Aaaaaaay.) If you are such a person, by all means burn your name as stated. But if your singular noun of a last name happens to end with "s," you need to make it plural by adding an "s" or "es" because, after all, not only one Jones lives in your house, but two or more Joneses live there. See how I wrote Joneses right there? That's the plural of Jones.  That's what you want to carve into your sign if you want indicate the shared name of the people who live at your address.

If your last name doesn't end with "s" but a couple or three of you reside here, tack on an "s" or an "es," but remember to forget the apostrophe. Don't burn The Smith's into your plaque. Burn The Smiths into it. (Imagine it like this: The Smiths live here.)


But what if you want to add the word House to your sign? Now you need to go beyond signaling that more than one Jones lives here; you have to indicate that the house belongs to the Joneses. Put another way, the Joneses possess the house.

It's an established fact that in the world of dating it's inadvisable to be possessive. But in the world of writing, it's only a problem if you ought to be being plural or if you default to s-apostrophe. Disclaimer: the rules I am about to explain do not correspond with the rules followed by journalists. Those people dance to their own beat.

I had this crazy professor in my early years of graduate school--not in my Ph.D. program but at the place I got my Master's. That poor man. He was a wreck. Once he missed giving us our final exam because he lost track of time in the campus pub. But, boy, did he know his grammar. Here's a handy phrase he gave us:

Look to the left of the apostrophe.

Here's what it means:
  • The Joneses' House: Joneses is to the left of the apostrophe. Joneses is a plural noun. More than one Jones must possess this house.
  • The Jones's House: Jones is to the left of the apostrophe. Jones is a singular noun. "The Jones" must possess this house. Aaaaaaay.
  • The Smiths' House: Smiths is to the left of the apostrophe. Smiths is a plural noun. More than one Smith must possess this house.
  • The Smith's House: Smith is to the left of the apostrophe. Smith is a singular noun. The Smith lives here. I should ask him to make me some horseshoes. 
Now I am going to blow your mind. See how, above, plural nouns like Joneses and Smiths take an apostrophe and singular nouns like Jones and Smith take an apostrophe-s to become possessive? The same rule applies if the singular noun ends in "s."

Take, for example, the word boss. Because it's a singular noun, you can't just tack an apostrophe to the end of it. Well, you can, but you'd be a little off. Apostrophes on their own are reserved for plural nouns (except in journalism, remember).

So if you wanted to observe that today is the birthday of your boss, you'd write, Today is my boss's birthday. Look to the left of the apostrophe. How many bosses? One. 

If you had two bosses who shared the same birthday, you'd write, Today is my bosses' birthday. Look to the left of the apostrophe. How many bosses? Two.

I think that's about it. Go forth and make signs.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Enough with the Flying Already

I almost feel like too much of a clichĂ© to share this publicly, but I'm in a weakened state, and my public consists of people who already know me, which I suppose makes them my private. Ew. Anyway: my daughter is currently at a cruising altitude of 38,000 ft (I hope), and I am utterly distracted by that fact. #1: I miss her already, and #2: flying is scary. But #s 3, 4, 5, and 6 really have me in their grips: her flight was delayed by 2.5 hours, so she may (indeed, ought to) miss her connecting flight; if she does, she will spend the night in Houston, and her Disney adventure, set to begin tomorrow morning, will be compromised. I'm in knots. 

After texting back and forth with her dad, who has it much worse than I do as he is her traveling companion and in the thick of the agony (see fig. 1), I tried to do something with myself. 


I talked to my sister-in-law, who is very calming, but then I watched the last 50 minutes of The Summit, a documentary about a disaster on K2 that got me all ramped up again. I checked facebook: dismal. I texted with my cousin, she of the wedding hankie, and we had a laugh. I tried to nap, but I felt hungry. I went to the store and bought provisions, and then I ate some of them. I watered my plants. I picked up a book I need to finish reading so that I can make some headway on an article I need to write, and then I put it down again. I read a few blog posts (other people's).  I started another book--one I'm reading for pleasure (again about the K2 disaster)--and then realized I've already read it. 

Basically, time stood still. It was as if I were on an airplane, in that peculiar stupor born of boredom and terror, as Orson Welles supposedly described it.

Then I thought, I will stitch something! And, indeed, things started looking up. I set up my space. Here it is:

To my left, Small Kitty, the largest cat I have ever known. The photo does not do her justice. When my daughter was 2-1/2 she started calling Small Kitty "Mama Kitty" because my daughter figured that a cat this size must be the mama of the other cats. I wish I could say that she's a grande dame, but she's not. If she were a human and living in the 19th century, we'd call her a hysteric. In fact, we'd probably lock her up because she communicates her emotions primarily through bodily fluids. Still, she likes to sit next to me when I stitch, and I kind of like having her there. Behind her, the ever-fastidious Dog Milo. 

Small Kitty, who was the runt of her litter

To my right, my tea:

The photo looks boring, but there is so much to tell! If you've lived in L.A. at any point in the last 10 or 15 years, you'll recognize the cup and have eaten at Doughboys. My brother gave me these cups from the old location because I used to love to eat breakfast there with him and my sister-in-law when they lived in SoCal. I only drink tea out of the Doughboys cups. Coffee just doesn't taste right in them. About the tea: I usually buy PG Tips because once Cooks Illustrated rated it highly for inexpensive tea. It doesn't taste like the paper, they said. Finally: I make my tea the way my friend Shannon taught me when we were roommates during our freshman year of college: with sugar and milk. I call this concoction Sweet Georgia Brown because it is not to be confused with the tea I make when I have a cold--tea with honey and lemon--which I call the Freight Train and is better when you add whisky. That's called the Express.

Ahead of me, something to watch:

We got rid of our TV a couple of years ago, so now we just stream shows on the laptop.  Usually I watch BBC crime dramas when I cross stitch. Sometimes I'll watch a period piece. Today I started to watch a documentary about a couple of people who hiked the John Muir Trail, but I'm not that into it. I think I will find another film about mountaineering disasters or else watch a couple of episodes of "Long Way Round," in which Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman ride their motorcycles around the world--highly entertaining. 

On my lap, my work: 

I'm using an extreme close-up because the piece I'm stitching is a gift for someone--one of my privates--and I don't want to reveal it yet. 

So that's me! I've got my station all set up, and I've written about it, and now it's only 20 minutes 'til the plane lands. Fingers crossed my daughter and her dad make it to Orlando tonight. My boyfriend is also in flight, heading all the way to Europe. I can't help but imagine the distance between us all like threads, extending, extending, extending. May they never snap. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

I do it!

When my daughter was about three, her favorite refrain was, "I do it!" always delivered emphatically, with some irritation. These days, if I try to intervene too much or if I hover, she's not above sounding that old note of irritation, but for the most part she's comfortable seeking instruction and help.

Have I succeeded in making of her what no one made of me, a patient learner who knows that if she does not have the answer, someone probably does? that there's creativity and independence, sure, but there's also a body of knowledge out there and people who have done this or that thing before? that she can access this knowledge before contributing blindly and half-assedly to it?

I hope so. Because the other way--my way--is hard, particularly when you know that this personality tweak reflects and encourages your sense that you are alone in this world, a sense developed at too young an age and no longer (if ever) remotely true.

But it's June and somewhere the sun is out, so we're not going to get heavy today. We're going to laugh at how tenacious these tics of ours can be. To wit: last month my cousin Jennifer asked me to cross-stitch a hankie for her mom (my aunt) to commemorate Jen's wedding day, which happened to be on Mother's Day. Well, she didn't so much ask as tell me she planned to have one made, and then I offered to help:

There it is. The unthinking offer to help and the self-assured "I can do it" or, to borrow from a 3-year-old, "I do it!"

Jennifer accepted my offer, and we moved on to talk text, fonts, and fabric.

Note the confident assurance that "any fabric will do." These words and my baseless confidence would come back to haunt me, as my words and baseless confidence so often do. Note, too, my offer to do embroidery. Why would I suggest such a thing? I have never embroidered in my life.

When the hankies arrived, I had a sense that the project was going to be more difficult than I had imagined. The handkerchief fabric was so thin and tightly woven that it would be difficult--even impossible--to count squares. I contacted my client:

Reader, what is wrong with me? The magnifier did not work beyond making it all the more apparent to me that I was faced with an impossible task. At the point of this realization I should have googled "cross-stitching on a handkerchief." If I had, I would have learned then what I discovered when I was nearly finished with the project, that there is a material called waste canvas that is created for exactly these situations. But no. Because I do it!

I began stitching freehand, which, while nowhere near as dramatic as, say, climbing without a rope or doing trapeze without a net, was quite "extreme" as novice cross-stitching goes. To stitch each night, I had to enter The Zone--you know, get intense--and my family began to encourage (beg) me to stop taking commissions.

The first line went well. Then came the second. See if you can spot the problem:

Yes! The size of the letters is uneven! A calamity. I wrote to my cousin in an email entitled "update/911":

The anguish is palpable, yes? But at least I still considered myself part of a guild, one of the "we" who call uneven stitching "primitive." My cousin didn't think the thing was a disaster, and she told me that she wanted the hankie to look "homey" anyway. (Or did she say "homely"?) I forged ahead.

In spite of my boyfriend's cries of "No! Don't do that! No!" I ripped out the top row of text. The letters were too much bigger than those in the other rows, and while I was all about embracing my imperfection (once my cousin gave me permission to), this was not a bloomin' free-for-all:

And I stitched that row again. See (below) how much better now?

And finally, finally... I finished:

Well, as I say, somewhere in this process I read some cross-stitching blogs and fb posts and learned about waste canvas. I even bought some online! Had I had more time, I would have started over on a clean hankie, basted waste canvas to it, and stitched a (more) perfect gift. But then that gift would have lost a little something of me, wouldn't it have? My cousin wanted a personal touch, and she got it.

It would almost make for a better story if I had let everyone down. Maybe then the Great Hankie Debacle would have been my rock bottom and forced me to come to terms with my idiotic self-reliance.  Instead, Jennifer liked the handkerchief:

My aunt liked it, too. She cried when she opened it!

Lesson not learned. But also kind of learned. I'm so glad to be 45 years old and still not fully cooked.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Haunting

Today has been a decidedly "off" day so far. Maybe it's because:
  1. I've been waiting for about a week for important information from my daughter's surgical team;
  2. I was awake for part of the night (see #s 1 and 3); 
  3. I'm wavering on what scholarship I want to work on this summer; 
  4. my dog almost attacked a fledging blue jay in my back yard, and, because he's nearly deaf, I had to yell loudly and forcefully at him to stop, scaring him and causing him to yelp loudly and forcefully--all this before my coffee;
  5. my balance was for shit in yoga this morning.
But things got happier when by boyfriend reminded me to look at Creative Colloquy's website. This local, online literary journal publishes on Mondays, and we knew that my essay "A Haunting" would be included in the June 9th issue. I feel good to be some small part of this organization, and I look forward to participating in live readings in the months to come. Thank you, Creative Colloquy!

Now I need to turn my attention to my other work. If you have any brilliant ideas about what I should write about pioneers Susanna Moodie and Caroline Kirkland, drop me a line in the comments section! I'll thank you in a footnote if the article finds its way to print.

Thanks for stopping by!

Saturday, June 7, 2014


T. S. Eliot wrote, “April is the cruelest month,” and even though he penned the line while his mind was aground in the wreckage of WWI, I know that had he been sitting in row 9 alongside “Carl” and me on a Southwest flight from Chicago to Seattle last April, he would have raised a knowing eyebrow and nodded his assent when I uttered those very words to him.

I had the misfortune to be in Group C, so I boarded the plane with a simple plan: grab a window seat close to the front, better than suffering the middle position for 4.5 hours.  On the aisle of row 9 was a large man. When I saw him I quickly calculated that only a small woman would sit in the seat next to him--no man would choose to have his wide-knee, wide-elbow stance compromised--so I snagged the window seat in the full expectation of a relatively comfortable ride. It was not to be. Carl, “with blue uncertain stumbling buzz,” lumbered up the aisle and deposited himself between us. He was 70-ish, white, a bit fumbling. He reminded me of my dad.

When drink service began, the man on the aisle ordered a Coke; I ordered a soda water. Carl removed his headphones—he had been listening to a Dean Koontz book—and ordered two bourbons. It was nerves, maybe. Fifteen minutes later he ordered two more, accompanying the request with a whoop of “Why not!” and a gesture I can best describe as jazz hands. Carl was partying on a private jet while the rest of us flew coach.

Of course, any baller eventually has to hit the head. And so Carl made his way to the front lavatory, hovering in the aisle for a while as he waited for the VACANT light to flash. Only the wait was long. I noticed, and I’m sure the people over whom Carl was standing noticed. After a while he headed to the back of the plane. Just as he did, the bathroom door opened. What luck! I would visit the lav while Carl was also up and about and so give the nice man on the aisle a break. (I knew he was a nice man because when Carl spilled bourbon on him, he said, “No problem. No problem,” whereas had Carl spilled bourbon on me it would have been a big problem.)

I made a beeline to the front. Too late, I noticed that the woman exiting the lavatory was wedged into the door. She was the occupant of row 1, an old-ish woman who was traveling with her husband and had, it appeared, purchased two seats to accommodate her size.  I had noticed the two of them, and the empty seat between them, upon boarding and had remarked their appearance. Something about them suggested to me that they hadn’t flown before, or at least not much. Now the woman was caught in the doorway, and I was standing there, and her husband sprang in between us to help her get out. He succeeded, and I proceeded to the doorway.

Again too late to process what was happening or to change course, I detected a foul odor. I remember catching the eye of the flight attendant in the galley—the same guy who had suffered through Carl’s jazz hands—and then entering the lavatory and closing the door behind me. The smell was terrific. I determined to be as efficient as possible: turn around, lift lid, line seat with tissue, pee, close lid, flush, wash hands, empty basin, toss towels, leave. Only, when I turned around and lifted the lid, I was met with a sight unholy, a pile of excrement so large and heavy that it momentarily stunned me. What had this woman done? What had she neglected to do? And why? I thought fast and identified only two options: 1) leave the lavatory and alert the flight attendant to the problem; 2) deal with the problem myself. Option one would embarrass the woman further than she had already been embarrassed (if she had been embarrassed). At the very least, it would draw attention to her and to me. Remember, we were in the front of the plane, and halfway in to a 4.5-hour flight, people are looking for things to interest them. It would also make the flight attendant’s day, pardon my pun, crappy, whereas mine had already taken that turn. So I went with option 2.

I closed the lid and flushed the toilet. I opened the lid. The shit was still there, unmoved, uncaring, unperturbed. I closed the lid and flushed again. Reader, I will spare you the details of the shit’s exodus. I will only say that it took 3 flushes—super-vacuum, airplane-toilet flushes—to clear the runway. When I exited the lavatory, the flight attendant was still there. He, my T. S. Eliot, raised a knowing eyebrow and said, “Would you like a glass of water?”

“Beware death by water,” I thought. And, besides, I could not drink at a time like this. I could only make my way back to the aisle 9 window, past the stares of the couple in row 1—Is she really trying to make eye-contact with me after what she just put me through? Does she think those flushes were mine?—past the nice, large man in the aisle seat, past Carl’s still-empty perch. I buried myself in the book I was prepping to teach, and I tried to ignore the smell of bathroom and bourbon that clung to Carl upon his return. I tried to forget.

A few minutes into our final descent, Carl struck up a conversation with me.

“I can’t help but notice that you’re reading and taking notes,” he said. “Are you writing a paper about that book?” 

I should mention here that I had laryngitis at the time of this flight, so I could barely croak out a response: “No, I’m teaching it.” One would think that the sound of my voice—so pained, so nearly inaudible—would have closed the conversation. But not for Carl. He continued:

“You’re a teacher? What level do you teach?”

“College,” I say.  He raised his eyebrows, not in the T. S. Eliot way, but as if to say, “Wow, I’m impressed. And surprised! And strangely intrigued.” He proceeded to ask me where I teach, and how long I’ve been teaching, and what I teach. He asked me what book I was reading.

The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells,” I said. I began to tell him something about it, something short, to give him an idea of when it was written and why, but he interrupted me to say that he knows the book. My ass he knows the book. Why would anyone know this book?

“I’m retired,” he said. “I do a lot of reading.” He showed me the long list of audible books he had on his phone.  He actually had some Dickens in there. “To me, work is a four-letter word,” he said, proud of the joke. “I’m taking culinary arts classes at community college.”

The guy wouldn’t stop. Each time I returned to my book, he came at me with more questions and with more unsolicited information about himself, like, “I was traveling to see my son and his kids and, uh, his wife. I don’t know what you’d call her.”

“That’s your daughter-in-law,” I told him.

“Why were you traveling?” he asked.

“I was at a professional conference.”

“Do you have a card?” he said.


“A phone number?”


And that’s when things got real. “Come on!” Carl said. “Give me a break! I’m trying to pick you up here.”

When I was young, this sort of thing happened with some regularity, always with older men in whom I had no romantic interest, and always taking me by surprise. There was the time that I thought I was getting pre-professional advice from a divorced lawyer twice my age, but in fact I was being auditioned as step-mom for his children, who were, you know, my peers. There was another time when I believed I was learning the ropes of broadcast journalism from a mustachioed producer who, as for himself, thought that he was enticing me to his cabin at Tahoe. All was quiet in my 30s and early 40s, until I met Carl. I won’t be fooled again. I believe that I have reached an age at which I classify as “younger woman” to the retirement set, and I refuse to comply.

“That’s not a good idea,” I told Carl.

“Why? You have a boyfriend? a husband?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Both?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, and with some satisfaction, for it is true and it befuddled him.  Fellow feminists, I know I should have replied, “It doesn’t matter if I have a husband, if I have a boyfriend. I’m a free agent, and I’m not interested in you.” But I was flustered, and I took the path of least resistance.  And so it should be no surprise that he answered, “Tell him I tried to pick you up. It’ll make him appreciate you more.”

“He appreciates me plenty,” I said.

“Trust me,” he said. “He’ll appreciate you more.” And then he added for good measure, “Can you blame me, Tiffany? You’re a very attractive woman.”

At this point in my dystopian dream, the plane had landed, and people were beginning to stand up and gather their belongings. I noticed that others had been listening to Carl and me, for they were turning to look at us, and they were chuckling. Really, could this flight get any better?

Here’s how the story wraps up: the passengers of aisle 9 finally, mercifully, began to disembark, when Carl realized he’d left his jacket in the overhead. (“See? You’ve bewitched me, Tiffany. You’ve cast a spell on me.”) He pulled off to the side, prepared to make his way, against the current, back to aisle 9, a determined salmon denied his chance to spawn but ever hopeful, hopeful. I walked at hyper-speed up the gangway, through the terminal, and into the nearest women’s room (sweet refuge from mankind), my lavatory experience all but forgotten. I took my time. Even so, when I exited, Carl was only five paces ahead of me. Unseen, I ducked behind a pillar and waited for a full two minutes before venturing toward baggage claim.

My dear boyfriend was waiting for me. We hugged, we kissed. He took my carry-on bag. We held hands as we made our way to the carousel.  As we waited, Carl approached, wearing the grin of a degenerate Pete Campbell. He sashayed past us—there is no other way to put it—shaking his head with good-humored regret, and said to my boyfriend, “You’re a lucky man.”

I wondered, what does that make me?

Friday, June 6, 2014


I designed and stitched this ring-bearer's pillow for someone--Hi, Pam!--I knew in junior high and high school and reconnected with on facebook. She was engaged (and is now married) to a man with the last name "Paris," hence the saying she came up with. The border I adapted from a pattern I bought at some point and had lying around. (When I locate the pattern, I'll update the post to give the designer full credit.)  I believe I stitched the front on 28-count evenweave, but it might be 32-. The green ribbon in the lower right corner is for attaching the rings; I made the ribbon easy to remove so that after the wedding the marrieds could have a regular ol' pillow. 


The fabric is possibly the most exciting design element. One day last summer when my mom was visiting, we took the ferry to Vashon Island, which is in the Puget Sound. In the small town center is the most amazing quilting store--the Island Quilter--with more fabric than I have ever seen in one place (outside of those stores in NYC that have floor-to-ceiling fabric and very narrow pathways through which to walk). It took me about an hour to find the right pattern, but I'm really happy with what I chose. It hits all the right notes: my friend loves the beach, and this fabric is vaguely Hawaiian; the colors repeat those I used on the pillow front; and green is predominant, a nice repetition of the colors of the bridesmaids' dresses. 

Since she was visiting, my mom was kind enough to straight-stitch the pillow. She's a far more experienced sewer than I am, and since this was for someone's wedding I didn't want to risk having the design off-center. I stuffed the pillow and did the hand-stitching to close it up (you can see that bit in the photo below--it contrasts sharply with my mom's clean lines), and voilĂ ! a pillow. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


I was at the grocery store recently in search of coconut flour to fuel my short-lived commitment to the “paleo” lifestyle.  I rounded the corner of the baking aisle, and right by the mill-ground grains were two women in their fifties.  I could tell that they were having a weighty conversation and that theirs had been a chance meeting, for each had her own cart, and the carts faced each other, steel mesh bumper cars suspended mid-ride.  Recognizing one another, the women had probably blurted out startled hello!s and meaningless lines of explanation—“I was just looking for cinnamon.”  And then the dark-haired woman had asked the blond woman, “How are you?” or “How’s ______?”  And the blond woman had started talking.  By the time I got there, the blond woman was tearful, and both were fixed to the spot, blocking the wall of cake mix with their bodies and their carts and one woman’s pain and the other woman’s sympathy.

It’s not easy to find coconut flour, particularly at Safeway.  I had to stand there a few minutes, right next to the women, as I scanned the names on the yellow-and-red bags: almond flour, rice flour, masa, grits. I was aware that the women were aware that I was too close to them.  But what could they do?  They were having a private moment of confession and absolution in a public place.  And what could I do?  I had the competing desires not to intrude and to offer my sympathy and support to a woman I had never met.  I went with the more socially acceptable of the two options:  I blocked out what the women were saying, invited the labels of Bob’s Red Mill to absorb my attention, and then walked away.  If I did not hear their words during the 60 seconds in which our lives intersected, I noted their postures and tones of voice, and I saw their faces.  The blond woman was exasperated, tired, worried, sad; she was dealing—probably still is dealing—with some heavy stuff.  The other woman was an acquaintance, surely not a friend, for a friend would not have had to rely upon an update in Aisle 7 but would have known what was going on.  Scratch that: what if the woman with the burden had lost touch with her friends because of whatever she’s been going through, and when she happened upon one of them at the grocery store she was so relieved that she just started talking, that she gave an honest response to a banal question?  Or maybe the question wasn’t banal at all but rather asked in earnest by a friend who had remained concerned even while pushed to the margins of the blond woman’s life: “How are you?” or “How are you?”

On New Year’s Eve I met a fellow mom, only I didn’t perceive that we were fellows.  She is of the stay-at-home variety; she has four children, and her husband works in international finance.  I am a working mom with one child, an estranged husband, and a live-in boyfriend.  We chatted, and I noted that she was pretty and that the gap in her children’s ages was odd—her daughter is in 8th grade, and the younger three are 7, 6, and 3 years old.  I assumed the family was affluent, what with the financier husband and the mom not working and the decision to have so many kids.  I found her to be pleasant but figured that we have little more in common than our Kindergarteners’ shared teacher.  I stood in judgment of her, as we all do at times like these, to justify my life choices. And though I suppressed it at the time, I was jealous of this woman, for I projected onto her the elements of my life that I sometimes feel the absence of: a marriage that worked out, ample time to spend with my child, a younger, prettier face, financial stability.  After chatting for a few minutes, I moved on to another woman, this one a recent transplant from Portland who “processes” her own chickens and chose her family’s new home on the basis of its ability to sustain a suburban farm.  I judged her, too.

A month later I found myself cutting paper with the businessman’s wife.  We had both volunteered to help our kids’ teacher, and what this offer amounted to was a two-hour stint in the elementary-school workroom.  Here is what I learned: she has a name, and it’s not Mom.  Eight years ago, she was single and living by herself in Tacoma.  She was going to school to become a first-grade teacher, a job she eventually held for one year before she gave birth to her first child.  When she imagines herself as she used to be, her current life is unrecognizable to her: she wonders how she got here.  Her husband travels to Hong Kong for work.  He is gone for three weeks of every month.  When she tells him that things are hard, he asks her not to make him feel guilty.  After all, what can he do?  But, I say to her, and she agrees, she has to tell him things are hard.  Her oldest child, the improbable 8th-grade daughter, is actually her sister’s child.  My fellow mom is raising her for reasons she did not explain to me.  Of the younger children, the oldest, in first grade, has Asperger Syndrome and, my workroom partner believes, some other systemic malady.  She hasn’t yet found the right doctor, the one who will engage seriously with the physical evidence she has compiled from watching her son.  A friend once told me, “No one knows your child as well as you do.” When my daughter was a baby, that wisdom empowered me to seek the medical attention that saved her life—literally, saved her life on one day in April 2007.  In the workroom at the elementary school, I passed along the advice.  And I listened to her.

Her son has rages.  Upon experiencing one, a healthcare professional once said to her, “Does schizophrenia run in your family?”  In the workroom, my friend the fellow mom said to me, “I didn’t know if I should be insulted by that question or not.”  I replied, “You should be insulted. What a stupid thing to say to a parent in a moment like that.”  I told her that once, a nutritionist, having measured my infant’s cranium with the same yellow tape we have all wrapped around our ribs and waists and hips before ordering from a catalog, offered the medical opinion that my infant might be hydrocephalic—have water on the brain.  This while my daughter and I were already interned at Children’s Hospital due to her esophageal atresia.  Look up hydrocephalus, and while you’re at it look up esophageal atresia.  I was terrified.  By a nutritionist with a measuring tape.  When my daughter’s surgeon visited later that evening, I ran the “diagnosis” by him.  He assured me that my daughter had simply inherited her father’s big head, and then he must have laid into the nutritionist, for the next day she came to our room to apologize and to say that she had spoken out of turn.  Damn straight, she had.  And so had the phlebotomist who fancied herself a psychiatrist when she set off a rage in a 7-year-old with Asperger’s.

My fellow mom told me that when she’s out with her children, strangers give her parenting advice.  Old men glare at her son as if to say, “This sharp look will get you in line, sonny” or “If he were my boy he wouldn’t be behaving like that.” She understands the impulse, but she resents it all the same, for these people have no idea.  They look at her and they see some version of what I saw on New Year’s Eve, but worse: they find her to come up lacking; they think they could do a better job than she’s doing.  And she knows this.  She told me what she wants to say to them: “I know that they say it takes a village to raise a child,” she begins, “but you’re not in my fucking village.”

That day in the workroom I connected with someone in a way that propriety prevented me from doing in Safeway.  The other mom did most of the talking—fully two hours’ worth—and I hope that she got some relief and some companionship out of our time together.  She’s holding a lot together.  And aren’t so many women?  I often overlook that fact and take too lightly my own ability and instinct to share the load.