Thursday, February 16, 2017

crossword addiction

They aren't messing around with their headlines.
We used to get the local paper when the boys were small, and one day, on a whim, I decided to try the crossword puzzle. It was... mysteriously exhilarating. For a week or two, I became obsessed with solving that puzzle. Obsessed. Ross would come home from work and the children would be starving and neglected and the house a mess, and I would be unable to tear myself away. "I have to finish this!" I realized fairly quickly that I would have to go cold turkey.

Twenty years later....

Immediately following the election I subscribed to the Guardian Weekly. I would glance at the "quick" crossword puzzle but didn't give it a go because they seemed impossible. "Cambrian Lake?! How the hell should I know the name of a Cambrian Lake?!"

Then this past week I saw that I knew one word, and picked up a pencil. Twenty years later, we have internet! I only had to do minimal cheating.

"Eli, what do you call watered down rum? Four letters."

"I don't know."

"You read all those Hornblower books! How can you not know!"


"It's grog!"

"Mom, this is giving me flashbacks to when I was little and you used to ignore us."

Addiction isn't pretty.

And there are a lotta troubles these days, overwhelming troubles, that seem unsolvable. So, darn straight, it's a comfort to solve a puzzle, tidy, complete.

Also, here's a fun article:

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

fifteen dollars—for a good cause

1979 print, Carl Larsson
Today on my walk I stopped in that little cancer society consignment shop in the Proctor District, always filled with sweet little old lady shoppers and volunteer workers. I had seen a watercolor print the last time I was in, and had passed it up, because ~gasp!~ it was fifteen whole dollars! But I wanted it still, so I thought I'd see if it was still there.

An exquisitely beautiful older woman was in the painting and knick-knack
section, muttering over a suitcase, "Twenty dollars? Is this a joke? You have to be kidding me!" She was wearing a stylish black fur cap and a brilliant pink coat. Her skin was smooth and chocolatey dark, and her hair was absolutely white, peeking out from under her hat.

"I always tell myself that it's for a good cause," I said.

She sort of reluctantly agreed. "I see what they're doing. But so expensive!"

I snatched up the painting and paid for it while she finished her shopping. All the old ladies approved of my purchase—which was brought to the attention of the entire store when the gal ringing me up made an error and asked for eighty-two dollars, then heard herself and shouted, "EIGHTY-TWO DOLLARS. GOOD NIGHT! THAT'S NOT RIGHT AT ALL!"

We finally sorted out my purchase while the woman in the pink coat was considering whether to buy a shirt and sweater for her son. They were laid out on the counter, the volunteer smoothing out the garments to fold. "I don't know. He's gotten a little conservative lately."

"Conservative! You can't get much more conservative than this beige button-down! I mean, I could see plaid being a problem, or stripes or polkadots...!" And she gestured widely and dramatically over the utterly bland shirt.

And then they all started talking about how they pick out clothes for their children, clothes that seem perfectly marvelous, and the children pooh-pooh them.

I said the same happened with my boys, and then I realized. These old ladies' children are probably my age. Which means I'll get to annoy my children with inappropriate clothing gifts and then delight in feeling unappreciated—FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE, AMEN.

Friday, December 2, 2016

book buying hiatus: day one

Recently a friend of mine shared a meme that said something along the lines of “I have twenty unread books but I really, really need to buy this one.”


That’s so cute.

Periodically I hear about friends who decide to torture themselves save money for a period of time with a book buying hiatus. And my reaction is always the same: “Oh, I could totally do that. I mean, why would I want to?! But, yeah, I totally could stop buying books.”

So yesterday I decided to give it a whirl.

 A 1961 New York Times collection, and a darling cookbook in Italian and English.

Then, at work, on a break, I took a stroll over to the student union building with my pal Melissa. And, lo, the bookstore was having a sale, and I accidentally bought two cookbooks. For less than a latte.

When I got home, I found that a book had arrived in the mail for me. I accidentally ordered the same one twice, for a penny plus shipping. (If anyone wants a copy of Why the Right Went Wrong, hit me.)
"Look! Look, Mom! All our liberal elite reading materials
came in the mail today!"

See? No problemo.

I think I’m going to like this project.

Monday, November 21, 2016

mulling queer

Last August I wrote a piece for Book Riot about football. Well, football books. Not being a sporty person, this was a bit of a stretch for me. But I’d happened across a photograph of myself as a toddler, holding the 1960’s bestseller Paper Lion, by George Plimpton, and that got me to thinking about a possible essay. And I had an excellent folksy anecdote to introduce the topic:

I managed to avoid everything to do with sportsing generally, and football particularly, until 2013, when the hometown team, the Seahawks, won the Super Bowl.

On the day of the big game, we had a matinee concert scheduled in the little venue I manage. This gig had been on the calendar ages before the football season even began. Ten minutes before the recital, there was not one person in the audience. Thankfully, at the last minute, a couple dozen brave souls show up.

After the show—solo cello, delightful and delightfully brief—my son and I bicycled over to a friend’s house for my first ever Super Bowl party. It was a dark, overcast day, and the streets were utterly abandoned. Riding along, I remembered that eerie scene in On the Beach where whatshisname returns to his hometown after the nuclear holocaust, and everything is still and silent. Every few minutes we would hear shouts and cheers or loud moans erupting from nearby houses. In unison.

It was so unsettling. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps sports, not religion, might be the opiate of the masses.

But that last bit was edited—the original post read, “It was so queer and unsettling that the thought crossed my mind that perhaps sports, not religion, is the opiate of the masses.”
A reader responded, “I don't love the use of 'queer' in this article, especially from a site that typically tries so hard to be diverse and welcoming.”
The editor apologized and changed the wording.
I was initially upset because the idea that I might have inadvertently hurt someone is, well, just upsetting. I’m not a monster.
I was also befuddled. When I was a child, whenever any of us would say, “Well, that’s funny,” my grandmother’s stock response was, “Funny queer, or funny ha-ha?” (She died before The Giver came out, but she would have chuckled over the “precision of language” imperative.)
So, despite having a sibling who identifies as queer, and several friends as well, my first understanding of the word is the original sense, as in strange, odd, peculiar.
Naturally I wondered if we had completely lost that association, if the word, in common parlance, exclusively meant “not straight.” Several mainstream dictionaries still list it as an “offensive” or “disparaging” term for homosexual.
I immediately consulted my friend who is a trans man and also crazy brilliant with the languages to see if I had been utterly misguided in my use of the word. He replied, “So they're apologizing for a reader's inability to parse English? Geez.” Another professor friend responded with “What a stupid, stupid clutching-of-pearls, the ‘queer’ business.”
You know you’ve picked your friends well when they skip right past your etymology questions and leap to your defence. Both friends were reminded of the niggardly imbroglio a while back.
Funnily enough, (as it were), the whole incident caused me to wonder whether I had any business writing for Book Riot at all. I’m much older than most of the other contributors. Perhaps this is just not the venue for me, and I should be hangin’ with the old farts.

That’s what we call at this house, “dying in advance.” I’ve taken a hiatus, but eventually I'll get back to it.

I won’t be striking “queer” from my vocabulary, although, I will be more careful about where I use it. Context matters. Sensitivity and kindness, too, perhaps now more than ever.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

on neighbors & neighborhood

As I pulled into the alley behind my house last night I saw a shadowy figure approaching in the dark. For a split second I thought about various escape options—although my first thought was to protect my new bicycle, which I had been about to leave unattended to open the garage door. But then the figure called out hello. It was my neighbor, Al, coming from the house on the opposite corner.
“Woody died today.”
He’ll be buried on the twenty-third, the day his wife Fern died, one year ago.
We talked a few minutes. Al hasn’t always been very approachable or kind, but I know he was close to Woody and Fern, and to Audrey and Bud, who used to live across the street. They all moved into the neighborhood when it was built, in the 1950s. Al is a little younger than the rest, but he’s “on the top rung now, too,” and “next in line to go.”
I grew up in neighborhoods where no one talked to each other, big houses you entered through the garage door that opened for you automatically. And I never lived in any one of those places longer than a few years. When we bought this little cracker box half my life ago, I was very young, had a tiny fat baby, and felt shy and alone. Ross was better at meeting the neighbors, and they all seemed to like them.
Once, at a block party, Al introduced Ross to some other folks as if he were a celebrity. “Ross works at the university!” I worked there, too, but that signified nothing. Blank faces. Woody and Al seemed to live in a man’s world, and the womenfolk were separate.
About ten years ago I covered my front lawn in cardboard to kill the grass and make way for more garden space. One day Woody walked by when I was on my hands and knees. He put his hand up over his face and said, “I can’t look. I don’t even want to know what you’ve go going on there, Nicole.” He didn’t generally seem a hostile man, but there wasn’t much humor in his joke.
I remember Fern’s voice particularly, quavery. She was curled by severe arthritis, which must have been painful, but she was always kind.
I wonder what will happen with Woody and Fern’s quirky house now that they’re gone. The young couple who bought Audrey and Bud’s place seem sweet, and they have a gorgeous chunk baby. Although, I don’t see them very often. They leave every morning in separate cars at 7:50 on the dot and don’t return until late. I wonder what the house thinks of that that lifestyle, if it’s lonely without them.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

the bicycle life: a view from the margins

On a cloudy and cool Saturday morning several weeks ago, I met with my friend Jane for breakfast and a stroll through the farmer's market. At the end of a pleasant morning, I went to fetch my bike, locked about a block away, intending to catch up with her as she was finishing her shopping.
I was walking the bicycle through the crowd when a much older gentleman, after a double-take, said, “Nice setup with the rack and baskets!”
We discussed the carrying capacity, and then he asked, “Do you mind if I make a suggestion?”
“I don’t mind, no.”
“You might want to wear something reflective on your back.”
I reassured him that I go full out with the reflective gear. Family motto: better dorky than dead. I showed him the Christmas lights attached to the rear baskets. And we agreed that many cyclists on the road aren’t visible, and that in this cloudy climate it’s especially difficult to see riders.
Then he told me about his cross-country bike trips “back in the day,” that he was a member of the local cycling club, and then he casually mentioned improvements in bicycles, generally, looking at mine, which still has some “old school” features. I suspect he was about eighty and that he’d been cycling since at least the 1960s.
When I mentioned this exchange to Jane, she said, “You’re much more patient with the mansplaining than I am.” I hadn’t really described the conversation very well, I guess, because it didn’t feel like mansplaining.
It felt like an old guy wanting to be useful, helpful. You know: visible.
A few years ago I read a terrific essay by Roger Angell, stepson of E.B. White, who, you’ll recall, wrote Charlotte’s Web. Angell is in his 90s now, and his essay is so lovely that I recommend reading it all. In one bit he he talks about invisibility:
We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?—we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.
For women, I think fifty is even a stretch, that we start to fade into the background sometime in our forties.
Of course, it’s possible that the farmer’s market guy was, indeed, mansplaining—he might be both experiencing the invisibility of age and an entitled ass. But it was too crowded and noisy to chat. If I hadn’t been so anxious about finding Jane (and anxious about the damn dogs—why so many dogs at the market?), I would have enjoyed hearing more.
I heard enough of his history to guess that he had been what I call a fancypants cyclist. I don’t tour, and, gods help me, I don’t do lycra. I ride to get around, and I am able to live without a car because everything I need is in close proximity to my home. That farmer’s market is about a mile and a half from my house, and I live exactly one mile from my work.
About half a mile the other direction from my place, there’s a little strip mall with a Goodwill and Harbor Freight, right next to each other. Last May I biked on over for some shopping. In addition to garden equipment, I also bought a floor-length black gown for an upcoming choir performance—$1.99! I was just getting organized to leave the store when a fella came screaming up on a bike.
“Thanks! Nothin’ like a new set of bungee cables to make a girl happy.”
I’m embarrassed to say that I’d mistaken this gentleman, obviously a pirate, for a homeless person. We had a laughing conversation, and then I went on my way. The rest of that day I kept wanting to call everyone SISTER!
This pirate was weather worn and tattooed, and his bike was a junker. I was not apprehensive or afraid of him, but something about that exchange loosed a memory from the old data bank. When I was a child, in the 70s, the fam was shopping for school clothes in the big city, New Haven. We were stopped at a traffic light, and my mother was at the wheel, staring straight ahead. Her jaw was clenched and her voice unnatural, panicked: “Roll up the windows. Don’t look, kids. Don’t look.” I looked: one man lying in the actual gutter, another on the sidewalk, another panhandling. It was my first glimpse of abject poverty.
Poverty, homelessness, age, skin color, gender—so many ways to be made invisible, to be disenfranchised. And in the last few weeks we have seen how dangerous and cruel the systems that support inequality and disenfranchisement actually are.
Of course you don’t have to ditch your car to meet people outside your little circle, but since giving up car ownership, curiously, my world has gotten bigger, not smaller.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

rules of engagement

I was just returning home from a run last week when I passed my neighbors outside setting up a garage sale. A laughing young woman with a baby called out, “Come buy our stuff!” She was doing the swaying baby jiggle, shifting her weight from one leg to the other, and she spoke in rhythm to the bounce.

I pointed to my house and said, “I’ll come back when I don’t smell so terrible!”

The young man said, “We have a baby! They don’t smell so good, either.”

“That’s their specialty!”

That particular house has been bought and sold many times, so it’s hard to keep track, but I am fairly certain that this lovely couple is not the same one whose fights would spill out into the driveway. The fighting was always robust, but one summer it reached a fevered pitch.

The saddest thing to me was that the fighters had so few basic tools in their communications toolbox, civility being the most fundamental.

One day we could hear the shouting from inside, windows closed. I casually mentioned to the boys, “You realize, right, that there are two things to keep in mind when you’re fighting? It’s a good idea to never use fuckin’ anything to describe your partner, to their face. And if you must use fuck, or any variation of fuck, use it in your ‘I-statements.’ For instance, ‘I’m so fuckin’ mad right now I can’t talk to you reasonably.’ But never, ‘You’re such a fuckin’ bitch,’ or ‘You fuckin’ moron.’”

*big eyes*

Mom said fuck.

It was hard for me to get over how unnecessary the abuse was. No one, it seems, had taught them how to use their words.

Every family has its own culture, and some families are more comfortable with shouting than others. We are not shouters, so the boys had never heard this level of verbal violence. I felt that if we didn’t acknowledged what was going on over there—because the line between mere venting and actual abuse had been crossed—we would be, somehow, weirdly, complicit, at best, or victimized, at worst.

I hope that, wherever they are, that couple is getting some help.

I didn’t make it back to chat with new owners, or buy their stuff, but that friendly exchange amused me because it was set against the backdrop of the place I’ve always called, in my head, the Shouting House.

Every few years there is a lull in the happier hollering, the sound of children playing. My children roamed the ‘hood in a pack, with the neighbor kids. Then they got big, went to college, and it was quiet for a while. Now there’s a new herd. On my way to work recently, I saw an enormous rhododendron shaking, the dead blossoms rustling and falling to the ground. A child came tearing around the corner and shouted at the shrubbery, “FOUND YOU!”

And there’s a baby in the Shouting House—I’ll have to come up with a new name for it. The house next door to that one was Audrey and Bud’s. They bought it in 1950, new, and raised two boys there. We bought ours in 1992, and also raised two boys. Woody and Fern’s house, on the corner, is for sale now, and they were also the original owners. Imagining our little postwar cracker boxes as homes somehow redeems their plain, thoughtless design. I have been here long enough to begin to see the neighborhood differently, to see this cycle, protecting and then launching our children into the world, hopefully as productive, happy, and whole adults. I am relieved that I don’t feel anxious passing the Shouting House anymore. And, maybe I’ve read too much Marie Kondo, but I like to think the house itself is happy to have a new family to shelter.