Friday, December 23, 2016

My Name Is John Hannibal Smith

I'm the captain of a ship I never imagined, a ship of books, informational and media literacy, of studying students and students just finding a place where they can be comfortable. My crew is motley: a just-graduated-from-college alumni volunteer; a young, energetic science teacher with a deep love for sloths; a very tall, shy but funny football coach and social science teacher; a wise mother of four who teaches social science and coaches softball; me. Do you see a trend? Nary a one of us is a librarian. And, our library rocks.

A couple weeks ago, I took the group out to happy hour to celebrate Christmas. The shy football coach relaxed, his shoulders shaking with laughter. The science teacher told funny stories that made her eyes water with giggles, and the alumni volunteer supplied us with entertaining facts about teachers who taught her. The mom of four peppered the evening with her easy, gentle laugh. It was good.

We like each other, not just because we have a good time together at happy hour, but also because we each provide something vital to the team. The volunteer is an organizational genius; the mom brilliant in student relationships; the sloth lover the best, most dedicated tutor for struggling students I've seen. The football coach cares deeply about research and databases and gives smart advice about subscription purchases. Not one of us imagined being where we are, but each of us gives wholeheartedly to the team's success.

Our employer wanted each of us as part of the community, but didn't know where else to put us, so we ended up together. I joke with my group that we're a family of orphans. The coach said no, we're the A Team and he's clearly Bosco (the Mr. T character) and I'm Hannibal. Whatever metaphor you chose, it works. I didn't come up with this plan, but I love how it has come together.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

It's Okay

Last night, before meeting up with the good man I have been seeing, I parked my car at a fancy lot downtown. The valet took my key, and trying to determine how deep in the lot he should park my car, he asked how late I'd be. I did a little math. A quick drink, the movie, probably some food afterwards. "10:30, or maybe a little later," I told him.

I ran into the good man on the way to the bar, we kissed, and walked in together. Within 45 minutes, he had broken up with me in a good and honorable way. I didn't cry in front of him, nor did I cry in front of the valet who asked why I was back so early.

"I thought it was going to be a late night, but I was just broken up with instead."

"Seriously?" He scowled at the concrete beneath his feet. "You deserve better."

I didn't cry until I was almost to my friend's house, where I had headed straight from the parking garage. When I got there she held me. But it was just tears of sorrow, not those of fear, feelings of betrayal, hopelessness, or worry.

A year and a month ago, my tears were very different. This morning, even though I am sad, I'm also deeply happy. My community here in San Francisco is a messy bouquet of delightful people, and I value each of these relationships. These local friendships, the friendships I have with my other scattered people, and the love I have from my family were great buoys to me in the struggle. However, I am also proud of myself. In this year, I eschewed anger. I embraced a new reality, a new career, a new city, and a reimagined financial future; I bought a house, and though wiser than before, have kept my heart open. I've done this pretty cheerfully, too.

The loss of all I appreciated in the good man makes me sad, but if he doesn't appreciate me as a good woman, then that parking lot valet is right.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Fleet Week

My dad is a former Navy fighter pilot. That means he not only controlled thousands of pounds of steel moving through the air at impossible speeds and made decisions at speeds faster than this ribbon of steel cutting the air, he also managed to drop that steel onto a postage stamp of a carrier in an empty expanse of water.

He fought in a war. That statement, though few in words, is too big for me to completely wrap my head and heart around. I am proud to be his daughter.

Last week was Fleet Week in San Francisco and the Blue Angels have been slicing open the sky the last few days. On Thursday at work, the first day the jets unzipped our sky, the mid-day quiet of the library opened with a shutter. Startled, I glanced up a my coworker, a San Francisco native. "The Blue Angels," she grinned. "I love that sound."

In one of my favorite essays of hers, a chapter in The Writing Life commonly referred to in anthologies as "The Stunt Pilot," Annie Dillard describes the art of the pilot Dave Rahm: "The plane moved every way a line can move, and it controlled three dimensions, so the line carved massive and subtle slits in the air like sculptures. The plane looped the loop, seeming to arc its back like a gymnast; it stalled, dropped, and spun out of it climbing; it spiraled and knifed west on one side's wings and back east on another; it turned cartwheels, which must be physically impossible; it played with its own line like a cat with yarn. How did the pilot know where in the air he was? If he got lost, the ground would swat him."

The ground may have swatted at my father. I know other jets certainly did, and missiles did, too. But he made it back, and because he made it back, I exist. Yesterday, a piercing blue and gold San Francisco day, a good man and I biked from his house to the Presidio where we had a nearly unencumbered view. I sat on the grass with this good man and watched the Blue Angels paint the sky. We ate sandwiches and talked and tried to take pictures of planes that moved so quickly. It was a perfect afternoon: San Francisco's October sunshine, the scream of jets, and excellent company.

My dad escaped death's paw allowing me to have this day and so many others. I do not take this lightly.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Beginnings

I started teaching in the fall of 1997. This is my 19th year in the field of education, yet I still, every year, feel that adrenaline-induced twisting of my brain and insides as I gear up for the start of school. Here come hundreds of more people for me to love, figure out, learn from, and do my best to help in the myriad ways that they need it. It's terrifying and wonderful.

I get asked frequently if I wish I had children, or why I don't have children. There are many reasons I don't have children, some that are too sensitive to discuss here, but I don't miss having them. I know I have been able to participate in teenage lives in ways I never would have had I children at home to love, too.

I've been thinking about this so much lately, and this has caused me to spend a good amount of time remembering my former student T. T was a brilliant rebel from a problematic home, and he frustrated me and made me laugh to tears. A goofy-looking dude, he was an incorrigible flirt who succeeded in his amorous efforts with his female classmates. He was a deep-hearted friend to those he loved, drawing those who were suffering from sick moms or absent dads into his posse. He'd come in to my classroom at odd times to talk about whatever, mostly to crack jokes, and during class, he'd draw a mustache on the inside of his index finger and hold it up over his lip to distract me to laughter. In my AP English Language and Composition class, which he had the last period of the day, he'd come in each day and pick up a New Yorker from my pile in the back of the classroom. He'd read the New Yorker during class, and I'd only occasionally be able to get his head out of the magazine. Most of the time I didn't mind because I knew he was learning in his own way, and a lot of what I could teach him, he already knew instinctively. He was a master of language. But, in the week before the AP exam, my patience had run thin. I really wanted to make sure he had a few test strategies down. I asked him repeatedly to put the magazine away. The third time, he protested: "But Ms. Wenger, this article is so interesting. It's about whether or not we should keep the penny. The penny, Ms. Wenger!"

I put on my teacher face and lowered my voice to the angry, deep tone I only use when I'm serious. "Put it away."

He did. He focused on me through class but left at the bell without saying goodbye. The next day he was back with all of his ebullient enthusiasm for life and humor. A few days later, as soon as he finished the AP exam, he came straight to my classroom and broke all sorts of College Board rules by talking about the test before 48 hours were up.

"I killed it, Ms. W," he said. "I know I did really well. Ms. Wenger, the synthesis question, it was about whether or not we should keep the penny. THE PENNY, Ms. Wenger!" He did do well. He earned a 5, the highest score possible.

I loved this kid.

He went on to college, a good school. He wrote me notes occasionally, and he even asked me for seeds for his vegetable garden that he and his housemates were growing in the house they shared in the last couple years of college. I sent him a good collection, and he sent me updates on how they were doing. He was growing other plants too, ones that he used recreationally. He graduated from college three years ago.

Sometime in college, he hurt his shoulder. His doctor prescribed pain meds, hard ones.

You may know where this is going, but it doesn't make it less heartbreaking.

When it became easier and cheaper for him to abuse heroin rather than the pain meds, he made the switch. One day two years ago, it was too much heroin or not good heroin or something went wrong, and he died.

I hate the picture still up on his Facebook page. He has a half-smile, but he looks terrified. He's skinny, and to me, he clearly looks strung out. That's not him. That's not the brilliant, strangely confident boy who wore ridiculous sweaters and could make the most mundane task fun.

For weeks after he died, I couldn't walk on campus in the morning without breaking into tears. Some days, I could make it to my classroom before breaking down, but safe in the early morning quiet of my classroom, I would cry for how much beauty in the world was lost in losing T. Then, I would dry off my face, clean up my mascara, make sure I had what I needed ready for classes, and smile at the gorgeous creatures deserving of all my attention and efforts walking into my room for the first period of the day.

This spring, a girl who when in high school loved T, and who I think T loved back, a girl who is just as brilliant and interesting and interested in the world as T, but who has made it this far in the world successfully and has learned from the heartbreaks that have come her way, called me. We talked for over an hour. Our conversation rambled over many territories, but of course, we had to talk about him. We both cried. When we finished mourning together, we moved on. She's doing wonderful things, and she's challenging herself to not settle, but to be better, a better thinker, a better person. She's working on making a career writing. Writing, Ms. Wenger!

Also this spring, a work colleague and I drove together to an event. She commented on how much she hurt from some of the pain of our students. Yes, I told her, I know. Look at how many people we get to love in our job. We are the luckiest people.

School starts this week.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Hive

I had heard about The Hive at Kew Gardens, but I didn't know how moving and immersive visiting it would be. A and I almost missed it. It's not readily visible from the central path, but we saw a corner of it reaching beyond some trees and walked over. Surrounded by a meadow of wildflowers, it sits on stilts so viewers can experience it from all directions.

Wolfgang Buttress designed The Hive after a honey bee hive; built from aluminum hexagonal frames, it is an airy space, constantly changing form and transparency as I moved through it. Lights and speakers stud the framing. Accelerometers detect vibrations in the nearby orangerie bee hive and send those signals in the forms of lights and sounds to the structure. The Hive sings the songs of the bees in various octaves of the key of C—bees' one note—lights flickering along with the bees' actions. The more activity at the hive, the brighter and louder it is.

A bee doesn't hear through ears like human ears, but through its proboscis. Underneath The Hive, several columns carry the sounds of the nearby hive. Clean wooden stirrer sticks sit in containers on the top of the columns so visitors can take one, bite down on it, and insert the stick like a bee's proboscis into the column. The sound vibrates right through the stick, through the teeth, jawbones, and seemingly right into the brain. The effect was so powerful it gave both A and me goosebumps.

Being inside The Hive was transformative. Never before in my life have I had the feeling that I stepped out of my speciehood and even partly into another. But The Hive made me feel different. Since it is connected to the nearby bee hive and every light and sound reflects what's happening there but translated to a scale I could feel and see, I had the opportunity to feel fleetingly non-human. When else does this happen? I couldn't stop smiling.

I'll never make honey. I'll never buzz at just the right vibration for a particular flower to release it's secret prize of pollen. I'll never experience a true matriarchy or Colony Collapse Disorder. Yet, for a few moments at Kew last week, I heard and saw a bit like a bee. And now my universe is bigger.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Breastplate of Faith and Love

It was the most traditional of places to break the traditions: a 13th century church in an English village still owned and managed by a lord descended from the Norman conquerers who arrived in the 11th century. There, the mussed-haired, cowboy-boot-wearing vicar married my two gay friends in a small Christian wedding. We rode a double decker bus to and from Brighton and the wedding village. There were hats, so many happy tears, and afterwards at the village pub, Pimm's cups and a roast with Yorkshire pudding. During the reception speeches, the pub staff hung around doorways, faces just peeking through the doors, watching and listening. Some of them cried, too.

Two days before the wedding, C and I took a long walk to the “big house” after the church rehearsal. We went the long public way because we aren’t residents, whom the lord grants the right to pass the short way to the big house. C was nervous and distracted before his wedding, so we didn’t talk much, but we walked in the hot day—80s, humid, clear happy sun—up the road to the manor through herds of sheep and islands of old trees. I’ve known him since he was 10. He still walks the same way, a little duck footed, no efficiency of movement, all energy and ideas and springing wit and creativity. We could have been 12 or 16 or 30, taking this walk together, with him anxious and me calm. At other times, when I have needed an edge rather than a pillow, he’s walked with me, churning out solutions and razor wit.

He’s been unhappy a lot of his life. But, a few years ago, he lost his unhappiness; he was at the most peace I had seen him. Then he met J. And, he became happy, truly, genuinely happy. This past Thursday, it was C and J who took a walk together, down the aisle built deep in the past and to their future that so many couldn't have imagined too long ago.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Independence Day

In the last month, I finished my first school year running a library, started teaching summer school, turned 41 in the best birthday celebration I have had for years, and bought and moved into a house in San Francisco. It's an imperfect house in an imperfect place and it is wholly perfect for me. In this neighborhood paint may peel off many houses, but neighbors lean over their backyard fences to share gossip and gardening tips; I can't walk easily to a hipster 'hood, but I can walk Indiana through a large, beautiful park criss-crossed with hiking trails graced with spectacular views, a park which happens to be a block and half away.

Tonight, I have my first load of laundry running in the new-to-me washer, a constant rumble of neighborhood firecrackers sputtering all around me, an expansive view of the city's downtown as fog starts to tuck it in for the night even before the evening's big show, and my feet up on my surprisingly unperturbed dog.

I have a huge future to explore in my new home and new garden. There's so much ahead. I'll share as I go.

But right now I'm here, where it feels like I've been headed for my whole life, and I'm completely happy.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Roof Racks Rock

X and I rolled out of the city in the morning on the two-hour drive up to Sacramento to pick up an inherited dresser and bring it back down to her cute little San Francisco Victorian on a hill. We jabbered all the way across the bay, through the golden oak-studded hills, and along the straight oleander-ed 99. We spent an hour in Old Town Sacramento, ate lunch and bought candy because candy is road trip food. I chose licorice wheels and she chose cinnamon bears. We traded jokes with the cashier like we were high school kids.

From Old Town, we drove out to the suburbs. The person from whom we were to pick up the dresser stood in the driveway with his hands on his hips and a near audible disapproving cluck as we hopped out of my Jeep. He had sent measurements which I had checked against Tiger Lily's interior, but wires crossed somewhere along the way, and the dresser wouldn't fit inside. Additionally, we didn't know we also would be carrying back a large majolica bird bath, boxes of china, and a clock for X's mother.

Negativity pulsed from the man. His low expectations out of X, the Jeep, and me made me fierce. Only I get to tell myself I am incapable of something. Part of the reason I chose Tiger Lily is because I believe her to be badass, and to me, badass means capable and surprising. And, she has a roof rack for a reason.

So, we ran to the hardware store and bought ratcheting straps.

It was 99 degrees Fahrenheit while X and I loaded the Jeep and strapped the dresser on top. Sweat curled X's golden hair and turned her face strawberry red. Sweat soaked through my bra and shirt. My feet sweated so much they slipped around in my sandals, so I took my sandals off. Bad idea. The concrete was like a branding iron. I put my sandals back on and kept going.

As soon as straps were tight and cargo secure, we defiantly drove away from doubt.

X treated me to iced coffee, and we told more stories on the way down. We kept breaking into laughter for no other reason than we had won. We had spent the day snacking on childhood candy, asserting our strength and freedoms, proving we were powerful, just like we tried to do when we were teenagers. Except now, we didn't have to try, we just were.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Camping With Teenagers

It is like playing Whac-a-mole keeping camping teenagers in their respective tents at night, but it is worth it, because sitting around a campfire, singing songs (even the aforementioned Oasis "Wonderwall"), listening to a scary story told by a funny young storyteller, and playing memory games in the smoke and redwood needles is special indeed.

We rolled out yesterday along the turquoise ocean, cutting through hills dotted yellow with oenethera, lupine, and coreopsis until we reached the redwoods in the low coastal range. Some kids had never camped before, and tent set-up was understandably entertaining. I had borrowed a tent I had a hard time visualizing how to put together, so I needed guidance from a young, wise camper to make it work. Eventually, with a lot of teamwork, we all got our tents up and temporary homes as comfy as we could make them, we went for a short walk, and we made a sloppy dinner, likely as loaded with redwood needles as nutrients.

After food, stories, campfire smoke, and s'mores, we retired for a night among old trees.

This morning, the adults rose earlier than the kids, and we made ourselves several pots of French press coffee. Talking with my colleagues under the lace of new redwood needles felt good, like we were supposed to be right where we were at that very moment. The kids rose and scarfed down bowls of sugary cereal. After we broke down our camp, we went for a short, easy hike. The teenagers ignored it, but the adults paused at a still rooted, downed tree that bounced like a mechanical bull. We had to play, so we stopped and did.

When I was very young in Oregon, my family lived on the side of a hill, and growing sideways out of that hill was a strapping Douglass fir that was just strong enough for my brother and me, one at a time, to climb out and bounce on it, a natural trampoline. Arms out and knees bending to the tree's bounce, we would ride it like a snowboarder rides her board.

The kids camped and felt like adults, cooking and singing and feeling all their feelings so hard. The adults—each well over 30—camped and felt like kids, playing and bouncing and just being happy around each other. Among the trees a thousand years older than any of us could fathom, each of us lost track of age.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

The Nineties and Fashion

Being in high school and college in the nineties taught me that clothes should feel good and be at least a little practical. In high school, I wore ripped jeans with brightly colored or black opaque tights underneath, baggy flannels, and boots. These are comfortable clothes. In college I had a flowy sunflower print dress that I loved to wear with my sturdy-toed work boots. I remember wearing that outfit to watch the boys at crew regattas and feeling like a million bucks, and once, a young man, older than me but not so much that it felt creepy, stopped me on the street and said, "I just have to tell you that dress looks amazing on you." Both me and my feet were happy.

In college, my flannels and sweatshirts went from my back to my male friends' backs and back to mine. So many of our clothes were interchangeable. I don't want to wear my male friends' clothes now, but a couple decades ago, there was a lot of comfort in the universality of our closets.

Nowadays, I wear some clothes that aren't comfy, for sure. Tight jeans, a pair of tall black platform wedges with sexy ankle straps that are comfortable as far as heels got but not as far as my Solomons go, and so on, but some current trends I can't get into. Hiking in yoga pants? It seems like the height of impracticality. Hiking requires pockets. I need pockets for keys, a knife, dog poop bags, and really cool stones or seed pods or interestingly shaped nuggets of wood. I need pants that will survive sliding down steep surfaces on my butt and occasional branches that bite at me on in the trail. Yoga pants may show off curves or taught thighs, but yoga pants don't allow for adventure. And, if someone doesn't think the fact I can smile, tell stories, and occasionally crack very fine jokes all the way to the summit is damn sexy, his loss.

The clothes of the nineties aren't the only thing I miss. A Soul Coughing, Pixies, or Jane's Addiction song can still get me sweetly nostalgic; I can't help but to sing along at the top of my lungs to "Coming Down the Mountain." And, Oasis's "Wonderwall" can still piss me off for reasons way too complicated to ever explain to most people. The music still moves me.

And so does, believe it or not, the food. When I started college in the mid nineties, TGI Friday's, which strangely held an outpost on my campus, served cheesy baked spinach artichoke dip. I loved it then. I still love it, but, as we all know, with age comes wisdom, and I have learned how to make something better than what I ate back then.

Perhaps this version of the recipe straddles the thick-soled work boots of the nineties and the ankle-strapped platform wedges of the teens; I made it for a recent party at a friend's house, recipe doubled and amped up with a little more hot sauce and a lot more Parmesan, and folks who came of age in the eighties, nineties, and naughts all scarfed it down with audible pleasure. Some fashions, thank goodness, outlast decades. 

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Wandering Through the Woods

X is gifted. She's golden and gorgeous, and when she enters a bar, she owns the room. She's got it, that thing that makes flirtation as present as her breath. And watching her flirt is watching a performance, fully immersing. This winter, we've walked through the rain-shiny neighborhoods, bar lights glowing iridescent like oil slicks. We'd give each bar a look as we passed: is that the crowd we want to explore next tonight? Several times, we have ended up with wealthy tourists and conference-goers at a fancy bar in a fancy hotel.

The hotel is swanky, beautiful, and weird. The lobby is full of lovely and mismatched chairs, including a giant one that reminds me of Lily Tomlin, and another, a carved wooden throne with stylized lion armrests. The long bar itself is carved from redwood—legend has it from a single slice of a single tree. Framed in wide panels of redwood, five or six large portraits of aristocratic-looking people hang in the corners of the bar; the portraits aren't paintings or photographs, but LCD screens. The portrait subjects wobble a little bit as they breathe, and occasionally one will look right into a drinker's eyes.

One night, we first spoke to two men in town for a fancy food show. X nudged me towards one who I promptly learned was unpleasant. I didn't know how to remove myself from the conversation though, and X saw I was stranded. She brought her conversational partner over, who was much more pleasant than his friend. Neither, however, were people I wanted to get to know better. She excused herself to get another drink and whispered in my ear, "Diversify!"

She called me over with her eyes when she had our drinks and I excused myself to get mine. I met her in a stand of German software engineers that had collected around her and with whom she was already deep in talk. She was the golden prize, the apple, the grail, the victory ribbon that each competed for through jokes and braggadocio and good stories. But I was soon intercepted by a man who initiated a conversation that got interesting immediately. I didn't want to date this man and knew that the second we started talking, but talking to him was fun. I didn't want to diversify. I was more interested in this conversation. Who knows how real his stories were: Grandmother a gyspy who taught him to read palms? Another night, while X was getting to know a single dad in town from New York, I found myself in a conversation with someone who claimed he owned racehorses in Lexington. Whatever. I really don't care—these conversations ended at the bar where they started.

I'm not a flirt, or at least one that works like this. I can't flutter from person to person easily, and witty conversation doesn't always roll out of me. But as I said, it is a true pleasure to watch X work a room. And her ease with unknown people is contagious, so I'm learning to find my way to enter into new conversations.

There's no rush. This meeting people is a skill which I'm relearning slowly. I have no deadlines, expectations, or needs other than to find my own way along this path through this strange-to-me forest. The trail is unclear, exciting, circuitous, and a hell of a lot of fun.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

First (Not Last) Visit to Garden for the Environment

The Garden for the Environment is tucked along the inside edge of the Inner Sunset in San Francisco; the Sunset, both Inner and Outer, is notorious for the near-constant presence of salty, cold fog. But here, in this tiny urban lot, a small staff and a lot of volunteers have created a drought-tolerant, food-producing, gorgeous garden. 

Native currants.

Fruit trees and miner's lettuce with urbanite terraces.

Native Pacific Coast iris.

Espaliered apple tree.

Terraces with fruit trees, roses, and others.

I spent an hour wandering through the little garden today, gathering ideas as I poked around. Several things stood out to me:

  • A lovely balance between food-producing, California native, and other non-native drought tolerant plants.
  • Careful pruning of fruit trees that opened up the centers of the trees to sun and air movement.
  • Terraced, steep hillsides planted with fruit trees, mostly apples. Terraces are built from "urbanite," broken concrete.
  • Lots of compost.
  • Permeable surfaces.
  • Lots of South African bulbs, bestillmyheart.

Terraces with fruit trees, rosemary, and others.

Ceanothus, golden smoke bush, and others.

Blue honeywort showing off its dark flower stalks.

This is a place to which I want to return in order to see how different seasons unfold. Between the classes the garden offers and the free wisdom it provides just by existing, it has much to teach me as I look forward to growing food plants in my San Francisco future.

The first of the feijoa blossoms.

It's a salvia party!

I'll be back.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Building My Own Damn House (But Not By Myself)

Volunteering at Habitat for Humanity on Saturday, I worked with my colleague Sister S to install door casings. A group in the downstairs bathroom worked together on cabinets, and another person measured, cut, and nail gunned moldings. Some people painted. At another unit further away from completion, groups installed dry wall. One man, a frequent volunteer and confident builder, worked to finish framing roofs. He hopped from board to board like a pirate in riggings. Next door to where we worked, the family that would eventually move into that house installed parts of their future kitchen. I didn't meet the people who would move into the house on which I worked, but I could feel the moments they'd have there, the mud they'd track into the entry, the scent of food cascading down the stairs, and how warm the sun would feel to them as it streamed into their living room.

On a Habitat for Humanity build site, walking backwards with your eyes the opposite direction of where you're moving, even when you're helping someone carry something heavy, is not allowed. Everyone must always look and move forwards.

It's no secret to my friends and family that I plan to purchase a house sometime in the next year. It'll be a fixer, not in a hip neighborhood, but I'll no longer be stranded in the suburbs paying lots of rent for something that'll never be mine. Most importantly, it'll be my little piece of earth. But here, in this city, I'll need help from my community to make this happen.

The community that builds the Habitat houses is a combination of weak and strong ties: the family who will own the house, their friends, and city-dwellers who just feel like working on construction for a day. The importance of finding help not just in the more obvious strong ties, but particularly in the loose ties became clear to me a few years ago when I first heard the story The Hostess with the Toastess on This American Life. After listening to the history of Giuletta Carelli and the way she saved her own life by building her community of loose connections, I cried. Now that I work in her neighborhood, I occasionally stop by Trouble Coffee for a perfect latte. I'm part of her loose connections.

My circumstances are completely different than Carelli's, but the need for community, ties both strong and weak, is just as real.

The home of my future will only happen with the help of strong ties—my family, my friends—and loose ties—my colleagues, trustworthy tradespeople and real estate professionals, neighbors who may be willing to lend a hand, and those whose roles I can't yet imagine. Thank you, people who will help me. There will always be room for you at my future table. I look forward to feeding you.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Alma Mater

Tonight, I sat at the hotel bar drinking Kentucky bourbon that a very, very cute (dimples! humor! intelligence!) multilingual bartender poured generously for me. I began by reading a book I had just purchased at Kramerbooks and Afterwards, but, being where I am, the bartender turned on the GOP debate rather than whatever athletic event may be on tonight, so I became distracted from my book. Every time he-who-shall-not-be-named spoke, most people at the bar guffawed and rolled their eyes. A Josh Charles lookalike sitting next to me tossed pointed, very funny political jabs my way. I laughed. He was cute, too. Across the bar, I noticed a woman. I kept looking at her, as I was sure I knew her. Before I left to head to my room, the bourbon buzzing electrically in my brain but not so much so that I couldn't connect, I approached her: "I know I know you," I said. And I did. She was a former neighbor from Altadena, a member of the produce-exchanging community in which I had been a participant; I used to buy eggs from her. She works for NASA and is in town for a big black-tie event. Yup, I'm back in the city, the city that draws the brilliant from all over the world, the first city that as an adult I could call home: Washington, DC.

Dupont Circle at dusk.

K Street, aka law and lobbyist central, at dawn.

940 24th Street, my former home in DC; it was a little house for a big life.
When I landed Monday afternoon at Washington National, I cried as we flew over the campuses, bridges, and monuments. When I saw places that were so deeply familiar to me, I had to slide my sunglasses on in the plane. I'm here for a work conference, the best professional conference I've ever attended. In 1993, I came here to learn, and now, in 2016, I'm back, learning deeply again. But, I've also used every non-conference moment to walk down memory lane, and it has been so good.

Each morning, well before the conference begins, I've risen early to hit the streets, mostly squared but intersected irregularly by state-named avenues. I've walked through the neighborhoods I used to walk when I was a university student. To protect my mental health in college, I'd take long, wandering walks through Georgetown, Kalorama, through the monuments and National Mall to the capitol building, and further, to Eastern Market and beyond. This week, I've found myself wandering again, not to protect my happiness but to accentuate it. At night, I've walked more, sometimes to tenacious restaurants familiar from my past, but also to new, wonderful ventures that make the best of local produce and food traditions. The first place I visited Monday when I arrived was the florist where I worked in college, and as soon as I crossed the shop's threshold, the scent of memory hit me like a boulder: lilies, carnations, roses, greenery, the smell of Oasis brick. I spoke with a man who was a brother of the brothers with whom I worked, his cat-like nose and brusque mannerisms made plain his family.

Sunrise on a typical DC neighborhood street.
In the mornings, early as the sunrise, I've gotten out of my hotel room to take these walks, starting with coffee. The other people in the early morning coffee lines have been at most 25 years old, each wearing expensive suits and cheap computer bags, shoes that are too fancy and awkward hairstyles that don't match their suits. In these outfits, there's no individuality, just the costumes of political professionalism. They are the interns and young folks trying to make it. As I walk longer and later into the morning, the adults come out, professionals in suits that are even more expensive than those of their young colleagues but shoes that are much more comfortable, and each of these adults has an individuality, a way to make themselves their own in their lobbyist and Capitol Hill uniforms—remarkable necklaces, funny socks, flamboyant ties, weird glasses. The young ones conform. The old ones stray.

There are just as many shiny black Lincolns as ever, and this afternoon when trying to rendezvous with a former roommate, I had to trek around a Secret Service blockade and what seemed like a hundred black Lincolns and SUVs to reach her. There is no doubt that I am in a Very Important Place surrounded by Very Important People doing Very Important Things. The flags, all of them, from the Embassy of the Sendirad Islands to the Canadian Consulate, are at half-mast for Nancy Reagan's death. In the center of the city, it's hard to walk a block without encountering an obvious presidential or congressional employee. Yet, there are no more bicycle couriers. My brother and a former beau were bicycle couriers here in the city, and the frenetic speed and purpose they brought to the streets is absent. One of the city's currents has dried up. Other changes exist, too. Neighborhoods that were dusty have been spit-polished, and places where rent used to be accessible are nearly comparable to San Francisco markups. Blocks that were commercially empty host fancy roast-in-house coffee shops, and my old campus, well, it houses a Whole Foods.

The Cairo apartment building: no matter how hard you try to set up the photo, you can't straighten it out, like both Art Nouveau and politics.

Last night, I brought a colleague to Larry's Homemade Ice Cream, where through the years I have ordered many a cone. I ordered a small scoop of Key West Chocolate Fever on a sugar cone, the same order I've placed a hundred times. I told the server (a man who looked approximately my age and therefore may be the owner's son) I used to come here 20 years ago. "20 years? It feels like 20 minutes," he said.

Is this home? It sure feels like it. But, then again, I'm a woman of many homes. Those 20 years are a heartbeat, but that heartbeat is strong among many. I wouldn't trade this mixed up rhythm for the world.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Snowstorms, Shit, and Hot and Sour Soup

My dad asked me today if I was glad I wasn't in DC.

The truth is, I love Washington, DC in a snowstorm. The whole city shuts down. Everything slows. The only things you can do are the following: sleep, enjoy each other's company, go for a cold and sloppy walk, party until you run out of booze then return to simply enjoying each other's company because everything is closed and you can't buy any more booze and the people you are around are awesome anyway, sleep again.

In the four-year period I lived in DC for college, I had two such stretches of time. The first happened my freshman year, when the snow started just after everyone had arrived back to school but before classes began, so none of us had homework or reading or tests. It was a perfect moment because there was so little opportunity for stress. We had a few days trapped mostly in our dorms with crazy escape runs to the national monuments to sled illicitly on cafeteria trays. I kissed a couple boys in a couple days. We all did.

About a week after the perfect, icy days of freedom, I came down with the worst case of flu I have yet experienced. (How long is the incubation period for the flu? In other words, who should I blame for this monstrosity of illness?) I passed out in the shower. My roommates, who in most ways for the first two-thirds of the year barely tolerated our co-existence, banded together to take care of me. My friend, my first and life-changing friend in college, S., came to check on me while I was so sick.

I remember his face floating in and out of focus in front of mine as I lay feverish on my lofted bed. "You're right, she does look like shit," he told my roommates. He fed me Nyquil and hot-and-sour soup. Eventually, when I became more mobile, he and another friend walked with me, slowly—so slowly—to student health services. There, the doctor gave me antibiotics and told me to sleep and drink lots of fluids, just as S. had been helping me do.

Two weeks ago, S. was in the city for a conference. I hadn't seen him for years, but when I picked him up from the airport, our friendship picked up right away. In my memory, I knew how funny he was, but it had been so long since I had felt it in person. He delivers jokes in a perfect deadpan, then laughs a couple seconds afterwards with a goofy "he he he." He's colorblind, so he asked me—just as he had almost every day of his college life—if his jacket matched his pants. He's still kind and genuine, interested and interesting. I had met his strong, fiercely intelligent wife independently of him before they got together in college, and I was there at the party that sealed their future. I joyfully participated in all three days of their wedding. I love them both, even through time and distance.

Sophomore year of college, in the year after the first big storm and the year before the second, S. helped me not through illness but through a very debilitating breakup. During this time, I spent all the hours I wasn't in class in bed. S. may or may not have brought me hot-and-sour-soup then—I can't remember—but I do remember he did whatever he could to distract me from my own misery and try to help me appreciate all the goodness that surrounded me. He was honest with me. He was also hilarious.

One damp autumn day during that gray time, he lured me out of my dorm room down to the muddy playing fields near the monuments to watch him and his team play intramural football. Standing on the sidelines, I watched them cajole each other and cheer each other on, smiling so big I could hear their grins. They loved each other and they loved the game. Towards the end, S. made the most beautiful play I'd seen in an intramural game: it was a near-impossible interception made with Inspector Gadget-like elastic limbs. He stretched arms and legs—telescoping antennae—to make the connection. The edges of his fingers touched the ball, he coaxed it into his palms, pulled it to his chest, then fell to the ground, rolling and laughing.

I screamed like the cheerleader, for him at least, I was.

After the miracle play, he ran towards me, arms wide, grinning again. "That was for you, baby!" he yelled. He threw his arms around me, laughing. It was a great hug. It was also funky, because he had rolled in dog shit when he hit the ground after his interception. I ended up with shit all over my sweater.

Two weeks ago, we talked about all that had happened to each of us since we left the city that hosted that game. We've both had joy. We've both rolled in more shit. And even after all this, every time I looked at him, I wanted to laugh with sheer happiness. He's such a good man, so funny, generous, smart, and warm-hearted. After I spent the day with him, I keep thinking how wonderful it is to have people like this in my life. Good friends do something remarkable: in their goodness, they encourage greater goodness out of us; in their specialness, they remind us of how special we are.

It's snowing in DC right now. Damn, I have such a hankering for hot-and-sour soup.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

In Cars

He called me Tiger.

I met him when I was seventeen. M was a friend of a friend, and I picked the two of them up with other friends to give them a ride to a home football game. I was always giving people rides because Scarlet, my 1974 Jeep Wagoneer, was generous in space and opportunity for story. People wanted to go places in that Jeep.

When the second trimester rolled around, M and I ended up in the same physics class. We got to know each other through learning physics, and though the subject was very difficult for me, I loved the class. It was so fascinating. It was why everything worked. We had a passionate, very funny teacher who recognized my struggle and struggled beside me to find ways I could learn in his class: he bought a book for me titled something along the lines of Physics for Humanities Students, he used me as an example in all demonstrations involving electricity (I received a near-weekly electrical shock in that class), and he made sure to still be at school at 4pm when I needed him to be there. Right after school let out, I (often accompanied by M) would go straight to Denny's and get jacked up on bad coffee while working furiously on physics homework. If I got it done by 4pm, I'd head back to school, and Mr. K would be there waiting to go through my work with me and guide me where I went off track. I would then have the evening to make corrections so I would have quality homework to turn in the next day in class.

M and I enjoyed each other in part because we were both so excited about learning. After starting the love letters that he left in my locker with "Dear Tiger," or sometimes just "Grrrrr," he'd go on to tell me something fascinating that he learned or why he liked the project he was working on in his history class. Our relationship wasn't entirely academic, of course. We spent hours in Scarlet making out and making each other laugh. I remember collecting a group of friends and all of us heading to a sledding hill well after the lift closed and the flood lights shut off. We snuck into the park, dragged the tubes up the hill ourselves, and hurtled over and over down in the velvety dark. Our laughter eventually attracted a pebbly-faced, slow-talking security guard on a snowmobile who escorted us out. That Christmas, I gave M a careful pencil portrait of Scarlet, all shiny chrome and seventies weighty steel. In each other, we saw curiosity, creativity, humor, determination, and a whole lot of high-energy fun.

Though it may sound like I have some romantic longing for this boy from my past, I don't. Our relationship was necessarily short-lived. Though so kind and curious, even at his young age he already had some demons he hadn't yet figured out how to set free. When M and I were finished soon after Christmas, I was confident in our relationship's end. Though I don't still carry a torch for him, I do for someone else: Tiger.


Until yesterday, I owned a 2007 black Yaris, one that was stripped down, free from cruise control, antilock brakes, and power windows, and what little the car did have was manually controlled. In this car, I drove across deserts and through mountains. It was my mini farm truck, and it hauled manure, lots and lots of manure that I used to build my garden and orchard. It was perpetually dirty and not very comfortable. I appreciated this car, and when I first got it, I really liked it. But, there was never any passion. The Yaris was all serviceable efficiency, small and necessary.

I donated the Yaris. A large-grinned man came to my house yesterday, hooked it up to tow, and carried it away to auction. It's not pretty, but it runs really well still, and it—hopefully—will be for someone a good, efficient car that will get that someone where that someone needs to go. The proceeds from auctioning the Yaris will go to my local animal shelter. Even in its going away, the Yaris is serving.

I was able to make this donation because in July I ordered a new vehicle. Unlike when I bought the Yaris, this time I did spring for more than just what was necessary. I bought a vehicle that has removable roof panels so the whole sky can be mine, a build and trim package that will allow me to skitter over boulders and through sand dunes when I so choose, space enough to fill comfortably with people and stories, and a color that makes me happy. GMC built my orange Jeep Renegade in Italy and took forever to ship it over the Atlantic, across north America, and finally to me.

Tiger Lily arrived in December. I can't wait to see what happens in her.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

In the Snow

When my mother was in graduate school, she had a French roommate. There are very few stories about this French roommate, and the few that do exist revolve entirely around food. The two didn't have a real kitchen in their room, but they did have a hot plate and a sink. My mom tells about good Southern corn just pulled off the stalks, boiled on that hot plate until the kernels were crisp-tender, then slathered with butter and salt. From this roommate, my mom also learned how to make crêpes, a skill that has flavored my entire life, since many family weekends, special occasions, and sunny Saturdays have been marked by their fragrance. 

The night before she makes them, in an old plastic quart-size measuring cup with a sharp nose of a spout, she beats as many eggs as people she's feeding with enough flour to make a stiff paste. She gradually loosens the paste with milk until the mixture is the consistency of light cream. Into the refrigerator goes the mixture, which she returns to the next morning after it has thickened a bit, when she loosens it further with milk and perhaps a little water. In her blackened steel skillet over a blue flame, she plops a tablespoon of butter and swirls it around until it is melted and covers the bottom of the pan. Once the butter stops spitting, she tilts the pan this way and that as she pours in a slick of crêpe batter, rolling the pan around until the batter coats the bottom. It becomes a rhythm as she makes one after the other: drop butter in the hot pan, spread butter, pour while swirling pan, swirl pan until the bottom is coated thinly, rest a minute, edge a spatula under, flip over. Steam rises around her as she works. She stacks each crêpe on top of the other until the platter is a tower of plate-sized, laced brown, eggy silk. The kitchen fan makes conversation loud. Gradually, the whole house comes to smell of browned butter.

My mom made such a feast this past Tuesday, her birthday. We ate the crêpes with sour cream, powdered sugar, and, frozen this summer to grace the winter table, fruit from my parents' trees—this time cherries and peaches. We also ate them my favorite way: drizzled with melted butter and lemon juice, then snowed with powdered sugar.

Rabbit tracks.
After we stuffed ourselves with crêpes, my mom and I went on a walk, visiting neighbors in the small, close-knit neighborhood, warm adobe to cold snow and back to warm adobe. We saw puppy tracks, rabbit tracks, elk tracks, bird tracks, and other, unidentifiable tracks, sometimes cutting straight across the fields, sometimes crisscrossing, sometimes suddenly appearing trail-less and disappearing just as quickly.

Elk tracks.
I wonder if my mom's graduate school roommate, whose name I do not know, knows that this skill, making crêpes, has been such a part of our family's life. I wonder if she knows the tracks she left.

Crow tracks.

Any idea what tracks these are? Bird wings beating the snow?