Demolition

house-goneOn Saturday, they tore down the house where I grew up. It was never “my house,” but rather always “grandma’s house,” until she died in 1983. I really only lived there full time for six years, and even during those years I stayed with my mom most weekends. Still, those years are the only years I remember as “childhood.” Even though I was only 12 years old when grandma died, nothing after that felt like childhood. And that was the house I always returned to. An anchor in my drift toward adulthood and away from Idaho, and the place I find myself in dreams.

424422571_d24c6fb11c_oThe house was small. It’s hard to believe a family of five lived there when my mom was growing up. It’s also frankly amazing how much stuff grandma managed to cram in that house. Frosted glass, wicker furniture, Avon perfumes, glass sea floats, millions of old tins, mid-century “oriental” knick knacks… Most of her stuff was cleared out years ago, when grandpa updated the house with some amazing modern technology like an electric stove.

The wood cookstove was a benevolent iron monster in the narrow kitchen. Even on 100 degree summer days, grandma had to fire it up to cook dinner. The house smelled like dry wood, presto-logs, and smoke. A second wood stove sat in the middle of the front room, protected by a glazed metal shell that I would perch on top of on cold days, until it was too hot to stand.

The house was dark inside. It never quite seemed to get enough sunlight, and the front room had dark wood paneling that absorbed the weak electric light. The room centered around the giant old console television commanding all eyes to the corner of the room. Next to the TV, the telephone table held the clunky black rotary phone well into the 80’s.

2014-08-25 11.47.15-1My bedroom was a tiny room off of the breakfast nook, with a steeply sloped ceiling and an unusually short doorway. I could hear the murmur of the TV on the other side of the wall as I fell asleep. I slept with the door open, and light from the kitchen streamed in until grandma went to bed around one or two a.m. She was up again at six to boil eggs for breakfast. When she got sick, she felt a bit guilty that she didn’t have the energy to even boil eggs for my breakfast. I started staying with my mom more often during the week so I wouldn’t be a burden. Not that this improved my breakfast scenario. My mom kept yogurt, graham crackers, and Hungry Man dinners around so I would have something to eat. She subsisted on tofu, alfalfa sprouts, and kefir.

Grandma kept a small garden just under the kitchen window, where she grew parsley and tulips. I’m sure there was more than that, but I remember it as a fairly unambitious project. I would snack on the parsley, wild rose petals, chamomile flowers, nasturtiums, and the wild catnip that grew all around the house. I was a forager.

424416073_69dadf90f7_oThe screened-in back porch had a trap door to the cellar. There’s something altogether creepy about trap doors, and I didn’t like to go down there. The unfinished half of the basement was crammed with boxes of great-grandparent’s musty stuff, and one wall lined with shelves of canned food from the 1950s, in case of an atomic bomb. There was one finished room down there, where my mom and her sister lived as teens. Another staircase inside the house led to that room, but by the time I was around the way down had been blocked by still more boxes of old things. Going down to the basement was a rare and treacherous adventure.

The house was the color of pea soup, with a green tin roof that snow avalanched from in the winter. Snow days were the best, because grandpa would plow the driveway area with his backhoe and make a small mountain for my cousin and I to sled down and tunnel through. The house was also positioned at the bottom of the best sledding hill in town.

On Christmas eve, family and friends crowded the overly hot front room. The smell of smoke and Christmas tree were comforting. After grandma died we did one or two more Christmases at that house, but it never felt the same. Grandma made a big deal of Christmas, so it was always kind of her deal. We ate out on Christmas day (usually somewhere “upscale” like the Holiday Inn), because grandma only signed up for one feast preparation per year, and that was Thanksgiving.

On Thanksgiving we hauled the big table into the front room, because it didn’t fit anywhere else with all the leaves in. There were mis-matched depression era glass goblets, and the old China plates that came out once per year. Grandma made the best stuffing and her signature butterscotch pie. She loved food, but didn’t particularly enjoy cooking.

424585933_f103340b40_oMy grandparents had an unusually tall bed with a worn, knobby, blue bedspread. My collection of stuffed animals and raggedy Ann dolls lived at the foot of that bed, and sometimes I clambered up there to sleep if I had a bad dream. Grandma and I played many hours of “pretend,” Clue, and card games on that bed. It was the most social bedroom I’ve ever known, where the women and children often hung out after supper to avoid the evening news. If I was sick, I would stay in that bed all day, with grandma coming in to rub Vick’s Vap-o-Rub on by chest every few hours. During the remodel, they found a mountain of used tissues under the bed. Above the bed there hung grandma’s collection of sailing ship prints, and on the headboard there was always a tin cup of metallic-tasting water we all shared.

424414418_64dfc8e057_oNext to the foot of the bed was grandma’s art table, where she worked on her meticulous old-timey watercolors. She never had aspirations for her art beyond giving them away to family and friends on various holidays. When she was young, she dreamed of being a fashion illustrator in San Francisco (perhaps married to her first love, Zip, who ended up in the bay area after the war), but three unplanned pregnancies rooted her in North Idaho for good.

The large, gravel “parking lot” in front of the house was the home for grandpa’s machinery. He ran an excavating business for over forty years, so my childhood playground was heavy equipment: a backhoe, tractor, dump truck, and crane. He kept the antique cars he collected in the two garages, and parked his light blue Ford F150 next to the back porch. Machinery has a distinct metal and diesel smell that I strongly associate with childhood.

It wasn’t worth trying to save the house. The foundation wasn’t sound, and it was full of asbestos. It was the family home for over sixty years, but it was time to say goodbye. My cousin will build vacation rentals where the house stood and eventually live on the property next door, so I will still get to go back… just not to that rickety old shack where my childhood happened.

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Happy Birthday, Mom

Friday was my mom’s 65th birthday. I don’t remember the last time I talked to her, but it was probably more than three years ago now. Every so often, she leaves me a voicemail, and it’s like getting messages from the dead.

August 1st has always been kind of a family holiday. My mom was born on her dad’s birthday in 1949, so we had a double birthday to celebrate. It was part of the summer birthday season — her sister has a Bastille Day birthday on July 14th. The autumn birthday season included my grandma at the end of October, and my cousin and me two weeks apart in November. For each of these occasions we had a family celebration with cake and presents. Grandma made the cakes from scratch, baked them in the wood-burning cookstove, and decorated them as cats, billiard tables, and in 1980, Mount St. Helens.

My mom once told me that receiving gifts is how she receives love. Her dad and birthday twin gave her (and everyone) cash for birthdays and Christmas. At Christmas he wrapped the cash in aluminum foil that he shaped into candy cane hooks and hung from the tree.  She was always very concerned by how much everyone else got. If someone got more than her, it meant that they were loved more. I learned not to tell her when my grandparents gave me gifts or money, because she would be jealous.

I haven’t given my mom a gift or sent her a card or letter since 2011. The last letter I sent was eight pages long. Handwritten, heartfelt, apologetic, and maybe just a little threatening. I wanted to help. I was trying everything I could to take care of her, including threatening to invoke the medical power of attorney she’d granted me when she had cancer.

I felt like I had to step in. She had alienated her state-appointed caregivers, including the only case manager who had worked with her for long enough to know when she was off her meds. She was making antagonistic phone calls to her sister and her dad. He already had pretty advanced Alzheimer’s by then and her calls confused him and made him cry. She walked into her neighbor’s house and stole their cat.

She never wrote back. She went back to legal aid and had my power of attorney revoked. She started calling me at odd hours, sometimes several times a day, telling me she never wanted to see me again “for eternity” and then some really crazy stuff about going to the courthouse in Banff, Canada to get a restraining order… and get married.

She hadn’t been to Banff since she was a kid. And her new husband was an imaginary person named Malachite.  My mom has Schizophrenia. Schizo-Affective specifically — a lovely mashup of paranoid Schizophrenia and Bipolar. She was on a high, and when she gets manic she goes off her meds.

She was taking her anti-psychotic “as needed” according to her own perception of what she needed. She was doubling her doses of Klonopin and dancing around her living room all night. This last bit of info she told me herself, because she knew how frustrated I got with her late night shenanigans when I was a kid, so she wanted to push that button. I’ve gotten very talented at not responding to button pushing.

Ultimately, the only way to help a mentally ill person who doesn’t want help is to convince someone that they are a danger to themselves or others. Family members called the police a few times explaining that she was unable to care for herself and was a fire hazard (she built a shrine in the hall outside her apartment including unsupervised candles). Eventually, my uncle exaggerated a bit and told the police she was threatening to kill them. They took her to the psych unit for her 72 hour evaluation, and from there she was sent to the state mental hospital in Orofino, where she had taken a sabbatical back in 1984.

By then, I had stopped taking her calls. She was repeating the same message over and over. She never wants to see me again. She doesn’t love me. She’s not my mother. Before I stopped taking to her — when I was still trying to reestablish goodwill — she told me she’d liked me okay until I was about five years old.

I don’t expect to ever see her again. And on some level I hope I don’t. She’ll always be my mom, and I do love her and wish her happiness, but I am tired of being hurt by her.

Thankfully, she was able to get a bed in a pretty nice assisted living facility, so someone is making sure that she takes her meds and eats regularly. I used to fret about how I would take care of her when she gets old (for my own mental health I could never live with her), but now I guess I’m off the hook.

On Not Losing Hope

A lot has changed in the world since I moved to Seattle and got my first job at a video store in 1990. My first resumé was typed on a typewriter that I rented for a quarter at the public library. The old downtown library looked more like a library and less like a spaceship than the new one.

The economy was terrible in 1990. I was lucky to get a minimum wage job at Tower Video with no previous experience. I had been applying for jobs for a month with no luck, and I was about to run out of money. I wasn’t going to be one of those people who moved to Seattle from Idaho only to move back a few months later.

It’s scary to be unemployed and staring at the bottom of your bank account. I’ve been there a half dozen times or more now. My most recent job ended on Tuesday, and here I am again.

In the 1990s I quit jobs. Each job I left in favor of something slightly better. I wasn’t very ambitious back then. I left Tower for Kinko’s, which I left for a desk job in the basement of an independent comic book publisher. I quit a job for the last time in 1999. I didn’t have a plan at the time, but I knew I wanted to be part of that whole internet thing.

In 2000, we used the term “new media” a lot. We dreamed of a world where you could watch videos on the internet. We all learned html and got jobs at startups. I worked at a small interactive agency for just over a year before I was laid off for the first time. As you may recall, the economy imploded around that time. In the end, the company I had worked for was shut down.

I have now been downsized five times, through three shutdowns and two economy implosions. It hasn’t gotten easier, emotionally. Every time it feels like losing a family and going through a breakup all while fretting over money. It has gotten easier financially, thankfully, as my salary level of responsibility have increased. But no matter how much I have in the bank, it’s finite. I could calculate exactly how long I could continue to pay for rent, food, my phone, and the internet… but I’m not going to. Yet.

What I have learned is that I will be fine. Every time I go through this it’s painful and terrifying, but every time it has led me to something better. I’ve survived as a freelancer for over two years all told, between employers. My resumé is jam-packed with goodness. Despite the madness over at Microsoft, the job market in Seattle is pretty healthy right now. The recruiters are coming to me.

Over the last 14 years of employment rollercoastering I have learned how not to lose hope. In the grim fall of 2009 when all of the banks were failing the job market was more or less non-existent, I survived. It seemed like the economy might never recover, but it did, and I found a new role that was perfect for me. That led to my most recent position, which I loved.

What makes job-hunting both extra challenging and kind of thrilling for me, is that I’m not a specialist. This makes things difficult because despite over 20 years of work experience, I don’t have the one thing I can hang my hat on. I have plenty of talent, competence, and intelligence, and this means I thrive in most roles I choose to take on. But employers are more often looking for a specific skill set. On the other hand, whenever the need is for someone who is a little bit this, but also a little bit that, I might be the perfect candidate.

I don’t know exactly what’s next. I haven’t even started looking in earnest and I’m already getting interest from recruiters for positions that are very close to right up my alley. What I don’t want to do is jump into something I don’t love. I’ll be doing some freelance writing and testing the waters. Am I ready for a Google? I’d have a hard time stepping away from tech innovation at this point, and there is something appealing about going to a bigger company that is less likely to fall apart in a couple of years. I’m also a bit nostalgic for agency work where there are more opportunities for creativity.

I’m not going to say that I trust the universe to take care of me. The universe can be shifty. But I trust myself to figure something out, like I do.

I’ll Walk, Thanks

On hot summer days in Coeur d’Alene during my childhood, I walked to the beach barefoot. It was about six blocks from my grandparents’ house. First I had to get across the packed dirt and gravel driveway where grandpa parked his excavating equipment. Then there was a short section of unpaved road on Lost Avenue, with more sharp rocks and sticky oil spots, then it was just smooth, hot pavement all the way to Sanders Beach. Sometimes it was so hot that I had to scurry from shady patch to shady patch. The coarse, rocky, glacial sand that makes up the beach was the final obstacle. I had to run to the water to avoid burning my soles, all the while looking for broken glass. The relief of standing in that chilly, clear water is not something I can compare to any other sensation.

I didn’t much care for wearing shoes as a kid, much to the chagrin of my grandma, who was worried (rightfully) about splinters and broken glass and germs. She made a little tsk noise whenever she spotted the black soles of my feet. I used a pumice stone to rub off the layers of dirt when I took a bath.

My feet have always been my primary and favorite mode of transportation. There have certainly been times when walking was the only option and I would have preferred a ride, but for the most part I love to walk. Some of my favorite childhood walks were parts of annual rituals. On May Day, my aunt would take me and my cousin for a walk in the woods across from my grandparents’ house to pick wildflowers for May baskets. When the leaves changed in the fall, grandma and I would go out collecting pretty leaves to press between sheets of waxed paper and flatten in books. Grandma also liked to walk through alleys to see what people were throwing out, on the off chance she might find something good. And of course the most fruitful walk came on Halloween, when I would return with a pillowcase full of candy.

Neither my mother nor her mother ever learned to drive. My mom tried, a couple of times, but she gets panicky even as a passenger in a car. She ended her pursuit of a driver’s license after she ran her friend’s car into a telephone pole and totaled it while having a panic attack. Grandma seemed satisfied using grandpa as her chauffeur, and occasionally she would walk to the drug store, or even call a cab to go run an errand. She was a borderline hermit, so not being able to get around easily didn’t bother her. Ironically, grandpa Frank both ran an excavating business and collected vintage cars, so there were always about a dozen vehicles around that only he could drive.

The morning after my grandma died, in the pre-dawn sub-zero hours, my mom and I went for a walk. It was my mom who showed me that walking could be a form of therapy… and it was also a form of independence. In my teen years, walking downtown to buy a new novel at the Bookseller or a record at Total eclipse became my favorite pastime. I would sometimes buy a $4.99 paperback and take it to the little café where they sold French pastries and sit there on my own, reading and eating a Napoleon. I already had a pretty good idea of who I was at fourteen.

I did learn to drive. I made it through driver’s ed (barely), but since I lived in a car-free household I didn’t get to practice, and after I moved to Seattle I let my license lapse. I learned again in my late 20s, after depending on public transport and my ex-husband for many years. In retrospect, it feels like the driving lessons were part of my escape plan from the marriage. Things fell apart shortly after I got my license, and I left with my very first car: an old Toyota Camry. I’m a decent driver, but both traffic and freeways stress me out… so I prefer to walk.

The idea that every adult is entitled to — and in fact needs — to own a car is a new thing, and largely an American thing. If you think about it, it’s really pretty ludicrous. The resource usage is huge, health and safety risks are high, and it’s a financial burden for most people. And yet we convince ourselves it’s a “need” and not a ridiculous luxury. Of course, American cities were largely designed to accommodate cars (and not so much humans). If you can’t afford to live near your work, or if you have kids, it does become something close to a necessity.

My liberal education started early. I was in the gifted children’s program, and in our tiny weekly meeting we would do fun thought experiments like, “what would happen if every adult in China owned a car?” Bad things, it turns out. Like polar ice caps melting and cities so polluted it’s dangerous to go outside. But of course that’s just extremist… oh, wait. That’s happening now. The American way of life is spreading, and that is fucking terrifying.

We can’t afford for the rest of the world to treat car ownership like we have since the 1950s. In fact we can’t afford to keep doing it ourselves. And we’ve known that for years! But infrastructure hasn’t changed to support car-free living. There’s not a rail system like they have in Europe, and most cities struggle with public transportation. Car sharing is available in some areas, but if you’re stuck in the suburbs you’re pretty much living in the land of parking lots too big to walk across to go to the store across the street.

I don’t own a car anymore. My Toyota  was totaled about 3 years after my divorce. My neighborhood is about as walkable as you can get, and if I want to go on a road trip there’s a rental car place within walking distance. There’s also Zipcar and Car2go and Uber for everything else. And Postmates. And Amazon Fresh. The idea of paying for parking, insurance, car payments, gas, and maintenance sounds… not worth it. But I seem to be relatively alone in that point of view. Maybe because I never got used to depending on cars to get around? Even when I owned a car, I only actually drove it once every week or two.

I walk a fair amount in my daily life, but when I travel, I spend hours walking, sometimes randomly exploring, other times with a destination in mind. In Barcelona I sprained my ankle walking down the stairs to breakfast. I was in so much pain I wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk at all, but I pulled myself up and gingerly limped down to the dining room. The plan for that morning was to go to Sagrada Familia. After taking my time over breakfast, I decided to carry on with my plan. It was just one change on the subway.

It was a pretty bad sprain. Every time I put weight on that leg the pain was intense. I hopped down to the subway on one foot. Of course the connection to the second train required a quarter-mile underground walk that isn’t visible on the subway map. By the time I emerged in the shadow of that melting spire, my ankle was blue and swollen to twice its size. I would have given anything for a cane. But I hobbled through the breathtaking cathedral-in-progress… each step a religious experience in itself. I found a pharmacy, learned the word “aspirina,” and made it back to my hotel without crying. I spent the rest of the day wrapping cold cans of Estrella in a towel on my ankle, then drinking them when they got warm.

This was just a reminder of how much things change when you can’t walk (as much as usual). It was a painful inconvenience, but ultimately I healed and walked on. My biggest fear (well, top 5 anyway) is that I’ll lose mobility when I get older. Walking has always been my independence.

Tonight, I will walk to see a concert. Tomorrow morning I will walk to work. If I’m not too exhausted by Monday, I will walk home from work, too. Wherever I go, I’ll walk.

In Which I Explain My Lack of Babies

Today I saw a headline on the internets: “Cameron Diaz Defends Her Childless Status,” and I thought, why on Earth does she have to defend herself for that?

I haven’t given birth to any babies (or kittens for that matter). I am 42 years old, and if all goes to plan I never will give birth to any babies (or kittens). This is not because I hate children, or put my career first, or don’t have access to sperm, or want to party every night, or can’t afford it. It’s because I don’t want children. As hobbies go, I’m more likely to pick up needlepoint or learn martial arts than raise children full-time.

I don’t feel that Cameron Diaz should have to explain herself, and nor should I, but I’m going to try. It feels like we still carry around this sociocultural idea that women must want to reproduce… or there’s something fundamentally wrong with them. And it seems the vast majority of women do want to reproduce (or at least that’s what they say). Those of us who don’t either lack some vital nurturing instinct or we’re lying.

I beg to differ. In my 20’s I kind of thought I would have a baby one day. Just  one — let’s not get carried away! Around the age of 26, I even kind of had the urge to get pregnant. That weird craving for tiny toes to put in my mouth. But I wasn’t particularly motivated, and my-future-ex-husband was nowhere near ready for that conversation. By my early 30’s I had decided: I don’t want babies.

There wasn’t a life-changing moment or tearful conversation. I just thought about it one day and realized I like the shape of my life without babies. My life wasn’t/ isn’t perfect, but when I envision my perfect life it does not include 3AM feedings or potty training. I admire people who go through those years of transitioning a squalling lump into a small person. But I don’t envy them.

Maybe if I hadn’t gotten divorced at 32 I would have changed my mind. I had to decide whether to allow my biological clock to influence my forays into dating… and I didn’t. Women in their mid-30s who need to get pregnant asap are not fun to date. But honestly, I was more relieved than disappointed to let go of that possible future.

My mother is mentally ill, and there is more mental illness in our family history. If I had children, they would have a higher than normal likelihood of suffering severe mental illness and/ or substance abuse issues. I don’t think genetic roulette should keep anyone from having children, but if my child became mentally ill it would feel like punishment. I already lived through a childhood with my mother.

I’m not a pessimist, but I am a realist. I don’t see us doing enough to stop the domino effect of climate change, and while I don’t know if we’ll see apocalyptic floods, fires, droughts, and famines in the next 50 years, we will see some degree of all of those things. People who have kids must think about that… and they must assume that the future will somehow turn out to be floating cities and robot maids. Otherwise, I can’t see how they’d feel comfortable sending their offspring toward a future when they may not be able to go outside half of the year and have to fight starvation every day… during their golden years.

When people asked (and they magically stopped asking when I hit 40) whether I wanted kids, I generally responded, “I can adopt in my 40s if I decide I want that.” And if I become independently wealthy I might consider doing so. More likely, I may get involved with someone who already has kids. 75% or more of men in my dating class are divorced with part-time kids. I’d be a good stepmom, I think, provided the kids aren’t totally obnoxious.

I don’t think it’s strange to live a life without children or the idea of children as a central pillar. In fact, it feels a bit healthier than the people who jump through emotional and medical hoops to produce offspring. But different people have different priorities, and I have profound respect for those who decide to be parents. I just hope they have the same respect for those of us who choose not to.

The Curious Appeal of the Crime Drama

I read a lot as a teen. I read young adult fantasy, regular old fantasy, Judy Blume, various smut, Tom Robbins, fucking Camus, Anne Rice… the list goes on. (I’m not really sure why Camus is fucking Camus, but somehow it seems right). Amidst all of that, one of the most atypical reading habits I had was Agatha Christie. I collected old pocket paperbacks with amazing mid-century illustrations on their covers — I still have a box of these under my bed. I’d often start one on a Sunday morning and finish by suppertime. This was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with crime fiction.

Sometimes — halfway through binge watching another British or Swedish crime drama series — I wonder why this genre is so comforting to me. The darker and more psychologically complex the better. I’m also strangely drawn to the figure of the lonely detective who probably drinks too much: Jane Tennison, Kurt Wallander. I find these characters far too easy to relate to.

But it all started with ‘Ten Little Indians’ (or — to be politically correct — ‘And Then There Were None’). It was a paperback that had belonged to my grandma. After she died I scavenged a few of her books. This isn’t the typical detective/ police procedural I would become so accustomed to later. It was a gripping tale of guests on a remote island being murdered one by one. It’s not far from the slasher horror genre that would come along later, but without the gore… and with an explanation at the end.

Once I’d read about five or six Christies (I was probably about 15 by then), I had absorbed the formula. Whodunnit was never the initial suspect, and it was probably not the first person I guessed either. There was always a vital piece of evidence that connected people in an unexpected way, and it was never revealed until the very end. When it was revealed, the murder made perfect sense. If you accept revenge, jealousy, or greed as sensible reasons to murder.

Maybe its this wrapping up that is so appealing. I started reading murder mysteries during the years when I was first grappling with the reality that sometimes people die young, tragically, and for no good reason. Crime fiction applies firm logic to this incomprehensible fact. When someone is murdered, there’s a motive.

In real life, it’s rarely easy to tie up all of the loose ends when someone meets a violent end. The charm of the murder mystery is that it presents a puzzle you know from the outset will be solved. There’s no such certainty in real life.

There’s also something strangely compelling about trying to fathom the psychological factors that lead a human to maliciously end the life of another human. It’s something that I can’t imagine doing, and yet people do it every day, whether out of anger or through calculated planning.

At the end of ‘And Then There Were None’ we discover that all of the murder victims have in fact committed murder themselves, and their deaths are meant to bring them to justice. There’s never a good reason to commit murder, in my opinion (self-defense, okay). The fact that a person can rather easily come to believe that there is a good reason to kill someone gets at the deepest, darkest corner of human psychology and morality.

I enjoy crime drama because it’s fun to solve mysteries, but also because it pokes at these dark corners of what makes us human.

 

The Girl from Coeur d’Alene

lake-coeur-d'alene-idaho

In recent years, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho — where I lived the first eighteen years of my life — has been earning high praise as a beautiful gem in the mountains with a plethora of activities for the vacationer. This article holds it up as the #1 mountain town in the United States. I can’t disagree. Coeur d’Alene is a great place to visit, but I’m still not sure I’d want to live there.

I love my hometown. Mostly. When I was a kid, I didn’t think about whether I liked where I lived, or if I might like somewhere else better. It was what I knew, and I didn’t have any complaints apart from the fact that it seemed unreasonably difficult to spell Coeur d’Alene.

As a teen, I started to think I belonged somewhere else, and I was probably right. I was listening to The Cure and getting interested in exisitentialism and dadaism and art that went beyond the Northwest landscape. The town was too small. The minds were too small. And we had to special-order all of our music. I left in 1990.

As I get older I start to feel more nostalgic. I miss the heavy arid heat of summer that we don’t get in Seattle, even when it’s hot. I miss the thunderstorms, and the outrageous sunsets over the lake. And I especially miss the lake. I was in that lake constantly during my childhood summers, and now every time I submerge myself in that clear, cold water it’s almost a spiritual thing. Rebirth. Returning to the source.

scda_lumber_mill_1936_t470Coeur d’Alene is a beautiful place, with forested peaks cradling the glacial lake — though every year there are fewer trees and more new homes, status-symbol eyesores and time-shares. The tourism industry has taken over and transformed the town. No more mills spewing plumes of steam on the horizon and sounding whistles to mark the passing hours. Early shift. Lunch break. Swing shift.

Everyone worked at the mill back in the 1970s. Both of my parents worked there at one time or another. I have no idea what the term “pulling green chain” means, but I heard it often, and it didn’t sound like much fun. My general impression is that all of the local kids who worked summers at the mill after high school are lucky to still have a few limbs.

My spot on Sanders beach was officially on mill property, way down at the end past the log boom. The mill watched over the beach, like a benevolent machine, calmly steaming. The sound of saws was a distant and continuous buzz-buzz.

My senior year of high school, our local land baron bought the mill and burned it to the ground, to put in a golf course. When I came back to visit in 1992, the juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar was almost too much to take. I have never been so horrified by the sight of a golf course.

The North Shore Motor Hotel
The North Shore Motor Hotel

As far as I’m concerned, Coeur d’Alene’s growth as a tourist destination is making the town more hideous by the year. One of the problems is the local land baron mentioned above (Duane Hagadone) and his architects who apparently hate beauty. The buildings are monstrosities. When I was a kid we had the North Shore resort, which was sixties-modern and swanky. Shag carpet in different jewel tones on each floor. The Cloud 9 restaurant and bar with a 360-degree view. Now the focal point of the whole town is the cheap-looking 80s castle-thingy that was built on the foundation of the North Shore.

Hagadone’s retail development of the main street — as well as the expansion of malls and box stores to the North — put the local shops like The Bookseller and Total Eclipse records out of business. Though I suppose the global economy would have done so regardless. Hagadone tore down the classic Wilma theater, where I had seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time. To this day, there is nothing but an infuriating empty grassy space and a bad mural where the Wilma once stood.

Ugly castle-thingy
Ugly castle-thingy

Downtown is now fairly useless to anyone who isn’t a tourist. The quaint shops trade in overpriced Northwest kitsch, mediocre local art (along with some surprisingly good local art), and gaudy jewelry. The downtown restaurants are pretty much terrible and overpriced (look elsewhere for good food). Happily, the Iron Horse restaurant and bar is still totally un-classy and attracts “bikers” (read: retired, overweight people on  expensive Harleys), and reminds me that I’m in Idaho and not Northern California.

The main problem with Coeur d’Alene (and most of Idaho) is the prevalence of small-mided conservatism. People lined up at 6am to wait for a chance to meet Sarah Palin for a book signing a few years ago. She spent a few of her college years in Coeur d’Alene. If anything, the town has grown more conservative since my childhood. The working class has been driven elsewhere, or reduced to jobs at call centers and fast food restaurants. The anti-gay rhetoric abounds as Idaho struggles with gay rights issues and bullying. And yes, it’s all white people.

The neo-Nazis — who had their compound outside of town — were driven out a decade or so ago when a Native American woman sued them after their guards beat her and her son when they stopped to ask for directions. It was the whiteness of North Idaho that attracted the white supremacists, and I’m sure there are still some lurking. Overall, there’s not much overt racism today. It was the Swedish settlers 200 years ago who refused to hire non-white labor, creating a pocket of whiteness in the melting pot.

Regardless, there’s an undercurrent of intolerance familiar to most small towns. It’s not scary — like my dad’s hometown of St. Maries (“Come for vacations, go home on probation!”) — but my LGBT friends stick to the places they know they are welcome, and otherwise don’t draw attention to themselves. You never know when you might accidentally tap into someone’s hate.

Someday, I might want to live in North Idaho again. I long for the landscape sometimes, even amongst all of Seattle’s spectacular views. Now I can tap into culture and buy books and music anywhere I can get on the internet, so access is no longer an issue. But I still have a love/hate relationship with the town. I always like to visit, though.

Thirty Years

grandma-roses

Thirty years ago today, life as I knew it ended. The last night of my childhood was frosty and silent. A deep cold that settled into bones.

Today I sat down and read grandma’s final diary: October 9 – November 28, 1983. It’s the same as all of her diaries, an accounting of comings and goings and meals and TV shows. But this one is the end of the story, which is hard to read.

Grandma hadn’t been able to breathe properly for months. She got short of breath, then panicky, which made it worse. Her doctor sent her for all the tests and eventually put it down to her “general state” (body destroyed by cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation). She got an oxygen tank and a prescription for Librium.

I don’t remember doing it, but in grandma’s final diary she mentions me giving her oxygen on several occasions. I was still technically living with my grandparents, but I spent less and less time there. I didn’t like seeing grandma sick and weak and miserable, so I stayed at my mom’s apartment until it was nearly time for bed most days. A couple of weeks before her death, grandma writes that “Kitty doesn’t care if she sees me at all.” Of course I cared. It was just too hard.

She writes that I “did everything” for myself in the morning on several occasions. I think this means I toasted a pop tart and brushed my own hair. She hated not being able to do things for me. On October 20, she writes,”Got up this morning — couldn’t breathe — panicked — couldn’t finish getting dressed — Kitty did everything for herself — told her I loved her — she got up + hugged me.”

On October 29, she opens her diary entry with the closest thing to a prayer I’ve ever heard from her: “I wish I could stop feeling so horrible — help me to get through this. Please.”

She didn’t think she was dying — that’s clear from reading her final diary. She was scared and miserable, but she believed there was a future. She was going to Spokane to get her lavender chemo injections, which she was tolerating well. Her blood counts were good. She just couldn’t breathe. Or sleep. Or eat.

November 28 is the last entry. Her last sentence is a bit mysterious: “I have to stop. Something to do with nerves — I suppose.” The following page is dated “Tues. Nov. 29, 1983” and the day’s astrological squiggles are drawn into the top margin as usual, but the page is blank.

On November 30, 1983 I went home to grandma’s toward bedtime as usual. She was sitting at the kitchen table in her chair where she did her late night reading and writing. She hadn’t been out of bed much, so it was rare to see her sitting. My uncle had made custard, and I helped her eat a small serving. She couldn’t really eat more than a few bites of anything.

I got up to go to bed, and she said, “give grandma a kiss.” This wasn’t a typical request, but I kissed her soft cheek. Even as sick as she was, she smelled of face powder and jasmine. I don’t remember whether I told her I loved her that night.

She woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t breathe. Grandpa Frank was there, trying to help her, but her heart gave up.

And now it has been 30 years. Grandma has come back into my life this year, in the form of diaries. It’s weird, her writing in 1983 is not very different from 1942. At 16 she was longing for her love, and in 1983 she was longing for her life. In both cases there was a strong sense of why me? Indeed, why?

There was a lot of unhappiness in her life from the very beginning. But there was still joy. There was the summer of Zip, and the elation of first love. There were her camera and her watercolors, and the peace she found creating art. There were holidays and grandkids. Her rituals of Christmas decor and present wrapping. There were the Sunday drives and the meals in diners. Even when she was sick and dying that October she stopped to note “a pretty blue and gold October day.”

I’ll never really get over the shock of that morning 30 years ago when she was just… gone. But her words survive, and I’m glad that I can still get to know her a little better.

Musings on Mortality, Mindfulness, and Meaning

IMG_3334We’re all going to die. Today 50 people died in a plane crash in Russia. Most likely none of them expected to die today. They were idly anticipating a dreary airport and lost luggage — maybe a reunion with someone waiting below. And then something went terribly wrong.

We all secretly expect to go on living, to wake up again tomorrow. Maybe people whose bodies are closing down shake off that expectation in order to accept the inevitable. I’ve watched both of my parents face that moment, organs failing, drifting further and further from the selves they’d created. Mom got a reprieve, but Dad didn’t. Neither of them expected to get cancer in their fifties. And then something went terribly wrong.

Most people have probably seen friends and relatives die earlier than expected. I can’t say I was lucky to have the person closest to me (my grandmother) wither before my eyes and die of cancer when I was twelve years old, but it prepared me for a lot that would come later, in a way. I don’t know if anything can prepare you for certain tragedies, but getting that hard slap in the face early in life braced me for just how terrifying and fleeting and uncertain life can be.

I’ve watched friends go through cancer, dangerous surgeries, near-fatal accidents, and rare drug reactions. One good friend was beaten to death by teenagers for no reason (boredom). A co-worker from my first job went down in the Pacific Ocean in a plane crash along with his new fianceé. Someone I knew and liked — the mother of a brand new baby girl — spent months on a breathing machine before she died from aforementioned drug reaction.

Wow. this may be the most depressing blog post ever… It gets better, I promise!

Staring mortality in the face tends to trigger a quest for meaning. Being somewhat depressive and world weary, I used to tend toward the “there is no meaning” camp — when I was young. Now I look at meaning differently. It’s not a Big Question, and there is no big answer. There’s not something I’m supposed to do, nor is there any mandate that I accomplish Something Big before I die. Putting that kind of expectation on myself only leads to misery.

Meaning, for me, today, is this: I am alive right now. I am experiencing this singular moment with this singular consciousness in this living/ dying body. And that is enough. It’s more than enough. It’s amazing.

Meaning is connection, communication, love. Sometimes I feel disconnected and lonely. But I’m never really disconnected or alone. I can pick up a book (or send a text, or open a web browser, or walk to the neighborhood bar or — heaven forbid — make a phone call) and find instant connection. And love is always right here, if I pay attention. It doesn’t come from someone else in a one-way transaction… it flows through us, in all directions.

Ok. My secret inner hippie is showing now. My Mom had a much-highlighted copy of Be Here Now when I was a kid (probably still does), but it took me a few decades to catch on. Ten years ago — in my early thirties — I was just beginning to gain some self-confidence. It had taken me the previous decade to get over the trauma of all the Bad Things that had happened and the conviction that I was doomed. DOOMED.

But then more Bad Things happened. Parents with cancer. Divorce. Economic downturns and lost jobs (four times!). Dead pets (my ex and I had many pets… they all predictably died). Difficult relations with men. A totaled car. Poor decisions about drugs and alcohol and money. Debt.

I quit drinking for a while. I started doing more yoga and reading about Buddhism and brain chemistry. And I’ve started to Be Here Now a bit more. Slowly. And not always successfully.

My birthday is coming up next weekend. Forty-two. This doesn’t seem as old as it would have ten or twenty years ago, when youth seemed to have a hard stop at forty. That’s the world I grew up in. Women, especially, turned forty and were suddenly old ladies. Some of my closest friends are in their late forties/ early fifties. And they’re not old! I’m pretty comfortable with my age.

But birthdays in your forties are inevitably reminders that this life is probably halfway over, if all goes well. And all doesn’t usually go well. If I died today, I’d feel like I was unfinished (let’s just assume that I can both be dead and feel, for simplicity’s sake). I have things to do, things to learn, relationships to build, and Bad Things to shake off.

The inimitable Doris Lessing passed away at 94. She lived a life I would be proud to have lived (with maybe a slightly different hairdo). If I have the luck to live that long, will I be proud of the life I’ve lived? Mistakes were made, surely, but, at the end of the day, did I do good? Did I make something of value? Did I spread love and joy?

This kind of self-questioning is valuable, I think, in terms of course-correcting. It’s not very good for Being Here Now, though. Fretting about the future or mulling over the past are the paths to unhappiness. Those are some lofty expectations, and I’m just a flawed human. I’m smart and kind and competent and strong. But flawed.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably alive. You also have an amazing attention span. This is one long, dreary piece of writing. Thanks for reading.

So, you’re alive. Stop for a minute and just take that in. You probably have things you don’t like about your life, or yourself. I sure do. Maybe you’re in pain, or feeling fear or grief or anger or boredom or loneliness. Allow yourself to feel whatever, because you are alive, experiencing this moment that no one else will ever experience. And this moment is the only thing any of us has. And then its gone.

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” –#DorisLessing RIP

Café Nordo and David Lynch

Somethin' Burning
Somethin' Burning
Somethin’ Burning

For the second time this year I went to experience an evening of strangeness and fine cuisine courtesy of the mysterious Chef Nordo. This time around, Café Nordo set up shop in the cabaret area of Theater Off Jackson (formerly Canoe Social Club).

My previous Nordo experience was in the shambling old Washington Hall, divided into acts in eclectic nooks with meticulous art installations in each space. That evening was a melange of surrealist scripting and weird science cuisine, which left me satisfied and entertained.

This time around, the Nordo crew performed an homage to David Lynch, in the style of Twin Peaks. A small town murder in four acts.

I am a Twin Peaks fan. I saw the pilot when it aired my senior year of high school, and I was hooked. I’ve watched the series – all the way through the tedious second season to the tacked on ending – at least three times. So I probably walked into this performance with unreasonably high expectations.

The room decor did a fine job of setting a Twin Peaks-y mood, with red curtains, a Northwest lodge theme, and two somewhat Buddhist lumberjacks seated on the bar for between-scene nuggets of wisdom. Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to “do” Lynch unless you’re Lynch.

David Lynch doesn’t do oddball, kitschy, creepy, horrific, moody films just to be strange. That’s the mistake that his mimickers often make: weirdness for the sake of weirdness. Lynch’s casserole always contains layers of human psychology, Eastern philosophy, and compassion that go way deeper than weird. And that’s not an easy casserole to make, or to eat.

In the case of Nordo’s attempt, the dialogue was cheesy, the performances hyperbolic, and the Lynchian touches… dumb. A person in a beaver costume appeared at intervals with neon red lighting, and the performers all went into a sort mock goth dance. The Lumberjacks’ voices got all reverb-y as they announced that they represent a “fixed point in time and space.” One of the characters had an invisible chihuahua.

That would have all been fine if the play itself had been suspenseful, or entertaining, or even just a little bit comprehensible. Ok, an admission here: I was somewhat drunk before I arrived, so maybe some of the comprehensibility onus is on me. But I’m still not sure who killed chef Nordo.

I do, however, think I know why they killed chef Nordo. Room temperature food. The first course was a mashed potato donut with coffee gravy (which was tasty, for sure), but the gravy was all cold and congealed. I did adore the borscht parfait, and I think it’s passable at room temperature, but the apple “hash browns” for dessert lacked texture and warmth. I wasn’t too sure about shortbread crumbles on the rim of a champagne cocktail, but I admit it came pretty close to the flavor of cherry pie.

Despite all of this, it was worth it. It’s rare to get to see artists, chefs, and performers conspire to create an experience like this, and it was captivating. Although I don’t think the homage was very well done, I still appreciated it and laughed at the in jokes. I just wish they’d done it somewhere with a kitchen.