Those of you who know me know I don't like small dogs. I'm not subsumed by a baby-talking alter ego when I see their bulging eyes and stubby legs. Instead I'm compelled to ask myself big, esoteric questions, like, How far I can punt this thing? Why can't this thing carry its own weight in whiskey barrels or picnic baskets?
Dogs have always occurred to me as Man's Best Helpers, so the itty bitty ones that bark and fit into handbags seem like a gross abomination of the species. They seem to be made only for behaving obnoxiously and making their face hair wet with saliva. I hate them. It's probably because like repels like and our similar anxieties meet in the middle like two magnet ends trying to go at it. Anyway, you should know all this because even I was surprised at how I responded to this little ball of fuzz:
I absolutely fell in love with him. I can't explain it. If you had told me months ago that I would love a Pomeranian, I would have punched you in the face for even suggesting such a thing. And yet, there I was, covered in sweat and allowing a small hairy thing to rub against my bug-bitten legs. He wasn't as barky as other dogs- so he had that going for him. And he was genuinely cuddly without being cloying. He only sometimes came out to greet us when we came up the stairs. He played fetch with a stuffed mouse for a short while, and then he stalked off like a nuclear physicist insulted by our pedestrian requests to know what pee-pee was made of. He could take us or leave us, and that was refreshing to see in a small dog. Would I be anthropomorphizing too much to say I thought he was moody? Or brilliant? I rather like the idea that maybe he wouldn't come when he was called because he was sulking under the bed, writing in his diary, bemoaning how utterly alone he was in the world because his parents had brought him to this godforsaken place where no one understood him. It didn't feel like such a stretch. And since there was a time in my life when I was also sequestered away in a bedroom ignoring the calls of my family and scribbling about my sad, what-does-it-all-mean-anyway life, I related. It was like I was meeting the sixteen year old dog-version of myself.
So I loved him, and I gave him a dumb nickname. And I couldn't wait to see him at the end of every day. Lions aren't my totem animal or anything, but he also looked like something that might guard an ancient Chinese temple, and that gave me pause. Maybe he WAS an ancient Chinese dog, a reincarnated one. And he was mind controlling me. How else do I explain that I fell in love with Lauren and Ryan's tiny dog? I don't know. Finney-Finn, you had me at "meh".
Here are some entries from my journal:
DECEMBER 16th, Monday
Boat ride to Red Frog. Doing the tourist thing. There are children in our boat in the middle of the day. I wonder why they aren't in school. I understand school to be part of a larger system, one in which there might be something to do after schooling is completed. It requires hopes and dreams and a bigger national vision. What is the vision for these children? Will they ever know life outside this island? Certainly they taste it in the sight of these tourists. But what would schooling do for them if they were to stay here? The fact that I am even thinking this way says a lot about what I think my version of right and proper is. On the walk down to the ocean, the word "Puritan" pops into my head in regard to myself. How stringently I view the world- everyone needing to be formally educated and at work at something useful and productive between the hours of 9 and 5. Who am I to know what useful really is?
Two young boys, maybe 8 or 9 years old, in soccer shirts and board shorts, walk around us on the beach. One has a red tree frog cupped between his hands while the other boy idly kicks a beat-up soccer ball close by. The first kneels down by our friend's blanket and opens up his palms. Our friend oohs and ahs and I giggle as the frog jumps out of his hands and onto her batiked beach blanket. Our friend startles a little and I laugh harder. The boy retrieves the frog calmly, simply, like it isn't even alive. "Photo?" he asks in accented English. Our friend pulls out her camera and takes a picture. She puts her camera into the main pocket of her bag and then from a side pocket, she pulls a moist, wrinkled dollar and hands it to the boy. He pockets it and stands up. He catches up to his friend. His back is to me but from the way his friend is trying to hide his smile, I can tell what they are talking about. They skip over me and walk over to the girl on the other side of the beach and the ritutal starts again.
DECEMBER 17th, Tuesday
Today we hiked up the Hill to the organic farm and coffee plantation. The coffee was rich and strong and we drank it with fresh, fresh coconut milk. It did nothing to lighten the coffee, but it added just a hint of sweetness. The mud still isn't out from between our toes, a light orange clay that squished amongst the vegetation, slick to the touch.
Yoga this morning set my body abuzz. Made me realize I need to do it a lot more often. Soon as we get stateside, I am signing up for more. My hips and quads are unbelievably tight. How long have I been walking around and exercising with quads this tight?
Sitting here watching the waves roll in is highly therapeutic. Almost makes better the fact that my skin burns with mosquito bites. Strange to see the hawks I associate with desert/high altitude nesting in nearby palm trees. The sun has set and now starts the tree frog chorus. The roar of the waves drowns out all else. We move in slow motion here. I feel quiet tonight- maybe the yoga helped. And yet, I want to be that high energy girl, excited and alive. This island has me wrapped up in gauze, has me moving through honey. I am thick and slow.
I wonder what the brown skinned construction worker is thinking as he stares at me, as we stare at each other, really. Am I vain enough to think he's actually looking at me? Is he looking past me? We both study each other for that fraction of a second, but for that fraction, the whole history of the world passes through our eyes.
There's a "Crazy Dave" in every one of these ex-pat hideaways, it feels like. Always some guy who's been doing it the longest, who came twenty years before anyone else did, who came to get away, but stayed for the cheap rum. Always in a tank top, always looking a little far away in the eyes, always using his bar or his house as a place to sing his own renditions of popular songs, in some mismatched get-up like funny sunglasses or a wig. And always there is a crowd of white people. The different cultures on this island mix well enough, I suppose, but it's pretty clear where preferences lie.
Not that I was really thinking about ANY of that last night as I kicked and jumped up and down and skanked (as best I could in sandals) to the music at Crazy Dave's. I had a thought while dancing (or maybe it was the beer doing the thinking for me): music is the equalizer. I came of age in a time where women in the scene were just as welcome as the men. That may have been because we were all blinded by the same pain and singing about it similarly so none of us saw the finer details of our features. But no one excluded me from the mosh pits. In fact, it was the one place chivalry was still alive. Grown men used their bodies to barricade me from the more thrashy among us. A dozen pairs of strangers' hands supported another stranger's body overhead to give him the experience of flying, or maybe being carted away to his own funeral. Hard to say.
OLZ sang Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive". I have never identified with that song. It was not my anthem. My generation was not forecasting we would survive. We already had (thanks, of course, to the ladies of Gaynor's time). What was my generation forecasting? We weren't. We were practicing being in the moment. We were flirting with violence and death in those mosh pits. We were raging against a machine. We had survived, but for what? We we asking ourselves this more and more, using each other as punching bags and the ropes all at once.
DECEMBER 20th, Friday
Outside the Firefly, food is charged at a premium, and there is so little variety. I'm beginning to think of rum as a either a condiment (there at the top of the food pyramid, "Eat these foods sparingly") or a side dish. It is everywhere. It tastes watered down to me. It goes down smoothly, evaporates off the tongue quickly. The decision to drink it is an economic one- it's cheaper than water. When alcohol becomes about economics, no one wins.
There is a man here from our corner of the earth who will be starting a brewery on the island, and is married to a Panamanian woman (the smiling, giggling type, a roly poly good housewife/good chef type who neither understands nor needs her husband's constant shower of compliments couched in good natured ribbing). He offers us a taste of the mediocre white bread he's come into town for, a moist and sweet airy white bread. Nothing special, and most importantly, nothing you couldn't find up north. He seemed the type to take comfort in that sort of thing, soft white bread that gave way under your pinch, and a woman who smiled at him no matter how bad the joke. He told us about a restaurant, an Argentine place. He told us they had vegetables, real vegetables, and in a brief moment of solidarity, we all swooned and sighed longingly for the sweet taste of broccoli.
Always we attract the ones that claim they "talk too much". But always they are full of the best stories. Always they hold the most wisdom. Ricardo's first wife died in an airplane crash. There is something about the Caribbean. Nothing is ever as it seems. Do I believe him? Or is this one more tale like the price of the water taxi? Some days it is three dollars, others it is five. All things shift and change here. Nothing is fixed. There is no point in having things be stationary. The world here demands that you bend, flex, accept that sometimes four days of storms will crowd out sunny skies.
Thursday, February 06, 2014
Well, the world didn't implode. It didn't even hiccup. It was just another day in Paradise the day I walked onto Isla Bastimentos and delivered a big ol' hug to the Other Lauren Ziemski.
Our hug, our meeting... it was all very normal, really. In fact, the whole trip had an air of total banality to it. It was, as they say, soooo Panama. Our plane almost crash-landed in Changuinola. No biggie. One day the whole island lost power. Whatevs. Whole sections of menus were unavailable at most of the eateries on the island. Meh. This is just how it IS on Bastimentos.
The story of how OLZ and I found each other is much more full of plot twists and turns than our actual meeting (though, an almost-plane-crash makes for a good plot twist, no? I'll tell you that story, and the story of how we found each other in the first place, in another post.)
In mid-December, Burdy and I packed up the house, put our winter coats in one giant suitcase (for our subsequent trip to the East Coast to visit our families) and our bathing suits in another suitcase, and we flew to Panama City. And when we got to the Panama City airport, we sat and watched the rain come down. We watched the rain come down in sheets from behind the airport's four glass walls like a pair of disconsolate orangutans in a oversized aquarium. We sat some more. And we watched the rain come down some more. We couldn't believe our luck: we'd planned this trip specifically to get out of the rain, and here we were with front row seats to the Rain Show. So, we did what every North American does while he waits. We ate. We had a very mediocre hamburger in the food court and I was handed three very long tubes of packaged sugar with my mocha, which came out of a machine in a single brown stream under the spigot marked MOKA. We were the only non-Panamanians in there. About twenty young people moved around the room, decorating the columns and sweeping the floors. They were masters at making garland out of ribbon and golden twine and oversized Christmas balls. They moved with urgency, but without frantic-ness. It was amazing. North Americans look like meth-heads in comparison to the pace at which the Panamanians move. After having prepared the house for our absence for two weeks, and packing up for two different climates, I was looking forward to a whole week of moving at non-meth-head pace. So be it if I had to take my relaxation with a side of tropical storm.
We had to take a half hour taxi ride from the Panama City airport to the airport that would get us to the islands. The one we were driving to, it turns out, was a former US military base. It never fails to incense me when we travel to learn how much of the goddamned earth is either formerly or currently occupied by our armed forces. I remember the very first time we flew to the island of Oahu and I was like "why can't we drive our rental car through the lush green middle of this place?" Know why? Because the whole damned island is one giant army base. Arguably the prettiest part, too.
I came to know this bit about the former-airbase-turned-local-airport because of a passenger in our taxi. Here's a little travel tip for you: when the cab drivers come up to you in the airport in Panama and aggressively ask you where you are going, do not mistake their assertiveness for hostility. They honestly want to drive you somewhere. You can haggle just a *little* bit with them, but do yourself a favor and don't haggle too much. It's not a haggling culture, and suggesting they drive you half an hour away for less than twenty dollars is insulting. By comparison, it costs us SEVENTY dollars to get to OUR airport by cab, which is the same half an hour away. Twenty bucks is a STEAL in any country.
It did NOT occur as a steal to a young lady who got in the cab with us. Travel tip #2: split fare and share public transportation with other travelers if you can. It always makes for good stories. Plus, packing as many people as would fit into any given car was kind of the norm there. This young lady had just flown in from Rome where, according to her, the modus operandi of cab drivers in that country is to try to weasel every last cent out of foreigners. Thing was, though, after permanently living there for ten years, she wasn't actually a foreigner anymore, but she still looked that way (read: she had an afro). So, the Italians were constantly trying to take her for all she was worth.
Her hackles were understandably raised. Mine were too. The last foreign country we'd been to was Thailand where the average cab ride (no matter the distance, it seemed) was about $3. This $20 cab ride, given the rural setting and general shoutiness of the drivers, was more first world, price-wise, than I was expecting. For shame, Lolo. For shame.
Anywho, this feisty young thing and I got to chatting about our travel experiences and I found myself really taking a shine to her. Even as she was doing battle with the brittle-bodied expat next to her. It was the expat who told us about the army base, and it was the expat who told us in an aggrieved tone that we should just pay the cabbie what he was asking. I can't explain it, but there is something that rubs me SO WRONG about clearly privileged retirees stating they LIVE in other countries, like it's so wrong to guess from their polyester active pants and matching tribal themed button down shirt that they clearly haven't lived here ALL their lives. She answered our questions about where she was from with all the indignant outrage of a Mrs. Thurston Howell III: "In the mountains, of course" (dahhling). Saying something like, "Oh, I moved here a few years ago" would have been more accurate than claiming she was Panamanian. And then we found out she was from Boquette, a place in northern Panama that hosts multitudes of mostly white European and North American ex-pats. I had to cover my face with my jacket to keep my eyes from rolling right on out of my head.
So as not to repeat my experience in Thailand, I thought I would bone up on my knowledge about the place before I got there. In between flights, I read the brief write-up OLZ has on her website about what to expect when you arrive on Isla Bastimentos. And it's a good thing I DID, too. Otherwise, the very thin man in ragged clothing running down the beach towards us and gesturing at our luggage would have been a little... um... how do I say this delicately? Unnerving?
It turns out that Rene, Lauren and Ryan's local helper dude, is really sweet. He's tickled that he's specifically mentioned by name on her website and that guests are told to look out for him as they approach the B&B. He's as unreadable as thirteenth century poetry, but underneath that dispassionate demeanor, there's a lot roiling around. Smart as a whip and very, very kind. I wish I had asked Rene more questions about himself, but to be very perfectly honest, between my shitty hearing and my slippery hold on the local dialect, I was afraid I was going to spend most of my time screeching WHAT? at him. On Isla Bastimentos, the locals (most of whom are descendants of Jamaican slaves brought to the island by the Spaniards) speak a patois of Guari Guari, Spanish, and English. I had JUST gotten back into the habit of drawling a long, slow, typical-of-Panama "Bueeeeeeenas" at everyone when suddenly it was no longer applicable. When the plane dropped us onto Bastimentos, I felt like I'd arrived on another planet. The locals were saying things to me, but my brain was doing some mental calisthenics to fit their square, choppy words into the delicate round holes for Spanish in my head. It wasn't working. They were looking at me like I was dumb, and I was looking at them like they were from Mars. They tried again, using single syllables. Cholo? Dock? And finally it clicked. The language they were speaking WAS MY OWN.
I have a feeling that, had I spent a longer time there, my ears would have attuned to all the inflections and the nuances, but, in under a week, the best I could do was shrug my shoulders and make a face like I was trying to pass a gallstone whenever the conversation got any further than "Where yah goin' to?".
As usual, everyone was VERY patient with us- more patient than ANY North American would EVER be with anyone who didn't know English. By comparison, when we got back to the states, the TSA impatiently waved the international arrivals through the turnstiles and screamed at us like we were a herd of recalcitrant barnyard animals. God bless you if your English language training didn't include "Have your passports out! Let's go, let's GO! LET'S GO! NO STOPPING IN LINE!". It felt like I was running a baton race through the airport, only the baton was my TWO HUGE suitcases and the TSA were the spectators but instead of handing out Dixie cups of Gatorade, they were calling us fatties.
On Bastimentos, though, everyone was kind and patient with us. Not in this overly hospitable way- it was more of an arms folded across the chest, exasperated sigh, I'll wait till you collect your thoughts sort of way. The real way, I found, to get to anyone's heart, was to compliment their food. Living on an island, resources are scarce, and sometimes just plain non-existent. When someone can pull together a meal with whatever's left in the pantry, well... that meal deserves high praise, I think. The locals appreciate when you appreciate their efforts to make something out of nothing.
There is an unusual triumvirate of tension between three groups on the island: the Chinese who own the small convenience shops, the Panamanians who frequent them, and the white people who own some of the more posh establishments on the island. I witnessed some pretty intense disregard for common courtesy in the convenience shops and I had to work pretty hard to pull my judgement back. There was a history at play here that had absolutely nothing to do with my rules about polite society.
When we collapsed onto barstools at the Firefly, Lauren and Ryan's B&B, we were sweaty from having dragged our ridiculous luggage over half the island, and exhausted from having been in airplanes and cabs for the last 24 hours. I was starting to feel like maybe we should have just gone to the south of Panama after all. We'd had a moment of sheer panic when, hours before, looking out at the rainclouds over the wing of the plane, Burdy and I each realized with horror that neither of us had packed raingear. The skies above the B&B were threatening to open up and hit us with rain again. I felt sick with regret.
Ryan greeted us warmly and gave us water, which we gulped down like people who'd just crossed the desert on our hands and knees. We waited for OLZ to come down to the bar while Ryan finished up with the breakfast dishes. Meanwhile, I tried to relax and take in the scenery. Yes, the skies were thick with clouds, but there were also palm trees all around us. There ocean was a few feet (yes, feet) away. We were drinking cool, clean water. We were wearing tank tops and shorts. In the distance, the rest of the Bocas Del Toro islands were mounded haphazardly along the horizon. The more I sat there, listening to the waves crash, the more excited I became. Something overtook my exhaustion. It was this feeling that we had, in fact, come to the right place. It was like I'd come home, in a way. OLZ and I obviously share a last name, so we'd deduced we must be related somewhere down the line. So this meant the person I was about to meet was not just the result of some flukey Internet search, but family. And that gave me the butterflies. It shook off that exhaustion and propped me right up in my chair.
There were no television crews to film OLZ and me when we hugged out there on that deck (somehow, I'd imagined there would be). But neither of us was wearing a bra. And that was my first sign that everything was going to be irie.
It was like we'd known each other for years. We fell into easy conversation. We laughed at the same things. We curled our lips in disgust over the same things. We just got right down to it. There was no break-in period.
Which, when you think about it, is kind of amazing, no? I mean, what are the chances that you click instantly with someone you've only stalked online? Amiright?
My second and third signs that everything was going to be awesome were that OLZ likes to cook and eat as much as I do. And she has a KILLER sense for good food. I can't overstate how good her cooking is. It is SO well done. We ate and drank like kings. She also has a keen design sense, so the whole place is decked out in world-travel inspired prints and patterns. The Firefly just sings with comfort and style. And, of course, she is as funny and accommodating as the best local restaurant owner you've ever met. She's old world charm in a Tupac t-shirt with the sleeves cut off.
Through a non-stop series of Q&A (in which Lauren graciously indulged us), we found out that she and Ryan pretty much did most of the designing and revamping themselves. Now. Before y'all start looking her up and sending her emails to ask her how she did it, and you start to think that doing what she's doing is categorically dreamy and that maybe you can do it too, let me say one word to you: shipping container.
To the left, to the left, everything you own in a box to da lef'. That's pretty much what LZ and Ryan had to do: stick everything they owned, plus anything and everything they could POSSIBLY think of needing, in a shipping container. And then get that container not just from the west coast of the US to Panama, but to the islands off the coast of Panama. And then unload that container over a coconut shell-and-rock-and-driftwood-strewn path. In the blistering heat. Everything. Refrigerators. A washing machine. Pallets of toilet paper. Their clothes. Building supplies. Tools. In a place where stuff rusts the second you set it down because of all the moisture in the air.
For the first few days, I saw this rugged get-'er-done attitude as a mirror to my own personal philosophy about hard work and determination. Hadn't I also started a business from the ground up? It seemed the both of us were born with the art of the hustle in us. Maybe it was a Ziemski thing, and maybe it was transferrable. I considered that maybe- just maybe- it would be possible for me and Lauren to trade places for a while so she could go take a break and visit her friends in L.A. and I could get out from underneath Seattle's suicide grey skies and make a few dinners and change a few sheets. But after a week of mosquito bites and wearing clothes that never quite dried, I was sort of feeling like maybe I was, in fact, NOT cut out to be an island-based entrepreneur in a second world country. I'm probably more suited to the desert, where the things that bite are bigger than your fist and can therefore be beaten back with a rowboat oar. I have a thing for adobe, too. Anywho. I haven't given up the dream of doing something like OLZ and Ryan, of course, but I am WAY more informed now about what it takes to do this sort of thing. Not that I ever really had any illusions about it being easy, but the specifics... the bugs, the power outages, the rain, the Soviet era government red tape, the long hauls over uneven ground, the unreliable help, the very reliable help, the slow, un-business-like pace at which an island and its people and its commodities move... all this was broken down for us in gruesome detail by Lauren and Ryan and they will be the first to tell you: it takes a fearless set of hands and hearts to make a place like the Firefly a reality.
If I could sum those two up in one word, it would be this: fearless. I learned SO much about how much you actually CAN overcome if you are dedicated to your dreams. It sounds so cliche- but it's that tenacity, that forward motion in the face of calamity that separates owners of B&Bs on tropical islands from the rest of us. I've spent a good amount of time being afraid of the what-ifs in my life (Hey! Thanks, Anxiety!). Lauren and Ryan taught me, in just under a week, that you can be uncertain of EVERYTHING, and you can move forward anyway. This is emerging as a stronger and stronger theme for me in my life this year. More on that later.
SO, what else? Well, it rained for four days straight. Which is not a problem when you're in Paradise. Because rainy Paradise is still Paradise. Here's what was not idyllic: rain on a hot tin roof. Literally. Do you know what that sounds like? Let me tell you: it sounds like World War III. Now, I've had some issues with noise on my roof before. We have these crows here in Seattle that sound like they might weigh 180 pounds each, that's how much noise they make. Some days they peck the roof. Other times they just stomp around up there. And other days they scream at each other like they're filming a remake of Rocky.
Anywho. Noise. On the roof. Very bothersome to me. A theme in my life, if you will. And then, it was all around me on Bastimentos and it was deafening. The waves were crashing up against the rocks, and the rain was coming down, and it was so loud, I couldn't hear Burdy snoring next to me. Talk about finding your Bizarro World silver lining at 3 am.
And then there was the night the coconut fell on the roof. Lauren and Ryan have some beautiful coconut palms on their property and some of them are situated such that when the coconuts are ready to drop, they drop down onto the corrugated roof. Which sounds like a medicine ball being dropped onto the hood of a car from sixty feet up.
Now, imagine that you are a Highly Sensitive Person who startles easily.
And imagine that you hear this coconut falling on the roof in the middle of the night.
And imagine you wake up from hearing this explosive noise in the pitch black.
And you can't remember where you are.
And you can't hear your partner snoring next to you, or anything else for that matter.
And that you're pretty sure that noise you just heard was gunshot because that is what makes the most sense to you, given your upbringing and your active imagination.
I'll let you take a moment so your adrenal glands can finish imploding.
But, hey! We were on vacation!! And I wasn't gonna let my crappy brain chemistry get the best of me. So after a night of restless sleep, we had pineapple smoothies and veggie omelettes and coffee and all was right with the world. Forward motion.
That's how they DO in Panama, y'all.
So, for the next few days, that's how I did as well.
Saturday, December 14, 2013
Yeah, so that blogging every day thing didn't work out so well, now did it? I should know better than to set the bar that high. I mean, for God's sake. I'd just come off a jag of showering only sporadically and ignoring the laundry while trying to write a novel. Who was I trying to convince that I would be able to blog every day?
I worked all day today. And I mean pretty much without a break. I need to do about three weeks worth of work in the next week and a half because we are leaving for two weeks on Friday, and I feel like I just can't keep up with all there is to do. My client is converting from a computer-based server to a cloud based one and in the meantime everything is a bit of a hairy mess. All the emails I sent on Wednesday didn't get sent, so I had to pluck them out of my sent mail and resend. Big deal, right? My life is just SO haaaaard. I hate complaining about these kinds of first world problems, but that's what the day was like. Whenever I complain about the slowness or inconvenience of modern day technology, I'm always reminded of that Louis CK bit where he talks about how easily frazzled we get with things. Regarding my impatience with email: "GIVE IT A MINUTE, WOULD YA? IT'S GOING UP TO SPACE!". Indeed, Mr. CK. Indeed.
I am very much looking forward to coming home and baking cookies with Burdy. Every year, I make the man sit at our kitchen table and use the cookie pump. And every year, for the first 30 cookies or so, there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Burdy complained this year that "one side of the pump was warmer than the other", making the dough slide out on one side and stick on the other. Then the whole ball of dough was "too soft". Then the mold through which he pushed the cookie was not good enough. Fair enough, Burdy. There IS a science to this, I agree. How we haven't figured it out after fifteen years of making these damned things, I don't know.
My husband is a very even tempered man. It takes quite a bit to rattle his cage. Calamity is dealt with in our house with a steady hand and a calm voice. If anyone is crying about the end of the world because we've run out of green ribbon (and before you even ask, NO, the red ribbon WILL NOT DO), it is me. Which should be obvious by now. My life is completely unmanageable because I cannot suppress the urge to break down into tears when simple inconveniences pop up. My adrenals have been a mess because I have equivocated the end of the world with running out of green ribbon. One day I will learn how to manage this maelstrom of nervous system activity. Today was not that day.
Yes, the crazy in our house is all completely under my jurisdiction. So, when Burdy finally DOES flip over to the dark side, he goes FULL GEMINI. A number of years ago, he was so upset about an ill fitting t-shirt, he ripped it off his body Incredible Hulk style. In front of company. One minute he was a little uncomfortable, and the next he was standing in our living room shirtless and breathing hard. That's just how he is. It's all or nothing with those Geminis. Us Aquarians have our nut-o-meter turned up to 11 ALL the time, but the Geminis dispense their crazy with very large gaps in between. When it starts, though, you should RUN.
When the cookie pump failed to deliver desired results, Burdy was mostly calm for a very long time. He very logically deduced why the thing wasn't working. He inspected all the moving parts. He adjusted, refilled, tried again. And then, just before Burl Ives belted out "Have A Holly Jolly Christmas" from the speakers, Burdy was roaring and angrily clawing dough off the cookie sheet and flinging it back into the bowl.
And it never fails to send me into fits of giggles. Seeing him get mad at the stupidity of poor design (and it's ALWAYS at poor design- never at people) makes me love him all the more. Poor design DOES deserve a punch in the gut. AND a lengthy diatribe about why it should have never left the factory floor in China in the first place. Poor, poor Burdy. Made to do the least desirable part of the cookie-making and not even getting a reassuring pat on the back from his doubled-over-laughing wife who is too afraid to use the cookie pump herself.
Burdy is much more suited to live this fully modern life than I am. Sometimes it makes for huge divides in the way we experience the world. For example, I am easily prone to anger when things don't work. Even though I can complain all the live long day about how the 50+ set is befuddled by new-fangled things, I am quickly becoming one of those people easily befuddled by new-fangled things. My computer has been doing things like shutting down during sleep mode and running out of battery power. The display driver craps out at least once, sometimes twice a day. Quite literally, even a black screen is not enough to make me upgrade because upgrading involves having to go to an over-lit store and deal with an overeager young person just barely off his ProActiv regimen who wants to talk me into something I don't want to buy and that sort of thing makes me want to end it all there in the earbud aisle. So, I put off upgrading until the very last minute. Even as my screen is failing, I'm convincing myself that "Hey, if I can't SEE ANYTHING on my screen for a few seconds a day, what's the big deal? So what if I get a terrifying error message that involves the words "fatal" and "unrecoverable"? I mean, it's not like it's the end of the world". Until my hard drive fails. And then it is the end of the world. Burdy is now convincing me that a Mac is the way to go. I know, I know, I know. HOW is it that I have lasted this long using PCs exclusively? Well, for one thing, I am a creature of habit. For another, I use PCs exclusively for work, and I have not been interested in learning a whole new system because I would only use that system at home (even though everyone and their mother who has made the switch SWEARS that Macs are easier to learn...). Sigh. First, automated checkers at the supermarket. And now this. Somehow, replacing humans with robots is easier for me to handle than switching computers. I don't really want to know what that says about me.
That morning, I made a last minute decision to go to the local craft fair. And because of timing and us only having one car and the parking situation, Burdy suggested I take Uber car. But I needed to download the app on my phone before I could use it... and that's all I needed to hear before my head wanted to explode. I mean, CRAFTS! HOMEMADE STUFF! That's all I could hear. And the bit about timing. So, I was running out of the house with my shoes untied and my coat unzippered and my hat in my hands to get into the waiting Uber car that Burdy had ordered via my newly installed app. The driver was SUPER nice. And he played Bob Dylan at volume 11 and it was great! And I got some great gifts. And then, magic of all magic, I happened upon the bus stop JUST as the bus was pulling up. Of all the times for the bus to be on time, this was especially nice. Metro KC? You just got one of your demerits removed. Keep this up and I might be able to forgive that pervasive smell of dirty human you cart around all day.
When I got home, I baked some more cookies, and then I got ready for my white elephant exchange with my bookclub. Last year, I brought a toucan-shaped pinata. I cannot remember how that thing wound up in my basement (estate sale? Someone cleaned out THEIR basement and thought I would like it? I picked it out of the trash? All these things are plausible), but there it was. So, I wrapped it. And then my friends fought over it. It was very gratifying.
This summer, I happened to purchase two donkey-shaped pinatas at an estate sale and they had been hanging out in our office (Pinatas LOVE to stand on top of filing cabinets. Don't believe me? Just ask one). I had every intention of bringing it to our anniversary party at the beach this summer, but then totally forgot in the eleventh hour... so, I wrapped one of those bad boys up in an old boot box and brought it. I can't tell which was more satisfying: the fact that the donkey fit perfectly into the boot box, or that I got to watch grown women (most of whom are mothers) fight over a dinged-up paper mache pack animal.
Today I had more cookie help from a friend. She came over and we had breakfast together and then I put her in charge of rolling the Wild Card Cookie. It was the first time making this type of cookie. Burdy and I mixed up the dough at midnight the night before and I was VERY suspicious about the butter/flour ratio. Most of the cookies I make are real heavy on the butter... and this one called for almost none. The recipe IS German, and for the most part, those folks are pretty precise and spot on when it comes to measurements, so I decided to trust. It was a good move. The dough was perfect, and the cookies turned out beautifully. My rule is that I taste test ONE of each kind of cookie (just to make sure I haven't left out anything vital like salt or baking powder) and these things were REALLY good.
Then we went to go look at a few open houses in our neighborhood (we are entertaining the idea of being indebted for the rest of our lives to a bank in exchange for the privilege of living indoors). Once again, I was underwhelmed with the selection and/or the decorating decisions of my fellow city dwellers. One agent very proudly boasted that the house we were standing in had been gutted and fully re-done in 1994. With appliances and furnishings from 1984, apparently. The kitchen was awful. Pale pink wood and a white 'fridge with shiny silver accent pieces glued all over it. Burdy and I both curled our lips derisively like we were going to have to knife-fight the cabinetry. That's how belligerent it made us. But that agent stood there in his orange shirt tucked into his ironed jeans and looked down his nose at ME like I was the fool for not wanting to live there. I know we can ultimately just tear out things like bedazzled 'fridges and ugly cabinetry... but for the price this guy was asking, the house should have come with a do-over button.
We went to a cookie decorating party later in the afternoon. While the kids screamed and played, the adults, looking slightly worn out, squeezed green colored royal icing onto oversized sugar cookies and dusted them with sugar crystals. Every child had a smear of green, red, or blue all over his or her mouth and teeth and it soon became obvious that "decorating" has a very loose definition among the three- and four-year old set.
I worked the whole day today. Well, I got up and dealt with some housekeeping issues, and then I made the drive over to my client's place and worked. My client was out doing errands, and I have a key, so I just let myself in, turned on the light and the heat, and settled in for a marathon of bookkeeping. I have gotten SO used to working in isolation that it doesn't even occur to me that it's completely abnormal. Since I quit most of my clients back in May, I have been spending increasing amounts of time by myself. I'm either in my house alone, or in public alone, or working at a client's place alone. In the beginning of this shutting-down-the-empire period, it was a little jarring. I went from a full work schedule spent with people to one where I spent more than half my time by myself. I think I've finally gotten used to this aloneness. I've read quotes here and there that talk about writing as the loneliest job on the planet. Not that I'm cranking out the Great American Novel over here, but I get it. I get that aloneness. And in the beginning, it was loneliness and now it's just aloneness. I have my work, my writing, to act as a companion. For thirty days, I sat in my cluttered office and never once felt alone. I had the characters of my novel to keep me company. They were as alive and dynamic as any real people. Were I reading this about any other person, right about now is when I would call the fire department to come and put an axe through their door to rescue them from their crazy convictions, but, now I'm one of those people (minus the ten cats, thank you very much).
Burdy and I reviewed the night before what had to be done today and it exhausted me just saying it aloud. The plan to fill out Christmas cards, the plan to clean the house for our houseguest while we are gone, the plan to drop off keys to our nearby friend, the plan to pick up the Christmas crackers from the store a few blocks from work, the plan to deliver cookies to our local friends, the plan to mail the rest to the East Coast, the plan to buy sunscreen in between a trip to the gym and returning the overdue library books, the plan to cook that damned spaghetti squash that's been sitting in the fruit bowl for a week and a half now, the plan to pick Burdy up from work, eat a depressing dinner in the food court at the mall, then go get that new computer because the old one is dying.... and, of course, the plan to pluck our luggage out of the chaos that is our basement and pack our bags, because, HELLO? We are leaving in three days.
I went to my writing group tonight and read aloud from some of the novel I wrote during November. Feedback was good and helpful. I need to work on writing convincing, historically correct regional dialect. Y'know. Just the easy stuff. Why do I take on projects this big? Because I can't do the light and fluffy stuff, I keep telling myself.
Computer is on its last legs; this was its last trip to writing group. The new Mac is getting all the THINGS downloaded onto it right now. Huzzah.
Worked all day. Went and bought the Christmas crackers and an absurd amount of chocolate. My grandfather always used to hand out, like rations, bars of chocolate for Christmas every year. It seems downright psychotic now, but we thought it was HYSTERICAL that we had to line up, height order, a la the Von Trapps, with our hands by our sides, before he would hand us our bars. The whole thing had a perfunctory/militaristic feel to it, like being handed a diploma instead of a raspberry liqueur filled bar of European chocolate, but it was a tradition in our family. And we loved it. I don't ask my family members to line up or anything, but every year I sneak a bar into their stockings to carry on at least part of the tradition. My style is slightly less Generalisimo and a little more Elf On The Shelf.
I also bring the goods for another tradition- the Christmas crackers. My mom grew up with them in England, and I love the idea of the Fourth of July (firecrackers!) and Halloween (treats!) all showing up for Christmas. They take up QUITE a bit of real estate in our luggage, but it's totally worth it. Most of our family pictures in years past feature us in multicolored tissue paper crowns. I love those pictures.
I stayed up late filling out cards tonight and cleaning the house. How is there so much to clean? I don't understand. How do two people generate so much STUFF to clean?
Tomorrow I can go blow off some steam at the gym AND run around buying aloe and sunscreen. Such a strange thing to be holding sunscreen while you're wearing gloves and a hat. Have another doctor's visit tomorrow to discuss the gut situation. All systems are go; I can't wait to tell my doctor. This whole not eating sugar/wheat/dairy has been INCREDIBLE. I felt something this week I don't think I can remember feeling in ten years: hunger. I am processing my food much faster now. How mundane, how banal. Aren't we ALL processing our food? Well, I wasn't for a while- at least, not very well. Now I am. I can FEEL it. And it is an AWESOME feeling.
DAY 12 - THIS IS IT. THE TWELFTH DAY.
Alright, so I've kept the Panama trip under my lid because, holy crap. It almost doesn't feel real. The packing, the rushing around town two weeks before Christmas... this has all been in preparation for a massive two-climate trip. We WERE going to Panama to just hang out and decompress for a while before flying back East to be with our families for Christmas this December... but then we changed our plans a little bit. Because my NAME TWIN lives in PANAMA, y'all. So guess who we're going to see? THE OTHER LAUREN ZIEMSKI.
The world is going to implode, I swear to God.
I can't. Even. WHAT?
I need to prepare myself for the awesome that is about to happen.
To be continued...
Friday, December 06, 2013
I had this really good idea. I was going to post something every day, starting on December 1st, until we left for Christmas vacation on the 13th. It was going to be so fun! Updates from our crazy house every day! Getting ready to leave, getting ready to spend the holidays with our families... so much to talk about! I was all jazzed up after NaNoWriMo- so jazzed because the "novel" (let's not call something I squeezed out in 30 days a "novel", shall we? Let's call it a novella. A practice novella. A pranella. Ah, yes. There we are. A pranella) really got me into the habit of writing nearly every day. Well, every day starting on the 16th or so. Yes, that's right. I frittered away the first half of the month and *technically* wrote the novel in 14 days or so.
I wanted to do this because THERE IS SO MUCH GOING ON. I mean, none of it is important, of course. But seriously. It's like a motherfuckin' beehive up in here. So I'm obviously five days behind, so here is what I WOULD have published on those days had I gotten to it:
The first thing is I finished my novel. And then I shook Sherman Alexie's hand. In that order. Okay, there was a two minute shower and a fifteen minute walk to the bookstore (shortened to ten because I manically walk-jogged the whole way... ) which, given my velocity, my damp hair, and a recent (bad) dye job, resulted in a crested yellow wave on my forehead tenuously wobbling while I shook the hand of one of my literary heroes.
But I did it. I finished. I didn't just finish, either. I wrote some good stuff. Some good scenes. It was an ambitious undertaking. My topic wasn't light and fluffy. There were no vampires or teenagers involved. This was the real deal.
I spent the rest of the day puttering around, thumbing through cookbooks to get ideas for that elusive Seventh Cookie. Every year I bake the same six cookies and every year I add a seventh that acts as the wild card. I was arrested by the image of a flaming (shit was ON FIRE) chocolate cake in one of those vintage cookbooks and on the next page was the recipe for Springerle )pronounced SPRING-ur-lee, but which I insisted on pronouncing like I was Baron von Trapp). Anywho, the directions read something like this: beat egg and sugar for ONE HOUR. No joke. An hour. I was like, lemme check the copyright date on this thing because I sure as hell hope the KitchenAid was around when then this thing was published. An HOUR? And I need to do things like wrap the dough and refrigerate it and use a special rolling pin and then let the cookies air dry before I bake them? Oh, and the better rolling pins cost upwards of eighty dollars? SIGN. ME. UP. Because I am a special kind of cray-cray and nothing less then fifteen steps to make TEN whole cookies will do. Oh, and make sure the cookies are highly breakable and that the USPS will be sure to turn them to dust on their way to their recipients.
The cookbook also spelled cookie "cooky" and it bothered me to no end.
Also, I don't understand how any man fed from these cookbooks did not grow up to be an angry, anemic, soft-toothed, sallow-skinned loner. I mean, enough with the Jell-o molds and aspics already! Where's the fucking beef? Men of a certain age, how did you grow up with ANY meat on your bones? I'm making some grand presumptions here, but I'm pretty sure it was the woman doing the cooking and the men hanging his hat in the foyer and sitting down in a suit and tie to a dinner of fucking "salad apple ring" and deviled ham. I don't understand how you all didn't die of malnutrition. I mean, I guess ham and gelatin (and ham IN gelatin) are sources of protein... but, still. I find MYSELF getting hungry reading these things, not because I found any of it particularly appetizing, but because I'm like WHERE IS THE FUCKING FOOD? Stop doing the cutesy shit with the carrot curls and black olives and show me where the nutrition is. Burdy asked me, "What the hell was wrong with American cuisine back then?" And the answer? Everything. If one were to judge from these books alone, I would say that the shelves of supermarkets fifty years ago were stocked EXCLUSIVELY with canned ham, jello, American cheese, mayonnaise, coffee, tea, canned baked beans, and canned pineapple. There wasn't mention of one fresh fruit except as decoration and the occasional toss-in for a bagged lunch. The big focus was on this big showy spread. Candelabras and soup tureens and the like. When pressed, you wouldn't be able to find a fresh herb in the house. Or fruit. Or something NOT studded with pimentos.
So, I spent a few hours looking at recipes, and then the rest of the day haunting thrift stores for this elusive rolling pin, which I SWEAR I've seen before at garage sales and now am kicking myself for not buying. Ah, well. They're not in the stars. It's back to Plan B, which shall go unnamed until it is executed.
Today was the day I got my life back in order. I coiled up the cord from my bone-colored, non-USB ergonomic keyboard and I tucked it back into the closet where it lives for 11 months out of the year. It's my special NaNo keyboard, the one that makes the very satisfying clicking sound that makes me feel like a real writer.
I also paid my credit card bill and responded to emails that had been languishing in my inbox for months.
I started the Christmas cookies. It seems weird to STILL have Thanksgiving leftovers in the 'fridge (my God, it's not even been a week yet. Thanksgiving felt like ten years ago) and to be baking for the NEXT holiday, but such is the Roman calendar. We have eleven days to go before we're outta here and these cookies aren't going to bake themselves. I did the peanut butter and the chocolate chip and it felt wonderful to be a machine for a while. Roll cookies, put on tray, put tray in oven. Set timer. Take cooling tray from stovetop to kitchen table and place on cork pad. Unload cookies from fully cooled sheet onto cooling racks. Take cookies on rack and place into giant cookie tin. Bring empty cookie sheet to kitchen counter. Repeat.
I love it. I really do. I prefer to bake alone. Lots of people over the years have, after they hear the tall order of 700 cookies, nearly fall down backwards with the shock of it, but honestly, I come from a long line of huge families and it's in my DNA to cook for no less than forty people at a time. I can't imagine baking ONE batch of cookies. Some might say that maybe, three hundred might be a more reasonable number... but, I say if you're going to bake 300, just bake the whole damned 700. Why not? You've got your hands all sticky anyway. What's another hour and a half in the kitchen?
See what I did there? With the math? Breaking down an additional 400 cookies to a quick hour and a half in the kitchen? That's what saves me every year. Also chilling the dough and then cutting it with a big cleaver into the dozens it's supposed to make. I take the guesswork out of the "pinching off a one inch piece and roll it into a ball" (per the recipe instructions). Math all the way, baby. Symmetry. That's what keeps you sane in the midst of 10 popcorn tins full of cookies.
Today was nuts. I thought I was being clever by waking up early and baking before I went to Zumba, but something wasn't right. That math I was bragging about up there in that previous post? Yeah, I skipped it. Why? I don't know. Not enough caffeine. Too little protein for breakfast. Something. I don't know. I DON'T KNOW. I WISH I KNEW. I turned what was supposed to be 5 dozen cookies into something like 9. I can't explain it. I divided wrong. Sometimes odd numbers get me. I feel ashamed. This is what happens when you commit your life to writing: when you screw up, the whole world gets to read about it.
There is a lady in my Zumba class who a) always comes late b) tries to talk to me while I'm WORKING OUT and b) REEKS of patchouli. I can't decide which of these things makes me the angriest. First of all, being a creature who craves consistency and order, I have stood/danced in the same damned spot on the gym floor for going on three years now. When this woman comes in, she looks all confused, like all the spots are still up for grabs even though class has been going on for five minutes and the front oft the gym is pretty packed. In my mind, I scream at her to move to the back of the gym where there are still spots, but she insists on being near me. After a few minutes, the patchouli comes wafting over to me and I have to work not to gag. I don't really have any negative associations with the scent- in fact, one of my favorite teachers in high school wore it. But, something about this particularly toxic combination of cheap patchouli and her obliviousness to the RULES makes me want to kick and punch the air in front of me. Oh, and then the talking? DURING class? CAN YOU NOT HEAR THE DEAFENING SAMBA RATTLING OUT OF THE SPEAKERS? DO YOU THINK I CAN HEAR YOU OVER THAT? You have reduced me to a shouting in all caps almost middle aged lady, patchouli woman. Your witchy powers have done something to me and I don't like it.
I worked all day today. I had great intentions for the evening: I was going to go to a friend's pop-up artisan craft fair and instead I just got on the bus. I'd had a long day, it was pitch black outside when I was done, and I just couldn't see myself walking the few blocks to the fair.
Seattle has been experiencing a wild cold snap for the last few days and today was what we used to call "bitterly cold" back east. It was literally freezing. Like, the air was just about 30 degrees. I kinda loved it. People have been sort of dazed and red cheeked around here because we don't normally get a whole week of freezing temps, but this kind of extreme weather is the sort I thrive in. I put on my big puffy jacket and my insulated gloves and my fleece lined hat and I carry on like it's no biggie. The sun has been out in a cloudless blue sky nearly every day and that has made this weather feel incredibly beautiful to me.
In the end, the bus was twenty minutes late, and then, when it showed up, it was so packed the bus driver wouldn't let any of us on. I was trying REALLY hard not to shake my fist at the sky for having given me a sign that perhaps I SHOULD have gone to that fair despite the dark and the cold because I wound up feeling like my blood was starting to freeze in my veins waiting for the bus ANYWAY.
All day long on Tuesday, I listened to NPR. The announcers kept refreshing the weather report which went from "possible snow" at 8 am to "no accumulation" by 3 pm. It was a little sad to hear the excitement fade from their voices as the day wore on. Everyone in Seattle, DJs included, get a little crazy for a bit of snow. We don't get much of it in the city, so when ANYthing accumulates, it's a big deal. There has been frost on my car every morning and I am tempted to take a picture and post it to Facebook with the caption "SEATTLE SNOW STORM".
This was a good day. I wrote in the morning, I Zumba'd at noon (next to, of course, patchouli lady, who was late AGAIN and who noticed, in her slow, witchy way, that the class was markedly moved back from its normal position. WHAT? Just get here on time, patchouli lady, stake your claim, and the world won't seem to you like a Picasso painting. Geez) and then I met up with two different girlfriends for some serious lady talk time. I don't mean that we talked about our lady parts (though, in a roundabout sort of way with BOTH of them, that DID come up...). I just mean that we gabbed the whole time and it was marvelous. I drank no less than three cups of (decaffeinated- still healing the guts!) tea, and it was lovely. Like, just what I needed. Later on, I told one of my girlfriends about my encounter with Sherman Alexie, and, in the way that besties do, she squealed appropriately and hugged me and even cried a little. This is what writer-friends do. They get emotional at the literary equivalent of getting a peck on the cheek from Donny Osmond. Shit. Is that too dated a reference? Um...okay. The literary equivalent of getting twerked at by Justin Bieber? Shit. I'm no good at this. Does Justin Bieber twerk? Can you direct your twerking AT someone? Is my computer's spellcheck spasming right now because it recognizes NONE of those words? Anywho, best friends are fucking awesome and holy crap did I need some girl time. And some high fives and hugs. And tears. And then clothes shopping. Yes, we did that too. Because I am a lady, and genetically wired to solve the world's problems while finding a bargain-priced pair of pants.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
My little brother (though he stands easily a foot taller than me) has always been my “little” brother. But today he is something else. A homeowner. And though I try not to tell anyone else’s story but my own on this site, I thought he deserved a little shout out this morning for the journey he’s made.
He texts me a picture of him and his girlfriend standing in front of their five bedroom home. I don’t ask him why, when it’s just the two of them and a cat, they need five bedrooms because it’s beside the point. The rates were good, they got a great deal on the price, and he’s handy, so they can fix what they don’t like. It’s an old house- nearly a hundred years old, on a corner lot, built in an era when there was need for so much room because families were larger then. They own it simply because they can.
The house is white and trimmed with black shutters, pushed far back on the lot so that lots of dead grass precedes it. It’s a hulking colonial, all flat planes, with a front porch and an ancient lamppost next to it. Huge evergreens flank the sides. The house was last occupied a few years ago by an aging couple. The estate was left to the care of the couple’s children, who all live in separate states, and they have been in negotiations with my brother for months over one thing or another. First there was the issue of whether an old oil tank had or had not been removed from the property. Then there were the fireplaces- three of them, if I am remembering correctly, in the house – and the pipe for natural gas that had been inserted into one of the chimneys improperly. My brother is engineering-minded, so he understands all there is to do with the house. He can spot an improperly installed anything from a mile away. He gets things like electrical wiring and uses the word “amperage” like it’s an everyday word when talking about it. He’s comfortable with terms like “amperage”, and “wattage” and other technical language. Since he started his electrician’s apprenticeship, he has become fluent in such language. He’s also, through all these negotiations with lawyers and agents and far-flung family members, gotten to know quite a bit of legalese, too.
This was the second time in his life he’d had to learn the language of lawyers.
There’s something else you can see in that picture of the house and the pine trees and the aging lamppost. It’s a scar that cuts into his hair line, running from his ear to the top of his head. This is where the surgeons had to cut into his face and head to reconstruct the occipital bone- the socket that holds the eyeball- that was crushed during the car accident in 2007. One more quarter inch, the ER doctor had told him, and his eye would have been punctured and he would have gone blind. It’s hard to imagine my brother, a man who understands the visual world better than most people I know, the man who was able to draw me diagrams of my wedding props backwards on a dry erase board so they would appear perfect from my perspective via our Skype connection, not being able to see.
During those dark days when he was sent home from the hospital concussive with a fistful of Advil, my brother was in and out of lucid thought. He had no one at home to help him. Uneducated about the nature of concussions and head injuries in general, my family couldn’t understand why he didn’t just pick himself up and get on with it.
When I took his phone call after he’d been released from the hospital, I thought he had been crying. His voice was slowed down and weepy sounding. I finally got it out of him- he was being driven home from a party by my other brother, the roads were iced over, and the other driver, uninsured and unlicensed, t-boned the car at an intersection in the eerie aloneness of a nighttime snowfall… the frantic 911 call, the ambulance arriving, the jaws of life cutting him out, my other brother nearly collapsing at the thought that his brother, just seconds ago alive next to him in the passenger’s seat, could be dead. Then there was the hospital visit, the way the doctors took one look at them, covered in tattoos, their hair dyed and trimmed at sharp angles, their silver rings and piercings, and presumed them dopeheads, giving them minimal attention. The way they had x-rayed his neck, rather than his shoulder, where he claimed over and over again, while he was still in shock, the pain was coming from. They sent him home still concussive because he had no insurance and because, given what it looked like (two tatted-up men, dressed all in black, on their way home from a party, one hysterical, one comatose), it seemed like just a choice rather than an accident. And the doctors didn’t want any part of it.
It had taken him about half an hour to figure out how to dial the phone to call me because his brain wouldn’t quite process how to push the buttons in sequence.
The months and then years that followed were filled with deposition after doctor’s appointment after deposition. He didn’t own a car at the time, so he was reliant on my mother and other friends and family to drive him around to the various appointments. I was sitting at a desk in a different office, working through a bank reconciliation more than a year later when he called me, furious, over his lawyer’s request to buy a suit and cut his hair for the next round of testimony. Why should I have to dress like something I not, he demanded, to prove to these people that I am permanently scarred and living with chronic pain? Being a non-conformist myself, I identified with his anarchist-lite attitude. But, I coached him, this is different. You almost DIED in that accident. Though I’d never so much as contested a parking ticket in my life, I was encouraging him to fight for whatever money damages he could collect from the uninsured motorist who’d hit him. He’d lost muscle control in parts of his face, I reminded him. His smile was forever going to be just slightly lopsided. He had a visible scar running along his head. Due to the way the insurance worked, he’d had to sue (on paper) my brother, the driver, which caused enormous amounts of stress for them both. My other brother, who'd been on antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication even before the accident, spent a month in a very dark place. My brother deserved something, I thought. And it's weird to think about "deserving" anything at all after you've been injured, but there was something so imbalanced about the whole thing- that he'd been napping when the accident happened, reclined in his chair, and not driving, recklessly or otherwise, that he'd been completely unaware of what was happening and therefore innocent; that he was my good and kind-hearted kid brother who worked tirelessly for others and was a bit of a genius for explaining how things worked- that made me feel like something out there in the Universe owed him something for this.
He’d missed work and not been paid. He’d been right in the middle of getting fitted for invisible braces at the time of the accident and would have to start the expensive process of getting fitted all over again. He’d had to get new glasses. Because he was missing work, and not getting a paycheck, his phone company was threatening to shut off his phone for non-payment. Being in a feast-or-famine type of industry, it was also his only connection to the world that would have offered him work in the first place.
In the end, the insurance company did issue him a settlement. It took years and many, many visits to doctors working for the other motorist’s insurance company trying claim his life wasn’t altered by the accident in any lasting way. It took hours and hours of speaking to a panel of lawyers seated at a bank of tables. He had to defend himself over and over again while they tried to squeeze out of him that, all in all, things weren’t so bad and that he didn’t need or deserve the money.
In the end, I think, it was what he said that sealed the deal. When I look in the mirror, and I see my scar, and I see that my face sags and that I no longer look like the rest of my family, and I can’t feel parts of me anymore... I don't feel like myself. No one, no future employer, no potential mate, no stranger on a bus, is going to look at my face, and my scar, he was saying, and not make up a story about me. THAT is life-altering. And sure, there is so much that can be said about the fleeting nature of our physical appearance and what a blessing it is to be able to reinvent ourselves in our lifetimes, but, usually those things come into our lives somewhat invited- they don't come crashing in our doors at 50 miles per hour before we've turned 23 years old.
My brother, despite all his New York City Union Guy grouchiness, and despite what’s happened to him, is a deeply optimistic kid. In a follow up text this morning, he tells me he and his girlfriend are eating crackers and cheese and champagne on the front porch to celebrate and I approve. I study the text picture again. There he is, talking about brie and champagne and smiling a little lopsided like a lunatic. If anyone deserves this house, it is him. He took that hard-fought-for settlement money and he used it to put a down payment on his first home.
The sky around the house in the text picture is bright blue and cloudless, crisp and cold. It’s the kind of day we had here in Seattle yesterday, and while everyone tucked their necks down into their collars and shivered and complained, I smiled brightly. I love cold, clear days. They remind me of my days back east. I know exactly how my brother and his girlfriend are feeling- chilled to the bone, their noses running, but hopeful and optimistic, too. Like, as long as the sun is shining, anything is possible.
Thursday, October 10, 2013
There was a really brilliant bit going around on the Huffington Post site a couple of weeks ago about the typical trip to Whole Foods. I laughed out loud at parts. I did. Girl knew how to assess a ridiculous situation. And I appreciate a good pull-back from the myopic scrutiny that we here in the Northwest apply to everything from our shoes to our tofu. Every once in a while, I actually laugh out loud (alone in my car, usually) thinking about our first world ridiculousness. I live in the city with one of the highest rates of first world ridiculousness, so I’m guaranteed to enjoy at least one derisive snort a day.
The one thing about the piece that did get at me a little was the bit about Candida. And that’s because I have it. And it is no fucking joke. And here is where, were I not so serious about this crap growing in my guts, I would full-on belly laugh at MYSELF. Because, Candida? Really? Your gut flora is a little out of whack? That’s what you’re complaining about, kid?
My internal dialogue me is SO mean to the regular me.
The gut flora, as we are all becoming familiar with, is linked to some pretty important systems in our bodies. Our brains, for instance. Seriously. Some scientists are starting to surmise that depression starts in the guts. And I, for one, am SO happy about that.
Why? Because I have been struggling to give this THING a name for some time now, and a Candida diagnosis is a step in SOME direction. This ennui, this meh feeling I drag around behind me like a suitcase on a string… it has been plaguing me for a long time, as well as this constant intestinal distress, this bloatedness, and this inability to concentrate. I’m glad this thing has a NAME. So what if it’s associated with precocious supermarket employees? I’ll take it.
I’ll also take several hundred dollars worth of supplements, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Here is what one does to destroy candida. And yes, one must KILL candida. It must be starved. I have to eat a completely sugar free diet. I cannot have ANY sugar. Sugar feeds the yeast. When the yeast is fed, symptoms proliferate. And those symptoms SUCK. First, there the ones that register as mere annoyances: You exercise your brains out and are still not able to lose the ten pounds of BREAD DOUGH boiling away in your guts. So, you have a muffin top. So what? Well, imagine waking every morning and having that muffin top AND feeling like you could just sleep the rest of the day away because you’re that tired. Or not being able to remember simple words and math equations or the WAY HOME FROM YOUR FRIEND’S HOUSE because you’re dealing with a phenomenon called “brain fog”. That’s the kind of confusing, non-cosmetic crap candida sufferers deal with. I’ve been dealing with it for more than a year now.
I bet a hundred new mothers are rolling their eyes right now and saying, I deal with that every day, ya whiner. Call me when you’re dealing with this AND poop up the wall and vomit covering the backseat of the car and THEN we’ll talk.
Listen, mothers of children with jet propulsion systems in their diapers: I feel your pain. I do. But you get a baby at the end of that poop-stained road, a little replica of yourself that loves you unconditionally and whose future you determine. Me? I get gas. I get nothing.
Here’s the thing about having this mysterious weird diagnosis sap all your energy and, on some days, your will to get out of bed: because you’re not covered in bedsores, or carrying an infant on your hip, both of which might explain your fatigue and your aches and pains, you sound like a first class whiner or, worse, this classically over-informed hypochondriac . A hypochondriac special-diet whiner who can’t indulge in simple pleasures like coffee, or a scone, or a fucking baked potato. You have to be THAT weirdo who shows up to dinner and says, “No olives or mushrooms or dairy or soy or wheat or honey or coffee or tea or beer or corn or mustard or potatoes or pickles for me, please. I’ll just have this wheat-free, sugar-free, yeast-free, lactose-free bit of rice cracker topped with shreds of raw kale. What? No, no apples for me! Not even grapes! Those are pure sugar, y’know! I’ll just have some water. With kale in it. And maybe a squeeze of organic lemon. Y’know. Because I wasn’t using my tooth enamel anyway”.
I’ve had friends tell me: “But you’re so vibrant and energetic and you don’t SEEM sick…” and the implication there is “How bad can it really be?” This is this THING about chronic disease that we don’t really talk about in this country: because I don’t have a visible sign of distress, like an amputated leg or an IV sticking out of my arm, the assumption is that what I have is perhaps a little exaggerated. At the very least, candida is a livable condition, right? There’s no death sentence at the end of a candida diagnosis, usually. (Though, sometimes there is). So, people are entitled to their exasperation with the person who mostly looks fine but can’t eat a damned thing unless it’s made of chlorophyll and flax dust. The thinking is: this is America, pal, so unless you’re losing blood in copious amounts, get out of the Sick Person’s line and back to work.
There is a component of shame, I think, that accompanies a diagnosis like “overgrowth of Candida”. Firstly, there’s the notion, “Holy Shit. I ATE my way to this condition, so I’m totally responsible for this”, and secondly, there’s this comparing of ourselves to more visibly ill people. I still have all my hair and fingernails, so what right do I have to complain about a little bloating? Here’s the thing I am learning, and which the medical world, I predict, will be linking very soon here: chronic inflammation is the cause of ALL disease. Not just a sinus infection, but cancer, as well. I’m not a doctor (OBVIOUSLY) but everything is pointing to this prolonged state of imbalance and inflammation as the “cause” of illnesses we don’t seem to have a “cause” for: MS, cancer, eczema, etc. So I may not have been losing hair or nails or weight or much else, but I could easily have been on the fast track to doing so had my doctor not tested me. The bad chemical stew that was causing my depression was just as crippling as any other ailment. And this disruption in chemicals was due largely to my being chronically inflamed. And the Candida caused the inflammation.
In my case, I had a little bit more than just “overgrowth of candida” come back from my lab work. Apparently, my hormone levels were all out of whack, too. Guess what the normal range for a woman of my age’s DHEA is supposed to be. Go ahead. Pick a number, any number. Give up? Alright, I’ll tell you: it’s 1200-1500. Now guess what mine was. Go ahead and guess. I’ll wait. Think low. Real low.
Ready? It was 34. Not three hundred and forty. Nope. Thirty four. For those of you not getting your blood drawn every six months to test for this kind of thing: DHEA is a “master” hormone responsible for building other hormones that regulate functionality like energy levels and libido in the body. So, yeah, that tiredness? I wasn’t making that up. My lack of libido? Also explainable.
I am not advocating for everyone to run out and get a Candida test (or worse, go to Whole Foods and ask someone at the help desk for advice). But check in with yourself. Feeling run down? Might it be related to the way you eat? Or how you live? In my case, my chronic stress and anxiety was chewing through all those hormones my DHEA was trying to build. So, I was left with almost nothing. And nothing feels pretty shitty.
So how to get rid of the Candida, raise my DHEA up to a healthy level, and get proper amounts of Vitamin D (another comically low number, but not unusual up here in Cloudy for Nine Months Out Of The Year Land), and Vitamin B? Pills. And lots of them. Oh! And sprays and drops, too! I swallow, volume-wise, an amount of supplements equal to the weight of my breakfast, every morning. I also exercise more regularly, get proper sleep, and, of course, don't eat ANY sugar.
My naturopath (I’ll give you a moment to roll your eyes back into place) told me that this whole curing Candida thing would be life changing. Not just a don’t-eat-wheat-or-dairy-or-sugar-for-90-days thing. No, this would be a come-down from the party tree I’ve been hanging out in for a long time and learn to eat my veggies thing. I would have to learn something called mindfulness.
Which was a real shock because I was like, Who Me? Drink and eat too much? Not being mindful? Pshaw! Noooooo way! So what if I stuff my pockets on Doughnut Day at the office like a famine survivor? So what if three gin and tonics seems like a reasonable number on a Saturday night? Doesn’t mean anything! Means I can handle myself. Means I can do whatever I like. Means I’m “Fun Bobby”, like from that episode of Friends.
No, Lolo. It means you do everything in excess. Seem like a theme in your life? Not knowing your boundaries? Doing too much and then getting exhausted? Living on the edges of comfort because you don’t think you deserve or need self-care? And doesn’t that term, “self-care”, doesn’t it just rankle your Jersey self to the core? Who needs self care? You’re a survivor! A tough cookie! Your Polak ancestors clutched the bows of ships through stormy seas and made their way to this country with nothing but the shirts on their backs! Surely you can handle your vodka and little buttered TOAST from time to time, no?
See how mean my internal dialogue is with myself? So, so mean.
I can’t tell you enough the difference this diet and supplement regimen has made for me. I have gone from feeling bloated and fat and dispirited to feeling lighter on my feet. And most importantly, I can think clearly again. I don’t go right to dying in the street a pauper when something doesn’t go my way. I’m starting to feel like myself again, like a confident human being. Like someone who can think more than five minutes into the future.
Have I been doing other work, as well? Yes. Lots of mindfulness training going on ‘round these parts. Book reading and ohm-ing and shit. It’s not just about not eating wheat and dairy and soy and all the other delicious things in this world. It’s about changing my relationship with everything, from late night snacking, to how I deal with stress.
It’s been two months out of three on this Candida-starvation plan, and I can tell you that it’s challenging but not that difficult once you get the hang of it. In the beginning, the cravings for sugar were out of control, like nothing I have ever experienced. I thought I might be capable of killing a man for a slice of coffeecake. Eventually, they subsided. And I got REAL comfortable with kale. Eating out is still a pain, but I manage. And, I have cheated. Oh, yes, I’ve cheated. I had two miniature cookies on Day 40. I, unthinkingly, had a slice of bread (which was gluten free, but contained YEAST) on Day 59. I am learning, though, not to get mired in the guilt or the shame of having broken the rules, but just to get up, and try again to abstain.
And, aside from those damned cookies, and a few rice chips here and there, I haven’t had one ounce of sugar in about 60 days.
Now, I could get on a soapbox and tell you all sorts of things about how bad refined sugar is like the best of them. I have been reading and reading and reading and experimenting with not having sugar versus having sugar and the more I read and the less I eat it, the better I understand what it’s doing to me. More and more research is tying together sugar, chronic inflammation, and chronic disease. But you know what? I’m not going to get on that soapbox. You know why? Because, like you, I like sugar. And I like salty, terrible-for-me foods too. And because, if you were to send me to the tops of the Himalayas, or the far reaches of the solar system, or to the bottom of the ocean in a research vessel, there’d be one food item I would sure as shit pack, and that would be Cheez Doodles. Salty, neon orange, artificially flavored, covered in inflammation-producing cheese dust, puffed up genetically modified cornmeal. That’s right. Cheez Doodles. Namaste to YOU, o wise man who invented the cornmeal extrusion device.
But, see, this is what mindfulness allows for: the cravings for a completely normal and human thing like delicious, delicious fat and salt to come into our consciousness… and then pass. I have learned to embrace sardines in spring water, and stevia extract, and tea that tastes like hot tree bark. And alongside that: if I smell grilled onions, I immediately crave a cheeseburger. On a yeast-filled bun. Topped with vinegar-laden pickles. I can hold both of these things in my heart at once, this gratitude for the availability of sugar substitutes in my fair city, and the pure joy of having hamburger juice dribble down my chin on a hot summer day.
I can be this paradox. I don’t have to choose to be one way or the other.
And I don’t really know how to end this post, except to say that my life has changed since this diagnosis. I don’t want to be Fun Bobby anymore. I LIKE having a flat stomach and a clear head. Though having to prepare three meals a day from scratch cuts into my navel-gazing time, I really DO enjoy nourishing myself.
Will I preach this diet to whoever will listen? Yes, yes and yes. (Seriously, start reading about what refined sugar does to your body in the long term. And about how chronic inflammation leads to chronic disease).
Will I also inhale the heavenly aroma of croissants baking and coffee percolating in the early morning and turn longingly to the sweaty windows of my local bakery and smile a deep, gracious smile at the people inside who have learned to crank inky caffeine out of a bean, and a delicate, flaky pastry out of a hard kernel of wheat?
Will I also inhale the heavenly aroma of croissants baking and coffee percolating in the early morning and turn longingly to the sweaty windows of my local bakery and smile a deep, gracious smile at the people inside who have learned to crank inky caffeine out of a bean, and a delicate, flaky pastry out of a hard kernel of wheat?
You bet your kombucha-drinking ass I will.
Thursday, September 05, 2013
So we decide to take the train to Chiang Mai. Why? Because it was recommended to us. Forty dollars to sleep the night away on an air-conditioned train and awake in a whole new part of Thailand. It practically shimmered with romance and intrigue.
At 6 pm, we roll our luggage noisily up the curb and enter the station. The place is large and overlit with fluorescent lights. There is a second floor, from which you can look down at the passengers camped out down below. And camped they are. Or rather, the white people are. The Thais are sitting in neat rows of chairs, their hands in their laps, their gaze focused on the large screen TV showing a Thai sitcom. The white folks are strewn about like trash, filthy and splayed over their grungy backpacks, their eyes sleepy. There is a section at the front of the station, roped off, and populated by men in orange robes. "For Monks Only" the placard reads. A few of them cup their chins in their hands and laugh at the TV show. Burdy and I go upstairs to scope out the food situation. We have no idea if we’re going to be able to eat on the train, so we figure it’s best to eat our dinner now. Before we sit down, though, we go to see the train on the platform.
Immediately we sense that we have stepped back in time. A hundred years, at least. The train is a massive, chugging, belching thing, shrouded in dirty mist. Lights from the impossibly high, arched ceiling shine down. Conductors languidly stroll along the platform, hands clasped behind their backs. There are shouts from stevedores, parcels are moved. We walk past the restaurant car. Great big shrink wrapped piles of instant noodles and boxed juice are pressed against the dirty windows. Some passengers have already settled themselves in their seats. I can see the interior: stained pink satin, aluminum trim, painted red numbers to indicate seats. No two cars alike. The smell of diesel gives me a headache. But I cannot stop staring. The train sits on its track, its sides appearing to heave in the shadows like an exhausted animal's.
Maybe because the first time I saw a modern train up close, I was sixteen and heading into New York City by myself,
Maybe because the first time I ever felt completely exhilarated at being untethered from everything I knew, I was standing on a train platform in Europe,
But the thrill and anxiety of train travel comes flooding back. The conductors look impassive in their mint green polyester shirts and dark visors. The train is noisy and filthy and my heart speeds up a little knowing we will soon be on that thing. I check and recheck to make sure I have my ticket.
We climb to the second level to have our dinner while two stray cats rub themselves against our ankles. This is on Day 2 of our honeymoon. Thus far, I have slept on a rock-hard bed in a room that smelled of burnt garlic and stale cigarettes. I stir the chili paste into my vegetables, look down at the cats and check for fleas and think: this is not the train I had hoped it would be. It is beautiful and fierce like trains are, but it is not sleek. It is not modern. It will not be comfortable. After dinner, as we walk down the narrow corridor to our seats and duck underneath the heavy salmon-colored polyester curtain, I know something else, too: I will not be sleeping tonight.
I have motion sickness almost as soon as the train lurches off its brakes.
The woman across from me, plump and dressed in shorts and a tank top, burrows down into her blanket and pulls her curtain closed.
The air conditioning is too cold. Everything smells like diesel and rotting fish. The bed feels hard, the sheets too thin.
I am about to cry. Below me, my husband, on our honeymoon, is checking his iPhone for maps and transit time. (Burdy really likes to know his coordinates at all times. By contrast, I always want to know where the nearest bookstore is). Sitting above him like this, with our disparate needs, I feel miles away from him. Suddenly, this whole trip, this train ride, and even our marriage seems like a mismatch. How did I agree to an overnight ride on an ancient train in a smelly pink compartment above my new husband? Where is the romance? The equatorial white sands? The pictures of me in a floppy sunhat and a string bikini? Before the kids and the house and the corporate job, back when we were young and free? Were these pictures in my head of a younger, more well-off bride? Was the modern thirty-something adventure-bride’s life one of sleeping separately and breathing in coal exhaust and fish sauce, and dirty linen pants and jet lag pills and thrift store sunglasses? Had we fucked up? Had we done this ALL WRONG?
I thought I should empty my bladder, at least, before I settled in for the night. Maybe some normal nighttime routine would ease some of my discomfort. But the sight of that steel hole in the floor through which I was to do my business, and the sad trickle of water coming from the sink with its faucet held upright by a length of tattered green packing strap tied to a support rail, the dirty abandoned toothbrush on the soap-stained counter, all of it only confirmed my worst suspicions: that we were being punished for being frugal and stupid.
I crawled back up the steel ladder with rungs too close together and got back into my bed. I leaned over and poked my head into Burdy’s area. I choked back tears. “Does this mean we don’t get to snuggle?” I asked. He looked up at me, searched my face for what I was really asking and then put his phone away. He motioned with his hand for me to join him below.
“Why don’t we go get a drink in the restaurant car?”, he offered. “Just one. We don’t have to stay long. Might make you feel better.” He smiled that Don’t Worry smile.
I thought about it. Trying to sip something while the train rocked. On the verge of crying. Or maybe vomiting. I was still full from dinner. I could read quietly, I thought, maybe journal some. It was only 7:45. Maybe I could make myself sleepy with a drink and some reading. I gathered up a pen and my journal and a book like an English schoolkid and we staggered towards the dining car.
We braced ourselves against the rocking, then the rush of hot air when we opened the door between cars, and then the blast of Freon from the next air-conditioned car. Every inch hit the senses: humid air, darkness, rotting garbage, the deafening roar of the engine, our kneecaps bumping cold fiberglass.
And in a moment, in the way circumstances always do when you bring attention to them, things changed.
We could hear the dining car from two cars away.
Pop music being played at top volume. A massive flat screen TV. Tiny tables and folding seats. Beer bottles and overheated Europeans chain-smoking out the open windows. We slid into its blue interior strung with Christmas lights and took the only available seat- across from a young man sipping soup. A train attendant brought him French Fries and took our order.
French Fries. A sign that Everything Is Going To Be Alright.
We drank cold beer from green bottles in two tiny glasses. And more people came to the car. We had another round. And more people came. The music got louder. The young man left. We moved seats. Three young Polish women crammed in across from us. We shook hands and laughed at the coincidence of our shared heritage. The train rocked and rocked. There were signs: No Leaning Out The Window. No Throwing Garbage Out The Window. The windows were wide open. I closed my eyes and leaned towards the darkness and let it rush over me: Cigarette smoke. The smell of beer. Music. The train whistle. The engine. The smell of the countryside. Burning coal. Foreign accents. The torn vinyl clawed at the underside of my thighs. I braced myself against the slope of the broken seat. My joints felt loose. I staggered to the bathroom and back, holding on to the warm metal rails while I squatted. The hems of my pants were soaked six inches up in piss and beer. We drank. I spilled a bottle of beer on the table and we cheered. The waitress brought another, signaling with her fingers and a coy smile how many we’d had already had and that she was going to bring another, okay? A wink and a nod. Dry pink lipstick. The suspicion that perhaps she was not a woman after all. Maybe a ladyboy, the Polish girls shouted at us. Burdy and I looked at one another. We toasted. To the ladyboy woman, we screamed.
Someone brought out a brown paper bag of rubber masks. The waitress turned up “Gangnam Style” and half the car started galloping left then right then left. We cheered each other on. Cameras flashed. Huddles formed, heads touched, emails were exchanged. One of the Polish girls wrote her name in my journal. Underneath, she wrote in block letters FROM THE CRAZY TRAIN.
Hours later, after the ashtrays were filled, and the bottles emptied, the staff turned on the lights, pointing to the clocks above. The DVD was ejected from the player. Bottles clinked as they were gathered and hauled away, stowed godknowswhere. I leaned into the waitress on my way out and passed her twenty baht note. For the spillage, my eyes said, and for standing on the seats. She smiled that Thai smile and I smiled back.
Then it was the walk back to our bunks. Hot air. The sound of the engine. Cold air. The roar again. Colder air. Pink curtains. The slide of ball bearings on a metal rod. Cold metal rungs against my palms. Thin sheets on my bare arms.
I took off my filthy pants, balled them up, and threw them towards my luggage. I stuffed my sweatshirt under my head. I ripped the loosely woven blanket from its sterilized plastic bag and pulled it over me. Everything felt cold and luscious and perfect. I slept. Peacefully. Rest-fully.
I slept the whole night through and into the next morning.
I woke to golden sunlight.