Anne Ruins: Sundays

Say it’s the kind of Sunday afternoon that is lush and verdant and misty and pleasantly warm and your backyard flower garden is at the height of summer bloom and you don’t have to go in to work or even answer email if you don’t want to and your partner has just made you a delicious lunch and you are drinking coffee and waiting to hear from the pathologist whether your dog has meningitis (treatable) or a brain tumor (not), here are some tasks that might distract you:

Crying

Making a yellow curry with barley

Obsessing over your burgeoning countertop monarch caterpillar farm

Watching many hours of stand-up comedy

Deciding where to hang your TEAM MENINGITIS sign

Walking to the grocery store to buy plums

Trying to force yourself to stop thinking you’ve contracted meningitis from your dog

Cleaning up monarch caterpillar pooh

Learning a cover of a Cyndi Lauper song

Trying to write a short story

Writing dirty poems to make your friends laugh

Harvesting more monarch caterpillar eggs to add to your farm

Salt ‘n’ Pepa kitchen dance party

Anne Ruins: July 4

It’s cheap. It’s too easy to ruin the Fourth of July. My auto editor corrects when I don’t capitalize fourth. All those tentacles of oppression, one barely need scratch the surface before this holiday becomes fraught. Independence for whom from whom at the expense of whom? If you have to think for longer than it takes to read this sentence to come up with a way to ruin celebrating the fourth day in July, you are in denial.

July 3 was to be a preholiday chill hang: friends, snacks, games, laughs. As we could have seen coming, I managed to ruin it. Mid chill hang I swerved out of super-fun-time-with-super-fun-friends lane and into please-stop-calling-grown-women-“girls” lane. That merge usually goes something like this:

Male friend: So this new girl who’s our office manager —

Anne: A girl?

Male friend: Yeah, the new office manager.

Anne: Oh, man. I think it’s illegal to hire children. You’d better talk to HR. That’s fucked up.

Male friend: Ahahahaha. Yeah. I get it. Woman. This new woman who’s our office manager ...

And so on and so forth. But this time he was in my blind spot when I tried to merge and he was kind of like, “But my intention is not to be dismissive.”

Well, sure, but intention and impact are different things. Which is what I said. In the middle of a chill hang. An immediately somewhat less chill hang. Here’s where I say I understand that it seems like a small thing, the girls / women thing, and that if you move past it being a small thing or swat it out of your vision it becomes not a thing at all. And if you stop and stare at it and notice all its filigree and history it inflates, or reproduces. In any case, after you scoop it up and turn it over in your hand, it’s everywhere all of a sudden. Like, was it always this pervasive and I didn’t notice it? (It was.)

But the other thing is that it’s coding. It’s a way many, most, of us learned to talk about women. It’s a thing we say without much thought, reflexive and without intention, dismissive or otherwise. So, yes, that is on its face a reasonable argument.

Except then there is a person sitting in front of you saying “This hurts me because regardless of intention it reflects a culture that dismisses the intellect and authority and contributions of women, a culture that is not really so long away from women not being able to have a credit card or buy property and still deep in not giving women the authority to make decisions for their own body largely because a tiny group of wealthy white men are holding fast to their power and are doing so by hoarding the spoils of a system intended to keep everyone else out of power even through cruel and brutal means. I know it’s just a word, a casual word, but it’s a symptom of the culture that still does not view me as your equal.”

So that happens. A lot. Well, sometimes. And then the response is sometimes a

“This shouldn’t / doesn’t actually hurt you because my intentions are good.”

or “This shouldn’t / doesn’t actually hurt you because my intentions aren’t bad.”

or “This may hurt you but that’s your choice to be hurt and I have nothing to do with that.”

or “This may hurt you but you have no right to feel or express hurt about it.”

I gave up rapping the n-word lyrics along with the recordings of my favorite hip hop artists and I say that with only deep and rotting shame that I ever somehow thought doing so was OK. Or not bad. Or some weird expression of allyship. And it is in no way my fault that I come from a culture that used and uses that word or some variant made up to make us believe that there is more than one race in order to kidnap, steal, oppress, rape, torture, enslave, shame, and every stripe of marginalize millions of humans to benefit a very small few. It doesn’t need saying that it’s not my fault, but it’s so often said that we might as well throw it in here.

What is my fault is when a person who is hurt by that word because it was / is used to kidnap, steal, oppress, rape, torture, enslave, shame, and every stripe of marginalize them and / or their family tells me that they feel that me using that word in a flippant or even respectful way is harmful to them and then I — as unwitting or even unwilling representative of a group who benefits from the oppressive power dynamic — tell them I don’t believe them or they are wrong because they don’t understand my intentions or that my intentions however strong and heartful should absolutely be considered over (or even along with) their pain.

And it really doesn’t ultimately matter if it’s just one person’s opinion of me using that word and if others don’t mind it because once I’ve heard that I’m causing pain by using a word while knowing full well that using or not using it will make such a minute difference in my life as to be really not any difference at all, once I reach the plateau in this trek where I can look out and make a choice to

  1. hear people when they tell me a specific action, one that feels to me to be small and insignificant, contributes to their pain and oppression and stop engaging in that action because the world needs less pain and oppression, or

  2. hear people when they tell me a specific action, one that feels to me to be small and insignificant, contributes to their pain and oppression and continue engaging in that action because free expression and tone policing and why can’t I say it if they can and I don’t mean what they think I mean and if they would only hear me and understand and see my good heart or my intelligence or my merit and this whole time it takes to think this more pain and oppression is growing and expanding and infesting us all.

And like Will Smith and probably thousands of nonfamous therapists say: It is not my fault but it is my responsibility. Which is why I step onto the coals of my own discomfort around being a part of an oppressive class and walk over them to the other side where new cells begin to grow. Then I change my habits, because that’s what they are.

So I ruined July 3 by cornering a friend whom I love and trying to convince him it's worth looking at how he can evolve his thinking on this issue.

And then I ruined part of July 4, first by feeling bad for having the conversation at all and spending a lot of time wondering if I hurt our friendship irreparably and then by realizing that all I had done was have a conversation in which I said something hurts me and asked the person doing it to not do it anymore, but that because of our coding and the sometimes invisible power dynamic built into our relationship by virtue of our relative stations in this society and the filigree and history attached to them, I felt like it was wrong to ask him not to contribute to my pain.

Which, I guess, is what the oppressed citizens, those who are not fully free, have been doing for the entire history of this country: asking those in power to stop contributing to their pain.

Happy Fourth of July! You’re welcome!

Covert Storms

Sometimes everything is big all at once. 

Big is a word we discourage in workshops. Big is vague. In order to write something that connects to other people we need to be more specific. But sometimes big is the only word because it is big enough to contain all of the definitions. It can be all ways of being big at once.

Last night I had a dream about a tornado. We piled into the basement. It was us, some friends from New Jersey, Bernie Sanders wrapped in a wool plaid blanket, and a few women in their 70s (who were strangers to me) in tweed jackets and mock turtle necks. Someone lined the stairs to the basement with couch cushions, so we all slid down to safety. The mood was pleasantly anticipatory, jocular. We were in the basement. We knew we were safe. The basement had windows on and near the ceiling so at first we were thrilled that we could watch the funnels, multiple funnels, joining and dispersing like tendrils unfurling. At some point I looked up and the clouds were in a perfect ribbon candy formation, variegated grays and whites. 

I know. "No one wants to hear what you've dreamt about unless you've dreamt about them." I'm sorry. 

But just as the largest funnel was nearing we realized it was filled with water. It brought with it a flood. We all turned our backs to it in unison just as the water came bearing down on the windows. I remember thinking that we probably wouldn't survive it, so I was going to try to enjoy the swim while I could. I felt bad for the ladies and their bulky, absorbent jackets.

This week two projects I've been working on for many years — one for five and one for eight — each met an important milestone, not a resolution but some degree of essential closure. I'm about to move on from some parts of my life that have taken it out of me, personally and professionally. I'm about to start new creative projects that are entirely new directions. Sometimes the things are so big that the only option is to wait inside them, to wait and watch, because the things themselves take up all available room and there's really no action possible.

Tonight I swam in Lake Michigan as the sun set. The water's the highest it's been in twenty years. The beach is spare. The sky fell from pink to gray to black. Lightning struck the horizon. I couldn't bring myself to get out of the water. I knew the risk. I was compelled to enjoy the swim while I could. After the second strike I emerged to sit on a log, eat cookies, and reminisce about seeing Neil Diamond at Pine Knob when I was in the seventh grade. Earlier in the evening I'd actually thought, "I sure hope I have time enough to bake these cookies before we leave for the beach," and then thought, "I can't even begin to imagine what I ever did to deserve this life." I thought that again, about the life, when I was in the water, and then again on the log. We watched the storm move northward, channels of lightning crawling along the horizon line. The skies waited to open up on us until we were under a tree canopy and almost to the car.

 

Tomorrow we bury a friend. We've grieved for six months and now we will bury him. I've underestimated ritual in the past. I'm not sure I have much faith in it tonight, on this watching and waiting side of it. Maybe on the remembering side of it I will feel some closure, some resolution that death is a thing I no longer feel I'm inside. Maybe we'll buy donuts on the way to the cemetery. Maybe we'll play dice or go back to the beach in the evening. 

 

 

Maybe we'll keep all the options available to us at once, and a thing will happen, or a lot of things, and we'll make plans. We won't survive all of it, but we're definitely going to swim.

The Fungus Among Us

To date, two massive phallic morels have been the sum of my spring mushroom haul. I've come across a number of dryad saddles, but left them as I don't trust my skills at identification enough to ingest much more than morels, chickens, and bear's heads. Scanning the forest floor is soothing and demands quiet attention, relaxing my eyes and brain enough to take in the space until the shape of a mushroom forms out of the matted leaves and rotting bark. I recognize I might have better luck if I were actively looking.

When we ask children to write their stories, sometimes they refuse. Sometimes they refuse because they're tired and they've been in school all day. Sometimes they refuse because they think people will laugh at them. Sometimes they refuse because they are worried that they'll invest in their stories and people won't hear them or won't appreciate them or won't respond to them with respect and kindness. Laughter and disregard are responses they receive all too often. When we ask children to write their stories and they do, we may not like what we read. We may read that they are unhappy, poor, neglected, afraid, lonely, hungry, grieving, in need of basic comfort, in need of loving support. We may want to correct their experiences, prove that we're not like the other adults in their lives, or to ask them to tell other stories — stories that are softer for us to chew. We must resist those urges. We must hear. And then we must thank them for their stories. It may be tempting to think of the hearing and the thanking as a gift, but we must never consider them so. The hearing and the thanking are the barest possible assumption of duty. They are maybe not even more than the least we can do.

I don't think I'll ever really know if people are crueler to one another than at any other time in my life or if I've somehow just recently lost my callouses and am left only with the soft, pink, fresh, hyperconductive cells underneath. I sincerely can't decide if empathy and kindness are waning or if I am looking too hard, and going in with too many expectations. Life as a human interacting with other humans sometimes seems to be death by a thousand cuts. 

A friend once told me of his extended stay in Hawaii, about the unhurried pace and the pristine beauty. I asked him what brought him home and he said that he was close to staying but felt a gnawing urge that "the fight was going on somewhere else." To stay in paradise was to accept that he was satisfied to not lend his energy and his resources to progress. It is very, very easy to not attempt to alleviate suffering.

The fight is always going on in homes and businesses and schools and anyplace there are humans. There is struggle and suffering, some of which we must let each other sort out for ourselves and some of which can only be sorted out with support and advocates. We so often hurt each other when it wouldn't be too much harder to help each other, and even less taxing to simply do no harm. Why am I feeling it so precisely right now?

I am less and less trusting of anyone who feels certainty or speaks in absolutes. We are feeding our anger a steady diet of righteous indignation and it is growing large enough to devour us. The disparity between privilege and poverty is so vast I fear it will soon drag us in and never will a single particle of light escape it. I'm trying to always choose kindness and ascribe good intentions — trying to allow that people have suffering that's less visible to the naked eye and that it clouds their ability to alleviate the suffering of others — but it's exacting work, and slippery. Just now my kid and I watched a video called Why Dachshunds Are Awesome and a reel of Chris Pratt's bloopers and we pet the dogs and laughed a lot and then they went off to bed after a trying day of being almost 17, and I'm relieved that some parts of the world make sense again for a little while. We can be better to each other. I have to believe we might.

 

Mulberry, Early Summer

Know what’s really nice?

Waking up earlier than you’d like to after staying up later than you wish you had — but only because The Sopranos exist, so it’s not a total loss, and not even a partial one — in order to drive four hours into the heart of rural Indiana with your mother and your kid when a furious thunderstorm has just barreled through, leaving in its wake downed power lines, decimated billboards, and a verdant, dewy bursting everywhere the eye lands, so that you can meet your father, aunt, and uncle at the home of your recently deceased grandmother who made it to just weeks shy of 97 years and was not necessarily a hoarder, but whose lifestyle was definitely impacted by the Great Depression, to both the marginal dismay and delight in discovery of those of you tasked with the sorting, the preparing for sale, the organizing, the cleaning, and the determining that certain items can and should be lost to the landfill, for reasons of expedience and mercy, and after many hours unearthing more than 100 years of material evidence of your heritage, poring over birth certificates, practical jokes such as a saw handle with a chain attached and “Chain saw” written in black marker in your grandfather’s handwriting and ruffle-butt baby panties with “Get Well Soon, Hutch” embroidered in lavender thread and a Groucho nose-and-glasses combo, wedding invitations, postcards written in the ‘30s from Lucy to Inez (your great-grandmother), black sand your grandmother (illegally?) collected in Hawaii, brochures from Hallmark on the season’s trends in gift wrapping, every discarded end of a pant leg from every pair of your grandfather's pants that your grandmother had ever shortened, pocketknives, arrowheads, carefully completed baby books, toys from the ‘30s and ‘40s, photos, and photos, and photos, egg baskets, afghans, pieces of future afghans, games you played with your cousins on every holiday, jewelry you never saw your grandmother wear, at least a trio of “As Seen on Television” warming and massaging devices, a photo of your father at three years old marked “Little Dickie in his doll dress”, dozens of vintage bottles of salves and hair tonics still nearly full, a Decca record player in a suitcase, clothing your grandmother made for her children in the ‘50s and ‘60s — still in pristine condition — including a Western-style teal and gold shirt with pearl buttons that your father wore in a riding competition (and who knew he was ever in a riding competition anyway), Pyrex (so much Pyrex), a leather-bound bible from the nineteenth century that neither your father nor any of his siblings had seen before, locks of hair, report cards from the late ‘40s, a letter from President Kennedy’s secretary, straw handbags, perhaps 20 unopened 50-piece children’s puzzles, a completed 5,000-piece seashell puzzle pressed between cardboard, at least 40 years of IRS and other varied financial statements, and really, to be honest, that doesn’t even scratch the surface, so even as you vow to yourself that this day will only steel your resolve to slough off the majority of your material possessions the minute you return home, you are filling the trunk of your mother’s car and half of the backseat (so that there is room for your tall kid to sit) with many of the leavings of your father’s youth and a few of the leavings of your grandmother’s entire life, and then you have a decent piece of salmon and a baked sweet potato with your father, hug him very hard and he returns the gesture in kind, and you depart for home with your mother and your kid, and you and your mother faithfully note for nearly an hour the evolution of clouds and color in the shameless sunset while your kid texts their best friend, and as darkness falls in earnest and you head into South Bend remarking on what “great time” you’re “making”, the rear passenger tire blows just as you’re leaving the toll booth causing you to pull over on the shoulder of I-80/90, against everyone’s better judgement, and you feel somewhat fortunate that a semi is itself parked on the shoulder so you park roughly 20 feet in front of him in hopes he will deter traffic from your mother and your kid crammed into a tin can on the side of a major thoroughfare for 18-wheelers, and you begin to unload generations of your family's belongings — which you’ve forgotten to box up but simply shoved haphazardly into the trunk, because, of course — onto the shoulder in the dark, when the trucker approaches, and because he was very likely a lesser-known cast member in Point Break you are initially at ease around him until you remember that the Point Break guys were bank robbers, but he offers to change your tire because he and four other cars have had flat tires in the past hour at just that very spot, and he believes someone threw nails on the highway, which simply confuses your teenage kid until your mother remarks “I guess it could be a trap and they’re waiting around here to see who they catch” at which point you watch your teenage kid melt into (reasonable) horror, but the trucker is happy to change your tire because it’ll be at least three more hours until his manager brings him a spare (which costs $1,000, which never occurred to you), so you reload all of the 100-year-old photos, afghans, costume jewelry, and Pyrex into the trunk of your mother’s car, take the car in reverse until you’ve butt up against the semi and you begin to remove the items from the trunk one more time because it’s either trust Bodhi trucker or park your kid and mother on the side of a highway at midnight for an unknown duration until a tow truck arrives, but then there is no jack or iron in your mother’s very new car so your mother calls AAA and — lickety-split — the tow truck arrives and changes the tire within 10 minutes and he couldn’t be nicer and you tip him and you just hope the spare will carry you home, and as you head toward Middlebury with the cruise on 50, your mother laments the decades of popular music she missed when she was very busy raising children and teaching high school and directing plays and musicals and leading church choirs, and you remember that she’s expressed this before, so you fall into a familiar routine of “Now, who’s this?” and tonight it’s Paul Simon, The Steve Miller Band, Guns N Roses, and U2, and then the radio scan falls upon a strange and beautiful radioplay, which turns out to be Edward Everett Hale’s The Man Without a Country — recorded on Decca (again with Decca, a double-Decca day) and read by Bing Crosby and Frank Lovejoy— in which both of them cruelly deride Aaron Burr, which makes both you and your mother laugh, and the night is pitch and the moon is a scant crescent, and you are now in Michigan steadily wobbling north on 131, and the radioplay wraps up and a sermon begins and your mother says, “change it,” and you press scan and a song bellows in at the next station and your mother is sort of proud to be able to identify it — which means she’s paying closer attention to pop music now that she’s retired — and then admits she even likes the song, so you both rock out for a minute to Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball, and you’re a little disappointed your kid is asleep and missing their grandmother’s enjoyment, but you’re afraid to break this spell so you leave the kid be, and you reflect on your parents’ ready laughter throughout the house throughout the day and your kid's beguiled pleasure in their laughter, and then, as you roll into Kalamazoo, Fallin’ comes on and so you sigh and turn it up a bit and begin to sing softly, and your mother asks, “Now, who’s this?” and you reply, “Alicia Keys” to which your mother says, “Ah, that explains why it’s so good,” and then the hotel where your mother will stay rises into view and you know your husband will meet you there and that he is anxious for your safe return, and you realize that the spare has delivered you safely home.

That’s really nice.

 

Admit Your Mistakes

It's tenuous, this everything. That's both vague slack and specificity. The presupposition was that what is tenuous is our relationships, but even as the starter pistol rang through that thought it was apparent that, while wholly truthful, the idea was so incomplete, so suspiciously lacking as to be intentionally neglectful, that it gave off the slightest dishonest rank, a day too long in a hot car.

Of course they're tenuous, relationships, with one and another, when ultimately all we have to offer a friend whose dog ran away, or one whose baby died, or one whose former husband wrestled her teenage son to the ground but not in any way that could ever be perceived as playful, all we have to offer is ourselves. And more ultimately, which, yeah, makes the self-offering penultimate, it is enough as enough can be. We are.

As enough as enough can be, and no more, because of cruelty. There's always the theory that cruelty is borne of self-loathing though we most often, most of us, dismiss it as cliché. Cliché when its barrel is pointed at us, and maybe not so when we catch ourselves yelling at our kids for yelling at us.

This can, then, unquestionably be exponentially applied. Because it is tenuous — relationships, yes, everything, yes, financial stability, relative wellness, love, job security, fun, cruelty, shelter — all are subject to a matter of tone. And tone, any tone, is pretentious bull construct, with its "penultimate" and its "vague slack."

Carrying too many delicate things at once inevitably ends poorly. The heavy load may be less precarious than the awkward one.

Because one day encompasses wrapping a present, watching an eleven-year-old make her second basket in her first season, finding a place to store a four-foot tall papier-maché ham, eating too much cereal, failing to complete a projected budget, suggesting investing in mustache wax for a dog who resembles Martin Van Buren, dancing to C & C Music Factory, hearing the words "PSA: we're out of floss" from a child who has grown faster than can be fathomed, sleeping in, sopping up dog urine, admiring the staying power of Harry Dean Stanton, fixing a refrigerator with duct tape, walking on hard-pack snow in a wooded marsh, taking a sip of wine that has turned to vinegar, hugging someone who wasn't into it, speculating over pizza about the fictional lives of Louisiana police detectives and a too-perfectly racially blended Californian extended family, receiving many kisses, and buying briney olives. After 110 inches of snow this winter and five more on their way tonight, it's finally clear that some cycles were not designed to be broken.

Storm King Wall

In the movie Rivers and Tides, the artist Andy Goldsworthy talks about building stone walls without mortar. He doesn't use plans, just learns from the stone where it wants to lay. He's not talking about a fence around his back yard. He's talking about 2000+ feet of stone wall, winding around trees, scaling hills, and dipping into ponds.

The more responsive the process, the more substantial the results. That's the hope anyway. I'm into this. Since I am not a badass Scot modern sculptor, I'm finding more personally relevant ways to exercise Goldsworthy's theory.

One literal way is the building of a 5'x10' brick patio behind my house. "Brick patio" is a generous term, I guess. I'm laying a loose rectangle of salvaged bricks and pavers behind my house, filling the gaps with dirt and stone and little baby sedums. Normally when one assembles a brick patio one removes soil, levels land, adds gravel for irrigation and sand for proper distribution of mass, and then and only then begins to lay the brick. We hope to build a screened-in porch within the next few years, so I opted for something we can easily tear up when the time comes. I am also determined to not spend any money on this (please refer to earlier posts re: issues with stuff and money). The materials are all found or salvaged, and I'm filling with soil and compost from our property.

It does not look great. I should make that very clear. This is not a story of scrappy ingenuity birthing real and lasting beauty. Many of the bricks still have bits of tar and concrete attached to them. The variance in brick size means there's no way this joint will ever be level, and that, coupled with my disregard for the aforementioned digging, leveling, etc., has caused me to consider posting an "Enjoy 'Patio' at Own Risk" sign.

The ebb and flow of perceived certainty in our lives can be crazymaking. Personal dramas, financial setbacks, my manfriend's future job instability, the jagged horizon of high school in our sights, all of these things cry to be dug out and laid level. Occasionally, though, I'm relieved to remember that there truly is no certainty, so to expect it is moot. These bricks aren't ever even.

I was desperate for a few weeks to determine that spectral financial worries would not deter us from this next trip. The constant number crunch became a cable news ticker below my other thoughts. "How about hot and sour soup for dinner (four hundred plus three eighty minus one seventy) and then we can watch an episode of Mad Men (minus ninety two minus thirty five … )." I knew I didn't have enough bricks to make a patio as large as I hoped, but I felt compelled to start it anyway, knowing I could add to it as bricks found their way to me. I knew, too, that I needed the physical task to take me out of my head.

Goldsworthy's wall and my "patio" (faux-tio? faux-pas-tio?) have me looking for ways to find stability on ground that will never be level: my bank account, my relationships, my ability to manage my own emotions, parenting. Taking comfort in process helps me be less concerned with results. Nobody is going to come over and take pictures of my brick work for a spread in a magazine but I did it the way that I needed to based on what was available to me. It's a mistake to think that we're ever starting with a flat surface. 

I'm stewing lately over things I can't control. When I catch myself doing it I run to the beach, or water my plants (a hollow promise these days), or rearrange a few of the bricks, keeping a focus on doing good and doing well, rather than meeting certain objectives. 

The thing is, I have friends with the huge business of life on their shoulders: cancer, cross-country moves, pregnancy, ill and quickly declining parents. Whether or not we're able to check off seven states in August is of little to no real importance. We may get as far as Massachusetts, or New York, or Windsor, and determine that it's fiscally irresponsible to continue. We may get as far as Maine and home again with no issues, or we may never leave West Michigan. 

We may spend August on my dirty brick patch in the yard, grilling shrimp and asparagus and corn and pineapple and watching the neighbor kids pan for gold in their baby pool.

So I'm leaving it open. I'm mounding all the stones in front of me, and I'm ready to shift them around as necessary. There are the things I think I'd like to do and then there are the things that I will do. It's very likely that the things I will do are very different indeed from the things I would like to do, or think I may do, but I believe that having done them in a way that is responsive to the ground I'm building from is going to make them the right things.

At sunset last night, The Lake was liquid metal. Somehow the churning bottom didn't disrupt the pearly glisten, but enhanced it. That's a trick I'm eager to learn.

Nerds! Buffs! Retirees! Lend Me Your Ears!

June in Kalamazoo is a wonder. There is no lush like this. Flittery delicate deciduous lush. Dizzying yellowgreen glimmers. We bust right out of our wintry exoskeletons and begin to buzz. To the beach, to the woods, to the yard, to the market, do the work, play the play, it's after nine how can it still be so light out, there are thirty cool things I thought I might do this weekend but instead I will read this book and sweep the stairs and spray the neighbor children with a hose. And there is this porch on which I should sit and drink coffee and read a magazine.

Summer is movement. These days of summer are not lazy.

Before I know it we will be hurtling eastward. This year's August plan, as it stands, is to sweep up New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. I keep having to remind myself that unlike last August, all of these destinations are very close together and ten-hour drives won't be the norm. This drive is less daunting in every way. No desert, no Beartooth, no rattlesnakes.

I kind of can't believe how little research I've done to prepare, considering how swoony I tend to be about that region of the country. It occurred to me just today, when an old friend in New York mentioned that I might like to visit Beacon if I'm ever out that way. So today I begin to plan and to research. Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson and two-if-by-sea! Capes and islands and whales!

My infatuation with US history is a torrent, often simultaneously euphoric and nauseating. A few years ago, I went through a really serious period of fixating on the Founding Fathers until I had a good long think about the three-fifths compromise and Abigail Adams urging John to "remember the ladies." I then entered a sullen season during which the elemental irony of slaveholders feigning to found a nation in which all are free made me only want to puke and punch things. At first drowsily romanced by cobblestones and petticoats I'm now more often roused by the siren, like a truck backing into me: BEEP! BEEP! NATIVE AMERICANS! AFRICAN AMERICANS! WOMEN! ATHEISTS! JEWS! POORS! GAYS! BEEP! 

Yes, so it's flawed. Slowly, though, I've required less certainty. I can't really discern whether that's maturing or giving up, but mostly I've abandoned thinking that I have a dog in this fight. The deification of our history is what makes it inaccessible and boring. Mythologizing requires value judgement where none is appropriate, and buries evidence of our stinking, loamy humanity. I now consider Lincoln to be our true Founding Father: Lincoln, who mocked people for their girth. I'm into the grays. They intrigue me.

My place in the paradox is part of why I feel the need to start planning. The trip will be as much a pilgrimage as it is a ticket to the freak show. I want to see where pregnant zealot Anne Hutchinson defended herself unsuccessfully in court, and where Abigail Adams let her doctor inject her children with the flesh of a smallpox-infected, dying man. I want to know what to look for to be both thrilled and disgusted. Last year's jaunt was an education in natural features. This year I take with me the awareness that being indentured to a lifestyle often requires being inured to its abuses.

I recognize that in two hundred years, citizens have used the mechanism the Founding Fathers designed to increasingly access their freedom. But even more so, I'm drawn to the impossible story of how this beast grew, in a scant two hundred years — to paraphrase Jack Handey — trampling and eating everything it sees. The most dangerous animal is not the lion or the tiger or even the elephant. It's the manifest destiny.

So, nerds, offer me your favorite historic sites. I've got gawking to do.

Bring on the Snakes

Always with the words.

I've written a fake Ramones song about my life. It's the most boring of all fake Ramones songs ever:

Read and write!

Read and write!

All day and all night! 

All day and all night!

Read and write!

Read and write!

All day and all night! 

All day and all night!

OK, maybe it's more of a fake Wesley Willis song: Rock over Bookbug! Rock on Kalamazoo! 

In my "regular" life, I process words all the time. Always. NPR while making breakfast, read book or magazine while walking to work, read and write and edit and proof and turn words into fonts and pictures all day, read book or magazine while walking home from work. Then there is the evening time, discussing with Manfriend what I've read and written and edited and proofed and heard in the radio stories. So there is the intake of words, then the processing and repetition, and then later the regurgitation and reiteration. Then there were those days, for a couple of decades, of memorizing and then learning scripts and then rehearsing them and then getting notes from a director and processing those notes, incorporating them into the next day's reading of the script. My days and nights with words.

I took five books and three magazines with me on the road trip. Also a journal. I spent the first three days thinking, I should write. I have so much time to write. I'm sitting here and seeing this stuff and having these conversations and it's all just flying by me and out the window into the clouds above the fields southwest of Grand Forks where it will collect and be distributed somewhere other than in my journal. I should be recording; getting it down. (See all those Shoulds in there?)

Or what? Or it will simply be an awesome vacation during which I rested and engaged fully with the people and the land around me? Somewhere in Montana I discovered that reading and writing on the road would have kept me in that place in which I exist every day. That place in which I take in media, churn it for a while, adopt or disregard it, and lay it back down in some other arrangement.

Don't get me wrong, I dig living in that place. It (mostly) works for me. But this was travel. This was intentionally abandoning my element. I sometimes think that writing allows me to keep the world at arm’s length, scrutinizing and categorizing, rather than feeling. But even if I’m not able to describe what I’m feeling, I’m still feeling it, right? Perhaps more so for not being able to describe it.

I just don’t want to stagnate, see? Stagnation is when that fulgent force begins to flag and I stumble around questioning my worth and the mold and the must begin to collect in all the folds of my life. That’s why we took a road trip. That’s why I camped IN THE PRESENCE OF SNAKES. (OK, snake, singular, but still.) That’s why I ate beet salad and let Manfriend drive me over that stunning, stupefying Beartooth Pass. That’s why I didn’t write on the trip. I had to stay out of my element to kick off the dust. If a tree fell in Yellowstone and I didn’t write about it, it still fell, and I think I can be comfortable with that.

This is not to say I won’t be writing about the trip. I have pages of notes, inscrutable jottings to jog loose an image or conversation, all in early anaphase about to bust out into more and more words amassing into little blog-update colonies. They’re just now starting to bubble up from the soup as I find myself longing to hold on to the trip as it fades into the blur of school schedules and grocery shopping. Because we are home now, and life resumes apace. While the flora and fauna is now more familiar, the flicker of elemental resistance to stagnation remains. Let’s hope I can keep it smoldering.

We Live in the Sky

Before we left, my friend said, "Don't forget to look around."

Thinking in pictures and captions. The UP, west of Marquette, Agate Falls, a little Dagoba, a little Deliverance. The rocks dark and craggy and ancient. So many grasshoppers it feels like the Lower Peninsula of the 1970s. The ease of who we are out of home context. The kids talk about plural marriage, negative space, and Hitler.

A certain dip in majesty once we cross out of the UP, leaving behind that coastal terrain: conifers, dune grass, ferns. A rainstorm and a big bridge in Duluth, a near miss and someone threatens to sing "Take it Easy". These people. These people. There is so much good and love in them.

Then Highway 2 bends just west of Floodwood, MN, and we are suddenly in The West, barren tree spines floodplain-bound, a foot below high water.

Warba, population 183, is remarkably developed. Start to see "No Services" signs at exits. Jumping jacks and squat thrusts at Scenic Overlooks. We laugh until we cry listening to Mitch Hedberg, hurtling past mile after mile of sunflower fields: central North Dakota. We reach consensus on our preference for the band The Bismarck over the city of Bismarck.

Somewhere beneath all of this, or within it even, stews something about infrastructure and the possible impacts of population density and diversity on empathy and how entirely unimaginable it is that this immense expanse has managed to remain one singular polity for more than two centuries.

Billings, MT, tonight. The Beartooth tomorrow.

Trimmed and Burning

We picked Zu up from Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp yesterday. (I totally love arts camps. I love the uniforms. I love the sweating pine cabins. I love to walk down the dusty paths between tree stands and hear discordant waves snaking through the forest from the cinderblock practice rooms. I love the dance and the talent show and the having to wake up too early. I love the last day of arts camp, when kids are flying from all directions into each others' arms, crying their stupid eyes out.)

I was relieved to have my kid back, to make my kid laugh, to smell my kid's head, to shore up the three-piece. It had been a laborious ten days without my kid. The internal and physical universes seemed to be in cahoots to keep Manfriend and me constantly challenged. Mucky interpersonal conflict, car and house issues, prospects of big changes. None of it is worth rehashing here and most is not my story to tell, but it was complex, to be sure.

Earlier this week we went to The Lake with some friends and their family, visiting from North Dakota. The children had never experienced The Lake before and were ecstatic to spend the week at the beach. We'd heard there was a rip tide warning that day, so all the kids had lifejackets. We were sure that would cut it. We had no idea. That Lake was roiling. I think the only time I've seen anything similar was in the middle of winter. I stood in knee-deep water and it quickly became chest deep. The suction from the rip tide preceded every wave, wrenching us under and outward.

We were fortunate to have a one-to-one ratio of adults to children. We hadn't anticipated the work it would require to stay together and near the shore. I hadn't anticipated how anxious it would make me. Eventually I stopped trying to swim and played look-out. I found a level place and watched. Staying upright took a special combination of of strength and flexibility. Even that was not foolproof as the lakebed drew me downward if I was still for too long. Fighting the competing tides could quickly leave me entrenched.

One of these kids might die today. I flinched when I thought it, as though I'd doomed someone in the recognition. One of these kids might die today. I thought it again as I looked around me to other kids in the water, many without lifejackets or grown-ups within reach. One of these kids might die today. Because kids die at The Lake sometimes. Despite our best intentions, The Lake takes them, and often on days far less treacherous than that one.

Once I acknowledged that we could, in fact, lose a child in those waters, my anxiety inexplicably lessened. I stopped worrying about losing a child and started observing. I came out of my head, where the fear was, and into the physical surroundings. Crests, feet, spray, mouths spitting, hair splayed, bobbing, a scream followed by a laugh (drowning children don't scream and they certainly don't laugh), gulls, gasps. Undaunted, fixating, always forward. The rip tide their siren call.

Later I heard that the Coast Guard had to pluck dozens of folks out of The Lake that day, folks drawn too far who were then too tired to make it ashore. The beach we chose just happened to be one of the few not closed. Had we known that, we wouldn't have been in at all. Maybe.

In 72 hours we'll be on the road. I'm trying to get out of my head and stay in that one of these kids might die today space. However morbid that sounds, I find it comforting to accept that everything could go wrong rather than to vacillate between worrying, staying positive and trying to make this The Very Best Trip That Anyone's Taken in All of History. Fighting the competing tides could quickly leave me entrenched.

"To the West, We Will Run"

Yesterday we listened to the Minutes rough mixes on the way out to The Lake. I think it was John Fogerty who said you need to listen to a record on a car stereo before you determine if it's ready. Even without mastering, these Minutes songs are fantastic: Varied, rich, heartbreaking.

We thought we were headed to a new beach. I've heard people reference this beach and how great it is for years, but never knew where it was and couldn't find directions on the interwebs. Someone finally gave me directions, so we grabbed our respective Krakauer books (Banner of Heaven for me, Where Men Win Glory for my special man) and a couple of pounds of blueberries and flew lakeward across west Michigan. It wasn't until we pulled into the parking lot that we realized that we'd been to this beach dozens of times, we'd just come from another direction and called it something different. It's the beach I where I spent many late nights and early mornings after closing the coffee shop, and one we've been taking Zu to since we had to lug their diapered ass up the dune. It's actually in our top five of Places to Pay Respect to The Lake. I was glad we got the opportunity to check out a different route, though. At one point, during a somewhat Galaxie-500-y guitar break, while passing a field of nothing but Queen Anne's Lace, I said, "I love driving on roads I've never seen before."

Manfriend said, "You're about to do nothing but that." That was the first time I got excited about the trip. I think I've been so distracted by details that I forgot to be stoked.

This got me thinking about the specific alchemy of music and driving. Until recently, my vehicular listening options were radio and whichever tape I could score at Goodwill. We now have cd and ipod available to us. If you haven't been in subsistence listening mode for the last decade, you may not understand just how decadent this new arrangement is for me.

All four of us on this upcoming trip are obsessive about music. It is as much a life force as breath and blood. Fortunately, we share a lot of musical tastes. Led Zeppelin is a go all around, as are White Stripes, Beatles, Minor Threat, The Evens, PJ Harvey, The Pixies, Prince (duh), just to name a few. There are some areas in which we go cattywampus, such as in any discussion of reggae and a great deal of new folk. With 80-some hours in the car together, it is imperative that we find some perfect foundation on which to balance this issue. I've devised a system of selection which I'm hoping is failproof. We begin with the driver and, working in clockwise fashion, each traveler selects a record. Volume is negotiable relative to circumstance, selection is not, unless chooser forfeits their turn. Complaints (esp. in the form of whining) will lose one's subsequent turn. This will be fervently recognized in the case of complaints about Bob Marley or Bob Dylan. Both Bobs are beyond reproach for the duration of our excursion.

I'm mulling my options. I want to make my selections count. I want stuff that's expansive but not domineering. I don't want the musics to dominate the possibility of either fresh conversation or peaceful reflection. Perfect From Now On. To Bring You My Love. What's Going On? Get Evens. On the Mouth. Artificial Horizon. OK Computer. Instrument Soundtrack. Abbey Road? Revolver? The White Album?

The Particular Particulars

Soon we will touch Lake Superior. Soon we will see North Dakota and the desert and geysers. Soon we will see people we love dearly who've lived far too far away for far too long.

In the second week of August we will leave our dogs and our home to the loving hands of our friend Flo. In case you don't know Flo, I will describe her to you: Flo is made of blue skies and bing cherries. Flo is sweetness and light. We trust her without reservation. We hope her stay in our home is to her liking. We've never had anyone house-sit in this capacity before and it's tripping me out. Do you know all those little ways in which you live that are completely normal to you but are probably outside of the realm of someone else's experience, simply by virtue of living elsewhere? The way the latch on the storm door works (or doesn't, really). Which toilet runs, which toilet seat breaks too easily. How to stack the food in the refrigerator so that if the dogs do manage to circumvent the childproof latch, they won't get a brick of parmesan, a dozen eggs and four sticks of butter. The constant awareness that any food left unattended will be swallowed whole within seconds. You think I'm exaggerating, I know.

In any case, along with preparing for the trip (Planning! Saving! Researching! Mapping!), I'm investigating my house for these particular persnickety specifics. This is challenging in that these are aspects of our home that I'm totally accustomed to and have been for more than a decade. It's kind of like trying to describe to someone how to drive to my grandmother's farm in central Indiana. I can't tell you the names of county roads, I prolly can't even give you landmarks, I just feel my way through.

The other particulars for the trip are as follows:

  • From Kalamazoo we will drive to Marquette, where Manfriend's band will play a show.

  • From Marquette we head to Grand Forks, ND, with a layover likely in Duluth. Manfriend will play another show in Grand Forks, the homeland of our dear friend and bandmate.

  • From Grand Forks as far as we want to tolerate in one day, either Billings or Bozeman, MT, where we'll camp.

  • Arise early from camping to continue to West Yellowstone, MT, home of dear friends with gorgeous baby. Also home of YELLOWSTONE, perhaps you've heard of it?

  • A mere day in the park and then on to (if all goes well) Unionville, NV, and a 150-year-old inn near Mark Twain's home and Thunder Mountain Monument. It should be noted here that upon seeing pictures of said inn, Manfriend declared that we would all be murdered.

  • After a morning at local nerdy desert sites, we head to Grass Valley, CA, to deposit our friend Lila, who's hitching a ride both ways in order to visit her dad. We will pass her off, hug her, take a pee and get ourselves right quick to San Francisco where we will spend a week with beautiful friends and beautiful San Francisco.

That's the trip out. The return is less set in stone, but will hopefully take us through Salt Lake City, as I just bought Under the Banner of Heaven. Another probable leg of the return is the Nebraska Sandhills. Do you know about this? 20,000 square miles of grasslands, dunes, meadows, lakes and wetlands. Apparently it's quite lovely, green, the anti-interstate, and everybody who passes you on the road waves to you. Which is cool, I guess, if you're, like, into that sort of thing.

Anyway, there's a rough outline, still in development. We'll wind our way home somehow. Do you know what we won't be seeing? Our house, our jobs, our regular grocery store and farmers' market, the same things we drive past every day.

That Which We Own Owns Us

I have a complicated relationship with my stuff. By "stuff" I don't mean "issues". I have a complicated relationship with my issues, too, but that's why they're my issues, so it hardly merits a mention. No, I mean material goods. My relationship with them (to them? since they're inanimate, right?) is complicated which, I guess, makes "stuff" one of my "issues".

See? Complicated.

We got knocked up young. By "young" I don't mean "pregnant teen", I mean "hardly employed, living in group house, no savings, no plans except to make music and art and friends and, apparently, a baby." We were, to put it mildly, fiscally unprepared. It took a great deal of tears and terror and sweat to make us fiscally prepared to parent. We are now fiscally prepared to parent. Our kid is nearly thirteen. For the first half of their life we relied heavily on others for every type of support you can imagine. It took the proverbial village to raise not only our child, but us as well.

There was a time in my life when I was kind of a hardcore consumer. I was a somewhat sedentary suburban kid, so there wasn't much more to do than purchase and consume. If I sit for a moment and quiet my mind, I can still summon that purchase! consume! rush that was all too familiar in my youth. I was ravenous for the things that would shape my life, would define me, would make me interesting. I became a discerning shopper with a keen eye for the precise external elements I would to employ to tell the rest of the world that I was intriguing! and worthy of their attention!

I was also, incongruently, pretty into Jesus. I was raised in a big, supportive Presbyterian community. Camps and ice cream socials and canoe trips and cantatas and lock-ins and mission trips. The Jesus that appealed to me was more the one who was totally into love and peace and sharing and not judging. I felt like a total weirdo back then, as an adolescent, and this Jesus offered hope that maybe people might accept me anyway. I was way less into the Jesus who said he was the only way into heaven. I was pretty into Gandhi, too, and couldn't reconcile that Jesus thought Gandhi should go to hell. This seemed to not jibe so much with the love and peace and sharing and not-judging Jesus, but try as I might, I couldn't find the Provisional Gandhi Dispensation in any of the church's teachings.

Then came punk, specifically DC punk. The Church of Dischord, I like to call it, because it called to me in much the same way I imagine people feel called to a religious order. I will say unequivocally that I don't condone the violence and misogyny often associated with punk. Like christianity, I think punk is too often characterized by the ideas and behaviors of a rowdy minority. Though it's safe to say that by the time punk reached me I was on the road to apostasy, I felt some resonance between the teachings of Jesus and the ideas of some of my punk heroes. This was particularly true of punk's approach to materialism.

The idea that we are not defined by the things we own was earth shattering for that younger me. Liberating, too, as I felt caught in a cycle of buying the exact things my schoolmates and the television prescribed for acceptance and still feeling pretty insufficient. Though I noticed clear "conformist" trends early on in my experience with punk, it was soon clear that a t-shirt-and-jeans (void of any discernible branding) combination was punk's great equalizer. This was of great comfort to me. Before punk, I hadn't noticed Jesus' eschewing of material goods all that much, because there weren't malls and cars and Swatch watches in Nazareth. What was there to eschew, really?

My late teens and twenties became a process of throwing off the materialism of my youth, a process with which I continue to struggle. Our many years of living below the poverty line were a blessing in that regard. My adoration for thrift stores, for the gleaner lifestyle, is both a help and a hindrance at times. We buy new when we must, but most often we're a salvage, reuse, repurpose kind of family. We're often the last people to own something before it's obsolete. There are all sorts of romantic ideas mixed up in there for me regarding wabi-sabi and minimalism and my responsibility as an inhabitant of this earth but I don't really need to go into those here.

How does this relate to our travels? We bought a new (to us) car that is the fanciest thing I've ever owned. It is a very practical purchase. Considering that we live through Michigan winters and want to drive thousands upon thousands of miles and carry camping equipment, this is the best car for us. Great gas mileage, enough room for gear, handles decent in snow. These are the things I need to remind myself in order to gain comfort with what feels to me to be an extravagant purchase. It's not extravagant, by most definitions, unless you've been drinking Punk & Jesus kool-aid with religious fervor for twenty-five years.

It's the good kind of kool-aid, though, the kind that you buy at the co-op, made with all-natural ingredients, so that's OK, right?

Baby, You're Much Too Fast

This venture is not without anxiety for me.

I spent most of my summers in a car or a tent or a pop-up trailer or on a train. My parents were both educators, my father was a high-school counselor in Detroit for forty years and my mother a music teacher in Livonia. Summer vacations were a melange of historical landmarks and state parks. I look back on it as dreamy. Our family, free of stuff and obligation, whiling away the warmer months in exotic Hershey, PA or Interlochen, MI.  I was always a little bit dirty and covered in bites and scratches. I bought pressed pennies and pencils filled with rocks, lived on jawbreakers and jewel-toned rock candy. I killed so many books of Mad Libs.

"You were a mess," my Mom told me recently, when we were reminiscing on our summers with an eye on our upcoming trip.

"A mess?" Dirt? Bites? Scratches?

"Yeah, you never slept the night before we left. You were always anxiety-ridden about travel."

"Um, what? I LOVED to travel."

"No. No you really didn't."

And then it came back to me. That time on July 4 in Philadelphia. I was over-tired and it was four hundred degrees and we'd just finished scaling the Rocky stairs to the Rocky statue and watching fireworks and we were heading back out of town to our campsite and I was sobbing, positive that I would fall out the car onto the interstate and my parents wouldn't come back for me.

"It was nearly a self-fulfilling prophecy." Mother loves me, this I know, for her dry countenance tells me so.

And then I remembered the time in some big old stately square in Boston when I saw a woman fall off her bike onto a small child. I was eating prime rib. There was a clear association in my little mind between the violence of the accident and the violence of the prime rib. I completely lost my shit. I could not eat. I had dreams for years of people in that square losing body parts, limbs and digits just falling off them, and street urchins creeping out of alleys and gutters to eat the flesh. Awesome.

So it's fair to say my mother's right. (Harrumph.) I have some degree of anxiety associated with travel. It's gotten significantly better over time, softened into slightly hyper Planning! Saving! Graphing! Preparing! This is somewhat difficult for me to acknowledge considering my two largest goals in life:

1. Avoid stress and anxiety at all costs

2. Travel

This travel anxiety is also at odds with one of my stubbornly held beliefs about myself: It was all that travel as a kid that helped me learn to roll with it. Sleeping in sweltering tents and drawing backseat boundaries with my brother and having to make do for a month with only the possessions I could fit in one beer case. Understanding that sometimes there will be a traffic jam and sometimes it will rain for four days and other times I won't have a choice of what I get to eat for lunch and maybe lunch will come many hours later than expected. These are the experiences to which I attribute my ability to be flexible as sands shift. In so many aspects of this particular life we have chosen, I find that to be a most valuable skill.

Mostly I know how to take everything in stride. Mostly. So why the lingering anxiety surrounding that which I desperately crave? I don't know. It could be that what remains is the ghost of the twitchy control freak I would have become were it not for being forged in the fire of Julys in the backseat of a Plymouth Volare with a much larger brother.

These trips will not be made safer, smarter or more affordable by worrying about them. These trips will not be made safer, smarter or more affordable by worrying about them. These trips will not be made safer, smarter or more affordable by worrying about them. These trips will not be made safer, smarter or more affordable by worrying about them. These trips will not be made safer, smarter or more affordable by worrying about them. These trips will …

Shouldhead

I'm a compulsive Should-er.

Sometimes my Shoulds are pedestrian:

"I should try not to spend any more money this week." "We should get Watty's tags renewed." "We should drag all that crap from the basement out to the curb this Sunday."

Occasionally, they're insouciant:

"We should go to the beach." "We should eat Malaysian food tonight." "I should so totally buy a hula-hoop."

 

Most often, though, are the pie-in-the-sky Shoulds:

"I should go to culinary school."

"We should buy that house in Paw Paw and I should raise goats and make goat cheese which I should then use as my primary source of nourishment and you should have a go-kart track on some of the land and we should have a recording studio there, too, and also an art studio and a place for retreating which we should make available to our friends who should come out and stay for weeks at a time."

"We should retire in Ireland."

Shouldn't I say "Could" instead? Could is nicer. Friendlier. More hopeful. Could lets in a little more sunshine, I think, rather that dooming us to the dank Michigan basement of a certain future. So these ideas for dreamy scenarios flit through my brain and are out of my mouth in the form of Shoulds before I really even realize they contradict twenty other life plans we've laid out over the last decade-and-a-half.

One such Should is the current focus of our life. "We should try to get our kid to all of the lower 48 states before she graduates from high school."

This Should danced between us in the car one night, or hovered over the dinner table, or waved and flirted from the bed post in those drowsily batty moments just before sleep. I honestly don't know how or when it started, but here we are, boldly leaving the seventh grade behind us to embark on our second cross-country family trip.

I'm aiming to document the process, to ruminate on my own frugality, to have a clearinghouse for travel plans and options and ideas and Coulds. OK, and Shoulds. Mostly I want to record the experience of trying to focus our remaining years as a full-time three-piece by grounding us in this quest. The days fly quicker the older she gets, so for a little while, we're going to chart our time in miles.