Monday, September 13, 2010

Call of the Thrift

It’s fall in Seattle. We got in on Friday and in Indiana it was still summer, so I didn’t feel bad about wearing white capris, even though it was after Labor Day. But then I looked around and people were in jeans. And sweaters. And UGG boots. So summer is over here for sure and I need to try to remember where I packed the woolens.

We’re still in the unpacking stage. Everything other than the CDs is out of boxes, but only about half of the items have told me yet where they’d like to live, so there is some chaos. Last night, some of my books insisted they wanted to live on one shelf and then, just as I settled into another project, they started chattering and insisting I move them to the other side of the room. They are very indecisive and self-involved.

This morning I had to drop off our rental car, where Tor, the manager, always greets me by name and makes me feel special. (I have close personal relationships with at least two of downtown Seattle’s car rental agents. Tor is the more sophisticated of the two. The other is called Johnny and looks and acts like Denis Leary if Denis Leary had jailhouse tattoos on his hands and rings on every finger.) There’s no story here. I share this description only for texture.

Before I took the car back, I stopped at the thrift store to drop off two bags of detritus that we don’t want but that seemed just this side of too good to throw away. When I got there, the store wasn’t open yet, so I pulled into the tiny lot and waited. Next to me was an old Toyota that had a Japanese man and his aged father-in-law in the front seat and the man’s wife in the back with a huge cardboard box. An eager older man with a sporty backpack stood at the door peering in. Periodically, someone would walk up, try the door, read the sign, and then back off sheepishly, as if they’d been tricked. I sat staring at the other sign reminding me that it is illegal to dump items and wondering if it would still be illegal when clearly the thrift workers had already arrived and so I wouldn’t technically be abandoning anything.

I had what I thought was déjà vu until I realized I was simply remembering waiting in line in the wee small hours outside of a Ticketmaster purveyor in the days before online ticket purchasing. Oh, the anxiety that came before those doors would open up. What if they never opened? What if someone tried to butt in line? Or, in the case of the Ticketmaster on my college campus, what if when the shade went up on the window the woman with only one arm was standing behind it? She was remarkably fast, typing with that one hand, but in a world where a single keystroke could make the difference between second or tenth row, we all desperately hoped it would be another two-handed someone taking our orders. The people outside this particular Capitol Hill thrift had that same desperate, slightly crazed look on their faces.

I had no real need to go inside and buy a set of mismatched plates or a globe on which half the countries have been renamed in the forty years since it was sold, but the agitation of the door-watchers led me to believe that something truly amazing had to be going on inside that shop today. When the door was finally unlocked, the ten or so people who had been waiting, rushed inside, including the ancient Japanese man who was propping himself up with a cane in one hand and his daughter’s arm in the other. I walked in and handed over my donation and perused the perimeter of the store, trying to see what everyone was so excited about. It looked exactly like it always does: a whole lot of dusty VHS tapes, banged up furniture circa 1980, some seriously worn out shoes, and a tangle of electronic equipment. Today, there was a table with some unopened bottles of peroxide for some reason, but other than that, nothing unusual. I poked at the handbags and considered one until I thought about how it used to belong to someone else and then I got kind of icked out and started toward the door. The guy at the counter thanked me for the donation and because he seemed friendly, I asked what the hubbub was about. Turns out, every Monday is like that because that’s the day the prices drop. I looked up just in time to see the ancient Japanese man pushing his new (old, dented, and dusty) wheeled walker. He had a massive smile on his face, like that single item had been calling to him earlier through that locked door. I can’t say why, but seeing his joy made me terribly happy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Freedom Trail

After the speediest MFA residency ever, I graduated on Saturday. Z snapped pictures, my friend Meghan waved the arm(s) of the giant, fluffy starfish she got me to celebrate, my mentor cried a little and gave me a huge hug, and then I woke up the next morning exhausted, hung over, realizing I’d failed to say goodbye to at least six people, and wondering what exactly is next. Seriously? What next? I’ve been so busy reading, writing annotations, writing essays, sending in packets, revising, writing a critical thesis, a creative thesis, presenting my work, reading my writing publicly, that I realize belatedly, I have no post MFA plans in place. I mean, I was a writer before I started the Great MFA Experiment, but now I either have to REALLY be one (discipline, production, revision, submission Submission SUBMISSION.) Or I have to admit that I’m too lazy or easily distractible to produce. There’s a huge part of me that wanted to leave the residency, set up my new writing studio in Seattle, and write my heart out before the fall teaching semester starts. But Z and I had travel plans, so what I’m doing right now will have to be classified as field research. Here are my notes so far:

• Don’t travel with an over-sized, congratulatory Smiley face balloon because it will wriggle out of its restraints and make its way to the front of the car, blocking the driver’s vision.
• Celebratory hydrangeas and irises (a gift from Z) do not like to travel down the coast of Maine in the summer.
• Wait staff will offer lobster-eating pointers if needed.
• US 1 is not unlike US 40 in that it seems to be made up of a series of dilapidated buildings, closed businesses, fruit stands, and Check-n-Goes. It could be the Midwest minus the occasional glimpses of the sea.
• Not all in-door dining establishments and gas stations have restrooms.
• Probably the air conditioning in your hotel room will give you a cold. Resign yourself to it and buy a big box of Puffs.
• Don’t even try to play the license plate game in Maine. All the plates you’ll pass are from New England. And you can tell because of the way they hoot you, change lanes rapidly in front of you without signaling, and generally have their own system of driving that was not covered in your driver’s ed class in 1983.
• Boston may be in the U.S., but the city planners were European. You will never know where you are. You will be hot, you will be crabby, you will hate Boston. And then when you are back in the cool, sneeze-inducing hotel room, you will start to remember it differently, as a city that you might actually want to visit again.
• The red line connecting the historical sites on the Freedom Trail disappears, so don’t get too used to it.
• The swan boats you’ve heard about your whole life are not built for two, but for an entire, extended family. Way less romantic than you imagined.
• Boston Common isn’t so huge, so don’t expect Central Park, Kensington Park, or St. Stephen’s Green.
• For every forty-five historical sites you visit, one will mention that a woman was involved in shaping the country’s early history. (They really dropped the ball, those Ladies of Antiquity, who were apparently just sitting on their asses, eating bonbons, while their husbands did all of the hard, hard work of nation building.)
• Harvard looks surprisingly like the college in Ohio where you got your M.A. so it should probably get over itself.
• Au Bon Pain has restrooms. They aren’t always clean. But the toilets flush.
• Even though as a child you loved the Bewitched episode when Samantha visits Old Salem and is followed around by an enchanted bedwarmer, your husband will likely not see this as a reason to drive an hour in the wrong direction.
• When Z’s friend’s wife looks over the tops of her four year old twins’ heads and mouths that you might only want to eat half a cupcake, don’t be greedy. Listen to the woman. The children helped make the delicacies and while she was out of the room added ingredients that may only have been extra baking powder but could have included copper sulfate.
• You don’t know why, but seeing the place where the Declaration of Independence was first read does not make much of an impression (you are thirsty and tired and would gladly give up a little independence for a Hop-on-Hop-Off Trolley tour at this point), but the Old North Chapel chokes you up.

Two if by sea, baby. Two if by sea.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Shakin' It

On the three day journey to Maine for my final MFA residency and graduation, Z and I stopped in New Hampshire at the Canterbury Shaker Village where we had lunch and visited the gift shop. The meal was served family style, and we were lucky that we were seated with a couple from Brooklyn, who were chatty, and a local couple in their late seventies who were trying the restaurant out for the first time. The wife was obsessed with finding a short cut home, because she hadn't appreciated the bumpy route they'd taken in.

As a child, I went to the Shaker village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, twice and was taught to see the beauty in the craftsmanship and simplicity of the furniture. (Always, I felt relief that I was not Shaker as their dedication to hard work seemed like something at which I was destined to fail.) As a young adult, I learned to appreciate some of their more feminist principles and commitment to a belief system, and if I did think about their celibacy, it was only in a romantic way--I wondered about the Shakers who were unable to resist temptation and imagined tumultuous, secret meetings in hay mows and pastures, bonnets hanging on fence posts, flat brooms cast aside. As a bride, I smiled wryly as Z and I marched down the aisle to "Simple Gifts" because the rest of the evening was a testament to excess and kitsch--once you put zebras and polka dots on your wedding cake, all attempts at plainness and simplicity have been abandoned.

Since I was a teenager, I've had recurring nightmares about accidentally joining the army or a cloistered convent, and then having to live out my days on someone else's schedule, doing the jobs assigned to me by some overseer. To the best of my knowledge, Shakers weren't big evangelizers, and even if they had been, given their abstinent lifestyle, you can count the number of Shakers still living on one hand. Even so, I worry about things like accidentally becoming Shaker and having to abandon my current way of life. So I stood looking over these tidy buildings and manicured lawns and considered the married couples who joined the Shaker communities and dissolved their unions--their families--because they were so committed to their beliefs. When I was a child (and later, a single adult), I never considered the wrench and pull of moving away from a couple and into a collective, but this time--as Z ushered me away from a $700 sofa table in the gift shop and towards my MFA destiny—it seemed unfathomable to un-tether the self from a beloved familiar. Would a fellow Shaker remind me to take my Prilosec each morning or tell me that I’m excellent during moments of self-doubt? Would he or she buy me surprise candy bars or do the laundry solo when I have a writing deadline? (Would a Shaker sister or brother have the spare time to do such a thing even if he or she were so inclined?)

As I slid into the too-warm seat beside Z and our car crept along the gravel road, the village got smaller in the rearview mirror. It somehow felt like a narrow escape. Give or take a century and a little geography.

Next stop: Maine.

Saturday, July 03, 2010


This is a just a warm-up, to see if the engine still has life.

Z and I just opened what is likely our last wedding gift, and I’ve written the last thank you note, so I’ve got no more excuses for this blog sabbatical.

I never meant to be gone so long, but it turns out getting married is exhausting. I had all of these big plans to blog about the months, weeks, and days leading up to the big event, but in the end, I was doing well to remember to leave the house with shoes jammed on my feet. In the end, did you really need to read about me scouring the countryside for the perfect cake, worrying about whether the chicken parmesan would end up down the front of my dress, begging a DJ to play an African-Irish mélange of music instead of the soft jazz he kept insisting would be a hit, or fretting about how my tea-totaling relatives would react when they discovered that Zimbabweans (and Zimbabwean brides) like to drink? Nah, not really. It all seemed terribly important seven months ago, but now, not so much. No doubt this is why people kept telling me to relax and enjoy the experience (and then I would look at them like, are you kidding me?) It’s over in a blink.

What you need to know is this: minus the light-dusting of snow that Z and I had requested, his pants being approximately six sizes too big and in need of serious safety pinning, a momentary short-term memory lapse that left me confused about my vows, and an over-zealous uncle who cut in on our first dance, the evening was perfection. It was an auspicious beginning to this union. Yay!

Z and I are packing up for five weeks “back east,” where I’ll finish my MFA program, we’ll visit some traveling Zimbabwean relatives, and pack up my worldly Hoosier goods for the movers, and see my family. Probably the new juicer is going to miss us.

The engine has caught and now seems to be idling just fine. Let’s see how much mileage this blog can get out of it in the next two months. If it doesn't get past the first turn, then it might be time to junk it.