Just beneath the surface of normal

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Story Time

I won’t lie: it was a rough summer. Between Corinne being in Europe all summer/deciding to move to Spain next year to finish her degree (eeeeeeek!), and the unfortunately wide variety of soul-sickening news, I’ve been a bit at a loss for words. I still want to say…something…about those things, but I’m struggling.

In the meantime, let’s talk about my best friend – my daughter’s semi-namesake and the primary person who helped me refine my sense of humor (so any complaints should definitely be directed at her). She’s also the woman who taught me about crocheted fetish-wear. QED.

Her daughter is in kindergarten, so she’s still square in the world of story books. Which means I get these texts that go something like “I have to share this with someone – I’m so proud of myself for keeping a straight face on this page!” followed by some of the most blatantly inappropriate content that can only have gotten past editors & publishers as a sort of easter-egg gift to parents who have read this book 63 nights in a row and need something to prevent them from lighting the book on fire.

I have to admit, I was too overwhelmed with figuring out parenting when Corinne was small to notice the funny little things that would have gone a long way to keeping my spirits up. This is just one of the many secret benefits of waiting to breed worth trading in for the ability to get by on minimal sleep (really the only benefit of starting young).

Seeing her and her adorable daughter was one of the highlights of my summer (getting caught up in the Delta debacle on the way home was much less so). Since I’m fresh off a healthy dose of best friend, you should probably prepare yourself for more than one Why-I-Love-My-BFF. Yes, know – I keep avoiding naming her here because she’s a teacher; but that’s difficult, so now we shall call her Katrina. That’s not her name, but it’s close enough, and gives me something easier to type than “my best friend”.

Here are some of the actual book pages Katrina has sent me:


That…sea lion? Loch ness monster…? whatever it is is definitely UP to something, IFyaknowwhatI’msayin!


This is from a Norwegian book so popular that they built a whole theme park about it. One assumes kids can even extract their own ass-breads!


This is a sketchier out-of-context book, because I’m not sure how one could even do a goat in front. Though I guess props for asking first?


Katrina: “Do you think Mr. Vagin is compensating?” Yes. Yes I do.

Have you ever had to stifle a laugh reading a kids’ book? Come on, share the wealth!




Since I returned I’ve tried to think of a nice way to summarize my trip to the Pacific Northwest. Well, in between the naps and the getting sick, that is. It turns out I am now officially too old for red-eye flights and while I might have managed okay with landing at 1:15 AM, the hour-long delay had me staggering in the door well after 3 Yes, I know, it doesn’t add up. First there was the gauntlet: to start, I arrived five terminals away from where Jim had parked the car that morning when he left for Nashville, and had to schlep my bags through a mile of parking garage in the middle of the night. And then it started raining. And then I found out that the bridge was closed for construction over night and I had to detour a few miles to another bridge…in the middle of the night in the rain. I made it home, and was greeted by a giant banner of spider web stretched across the walkway, which probably meticulously spelled out “welcome home, dinner!” before I walked blindly into it. I always did know how to ruin a surprise.

What with the toiletry unpacking and the CPAP setting up and the sexy, sexy mouth-guard cleaning, I wasn’t in bed until a few minutes after four in the morning (which is at least symmetrical, since that’s when I got up to leave the week before). I slept until 2:15 the next afternoon, and probably would have slept later if my therapist hadn’t called to ask me if I might have forgotten something, like our appointment. So yeah, jetlag like crazy. Punctuated by a nice pair of fillings at the dentist. Welcome home.

The best I can say of my return is that I now understand that when I utter unto myself the words “I can probably manage”, I should treat them as though they are a flaming swarm of killer bees shot out of a cannon. I may be able to survive it, but it won’t be pretty. And it’s really entirely unnecessary. There is no award for managing or surviving stupid self-induced pressure and I won’t do it anymore. Probably. So hey, growth! Maybe.

The trip, though? It was really wonderful.

The problem with wonderful is that it’s way less interesting to write about. It’s the moments when everything goes stunningly wrong that are hilarious and fun to tell. It’s much less entertaining to tell you about how we visited colleges and old friends and I got to watch my daughter fall in love with the Pacific Northwest as hard as I did. There’s no dramatic tension in learning about her music and daydreaming about creating forage gardens in our town for hungry people, or her wonder at the profound dearth of litter and the ubiquity of trees, hipsters, and drive-through espresso shacks. Every parent should take a road trip with their teen and just bask in the amazing person they’re becoming, the things that captivate them, and the unsteady (and still at times irritating) way they are learning to express their boundaries and needs. That was a week my heart will savor all the more as she ages, and she gets good at the lessons she’s struggling with now and moves on to new challenges. Watching her analyze the colleges we visited in terms of who she is and the kind of experiences she wants makes me excited to meet the woman she is becoming (and I am a crafty mom, showing her schools in our future hometown, am I not? It’s like going away to college and staying home all at the same time!).

That’s not to say we didn’t have some odd adventures. We are us, after all.

After touring Evergreen, we went into downtown Olympia for dinner to check out the local scene. Our first impression was that it was incredibly charming. Our second was that there sure were a whole lot of homeless people. Evidently they wander up and down the west coast en masse, chasing the temperate zone like a pod of dirty, smelly, panhandling whales (alas, there were no panhandling whales pics on the internet, unless you count save the whale campaigns, but they lacked the requisite dirty blond dreadlocks). We navigated past a number of them on the way to a brew pub, where a young hipster in (no, really) breeches, hose, and a flipping alpine hat told us we couldn’t eat there because she’s under 21 and kids there evidently aren’t allowed to go to establishments with views of the bar. Nonplussed but giggling all the way, we moved on to another establishment, past yet more homeless pods loitering in the doorways of night clubs and tattoo parlors, and past a garden shop with a neon sign that read “no tweekers”. It was very different than the street on which we parked a couple blocks away, and sort of reminded me of old-school South Street in Philadelphia, in that “um, am I in over my head?” sort of way.

At the restaurant, we ordered a plate of of tot-chos, which are nachos made with tater tots instead of chips.

these are insanely good, and managed to not kill us. Probably because none of this actually happened. Really, this photo is the only proof I have that we were ever even IN Olympia, WA. If that was really Olympia at all…

In a matter of minutes, while we waited for our order, the following things happened:

– A group of women my age but dressed like trashy teenagers came in, and one was telling the others about how her boss likes to text her her pictures of mushrooms.

– A hipster with an Amish beard and hat and a pentagram t-shirt came in with his friends and sat down at the booth behind us. Neither of which is particularly remarkable – mostly it was the combination that we found entertaining.

– A person identifying as female – which was awesome, and I wish I saw that much casual comfort with owning gender identity out here – sat down nearby and we got to listen to her use her lovely high voice, which was really more novel than weird, but still part of the greater tableau of “things you certainly don’t see every day in Philly.”

– The eleventh Doctor walked by. Yes, I’m sure.

– A homeless man ordered coffee, sat down, started talking to himself about things that probably made perfect sense in his world but sounded like paranoid rambling to the uninitiated, and then he started singing. He had a pretty nice voice, and was providing us genuine entertainment, so we anonymously bought him some pie, but he asked for fries instead, so we bought him some fries.

I am so glad Corinne was there to provide corroboration for the fact that that entire episode really happened, and was not some kind of weird fever dream. Or if it was, it was a shared one. The waitress was an Evergreen alum, and super-helpful in providing some advice about going there, so even if it was a shared hallucination, it was at least very useful. And Corinne managed to not be scared away from Olympia to the point of deciding to cross Evergreen off her list, so it was probably a pretty good initiation as far as those things go.

In general, we met lots of neat people, laughed at hipsters, ate amazing food, got her cell phone stolen (which we both kind of enjoyed, since it allowed her to be more in the present than managing constant texts would have otherwise allowed), left my debit card in an ATM in Astoria, got stuck behind a painting truck going 8 miles per hour on highway 101, so (between the slowness and the losing of the debit card) we didn’t have time to go sandboarding on the dunes in Florence after all. We also sat in a mountain hot springs with itinerant hippies, went bowling with some of my best and oldest friends, played with their adorable kids, went whitewater rafting and beach biking, measured the pros and cons of some really amazing colleges, and planned adventures for our next visit out.

Corinne on a beach bike in Manzanita. This is much harder than it looks, but every bit as much fun.

I came home feeling refreshed and rejuvenated – everything you want from a vacation. I felt the rust and hardness of coping with life on the east coast crumble away, and my ability to be polite and friendly and make space for others come back to me. Leaving broke my heart, as it always does, but it was tinged with a new sense of “only two more years and this will be home.” Almost 20 years after I initially decided I wanted to live there, I am finally on a real trajectory to make it.

Driving to the therapist that first morning home, I was surprised by how un-used I had become to the incredibly aggressive and pushy driving that passes for normal around here. We are too many rats in a cage, incessantly chewing on one another in a desperate attempt to create more space. I want to hold onto that easy vulnerability and kindness, but I feel it slipping away already.  I am so ready to retire.

Bring. It.


The Long Road Home

I just returned from four days in the Midwest to attend my grandfather’s funeral in Iowa. Because I’m cheap, I flew into St. Louis instead of Des Moines, because even with flight and rental car, it still cost half of a flight from Philadelphia to Des Moines less than 2 weeks in advance. It also gave me a chance to visit with friends in a city I once lived and started a family in, long ago and far away.

I picked up my rental car, reveling in the relaxed ease with which everyone connects. I learned from the Budget shuttle driver where he had gone to college and what his sons were up to. There was no need to pry; he offered it freely. The counter agent kindly upgraded me to mid-size – it turned out to be a red car with Florida plates. I found my old ability to accept politely and without complaint, even though I had essentially rented a Nissan Police Revenuemobile.

The real injustice began when I tried to leave. Evidently newer model cars no longer have keys. They have start buttons. I know what you’re thinking, because I once thought it too: a start button, how brilliant! You push the button and go! Except that five minutes later, I got out of the car and roamed the parking lot in search of someone who could show me how to make it go. Pro tip: you have to depress the brake for the start button to turn on the engine. Not the emergency brake, the brake brake. You’re welcome.

I drove north through the east side of Missouri and up into Iowa, marveling at the total lack of phone service. It turns out that the bars on my phone turn blue when you can access the internet and stream your entire music collection through the car stereo. It turns out that you shouldn’t expect to be able to do this outside of a metro area. My phone dwindled from 4G to 3G to 1x, singing “Daisy, Daisy” ever more slowly as it reduced to a couple of gray bars that I couldn’t even say what kind of service they were. Analog? Does my phone even pick up analog? Bless Jim, or it would have been a long and lonely drive through a rolling landscape littered with creepy anti-abortion billboards about murdering cute babies and nothing but either country or christian radio to to keep me company. Before phone service went away entirely, he told me that the songs you stream onto your phone get cached and you can listen to them locally. I’m pretty sure I owe him something important now, like letting him wear that awful quilted flannel shirt in public.

On my drive, I looked at the stratified layers of limestone crumbling away in the places the hills were cut away to accommodate the road. I had an extremely deep thought about the metaphor of growing up in land like that, which I was totally going to blog about, and I even stopped and took a picture of it:

Like layers on a roadside cut, so are the days of our lives.

Like layers on a roadside cut, so are the days of our lives.

I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was now.  Think of it as a philosophical version of Hedbanz.


So it was really nice seeing my family, meeting my dad’s cousins and their kids, and feeling so connected to my roots. I got to see ancestral graves, the dilapidated farmhouse where my great grandmother lived, and hear lots of family stories. I enjoyed seeing the funny little habits and traits I share with my family. I wish I could remember one, but I had lots of “me too!” moments where I saw all the amazing ways that coming from the same genetic/cultural soup gives you the same flavors, even if you’re distinct in lots of other ways. Oh yeah, here’s one: my super-dry skin and scalp totally comes from my dad. Thanks, Dad. But there were other, funner things (Also? Spellcheck didn’t flag “funner” as not a word, though it did mark “spellcheck”, which is weird. I feel so vindicated. I hope you’re reading this, Jim.). The upshot is that I come from funny, kind people with a lot of integrity who are so genuine that they sometimes don’t realize they’re stepping on your toes, and you hate to point it out because they’re so nice and you know it wasn’t on purpose. Make of that what you will.

But so what made this funeral so special was that my grandfather planned it himself several years back. I gather his sister(?) passed away and he was dealing with funeral arrangements and was all, “dude this totally blows,” and he decided he’d never put his loved ones through that hassle. So he spent a year – I didn’t even spend a year planning my wedding, people – planning his funeral. He wrote his own obituary, he picked out family photos for a slide show, he picked out music, he covered all the details (perfectionism would be one of those family traits). It was kind of awesome, like a final party he threw for friends and family. Granted, a rather sad party, but it had his fingerprints all over it and I loved it. Except the part where the military salute included gunshots that I wasn’t expecting and I jumped two feet in the air in the front row where everyone could see and it probably ruined a really solemn moment for a lot of people, but I didn’t want to bring up my PTSD at a funeral, so I’ve just decided to believe that everyone else behind me jumped, too.

From now on we should totally all plan our own funerals. Mine will have crazy costumes for people to change into, and conversation starters with dick jokes on them, or perhaps an assortment of anecdotes about times when I embarrassed myself. And there will be gypsy music. Sort of like if a Jazz Funeral got lost and wound up in the middle of Burning Man. There will be a quiet room where people can look at pictures and feel sad for a little bit, but I want my life celebrated and gently mocked. Preferably with tropical drinks. At the hotel my aunt made Old Fashioneds, which were grandpa’s evening drink of preference (though completely different from the recipes I just found online – his involve fresh squeezed oranges and maraschino cherry juice, so it’s more like a whiskey sunrise, I guess?); it was delicious and I felt very close to him at that moment, so I will definitely serve up my favorite drink at my funeral. Well, not personally, because that would be weird. And gross.

I drove back to Missouri on Sunday & spent a couple days visiting with old friends. Not as many as I would have liked, but I wasn’t there for long & I just left a funeral. I had once belonged to a very tight-knit group of pagans, which is kind of like belonging to an evangelical Christian church, but with more nudity and dancing and being cool with everybody doing whatever works for them. But the being religious all the time and tightly connected to your worship community and potlucks part is very much the same. I’ve sort of moved on from there and my spiritual practice/quest for inner peace is basically going to therapy, and it works really well for me. But I miss the sense of community. A LOT.

It was wonderful to visit people who I know so well that I don’t have to guess whether they’re laughing the uncomfortable laugh or the appreciative laugh. People who will take your outrageous jokes about vibrators, or eating babies, or whatever, exactly in the spirit they are meant – which is to say, holy crap, of course I would never eat babies or wield a vibrator in that fashion, but it sure is funny to imagine, isn’t it? – and then they will one-up me. I love those people. When I leave social events in NJ, there is always the conversation in the car that goes something like this:

Me: So, do you think that dead baby joke went over okay? I hope those quiet, conservative looking people weren’t too uncomfortable.

Jim: No, people laughed, and everyone loves you, I’m sure it was fine, and it was completely germane to the conversation, it’s not like you blurted out something about dead babies into a silence.

Me: Please don’t let me drink at parties anymore.

Jim: You had two glasses. You got a little loud, but you weren’t outrageous or anything.

Me: Do you think I should send them flowers?

Old friends mean never having to worry about whether that joke went too far. They will instead tell you that it was a horrible joke and give you tips on how to improve it. Because that’s what friends DO.

For the first time ever, I thought about moving home. I don’t think I could, because Jim needs to live near the ocean. But I wanted to. One of my best friends likes to say, when asked how she ended up on the west coast from Missouri, “they opened the gates and I ran,” and I used to agree. But I miss that pace, and the friendliness. I have managed to mute the memories of judgment and anxiety that go along with that culture, and I suppose I like to imagine that I’ve been in therapy long enough not to take that crap in anymore. But I guess the best part about visiting is that you get to experience the best, and then go home and miss it some more.

Yesterday would have been the 40th birthday of the daughter of the woman who shuttled me back to the airport. She died of a rare and aggressive cancer six years ago. I hope it was a good funeral. I’m glad I got to share in celebrating her for a moment on a shuttle bus back to the airport to fly home.

If home is where the heart is, I’m going to need more hearts.