Sunday, April 5, 2020

Green Chile Cheeseburgers

This morning, my mom sent me a photo of some pot holders she was going to turn into masks. I told her I’d sew her a mask and drop it in the mail. She taught me to sew and while I don’t do it enough to be very good at it and it always takes me about fifteen tries before I remember how to thread the thing or how to fill the bobbin or how to adjust stitch length, I can usually make something simple and reasonably tidy. It’s busy work and brain work and I am in sore need of both.

My dad would’ve been 80 years old today. He’s been gone nearly 18 years and we still talk about him and think about him and it’s like he’s here and not here. As is our habit, we are having green chile cheeseburgers for dinner. I thawed some meat and some Beyond meat for the vegan in the family and I defrosted some green chile that I keep in little cubes in the bottom of the freezer.

Green chile was one of the few items I bought at the grocery store a few weeks ago when I didn’t realize what was really happening. Everyone was filling their carts in slow, polite motion. Everyone looked a little worried, but their eyes held not a strategic gleam nor outright panic. We were all toddlers that day. Curious, clueless, trying to base our actions on the models around us.

I didn’t want to be too alarmist so I bought some kale and some spinach and some milk, a small bag of flour and, at the last minute, and just because I happened to see them, three cans of Hatch chile. Now I long for that day. When I could have casually added baking soda and wheat flour and strawberry jam. I might have looked for tinfoil or rubber gloves and things to make Easter baskets for the kids.

We’re living in a paved paradise now. Every day thinking about what we had and what is gone. Trying to make do and get through.

I sewed four masks today – three for a friend of mine and her dear daughter, and one extra for my own dear daughter who is keeping sane by walking up and down our block or sitting on a beach towel in the drive way. Today she made some tomato soup from a recipe she found on TikTok. She made a date shake. She took some selfies and tied her long, thick hair in a knot.

My son is waging a D&D campaign with his friends on the computer. Later, he plans to watch a movie with a bunch of other people on the computer. He lives in his pajamas. He eats toast and gives me bear hugs and leaves his cereal bowls in stacks on his desk.

Eighteen years ago, my dad was alive and my son was floating in my womb and I felt as out of control and as in control as I’ll ever be. Change was rattling the windows and shaking the walls.

My husband mentioned how present my Dad still feels. “The kids know him,” he said. “He’s like… around.”

I think he’s around because we ask him to be around. We conjure him with stories and with devotion to the objects he’s made. We delight in the things that he found delightful. In Albuquerque, my brother threw some burgers on the grill for lunch. Up in the mountains, my stepmother and her neighbors have gathered as close as they can to do the same. In Morocco, our friend Autumn is eating a green chile burger. Dad is nowhere and everywhere.

Dad was the king of keeping himself amused. There was not a restaurant placemat that didn’t turn into a sketchpad, not a stick of wood that couldn’t become a face or an animal or a mermaid with outstretched arms. He turned the newspaper into magical, growing eucalyptus trees and refrigerator leftovers into both dinner (Smosnane Moosenose – a favorite with Klondike Prospectors) and fodder for bedtime stories.

Tonight, green chile cheeseburgers, Bob Dylan on the stereo, beer in a glass. A toast to my Dad and a toast to all of us, keeping on, holding the talismans, creating the rituals, telling the stories.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Postcard Roadtrip

I’ve been looking at the news approximately every four seconds, but sometimes I just look at it. I feel my eyes grow big as beach balls and let them kind of bounce softly against the words, but not really stay in one place.

Isn’t it incredible to think about a beach ball traveling through a stadium or concert venue? Doesn’t it feel a little bit like a poem when you imagine those fingers reaching up to give that bright orb a gentle nudge? I could honestly cry for the beauty of a cheap, plastic inflatable and the willingness of strangers to work together, finger print by finger print to move the thing through the air.

I am missing so many things.

I was walking through the neighborhood past all the shuttered businesses. I was reading all the handwritten notes tacked to darkened doors and shuttered windows. Everywhere was a reminder of something I’d forgotten to miss: the shared bowl of wrapped candy on the counter at the Vietnamese restaurant, the public telephone, the slightly sunken wing back chairs in the bar at the Tam O’Shanter restaurant. I miss using my hand to summon a walk signal.

Stuck inside my house and wondering about the world, I came across a stack of old postcards. They’d been part of a bulk box I’d ordered on eBay. I’d sent all the innocuous kittens and flowers and landscapes, along with notes of encouragement, to voters in my own state and in many other states across the country. But it felt odd to send vintage hotel and motel photos. It didn’t feel right to send aerial shots of beaches and golf courses or muddy photos of unfamiliar landmarks. I’d kept the postcards anyway. In case.

Today, these postcards provided an activity and a destination. I picked a few, turned them over and wrote the first thing that came to mind. And then I mailed them.

If I am to believe the blurb on the reverse of this one, The Marott (aka Queen of Indiana Hotels) boasts 500 luxurious guest rooms and two suites. Three Dining Rooms. Two Cocktail Lounges. There is banquet seating enough for 500 guests.

I want to bounce on the beds in each room. I want to check my lipstick in a wide mirrored vanity and twist the cap off a tiny bottle of shampoo. I want to hold the soft rectangle of wrapped miniature soap in the palm of my hand and inhale the chalky floral scent.  In the cocktail lounge at The Marott (Queen of Indiana Hotels,) I will slide into a leather banquette, rest my elbows on the table and look up at the waiter as he deals out cardboard coasters like cards. Order a Roy Rogers, a Shirley Temple, a Jack and Ginger in a bucket. Get whatever you want. It’s on me.

Oh, won’t you join me, when this is all over, for a banquet at The Marott? Or for brunch at Lehr’s Greenhouse? Or perhaps we could pick up a hammer and join in the barn raising.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

I know what I know.

Last night, while I was making dinner, I used a salad spinner that I bought at the 99Cent Store in Silver Lake back in 1992.

While I was making the salad, we were listen to Paul Simon’s Graceland. The album had been mentioned in an LA Times article featuring albums to listen to during this time of hunkering down. My husband is trying to find some structure. Reading the newspaper and taking part in all the offerings of communal engagement is one way to do that.

Graceland makes me think of my freshman year of college when a dear friend sent me the cassette and I listened to it approximately one million times. When I listened to Paul Simon’s sweet voice last night, I marveled at his magnificent metaphors and wept a little as I stirred the risotto. My own son will be a college freshman in the fall. How is this possible?

It is possible because time passes and that is one thing we know.

I’ve been keeping track of the things I know and using them as anchors or stepping stones. Or maybe a better metaphor is the planks in a swaying, decrepit suspension bridge. I’m not looking down at the chasm. I’m keeping my eyes up and I’m putting my feet down on the the known when I can.

Here’s what I know right now: last night, my son did the supper dishes while Prince sang “Let’s go Crazy.”

Yes. Let’s. (But just a little.) Because here’s what I also know: there is milk and cereal for breakfast. There is bread and butter for toast. My dog is out of his skin with joy when I pull the leash from the closet even if a few moments later, he’s dragging his feet on the trail. He’s willing and reluctant and so am I in so many ways.

I know my boy will go to college. One of these as yet unvisited, untested places will be a vessel to hold my kid, a petri dish of experimentation and growth and magical transformation.

And if it’s not. Perhaps, later, when he leaves the dorm and strikes out on his own and he moves into a place that seems a little run down, but the landlord says it’s okay to paint the wood floor and it’s okay to have a cat and it’s okay to leave the windows open all night, then this is where he’ll start to grow.

Or, maybe, (and this is where I get all hopeful,) he’s growing now.

My daughter has used this time to transform her bedroom from the space of a kid to the space of a young woman. (She will be so grossed out by that sentence when/if she reads it and that’s okay with me.) She’s painted white over the pale blue of six years ago, and, yesterday, I helped cram a menagerie of stuffed animals into an oversized, black plastic bag. Though I have a strange aversion to plush, and have been trying (with little success) for years to limit the collection of stuffed animals, it was hard to press the flat of my hand over these cheery familiar faces. I looked away from their bright plastic eyes and let this collection of childhood friends become one cumbersome body that we lugged down the stairs and crammed into a bin in the garage. I sat on the bin to get the lid to close.

I saved two old friends. A squirrel named Squirrel and a bedraggled tarsier named Little Freak. Liberated from the anonymity of the pre-school toy box, Squirrel lived a flamboyant life in my daughter’s company. His companion, Little Freak was given numerous hairstyles and was loved into a grubby, matted nub. Did I save them because they were the most eccentric of the animals? Because their diminutive stature reminds me that my towering daughter once had the smallest of hands? Was it the curious light in Squirrel’s button eyes or the windblown ear-hair of Little Freak?

I can’t know.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Washing hands

"I've never in my life read so many articles about hand washing," my husband says.

He's already reminded me to watch my pace. And I've reminded him to get the spots under his wedding band.

"Ah," he says, "Another peril of marriage."

He bumps my hip with his.

Our soap smalls like basil or maybe parsley or cranberry or jasmine or lavender. In every room, in a dish, or pumped from a bottle, the manufactured smells of out of doors.

In the actual out of doors, nature cranks up Spring.

Mock orange, eucalyptus, mown grass and, last night, like a breath blown all the way from my 1970s childhood: fluid and hamburgers and cigarette smoke.
These communal smells conjured forbidden gestures.
Licked fingers.
The sharing of lit tobacco from lip to lip.
Unwashed hands brushing.

Monday, March 23, 2020

All we can do.

A few days ago, I thought, hey, I’m going to start blogging again. And I did. One time.

But there are so many hours in the day, you say. And to that I say yes. I’ve been filling these hours with walking and writing and cooking and reading and sitting on the sofa and watching television. I’ve given up asking the dogs not to sit on the sofa and they are so happy. I’ve done a bunch of laundry and wiped down all high-touch surfaces. I am doing these things and, I imagine, you are doing these things, too. And for all of us, the days have stretched and merged.

Yesterday morning, I was sitting on my sofa with the morning papers (2 on Sunday) and I was also checking my phone every five seconds and I posted a picture of my first walk of the day and also a beautiful poem by the amazing and necessary Jane Hirshfield, whose new book, “Ledger,” has just come out. You can read a review of the book here.  You can read the gorgeous poem itself, here.

When I posed the question “What going on for you?” people answered with descriptions of meal preparation and toddler meditation. I read about virtual baby showers and the pulling of weeds. Friends spent their day working on getting out the vote and thinking of things to do with an excess of Swiss chard. Songs were being sung, television was being watched, books were being read.

My husband has nearly finished the second of two 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles. My daughter learned the moves to a new tik-tok dance. My son has built a cathedral in MineCraft. I have baked a vegan bread pudding that delighted even my most carnivorous family member.

We are all doing so much.

We are doing all we can do to get through this.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Thoughts of HOME

The last time I went to a theater, COVID-19 was in the news, but at this point, (just under two weeks ago,) it was still possible to step out of a cool evening into the warmth of a crowded and well lit lobby and not feel overwhelmed by thoughts of the virus.

We saw Geoff Sobelle’s “Home,” a performance that nearly defies description. Prior to attending an event, my husband will sometimes ask, “Is it a play? Or a piece?” He needs to know what he’s getting into. He needs time to prepare. “Home” was a little of both.

We sat together in the dark and watched the magic unfold. A door opened. A wall was built. A bed appeared. It’s hard to describe this show without ruining it. I don’t want to ruin it because it feels like an expression of faith to imagine that you might, one day, buy a ticket and take your seat amidst friends and strangers in a quiet space. It is an optimistic assumption that you will have a chance to see this show and experience it for yourself.

As a high school student, I considered the theater my home. That space was so critical to my identity that, even with the burden of three decades on my shoulders, I could still sit at a table with my eyes closed and draw for you a map of the Performing Arts Center at Manzano High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I imagine my pen travelling from the last row in the house to the tiny dressing rooms just off stage right. The front of the stage was high enough to encourage sitting with dangled legs. The curtains were heavy and velvet. The scuffed sound tiles around the house phone, just off stage left, where I leaned my shoulder and pressed the receiver into my ear, is where I heard my stepmother read aloud the words of my college acceptance letter.

Geoff Sobelle asked us to consider the definition of home. He asks us to imagine the life of a house. What happened before you lived in your house? What will happen after? He showed us the daily rituals that, year after year, create a union of continuity among the residents.

The virus asks me to stay in my house. At home, we practice rituals of social distancing, while continuing to perform the rituals of ordinary life. The rest of the world is distant, but sometimes it feels that we are on top of each other. Every day my husband and our two teens create our own performance. We make schedules, prepare food. We try to work and study. We walk the empty streets of the neighborhood or we run on the treadmill in our garage. At meals, we laugh a lot. We sit at the table together for longer than we have in some time. We let ourselves be held by the order of placemats and forks and knives.

My son is waiting to hear from colleges. The end of his senior year of high school is being held on line. A few days ago, he showed me the Minecraft model he was building of the sanctuary where his graduation would be held. “The CDC is limiting gatherings,” he said. “Just in case we need to go virtual…” He showed me the rows of empty seats, and the arches and doorways. He walked me through the space and I marveled at the way the light streamed through the stained glass. “I wanted to put the sun where the light would stream right through the big windows,” he told me.    

There was a graduation in Geoff Sobelle’s “Home.” A member of the audience played the role in cap and gown. Other audience members were given a bridal veil, a baby, a funeral. The rituals of our lives take place when and where they can. They bloom out from our homes like scarves pulled from a magician’s sleeve and then, in times like this (have we ever had times like this?), fold back into the most familiar of places.

Today I took a pencil and wrote on a piece of paper: Breakfast. Walk. Be creative. Lunch. More work. Read. Prepare dinner. Rest.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

A Four Way Stop is A Conversation

Many years ago, fresh out of college and broke as an egg in a bakery I took a job teaching traffic school. I dutifully learned as much as I could about the rules of the road and then, a few times a week, I talked for nearly eight hours straight in a series of hotel conference rooms. In addition to a much needed paycheck, the main perk of overseeing this detention for grown ups, was my access to a group of adults, most of whom were happy to answer my questions about “the real world.” I taught them the regulations of a four-way stop and reminded them who has right of way on a hill and, in return, they gave me their opinions on everything from cheap health insurance to the best Dim Sum.
I’ve been thinking about this class lately as I drive around Los Angeles. In the twenty-five years I’ve spent in this city, traffic has become increasingly congested. My old secret, speedy routes are flooded with Wazers and every four-way stop seems to have been reduced to a hair raising game of “Chicken.” Nearly everyone seems to have one eye on the road and one eye on the screen. At stoplights, heads are bent over texts and emails and status updates.
During the lunch break at Traffic School we all ate pizza because it was included in the price of the class. Because these classes usually took place in a corporate hotel in some far flung suburb, everyone stayed together. Because no one had the opportunity of turning their faces toward the tiny screen of a phone, we all looked up and into the eyes of the person across the table. As a result of these conversations, I wound up with book recommendations, casserole recipes and once, even a date with someone’s recently divorced nephew.
A four-way stop is like a conversation. It is an exchange that requires awareness and patience and the desire to take an interest in the lives of your fellow human. At a four-way stop, the first person to arrive has the right of way. If two or more people arrive at the same time and are travelling a perpendicular route, the default always goes to the person on the right. If there isn’t a person directly to the right, the turn passes to the right of the empty space. In this way you alternate between east west traffic and north south traffic. It’s a loose and imperfect system and one that was developed when there were less cars and fewer distractions. It’s a system that relies upon eye contact and careful attention.
At the beginning of every class, I’d go around the room and ask my students what brought them to traffic school. I knew there were two ways to answer that question. It was truthful to say “because I don’t want the points on my record.” It was also truthful to say “because I was driving 85 miles per hour in a school zone.” Both answers revealed something about the student. Both answers spoke to the commonality of the group. No one argued about whether or not they belonged in traffic school. Everyone accepted the fact that they’d broken the rules. Some people may have disliked the rules or disagreed with them, but we all believed in the existence of the rules.
As I drive around my city, there appears to be less and less belief in the existence of the rules. The streets, which belong to all of us at once, seem considered by some drivers to be private property. Rules apply only when deemed convenient or without burden. The conversation of the four-way-stop has turned into a shouting match or worse, the concentrated, willful obliviousness my children call “ghosting.” From some, there is no response save the gunning of the engine and the squeal of tires.
What separates us on the streets is mostly paint. There are yellow stripes between lanes and painted shapes and words on signs to guide us and keep the peace. When I was just out of college and teaching traffic school to a room full of adults, I was moved by our general acceptance of the power of paint. That we would drive at high speeds in opposing directions separated only by a line the width of my palm seemed a shared acknowledgement of both our vulnerability and our courage. Our human bodies are soft and cars are hard. This fragility can also be applied to the rules of the road and the whisper thin strands of humanity that connect us all.