Friday, October 22, 2010

No Encore

After the last song of the set, the bass guitarist raised his beer bottle to salute the fans and Ra Ra Rasputin left the stage. The crowd at the Black Cat applauded wildly.

"Encore!" someone yelled after a while, urging the local band to return.

Since the dawn of rock 'n' roll the formula has gone as follows:
1) Band leaves.
2) Audience goes crazy.
3) Band comes back.

This ritual apparently makes the band feel loved and appreciated. I like feeling these too, so who am I to argue? We make a lot of noise and they return. Our roles are scripted and ridiculous. Predictable. The songs are a surprise, the encore is not. If something enjoyable becomes predictable, does it lose its appeal? The
cookies at every office meeting. The guy who buys his girlfriend a single red rose every Friday evening. Like fans cheering in the dark, the girlfriend acts surprised when she is given what she has come to expect.

"Oh come on," I told Eric after several minutes of solid clapping. My palms were starting to hurt. "This is just silly."

Then something entirely unexpected happened. The house lights came on. The show was over. We discussed it on the way to the U Street Metro. There had been no encore. Eric thought it was sort of a refreshing change. After all, shouldn’t it be special? Maybe…Except when you expect something which is taken away, you mostly feel frustrated. Open the fridge to discover someone drank the last of the orange juice. Your friend bails on your coffee date when you’ve got good news to share. When it happens to me I can’t help but feel a little disappointed.

In April, I started a co-op group house in
Petworth, in Northwest D.C. I’d lived in three shared houses in a year and had gone to over two dozen housing interviews. There’s nothing like being judged by a group of strangers who warn they’ll steal your food, explain they like their TV on as "background noise" or ask how you feel about "loud sex".

My cunning plan was to bypass the whole system by creating my own friendly, shared house. I found a four-bedroom rental off Craigslist and attempted to root out the most interesting, fun housemates the internet had to offer. Food was to be communal with housemates taking turns cooking. I wanted to live with progressive, environmentally conscious folks who were looking for a home and not just a place to crash. I wanted potential friends. And no TV.

The four of us and a dog moved in after the
cherry blossoms had blown off the trees around the Jefferson Memorial. In the spring, we had house dinners and friends over. My housemates played music. We went out for drinks. I had helped start something new and was feeling pretty good about myself. So good in fact, I decided to start dating again, which incidentally is another interview process, but with more alcohol.

With the oppressive, swampy summer, our house started to get grimy. Mice appeared. Dog fur piled up in clumps on the hardwood floor. Frustrated by the mess, I started nagging the dog owner. A superb cook, he was frequently too busy to clean up after himself. Our friendship devolved into clipped, functional conversation. I changed tacks and tried to make peace with the dirty kitchen. We bought fancy
electric mouse traps. The rodent situation improved, but the dog owner seemed to still expect my rants even after I learned to hold my tongue. Towards the end of September, he announced he was moving out.

Fall and a fresh start. In
Rock Creek Park the leaves started changing color and we had a new opportunity to shape the culture of our house. We scrubbed and swept. Up went the ad on Craigslist. In came a flurry of emails from prospective housemates. This time we wanted "clean and responsible," not just "fun and interesting". The result was Nancy, our young but poised, thoughtful new housemate.

The other night, Eric and I came into the kitchen to make ourselves sandwiches. It was late and we were too hungry to cook. We were surprised to find steaming brown rice with a delicious tomato okra stew. Nancy had cooked and made enough for everyone.

"I could get used to this co-op thing," Eric said, taking a bite. So could I, I thought. So could I.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Joshua Tree

Ask any cactus. Times are hard and when the rain comes, you'd better soak it up fast. In the Mojave Desert, barrel cacti have accordion folds which bevel as the plants swell with water.

On a sunny day in late December, Mark and I went on our first hike in Southern California's Joshua Tree National Park. We saw agaves with curled whiskers and silver cholla cacti. My immediate favorite was the park's namesake. To me, Joshua trees looked a bit like coral à la Dr. Seuss. In the mid-nineteenth century, Mormons traveling westward to Utah, likened their branches to the biblical story of Joshua reaching his arms to the sky in prayer. As always, you see what you want to see.

"How's the trail up ahead?" I asked the lone man hiking towards us.

"Nothing spectacular," he shrugged.

Why was the man underwhelmed? Mark and I got a kick out of speculating. Could the rest of the trail be completely featureless? Unlikely. Maybe the hiker's buddy bailed on him. Maybe he had blisters. Perhaps the desert scenery had lost its novelty. One thing was certain - as the third person we saw on the trail in four hours, his gripe was not with overcrowding.

We hiked each day of our vacation and as I became more familiar with Joshua Tree's giant rock formations and wiry shrubs, my admiration for the harsh land only intensified. We had a staggering view of the parched valleys from atop Ryan Mountain. Another day we scrambled over boulders in a dry riverbed, eating lunch perched on a massive rock. Inspired, I attempted to capture the landscape with watercolors. Mark turned his boulders into a monster.

Sunsets were glorious explosions of peach and crimson, but for me, the dread that followed was palpable. Darkness. As soon as night fell, the temperature plummeted to just above freezing. We assumed comically traditional gender roles: Mark would make a fire while I got dinner started on the camping stove. Even wearing multiple layers with four shirts and a fleece under my jacket, soon it became too cold to be awake. It seems winter isn't really the best time of year for camping, even in Southern California.

I was struck by my profound emotional shift between night and day. Days were filled with good conversation and a feeling of extreme privilege to be in such a beautiful part of the world. Nights were long and challenging. However, we were rewarded with apocalyptic sunrises, viewed through the opened tent door, swaddled in our sleeping bags like caterpillars.

Most visitors to America's national parks experience the swaths of protected land from the comfort of their cars. At 19, I drove through Yellowstone, my “hiking” largely limited to wheelchair accessible walkways. Obviously we get more out of an experience when we interact at ground level. To me this means pushing myself to chat with locals in a village cafe instead of taking photos from the safety of the bus. But I wonder if this philosophy is even more relevant for subtle, natural ecosystems. Driving, you see Joshua trees and outlandish rock formations. On the trail, you notice coyote footprints in the sand and bite marks in cacti.

When I am more aware of my surroundings, I feel present in the moment and this often makes me happy. However, each night camping I became a cold, sad animal, unable to remind myself that this was a temporary state of being.

We had already been asleep in the tent for hours when folks at the neighboring campsite started yelling.

"Happy new year!"

Such welcome words. I know I'm not the only one who was glad to say goodbye to 2009. Just like a trying night in the desert, this too shall pass. When times are difficult, as they continue to be for so many of us, perhaps we need to find ways to keep slowly growing in the sun's warmth and when the rain comes, be ready to soak it all in

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Bird Outside and the Start of Something New

It is a rainy Friday morning. I'm not temping today so I'm in no rush. Sitting in my new attic room on my mattress on the floor, I stare out the opened window. Staying still, lost in thought, my eyes suddenly focus on a very large bird perched in the tree across the street. Against the gray sky the tree's spidery branches look like bronchi. The bird which I believe to be a hawk, is a dark oval in silhouette. Once I've spotted it I wonder how I didn't see it immediately, but predators know how to go unnoticed.

What does today means for me? Today is not just turning a page or starting a new chapter, but arguably it is a whole new book. I'm thinking about the past ten years. I've earned two degrees and started my independent adult life. I have begun a publishing career and had so much amazing international travel. Varanasi, Zanzibar, Marrakesh, Tokyo – these are no longer purely names to me, but places, experiences. I spent seven years living in London and now here I am back in my own country, and single again. In some ways it feels as though I am single for the first time. I refuse to stumble merrily into yet another relationship as I have always done. My eyes are open. This time is for me.

Down on Iowa Avenue, I hear cars drive past, tires on wet ground. All I see is the rain, the bird in the tree and beyond that, the brick high school.There are some who become agitated and distressed when they turn a year older. I've always thought the source of their unhappiness is not the new number, but a feeling that they aren't where they want to be in their lives.

"By now I should have had that promotion," they might think to themselves. "I should be working for a better company, in a different industry. I should own my own place by now. I should be married. I should have children." I don't mind admitting that when I was younger, I assumed I would be pregnant with my first child right about now. My mom was 29 when she had me.

The bird fluffs its feathers and shifts its weight before settling again into an oval.

Time in this world of ours goes so fast. I try and make a concerted effort to slow it down. As the hippies said, "Be here now." It's hard but I'm trying because the alternative is terrible to me. I don't want to be a spectator in my own life. I don't want to wake up one day and wonder where the years have gone. They're here. Now. Open your eyes.You can only plan so much. Due to a series of unexpected circumstances I have found myself back in the States, living in Washington, DC during the early months of our first African-American President's first term in office. After a difficult adjustment and an even more difficult break-up, I've found actually I like this city. I like the potluck parties in old row houses, dive bar happy hours, farmers markets, urban parks, drum circles and neighborhood cafes. And I am writing a novel.

To pay the bills, I continue to temp part-time doing menial administrative work for random companies. Over the summer a woman at a corporate real estate agents I was at for a few days asked in earnest, "Do you love temping?"

"Well the total lack of financial stability is fun," I wanted to tell her. "It's pretty cool being registered with eight agencies and still having weeks with no work. I adore always being the new girl, the low wages with no benefits are a hoot and seriously, who doesn't love filing?"

Instead I simply mentioned my novel. I am telling
you that I am doing this for my characters. I do this work purely to allow myself the head-space to create and hone that fictional world.

Today is the start of something new. Goodbye old insecurities, outdated fears, anxieties, inexperience and putting up with nonsense for fear people might think I'm a bitch. Hello cool maturity, joy, wisdom and pure unbridled confidence. I am ready.

Finally the rain stops. The bird spreads its huge wings and flies away. Today is my 30th birthday.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Clothing Swap

Beneath crystal chandeliers, stacks of clothing were neatly laid out on black draped buffet tables. Pop music blared while a man took publicity photos of women pawing through the garments. Periodically, a volunteer swept through, fussing and folding, rearranging by color. Hosted in a glitzy hotel by the non-profit, "Fashion Fights Poverty," this clothing swap was far more formal than others I've attended. Nonetheless the premise was the same: Bring along your unwanted clothes, add them to the pile and take whatever you want from other folks' rejected threads. Personally I seem to bring more than I take, but no one is keeping score. Everything left at the end of the day is donated.

At home beforehand, I tried on everything I owned, marching back and forth to the hall mirror. Had any of my housemates seen me, they would have assumed I was suffering form a first-class bout of "I have nothing to wear syndrome." Most of us apparently wear 20% of our wardrobe 80% of the time. This means we can get by with a lot fewer clothes and still look fabulous. The swap served as the perfect catalyst for me to dig deep and make room for new outfits.

I made no assumptions. My green sweater with the frill trim always looked attractive. But viewed with fresh eyes I realized it had become a little loose and suddenly my love faded. The unflattering trousers and shapeless shirts were easy to donate. Harder to abandon were the embroidered 60's blouse I picked up in Miami and the shiny top from Costa Rica I wore on my 27th birthday. They were wearable snapshots and I remember the days I bought each with fondness. But they simply didn't look good on me anymore which of course is why I never wore them and they were relegated to the back of the closet. This was a big old lesson in letting go. Here is something from a particular time and place, but I've moved on and the shirt has stayed there.

What do we have in our metaphorical closets that no longer suit us? Juvenile slang, outdated anxieties, unbalanced friendships. I've recently overcome my fear of biking in DC. I'm not sure how I did it exactly. I always wanted to be one of the cool kids, peddling right up to the crosswalk at red lights, ready to shoot across the intersection ahead of the cars. But in the past I was a nervous cyclist and rarely took my bike anywhere.

A few weeks ago I biked to Georgetown for the first time. Three miles from my house, the awkward route by public transportation means cycling takes half as long. As well as saving time and money, biking makes me feel more independent, it's good exercise and it's fun. But friends had been telling me this for years, so what took me so long to pull this old anxiety out of my wardrobe, dust it off and hold it up to the light? It seems I simply wasn't ready before.

At the clothing swap I unloaded my garments and came away with a few choice pieces including a pair of silk, pinstriped trousers and a flowing summer skirt. Pleased with my finds, I biked home to Mount Pleasant.

- Washington, D.C.

Friday, July 10, 2009

America's Birthday and You're Invited

As a kid, I spent Independence Day watching the Larkspur parade and fireworks at the Marin County Fair. All those years I lived in England, the day was marked solely by an email from my mom describing my Dad's band concert and barbecues. It sounded like fun, though to be honest, Halloween and Thanksgiving were the holidays I really missed. Last Saturday was my first 4th of July in the States since 2001 and I celebrated with a walk in the woods.

Jayne, our ferociously athletic 60-year-old leader, was slightly daunted when twenty-two of us showed up for the hike. Once, one of her wards got lost on this very trail and she had to call the police. And that was with a much smaller group. "Stay with someone who has a map," Jayne said. Our route took us along ten miles of trails in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, about an hour and a half drive from my home in Washington, D.C.

Trekking in Nepal last November strengthened my leg muscles. A less desirable side effect is after the Himalayas, most scenery gets demoted from beautiful to...pleasant. Folks say Shenandoah is at its best during the fall, but this time of year I saw nothing but green, deciduous forest. Piney Branch River slices across the trail and several times we gingerly picked our way over rocks, only to cross back minutes later. The river was one of the most visually interesting features and it wasn't even especially attractive. I quickly decided I was there for the exercise and conversation.

While climbing the steepest stretch of "Little Devil's Stairs," I chatted with a southern lady about horses. The path leveled off but there was no view. However, I got a thrill seeing my first sign for the legendary 2,175 mile Appalachian Trail. I felt an instant connection with Carrie who wants to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and we chatted for most of the day.

Another hiker, Ross from Guildford
, works in D.C.'s British embassy. Not meeting many Britons out here, I wanted him to know my connection to his island nation which was my adopted home. I told him I lived in London for seven years and miss the slang.
"Bollocks," he said in nonsensical agreement.
"It's the dog's bollocks," I said, equally out of context. I miss these words.
"I've been picking up new slang though," Ross said. "I watch 'The Wire' and I'm learning Baltimore drug-runner slang."

Jayne told us to keep an eye out for the old cemetery, though she might have been a bit disturbed by several of us hunkering down between the gravestones to eat, a la Day of the Dead. We shared our food, trading trail mix for breaded chicken. A man in a baseball hat offered watermelon with lime juice.
"We shouldn't tell the others we stopped for lunch," Ross said.
"Yeah," Carrie said. "They're probably waiting for us in the parking lot."
"We shouldn't tell them for two reasons," I said, looking around the tombstones.
We spotted one of our group hovering outside the gate.
"Hey, want some food?" Yelled the woman who made the chicken. The man shook his head, though I'm not sure if he objected to the cemetery itself or our location for an impromptu picnic.

"Bollocks?" Carrie asked in the car back. The hike was a success and no one got lost. "Am I even saying that right?"
"You're saying it fine." I said.
"What does it actually mean?"
"Balls," I said. "But 'the dog's bollocks' is a good thing. I guess because not many dogs still have their balls."
"Kind of like the bees' knees."

That night, I relaxed on the grass with a college friend, Capitol Building at our backs, phallic Monument ahead. The National Mall was laden with families, many wearing American flag t-shirts. Not my style, but I guess this is the day.

Fireworks exploded. The crowds voiced appreciation with predictable oohs and ahhs. I silently enjoyed the show. A lone firefly blinked a tiny display of its own. The novelty of fireworks in July. Not Guy Fawkes Night, not New Year's Eve. It was a warm evening and afterwards I walked home, legs aching.

- Washington, D.C.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Pigeon in London

April should have marked my return home to England. This was the plan until my plans changed. Instead it was only a visit. My most monumental task involved sorting through all my belongings, trappings of the past seven years and deciding what was worth shipping to Washington, D.C. I caught up with dear friends, wandered Shoreditch and ate bangers and mash. It was a good trip.

On my last night in London, my friends and I were elated from inspired cocktails with hints of chilli or ground pepper. After midnight we left the Hide Bar keen to catch the last Tube. Walking through a long tunnel we saw a flapping creature in the middle of the street. Wings rose up from the road but the body refused to follow. The flailing animal seemed pitiful, feverishly flapping but grounded. It was a hurt pigeon.

"Should we move it out of the way or something?" Lizzy asked.

"No," I said with absolute drunken confidence. "If it's badly hurt it's better to stay in the road. It'll get run over and die faster." Harsh, but sometimes it's best not to interfere.

My friends nodded in agreement. Headlights approached.

"Don't look," warned Nabila and we continued walking. The car sped past us, followed by another and another. I peeked. The vehicles had dodged the bird and it was still alive.

"Wait!" I said. "What if that's the wrong decision?" I jogged back through the tunnel. Palm outstretched I stopped the next car and picked up the pigeon.

About a week earlier, my parents rescued a hummingbird. The tiny bird had slammed into a window and they tenderly fed it drops of sugar water. They took photos and even uploaded a video to Youtube. They are tender-hearted and tech-savy. The link went out to friends and family who were touched by the beauty of the small bird.

This pigeon was not my parents' hummingbird.

I don't like pigeons. Bert from Sesame Street was a fan and some folks say they're doves. Not me. London pigeons are filthy with oily, matted feathers. I've seen them eat dried vomit.

I held the pigeon, its plump body unmarred, wiry feet dangling. It emitted a crumbling coo but didn't struggle. I couldn't see anything obviously wrong but clearly it was not well. I put it down on the sidewalk. If it was going to live this was a better place for it.

Did I wrongly interfere and extend its mysterious suffering? Or did I save the bird's life by preventing it from being flattened? When I walked by I was certain doing nothing was the right thing. A few moments later I was confident the opposite was the case. Lizzy later said she'd agreed with me each time.

Of course I have no way of knowing if the bird lived. Gears turning on drunken instinct, I acted free from doubts which can infect my sober decisions. There are no photos, there is no video to upload. This piece is the odd event's only documentation.

Now imagine what the driver saw. Wings rising from the street in the illuminated tunnel. A woman stepping forward into the road and commanding him to stop with an outstretched hand. A vision in the night.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Craigslist Provides

On New Year's Eve I met a man and at the start of February I moved with him to Washington, D.C.

We spent our first week in D.C. crashing on a friend's floor, searching for shared apartments on Craigslist. Chris and I love to cook and wanted a friendly group house with a spacious kitchen.

"What kind of things do you cook?" I asked Bill a prospective housemate. Chris specializes in Italian cuisine and I make Thai curries.

Bill looked panicked. "Chicken," he said. "And sometimes fish."

Besides not being foodies, Bill and his wife were looking for tenants to help with rent rather than friends to share a home. Bill explained his wife was born prematurely and stretches daily as physical therapy. She groaned when she learned I'm writing a novel because she thought I'd be home and in the way of her back bends.

The folks at the next house were refreshingly normal. Lisa works at the Botanic Gardens and I liked her affectionate, old dog. The room on offer was the master suite with two private porches and enough storage to house a boutique.

The third place was run-down. We walked through a bathroom into a carpeted hole the landlord called the "jacuzzi room," occupied by an empty whirlpool and a young man playing on-line poker.

Our most promising option was a shared house in dynamic Columbia Heights with Megan and Michelle, a 31-year-old lesbian couple. They host Tuesday Wine Nights and Megan reads literary fiction. We hadn't seen photos, but their ad mentioned hardwood floors, fireplaces, a grown-up's kitchen and a backyard. Unfortunately they were going to New Zealand so we couldn't meet until mid-February. After a phone interview with Megan we were told if we wanted it, the room was ours.

When we first visited the house, Frank the departing German/Swedish housemate, offered us a beer and showed us around. Chris and I were taken by the playful décor and Michelle's homemade sofa cover screenprint of birds on a wire. I envisioned us preparing feasts in the spacious kitchen. The cats were friendly. It seemed like a superb place for us. However agreeing to live with people you've never met is a leap of faith. Living with other people wasn't just about saving money – we wanted to be part of a community. We knew we could not live with Bill and his premature wife. Botanical Lisa's master suite was special, but rent was about $300 a month more than at Megan and Michelle's.

Even so, could we take the plunge and move in before actually meeting our housemates?

Trusting our instincts and keen to move off our friend's floor, we decided we would. We moved into the craft room for a week until Megan and Michelle returned home and Frank moved out.

Step one:
Find somewhere to live.

Step two:
Get furniture.

Chris started work at his progressive non-profit so in addition to my novel writing, the task of tracking down furniture fell to me. Eschewing Ikea's flatpack convenience, molding the Western world with tasteful cookie cutter interiors, I turned once more to the murky depths of Craigslist. Where we had previously scoured the website for agreeable houseshares, I now searched for beat-up dressers. I envisioned our room with a shabby chic wardrobe and gracefully ageing bedside table. In short I wanted funky and I wanted it cheap.

Despite not having a car to transport said funky wardrobes, Step Two was significantly more straightforward than Step One. Finding furniture on Craigslist is a pure business transaction. The item is the only thing of consequence. You don't need to like the seller's house. You don't even need to like them. Once you lug that twelve-foot bookcase out of their apartment you won't see them again. In fact they're probably moving. Like Hong Kong and Miami, D.C. is a transient city. As we had just moved here ourselves, I liked having an excuse to meet random folks about to move on, like a changing of the guard.

Nine months pregnant, Linda and her husband were departing for Virginia. Her old dresser was not. I loved its mismatched knobs and tapered legs. I had intended to bargain, but seeing her belly I gave her the full asking price of $40. Chris and I carried it the ten minutes or so back to ours, resting repeatedly.

The green bedside table was literally dog chewed on one corner which made it a bargain and gave it character. I met the termite-dog and silently thanked him.

Marianne, a Smithsonian scientist from Maine was selling her wardrobe before returning to the "Frozen North." The piece was from Ikea, technically breaking my rule, but she had painted it red and papered the doors. I liked her exotic artifacts and stories of living in the Côte d'Ivoire and was grateful she was willing to drive the wardrobe back to ours. But during our brief trip, someone cut her off and she freaked out, overcome by road rage. I wasn't afraid, but the incident definitely made her seem less fun.

We picked up a food processor called "La Machine" circa 1986 from Elmer, a jovial 65-year-old graphic designer. He is moving to Arizona this month and has been packing since September. Elmer only used La Machine each Christmas, to make lobster bisque. We wanted it for hummus.

Elmer had a great view from his 10th story apartment but the rooms were cluttered with boxes. He has gotten rid of an admirable number of things, but after six months of packing he is taking a lot with him. Our move was much lighter with no furniture, a few books, chef knives and several bags of clothes which flew with us. Two truisms come to mind:

1.The longer you stay in one place, the more stuff you acquire.
2.People are better at amassing new belongings then getting rid of old things.

Perhaps we are pack rats at heart, hoarding for uncertain times ahead. Yet it feels so good to let go and start afresh.

Megan and Michelle returned late one night, exhausted from their long journey and bursting with stories of New Zealand. They marvelled at the public transportation and insisted Kiwis can formally introduce themselves in Māori. They missed the cats. They were glad to be home. I think we picked a good place.

- Washington, D.C.