Saturday, October 27, 2012

Illusions I Recall

“It’s life’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know life at all.”
– Joni Mitchell

I’ve known this song my whole life. Well, at least since sixth grade. And it was the Judy Collins version, a favorite of my mom’s. I didn’t discover the Joni Mitchell original until I was much older, well into my single-girl-in-Philadelphia stint, coming out on the “maybe this isn’t so much fun after all” side of things.

I’d broken up with a perfectly fine boyfriend. Well, “fine” in that he was gorgeous and available – even if that last one was mostly due to his own inertia. We had a lot of fun together. Or so it seemed before I gave up weed in the hopes of getting a corporate job that might require a drug test. You know when you’re not stoned and suddenly an entire box of Entenmann's heavily frosted Valentine’s Day cupcakes doesn’t seem quite so delicious anymore? Yeah, that.

It was the right thing to do. I don’t even think he minded that much. I’d been a lot of work for him. We went our separate ways and that was that. But then came the loneliness of no longer having him on my couch, in my bed, across from me in our favorite restaurants or next to me in the video store…the knowledge that a better-matched partner surely existed for me somewhere, but how the hell do you find someone like that in the gritty Gen-X bars of Philadelphia or the sterilized cubicle world?

And that’s when I glommed onto Joni Mitchell’s version of “Both Sides Now.” It’s slower with more intensely felt regret and introspection than the Judy Collins one. It fit my mood perfectly. I’d tried love and life both ways, all possible ways, really, and here I was just as weary and flummoxed and alone as a sixth grade oddball just beginning to notice the world outside her imagination.

I strove to understand things, always. We didn’t have anti-bullying workshops or widespread use of terms like “sexual harassment” or “verbal abuse” until I was older. Feminism was still in its second wave glory which, in my young mind, pretty much translated to “Be good at sports” and “Boys are stupid.” Meanwhile, messages like “Fit into a pair of Jordache jeans” and, well, “Have a boyfriend” were much louder and more prevalent. And, of course, “Nerds like you are unfuckable and, in fact, barely human” was the loudest message of all.

So, while I waited for the 90’s to come and change all that, I strove to understand things. That’s where my power came from in those days. I wanted to know every angle, and I could usually analyze and outsmart to the point where I simply knew I wasn’t the inferior outsider I appeared to be.

Lucky for me, the 90’s did come and I grew into my nerdiness with a vengeance. I went to college and found my tribe. I began to navigate a social life outside my imagination. I could almost pass for normal, but I didn’t really want to anymore. Life was good. Life only got better, really, just like Dan Savage says it does. Still, in many ways I can’t help feeling just as weary and flummoxed as ever.

Striving to understand things only gets you so far. Because no matter how sharp and deep and nuanced your thoughts are…they’re only your thoughts. Your version of things is only one among many. You can put your absolute best out there and still get knocked on your ass. A lot. And the more you love and engage, the more you put yourself and your ideas out there, the more opportunities there will be to run up against ignorance and abject misunderstanding.

And the more you try to think over and around and through those misunderstandings, the more you realize that simply analyzing them isn’t enough. Each turn reveals complexities upon complexities until you just have to stand back and be amazed that human beings can even have conversations about the weather and somehow manage to understand each other. What are we all doing here?

At some point, I guess, you have to accept that you can’t control other people’s understanding. You just can’t. And instead of trying to out-think it, perhaps the better course of action is to immerse oneself in the imperfect flow of humanity and just go. Do. Make it about the process. Be in the moment. Get bruised and knocked around, have your assumptions challenged and maybe even proven wrong, let someone else’s philosophy inspire you even as it confounds and contradicts you.

Perhaps there’s no real harm in seeing something from both sides now and finding yourself more confused than ever. It doesn’t always have to make sense.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Things We Used To Do

This marriage goes to eleven. Years, that is. Married for eleven years and nearly-inseparable as a couple since the late 90’s, when Spice Girls roamed the earth and Linda Tripp brought vicious office gossip to a new terrifying low.

When you meet the love of your life at age 28 and marry him at age 32, you don’t really think of it as “growing up together.” But that’s exactly what it is. You know that line from Annie Hall, about how a relationship is like a shark? It has to constantly move forward or it dies? Moving forward sometimes means leaving things behind.

There are things I miss about the old versions of “us.” And there are things I’m very glad are in the past. But no matter what, they’re worth remembering as we settle into middle-aged contentment. Here are just a few of the things we used to do, in no particular order:

Go grocery shopping together. Every. Single. Time. What’s up with that, new couples?

Carry on a six-month long-distance relationship in the days before Facebook, Skype, or having e-mail accounts on our home computers.

Make mix tapes for each other.

Take red-eye flights. With carry-on luggage only.

Turn simple misunderstandings into epic, multi-day, heartbreaking You Don’t Understand Me fests.

Walk across the Fremont Bridge and up the steepest part of Queen Anne hill together every day after work. For fun.

Follow NBA basketball.

See movies like Coyote Ugly and Six Days and Seven Nights in the theater for Mr. Black’s old film critic gig.

Wash the car with liter bottles full of water that we’d carry down from the apartment.

Think we were going to get married at city hall and have only one child.

Think we wanted to be a lawyer and a graphic designer, making ourselves slightly miserable in the process.

Watch reality dating shows. All of them. Married By America. Mr. Personality. Temptation Island. Joe Millionaire. Proud to say we drew the line at Joe Millionaire 2.

Watch Dr. Phil together. Zod help us, we really, truly used to do that. I think Mr. Black secretly liked feeling superior to the guys on that show who couldn’t husband their way out of a paper bag.

Stay up all night playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

Get jealous of each other’s crushes and distractions. (Honestly, I don’t know if Mr. Black ever did this in the first place, but I did it enough for the both of us.)

Have sex only during particular times of the month with the express intention of spawning, paying close attention to things like basal body temperature and ovulation predictor tests.

Start dinner at 8:30 p.m. Cook together in the same kitchen, sharing counter space and everything.

Watch the WTO riots from the roof of our building.

Spend entire weekends in bed together.

Spend entire weekends watching Twin Peaks episodes on VHS.

Spend entire weekends at Home Depot. Or Bed Bath and Beyond. Or Babies R Us.

Make spectacular fools of ourselves to stop the baby from crying. You never really know a man until you’ve seen his “Mr. Poopy Wipes” puppet show.

Wake each other up in the morning with a rousing chorus of The Daily Show’s Slimmin’ Down With Steve.

Attend all four days of Bumbershoot, dawn ’til dusk, walking there from our Capitol Hill apartment.

Give each other anagrams challenges with the Scrabble tiles. Best one ever: Boutros Boutros-Ghali --> So our tuba is log broth.

Worry that somehow married life would make us lame. Because, you know. We were so cool to begin with.

Happy anniversary, Sweetie!

Saturday, October 6, 2012


Last spring, I became obsessed with bindweed. That’s the correct name for what we Pacific Northwesterners call “morning glories.” I’m not sure why, after eleven years of homeownership, I suddenly decided I care about bindweed. But when I spotted those first tiny sprouts poking through the soil in March, I immediately wanted to take it on.

As weeds go, bindweed is reasonably attractive. It almost looks like something you’d plant on purpose. But, like the weeds they are, they are voracious and relentless. Let them go and they take over everything. Flowers, trees, railings, fences, gaps between the siding, anything that stands still. The root system is terrifyingly prolific; just ropes and ropes of rubbery white noodle-like vines twisting and webbing everywhere. Drop even the tiniest piece of one in the ground and it will regenerate, Sorcerer’s Apprentice style.

It’s not enough to just pluck the thing out. You have to dig the whole twisted, serpentine root system up – gently, or it will break and regenerate. This, I found extremely agreeable. A little too agreeable. Almost to the point of fetish, really.

Garden bloggers use words like “nemesis” and “evil” to describe bindweed, setting up a sort of Bugs-and-Elmer paradigm. But that’s not my relationship with this weed at all. I’d patrol the garden like a hopeful predator, feeling a little buzz when I saw bindweed sprouts peeking through the soil.

The temptation to pounce is tremendous, but you can’t. Instead, you loosen the soil very gently with a trowel until there’s enough space for a garden-gloved finger or two. And then, ever so gradually, you work your fingers under the soil and follow the fledgling stem to its thick, white root. Burrow your fingers underneath the root until you’ve got a sense of where it’s going. Trace its path. Follow each twist and turn and tangle, carefully unearthing those thick, rubbery networks of roots one piece at a time until there’s a tremendous pile of them and the dirt is simply dirt again. Empty. Free.

Bindweed roots growing right through a broken bottle. Insidious!

I spent hours of free time engaged in this earthy little weed-thrill. “Is it up to your standards yet?” my next door neighbor asked me once.

Standards? That’s hilarious. My garden may have been increasingly free of bindweed, but there’s nothing about it to suggest that I have any sort of aesthetic standards. When Mr. Black and I first moved in, we killed the front lawn and planted it up with an assortment of shrubs and small trees that thrive with very little attention. We love being surrounded by all the leaves, birds, and branches, but we’re no Martha Stewart. It never occurred to me that my near-constant presence in the garden might suggest otherwise.

“Oh, I’m never going to be done,” I said happily. “I just find it soothing. It’s all about the process.”

“Process, huh?” he remarked with skepticism, no doubt finding me even loonier than he did before.

But it’s true. It was about the process. What’s more satisfying than tracing the literal root of something that’s been plaguing your happy little garden year after year, climbing up your firethorn and strangling your dahlias, worming its way into the siding and around the railings? You find its root and suddenly you understand it. It doesn’t have to become such a baffling, tangled mess. You can simply burrow your way along its root and unearth the thing. Set it free. Mmm, process.

I spent the whole spring and the first few weeks of summer on my knees in that garden. And then, the process came to a stop.

One night, right after the Fourth of July fireworks, I noticed what seemed like a small mosquito bite on the back of my middle finger. By morning, there was a matching one on my other middle finger. Then two more on each ring finger. Then every finger on both hands.

The original hive turned into a blister. All the hives turned into blisters. And the blisters grew into huge, watery lumps, itching and oozing and creating an overall disgusting and uncomfortable display. I had to take off my wedding ring. I even had to take off my nail polish because my fingertips throbbed and ached under its shell, trying unsuccessfully to sweat out the toxins.

The doctor guessed it was an allergy to my gardening gloves. Latex, perhaps. Or something in the dirt that was trapped inside them. Either way, my bindweed unearthing days were over. It was all about the benadryl and cortisone and pretending not to notice when people politely averted their eyes from the raw disturbing mess of my fingers.

I started to heal. Occasionally I’d take a stab at weeding, simply grabbing the bindweed by the stems with my bare hands and ripping it off at the surface, knowing the roots still lurked below, beyond my control once more.

It’s hard not to read too much into that. The sensible part of my brain understands that there’s nothing poetic and meaningful about contact dermatitis. And yet, I had to wonder.

Had I flown too close to the sun, a sort of Icarus of the Root System, digging up more than was meant to be unearthed by human hands? Had I gone too far, understood too much, a sort of Eve in the Garden of Northwest shrubs? Perhaps the mysterious under-workings of bindweed are best left unexplored by human hands. Perhaps any attempt at understanding the complex underbelly of anything – even something as mundane as a common weed – is too arrogant, too ambitious.

Or…I don’t know….perhaps I just need to find some hypoallergenic gardening gloves for next spring. Perhaps there’s no mystery here after all.

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