Portlanders on Portlandia

It's a given that since I live in Oregon and we're contractually obligated to do so, I listen to NPR. In one of my several legally mandated hours of listening, I heard about this new television show called "Portlandia." Funny, since I actually came up with the term myself, but do I see my name on the credits? I do not. Anyway, I decided to ask me about my experience of "Portlandia" because I live in Portland, I have Portland opinions, and people are also obligated, being from elsewhere, to know that I know best.

QM1: You're from Portland.

QM2: Yes. Well, no. But I might as well be. Aren't we all from elsewhere, really?

QM1: No. Your son is a native.

QM2: Because of my good sense, yes. He is.

QM1: How do feel about Portland cliches?

QM2: What cliches? Who could possibly develop cliches about Portland?

QM1: Portlanders are a bunch of emo coffee-drinking, beer-crazed bicycle messengers.

QM2: Well...I don't ride a bike.

QM1: You don't?

QM2: I have a bike, I like to think I'll be a bike messenger someday, and I'm absolutely pro-bike. Except that I'm too lazy. I drink beer instead.

QM1: How about the vegan, family-farm, natural slow-food locavore movement?

QM2: I hate slow food. Nothing is more annoying than ordering my virgin-blessed tempeh souffle and having it come half an hour later.

QM1: "Slow-food movement"--The idea that good, healthy food takes time. Unlike "fast food."

QM2: Oh. I like "Burgerville."

QM1: That's not slow food. Not even vegetarian!

QM2: Their burgers taste like there's not a lot of meat in them. Does that count?

QM1: What about other things? How about the DIY craftiness of Portland? It seems everyone is making something from scratch and selling it in Greg's on Hawthorne.

Palazzo della Pollastra, in progress

Palazzo della Pollastra, in progress

QM2: I had chickens. Does that count?

QM1: I don't know. Did you make them and sell them in Greg's?

QM2: I made a chicken coop. It was very DIY. It's well-constructed enough that I'm going to make it into my mother's future residence.

QM1: That's...not legal?

QM2: It's plush! No-one could argue that it's cruel. It's got two levels and a foundation. I've lived in worse.

QM1: What about the chickens?

QM2: The chickens are gone. I realized after the girls ate every single shrub and bulb and twig in my yard, that their eggs were pretty expensive.

QM1: My god, you...you didn't...

QM2: Eat them? Yeah, I thought about it. You can't eat someone named "Gigi" though. Or "L'il Bit." Or "Houdini the Chicken of Mystery."

QM1: So what did you do?

QM2: Gave them to some other fool Portlander who had the chicken dream. What else?

QM1: How are they?

QM2: I have visitation every other weekend and they're doing fine. Now they're destroying someone else's yard.

QM1: I'm curious. Why do you think people in Portland want chickens? Or to make their own beer? Or to have everything they eat grown by castrati trained-farmers who double as midwives?

QM2: Well, other than us always being right, I think it's because we think it's the right thing to do. Even if we can't change the world, we actually believe we can. Hapless idealism. Hopeless optimism. We actively believe we can do something right once in a while. Even if it's wrong.

QM1: Like getting chickens.

QM2: Like getting chickens! I mean, yeah, okay. It was expensive. It was really stupid. I spent more money on those chickens than on all the eggs I've ever eaten and will ever eat in my life, but you know why? Because I thought I was doing something noble and smart which was going to give me awesome eggs. Pretty stupid, but pretty hopelessly romantic and sweet too. I think the seed of Portland nuttiness lives in my chicken coop. Not literally of course. My mom will live there someday.

QM1: So you think Portlanders think they're right because they think they're doing the right thing.

QM2: Yeah. I think so. Well, I know so. Because I'm from Portland.

QM1: You're from Boulder, Colorado.

QM2: Same thing.

Notes on a Garage Sale

  • I'm old enough that you trying to knock my price down from 2 dollars to one? You're a dick. 
  • Garage sales are for moving shit you don't want into the hands of people who want it or need it. Garage sales were not invented for scavengers and vultures to rip them off to go sell their shit in a junk store for three times the price.
  • If you're going to sell my shit in a store at three times the price, how about you wait a day before you sell it IN FRONT OF YOUR STORE TWO BLOCKS FROM MY HOUSE?
  • No, you can't have it for twenty bucks. I said twenty-five, and if you don't shut the fuck up, I'll raise it to fifty.
  • Really? You can't afford the two bucks for a paintbrush which is worth 16 dollars, and you know it's sixteen dollars because you're an artist: YOU CAN'T AFFORD TWO BUCKS?
  • Take your "This set of dishes isn't worth twenty-five because this bowl has a chip" and shove it where the sun doesn't shine. Because you know what? These dishes deserve a better fate than your face.
  • How about you get your hands out of boxes which are sealed shut? NOT FOR SALE.
  • Yes, you. 
  • Your kid is a snot.
  • I'm not a professional. I don't want to haggle with you. I think it's tiresome and I'd rather be doing just about anything. As such, I price things fairly. Don't get huffy because you're a cheap ass idiot. I don't actually care if you walk off with that teacup or not. In the end, you can buy it in Value Village and see if they'll haggle. Idiot.
  • Have a nice day!

Earthquakes and Images

This has been a bad month for earthquakes. The Pacific seems to be working things out with its tectonic plates in a spectacularly violent fashion, affecting those near and dear to us in dramatic and terrifying ways. Our hearts, usually occupied by the few square miles around our own lives, become pained by the vision of devastation of those we love far away, and we struggle to make sense of the distances between us, our inability to run at a moment's notice to the aid of the victims. I have a love-hate relationship with images. I've written about them before, in somewhat more personal context. But every massive quake or tsunami in the era of the 24-hour news cycle becomes one more opportunity for me to dip into helpless depression, a feeling of impotence. The horror that we all experienced watching September 11 unfold internationally, I still remember with crystal clarity. I also remember the depressive episode I experienced afterward, culminating months later with me jumping in a car alone for a road trip, trying desperately to shake the grip of helplessness that had strangled me since September.

Our own Zara is in the middle of the most devastating events of her life, her world having been literally shaken to its foundation. I can only watch with grim respect as she answers her own need for understanding by writing it down and sending it to the rest of us via the wonder of internet connectivity. And in the face of this most recent earthquake, Japan's northeastern shore being washed away by an unimaginably horrifying wave, I find myself torn in twain.

My son goes to a Japanese immersion school in Portland. Every day, he goes to school and interacts with his Japanese teachers, and a host of interns who, for one year, elect to uproot themselves from Japan to learn how to be teachers in the United States. The interns are woven into the fiber of our school: we have to do fund-raising, an impossible amount of it, every year to bring our interns here, and every year the community rises up to pull us through the financial gap. We're saying good-bye to this year's interns tonight at a party thrown for them. They will perform for us, we will give them awards, there will be Taiko drumming.

But I'm not sure it will be so celebratory.

As the first video of Japan was coming in last night, my husband and I watched the tsunami roll in over a tiny town. It was gripping and slow, the first wave having already flooding the area, the surges behind creeping up to continue the brutal work of the leader. The journalist in the helicopter above must have been dazed: every time he turned the camera to the sea, there was wave after wave, lined up like battalions, ready to smash into the already wracked earth below. On live television we watched as entire neighborhoods were washed up into the interior, cars, planes, houses. At that distance one can imagine that these are but toys, but we know with grim certainty that those cars and houses belong to people who are also being washed away.

I fight internally with myself. My need to be informed about these horrifying events, which touch people I know personally, rubs against my knowledge that if I look too deeply at the crisis, I can be thrown into another bout of useless debilitating depression. I'm not being useful if I just fall into the trap of watching the videos roll in with the same regularity as the tsunami surge to shore. I'm only creating that special fragility in my own psyche where the darkness can enter and take hold.

So my heart goes on being pained and open and broken on behalf of the victims, but I willfully turned off the video this morning when I could feel the chinks in my armor start to give way. The video is too visceral, too overt. And I wonder if we, those of us so far away, are actually experiencing shock--misplaced because the horror is not ours.

I understand the need for the images to get out. It makes our world small, and we reach with tiny hands across the breadth of the ocean. We rally our resources to aid strangers, we donate money and send rescue teams, we wish we could do more, but do whatever we can to bridge the space between. But I feel the media fatigue already. I'm turning off the video storm surge, and going to the party for our Japanese interns tonight instead, to ask them what they need, what we can do, maybe just listening to them talk.

I can do nothing else.

The First Rule of First Grade: Do Not Talk About Nazis

My son Milo started reading when he was three. Almost seven now, he reads everything and anything--with the exception, he explains, of "fiction." If it's not based upon something tangible in the world he's not interested, which makes him a strangely knowledgeable authority on things well beyond his years. Milo knows about many subjects, but like his father he's got a remarkable memory for dates, maps and events over the course of human history. And while he's still very much a seven-year-old, thus making historical context a little complicated for him, he can tell you with fair accuracy the major events of both the First and Second World Wars. He knows about shipwrecks, which ones went down when, what the differences in their destruction were, why the passenger liner Lusitania is suspected of carrying weapons destined for England (a second explosion in her hull after the Germans shot her--a suspiciously huge blast which sunk her in eighteen minutes).

Last week over waffles in Hawaii, Milo was reading a souvenir newspaper I bought him from Pearl Harbor, a tiny little grownup pouring over the tragedies of December 7, 1941 with the gravity of a concerned citizen. "It's so nice to see a kid reading the paper," a gentleman told my brother. "No-one reads the paper anymore."

My brother, not having kids of his own yet, readily recognized the perfect opportunity to brag. "That's nothing. Check this out." He turned to Milo. "Tell me about the mongoose."

Milo considered for a moment. "Well, they hunt during the day unlike the palm rats, which means they're not nocturnal. So they're diurnal. Yep. Diurnal. Also, they're invasive here in Hawaii."

The man just stared. "Okay, then!"

My brother laughed with pride when he told me the story.

This is what we have to deal with around these parts: a seven-year-old who is extremely seven-ish when it comes to his emotional maturity but can pull facts out of the clouds like rain. His insatiable quest for knowledge keeps us up long past his bedtime with his queries about historical events. Last night, in the dark, looking at the mottled shadows: "Tell me about the French Revolution."

The French Revolution isn't one of my stronger suits. I admitted to Milo that he really should ask Dad about it, but the short of it is this: people were sick to death of monarchs and took matters into their own hands to create a republic, but then everyone got a little carried away and started slaughtering people mercilessly from all quarters. Then a little short guy led the French army throughout Europe, taking over a great deal of it until they got to Russia, which by its very nature defeated Napoleon and his troops.

"That's the 1812 Overture," Milo said.

Good grief, I thought.

So you will understand when I explain that his head doesn't work within the realm of superheroes and sports figures. He works with historical heroes and villains, Nazis and Napoleon, U-boats and the Blitz, air raids and invasions on land and by sea. This is what he knows.

He drew a picture in class the other day on the back of his spelling test. In it two people in a fire truck drive up to a burning building, at the top of which is a tiny figure, apparently caught in the fire. One stick says to the other stick, pointing a little stick finger at the building, "That's a Nazi."

Which, if you know my kid, makes perfect sense.

But his teacher somewhat frantically pulled Lars aside to point it out. "I wanted to show this to you," she started. "I didn't even notice it at first, but some other parent saw it and was really upset by it."

Lars took a look at it. "It's what he knows," he said. "He knows about World War II and he knows who the Nazis are." She looked unmoved. "Our family is Jewish," he said, a strange sort of justification when you get down to it.

"It's just one of those things we need to be sensitive about," she said. But she was rattled and didn't know how to deal with it. She wanted it to go away.

After Lars explained the situation to me, we were at a loss. Milo hadn't condoned Nazism, nor written about how Adolph Hitler was a fine fellow with great ideas; he had drawn a picture with a Nazi in it. A stick Nazi. Had the words, "That's a Nazi" not been written, it would have been just another seven-year-old artwork exploring seven-year-old anxieties and thoughts about his seven-year-old world.

And we realized, both because we were getting defensive, but also because we were genuinely angry about it, that if Milo had written "That's a Turk," or "He's Pol Pot"  or "That's Darth Vader," no-one would have thought twice about it.

Now we were placed in the unenviable position of explaining to Milo that his teacher was upset by something somewhat intangible. He hadn't espoused any belief in the Nazi philosophy, nor had he made reference to anything they had done, either in support or condemnation. He hadn't done anything wrong. We explained to Milo that we weren't mad, but that he couldn't talk about Nazis in school. "Why?" he asked, reasonably, I might add. If you can't talk about Nazis in school, where can you talk about them? Are schools for learning about everything except the Nazis? He'd written a solitary word, one based in a period of history he knows about, in a drawing. He'd written a word. "I can't believe my first grader is being censored!" Lars said, and while "censored" is a bit hyperbolic, I have to agree: this was much ado about nothing.

If the word "Nazi" still has the power to terrify in this knee-jerk way, it makes me extremely uncomfortable about where we're headed. If we can't talk about Nazis, we can't talk about what happened in World War II. And if Mark Twain's "niggers" are excised from Huckleberry Finn, we can't talk about slavery or the Civil War with any realism. If we're hair-trigger about certain buzzwords like "Nazi" and "nigger," even in their context while overlooking other historical atrocities, like Cortez storming the New World and Mao's "Cultural Revolution," we're whitewashing all of them, either by hysterical touchiness or willful ignorance.

Language is only as powerful as you're willing to make it. To de-fang Nazis, who still feature prominently in popular culture despite our first grade teacher's wish, we have to talk about what they did. Indiana Jones, made of video game LEGO's or celluloid, still fights them in front of thousands of children every day. Children are exposed to Nazis; if we can't explain why they're important, we've lost the struggle for making meaning out of the meaningless.

Because nothing was more meaningless than the Holocaust. If we cannot try to explore the senseless, meaningless horror of it because we can't write the word "Nazi," we're in a whole heap of trouble.

Bringing Home the Oddly Practical

I'm looking at a box on my table which contains a jumble of completely inconsequential objects with which you are intimately familiar and feel absolutely no passion about one way or another. This box has in it: two Sharpies and several ballpoints, some emblazoned with logos of businesses and charitable organizations. There's an oddly misplaced Crayon (Carnation Pink) and several "Chip Clips." I see a stapler hiding among the twigs and plastic of writing implements.

The pressure gauge was an afterthought; having created this pile of oddly practical things, I decided it was also oddly practical and belonged with them, though in truth I will be surprised if it makes it to any practical location for practical use. The gauge will eventually end up in the basement surrounded by dusty tools that we don't use. The tools we do use always end up on the top of the basement stairs waiting to be put away. By the time we finally put them away, we use them again.

The tire gauge will not live with these tools.

On the other hand, the tape dispenser is invaluable. Sick to death of little plastic cases of Scotch® Tape, we buy bulk boxes to refill our dispenser, but now it's missing the widget which holds the tape roll, rendering it a paper weight. No longer; now we have a tape dispenser.

There's a stapler next to the tape dispenser, and this, like the tire gauge, I took because I didn't know what else to do with it. Do people buy second hand staplers if you give them to Good Will? We already have a stapler. Do people keep multiple staplers?

A box of white schoolhouse chalk; a pencil, specific to both its location and its task: you only ever see these pencils in bulk bin aisles or the library where people pocket them and bring them home, just like this one. A "click eraser," which is peculiar. When would you ever need so much eraser which wasn't attached to a pencil? But I know the answer to this question.

A Rolodex takes up a lot of space in this small box. It's nothing to look at; black plastic, white cards, handwritten entries, sometimes in multiples, which are scratched out as the entry documents the movement of the person it records. It's an anachronism now which is funny because it's a relatively recent invention. I mean in the big scheme, not the little one. This one might be about 15 years old. Still, outmoded by electronics.

Perhaps the only real oddity in this box is a metal utensil. It looks like a very tiny prop in a Terry Gilliam movie, or a gigantic piercing gun for a really sadistic tattoo artist. But this is the only object of sentiment in the box, though inscrutable in purpose.

It's an olive pitter, of all things. Top of the line, $9.95 at the Peppercorn kitchen store, and I bought it myself about twenty-five years ago. I actually remember buying it, which is strange because it's a kitchen implement. Do I remember buying my dishcloths? (I do. Maybe I should evaluate my memory.) It's a really classy model, too, because you can pit two olives at once. I thought it was ingenious at the time. I was so proud of myself for buying it.

I bought it for Dad's birthday one year. I bought it because our family ate buckets of Kalamata olives: in salads, in dishes he cooked, in pretty much anything that would benefit from an extra hit of salt, which, as we know, is everything. It might be the first present which I bought for Dad instead of for myself, in that unbelievably myopic way that kids buy their parents presents. And he was completely over-the-moon with my present. He loved it genuinely, not just because I gave it to him. He loved it because I knew he would use it, and because I thoughtfully picked it out for him.

And since improvisation is the cook's bread and butter, he used it so that my friends benefited from it in countless ways: that summer, he pitted the sour cherries from our tree in the back yard, and baked pie after pie after pie all summer long, making the pies as fast as the ravenous young appetites could scarf them down, which, on good days, was a pie a day. I don't even like cherry pie. But those pies were loved completely and thoroughly by a rotating band of hormonal, growing late-teens who loved my father because they loved his pie. They also just loved him, but they really, really loved the pie.

Dad always welcomed the roving tribes that wandered through. We sat in the kitchen or the living room, and he wouldn't engage us in conversation--sometimes he'd interject some funny quip-- but he'd stand in the wings observing the strange habits of a completely alien species. There wasn't any protective nosiness in it, just curiosity. In fact, he should have intervened more often than he did, but I know why he didn't. I forgive him this flaw. He watched us, a mixed band of weirdos with funny hair, boys, girls, hippies, punks, bohemian knockabouts; my first love, a young Turk with a slight lisp and a rapacious appetite for screwing around with my friends. My cronies.

Dad, the artist and observer, was always amused. Who wouldn't be? Teenagers are funny, thinking they're the center of the universe, the smartest guys in the room and the most charming, even if all the other losers didn't know it yet. Dad didn't talk much, just made pie. All summer long, pie after pie after pie.

Funny. I think I ate maybe three pieces of those pies.

The olive pitter has been following Dad ever since, and I know he used it until he stopped cooking. He loved olives, though he no longer had a reason, nor the cherries, for making pie any longer.

Now this box of oddly practical things sits on my table and I need to put them away: an Ebony artists' pencil Dad used in his sketch books (the "clickable eraser" is its mate), the chip clips with which he closed pretzel bags, his one snack addiction. The Sharpies he used to write the titles on his watercolors, those he painted up until his final collapse. Photos of our family from his refrigerator. His Rolodex, full of friends and loved-ones and former students, whom I hope know that Dad passed away: Dad received a Christmas card this year from a friend promising a phone call and a visit later in the new year, full of jollity and unfulfillable expectation. I'm saddened by this card. I have to write to the author to tell her Dad is gone but I don't know how to say what I have to say.

The tire pressure gauge is from his days as a bicyclist; he never learned to drive. I'm relieved he never drove because he was always preoccupied with looking at the world around him through the eyes of an artist, not the eyes of an alert driver. The world was a safer place with him on a bike.

The box of chalk might be twenty years old for all I know. It was the companion to an ancient slate chalkboard that we used when my brother and I were growing up. It was our grocery list, evolving over each month as the refrigerator became more bare until payday when the list disappeared and the fridge refilled. Dad was an impossible creature of habit and though he always had to transfer the list to paper when he went shopping (on his bicycle, of course), we wrote on that chalkboard forever. I picked up the habit myself, and now we have a chalkboard in our own kitchen. And now Dad's chalk, though Dad finally retired the board and just wrote lists on little slips of recycled paper he culled from old lectures or other things he'd written.

These little things, oddments of life, strange detritus from an archeological dig, are meaningless without the animation of human touch. I sift through the rubble of his life, not knowing what to do with most of it, not knowing what to do with the stacks of art books, the thousands of photographs he shot for his landscape paintings, the hundreds of paintings themselves. They had meaning with him living among them; now there's so much to pick through and we cannot absorb it all.

But the ridiculously commonplace objects are easy. You bring them home and use them until they too are gone.

Farewell and Thanks and See You Soon

In Which a Rabbit Goes Ominously Away, Fading Briefly While Acclimating to a Life Without Anchor

Dear Tiny Little Rabbit Audience,

We had some good times, huh? Some laughs, a lot of tears, some shared agonies. Whew. It was really something.

I'm closing up shop for a bit. I'm sure all you Lagomorph lovers will understand that it's been one helluva year and I'm taking a little break from publicly spewing my life all over the interwebs like a seasick child. I was glad to provide the narration to our pain, but now I'm in enough personal pain without Dad that it makes a little less sense to me. After all, I was always writing for him, even when he couldn't read any longer, even when I had to read it to him at the end of his days.

I kept looking at Dad those last couple of weeks, getting frustrated, wondering what was going to come next, what little squabble we might find there, what strange horrors and sadnesses would find us. And then I remembered that it was always the last squabble, the last memory, the last completely mundane conversation we'd ever have. It never made sense to me that he was there in that perfectly crystalline moment, and then he wouldn't be any longer. It still doesn't, but it remains true: he's not here. And I keep confronting it day by day and minute to minute.

Love to you all who followed the Chronicles. It was a helluva ride. I miss Dad like bonkers mad, but am so happy to have reconnected with so many of Dad's people. Cheers to us all, in the strange world without Dad.

Things Fall Apart

One of Dad's oldest and dearest friends Betsy was visiting from New York when my brother Chris, my husband and I went to Dad's house to do some chores for him. Dad had been persistently prodding her to go through his library in the basement, thousands and thousands of art books, literature, mythology, to sift through them and take what she wanted. He's been nagging all of us to do the same. It's the housekeeping of dying. "I'm so glad you're here today," Bets said. "It's really hard to be alone with all those books."

She paused. "I mean, great, I'll have all these books. I'll find room, I have a big house, but what am I going to do with all these books?"

An expression of suffering graced Betsy as we talked, an expression many of us have worn in the last few days, faces crinkled with emotional fatigue, eyes milky but dammed by necessity. We look fragile, exposed, confused and scared. We're watching our rock slowly tip toward the sea and we can't fathom it.

"He really wants me to take the books?"

I nodded.

"So I take the books?"

"You take the books."

This visit has been full of conversation and celebration. Dad has seen many close friends from out of town, and we've had lovely gatherings both large and small, but he's fading into a haze of exhaustion and illness. And, in a bellwether of things to come, he took a plunge backwards and fell on his ass while coming down the stairs from his porch.

My brother was visibly shaken by the event, but Dad thought it was hilarious. "I felt like a turtle who had been flipped on his back!" he snickered.

We didn't find it funny at all. Dad's bones are compromised by the cancer, which has spread like tracks of a freight train through his ribs, shoulders, but most especially his hips, and the medicine he's taken to combat the cancer also thins his bones. They are waging a war in tandem against his internal structure, and as his weakness becomes more profound we've been holding our breath for this very moment. A broken hip would be a disaster of epic proportions.

It's also true that my brother and Betsy happened to be there to witness his fall, but Dad spends much of his time alone. If he hadn't had company, if my brother hadn't been there, Dad wouldn't have had immediate help. And he probably wouldn't tell us about the fall because he wouldn't want us to worry. Which we all know is absurd because after all, he's dying. Things really can't get a whole lot more dire than that.

Unless you break a hip.

Regardless, our pain was skimming very close to the surface this week while all of us, together and separately, struggled with the much more overt reality of Dad's mortality.

•   •   •

Because Betsy was doing her reluctant duty sifting through the stacks, I was, by proximity, somewhat committed to doing the same. My brother had given me a gentle ultimatum the night before. "There are already gaps in the bookcases," he said. "You don't want to miss your chance." Chris has been loaded down with every photography book Dad had, and Betsy was getting the guided tour through the philosophy and classics sections. Other friends had plundered different regions in the landscape of books, Dad hand-selecting many that spoke to his great affection for the people he imagined getting the most out of them.

"Betsy has picked some real gems out of his paintings, too. You want to get down there."

I'll be frank: I haven't felt a pressing need. I don't know why; I'm aware of the finite timeline which has been picking up speed in the last few months. But much of my time is spent with Dad, and when I'm not spending it in the car or in lobbies or exam rooms, I feel like I should spend it washing our clothes or picking up our neglected piles of detritus in our own house. Or writing, which happens less and less these days.

There are other more poignant, less practical reasons I haven't made it a priority, which became clear as Dad stood in the center of the room using his cane as a pointer, suggesting certain books to Betsy and different books to me. It seems I have no criteria other than sentimental ones. I wandered toward modern art, pulled out a Roy Lichtenstein book and set it in my pile, as I remembered browsing through Lichtenstein as a child, amazed at the moiré dots of comic strips writ large. Maybe my son will be similarly fascinated. I pulled out James Joyce's Ulysses and set it aside, a book I've never read despite its profound effect on my father. It's the same copy I remember migrating through our house, shelf to shelf, to table, to shelf again, bound in blue cloth, worn gold lettering, no dust jacket. Dad read it so many times that he knows parts of it by heart; it lives in my pile now. Maybe I'll read it.

I pulled out two massive art books: Da Vinci and Michelangelo. I set aside Mike because I pored over every sculpture as a child, amazed at the life he breathed into rock. Leo I pulled out because dammit, no-one else should have it. The book must weigh twenty pounds. Maybe my son will learn how to read Renaissance Italian backwards and learn to build proto-airships because we have this book.

My brother looked at my stack while passing through the basement. "Damn. You got the Da Vinci."

I became confused, didn't know why I picked it out other than that it seemed like someone should. "I thought Milo might learn how to build crazy contraptions," I joked. "You can have it."

"No, you. It's fine."

"You know where I live," I said. "You can get it anytime."

Betsy was deciding, based on my selections, whether or not she felt possessive of the things I had stacked. "I feel my cupidity coming on," she admitted as she toddled over to where I stood, her own hips creaky with stiffness and metal. "What are you looking at over here?" she asked as she gazed over my shoulder.

Dad admonished her gently. "You wouldn't be interested in that, Bets." He shoved her toward another area. He was pale, circles under his eyes pronounced by the harsh fluorescent lights in the basement. The swelling in his face from the edema made him a doughy gray. He was unsteady, but unflinching in his desire to pass this torch, to get the job done. I moved a chair for him to the center of the room where he could choreograph our dance through the stacks of his life.

"If you're going to take Finnegan's Wake, Bets, you have to take the Key. It's the only way to understand it." He paused. "You should read it aloud. It makes no sense if you can't hear the words," he said.

"Maybe not this time," Betsy sighed as she placed the book back in Joyce's area. She grabbed a collection of shorter stories instead.

Unintentionally I found myself looking at the paintings Betsy had set aside and I felt my own cupidity rise. What if she took the one painting I wanted more than any other painting? What will I do without it? I had no criteria to work with there in the paintings, either. Dad hobbled behind me through the poorly lit areas where his artwork, hundreds of pieces, live in tidy stacks against the walls, a lifetime of work housed here: nudes, landscapes, abstracts, pieces from the Cleveland Painters Union, a fictional group of artists who together protested the NEA's dictates about "pornography" versus "art;" Dad painted in six different styles for six different artists, even created a several hundred page dossier of correspondence and biographies for each character/artist and hosted a gallery exhibit of "their" work at his university, hiring a friend to play the part of Irene Varvel, a woman who created installation pieces. Now they live here, all his characters, his alter egos, in the basement.

I crisscrossed from stack to stack, pulling out his landscapes. The more austere ones of Colorado don't speak to me the way the ones of his trips to France do, even though Colorado was my home for the first half of my forty years and I've never seen France the way Dad did. Maybe that's why I like his paintings of France; they're his alone.

I gravitated toward blue and lavender sunsets more than high sunlight. More lush foliage and dappled light than his stark, spare mountain scenes. Desert scenes less than water views, but more than Boulder environs, my home town, which is strange.

But then I stumbled across a painting of his art studio in Boulder, a silly ad hoc building covered by low shrubs and lilacs, cobbled together from found and recycled construction materials when I was just a baby. I was surprised at the force of my emotion, face to face with my home growing up. My backyard. I began to feel ill.

He was explaining the location of each landscape with vivid clarity, each trip frozen in moments through his eyes and hands. But the paintings I set aside for myself, including the one of his art studio, seemed random and unedited, a poorly curated exhibition of Dad's work. Or maybe I was too distraught to see clearly.

"I feel seasick," I said. "I have to stop."

"Okay, I understand," he said.

I made my way upstairs to help Chris, abandoned to his task of putting up a railing where Dad had fallen the day before; and my husband, abandoned to the task of fixing Dad's irrigation before the heatwave hit and Dad's garden, which he loves, withered. I stood on the porch when Chris walked up. "I think I'm falling apart," I said, as a wave of grief struck me with the force of a cattle prod in the heart. He put his arm around me as I gasped a couple short hiccups of sadness.

And then I went to buy everyone lunch.

Dad was pleased. "We did some good work today," he said. "It feels good, virtuous even."

He was lucky. The rest of us felt like a train had hit us and then backed up to make sure we were really, truly damaged.

•   •   •

That night my brother and I sat on my patio, talking about our days with Dad. Mostly we laughed. We slapped away the mosquitoes, vicious this year because of the late, wet spring, but we refused to go inside. We pondered Dad's businesslike attention to the minutiae of wrapping up his life. We told stories about him. We drank too much. Smoked too much too.

"We'll have to have a thing for him back in Colorado when he dies," I said. "A party. All his friends are back there."

"Jesus."

"Sorry."

"It's just that it didn't occur to me," he said. "Of course we will."

I've lived face to face with Dad's deterioration since the beginning; Chris is witness to peaks and valleys between visits. He sees Dad one month and he seems pretty good. Wait a couple months and it's a changed landscape. He hasn't had time to catch up, catch his breath. But the cancer isn't waiting for Chris. It's got its own internal schedule specific to no-one but Dad and itself.

Chris was devastated when he arrived last week. I called him the day before, just to give him a head's up, let him know that Dad was in a different place than he was the last time he saw him, but it didn't really help. I can tell Chris about Dad's weakness, frailty. His puffiness and the heaviness in his legs, but it doesn't matter. Dad's voice on the phone is strong and full like old times.

And then you see this little old man, shrinking before you. No strength to pick up his legs when he climbs in the car. No color in his face except the purple rings under his eyes. Flaccid skin which never heals after he gets blood drawn, bruises now weeks and weeks old.

"I thought I had twenty more years," Chris choked. "He had this ridiculous longevity in his family. I just assumed he was going to be around. I haven't done all the things I wanted to do with him. I don't have kids. My kids will never know him," he gasped, raw grief ripping through him. "Bastard," he laughed through his misery.

Bastard.

•   •   •

"Your experience is so different from mine," Chris mused. "You see this part of him I don't see, while he just keeps handing me this stuff that he wants me to have. 'This vase...I'm not sure if it holds water. You'll have to test it.' But I don't care about the vase; I just want to talk to him."

"I'm a project coordinator for Dad," I said. "It's not terribly emotional a lot of the time. I make sure his doctors' visits are scheduled, I take him to his appointments, we get his medicine together. I talk to doctors and nurses about his issues. I'm a taskmaster much of the time, which is fine with me," I said. "But because we're together so much of the time doing the most pressing things, he doesn't really feel like telling me to get in the basement to sort through books like he does with everyone else."

Dad's obsession with getting everything sorted before he's too weak drives my brother crazy. I can understand it; Chris just wants that time to talk, not make it about the shifting of material goods. But I understand Dad, too. He's overseeing things to the very last extent he can--making sure that the most banal parts of his death do not bog us down when he finally takes his bow. He wants us to be able to grieve when he dies, not sift through books looking for their new home.

As with all things, it's a dichotomy that sits better with some people than others. For Betsy, having Dad stand weakly in the middle of his library making observations about the literary merits of one book over another was a bitter chore. It's casual for Dad, this housekeeping, though it signifies a conclusion many of us aren't ready to accept. But Dad just chips away as he slips away.

•   •   •

I've been on cancer duty since my birthday last year, squiring Dad from Point A to Point B, making phone calls, parsing medical information, reading instructions about side effects and making decisions about how to run Dad's medical life without too much fuss. It's been a job with great perks: I hang out with Dad a lot. But like many jobs, it's a detail oriented gig in which I don't invest a huge amount of emotional weight. It's not that I've segregated my emotional life, it's that I do my job caring for Dad like any job: with a certain detachment.

The dam cracking was inevitable, and it happened in a most unfortunate venue: a sunny afternoon gathering with old friends over bottles of vinho verde. Some combination of the heat and the wine, and the week's heavy emotional burden which accommodated not just my own grief but many of the people I love, conspired to create a perfect storm of emotional collapse. I fell apart before my friends eyes, much to the surprise of everyone, myself included. It was a complete dissolution of my being, into small pieces of confusion and sadness, bitter tears, and the admission that Dad was making his exit. I wept without restraint, and as I spoke about it, I cried harder. It was a shocking loss of control for a person who has made her way with a relatively calm dignity about this whole mess.

I walked outside, hoping I could at least stop myself from crying all afternoon.

I sat on the curb smoking a cigarette I had lit desperately off my friend's stove, repeating myself and laughing at my impromptu spectacle between sobs that still choked from me. "Okay," I said. "Okay." I laughed. "Okay. Okay." I pulled on the cigarette between repetitions of my meaningless mantra. "Okay," I whispered. "Okay...okay." Spurring myself to being okay, to being right again, to closing the gash spewing grief.

I lay down on the weedy parking strip under a beautiful tree, gazing through its branches, noting the gaps where golden afternoon light fell, forest dark greens and browns broken by bluest azure, yellow highlights bouncing playfully across the leaves.

It was a painting Dad might have crafted himself. Slowly I stopped repeating myself. I stopped crying. I put out the cigarette. I dusted myself off, a little shabby, face puffy with crying and heat, but not falling apart any longer.

I went inside, embarrassed but calm again, relatively speaking.

•   •   •

I had my husband drive me to Dad's house after the party so I could share with him my thoughts, love, confusion, and personal suffering which rose up like a geyser out of nowhere. I never ate dinner but drank wine all night, so I was pretty loopy. I didn't care. I sobbed on his shoulder about the choices we faced, none of them good ones: radiation or letting the cancer run its course; keeping the catheter or undergoing surgery; hospice care. Talking about our loss which is not here yet, but which I felt bitterly going through his paintings.

He listened just like my father always did. His voice is still strong though the rest falls apart. I fell apart, and like a bad flu I retched it up, some of it all over Dad, but now I feel whole again. Dad holding me, though we're the ones who provide the balance now, since his legs are too frail to carry him.

And Dad, despite the weakness in his legs and the gaps in his library, has not tipped into the sea just yet.

The Gossip Pages

or: A Few Thing I Learned in New York About Writers For The Nervous Breakdown, with Greater or Lesser Emphasis on The Truth. The last time I was in New York I had morning sickness and spent the entire time holed up in my hotel room wishing that room service wasn't so all-pervasive an odour. (Although I did meet a bunch of people that I had met online through MetaFilter at a little place called Three of Cups where we ate dinner and had beers in the basement. I pretended I drank really, really slow; I believe I pulled a "pour the beer in a fake plant" maneuver.)

Anyway, not having morning sickness in New York is much preferred, thank you very much. So this time I met a bunch of people I had met online through The Nervous Breakdown in a little place called Three of Cups where we ate dinner and had beers in the basement.

The Three of Cups is apparently a lightning rod for people people meet on the internet.

They also played Fear's "New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones," which has been stuck in my head ever since.

But I met several writers there, all of whom were gracious enough to chat me up, even though at moments I felt like a fan instead of a writer.

For example, Will Entrekin is the person from whom Jack Bauer's coolness factor is directly lifted. There would be no Jack Bauer saving the world if there was no Will, and for that we have Will to thank. Thank you, Will! Jack Bauer doesn't even know why Jack Bauer is so cool, but it is, and will always be, Will. (Although as far as I know, Will is not loose and easy with the torture. We didn't discuss it; maybe it's classified.)

And did you know that Zara Rose Potts has been trying to shake that groupie Charlotte Gainsbourg for years? Ugh. Like a disease that little French tart has been plaguing her! Copying her certain je ne sais quois, but now you know: Zara, not Charlotte, is the international phenom. Also, comes from New Zealand which is an island. And works for good, not evil, making her the same sort of superheroine you suspected of her but could never pin down. Is confused that agents of all kinds exist, from the literary to the real estate. I agree with her on this point.

Simon Smithson, Australian man of a million grins has taken out classified ads in the papers of every US city he and Zara passed through, searching for future wives as a means toward citizenship. I told him he probably wouldn't want to settle down in Nebraska, but he's so committed to living in the US he doesn't seem to care. He's an enthusiastic and passionate patriot for the Old Stars and Bars; I recommend that the US government just let him in so he isn't saddled with a farm wife outside Topeka who will actually make him milk cows.

Greg Olear loves Ray Davies and now knows that someone I know mailed Ray Davies' nostril hair to someone else. Loves his Nervous Breakdowners like a protective father, and although he didn't ground me, he probably should have. Without trying, he managed to work out my old family secrets, so he has what they call "THE GIFT." Be careful around him for this reason lest you divulge a great deal of grist for his upcoming novel.

Stephanie St. John Olear brought her porch with her, so generous and welcoming is she. And despite the crack whores and legless pimps blocking her path to the mail room of her old Village apartment, she was nostalgic enough to want to find it again in the muggy night. We bonded over plastic, lack of recycling options in New Jersey, our children and our mutual enthusiasm for being surrounded by writers we admire. I'm waiting for her to bring her porch to the Northwest, but Greg must approve airplane travel first. (We could argue the point of whether or not Stephanie is a "writer" per se; let's just give her the honorary TNB doctorate and call it good.)

Marni Grossman is more lovely in real life than in her Gravitar. Also, even more penetratingly clever than she is online, which is tricky but she manages. She tolerated me; by the time we got a chance to talk I was fed up with the DJ and decided to bribe him to turn down the music. Twenty bucks apparently doesn't do the trick, at least in New York where a twenty buys you a cup of coffee. But Marni tried to understand me through the butt rock and my hoarseness which had by that time become entrenched. I sound like Marlene Dietrich now which ain't half bad, but on the other hand I'm a week out of NY and I'm still croaking. Maybe you TNB'ers actually ruined my vocal chords.

Not that I've ever really had anything to say. Marni knows. All she heard was babble.

I hope these superheroes of our own Nervous Breakdown will have the time and inclination to visit Cascadia, which, though plunked on the other side of the world/country/universe is known to welcome superheroes. It was a night too brief and filled with great gaiety and light, except for the sofa across from us which exuded pheromones and cooties.

I won't even go into what the bathroom was like. I believe Stephanie called it, "Shoot-Uppy."

The Scales Fell From My Eyes; They Were Made of Plastic

These days, perhaps one of the most indelible images in my mind is of a dead sea bird, not covered in oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but whose rotting carcass is filled with bottle caps that had been fed to it by its own parent. I cannot shake it. It haunts me, the pain of knowing that a bird, trying to provide its offspring with nourishment in its most basic biological imperative, instead fed it pointless waste from a soda or someone's old prescription bottle. How many sea birds are represented in that one photo? How many birds have I myself unwittingly fed with the detritus of our disposable culture? And what other animals can be inferred, dining on a diet rich in petrochemical bottle caps and nylon thread, old athletic shoes and SpongeBob Squarepants toys? What is the depressing irony that a cartoon character delighting in his ocean home is winding up there in the form of free plastic give-aways from fast-food kids meals?

This is on my mind all the time these days, and once you see, you cannot unsee.

Now I look around my house and instead of seeing toys and efficient storage solutions, I see massive consumption and disposal problems which have the potential to end up in an albatross's crop. I was already cognizant of the problem and bought the Sigg water bottles and the biodegradable dog poop bags and the grocery totes. But there's more and more plastic lining up in front of me and I feel overwhelmed and horrified at my complicity in the unfolding plastic apocalypse.

It is with these new eyes that I picked up a prescription for my ailing father at Walgreen's the other day. There was a question about his medication which needed to be resolved before I could take it home and I had several terrifying minutes surrounded by what seemed to be less a store about health and wellness than a fantasy beyond giant petrochemical companies wildest dreams. Every product lining every shelf was plastic. The products inside the bottles were irrelevant; the real coup was the plastic itself. It was as though the cancer was growing in plain sight for years, but so slowly that no-one noticed. Walgreen's was selling only one thing: plastic.

My father's medicine was also in plastic bottles, of course. And I wonder, how I can change that? What can I do to alter the consciousness of the entire pharmaceutical industry? I'm stumped. Can I go into my own pharmacist with my old prescription bottle and ask them to re-use it? Does anyone make glass prescription bottles anymore?

What sort of compact with the devil was made to ensure that every single product was sold to us in plastic bottles and jars?

I feel ill as a result of this epiphany. I pulled out a large number of plastic bottles from our medicine cabinet this morning, most of them empty. I've been saving them up for years hoping to find a use for them, rather than just putting them in the recycling bin and pretending they'll end up where they're supposed to, into the hands of recyclers who know what they're doing and re-using the plastic for good. Because in general, I don't trust us. Not when the reports about tech recycling is so profoundly depressing, when our old toxic hard drives and CRT screens and batteries end up in steaming dump sites in Asia, and untrained workers without protective clothing pick through it to find stuff to re-sell.

These are tough days. I don't have many solutions, but I am struggling to find them in my own ways, pulling out the plastic which has threaded itself through our lives like morning glory, choking out every other thing. The cheap sunglasses that have adorned my pink guinea pig eyeballs will eventually be replaced by either nothing, or sunglasses from a thrift store, perhaps ancient Jackie O shades which will make me look ridiculous. The recycled toilet paper which is wrapped in plastic will have to be replaced by something; I've only found one company which makes TP in a recyclable box. My lip balms, full of real deep and abiding relationships for me, will all go the way of the dodo except for the ones packaged in tins. There is even one packaged in cardboard, an innovation I dare other "natural" cosmetics companies to follow.

I want my cotton balls packaged in paper or compostable material. I want my clothing to be rid of that pernicious 2% poly-dacron-nylon-spandex that gives it stretch. Can I have my bulk coffee beans bagged in paper with no plastic lining again? I'm combing the web for answers, I'm combing thrift stores for glass storage containers. I'm keeping the plastic storage I have, hoping that like magic it will find some happy destiny storing nails or pins or something. I'm cleaning out my empty plastic bottles saved for years and recycling them, hoping against hope that they will end up where they're supposed to.

Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times writes in an editorial,

Traditionally, we reduce cancer risks through regular doctor visits, self-examinations and screenings such as mammograms. The President’s Cancer Panel suggests other eye-opening steps as well, such as giving preference to organic food, checking radon levels in the home and microwaving food in glass containers rather than plastic.

In particular, the report warns about exposures to chemicals during pregnancy, when risk of damage seems to be greatest. Noting that 300 contaminants have been detected in umbilical cord blood of newborn babies, the study warns that: “to a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘pre-polluted.’ ”

But the crux of it is, I don't think my writing about it will change anything in the hallowed halls of petroleum and chem industries because they have been acting with impunity for years despite all the research and warnings from all corners of science and medicine. I think the only way to get their attention is to vote. And the only vote they understand is cash vote.

I'm going to take as much of my family's cash out of the hands of these companies as I can, those I suspect care very little about the albatross feeding its young a diet of bottle caps; that care little about your children who have more than 300 different chemicals in their blood by the time they're born. That care little about you and your future with cancer caused by their wanton disregard for basic human decency.

But I care very much about them, so I'm voting.

The Road to Hell is Paved with Petrochemicals


Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

--The Graduate, 1967

Before British Petroleum botched the most spectacular oil disaster in the history of our petro-based culture [addendum: the most spectacularly publicized oil disaster: turns out NIGERIA HAS IT WORSE, but no-one knows about it or gives a fig], I was already thinking about petroleum. Or using less of it. I'm a conscientious person; I don't want to use more than my fair share of resources, nor do I embrace the notion that if I can buy it, I should. I want to live lightly without becoming a monk; I would like to share the wealth of natural resources without raping the earth for them.

I'm an American Consumer, but I do my best to keep my insatiable desire for convenience in check. I've got the cloth bags for groceries, using them most of the time but forgetting them some of the time. I bought our son little reuseable lunch bags; we have a Mr. Bento food jar for him to take hot lunches to school. We drink from metal water containers. Our family has one car which gets 50 miles to the gallon on the highway by merit of its awesome diesel-ness; we can fill it with Biodiesel when it's available (although biodiesel has turned food crops into fuel crops in certain parts of the world, making a huge rice shortage in Asia--a consequence of any "alternative" fuel is that it has unintended ones). We've had it almost ten years; we hope that we'll just drive it to its obsolescence, though once in a while I think how nice it would be to have more space. But that's what Zipcar is for.

We're wimpy bicyclists, I'm ashamed to admit. I need to buy better rain gear, but since I can't be bothered to buy myself regular clothing it seems that practical rain solutions have just fallen right off the list.

This is not my concern, however. I've been trying for years to figure out how to eradicate plastic out of our lives which, with the passage of time seems absolutely paramount in not completely destroying ourselves and everything else.

Plastic: convenient, ubiquitous poison. The road to hell is paved with it.

I don't quite remember what it was like to look around a house and not being able to identify fifty different things which were composed partially of plastic. Maybe it never happened in my life. My parents had Tupperware after all, and I had that Fisher Price Corn Popper push toy which, looking at a photo of it, is made completely out of plastic. But with all the news about Bisphenol A and floating islands of toxic plastic garbage in the ocean (the size of Texas or larger and growing); water bottles filling landfills after you drink their tap-water contents, it seems like we've become too accustomed to welcoming plastic into our lives unquestioned and unchallenged.

Here's a list of petroleum-based products from my vantage point on the sofa. I'm looking no further than what I can see; I'm not going into the kitchen where god knows what sort of plastic horrors await me.

  • DVD and Wii Game cases, with the discs themselves.
  • Cables and plugs running from our computers to speakers and television
  • speaker housing
  • computer cases
  • remote controls
  • keyboard and mouse
  • television
  • laundry bag made of nylon
  • packing tape on Amazon box
  • dog crate made of nylon or acrylic fabric
  • Ikea storage drawers
  • acrylic wall paint, plus dyes
  • spiral binder
  • Drinky the Crow (admittedly awesome)
  • paperback books with stain-resistant coating on their covers, hundreds of them
  • dog toys
  • polyurethane on the fir floors
  • iPhones (two)
  • shoulder bag
  • acrylic stuffing in leather sofa
  • vinyl Oregon Zoo decals mounted in our window
  • inserts for throw pillows
  • adhesive on non-skid feet for our tables and chairs
  • dog collar and one dog tag
  • step stool
  • cotton-poly blend curtain backing
  • outlet and light plates
  • Toys, in such great numbers that I can't help but swoon a little, including:
  1. A "Marble Maze" (fifty pieces or more)
  2. Automoblox
  3. Legos (thousands of individual petroleum pellets)
  4. Fisher Price Camera
  5. Crayola markers and pens
  6. Hyper Dash (one plastic controller and four plastic disks)
  7. Playmobil (again, hundreds of little petro-pellets in the form of awesome birds, pirates, bicycles and treasure)
  8. Bag containing binoculars, plus the binoculars themselves
  9. Rody the Ride-On Pony

Shockingly, I'm relieved there isn't more. We've gone out of our way to buy furniture that is either antique, used or made of natural wood, not MDF. Our house is filled with photos and paintings which have wood frames and glass instead of plastic, and most of our tchotchkes are ancient fripperies which, by merit of their ancientness are made of metal or porcelain or wood. Not all, certainly, but most. Many of our son's toys were bought with avoiding plastic in mind; Automoblox are wood with plastic parts; his building blocks are wood; Tinker Toys, wood with plastic parts.

But I've looked through my house on numerous occasions looking for ways to go on a plastic diet. Why are all of our shampoos and liquid soaps, household cleaners in plastic? Glass, of course, is too heavy to ship and adds cost in FUEL. I buy bulk shampoo and bulk conditioner but fill them from plastic jugs. My husband shaved his head twenty years ago and never looked back, eradicating the need for hair products in any form; maybe I should do that, too.

But his razors? Plastic, with metal blades. Is it straight razor time? A good idea, but I fear he would never sharpen the damned thing and always be nicked. Plus, I don't know if I would want him to shave the back of his head without a safety razor. Call me crazy.

I've tried to prune the plastic storage containers out of our kitchen by replacing them with glass, not just because I want to stop the petroleum glut but because there are so many studies about chemicals leaching into food and beverages. But food comes from stores...in plastic. Yogurt comes in plastic tubs which don't even have lids anymore which makes it impossible to reuse them. Even hippy-health-nuggets come in plastic containers; buy cookies with organic flour blessed by virgins and they're still wrapped in cellophane-wrapped extruded plastic sepulchers. If you buy bulk, the bags are plastic. The grease pens used to write on the tag: plastic.

Buying local is of course the best way to cut down on your petro-consumption, not just because the distance the food travels is shorter, thereby lowering your petro footprint, but you inject money into local businesses, farms and growers which need less packaging to transport their goods. By buying at your farmer's market you're often just plucking veggies from a box and putting them in your cloth bag. Win-win!

That's great for me here in Portland, Oregon where we can grow food almost year round. What about you people stuck up on a mountain top? Or in the desert? What are you gonna eat? Stuff that's been shipped, and wrapped in plastic.

I bought some lotion in a glass bottle, hoping that I would somehow be lightening the load; the pump is plastic. Our toothbrushes: plastic. Dental floss: plastic. I've never seen a cardboard container for dental floss; maybe it's not practical. But how do we decide which is the most necessary plastic to hang onto and which is okay to stop producing? Obviously, we want our hospitals and doctors to have access to hygienic plastic doobobs and sterile plastic this's-and-that's so that they can keep us alive when we show up. But what about the crackers I buy? You remember when crackers came in waxed paper bags inside cardboard boxes? But do we even need the boxes, much less the bag inside?

Blister packs, cheese wrappers, cellophane on popsicles, laundry soap packaging, grocery bags, soda bottles, mayonnaise jars, pepper grinders, disposable pens, patio furniture. When did Grey Poupon go to plastic? I bought excess mustard the other day just so I could get the glass jar instead.

You outdoorsy types (I'm embarrassingly indoorsy in the Great Backyard of Oregon) appreciate nature in all it's splendor and thus it attunes you to the necessity of conservation and environmental protection, but you're all stomping around the wilderness in your Gore-Tex and Weather-Blok Super Materials made from various chemically bonded magic beans and petroleum. Your tents are made out of them too. As are your boots and your hats and gloves.

Do I have an alternative for you to consider? No.

And this is the problem, I think, with all of us. We don't know how to unwind the Gordian knot of petroleum which has threaded our entire lives in scads of plastic. I want to be the best, wisest, well-informed consumer I can be, but some things I just can't figure out how to get away from. Buy bulk, sure. Drive less, yes--oh, yes. But the cheese I buy from the tiny local market down the street--they wrap their cheese in butcher paper...coated with plastic.

And I don't know what's right. Research is conflicting about paper vs. plastic. Paper doesn't biodegrade any better than plastic when it's anaerobic. That's why we have 2000 year old Egyptian papyrus scrolls from ancient dump sites. Cut a tree down, you've lost a great air filter. Some studies point to plastic bags making far less of a carbon footprint than paper for a whole host of reasons from the production process to the loss of habitat. What to do?

And I don't mean my grocery bags. What about all the food that is in my grocery bags?

My husband and I were deliberating about this the other day. I remembered a story about an American woman living in a small Italian town where every year during the olive oil pressing, people would grab their jugs and wander down to get their supply for the year. Wine too. Everyone had some barrels or jugs in which to store their staples, not terribly different from the Roman, Greek and Phoenician amphorae of ancient times.

Would I be comfortable buying a barrel of wine to keep in my basement, along with a jug of olive oil? Could I split a barrel with my neighbors? Every year, could we buy a share of wine from a local winery? I know people do it with cows and pigs; there are CSA's for organic vegetables (good way of avoiding petroleum; no petro-based fertilizers or pesticides). Can we extend the method? How about my crackers? Could I just purchase them not in a box at all, but a bulk bin where I stash them in my handy-dandy metal cracker tin (standardized so that the weight PLU's would be easy)? How can we peel away the layers and layer of plastic and replace them with honest to god solutions?

I don't ever want buy a CD or DVD again; if it's digital data, I want to download it. No more goddamned plastic cases. No more DVD coasters with crappy slideshows on them. No more plastic deck chairs and MDF landfill furniture. And stop with the "goody bags" at kid's birthday parties, already. I don't need them and I can't remember if my son ever played with any of the plastic junk that was in them anyway. Bring back waxed paper for wrapping things, go to Depression-era standards of frugality instead of post-war standards of excess. Keep up with the Joneses by keeping plastic out of landfills.

Maybe I'm being utopian and naive. The back-to-the-land movement was idealistic, but in the end completely impractical. We can't all be homesteaders. We can have Victory Gardens, but it won't supply our grain needs. We can buy locally baked bread, but the flour isn't being ground at the mill next door. It's being trucked in. We can't all spin our own yarn from our pet sheep Lulu so as to avoid wool sweaters polluted with spandex and petro costs shipped from Turkmenistan.

But I'm comfortable with the hypothesis that something's got to give. Building high-speed rail would help, as would more of us riding our bikes. I don't think it's enough, though, and I don't want to contribute any more to the enormous flotilla of garbage in the Pacific. I want less plastic. I want corporations to produce less plastic. I want the chemical devastation of plastic-creation to cease, or at the very least drop dramatically. I've wanted less plastic for years, but the BP oil spill has only emphasized the point in a radical and devastating loss of land, ocean, livelihoods and sea life. As if I needed any convincing.

But maybe I can convince someone who makes my crackers or olive oil. Or someone who wants to loan me their sheep.

Finding Heaven in the El 'Ortez

In a different life my husband and I were in the dank center of a rock band who had hit it big. Screwy and the Pin-ups* was at the height of its draw. And we, our friends and us, were all tied to it, either because of professional necessity or friendship, or, in my case, plain old-fashioned matrimony. In this, there were problems. I liked everyone in the band, including the support crew and their spousal so-and-so's. I knew some better than others. But we were all stuck together by the devil's pact, and it was a good thing that we liked each other: we were together a lot.

The problem lay in the Svengali who was, for all intents and purposes, running the show. Nominally a band of equals, Sven was the true fulcrum. Unfortunately, he was nuts. But all of us were beholden to Sven because the only way anyone was going to get paid was to stay in his good graces. He was fickle, two-faced, mercurial, paranoid. Dastardly in his willingness to demean his fellow bandmates and employees, sometimes overtly, sometimes not. His underlings were abused mercilessly.

Sven and I had an unusual relationship. He loved my husband with true, heartfelt affection, and my husband dodged the rain of wrath that fell on everyone else. He was often placed in the unenviable position of being the de facto defense attorney for hapless employees as it fell to him to keep the sword of Damocles from falling on heads which didn't deserve it. He had the golden ticket: while everyone else suffered horribly at the hands of Sven, my husband had a ring-side seat to watch the blood flow onto the mat. He intervened when he could, but he wasn't abused in the same way.

Sven did not like the wives. None of us womenfolk were particularly welcome, unless we embraced some part of the stereotype: dumb, stacked or young. Preferably all three. I was none of these, nor were most of the other wives. A remarkably savvy, smart, sassy collection of women were married to the male cavalry that filled the ranks of the band's day-to-day operations, and almost none of them were impressed by Sven.

Sven had complete control over the Screwy operation, except for those dastardly women: he couldn't control the lives of his cohorts beyond the studio door or band tours. Once everyone went home, they had the nerve to have relationships away from him, honest-to-god conversations, probably about him. They had lives. This was a problem, and Sven went out of his way to drive wedges between his bandmates, employees and their partners. Rumors about spousal untrustworthiness abounded; questioning the integrity of wives and girlfriends was raised to the level of high art. It was so insidious that one band member and his wife moved out of town to get away from Sven.

I was a thorn to Sven because Sven loved my husband. They had been friends for many years before he found himself famous, and Sven appreciated the longevity and consistency of this one relationship that straddled both worlds. But my husband left him no doubt that he would hit the door if Sven cast aspersions upon me. He didn't need to spell it out for him; it was obvious. So Sven didn't meddle in our lives the same way he did with everyone else, but it didn't mean we were chummy.

The problems began when we met. Screwy had just hit the big time, and Sven and his wife took my husband and I out to dinner, to an extremely frufru place I'm pretty sure was choreographed to make us uneasy. He was successful. I felt like I was walking into a special club with potential hazing rituals; will he make me take off my pants, draw "W * W" on my ass, and then drive me by bull whip through the fountain downtown? But before long, one realizes that fame adds nothing new to the table other than weird stares from the table next to you. His wife put me at my ease. Conversation flowed casually after a certain point. Sven invited us to his house, recently purchased with the largesse of the Screwy enormo-hit which had flooded the airwaves.

"I love this rug. I just bought it for ten grand. Look at this piano. A baby grand! I picked it up for thirty. We had these curtains custom made; I don't remember how much they cost."

He was drunk with the fact that he had arrived, with his own success. He dragged out every stick of furniture they had bought to fill their new house in a tony neighborhood and attached a price tag. My husband and I took the tour increasingly dazed by Sven's desire to impress. But in the end, it was just a house.

"It's six thousand square feet," Sven boasted.

"Really?" I asked, looking around their living room. "It just doesn't seem that big."

He flashed at me with incredulity tinged with outright hostility. He tucked the look away quickly, but we all felt the air pressure in the room drop.

This was the hallmark of our relationship: he bragged, I said whatever came to the top of my head, completely inadvertently offending him. He talked about his specialization in fields both basic and arcane, and in the spirit of debate I would question him about it, putting him on the spot and making him uncomfortable. It turns out, for instance, that he did not actually know much about literature or art. And had he not dragged out his empty closet for me to look in, I wouldn't have looked. We, none of us, gave one tiny shake of a gnat's penis if he was an intellectual superhuman masquerading as a pop star or just a normal person. But he was incapable of being at ease with the windfall he had stumbled upon; he needed everyone to be impressed with everything he did all the time.

Like a sore spot in his heel that rubbed wrong no matter what, I was one wife he couldn't talk smack about without reaping costs too high to bear: the loss of his best friend. I drove him completely crazy.

I was strangely comfortable in that position.

And at some point, he was engaged anew, his marriage to wife #2 having fizzled in completely predictable ways, rife with infidelities and accusations and lies.

He decided to throw a party for his fiancee in Vegas for her 21st birthday.

Let me be clear: none of us were in our early twenties. Many of us had seen the back of our mid-thirties by this point. Sven had crossed the forty-yard line. But he wanted to throw a party for his child-bride, and he arranged to have the entire expense paid for with his impressive collection of air miles. Which is great, if there wasn't such a forced, bizarre feeling to the whole thing. We liked his fiancee, but didn't know her at all. And she was from, literally, a different generation. So stacking a hotel in Vegas with all his friends and cronies and calling it a celebration for her was a bit disingenuous. She had only one friend with her, another youngster who was as fresh-faced and bright-eyed as a fawn; we looked like wizened, grumpy ogres circling the sacrificial innocents.

We flew in on Friday night. The Master of Ceremonies and his fiancee went upstairs to change their clothes and left us in the Hard Rock casino to fend for ourselves. Half of us hit the bar, half of us hit the blackjack tables. The couple who moved out of state to avoid Sven hit the jackpot, won a couple hundred bucks on a slot machine and went to bed. Sven and his fiancee never surfaced, and while waiting for them we got drunk and eventually made our way to our rooms to pass out.

Sven liked to make people wait. If you asked me then what fame was about, I might have answered, "Making people wait," because most of what my husband and everyone else in his operation did was wait for Sven. An entire eighteen-month period in our lives was spent waiting for Sven: to show up to record his album, to show up at the airport, to show up in the casino for a party ostensibly for his fiancee. If people weren't waiting for Sven, they were rushing because they were late. It was just a little extra perk that came with being a part of "the inner circle."

God only knows what happened Saturday afternoon. I have a photo of myself that speaks to the volume of my pounding head, so I'm pretty sure that I endured a hangover. But the plan for the evening was for everyone to meet at Nobu for sushi, and then catch one of the multiple Cirque du Soleil shows that have become entrenched in Vegas. Later, because my husband and I had been to Vegas multiple times to visit family, we were to be the tour guides to the seedier side of Vegas, or "True Vegas."

We aren't a Vegas Strip couple. The showy entertainment value of the Strip seems like marshmallow fluff covering the true heart of the matter: gambling and getting loaded. Why not just cut to the chase and get down to business? And we were thrilled to know which casino was arguably the worst casino in Vegas and our favorite place to wind up in all the glittering waste: The El Cortez.

So, after embarrassing ourselves by showing up in Nobu dressed the way we always dressed, which is poorly, and being wowed by Chinese contortionists in the Cirque, it was our time to shine. Much of Sven's party opted to stay on the Strip, mostly to shake him. But a small band of intrepid explorers mounted up: two young girls dressed in miniskirts and halter tops in the chilly desert night, one Svengali dressed in a far-too expensive suit, our friend Uncle Nuthatch, who was one of Sven's employees and had an even more complicated relationship with him than I did, my husband and myself. Six people in search of the divine seed of seediness.

We started outside The Plaza where things went south immediately. The girls were under-dressed and covered in goose bumps. Unlike the Strip, where women dress like hookers just for the fun of it as they hop from one insulated nightclub experience to the next, here the only people dressed like hookers were hookers and Sven's two sweet doe-like companions. It was an uncomfortable juxtaposition: girls of radiant youth dressed like hookers walking down the street next to hookers desperately wearing the paint of radiant youth.

Sven wrapped his over-determined jacket around his fiancee's shoulders; her friend was out of luck. The rest of us slobs didn't have jackets to share. And the girls looked uneasy; this wasn't exactly what they had bargained for. This was actually seedy. Downtown was actually full of people who looked like they had been gambling and smoking and drinking for their entire lives. This was not a movie full of quaint, slightly cheesy buffoons who whiled away the hours playing poker and patting the butts of cocktail waitresses, these were real people who had spent their lives in front of one-armed bandits hoping against their last quarter that they were finally, FINALLY going to hit it.

They were a little surprised. And Sven was offended.

The temperature Downtown was not nearly as chilly as the temperature rolling off of Sven. He was turning blue he was so arctic. It was as though we were personally shitting on him, what with all the grittiness and strippers and cigarette butts and stained walls and drunk middle-aged assholes and 99 cent shrimp & botulism cocktails. He seemed to blame us personally for placing this dingy reality there in front of him.

We were stumped. Do we continue this charade of a tour downtown when the tourists themselves were obviously so uninterested, even chagrined? How do we politely suggest that we decamp somewhere else? We needn't have worried, because I was about to rise to my own personal best in offending Sven.

"Let's go uptown to hang out with a better class of people," Sven said, not a whiff of irony in the frigid air.

"They're not better class, just better dressed," I noted.

He glowered, "I'm sure the amount of gingivitis is much worse here."

"Nice paternalistic attitude," I shot.

"What are you talking about?" He was seething now.

"These people are exactly like the people on the Strip, just poorer."

He growled, "We're going back."

My husband, charmingly and unrealistically trying to salvage the tone of the evening, asked Sven, "Are you sure you don't want to go to the El Cortez?"

The two lovely girls and the grumpy paternalistic snob piled into the first taxi they could hail, leaving us three bums standing in the middle of downtown.

"Thank god," said Uncle Nuthatch.

"Now what?" I wondered.

"Go to El Cortez, of course!"

The mighty hand of our oppressor had been lifted, and like children we ran headlong into the face of that which he hated.

We passed through meth dealers and pawn shops, bail bonds, and shady souvenir stands across the small downtown to its dingy entrance, the neon sign on the hotel tower reading "El 'ortez," the 'C' having blinked out months or years earlier. The smell preceded the casino by several feet, damp tarry smoke greeting us through the sliding doors on our way to partake in the sleaziest gambling options Vegas had to offer.

The El Cortez is the best place to gamble in all of Vegas for a number of reasons. It is where dealers get trained, first and foremost, so the tables are manned by charming novices who can hardly tie their shoes, much less run a poker table. And for this reason, it offers the cheapest buy-in of any casino in town. There are even penny-slot machines which sit on the perimeter of the casino and don't bother to give you money if you hit. Instead they spit out a receipt which you take to the ancient money changer behind the metal cage and she'll hand you your fifty-cent winnings while coughing up tubercular germs on your quarters. Which you'll promptly go spend on the roulette wheel.

Ah, roulette! Nowhere in Vegas could you have such a luxurious night at the wheel for as little as you spent at the El Cortez. Ten dollars kept you in chips all night long if you sat at the dime roulette wheel, which we did, right next to the lifers who only gambled there because their pension checks wouldn't allow for higher stakes. We loved it! Hit red or black, bet on both. Play ten different numbers at the same time, one dime chip on each. Lose big? You're down a huge pile of chips but make up for it in the fact that you spent three whole dollars! You're a high roller if you buy in more than once; tip your waitress a five, you are guaranteed the best service in all of Nevada.

Uncle Nuthatch was in heaven. He sprung for twenty bucks worth of chips and sat at the roulette wheel all night like a king. He didn't know how to play, and who cares? Pick some numbers, slide some chips here or there, bet against yourself fifty-fifty. When the stakes are that low you can play until you lose or win, and you'll probably do a lot of both.

He walked to the bar where he was sucking down Seven & Seven's, set up beforehand by the bartender who had served him enough to anticipate him. They were dinky and watery but only a buck. "Are you playing tonight, sir?" the earnest bartender asked Uncle Nuthatch.

"I'm at the roulette wheel," he said.

"Drinks are on the house then," he told him.

Uncle Nuthatch came back to his seat, glowing with his extreme good fortune. "If I lose all this," he waved his hands over his pile of ten-cent chips, "I'm still ahead!" He had the woozy look of one imbibing ambrosia from Eleusis. "It's like they're paying me to drink!"

Around Uncle Nuthatch's seventeenth cocktail the waitress thought the bartender should consider cutting him off. The bartender sized him up. "No, I think he's a pro," he said. Victorious, Uncle Nuthatch ordered another Seven & Seven. Hell, another round for everyone! Have a TWO DOLLAR TIP! I'm feeling benevolent!

In such a heady atmosphere, despite the acrid smell of smoke and disinfectant and the baleful glares of committed but impoverished gamblers, weak cocktails and the dubious skills of the dealers, time slips by as though life is eternal and unchanging. We were pashas and queens in a magical, albeit marginal, palace, all our wants and desires anticipated and surpassed. When your expectations are low and the quality demanded sub-par, you can have the best night of your life with very little effort.

But eventually the dream dissolves. The oasis fades away into the desert heat and your headache begins in earnest. As the sun began to rise, and our devoted bartender got off shift and I lost half of my lung capacity from the smoke of six beautiful hours in the El Cortez, we called our yellow chariot to take us back to the Strip, land of a better class of people.

We lone uptown jerks stood patiently outside, save for one casino biddy, a tiny grizzled harpy who had spent her last nickel and needed a lift back from whence she came. She asked me if we had called a taxi. "Yes," I told her. "The kiosk is inside," and she scuttled sideways toward the lobby.

The sky was rosy when our taxi pulled up. We had wandered away from the curb and were just turning back to grab it when the biddy took one side-long glance at me and jumped in like a cat burglar.

"She's stealing our taxi!" I shouted. I flung myself toward the door which was slowly closing around the crafty casino wench. "Hey, that's our taxi!" I yelled at her.

She glared at me. "I got here first!" she croaked.

"I called them myself!" I barked as we squared off, toe to toe, one tiny crusty old lady and one woefully hungover tiny tourist ready to throw down over the only taxi on Fremont Street. Who of the two blisteringly loaded men intervened to prevent me from bodily pulling an ancient old woman out of our taxi at six a.m? I'm not sure, but in some divine compromise carved out of our perfect Vegas experience, we shared the cab with the mean wretch of a woman to her unbelievably depressing apartment complex set perfectly on the wrong side of the tracks.

We went back to our rooms in the Hard Rock, sun already bruising the side of the building. My husband fell into our shower to disinfect. I fell toward bed. The phone rang.

"Lookit," Uncle Nuthatch slurred on the other end. "Lookit the sunrise. I swear, it's fucking perfect," he said. "This was the best night of my life."

"Go to sleep," I said.

"Okay," he replied. "But lookit the sunrise, it's fucking perfect."

We curled up in our beds and slept like the dead.

•  •  •

The Morning After

The Morning After

Sven was he was never happy with the way things were, only the way they were supposed to be. Downtown Vegas didn't meet his approval because it reminded him of the things he fled: himself, his normality, his humanity. No-one catered to Sven the Rock Star in true Vegas. Truthfully, no-one knew who he was, and therefore he found it wanting.

"I must have been a huge disappointment to him in many ways," my husband said after I read this to him. It's true. Sven wanted more than anything to elevate us, to make us a better class of people. He took us to restaurants not because he liked to eat there but because that's where people like him ate. He bought his entire party of groomsmen custom Armani tuxes for his wedding to the child-bride. None of them wanted tuxes, everyone wanted Sven to save the money and just rent something. But he insisted. Six Armani tuxes still hang in closets, worn once after all these years.

"He didn't realize that an asshole in a nice suit is still just an asshole," I said. Sven surrounded himself with the kindest, most genuine people I've ever met; many of us are still great friends after all these years, including the now-ex-wife child-bride, no longer a child, and with a child of her own. And Sven knew he was lucky, but it wasn't enough to make him appreciate it, or us.

He was smart enough to pick a great crew, but too stupid to follow them where they led, even if it was to the El Cortez.

*Obviously not their real name. Though it should be.

Dear Everyone I've Ever Known (and Some I Haven't Met Yet),

I'm sorry for the mass mailing. I'm a terrible correspondent, as I've explained in greater or lesser tones of contrition for most of my life. My parents always tried to encourage me to write thank you cards when I was a child, and I'd scribble some half-baked gratitude, something about how fabulous my new briefs monogrammed with the days of the week were, and then forget to mail it. Or not bother to stamp it, which is even more pathetic, somehow. It's like the hard part was done and I got hung up on the minutiae. A stroke of contrariness? I don't know. Sue me. I never call anyone because I've nurtured a hate-hate relationship with the phone my entire life; imagine the curse of the ubiquitous cell phone for someone like me? It's possible that I was the only teenager in the universe who avoided the phone--actually screened my calls. Hated the phone as a teenager; skillfully navigate it now by ignoring its ubiquity.

Anyway, back to the reason for this letter. Since Facebook has made the sphere of private versus the public such a complicated place, and the internet makes it possible to find anyone anywhere unless you've doctored yourself a little alternate identity and travel documents, I thought that it might be time to address my own personal privacy settings. Imagine, if you will, a shield of preferences circling me like a force field of ultimate power.

You girls I knew in Junior High School make me a little nervous, to be perfectly honest. I wasn't sure how to be your friends back then; I was convinced that well-put-together girls in pressed Levi's and your Polo shirts scorned the very earth I walked on. Sure, I won "Class Clown" two years running--but I remain convinced that it was because I was the spastic heartbroken girl who didn't know how to be well put-together so was funny instead. I look sad in both my yearbook pictures when I was photographed with my male clown counterparts, two Frowny Clown Portraits adorning the Thrift Stores of History.

So, junior high school girlfriends, you get a free pass but only as long as you don't remind me that I'm still that spastic poorly manicured goombah who can't be bothered to find clothes which fit. Pointing and laughing are strictly forbidden. Otherwise, I'll drag you off into the purgatory of the HIDE button.

Junior High Boys on the other hand are welcome. You guys were awesome in your dorky ways; sure, you didn't want to date me because I didn't have boobs until, well, ever, but you were a fun crew who laughed at my jokes. And there wasn't a mean bone in your body--not that you shared with me anyway--and I hear many of you are still friends after all these years! That's reassuring, somehow. You guys are alright.

Late adolescence and early adulthood harbors a strange melange of friends.  There are many of you who I miss, even though I don't write and I never call. Be assured that you're still on my list of Friends and not Acquaintances. Yeah, it's true. I forget that we haven't talked in almost twenty years. I assume, completely irrationally, that we'll hook up for coffee soon and talk just like we did in the past. I was actually surprised when one of you wrote me to say that we hadn't seen each other in forever and wow, things have changed. Have they really? I can't tell from inside my force field. I thought things were exactly the same as they always were, at least between us. Shows you how subjective it is here behind my wall of impenetrability.

I haven't avoided many of you--note the "lousy correspondent" disclaimer--but there are some of you I have. How can you tell from my silence, since silence is all encompassing, whether we're still friends or whether I've dodged you like a virulent strain of flesh-eating streptococcus? That is a perfectly reasonable question. Check the history files. Did you A) betray my trust B) play Machiavellian mind games with me, making me question my very sanity or C) both? If you answered "Yes" to any of these, put yourself in the "Avoided Like Plague" pile. There aren't many of you, but you're out there.

The Ex-Boyfriend privacy settings are more complicated. They also run to the "Sure, look me up sometime," to the "Jesus, seriously, dude. If you were the last man on earth I'd commit Seppuku." Again, if you're unsure of where you are on the spectrum, review the history. Were we A) relatively unharmed by our dalliances? B) Total goofballs but not really impacted by anything resembling "seriousness" or "longevity?"  or C) Cheerfully involved until we kind of weren't any more and then just stumbled into the next thing? If you answered yes to any of these, the force field will welcome you through.

If, on the other hand, you find yourself keeping company with this series of identifying characteristics, you can place yourself in the "Last Man = Seppuku" pile. Were you A) Formed in Lucifer's loins? B) A sociopath? C) Abusive, ranging from mental anguish to a broken collarbone? You guys not only get the booby prize but the award for Most Toxic Relationships. I have avoided Facebook in no small measure because of you gentlemen, and I hope you can tell from my silence (and my force field) that I have a mile-thick wall around me that reads "FOOL ME ONCE." Also, restraining orders and very large friends.

But the rest of you--sure. Look me up, I guess. I mean, it's sort of like going to the zoo to stare at the animals. Interesting for a minute until you realize that the animals are just biding their time until they can turn on their master....wait. No, that's a lousy analogy. Let me start again:

Sure, look me up, I guess. I mean, it's sort of like reading the gossip pages and relishing the dirt you pick up about familiar strangers...

Damn. That's not right either.

Look. I'm just trying to say that I love many of you even though we haven't seen each other in a long time. Except for those of you I don't love. And I wish you could tell the difference, but because of my self-imposed silence, I guess you can't tell who's who. So maybe this new-fangled force field of ultimate power will make it easier on everyone to sort out who goes in what column.

Thanks, and I'd say that we'll talk soon except we both know that's not true. But I love you.*

Cheers, Quenby

*Unless I don't, of course.

A Boy and His Transmogrifier

For Christmas, Santa brought our six-year-old boy the classic tales of another six-year-old boy (plus a tiger): "Calvin and Hobbes." And oddly, he was not enchanted, like, immediately. Calvin and his tiger Hobbes moved around the house for a while, our six-year-old boy assiduously ignoring them both. They lived on the coffee table, the most obvious place I could find, they lived on his bed next to numerous books about disasters on the high seas. Somehow, my son resisted cracking the spine.

I found this almost intolerable--knowing what's good for him, after all--and decided to take things into my own hands. One night I just started reading it to him even though he was bouncing around the bed (much like Calvin) and acting out (much like Calvin) and refusing to go to sleep (much like...). And then, just like that, he was transfixed.

First we read it together, but I think my dramatic interpretation wasn't good enough for him. He couldn't devour it quickly enough with me acting out all the parts, so he began to read it to himself while I sat next to him in bed, me staring at the ceiling while he would scour each page and start tittering. Eventually, he didn't even want me there at all, which is a big (not unwelcome) change.

We have a thing, he and I: the nighttime rituals. Often there's a book, unless he's dawdled himself right out of one, me nagging about brushing his teeth, and always a nighttime chat. It's been this way forever. Now we just have the chat, because Calvin and his tiger Hobbes have captured his imagination with a devotional zeal that makes me beam with pride but off the hook for almost any other responsibilities.

About a week into his obsession, he began asking for a transmogrifier just like Calvin's. The Transmogrifier is a cardboard box that Calvin climbs under, and comes out transformed into whatever flight of fancy has taken him: multiple Calvins, jelly monsters, a tiger much like Hobbes himself. So my husband, always indulgent when his boy is excited about something, ran out to find the best transmogrifier Craigslist could buy. He found it at an appliance store: the biggest refrigerator box I've ever seen.

Our son got a transmogrifier so large my husband had to chop it down by a couple of feet. It stands like a mighty fortress in the middle of his room, and he put his bean bag chair in it so it became a Plush-mogrifier full of the comforts of home. It's so enormous that he and a parent can lounge relatively comfortably, though he wants no such thing most of the time. He's begun decorating it with stickers, a poster about spies, and a hand-crafted bookshelf that he and his papa made one sunny afternoon.

And because Calvin reads by flashlight, we've given him one on permanent loan so that, come bedtime, he races upstairs, darts into the transmogrifier, puts on the flashlight and starts reading Calvin and Hobbes before I've reached the top riser. I hand him his toothbrush and some jammies, and he hands me his used toothbrush and pants (or sometimes just tosses them out like a puppet show prop), I tell him I'll be back in twenty minutes and he barely glances at me.

That's it.

No muss. No freak out. No dilly-dally-wishy-washy-can't-focus-two-seconds-to-get-his-damned-jammies-on.

That boy loves his transmogrifier, but more gratifying is how much he loves to read about it. We can hear him guffawing to himself at some joke that only he and Calvin share, and it is one of the most heartwarming sounds to hear: the sound of independence.

I'm a little sad that I'm not completely involved any more. Not really, but wistful. A little tender.

On the other hand, a whole precious half hour has been returned to me in the evening. And I know that we must invest in the collected works of Watterson now, but it might not be enough to satiate our son's ravenous appetite. I wonder how Watterson would feel about starting the strip back up?

Stanley and Me

Arguments around the dinner table are not this family's modus operandi. We're not even arguers; we're more akin to intense debaters who pore over details and minutiae, then realize we're preaching to the choir and have a good laugh. Arguing is mostly a scholarly endeavor. We leave the messy emotional disagreements for discussions. So when an argument takes place at all, it's a remarkable occasion. Tempers do not usually flare in so stereotypical an arena, either: the dinner table argument, the ridiculous conceit utilized by movies and novels about the failure of the suburban dream. Anyway, this is not us. Not unless you add one dose of Stanley.

Stanley. My love.

My first encounter with Stanley was in the classifieds on Craigslist, which seems an unlikely location to meet anyone you fall in love with. Looking for a "Friend with Benefits," maybe, an afternoon assignation while you're in town on business. But this was love.

He was not, as they say, classically handsome. Face like a rugby player, wide-set eyes, underbite. Muscles for days, but small. Bow-legged. Looked like he got hit with the ugly stick over and over again.

Except for his smile. That was pure gold. And the sad, thoughtful look in his eyes that spoke of great love and the desire to share his personal joys and sorrows with someone. Someone who would love him despite the ugly stick, despite the rugby-player build and his oafish manner.

I agreed to meet him. I had to drive several miles out of town to the cell where he was being held. Everyone else was cat-calling and howling when I walked in looking for Stanley. I was nervous, didn't know quite where to go. After all, I was new at this. I had never gone out of my way to meet anyone so unlike myself, from such a different background. Would he like me? Would he see my charms the way I saw his? Was I crazy? One photo does not indicate love, merely the potential for love. But like anything with potential, there is its opposite: the reality that it won't work, that there is not really any common ground.

But Stanley stood up silently to greet me when I walked in, a perfect gentleman. No howls and hoots, no rude brash hollers. His eyes met mine and betrayed a little of his nervousness, but also his calm acceptance of me. I met the potential, and he did too.

Our meeting was brief, but it was clear that we had something. Stanley and I had that spark of recognition that only happens once in a while, sometimes never.

But Stanley and I were not meant to be.

•   •   •

Stanley is a Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

He is one meaty dog. He's tan with a white blaze on his chest, golden eyes, little perked ears. He's a hamburger on legs. And when I walked into the kennels he stood up silently, placing his paws on the gate and waited for me. He didn't bark, didn't whine, didn't holler. All the dogs rose in their chorus of cacophony around him, but Stanley was like a brick wall, so still and calm was he. He's one solid muscle on squat legs, but he stood there delicately, posing for me like a dancer.

stanley
stanley

When I approached the pen, he wiggled and writhed in expectation. But for all that meatiness, he was pure gentle affection. There was a bucket of kibble up on the gate so that people like me could have a little meet-and-greet, a breaking of the proverbial bread. I grabbed a couple of nuggets and said, "Sit," and he sat. I held the kibble down toward the floor, and he hunched down, gazing at me with his funny, squinty golden eyes checking to make sure he doing what I was asking him to do. I gave him the kibble and he took it gently from me, barely using his teeth at all. Almost a kiss. He tried to squeeze his muzzle through the chain link to meet me more officially, though it was clear to both of us that we were each other's, and that he wanted to go home now, and what took me so long anyway?

I asked if I could meet Stanley more personally, and the woman at the counter looked up his paperwork. She asked me a couple basic questions about whether we owned or rented our house, did we have pets, did we have children. Stanley was a young boy, with no obedience lessons to speak of; classes were a requirement for taking Stanley home. Which was fine with me; any dog I wanted was going to a good dog, and we would learn how to be each other's allies in cooperation.

"How old is your child?" she asked.

"Six," I said.

"We can't let you adopt Stanley," she said. "We'll only let Stanley go home with someone ten or older."

I asked if this was ironclad, if there was any room for negotiation, but she was adamant. Rules were rules.

I went back through the dog kennels, and looked at all the dogs. There were around forty in their pens, more than half of them Pit Bulls. All of them looked sweet, if you could get past the image of bloodthirsty killing machines. I picked out a couple of other dogs to meet, one fat little miniature pinscher named Big Mac and a Pomeranian named Truman. Reasonable, small dogs, the kind that I told my husband I was looking for in the first place.

Truman the Pom was a hot mess. All fur and bad training, whining and crawling all over the place, desperate to be babied as soon as he was out of the kennel. Sweet, affectionate, and totally annoying. Big Mac had no interest in me at all, and truthfully I had no interest in him; I was just doing my best to keep an open mind after the disappointment of finding true love and having lost it before it had a chance to blossom.

I met the other dogs and went back to say goodbye to Stanley. I sat on the floor in front of his kennel feeding him kibble bits, him gently taking them from me, trying to impress me with his worthiness. He didn't need to try; I knew how amazing he was.

It took all my personal mastery to walk out of there without pitching a tantrum. I was sad, heartbroken, a love denied. I sat in the parking lot for a long time before I drove off without Stanley.

•  •  •

I had met another dog earlier in the day, a little beagle/dachshund mix named Kate, and I decided that maybe she would be a good dog for us. Affectionate, energetic. She was neither timid or overwhelming, just a nice dog. I had met her by myself, and then met Stanley at a different shelter. Now that Stanley had been removed from the list of possibilities, I told our son we should go meet Kate.

Kate was nice, perky, friendly. But she was completely non-selective about us in particular. She was as interested in the walls as she was in me. Our son liked her, I liked her, she was nice. A nice dog.

The last person that had to meet Kate was my husband, who couldn't come with us until the following day.

That's okay, I thought, since we have to go to dinner tonight at my mother's anyway.

•  •  •

Mom had pulled out all the stops for dinner. She had made a multi-course Chinese meal, soup, salads, two main dishes. It was, as it often is when she makes Chinese, difficult to maintain any discipline in not eating too much of one dish, because all the rest promised to be just as delicious. It was punctuated by our usual jocular conversation, bad puns peppering salty stories.

In recapping our lives over dinner, I mentioned our recent bizarre and unexpected quest for a dog. Mom was surprised, because she, like everyone else in my life, had no idea that I've been cruising dog websites for years now. But she agreed that dogs are great, especially for kids, and wondered what kinds we had been looking at.

I told her I had been looking for a ton of different dogs, almost all of them small. I told her I had met a great dog that afternoon, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, but it hadn't worked out. Plus he was too big, and Lars would only tolerate a small one.

She leaned towards me and told me that under no circumstances would I get a Staffordshire. "I won't come to your house anymore, I promise you, not unless you chain him up and keep it far from me." No pit bulls! she admonished me, with a patronizing superiority that instantly enraged me.

"Why?" I asked. He isn't a pit bull, I told her, though he is a bull terrier. She didn't care what I said about the breed; she was convinced of my utter stupidity, and her wisdom. That I was willfully throwing my son and family into the jaws of a rabid and merciless weapon.

"Do you know how many people those dogs kill?" she asked. "Those dogs are a menace, and you should know better!" she snarled.

I was getting pretty hot under the collar as well. "These are not killing machines!" I insisted. "Any dog can be trained into violence; that's the fault of the shitty owners!" I retorted. "People who abuse their dogs, train them to be fighters, or starve them because they suck and don't deserve to have dogs themselves!"

"My father got me a vicious dog when I was a kid!" she insisted.

"You father was a complete psycho who reveled in cruelty!" I spat. It's true; everything he did was tainted by bitterness, sadism, cruel humor or just plain meanness. He was a real bastard.

The menfolk around the table were completely stunned. We had gone zero to sixty in a hair's breath over a dog I didn't have, and wasn't going to have.

"You have no idea what you're talking about," said my mother.

"You haven't had a dog in fifty years! What are you basing your knowledge on? Your shitty experience with a dog your insane father got you and archaic thinking about dog training?"

My husband was an interested party, and perhaps knew better than anyone that I was in no condition to be having this conversation. I had met my dream dog and had to leave him in the kennel, walk away from Stanley. I was pretty frayed. "I can promise you that Quenby would never put any of us in danger. She would never do that," he told everyone. Mom was staring at me with a grumpy half smile, and I was staring with fury at my plate. "And if she did, I would turn around and take that dog right back," he insisted.

Silence fell after a while. "It's irrelevant, since I can't have Stanley anyway," I said. "We're meeting a beagle named Kate."

"That's for the best," my mother said.

I was probably more dangerous than Stanley could ever be at that moment, so livid was I.

•   •   •

Bulldogs and Mastiffs are strong, tightly muscled dogs originally bred to bait bulls or bears, so it's no surprise that they're built like tanks. But that was hundreds of years ago, and several breeds have evolved out of the original bulldogs. Crossbreeding bulldogs with terriers produced a smaller fighting dog called the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and from them, the American Staffordshire Terrier and the notorious American Pit Bull were developed.

But Staffordshires (Staffie's or Staffs, or simply "the Nanny Dog") had long since left their fighting days behind after dogfighting as sport was banned in England, and Staffies became one of the most reliable family dogs, known for extreme loyalty, courage and love of children. The English don't call Staffy's "the Nanny Dog" for nothing.

In the meantime, Staff's were being bred to become the American Staffordshire and the American Pit Bull, where as usual bigger is better. And then the pit bulls became singularly famous for vicious attacks on children, strangers, owners, other dogs. Bad press was the only press that pit bulls managed to procure for themselves, and sadly the poor Staffie has been pulled down in the campaign.

But pit bulls are also just like any other dog: bred in conditions which train for killing, they will become a successful killer. Smaller dogs left in horrible conditions or trained to violence will become violent, or terrified, dysfunctional and broken. That they don't have the sheer force of the bull terriers doesn't make then any less susceptible to horrible treatment.

People forget that dogs are creatures created and honed by man. A vicious dog attack does not incriminate the breed, it incriminates the people who have trained it, abused it or raised it. Poor old Stanley looks like a thug, but he's just a big galoot. He just wants to go home. And I hope that if he can't come home with me that he goes home with someone who can see the heart of sheer warmth under the massive mug.

•   •   •

When we got home after the argument, my husband and I discussed my simmering anger. I was seething, and as I explained the reasons, all my sadness about Stanley welled up. He was this sweet ox, and people were going to assume, based on his face and sheer muscle mass that he was a weapon with fur, a ticking time bomb in a dog's body who was going to snap at any given time.

I hated people in general for creating a scenario in which this galumph, who was so delicate taking food from my fingers that I only felt his lips, was going to inspire fear. I hated it that even my mother assumed, based on name alone, that I was going to put my family at risk, that I was completely irresponsible in picking a pet who looks more like a mook that a little fluffy toy. That she didn't know the difference between Staffies and pit bulls only emphasized the injustice of the thing; she wasn't even hanging her accusations on the right breed.

Mostly I hated it that Stanley wasn't going to come home with me, because it was a fairy tale love at first sight, and I was brokenhearted that I had to leave him to the fates to find another good home.

•  •  •

I kept track of Stanley on the website by going back over and over again, to see if he'd been adopted yet. I planned subterfuges, manipulations of how to wiggle out of the shelter's requirements, clandestine operations which roped my hapless friends into getting Stanley from the shelter and then passing him off to me once he was out of their clutches. I thought of him waiting there for the right family and I cried because he found it and then I walked out on him.

In the end, I acquiesced to the greater wisdom of the shelter, who clearly has Stanley's best interests at heart and won't let Stanley go home with someone who wants him for his meaty muscles and his potential for fighting; they will find Stanley a home that loves him for his silly grin and tender, stout heart.

The Statute of Limitations

As Dad stepped into the car, he handed me an article from Atlantic Monthly called "Letting Go of My Father." "I've got nothing to say other than 'Don't let it get this bad,'" he said, as we pulled away from the curb and onto a journey to the clinic.  The oncologist had requested a second blood test in a week.

I haven't read the article yet because he only handed it to me a few hours ago, but the meaning is plain: here we are again. We need to get back to the business of cancer, which was suspended for a great, special, amazing while.

But the statute of limitations might be up.

Cells Gone Wild, Charles Moone, watercolor on paper, 2010

•   •   •

When we heard that Dad was riddled with cancer last June, now about nine months ago, we were taken down several pegs. Those first weeks were spent at crisis levels of management as we tried to make Dad more comfortable and to make sense of all the medical blah blah. There was a lot of it, as you can imagine, with the diagnosis of Stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer.

But eventually there was no more to say.  The hormone therapy tamped down Dad's testosterone which was fueling the cancer engine. His appetite returned. His arthritis/mysterious ailment/bum foot slowly improved and he began taking walks for pleasure again, even entertained getting on his bike once in a while. By the time Christmas rolled around he was positively hale. We all celebrated Christmas together, kissed farewell to the crappy old year, rang in the new one, and planned a trip to Mexico.

"I keep forgetting he's sick," said my husband over Christmas break. It was an easy mistake to make; his appetite came roaring back and he was eating food for both sustenance and pleasure again. He walked with his camera to take photos of the neighborhood so he could spend hours and hours in his studio painting what he found there. He was over the moon with his returned mobility and he maximized it.

He was just Dad again.

•   •   •

Mexico was the first vacation Dad ever took. When I planned the trip in the first place, I had considered Italy for our big adventure abroad because Dad has always entertained some profoundly irrational dislike for Italy based on his prejudice against Renaissance art. The fact that it was the birthplace of the Roman Empire and the seed for much of the development of the Western world never seemed to enter the equation. He was "Reg" in Monty Python's Life of Brian who asked, "But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

So, like, whatever Dad.

He seemed up for it. He kept an open mind because he knew that we were bonkers for it.  Plus, come on: the Sistine Chapel, the Forum, centuries worth of fountains littering the city in a blanket of cultural detritus. Ancient aqueducts. The Parthenon. Fried artichokes. Gelato.

But I took a step back and realized that because Dad is Dad and Rome is Rome, he would make it his mission, his duty, to see every last single artifact the city coughed up for him. He would visit Rome the way he's visited all the rest, which is to chase down art like a cultural bloodhound in every corner and hallway, and then move on to nearby cities if he had the time.

Rome began to seem like a lot of work. It seemed like it wasn't going to be very relaxing. It was exhaustion wrapped up in the glitter and pomp of history. I changed my tack and mentioned our second vacation love, Sayulita, Mexico.

He readily agreed, mostly because he thought I changed my location because of my son's needs. I was okay with that. Whatever it took to encourage him to take a load off.

•   •   •

We set down in Puerto Vallarta in February, and the air was so heavy and warm that he instantly fell into vacation mode. Our taxi driver Antonio, with whom we had arranged ahead of time, was waiting for us with a cooler of Tecate and a stream of interesting stories as we drove through the jungle en route to Sayulita. The region and landscape was so utterly "other" to Dad, who had always visited places to see something, somewhere, rather than just being in a new place, that he collapsed into the mood of mellow immediately.

He loved Sayulita. "Never in my life would I have imagined myself in a place like this!" he enthused. Our house was palatial to our standards, came with a dedicated housekeeper, had its own palapa with hammock and dining area, banana trees, coconut palms. A short walk to the idyllic beach. Eighty degree days, sixty-five degree nights. A small stroll into town where we could pick up the best ice cream outside of Italy that we've ever eaten. A restaurant which consisted of a family who spoke no English, six tables, and two hammocks in the jungle; they served the best fish tacos in town. Iguanas were the only traffic at certain points, wandering the roads looking for a new tree to fall out of.

And Dad didn't do a blessed thing. He never pulled out his sketchbook, didn't even contemplate trying to find an art gallery, though there are a few. He sat on the beach and watched the sea. He stared at the jungle hills. He drank Negro Modelo and ate coconut shrimp on three different occasions. He read books. He splurged by drinking coffee for the first time in ten years under our palapa with muffins from the Muffin Lady. That was it.

"I don't think I've ever had a real vacation in my whole life," he said. "This is great."

It was great.

•   •   •

Back in the bosom of Portland's winter, which is mild all things considering, Dad was feeling well after soaking up the heat and sun of Mexico. But about a week after our return he got a little crotchety again, mostly, he thought, because of the damp. He always feels better when he can read books in his chair by the window, catch a couple of z's there, and have southern exposure cook out the cranky.

I began to suspect that his foe was making its unwelcome return a few weeks ago. He was a little more lethargic. He looked more pale than I remembered. He was complaining of aches and stiffness more regularly and was cursing Portland for its cloudy days, though climate change seems to have eradicated most of them. At dinners he didn't seem pluck, his appetite not as enthusiastic as it was last month. I asked him about it and he was blasé, convinced that his arthritis was flaring up again, though he did entertain the notion that the cancer might be sending up flares. He's coming up on his next Lupron hormone shot, so we thought perhaps the hormones coursing through his system were a little thin and that was the corollary with the timing of his aches and pains.

So last week he went in for his PSA test in preparation for Hormone Shot Number 4. They called him with a request he get tested again because his numbers were elevated (59--they should be below 4) and they wanted to double check.

But I don't think either Dad or I doubt the results: too many inconvenient facts are lining up. All signs point to the Alien's Return. His PSA numbers are elevated enough that it seems the hormone therapy has lost its efficacy, and now we're into the next phase.

Some people last for ten years on the hormone therapy alone. Dad might not be one of them.

•   •   •

We sat in the car after I had taken him to have the second blood test. We had spoken of "Cancer" and "Illness" again, though it has been many months since we've mentioned it. We've had a reprieve of sorts, a suspension of wartime action, but I have a feeling the armistice has been called off.

"Here we are again," I said to Dad as he was getting out of the car.

"Here we are still," he reminded me.

Here we are. Still.