POW!-ell’s

I spent the weekend in Portland, OR.

Now, I’ve lived in the PNW for a little more than five years, and it pains me to say that other than on drunken rugby weekends with the Old Man, I hadn’t yet spent any time exploring PDX–which is a city, I assure you, that is known for much more than “steak and titties“.  With travel credits about to expire, I logged in to Expedia and booked a sweet Starlight Room downtown and planned this weekend.  We found a friend to watch the pets and we piled into the truck, sailing out for adventure.  The Old Man drove us out and I spent a nice trio of hours chatting with him and catching up on the tower of Vogues from my living room.  Upon riding in to town, we picked up the youngest of my brothers-in-law and ate a disgustingly delicious lunch at a hole-in-the-wall burrito joint in the barrio.  (Well, as barrio as you can get around these parts….)

From there, it was off to the original reason for this trip, the dream, the goal:  Powell’s City of Books.  Now, if you Google Powell’s, you’ll see that it is world famous for its size and scope of material.  Set on an entire city block, it is a huge building housing books that must number in the millions.  It is a compilation of used and new offerings, and, in order to offset the damage you do to your wallet upon entering, they do you the service of buying back any books you don’t want in your own collection.  With a $30 credit in hand, I grabbed a handbasket and went to work.  From the minute I stepped into the stacks, I was in heaven.

Floor to ceiling shelves stretched as far as my eye could see….row upon row upon row of books dazzled me and I was well nigh overwhelmed.  Having been to and enjoyed many a Half Price Books, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, but I had no idea.  It became clear very quickly that I needed a strategy…wandering aimlessly would do me no good.  It was time for a plan.

1.  Everything Went:  there was no way I would have been able to remember and re-find anything I MIGHT HAVE wanted to return to.  If I was even the slightest bit interested, I put it in my plastic bin.  I sorted everything out and made final decisions just before checking out.  (Note:  It turns out, my first instinct rules me.  I did not put anything back.  Not a single thing.  It was indulgent and decadent. I will not wince until I pay the credit card bill next month.)

2.  Take ’em Two At A Time:  I’m not kidding you, this building was the size of a city block and 3 stories high.  The ceilings are approximately 13 feet and each of the bookshelves takes advantage of that entire height.  If I were to have walked down a row twice, the first spending time on one side and the second on the other, I’d’ve been there for days.  Instead, I browsed one section of shelves, and then turned around to catch the same section on the other side.

3.  Leave No Copy Unturned:  From the get-go, I saw that many times, there was more than one edition of a book.  I looked through them all to find the least expensive copy.  This place is kind of like Costco.  Everything is inexpensive, but the sheer nature of buying in bulk is that you’re going to drop a dime or two.  It was in my wallet’s best interest that I pinched pennies where I could.

4.  Fiction First:  Look, I read everything.  Theory, classics, history, biography…. My name is Jen, and I’m an addict.  The written word is my opiate.  I’ll read a cereal box in its entirety if I’m lacking anything else.  But my collection, though varied, is ruled by Fiction.  My first love, the most dominant, has always been a flight of fancy.  My full attention went to this section.

5.  Let The Eye Rule:  In many ways, if I’m not after something specific, I choose my books like I choose wine at the grocery store:  by the label.  I’ll be drawn in by the cover, and let the final decision go to the jacket description.  At Powell’s there was no other way to do it.  Aside from the few recommendations that I was picking up, this was a purely sensory visit.  A shopping trip of chance.  I wasn’t here to stock up, or round out my shelves (otherwise I’d have spent another chunk of change ONLY on Vonnegut), I simply let myself be drawn in by whim.

In the end, my strategy was only mildly successful.  In three hours, I made it through Fiction and was able to skim the Feminist Theory stacks.  At the end of the Zs, I stared forlornly down at my bin-o-books. The weight of the basket had become a lesson in the isometric isolation of my biceps and the rain on my parade.  I simply couldn’t carry any more.  I tripped around a bit, still unwilling to give up the ghost, and then, finally,  sat to do my final sort.  Sigh. What I needed was a sherpa.  And another 8 hours.

I bid a reluctant adieu to the floors and sections of territory that would remain, to me, uncharted, and thunked my spoils down on the cash wrap.  With a thrill, I re-chose each title as it was uncovered by the last and handed over my Visa.  I called the Old Man to help me with my bags and we headed back to the brewery where he’d been sitting, chatting with his youngest brother for the previous two hours.  We sat as I reviewed my spoils and I ordered a drink.  Which!  Reminds me of:

6.  Books + Beer:  Pale Ales and paperbacks.  Bloody perfect.

The stack is sitting in front of me still—partially because I didn’t sell back enough books to accommodate these which I acquired (this is the express train to an episode of Hoarders, dear reader), but mostly because of the little bit of joy I get from a thing as simple as a teetering pile of tomes.  The rest of the weekend was lovely and even mostly sunny.  But Powell’s and I have some unfinished business, and I eagerly await my opportunity to return.

Facebook, Time Travel and the Richter Scale

While performing my usual Good Morning Facebook ablution before getting out of bed, I stumbled across a  shared experience; a posting from a college chum recounting his memory of events taking place on this date, 9 years ago.  Like the clear tone of a fresh-struck bell, I wooshed back to a snapshot of my exact whereabouts, frame of mind and thought processes at that very same moment.

At sixish on the dewy and crisp spring morning of 20 April 2002, A magnitude 5.1 earthquake hit in a small town of upstate New York called Elizabethtown.  E-town (yes, E-town) is approximately 15 miles southeast of Plattsburgh, New York, the location of my then college, then apartment and then self.  (For my Canadian friends:  Plattsburgh is about 45 miles south of your fine city of Montreal).

That morning, I was roused from my semi-drunken sleep not so much by the shaking as from the noise.  To my bleary ears, it sounded like a garbage truck driving up and down our street revving the engine.  It was irritating, an interruption–and it just kept driving.

Since the end of the fall semester, I’d been living in a dining room.  The dining room of the bottom floor of a house–tenanted by three boys.  Rugby players.  Drunken, older brother types. They’d ever so gallantly closed the french doors to the living room on one side and the pantry door to the kitchen on the other to afford my living space concrete dimensions.  I was also provided a waterbed, which got old and changed very quickly after the weekly prank became a game of letting the cats into my room to “play” while I was out.  Filth and boorishness notwithstanding, we all got a long reasonably well.  When the dishes stayed done.  And no one touched anyone else’s Hot Pockets.

With only one class keeping me occupied and standing in front of my two degrees, I spent much of my time either bartending or being drunk with friends.  I’d just been denied entry to the Peace Corps due to a preponderance of student debt and was staring at the rapidly crumbling foundation of my early twenties.  I had time in abundance, and no plan B.

Whiskey all around.

As my brain began to wake and sharpen on recognizing the din, it also recognized that I’d taken an old boyfriend to bed.  And not just any old boyfriend.  The aloof one who I couldn’t quite bring myself to let go of.  The one who made an art of nonchalance while I burned in a silent hell of not-quite-love.  The one who still makes my friends crack up when they reminisce about that time I totally lost all my marbles over a gent.

There he was, all rumpled, cloudy eyes working to figure out the sudden sensory overload.  It was finally the avalanche of books falling off my shelf and the rattle of the french doors behind the headboard that snapped the situation into focus.  Earthquake!!  Several seconds of noise without ill-effect assured us of our safety and we set to laughing over the random nature of what was happening.  I’d never in my life experienced an earthquake, and here I was, shaking away next to this boy who I missed and wished would let go his hold.  He laughed only because his default face was one of mirth.

The rattling eventually died down and a chilly breeze blew in the scent of the fresh lilacs growing up and down my one way street.  I closed my eyes and took a slow breath; a rare instance for me to consciously seal something in memory.  I lose the string after that.  Can’t think of how we’d met up or spent our evening.  At a loss for the chain of events leading up to our waking.  Not a trace of the moments immediately following.  Pft, erased.  Fade out; sepia.

That status update was like a faint whiff of an old scent…grandmother’s old apartment, dad’s winter sweaters, the ocean…it transported me directly back to that small moment and all its complexity.  It wasn’t exquisite or exciting, not defining or alarming, just a moment brought to mind by an event.  I was shocked at the clarity and appalled at the number of years that have past since that moment.    It’s a beautiful little memory, and I’m glad to have it tucked away.

Now Blossoming? Patience and Grace.

I am attempting to start a porch garden. There is something in my head that is insisting on it…telling me that in order to be a complete and accurately functioning success of a human being, I need to be able to cultivate something with my own hands. Something green and thriving, healthy, wholesome, wasteless. Something wrought with simple ingredients and a little bit of love. Something that, like me, acquires its energy from the sun.

Years and years ago, my mother decided to start a garden. I don’t remember the genesis of the idea, only that one day, she’d started, and had uncharacteristcally allowed me to horn in. I carried only one memory of a real garden; my Poppi’s, and I was keen to help create such a wonderland in my own world. An Eden of hot peppers, tomatoes and onions, it was the unspoken ideal, the model, the vision. We weren’t gardeners, she and I, only decendants of a gardener, but there was hope in our striving. A dream.

My father borrowed a neighbor’s tiller and turned the dirt over for us and we went to work straight away, laboring blindly toward a Beatrix Potter watercolor.

I insisted on furrows. A proper garden must have furrows, else how do you know what it is upon looking? She obliged me and gave me a bit on my own to accomplish my vision. I knelt my bony knees into the dirt, and, ignoring the unpleasant sensation of loam beneath my nails, piled the dirt up into even mounds with pathways in between to walk. We pushed seeds into thumbprint holes and relocated trays of herb starters and tomato saplings. It was quiet work, and hot, and I enjoyed feeling useful to her.

As we stood next to each other, akimbo and brushing the dirt from our sticky skin, we tried to imagine the green grown in. “I think we need more tomato plants, Jennifer.” She looked at me with a question on her face and then answered with action, speaking again over her shoulder as she made for the french doors in the back: “C’mon, let’s go back to the nursery. We’ll have lunch.”

As I sit here now, I couldn’t give many more particulars about that garden. I can’t remember weeding it or watching it grow. I can’t remember what else we planted, or if there was anything that failed to thrive and disappointed us. Did I get lost being a child somewhere, leaving my mother to the hardest part of the tending? Were there roasted eggplant and onion each night for dinner? Did my mother stand by the stove in the warm summer evenings asking me to run out to snip a parcel of chives? Nothing. It’s all lost, gathering dust on a memory shelf in the attic.

There were other attempts as I grew older. Purple passion plants set on a windowsill in a dorm room. A fated attempt to cultivate a Wandering Jew in a dining room turned apartment bedroom. Wildflower seeds scattered against a decrepit and fading blue duplex. Paperwites left moldering in rock filled Tom Collins glasses. All this with varied effects…mostly tragic, gnarled and brown.

The silent truth is not a black thumb, but my ever shortening attention span and embarrassing affinity for laziness. Plants require a consistency that I am ill-equipped to provide. I forget or think “Later” so many times during the day that the idea of Tomorrow might have become a mantra. I avoid and put-off right up until the nanosecond before negative consequences ensue…and sometimes the nanosecond after.  Too often consumed with my present and the often imagined drama with which I surround it, I find myself too harried and frenetic to sustain slow processes.  I’m a tapping foot, a startle response, a springing spring just released….

Here I am now with my hands in the soil, searching in a real way to ground myself; to gain what I believe is offered in this process. Patience.  Grace. Composure.  I don’t want a time-lapse world anymore, morphing swiftly all around me, speeding me toward an end result. Instead, I’m yearning.  Seeking.  Feeling out and lacking for peace and a purpose.

I knew when I planted these seeds, that I would not wake up the next morning to find bright green shoots punching up through the surface. But that next day, and the next and the next, I surely stepped out onto my porch and sat on my haunches, hoping for those very signs to indicate I hadn’t botched the whole thing. I smiled to myself (and broadly) when that first grassy leaf held its arms open to the sun, but despaired over the next 48 hours until more were ready. I held my breath against frost, and shook my fist at the odd cloud.

I’m in it for the haul, this time, each inner fiber in dire need of that calm connect.  I am living for that moment where I can stoop over the fruits of my labor to pluck a fragrant herb from its stem in order to pop it directly into a simmering red sauce.  Each day, as my eyes pour over the teeny plants, I remind myself to enjoy the process, to take gratification in the small success so far attained.  I smile at the beauty that is here in front of me RIGHT NOW, and remember that there is still a long row to hoe.

A Study In Loathing

Fucking.Stupid.Ugly.Cunt.

He shoots laserbeams of hate into the back of her head. Watching her hands move while she describes her disgust with the world’s current events is making him nauseas. Every time she opens her mouth to reply, his jaw twitches and clenches against the sound. He opens the window a crack and watches the exits rattle by.

How had he ended up with this…this…fucking cunt? This fucking crazy, neurotic, ANNOYING bitch?! He wants to slap her. Knock her down. Spit at her feet. She’d MADE him this way. This sniveling ball of almost silent aggression. Her. Fucking always asking for something more. Never satisfied. Always FUCKING BITCHING. What the hell does that mean anyway, “Stop making fun of me.”? Her fucking line right there. “Stop Making Fun Of Me.” Fucking bullshit. His shit was FUNNY, and he knew it. Even she laughed. All the goddamn time.

White divider lines flash past, reflecting off his glassy eyes, like a movie reel. There’s never any PEACE. He can’t ever just HAVE any peace. They’ve always got to be DOING something. (She’s got a vendetta against the TV…a phobia of wasted time.) But today! Didn’t they stay out ALL DAY?! Doing just the type of shit she enjoys? Why shouldn’t he have taken advantage of her rare willingness to drive? Have a few beers. Some whiskey and Coke. Why not? Just to be able to muffle her drone a LITTLE bit. To dull his senses enough to admit he’s unhappy. To let off a little of that pressure.

But NO. Somehow he’s ended up here, folded into this backseat, while she sits up there pretending that she’s NOT A FUCKING STUPID CUNT. Prattling on about nothing. Trying to pretend that there isn’t something WRONG. But she can’t ignore him. She knows he’s back there. He can feel her eyebrow raised in his direction, see the tension running down her neck and shoulders. He’ll hear about this tomorrow. But fuck her. Fuck that princess and her constant dismay. She hasn’t done penance nearly enough for her own depravity. Why feel guilty for that?

Outside, they’re rolling up on their front door and she’s handing the driver his fare. As they exit, she turns her flaming stare to his face and he confronts the full force of its hurt, anger and disgust. He walks to the door after throwing the keys wide right of her reaching hands…they drop to the ground in front of her and he lets out a snort.  Let that bitch bend over and pick them up. It’s not exactly spit at her feet, but the intent is clear. Fuck her. He had a good time.

She closes the door behind them and walks silently to the bedroom to change.  He watches the last of her disappear around the corner and reaches for his cigarettes.  At some point, she’d locked the sliding door to the porch, and its unanticipated weight threw off his already impaired balance.  He’s just gotten it open and stepped outside when he realizes, lighter in hand, that the box is empty.  FUCK!  He stumbles back inside and grabs the keys.  She didn’t know what she was talking about anyway.  He isn’t that drunk.  Before he knows it, he is in the car and looking up into the lighted second floor window.  There she is, that bitch.  Standing there.  Glaring at him.  What the fuck is she looking at?  He pulls out of the space and rolls down the window, middle finger blazing as he drives off toward the gas station.

Cento di questi giorni

NOTE:  I started this piece on my birthday, but was unable to finish it for the interruptions.  I should have locked myself in my room and done it, because now, as I sit to finish, I find that I’m in an entirely different headspace, and that hope and almost-contentment have long since disappeared into the horizon.  Half of the below is fiction because it was written today, and not on my birthday.  I’ve just now realized how attached my writing is to my mood.  A shame, because this piece could have been really something.

I take birthdays pretty seriously.  I believe in them with fervor and await their arrival almost breathlessly.  Airy confections of whipped hope and anticipation, they speed around the sun every year, taking the mire and gunk of the past 365 only to return again, whitewashed and on-schedule.  Skipping blithely with a  basket of promise, birthdays beckon like little imps, peeking in and out of the periphery, giggling at the eager glint in our eyes.

Each year, I smile into the gleam of what Could Be, and throw my arms open, keen to begin the revelry of the day.  An April baby, the month itself is my own personal analogy.  A stunning dichotomy, April is equal parts sunshine and snow squall, one often followed by the other, nonchalant in its apt absurdity.  As my birthday rolls around, I’m often surrounded by the beginnings of greening grass and pops of cherry blossoms with their perfect pink chests defiantly heralding the new spring.  I’ve gotten a tan on this day, and woken up the next surrounded by snow drifts.  But the smell of lilac always breaks through, and the sun insists on persisting.  When all is said, my own new year is Nature’s too and something about that begs belief in faeries and the whispered possibility of fulfilled wishes.

Colorful bows and smiling faces, impossibly tall heels and cake-top dresses; No Sharing Required.  On a birthday, the heart’s quietest yearnings linger just beyond a filmy curtain, sometimes stepping through and stealing breath…like a kiss full on the lips.  It’s a pure joy.  One of the few I know.  For a day, I give up on compromise and hold those around me to a higher standard.  I court surprises and dare my companions to live just as loudly.  I give myself over to highest expectation and whirl headlong into celebration.

For one day, I give up (over)thinking, and live in the moment.  I marvel at the sunshine, and throw up silent prayers of thanks for those who have gone out of their way to participate in my life.  During these 24 hours, I can successfully convince myself that everything is going to be okay, that with my party dress and t-strap sandals I can conquer my demons, my life and then, maybe, the world.  On my birthday, I revel in the love (feigned or real) of others and take, selfishly but without remorse, time for myself.

It is special.  Unique to me.  My own.  A day for others to please me, and not the other way around.