Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tales from Rural Maine: "Going Gluten-free"

It's not easy to be gluten-free; particularly if you live someplace where pizza and Italians (subs) are the only viable take-out and the nearest health food store is 45 minutes round-trip and closes before you even get out of work. Since I've only recently returned here after two decades in more...shall we say..."developed" areas, such as San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Northampton, MA, part of the quest is not just knowing what I need and how to prepare it (big challenges on their own), but where to gather all the ingredients--and then making the time to forage while also working 40+ hours, trying to exercise, having a life, looking for health insurance, and first looking for a house and now owning one that needs work.

I spent an hour in the Shaw's in Ellsworth on Saturday, for instance, looking for non-dairy yogurt. They sell it at Hannaford so I assumed it would be at Shaw's. Truth be told, it took me nearly an hour to remember I wasn't in Hannaford. Nevertheless, even with the help of three determined staffers who insisted it was in the store, we were utterly unable to locate the soy- or coconut-based yogurts for which I quested. (I wanted them because breakfast is one of my real problem areas and since I don't eat meat, gluten, or dairy (mostly), I wanted the alterna-yogurts I'd been used to--the ones I bought in bulk at Hannaford in Brewer.)

Once I learn the ropes, I think the time it takes to acquire things will go down, but for now, there are still a great many hours spent looking for vegan cheeses and miso that could be spent doing something more useful, like painting my laundry room or watching four hours of NCIS on DVD (or actually trying to cook something).

One thing I know for sure: there is no shortage of information. Quite the contrary. If you mention to anyone--even a stranger at the grocery store who spies you loading Bob's Red Mill gluten-free-something in your cart and asks--that you are gluten-free, you will be immediately asked, "Have you read the blogs?" No matter what your answer, you will then be showered with information, suggestions, a torrent of details and stories about afflicted loved ones that is so well-meaning and yet just too much to take.

As I told my friend Mav (in the ancient tradition of mixed metaphor) when she offered to provide copious amounts of great cooking and eating tips in response to my last gluten-free blog post, but first checked to see if I could handle any more input: "I mostly feel like I'm a sturdy little thimble positioned at the mouth of the great Mississippi. Open wide and try to filter *all that information* into something you can eat. So, yes, thank you for the loving restraint when it comes to tips. I DO want them, but my little sponge of a brain is nearly soaked. I'm tired and hungry and frustrated. One meal at a time. Must go slowly. Can't cope with onslaught of advice. You have my e-mail, though: you could drop me gluten guidance there, if you want? And I'll pop in when I can and have a nibble?"

And that's just it. I love Mav for understanding that I couldn't just get battered by tips: because that's what they usually feel like. Battering. No matter how lovingly given, I'm like a plant that's been overwatered. (Hurray! Another mixed metaphor!) I do want help, but first I just really need to absorb what I already have.

I do thank Renee from Hannaford in Bucksport, though, who saw me checking out with Mike's Hard Lemonade this summer and let me know that malt means gluten. Rats! And to Mark (my sweet friend and realtor), who was the first to tell me that Hannaford in Bucksport sells Redbridge, a gluten-free beer. Problem identified. Problem solved. (Want more gluten-free beers. Here's a super site.)

Some tips are really helpful. Other tips, like, for instance, "You can Google it," are not. One is a tiny, well-aimed drop; the other is like turning the hose on me.

I do thank everyone who is trying to help. And I ask you to please poke your hand gently in my soil before you dump in any more water, lest I drown (or catch you with a thorn).

The exception is actual food delivery. Presenting me with recipes or lists of blogs means I have to do more reading, more thinking, more foraging, and potentially more failing at preparation. Then I have to clean up. But, if you want to invite me to a gluten-free, semi-vegan meal--or, say, drop a suitable hot dish off at my place--well, then, my friend, you are always welcome to feed me.

I decided to start blogging about being gluten-free with my own particular parameters (the nearly vegan, onion-allergic, mushroom-averse me) because I do think it's worthwhile and helpful for all the celiacs and gluten-challenged among us to speak up and share on this great cyber river of muddy information we like to call the Interweb. If you are looking for help or hope or company, here I am. I'm glad you found me. Just don't expect me to read your blog.

Here's the latest one-day-at-a-time menu update:

November 17, 2009
1.5 cups coffee w/2 cubes raw sugar
coconut milk yogurt (from Hannaford in Brewer!)
gluten-free granola (I can't remember now where I landed that. Rats.)
soy chocolate pudding (which I think is located either in the dairy case or the produce section at Shaw's in Ellsworth)
1 bowl homemade vegetable soup (You can find the recipe on page 251 of The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone.)
gluten-free french roll toasted with raw, organic honey and earth balance margerine
one glass Riesling (I hope it was gluten-free? I don't know. Can wine have gluten?)
Grilled salmon with mashed potatoes and cole slaw (restaurant)
Andes mint

November 18, 2009
1.5 cups coffee w/2 cubes raw sugar
3 gluten-free waffles with margerine and real syrup
organic applesauce
homemade veg. soup (note to self: make LESS soup next time!)
gluten-free crackers (they're made from nuts!)
vegan cheese (it's made from nuts!)

3 Junior Mints Deluxe Dark Chocolate Mints (both gluten-free and vegan, I think)

1/2 Fuji apple
soy chocolate pudding
Shahi Korma, 3/4 lunch-sized portion (Taste of India, Bangor)
papadam (it's made from lentils!)
basmati rice
Polar orange dry seltzer

That damn soup is finally gone. And I think I might be out of non-yogurt-yogurt. Damn! I should have had Peter get some today when he was in Bangor. See? This is what's hard about it. Stock up and re-supply. It's like planning for a freaking revolution.

This content is copyrighted and may not be reproduced. If you're reading it on Facebook, it was imported from my blog at Read the original here.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, November 16, 2009

Gluten-free diet: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner

Eating gluten-free is a total pain in the ass, especially when you're first learning. There's a lot of frustration, mix-ups, and starvation. There's a lot of effort and aggravation--and slip-ups.

In my first month of being gluten-free, for instance, I drank non-alcoholic beer frequently, never imagining I was guzzling gluten. Slowly, I'm learning. I try not to beat myself up or worry. I'm doing the best I can. That's my motto. And, about half-way through my third month, I am actually feeling better.

Now that I have my own home, which means my own kitchen, it's much easier to work on eating gluten-free than it was when I was living in the camper. Living in rural Maine, I don't have easy access to gluten-free products or other necessary supplies, but now that I have my own space, I can bulk buy and store multiple loaves of rice-based bread or tofu steaks in my freezer, if I want to.

Because I'm also a vegan-leaning vegetarian who eats fish and "happy" chicken, but who gets sick from eggs and most dairy and is allergic to onions, I'm extra-special pinched when it comes to feeding myself. Most gluten-free cookbooks rely heavily on meat dishes; most vegetarian cookbooks rely heavily on gluten-infested breads, pastas, and fake meat products--or the dreaded hummus or mushroom-based meal. (I don't like most hummus or mushrooms and I can't stand olives, goat cheese, or sundried tomatoes. Gag me.)

With everything that's been going on in my life since the advent of the gluten-free diet decision, I haven't had the energy or time to dig up recipes that are palatable and realistic. Living where I live, it's not easy to find a daikon radish or some ghee. Or seitan? Forget about it. Plus, have I mentioned? I am a terrible cook. No. Really. I am. I burn toast. I under cook and over cook. I make good flavors go bad. It's a giant comic tragedy almost every time I try to make food.

But, I *have* to eat. And I have to eat healthy. So, in a gesture of solidarity with anyone else out there with the same dietary restrictions as me, I offer a sample menu. Here's what I ate today:

1 bowl gluten-free organic cereal with rice milk, sort of a knock-off yet pricier version of Cocoa Crispies.
Lots of water
1 glass water doused with packet of Emergen-C
1.5 cups coffee with two raw sugar cubes
1 bowl homemade vegetable soup, leftover from a surprisingly successful attempt at cooking (by me) this weekend. You can find the recipe on page 251 of The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone.
1 gluten-free "french roll" (really more like a biscuit) toasted (so as not to be frozen any more) with organic raw honey and smart balance margerine. (So yummy!)
one large serving organic jasmine rice, frozen (microwaved)
one gluten-free, vegetarian chili meal, frozen (microwaved) ("Helen's Kitchen Simple Health Hearty Bean Chili with Vegetables & TofuSteaks")
dollop all natural sour cream
3 Junior Mints Deluxe Dark Chocolate Mints (both gluten-free and vegan, I think)
1 sandwich made with gluten-free bread (frozen) toasted, with melted almond-based vegan cheese and vegenaise, and a leftover tofu steak (originally frozen, also Helen's Kitchen brand and totally delicious)
Two organic celery stalks
Handful of Lay's potato chips

I'm still hungry, but it was a successful day--the kind of day that makes me think I can actually do this.

This content is copyrighted. If you're reading it on Facebook, it was imported from my blog at Read the original here.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Monday, September 14, 2009

Tales from Rural Maine: "I Know Exactly Where That Is"

One of the things I love--I mean, really and truly love--about rural Maine is the way people give directions.

My family has been here in this same town on both sides for more than two centuries, and I myself have never been away for more than six months at a time in 37 years, and yet I don't know the names of most of the streets. People don't say, "Go up Mill Street." They say "Go up the Post Office Street." (In fact, I don't think it is "Mill Street." I genuinely don't know the name of the street on which the Bucksport Post Office is located.)

And I am not alone in this. I don't know the name of the street because almost no one local uses its name. Most directions are given with points of reference being, not street names or number of blocks between things, or even in miles, as might be common in other places, but rather in terms of details based on where people live or where something happened or what is located on the street (such as the post office or the library).

My favorite part is that the directions are always correct and reliable, but utterly inscrutable to outsiders because they most often begin with where something (or someone) used to be.

I enjoy re-telling particularly excellent examples of rural directions as anecdotes and recently attempted to regale my father with a narrative about the directions a friend had given me to his house in Happy Town. Peter and I had been invited to have dinner with him and his wife, and he issued us the following directions via e-mail:

From your Dad's home take Upper Falls Road to Bald Mountain. I don't have mileage from there but from Bald Mtn you go down over the stream, then up two steep hills, after the hills go a couple of miles, the road sweeps to the Left with some cows on the side of the hill at Wee Bit Farm. Look for Winkumpaugh Road on the Right, take it and go to the next stop sign at Happy Town Road, the sign is frequently stolen and I can't recall if it is there at present. Go 1 mile up the hill on Happy Town Road and we are on the Left @xxx. Our house has a carport, shingled exterior and green trim. Most importantly my cell is xxx-xxxx should you get lost.

I was cracking up by the end. I mean, isn't that a riot? Aren't those directions just so awesomely rural-perfect? Start at your Dad's, go all these crazy ways, turn (no idea which direction) at the stop sign with the missing road sign all to end up in some place called "Happy Town"? Awesome, right?

But my dad, who had been following along intently to my narrative, picturing all the roads and turns in his head just said, totally straight-faced, "I know exactly where that is...But he should have told you the cows have long hair."

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tales from Rural Maine: Something’s Gotta Give

Peter and I came to Maine because it was time. We were miserable where we were. We examined every other possibility and we decided, for a variety of perfectly sensible—and a few more intuitive—reasons that Maine was the place to be for now.

Our plan hinged on a few things, however. The most essential was the weather. Second to that: a job for Peter.

We have been here now for three weeks living in a small camper on my father’s lawn. Part one of the plan was to live rent-free in this manner, the upside of living in a tiny, awkward space was that we could enjoy a Maine summer while also getting Peter out of debt and saving toward a home of our own. We would barbecue on the deck and swim every afternoon. It would be great.

Those of you who live in mid-coast Maine are already laughing a rueful laugh. For those of you who don’t know: it’s raining. It doesn’t matter when you read this—today, tomorrow, next Thursday, September—it will still be raining. It’s rained almost every day since it stopped snowing and the forecast for the next ten days? Rain. In fact, the forecast for the foreseeable future? Rain. Having almost entirely given up any real hope of summer, I am now beginning to tiptoe toward the genuinely dreadful thought of what this precipitation will mean when the temperature drops. Do you have any idea how much snow ten inches of rain translates into? Or what life is like here if it snows day after day after day for months? Especially if you didn’t get a chance to regroup in the warmth of summer? It’s a thought so horrifying that I can’t even think about it. I start to…but when I get close, I turn and run away. That door must stay closed for now or I’ll never make it.

As though you hadn’t heard, the recession is also making it hard to find work, even here, where we thought old family and friend connections and the boom of a summer economy would mean at least temporary or part-time work for Peter.

We were wrong.

And, maybe worst of all: the camper smells. I have tried everything. Baking soda. Vacuuming. Spraying various potions both natural and chemical, which claim to remove odors of all sorts from fabric. Almost every inch of the interior of the damn thing is covered in this terrible, scratchy brownish/tan fabric from 1986. We don’t keep smelly trash, dirty dishes, recycling, or dirty laundry inside. I run a HEPA filter 24x7. Essential oils are diffused, windows are opened, and litter box deposits (and twice daily wet food leftovers) are whisked away so quickly our stunned Norman cat can only stand looking dazed as his whiskers blow back in my wake.

We’ve washed all our bedding and doused it in fabric softener. We keep shoes locked away. But nothing, I fear, nothing can save me from this smell. (Where is it coming from??)

What is truly problematic about this is that because I work from home (which makes this move possible—hurray!) I have to sit in that smell all day when it’s too wet or too cold to work outside (boo!).

I could go work inside at my dad’s—or impose on friends or family—but there are a couple of problems with this. One is that it’s inconvenient. The other is that, apart from foul odors, faithful friends and readers of my blog know that noise unsettles me. You might say it has the potential to destroy me. And even when my dad’s house is completely empty (which is rare given that a teenager, a teacher, and a retiree with a vicious, barky dog also live there), the house itself makes unbearable noises. Like today, I sought refuge in the empty house only to be driven back out again by a loud and creepy repetitive noise coming from the freezer. It sounded like the creaks a big ship makes. (Peter said that’s called “delisting,” so at least I learned a new word today.)

While this place is a huge improvement over the horror that was Hampton Terrace, locals know that the traffic on the Upper Falls Road is constant and fast-paced. The deceptively rural and unassuming road, green and lovely, bordered by blueberry fields, the tail end of a lake, forests, and a few quiet homes, is a pass-through for all manner of vehicle, from passenger cars to large delivery trucks to rumbling farm equipment, racing to or from Route 1 and Route 46. I was warned about the noise, but after the booming bass, shrieking hordes of unwelcome children, and the chainsaws—oh, gawd, the chainsaws!—at our previous address, I really thought…how bad could it be?

It turns out, it can be pretty bad. I know this because even Peter is bothered and he slept for four years on an aircraft carrier in a tiny metal “bed” beneath fighter jets taking off and landing. (Don’t even get me started on how bad the sleeping accommodations are…that’s probably a whole other blog, but suffice to say…we are both tired and sore.)

Today, despite the gray skies and high humidity, it wasn’t actually raining when I got up, so when I just couldn’t take the stink of the camper any more, I carted all my work junk out to the picnic table, dried it off, and went to work. But the rush of wheels on pavement recurred just often enough and just loud enough that I couldn’t get my work done. I was trying to watch an informative video about a product I’m reviewing, but whenever a car passed, it drowned out my audio, even on the loudest setting.

I finally packed up and went into the house. But then the delisting freezer—and the arrival back home of grandpa and dog—drove me back outside.

Which is how I’ve come to be here, on the back porch, listening to the soothing hum of the hot tub and the gentle swish of the breeze through the trees—and trying to ignore the dog that’s been barking for the last hour and, of course, the traffic.

I haven’t mentioned that for most of these three weeks, I’ve also been starving. Finding dairy-free, gluten-free, semi-vegetarian food in this burg is a project. Take out is an impossibility. I drove all the way to Bangor just to get some microwaveable Amy’s meals—at Target. And the cat throws up at least twice a week, sometimes twice a day. And for a while he had a diarrhea so pungent it brought tears to my eyes and woke me several nights from a rare and precious deep sleep.

Like the icing on our cake, for several days, the septic system was also blocked up—turns out it was a tree branch, not Peter (phew!)—so we had to commute three miles each way to my brother’s whenever we needed to poo or bathe. (Good thing we have our own house key!)

On the up-side, our expenses are minimal. I can hug my niece and my nephew whenever I want. There’s a weird little yoga class on what used to be the stage at my elementary school twice a week. And Peter’s not being at work means that today, when I was absolutely on the brink, he washed the stinky cat dishes, took out the trash, found our missing plate and bowl, hugged me, got the mail, and drove to the grocery store for two different kinds of air freshener—keep hope alive!—and the ingredients for my favorite meal, which he is now cooking.

I will finish this review, dammit, despite the traffic noise and my hunger and fatigue (you’ll be able to read it later at<==plug). I will eat a delicious lunch, which will improve things greatly. Later, we will look at houses with our realtor (who is the first boy I ever spent a Valentine’s Day with) and then we will return home, to spray the air with our new cans of Fabreeze and settle in for the next installment of Torchwood on our tiny, satellite-equipped TV (god bless my father for making that happen). We may even take a dip in the hot tub.

That is, of course, if I don’t just refuse to leave whatever house we look at last…

©Copyright 2009, Naomi Graychase. If you are reading this on Facebook, it was imported from and should not be reproduced without permission. You can find more stories or poems like it at

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tales from Rural Maine: You Can't Get There From Here

Peter and I have a joke that he doesn't pay attention to his surroundings. When I say "joke," what I really mean is that he doesn't pay attention to his surroundings--and this drives me crazy because he never knows where anything is, including himself--but since it is, I have come to accept, an irrevocable truth of his personality, we have decided that we can laugh about it rather than fight about it.

Today, we were starving and didn't feel like cooking, and he was going out to pick up our mail at my Dad's anyway (we're housesitting this week), so we decided he'd pick up a pizza for a late lunch/early dinner kind of thing. Given the aforementioned lack of awareness, you can imagine that I had some trepidation about sending him the three miles to Snowman's alone, but he said he could do it.

I had him recite to me the directions from Dad's place on the Upper Falls Road over to Snowman's.

"You just go out to that main road and then when it gets to the place where it bends, you go that way and then it'll come up on the right next to that fried food place," he said.


"Okay, well. Yes. Although, like I said, it's across the street from Crosby's. And..." (And I can't believe you still call Route 1 "that main road there) "And..."

I hesitated to mention it, but I just hated that he was going to go that way when there was a way I thought was shorter. And easier. And would take him past the golf course, which he had just that day asked about.

So, I said, "...And there's actually a faster way? You could, instead of going out to Route 1, just come back this way. And, instead of turning sharp right at that house we like, to go up to the Russell Hill Road, you just keep going straight. You'll pass the golf course and then Snowman's will come up on your left."

"Really...?" He seemed skeptical, but willing.

"Yes!" I was excited that he wanted to branch out, learn a new way. He's usually resistant. "Yes. You just don't take that turn and you'll come to a stop sign and bear left and just stay on it 'til you come to Snowman's."

"Okay!" he said. And left.

An hour later I was half worried he'd had car trouble and didn't have a phone--and was also about ready to eat my own fist--when he rolled in the door with a cold pizza and a story about going to Holden.

"HOLDEN?" I said, flabbergasted. "You went to Holden?"

"I took a few wrong turns."

"I should say so."

He explained that he had gone the way he knew to get to Snowman's from my Dad's (out to "that main road"), but that he tried to follow my directions to get home.

"But, honey, I gave you directions TO Snowman's from Dad's, not FROM Snowman's to here...You were practically in Brewer."

"I know..." he said. "I realized I'd gone the wrong way when I saw the sign that said 'Brewer 8 miles."

We laughed. How could we not?

"I can't believe you drove to Holden. From Snowman's."

He's such a sweetheart, though, he didn't eat the pizza while he was driving all that way.

"At least it was a nice, scenic drive," he said. "Until you get to Holden. No one's fixed the roads there since the seventies."

"I know! That's because no one goes to Holden," I said.

The rest of our big plan for the evening was to go see The Proposal at the Alamo. We've been looking forward to it all week. We thought we'd outsmart the crowds by seeing it on a Wednesday night. But, I called ahead to confirm the showtime only to learn that it appears to have only shown over the weekend. No shows during the week. Sigh.

The pre-recorded voice that told me the show times I'd missed was my friend Jane's. We went to high school together and she runs the theater or something now. (Jane once convinced me to jump out of a moving vehicle because it was a standard and she didn't know how to start again once she stopped. Tip: 5 mph is actually a faster rate at which to hit the ground than you might think.)

It was so delightful to hear her sweet Mainer voice, even though I just saw her last week, that I actually listened to her dash my evening plans, then went back to the main menu and listened to her do it again.

So, it turns out that my dinner was cold, Peter still doesn't know how to get to Snowman's from here--or more importantly, back--but he does know how to get to Holden, should the need ever arise. We can't go see a movie without driving to Bangor or Ellsworth tonight, which Peter already practically did, and oh--P.S.--a large is a medium at Snowman's. If you want a large, you have to order a "Family."

So, we're still hungry. But we are, each in our own way, learning (or relearning) the ropes around here. And he did manage to get the mail, so, even as comparatively remote as our life is here, two new Netflix discs found their way to us, quite rapidly, in fact. So, we'll add The Proposal to our Netflix queue when it comes out and tonight we enjoy...Paul Blart: Mall Cop instead.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, July 13, 2009

Tales from Rural Maine: Run!

On the down side, I walked down to check the mail and not only had it not come yet, but I got attacked by one of those large and unreasonably aggressive horseflies; on the up side, I sprinted for the first time since I severed my ACL two years ago and it turns out, I can still do it--and for a fair distance. My top speed is just slightly more than a horsefly's. Take that you freaking horsenightmare!

As the horsefly launched its attack and I began waiving my arms wildly around my head, an old lady nearby stood inside her screen door and held a flyswatter menacingly. "You want a piece of that?!" she yelled.

I would have, actually, but it turned out she was talking to her four barking dachshunds.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, April 25, 2008

Postcards from the Edge (of Easthampton)

When I left my old apartment in Northampton, it was largely because of the noise that came from living below another tenant. I could even hear when he peed.

Being a light sleeper, working from home, and being prone to migraines, etc. a quiet environment is an essential quality-of-life ingredient for me, and was "top-of-mind" when I searched for a new place. Sadly, the first place I took was such a noise-riddled disaster that I spent most days in tears, clutching my head and rocking. Ultimately, after five long months, my landlords who lived above me, let me out of my lease and hired someone to soundproof the ceiling so that the next tenant wouldn't have to listen to every footstep, every word of every conversation, every microwave beep, and every radio show or guitar lesson that happened above her.

I was so relieved when I left that place and found this strange, but large, apartment in what seemed like a dead quiet neighborhood on the edge of Easthampton. For starters, there would be no one above me, which had been the largest issue at the last two places. And my landlords lived next door in our side-by-side duplex instead of right above me. I was a little nervous about being side-by-side. I thought perhaps I'd wind up succumbing to all of the same sorts of noise that had traveled down at the other places--doesn't noise also travel sideways? But I had such a good feeling about the place, I took it on faith and negotiated a month-to-month lease so that if the noise was awful, I could break free and look all over again. (Ugh.)

I've been here a year now, and I'm happy to report that my landlords are quiet neighbors. Every now and again I hear the husband practicing his drums, a sound that dominates every inch of the house when it happens, but which thankfully rarely happens, or a dog running up and down the stairs, or guests talking too loudly in the kitchen, or the vaccuum cleaner running. Once I heard the eery sounds of what sounded like a recorder floating down from the attic. But, these are the normal sounds of life, they come and go, and on the whole, it's been lovely to have that side of the house be a quiet sanctuary.

Unfortunately, the other three sides are subjected to an almost non-stop onslaught of noise.

Which brings me to this blog. Because the noise is so constant, so unbelievable, I decided it might help me to cope if I cataloged some of it here.

I can't possibly sum up the entire last year of noises in one blog post, but just to give you a sampling, I'll tell you that I woke up on my first Saturday morning here at 9am to the sounds of a chainsaw that ran for the next six hours straight. There were several more days like it as the neighbor to my right worked to cut down and then dismember a very large and healthy tree in his front yard. He then rented some heavy equipment to dig up and then pave over his front yard. My neighbors behind me and next door also enjoy playing music. It ranges from afro-pop to "gangsta" rap to hip hop to--I swear to God--adult contemporary. (Who blasts this?) I have also endured four straight hours of rototilling, many hours of yappy dog barking, snow throwers, especially in the pre-dawn hours, a wide assortment of power tools, the excavation and construction of a house that burned down and was rebuilt one street over, and an ongoing basketball tournament virtually in my backyard. The irregular thwap of a basketball has now landed itself on my list of Most Reviled Noises of All Time.

My neighbors to the right also have children and a large extended family. In summer, there is not a day that passes when a child is not slamming a soccer ball against the house and/or screaming. The neighbors just past them also have a remote control car that they whiz up and down the street. This noise could best be described as a high-pitched Weed Whacker that increases and decreases the intensity of its whine as it approaches and then passes my apartment. Over. And over. And over. It sounds very much like a dentist's drill and is one of the most unbearable sounds ever created. (I have extended fantasies about running down this remote controlled vehicle and crushing it under the wheels of my car--and then backing up over it just to make sure it's entirely crushed. My next door neighbors on the far left have the very same fantasy. Perhaps one day our dream will come true...)

The children next door will, occasionally, stop slamming their ball against the house and go inside, open all the windows, and blast cartoons louder than one would think possible.

The saddest part of all of this for me is that I live for spring and summer. During all the long, cold, dark months of being shut up here in New England, the thing that keeps me going is the anticipation of the moment when I can throw open my windows and bask in the warm breezes that kiss my skin and satisfy my nostrils. I love the feeling of warm, fresh air through windows. I love hearing the birds and feeling the sunshine. I love looking out over my tulips.

But here, I have to choose: fresh air or quiet. I've invested almost $200 in white noise machines and ear plugs. I've tried running fans and air conditioners, but these burn through electricity and with the A/C on, I can't also open the window.

This morning, for instance, I sat down at my desk for work at 8:45 a.m. and already the next door neighbors were making noise. It really is comical the diverse potpourri of noises they create. This morning, for instance, it was an industrial-sounding vacuum. It's a gorgeous spring day. Sunny and fresh. But even through the windows, the whizzing whine of the vacuum made it seem as though I'd pulled up to a car wash rather than sat down in my sunny little office. When I opened the windows, the noise was just too much to take. So, as I usually do, I chose the quiet over the fresh air and closed the windows. The vacuuming went on for what seemed like forever.

We also seem to be in the flight path of what I think is an air force base in Westover or Westfield? After the vacuuming stopped, I opened my window and a massive aircraft, the kind that looks like it could open its cargo hold and swallow half a dozen tractor trailers whole, rumbled by overhead. When these planes fly over, the noise is so powerful it fills up your whole chest as they slowly pass over. I always feel a little bit afraid when I hear them, as though I weren't on the edge of Easthampton, but instead, on the edge of Gaza or Tikrit where such noises often herald doom.

After the vacuum and the airplane noises were done, the children came out to play. They are on April vacation. And so the bouncing and slamming began. And the shouting. The littlest one has a shriek that could shatter glass. Oh, yes. And the Big Wheel. I am deeply nostalgic for my own Big Wheel, but this one, last summer, was the bane of my existence.

After the vacuum ended, I opened my windows again. But what quickly came through them, carried in on the sweet spring breeze, was an argument between children, close in age, fighting over toys and territory. The little one will win because she is cuter and holds greater sway with the adults, which her older brother knows all too well. And because she can scream louder and for longer. And because she is a little girl and therefore is, to a certain extent, untouchable.

"No, I get it! Don't go here! Stay here!" she screams. Her voice getting higher and sharper.

Frustrated beyond words, "Waahahahhhhhhrrghh!" is his response.

An adult intervenes in some melodic West African language, and now the Big Wheel rumbles forth. I don't think it's possible to describe exactly how loud, how miserable a noise that Big Wheel makes. The wheels squeak and I resume another of my fantasies: dousing the thing in WD-40 while the children sleep. But the worst is the rumble. The plastic wheels grind into the pavement in such a way as to create a noise so profound it cannot be stopped by walls or windows or ear plugs or white noise machines. It is relentless. And the children never tire of it.

So, this is how my days go. Bella and Buddy will scream, screech, wail. Bang things, throw things, and ride that cursed Big Wheel back and forth all day. The tractor trailers will rumble by every few minutes. The helicopters and warcrafts will pass over head just often enough to be noticeable. Adults will talk loudly in a lovely language I can't understand. And, at some point, someone, somewhere, will blast their music, most likely with a sub woofer-enhanced bass line so strong it feels as though it is trying to impede the beating of my heart inside my chest. There will also be the extended grinding buzz of motorcycles speeding by on the main road at the end of my street and, inevitably, some sort of machinery or power tool buzzing and whizzing nearby. A few times a week, the pair of little dogs two houses down will add their yappy voices to the mix.

You may ask why I have stayed...I started looking for a new place to live almost immediately after moving in, but then my truck died. And Calvin died. And then my knee got ripped to shreds. And then, eight months later, just as I could walk again and imagine carrying boxes up and down stairs, I had an accident in yoga class and got a pretty bad case of whiplash. (I know, it's funny, right?) That was three weeks ago. In three more weeks, I'll be medically cleared for something like a move. So, we'll see how things go then.

Silver lining
If there can be a bright side to all of this, it's that I've somehow come to a place of greater peace and acceptance with my powerlessness against the noise. Sometimes I even laugh when a new, obscure noise invades what little silence I may have achieved. The sheer volume--both in level of noise and variety--is something one really has to have at least a grudging appreciation for.

Just the other day someone on the street behind ours was running some sort of machinery and Peter and I both looked at each other with quizzical expressions and said, What is that?

And then, in the way that some connoisseurs might try to determine which particular type of pear or mushroom has been baked into a dish, we cocked our heads and ran the sound across the palates of our ears, scanning our internal database for similar sounds.

I thought it was someone trying to saw through a sapling with an electric carving knife. Peter thought it might be some kind of saw. Whatever it is, it's being overworked, I said.

Every weekend, sometimes on both Saturday and on Sunday, the Ghanaian family next door has a bash, a multi-generational gathering, which lasts all day and involves a lot of talking both in English and in a melodic African language I cannot understand. There is laughter, shouting, and music--and this year, burning meat with lots of lighter fluid. (Something smells wrong about that barbeque, said Peter as we fled the house in search of quiet places last weekend.)

Perhaps it is that I am getting older. Perhaps it is my yoga. Perhaps it is because I have Peter, or because I am no longer injured, broke, and stuck in one place. Whatever has caused it, now, when the noises come, I do not get angry. I examine my choices and I pick one. Instead of hating that I have to close the windows to block out the noise enough to sleep/work/watch a movie/think, I take a very deep, cleansing breath, let it out, and make my choice.

This weekend, for instance, the weather was incredibly beautiful for the first time (on a weekend) since the fall. The noise started as soon as we got up. But, instead of closing the doors and windows and gritting my teeth, putting on the fans or putting in the ear plugs, or calling the police, Peter and I just left. We packed a picnic and went to the lake. We saw a movie. We went out to dinner. And by the time we got home, things had quieted down almost to the point that we could hear our own television when we turned it on to watch a DVD of LOST.

Having Peter here means that I am not alone with the noise, except when I'm working, and this helps. Having a stable job means I can afford to escape by doing things like seeing movies or eating out. Being able-bodied means I can walk or drive away; for the first eight months, this wasn't true. And my yoga practice has helped me to achieve a greater sense of perspective, a more fluid sense of myself within the great flow of the universe. Somehow, it allows me to laugh the way the Dalai Lama laughs. I can't stop the noise, but I have some freedom and some agency and these things help to relieve my resentment. I have perspective, and this helps me to laugh, even in the face of chainsaws.

While I still long for a place of my own that is quiet and lovely, I have come to a place inside myself where the noise I experience here doesn't make me feel desperate and crazy. Right now, for instance, the yappy dogs are barking again and a woman is yelling very angrily at them, to no avail. (Quite honestly listening to her is almost worse than listening to the sharp yelps of the dogs, which has been going on for about an hour.) She has been joined by a child, who is also now yelling at the dogs. Who are still barking. And, all of this happens above the constant soundtrack of a conversation between men, in the African language, which has been going on outside my window for some time now. And, for percussion, a tractor trailer grumbles loudly, followed by another, and another. The engines rev as they accelerate, or the brakes squeak and the engines grind as they down shift and prepare to dock.

But, I am okay. I wish very much that it was quiet here, but, it isn't and this is where I am. I take a deep, cleansing breath, fill my lungs with nourishing fresh air, exhale...and then close the windows. I can still hear the dogs, but, as my friend Dan says, "Noise happens."

And, continuing to look on the bright side: at least I don't have to listen to anyone pee.

Labels: , ,

Friday, November 23, 2007

Staying In: Thanksgiving (or Alohomora?)

I hate Thanksgiving. Don’t make me explain why.

Other people are with people today. I am alone. It shouldn’t bother me, not any more than any other Thursday, especially since I’ve had so much practice, but it does.

My big plan was to watch every episode of Californication in my Showtime On Demand, but the On Demand isn’t working. I called my cable company to get it fixed, but it didn't work.

I said, “I’m sorry you have to work on Thanksgiving,” to the tech support woman.

In the silence that followed, I could hear the keys of her keyboard clicking through the phone.

I could have gone somewhere. I got invited to my neighbor Kelly’s family’s Thanksgiving in Connecticut. But…you know how it is. I can’t…go out. I can’t go in a car to a strange place and be with people I don’t know. Not on Thanksgiving. It’s too much. I might unravel. I might start to cry, to sob. I just can’t go.

It makes me sad that I can’t go.

My biggest fear right now is that something will happen to Peter before he gets here. I’m afraid that after all this work and time, when I finally have a good life within reach, someone who loves me and wants to stay with me; just when I could have things like Thanksgiving—or any other Thursday—with someone who knows my name (and loves me), I’m convinced on some level that he will be killed before he can get here. In a car crash. I’ll get a phone call and…it’ll be terrible. And I’ll barely, just barely live through it. More pain. More alone. More agony. How much more life can I live like this, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute? How much more can be asked of me? (This is a dangerous question to ask.)

I told this fear to Peter last night. He is sure that he is not going to die in a car crash before he gets here.

It snowed in Colorado yesterday. Peter thought he had his JEEP in four-wheel-drive, but he didn’t. He hit a slippery patch and slid into oncoming traffic. He didn’t die, though. He righted himself and got out of the way before disaster struck.

I need to right myself and get out of the way before disaster strikes.

I am struggling with a terrible depression. It came, and it will not release me. In my journal on Tuesday I wrote:

I’m so sad.
Like I am permeable
and this thing, it’s like
it comes and occupies
my space, my body, my head

In my grief on Monday, I lay down in my bed, and I cracked open. I cried. When it comes like that, I strain against it. It’s like cramping, seizing, only it’s my spiritual heart, my emotional heart, not my muscles. Although, they ache, too.

And then, from inside the darkness, a flash of light, and I remembered that I can ask for help. I sat up. And said, fiercely, aloud, “Help me.” It was an order, not a request. Not begging. It was a command. “Help me.”

I thought of Dumbledore saying that there will always be help at Hogwarts for those who ask. I thought of Pru and the work we’ve done. And I thought about God. And I said, “Help me. Help me, God, and the universe. Help me love and light. Help me every part of myself that knows how to help me: help me. Now.”

And before I knew it, I was rising. And the pain had passed for a bit. And I finished my work day.

I am worried that my worrying will destroy my thing with Peter. It’s magical thinking, I know, but I’m worried that my conviction that he will die rather than reach me will bring it about, influence him, change the course of events. I am reminded of my healer friend Craig. He says I get in my own way.

I need to get out of my own way.

I told Peter about my concerns last night, and about my depression. It was a confession of sorts. He had some idea already of course, but I wanted to make sure he wasn’t being tricked into coming here, tricked into thinking I’m always alright, when I’m not.

“It gets pretty bad sometimes,” I said.

“Well,” he said. “What you have to remember is that now, there are two of us.”

Don’t you just love him? For someone whose greatest agony is that she is always alone, could there be any better balm than hearing these words, now, there are two of us.

He likes that I’m interesting. He says that my sadness and depression are part of what makes me special. He doesn’t want me to be depressed; he admits that it’s a nuisance. But it’s not a deal breaker. Not even close. He says my intense ability to give, to feel, to open, to share—these things mean I also feel sadness profoundly. He understands and appreciates this. He said it’s like being in a village where everyone eats the same amount of food, and you can eat ten times that amount, but no one else understands. Then you meet someone with the same appetite.

He also says he will never stop trying to cheer me up. And that I’m a trooper who is strong. I love that he sees this.

As for my worry about his premature death meaning the end of our relationship before it has really even begun, he has faith that he will live a long and healthy life. When he decided to quit smoking, it was, he said, because if it means the difference between getting to be with me until he’s 82 instead of 80, it’s worth it.

I told Peter I feel like I’ve been asked to run a thousand thousand marathons in this lifetime, and even though I’m so close to the final finish line, my legs and lungs are giving out. Sometimes after a journey that long, you just can’t take one more step, even if you’re within sight of the finish line. You can’t believe you got so close, but no matter how much willpower you have, if your legs have turned to jelly you simply cannot make them move.

Peter says he is coming. He says he is trying to get here before anything happens. He says, very kindly, that if I doubt that, then he hasn’t been clear. So, he will continue to tell me, and to act accordingly, until I have more faith in that than I do in my own predilection for doom.

I was very upset last weekend about the prospect of losing Norman, who I found out on Saturday is beginning the final stages of his life. I talked to Peter about it, and he said it was interesting that he and Norman entered my life at the same time (1989). Peter went on his own journey and Norman stayed with me. Now, as Norman is about to pass on, Peter returns. This cheered me up. In my journal, I wrote:

I love that Peter saw through the mess and the dismay to the heart of the problem. Yes, I love Calvin and Norman so much, and the idea of losing them is so profoundly grief-inducing.

But what really, really hurts is the feeling that I will then be totally alone. I’ll have no reason to live.

I’m not able to say this or even know this in a way I can communicate in my conversation with Peter. But I’m feeling it intensely.

And he knows it.

He knows.

He is steady. And there is a softness to his speech. It’s like when you fall asleep on the couch, and you get cold, but you’re too tired to get up, and then someone puts a blanket over you, and you warm up and relax and fall back to sleep. Peter gave me a blanket last night. An uncomplicated gesture that made all the difference. For him, the answer to the problem was as obvious as the answer to the problem of a cold person on a couch. He could see what I needed. And he gave it.

Peter didn’t die in a car crash yesterday. I should be rejoicing in that good news, instead of worrying about what bad thing will happen next. It just seems inevitable that my dreams will collapse…again.

“But, I thought you were ‘entering a time of transition, a new phase, a new chapter, a new era,’” said Peter, quoting me back to me, reminding me what I used to feel was true, before I sank beneath the surface and forgot that I can float, that I can swim, that I even own a boat. I remembered this, fondly, vaguely, from afar.

“Oh, yeah…” I said.

When I told Jon Reed that I thought I should be happy because Peter didn’t die in a car crash and Norman survived the pit bull attack (what a fucking day!), Jon Reed laughed and said, “Well, if we’re going to count the absence of terrible things as ‘good,’ then that’s true. You should be happy. But we’re--”

“—we’re not those kind of people!”

We both said it together. And we laughed. We laughed hard.

I talked to my friend Tom yesterday. He called from the road. He was on the way to a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Nevada. He’s formed a nonprofit group that is giving away millions of dollars in electricity via solar power to schools and hospitals in Nevada. He lives in California. He just had a baby. And he has a job. But he does this, because he can. Because it’s right and powerful and feels good. I love this about him.

I told Tom about Peter.

“I can tell this guy is right for you,” he said, “because I know you would rather suffer than settle.”

And he’s right. I hate suffering. But I hate settling more.

A friend of mine from my hometown, who is also friends with my sister-in-law, Cindy, said in an e-mail this week, “I really hope things work out for you. I know Cindy gets a bit worried about you. Says you put your whole heart into things and afraid you will get hurt. I say go for it!!!”

And I wrote back, “Thank you. I'm with you on that. Cindy doesn't need to worry. Peter is so good to me, and very committed. It's beautiful. She's right that I put my whole heart into things, and yes, I get hurt a lot, but I think it's the only way to get anything truly wonderful. So, hard as it's been, everything I've gone through was worth it to get me to Peter. And, even if we don't work out, we won't have been wrong to have given it everything we had when we tried.”

Peter and I agree on this wholeheartedly. That even if it doesn’t work out, we won’t have been wrong to have tried. We do not believe that at the end of our lives we will only wish we had been more cautious in life or given less to the things we believed in.

I feel I have run a thousand, thousand marathons, when I only signed up to run one. Maybe two. Three at the most. I am jelly-legged and wheezing, cramped and straining, leaking salt from my pores and seeing double. I feel the ground rising up and slamming into my cheekbone. And then I’m confused to be lying on the ground, pondering a vertical horizon.

I am alone on Thanksgiving. But I am not homeless or broke or hungry or even technically single. And I still have Norman. And comfortable shoes. But the absence of terrible things does not equal “good,” (even though I still suspect that it should).

I asked God for help this week. I asked light and love and the universe for help. I asked myself for help. And what came was Peter, on the other end of the phone, not having died in a car wreck. And Norman, fighting off a pitbull like he was a teenager, instead of an aged old man entering his final days.

I asked God to help me and this morning, I woke up after a night filled with dreams I can no longer remember, and one phrase kept repeating--you know the tune--over and over. It’s been there all day:

Let my love open the door
Let my love open the door
Let my love open the door to your heart
Let my love open the door, ooh
Let my love open the door,
Let my love open the door, ooh
Let my love open the door
to your heart.

I hate Thanksgiving. And, I am alone today. But I do have someplace I could go, if I were able, and wanted to.

Instead, I woke up to a mild day and the sunlight in my room felt gentle. I said good morning to Norman and I washed my face. Let my love open the door, oooh, let my love open the door.

I got dressed in warm comfy clothes. I put my hair in a ponytail. I gave Norman his medication and his treat. Let my love open the door, oooh, let my love open the door.

I made some coffee. I tried to make my On Demand work. I called the cable company for help, but they told me to wait an hour. Let my love open the door. Let my love open the door. Oooh.

I went next door, to take care of my neighbors’ dog. I fed her. Gave her hugs and loving words. I let her out to pee. And then I sat down on the couch. Let my love open the door, Let my love open the door.

I turned on the cable, and their On Demand was working. The dog curled up under the blankets at my feet. The kitten who has never let me hold her came and climbed onto my chest. Let my love open the door, ooh. Let my love open the door.

I turned on the show I had so badly wanted and I watched it, three whole episodes, and I drank my coffee, with the dog snuggled up against my legs and the kitty on my chest. Let my love open the door. Let my love open the door.

After a while, the kitten began to suckle my hand, fiercely. She suckled and suckled, and kneaded my hand with her paws. Her razor sharp kitten claws cut puncture wounds and gashes into the back of my hand, but I didn’t pull away. Let my love open the door, oooh.

There was something so tender, so raw about her need. She survived an abusive beginning and was rescued by my neighbors. She’s several months old now, but snuggled up there with me, she returned to her infancy and suckled and suckled away. Fruitless and desperate and instinctual, her suckling was primal. And I did not turn her away. It was something I could give. I maneuvered my hand to avoid to brunt of her claws, and I held her and let her suckle my hand through two whole episodes. Let my love open the door.

I told Tom that the biggest problem in my life is my desire to have one person I can count on. I want one reliable source of strength and sustenance, of love and stability and affection. But this is not how it goes for me. I have not been able to count on anyone to always be there, to come if I call, to help. But what is also true, the hard, hard lesson for me to grasp, is that life always provides me with what I need, I just never know where from. My life has been visited by a cavalcade of angels, who arrive, unbidden—or so I think—and offer me just what I need, like a hand to suckle on Thanksgiving.

Let my love open the door, Let my love open the door, Let my love open the door.

On this day, I needed company and affection. I needed to be needed. I needed to not be alone. I woke up with a song in my head and sunlight in my room. Let my love open the door. I woke up thinking I would watch some cable at my house, but instead, I was forced to go next door. Let my love open the door. Where I sat on my neighbors’ couch, with a dog who loves me and a kitten who still needs a mom. Let my love open the door, ooh. Let my love open the door. I gave those animals a place to be taken care of, and they in turn, allowed me to channel the love I couldn’t seem to access for myself. It felt good.

When I came back home, I reached for the door, and as my hand closed around the doorknob, the volume turned up on the song that had been playing over and over in my head since I woke: Let my love open the door, Let my love open the door, Let my love open the door, to your heart!

And I remembered again what my healer friend Craig said, all those months ago, about how I need to get out of my own way.

I feel stuck, blocked, trapped beneath the surface and I can’t figure the way out. (Is it possible that I’m lying on top of myself?)

I came inside and Googled the “Let My Love Open the Door” lyrics:

When tragedy befalls you
(Let my love open the door, ooh)
Don't let it drag you down
Love can cure your problems
(Let my love open the door, ooh)
You're so lucky I'm around
Let my love open the door
Let my love open the door

Let my love open the door to your heart

Wow. Okay...but…how? Ever since I read the lyrics I’ve been trying to figure out…how do I let your love open the door? Maybe I should be meditating? Or singing? Maybe I should learn the words to the song and sing it in public? Is this meant to be grace through karaoke?

While doing dishes tonight, it occurred to me that maybe I just need to offer the right invitation. So, I stopped washing and said, out loud, “Um…I let your love open the door. To my heart.” It sounded really odd.

And I don’t think it worked because now it's Friday and I woke up with the song still playing in my head. Let my love open the door, oooh.

I’m trying…I really am. Let my love open the door, let my love open the door.

It follows me everywhere, this song. I tried listening to it through Rhapsody. And I sang the whole thing through, twice. But, it's still with me. I'm not sure what should I try next. Perhaps... "Alohomora?"

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Truth About Love: "I'm Too Old For This"

Last night I got the news that a member of my class at Smith had passed away. She was my age, I think—35—and she had a husband and two small children. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, she was pregnant. She started chemo while she was still pregnant and had her daughter a little early so she could start her second round.

My classmate worked at her job as director of development at a nonprofit right up until the day before her daughter was born, very small, but in perfect health. She fought her cancer with chemo. Then radiation. And a mastectomy. In January, she wrote to our class secretary to report that she still had six weeks of daily radiation and then, if that went well, reconstructive surgery. "It hasn't been so bad," she said. "Radiation should be a piece of cake compared to chemo."

"The kids are great," she wrote. "So much fun and getting bigger every day. I just took [my daughter] to the doctors for her second flu shot and she is now 90% for height! She's catching up to her brother and it looks like we'll have two tall kids. So relieved that she's perfectly healthy."

It did not sound as if she had any idea that in just over six months, two months after her daughter's first birthday, she'd be gone. As I understand it, she received the news that her cancer had metastasized to her liver and bones just over one week before she passed away. Until that news came, I think she and her family believed she was getting better.

I didn't know this woman as an undergrad, but as President of the class, I was among the first to be informed, thanks to a friend of my classmate who reached out to our class Secretary. It fell to me to make decisions, and after consulting our class Secretary, I felt it was best to immediately inform the class via e-mail, so that anyone who might want to attend the wake and/or funeral today or tomorrow could do so.

I spent my morning phoning funeral homes and churches and cemeteries to confirm the dates and times I'd been given. When I called the Alumnae House to find out if they had any recommendations or restrictions about protocol, I was told they would have to call me back; no one had ever done such a thing. In the end, the person in charge agreed that this was a special exception and gave me a green light to notify my class via e-mail.

While I didn't know this woman personally, her death has nudged open the door to a cellar full of sadness in my heart. It piles up in there, like the garbage when sanitation workers are on strike. When the door is wedged open, the thick swampy air clogs my lungs and stings my eyes. It makes me irritable. I feel upset, swimming in leachate and dizzy; my chest and my head throb with grief. I wanted to scream today, but I had no place to do so. I wanted to punch and kick and break things, but I had no place to do so. Today was the first time since I left there last fall that I missed the heavy bag that used to hang in the dingy basement of my old apartment.

I know that death happens to everyone; I have always known this. I know that one in four American women will get breast cancer. I know that I am lucky it wasn't me. But my good fortune at having cancer-free breasts is an erstwhile friend; it may have cheered me on some bygone days, but today, I just keep thinking about her children, and her husband, and her friends--and my friends. I keep thinking about her and what it must have been like to realize she would have to say goodbye and leave her children motherless. I think of this and I ache. I feel a sharp pain in my heart, like a nail driven into the flesh between my ribs. My jaw and my brow are sore from holding back tears. I can't let them come or they will drown me. I still wish I could scream.

Everyone dies. I know that I am never too young or too old to be next. I have already lost two friends from college and one from high school (ALS, brain cancer, suicide). At 35, I often feel old. I feel how quickly my reproductive years are slipping down the drain. I know how rapidly my earning years are dying on the vine. I see how quickly my skin is aging in certain spots where I've gotten too much sun. Even my little breasts are beginning to sag. And yet, despite how old I usually feel, when I thought of my classmate getting sick and dying, I felt an awareness of my youth that came on so quickly it made me lose my breath, like the moment you realize how close you came to going over the edge of something or getting hit by a car—snatch! Suck in your breath. That was close. I'm still here. We're so young. So terrifyingly young.

And yet, I've been dating someone who is more than ten years my junior. I was a lesbian in my twenties, so I missed out on this phase—men in their twenties—almost entirely. He's hot. I don't mind saying it. He has an ass more scrumptious than a cupcake. And muscles that make me melt. And yet…he conducts most of our relationship (if you could call it that) via text message or, occasionally, via e-mail. And this makes me feel old. And cranky. Like an old lady fussing about how fast the cars move nowadays. (But seriously--text messages?? YGBKM!)

I probably should have known from the beginning that we weren't a good match. We met in a bar, which is, I'm guessing, not how most love stories with happy endings begin. At the end of the night, he apologized for asking for my number. "I'm sorry to even ask you this…" he said. I found it an odd but endearing approach, so I gave him my card.

It took him a week to get in touch. And instead of calling, he e-mailed and said that he had just realized he'd forgotten to e-mail me. "I just remembered I forgot you," is not exactly romance on caliber with Lloyd Dobler. But I e-mailed back. And gave him my number. And over the course of the next few months, he filled up my cell phone's inbox with flirtatious text messages sent just before closing at whatever bar he was at—a behavior I never rewarded.

Eventually, we made it out for an actual date. He took me for drinks and then karaoke. Unfortunately, I drank too much and couldn't drive home. He drove me home in my car and once we got there, I started vomiting almost immediately. My roommate drove him home. It took three days to recover. It was like I had the flu or food poisoning.

On our second date, I tore my ACL. He invited me to play volleyball with him and some friends. I tried to get out of it. I was just feeling really sad about Calvin. But he convinced me to go. On the last point of the last game, I slipped in the acrylic house paint his friends had used to create lines for the court in their backyard. It'll be at least a year before I'm walking normally, a year of painful, tedious physical therapy and, it seems, reconstructive surgery.

On our third date, a moth flew into my ear and a skunk moved into my basement. On our fourth date, I thought we were going out alone, and then at the last minute, he invited everyone he knew via an Evite to join him as he celebrated his new job. I thought we were having a date; he thought he was having a party.

I've been practicing being more direct and honest in my communication, so I let him know that I had thought we'd be going out alone—on a date--and that I was disappointed by the Evite because I thought he and I had plans. We worked it out—via e-mail—and I joined him and his friends late in the night and had an okay time. It was the last day of the Year of Healing. He stayed over.

The next night he took me to a movie and we spent almost all of that weekend together. It was fun for me to have affection, someone to go to brunch with, a date. I told my friend Megan afterwards that it was such a nice change to date someone who was emotionally and physically available. It's been more than a decade since that happened for me. (In retrospect, this is, of course, an hysterically funny observation because of how wrong I was--LOL!—but, when I said it, I thought it was true; it's how he seemed.)

After our weekend together, though, he disappeared. He didn't call or e-mail. I got proactive and invited him to do something, but he didn't answer my e-mail.

After almost a week, I sent him an e-mail and asked if he had gotten my e-mail inviting him to get together. He said he had. I pointed out that an honorable person would not sleep with a girl and then ignore her for a week. He responded, via e-mail, to say "Acknowledged." But he didn't apologize. Eventually, he sent me a text message, saying he was "sorry, if it seemed like he was blowing me off." I wanted to tell him to go to hell, but I'm practicing reigning in my disappointment and not walloping people over the head with it, especially people who are trying to be nice to me. So, I texted him back and said, "Thanks." And I told him where I was. But, I never heard from him. (He claimed later he never got my text, but honestly, even if he didn't, shouldn't he have followed up?)

After nearly two weeks without seeing him, talking to him, or planning another date, I decided the only thing I really wanted was to know why. I asked him to meet me and he agreed. We sat on a bench overlooking a pond and I asked him to tell me why he disappeared. I told him he could be honest with me. The answer didn't really matter, I just really wanted to know what had happened so I could stop wondering.

He denied that he had disappeared. His defense: "But I texted you!"

I think for anyone my age—perhaps anyone at all—if the phrase "but I texted you" works its way into an important conversation about the future (or past) of your relationship, you can generally assume it's a bad sign. Of course, you might also assume that vomiting, severed ligaments, ambulance rides, insects in your ear, and/or vermin in your basement are bad signs, too. I, on the other hand, soldiered on.

"A text message, in response to my e-mail asking why you'd ignored my first e-mail does not really count as not disappearing," I said, feeling like I was (totally) stating the obvious. "You just seem to have lost interest. And that's fine. That's your choice. But I'd just really like to know why, because you seemed really interested. And you stuck around through all of that crap, all the injuries and debacles, and you gave me the impression you were a good guy, but then, once you'd slept with me, you disappeared. I mean, is this just some sort of clever shtick? You act like a nice guy—totally convincing--you don't make a move until the fifth date, then spend the whole weekend with the girl, before disappearing into the ether?"

"No," he said. "It was not a shtick. I'm an honest person."

"Yeah," I said. "But your saying that isn't helpful. A liar could sit here and say the same thing. It's what you do that really matters. And what you did was disappear."

Eventually, he admitted that he had, in fact, disappeared. He said he had done so because he was easily distracted, his life was busy and (this I had to pull out of him)…he was afraid of my expectations.

"And how do you know what my expectations are, exactly?"

"I don't know…I just assumed that you wanted…"

My left eyebrow shot up toward my brow and I looked at him like he was an abominable idiot. He had never asked what I wanted. I watched as it dawned on him that he could have simply asked me, instead of running away. It was clear that this thought had not occurred to him. He just assumed that I wanted him, really wanted him for some serious relationship. (Is there a text message symbol for "asshole?")

"For the record," I said, "I just wanted to have some fun."

Eventually, he began to realize that I wasn't just complaining about his behavior, I was telling him he'd blown it—completely. He let me know that he wasn't quite ready to lose me yet. And, since I am practicing being reasonable, I made room for the possibility that he could change.

"I'm getting the sense that if I called you, you wouldn't go out with me again," he said.

"Well, that's right," I said. "I don't want to spend my time with people who are indifferent to me. I don't want to sleep with someone who is so easily distracted and forgetful. I want to be around people who say to themselves, 'yaaayyy!' when they're with me. I want to have fun and being neglected isn't fun."

"Well," he said. "I think I'll leave the ball in your court. I'll say that I want to see you again, and if you want to see me, you can call."

"You can do that," I said. "But if you want to see me, you'll have to do better. I don't want you to leave the ball in my court. I want you to do some work. I want you to show me that you value my company. If you want to see me, you'll have to give me something more than a ball in my court."

In the end, we warmed up to one another. We laughed. We moved from the bench to a tree swing further up the hill and gazed out at the moonlight dancing on the water. We swung gently back and forth and as I shifted in my seat to swat at a mosquito, my arm pressed against his and I remembered how delicious his muscles feel, how surprisingly soft his skin is, and how warm I feel when he kisses me.

"I have a good time with you," he said. "Even this conversation has been fun."

I was proud of myself for sticking up for myself, for being direct and honest in my communication, for knowing what I needed and saying so, and for letting him off the hook, rather than masticating him with my self-righteous, indignant, rage. He had remembered why he liked me.

"What would you say if I said I wanted to come home with you tonight," he asked.

"I would say, 'let's go to your house instead,'" I said.

And, so, we did. And he drank wine and I sipped vodka and we laughed, and kissed, and spent a delectable hour breaking my celibacy streak even further and sweating in the heat. It was what I wanted, and at 2am, I kissed him goodbye and went home to my bed.

The next day, he was good to me. "Fuck the two day rule," he said in an e-mail. And he asked me if I was free the next day. I wasn't. I was going away for part of the weekend. He checked in again, while I was gone, via text, to see when I'd be back. I came back a day late and expected that he'd be eager to see me. When I returned, he invited me to a movie via text message, but I was too tired to go—it was something I'd already seen, anyway. I told him I'd meet him for drinks after and he said he'd get back to me after the movie if he was interested. I wanted to sleep with him again. I wanted him to want to sleep with me that night…but I never heard back.

A few days later, we made plans to watch a movie at my place. He slept over. It was okay. I didn't hear from him the next day, the day, it turns out, that my classmate died.

And that brings us to today, with the blazing heat and intolerable humidity and my heart grown so heavy it felt like the only thing keeping it from slipping out of its cage and into my belly was the nail someone drove in through my ribs. I left my best friend three long voice mails. I left a message for my friend and former lover, the one who can always make me laugh, the one who came when Calvin died and when I hurt my knee and couldn't drive to the interview in Connecticut; the one who can make me feel better, the one whose hugs feel more like home than anything I've felt in a very, very long time (a mixed blessing), but he didn't have time to call me back. He sent me some well-intentioned, but not helpful e-mails instead. There was no one else to call and nowhere else to go. I was on my own with this.

I spent the morning taking care of the details around my classmate's death—could we send flowers, can we send an e-mail, what should it say, when should it go, how will it get there, are the dates and times and places for the wake and funeral, reception and interment correct--and then sent an e-mail out to the class. I went to physical therapy. I worked hard. I ran unpleasant errands. I arrived home hungry, angry, and wishing I had someplace to scream. Or someone to hold me.

Instead, I did what I could for myself. I lugged in the groceries, put them away, checked my e-mails, and then took off all my sweaty clothes and settled in with a DVD, a cold drink, an ice pack on my knee, and the A/C in my bedroom on high. Just then, my 24-year old text messaged me, asking me to go see a movie. I said yes, but the late show.

He said okay.

A few minutes later, he called (he actually called!) and said that he wanted to invite some other friends, get a bunch of people to go. He had learned from past experience that it was better to check with me first. I appreciated that he learned, but was disappointed that this was what he wanted.

I told him about my day. About my classmate dying…about my roommate not paying his rent…about my knee being sore and just my general feeling of exhaustion and upset. I started to cry a little—my voice caught--and I told him I felt too tired and vulnerable to deal with getting a group of strangers (to me) coordinated to find seats at what would definitely be a sold out Friday night premiere of "The Bourne Ultimatum." I haven't met his friends and I just wasn't in a space where I felt I could interact socially with strangers. I hesitated…then lied and said I would understand if he wanted to go with a group instead of with me. He said he'd check in with his friends and get back to me.

I got in the shower feeling hot and dirty and sad and sore and heavy and tired. I took a deep breath and then let the cool water wash over me. As I washed my hair, a thought came to me as clean and simple as the milky white suds running down my shoulders. It was more than a thought, it was a knowing: what I want is a person who, upon hearing that I knew someone who died and was heartbroken and tired and vulnerable, would not say, "I'll call my friends and get back to you." What I want is a person who hears that and says, "Do you want me to come over?" I wanted someone to bring me food and maybe a movie or just any kind of good-natured care. I don't need much, but I need that. Or, I want it anyway.

Today, I wanted a chest to rest my head on and the knowledge that the owner of that chest really cared. "I can't sleep with someone who would be that disinterested in what I need," I thought.

As I stepped out of the shower, I sighed. It was a happy relief to know my own bottom line, to understand what I need and want. Knowing is the first step toward getting it. But, it also meant that this young man would not turn out to be the fun summer fling I had hoped he would be. (Bummer.) Being neglected really isn't any fun; I'd have to give up my hope that he could be the source of affection and companionship and laughter I'd been wishing for.

It took him two hours to get back to me. He didn't call me, as he said he would. He canceled our date via text message. "Hey," he wrote. "I'm too tired to do the movie. I'm going to finish Harry Potter and then crash."

My immediate thought: "Asshole." My next thought: "I'm too old for this."

I'm too old to have people break dates via text message. I'm too old to date someone who doesn't even really think of dates as dates, which is why he doesn't need to cancel them with an apology—or a phone call—and why he invites other people to come on them. It was just an idea he had, I think, to see the movie, and when it passed he felt no obligation to factor in my feelings about it at all.

I was angry so I wanted to do something clever, like write back and say, "Don't bother to call me any more," except he never really calls me anyway. Or, better yet, I thought I might use some text message lingo like "U R N ASS" to communicate that I had reached the end of my rope. But I couldn't think what to say in 80 characters or less. I even checked out an online dictionary of text messaging abbreviations. I read through every single one, but aside from BBN (Bye Bye Now) and YGBKM (You've Gotta Be Kidding Me), nothing, apart from the overly cheerful L8RG8R, really even came close to capturing the spirit of what I wanted to say.

Maybe it's because I was born in an era when phones still had cords, but nothing I could think to say via SMS was going to be quite good enough for this. Regardless of my age, my inclination is to communicate. And no matter how fast you type, text messaging just isn't meant for that. It's been five hours and I haven't texted him back. At this point, I guess I probably won't even bother. It turns out that I may not be too young to die of breast cancer—but I am definitely too old for this.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Truth About Love: "Skunk Update and Roommate Stories"

Good news! Seth (my roommate, pictured right with our little friend) and I successfully caught and removed the little skunk last night. It was very cute and calm and reasonable throughout the process. I think everyone involved was deeply relieved when it ran off into the night.

One of the things I like most about Seth is his ability to step up. The day he was supposed to move in, was the day Calvin died. He showed up and found me on the stairs in my pajamas attempting to process the news. Rather than move in that day, he gave me the day to be alone with Calvin and Norman and Dan. He gave me room to cope and cry and grieve and bury Calvin in privacy, even though he had every right to move in and had already paid his rent. It made all the difference in the world and was a tremendous act of caring for someone who was a relative stranger.

The next day, he showed up with flowers. Lilies and impatiens, "because," he said, "I know you like to garden. And girls like flowers." Those flowers became the ones that circle Calvin's headstone, and I was so grateful to have them. Planting them kept me busy that first day without Cal, and it was a great relief to have a purpose.

During Seth's first weekend here, I came home from my first date with Nathanael, very sick. He was on the couch and I walked in with this guy he'd never met and said, "I'm going to go throw up. Make sure he gets home." And he did. He drove him home.

And the next morning, when I called Seth from my room (on my home phone) to his room (on his cell phone), he got up out of bed, and went out to get me the only food I felt I could stomach: Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee, a bagel with cream cheese, and Gatorade. He'd only gotten two hours of sleep, but he didn't tell me that until later. He just went out and got me what I needed.

The next weekend, I came home again with Nathanael, only this time I was on crutches having spent the evening in the emergency room. "I think you know the way," was all I said to Seth. We smiled at one another, and shook our heads, and he got up and drove Nathanael home again.

My knee injury was terrible. I was in pain. I was immobilized. A brutal heat wave hit. It was all just very discouraging. I was behind in my freelance work already because of moving and then my car dying and then Calvin dying...and I was applying for a job I really wanted, but it was impossible to sit at my desk. Whenever I did, my knee swelled up like a grapefruit, which was very uncomfortable and more than a little bit frightening.

So, I laid in bed with my leg up and tried to work from there. And Seth took care of me.

I tried to find others to help. I asked a few friends if they could come, but almost all of them had their own problems or prior commitments and couldn't (or wouldn't) come that first week, when I couldn't walk. But Seth, who had only known me for a few weeks, dropped everything and took care of me. He helped me up and down stairs. He brought me Tylenol and Advil and ice. He kept me company. And when I broke down in tears because I just felt so miserable and lonely and overwhelmed, he did the dishes and washed the floor because he knew it would make me feel less powerless and more okay if the house was clean. It was pretty wonderful, really.

Every day, he gets up, and he leaves the house so that I can work in peace and quiet. He is a Journeyman Ironworker and has been between placements during his time here, so he could just sit at home all day. But, he doesn't. He gets up and makes sure he's gone for the duration of my work day. He does this only because he knows I need it. It's incredibly selfless.

I was surprised when Seth didn't answer any of my phone calls yesterday about the skunk. I left him several messages but didn't hear anything back. He rolled in the door around 10pm and immediately smelled the skunk and saw the barricade i'd put up between the kitchen and the hall.

"What the deuce?" he said.

"Didn't you get my messages?!" I said.

He said he hadn't. His phone had died. So, he sat down and I explained about the skunk. He listened to all our options. The $400 professional removal. ("Fuck that," said Seth.) The possibility that the ACO would come back tomorrow with a trap. Or, we could do it ourselves.

"Can I kill it?" he said.

"Absolutely NOT," I said. "There will be no killing. NO killing. We are going to take care of this animal--no killing."

He smiled a smile made crooked by the lump of chewing tobacco nestled against his jaw.

"Let's go get it," he said.

There is something about Seth that makes him trustworthy. This was not the half-cocked, testosterone-induced notion of an irresponsible man. Seth is an Eagle Scout. He is pierced and tattooed and drinks like he's Irish (which, I think he is). He is also capable of handling just about anything. So, with complete confidence, I said, "yes." All of a sudden the idea of being face to face-or face to ass--with a skunk seemed totally reasonable. It was definitely what we should do.

Armed with an old blanket, a flashlight, and a whiffle ball bat, we located the beast. Well, Seth located the beast while I stood in the kitchen eating my dinner. But, once he'd found it, though, I was in. I went downstairs and together we worked like a well-oiled machine. It reminded me of something my brother and I would do together. My brother is a man like Seth is a man. He has a high tolerance for pain, a big love for his family, a wicked sense of humor, a desire to kill furry animals and occasionally torment me with stories about doing so, and the ability to fix just about anything.

With Seth at my side, I did not fear the skunk's perfume. Instead, I felt totally capable of solving the problem. It took us a while to move boxes out of the way, prod the little creature out of its hiding place, and wrap it in a blanket. But all along the way, we moved like a perfect duet, a daring duo. We could anticipate one another's moves and supply what was needed. The lifting of a box here, the shining of a light there, the application of the whiffle ball bat to prod the skunk in one direction or the other. It was a thing of beauty.

And, luckily, this time, he didn't have to drive anyone home when it was over. He just carried the skunk out to the yard, posed for some pictures, and set the little one free.

Labels: , , ,