Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Decade of Discomfort.

In the end I was too callow to leave up the mortifying karaoke video that I posted here briefly, but 2015 is calling for just one more tumbleweed of a post on this lonely corral. Believe it or not, Uncomfortable Moments turned 10 this year. Who knew? It doesn't look a day over 45, in Internet years.

Saying I tried to update the template to my blog yesterday—which is true—is like saying I tried to change the batteries for my Discman. Even an "updated" look for this hoary platform looks absurd, so I'm just going to keep on keeping it real here.* I used to be fairly adept technically, but that was back in the 90s.

Every December, Sir UncMo, who is an excellent photographer, makes me a book of pictures from the year. The book of 2015 has a lot of goodness packed into it.

First, we got a house, snow piling extra quietness onto the little street of 1950s-era colonials. The next month after moving in, we left for Iceland.

I expected it to be cold. I expected horse meat on the menus. I did not expect it to be so freaking relaxing. It is so open, and empty, that it feels like you can just let your worries fly out into all of that space.

You will try to capture it with your phone,  hanging out car windows and hovering above steaming geothermal pools, and your phone will simply blink at you and say look, I'm doing the best I can here, but why don't you just chill out and use your eyes?

After that came a trip to Hawaii for the third and final wedding among my San Francisco friends. And even though there are now children and husbands and many miles involved, the four of us still managed to escape for one more wine weekend this fall, before L. moved back to Oahu with her new husband.

Back at home,  Sir UncMo discovered the joys of Home Depot. "I think it is like Sephora for men," he said. I think he is right.

We zoomed in on the moon from the backyard, watched fireflies, and then butterflies, got startled by rabbits, cursed at squirrels.

In a year of unmitigated Trump and tragic headlines, I got another week at the beach with my mom and sister. Another year of being employed. Of health. Of holidays with family. Of angst over dumb stuff.

There's always angst over dumb stuff, which makes you temporarily unsee all the other important and good stuff, such as the thousand permutations of sunlight that you keep trying to capture with your phone.

Though the five-year diary tradition continues, other things have fallen by the wayside.  This blog, as usual. Any attempt to write with a pen in a journal. My Japanese studies. I also mostly stopped trying to figure out and record multitrack snippets of songs for fun.

"It's just a waste of time," I said of the singing. That's how I felt about the journals, too, and even this blog sometimes: They were pointless distractions keeping me from doing the Real Writing that I only fitfully manage to do after spending all day at work.

"I don't agree," Sir UncMo said. He argued that any one creative expression supports all the other creative expressions. Well, he said it much better and clearer than that. But I started to think that he had a point, and that it wouldn't hurt me to waste a little more time on "unproductive" pursuits. Just a little more.

So that leads to my vague set of guidelines for 2016. More instinct. Less fear. Fewer glowing screens. More real light, in a million new permutations.

Happy new year, friends!

* Update: After all that bellyaching, I am experimenting with a new template so that I can display photos at a better size without breaking the homepage. I don't know about this. It involves change.

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Metro Carol.

The day after that last post about kindness and commuting, this happened:

"Spare any change? A nickel or a dime? Spare change, spare change? A nickel or a dime?" 

The man made his way through the silent metro car, looking straight ahead. I'd seen him pass through the Red Line a few times before over the past year, always with the same refrain. This morning he'd reached the end of the car, ignored, when another man signaled to him and turned toward his bag. 

He pulled out a zippered, black case close to the size of a bread loaf and handed it over.

The panhandler wore a jean jacket and a hard-edged face that looked neither young nor very old. He took the case, which looked like it could hold CDs or something similarly undesirable, holding it away from him uncertainly. 

"What's this, man?"

"It's change," the man replied. Jean jacket shook the case and it jingled. His look changed from confusion to suspicious disbelief. "Are you serious?" He unzipped the case and peered inside. Coins rolled back and forth behind the opening. 

He stood staring at the man. "You're giving this to me?" He paused. "I'll spend it," he warned.

"It's for you," the man said, nodding and still. He was tall, heavy and stood with a roller bag. 

Jean jacket broke into a lopsided smile, pleased but obviously confused. "For real?"

"I tried to run it through the change machine this morning, but it didn't work, so it must be for you," the man said kindly. "Enjoy your holiday, man."

Visibly stunned, the recipient's looked turned somber and he stepped forward with an open hand, straight as a razor. "Thank you," he said. They shook hands, the train stopped, and the guy got off with the black case clutched under his arm. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


DC Metro Red Line

"I check Uncmo frequently but no updates so I must assume you're living a life well at ease!" a friend wrote recently.

That seemed, to me, like a bit of a rush to judgment.

I took the picture above coming home on the Metro one summer evening. My biggest reservation about moving to the suburbs was giving up the trifecta: job, gym, and grocery store within 15 minutes of walking or (San Francisco only) driving distance from home. 

Most of my adult life has been engineered, to a perhaps absurd degree, around achieving this ideal.

Now, most days, I join the throngs of people braving a longer journey on a subway system so beleaguered that it's inspired multiple social network feeds dedicated to how much it sucks.

Moving into the Silver Spring house was a joyful experience, but the Metro part made me nervous. While living in London, and later in New York, being a subway commuter was utterly miserable to me. I remembered those train rides as dark, airless, dirty and depressing. They conveyed me through deeply lonely periods in my life, periods I was anxious 
not to revisit. 

I'd sit here all day if I could.
I still don't love commuting (does anyone?), but a series of small, unexpected blessings makes the trip from Silver Spring not only tolerable but even pleasant sometimes.

My stop is underground and dank, but far out enough that I can get a seat. Next, the train emerges above ground into the morning light. In cold or rainy weather I look at the people hunched at the outside stops and feel grateful I get to wait inside. 

For most of the ride, I can sit looking at the sky, reading a book or listening to a podcast, trying not to feel guilty for avoiding the news and email, because the news and email are my job

The train cars fill up as we go along. In crowded, small spaces like that, you can't think about the Paris attacks or San Bernardino. But you do. 

Grasping, I've started listening more to talks from Pema Chodron and other teachers who remind us that nothing can be taken for granted. I listen every day now, hoping for the message to sink in.

Lately I'm trying to go outside myself, do small kindnesses. Smile at someone or cede the way, even when it's hectic and we're all pressed. Maybe it's just my imagination, but it feels like I'm meeting more people trying to do the same. Trying to meet all the bad news with grace. Have these stranger-friends been here all along, waiting for me to see them? Or is it really that more of us are trying to unclench?

This fall has been warm—too warm, and I see pictures of gardens as confused as we are.

Music: "Shine"

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

How Many Licks?

The mother ushering three small kids into the ice cream parlor had an American accent, yet asked all three of us clearly standing in line, "Is this the queue? Is that the end of the queue there?" 

Having affirmed the obvious, she broadcast her directions to the girls. "Okay, let's stand in the queue behind these two lovely ladies!" We all stood for a bit, and then the two lovely ladies behind me decided to leave.

"Okay, now we stand behind this lovely lady!" the mom said. I ignored her, preferring to keep my loveliness hidden. 

Just then I felt a small, wet, lukewarm sensation on the back of my pants, right on my upper butt cheek. 

I turned around and met the steady, unsmiling gaze of a girl about four or five years old, wearing a bathing suit. I squinted a smile at her. "That's not a good idea," I said. 

The girl went over to the mom, who was occupied with a younger one. "I licked her bum," she said. 

I remained face forward as her mother put this together. "You said hi to the lady?"

The girl repeated it. The mom was still processing. "You what?"

"I licked her bum."

This was the second time recently that a kid old enough to know better decided to get touchy with me. On the Metro a few weeks ago, a girl probably six or seven kicked me by mistake while squirming around in her seat. When I politely ignored it, she nudged me with her shoe again. On purpose, on my pants. 

It's all personal preference, but I have a much higher tolerance for having my clothes licked than touched by a shoe. I raised my eyebrows and gave the girl a focused smile. "Don't do that," I said. The girl simply stared at me for the rest of the trip while her mother remained oblivious. 

At the ice cream store, though, the mom was not oblivious. "Oh," she said sweetly, as if the girl had just told her that she was considering licking butts as a full-time profession. "Were you looking for attention?" I didn't hear the girl's reply, if there was one. 

"Why don't you say excuse me and say hello?" she said. "That would be nicer." 

So then I had to turn around and pretend it was cute. I gave a slightly less squinty smile at the mom and waited. "What's your name?" The girl said. 

"Christina," I said. "What's yours?"

Despite just having placed her tongue on my behind, the girl suddenly got shy and crumpled away from the introductions. I waited as the mom unsuccessfully coached her kid on how to enunciate. 

"Violeta," the mom answered for her kid. As in, violate.

"That's a nice name," I said as the seemingly interminable wait ended and the counter guy turned to me, giving me a chance to distance myself from Violeta. 

After I got my ice cream and she got hers, Violeta edged closer to me again while her mom wrangled the rest of the order. I ignored her aggressively. She edged closer and closer to my backside and probably would have gone in for another lick, but she ran out of time and got called away. 

Now, I realize this probably makes me seem pretty grumpy or like a kid-hater. And I am grumpy, it's true. But I am not a kid-hater. Had these kids been toddlers, I probably would have melted into lickey-faces and smiles. And I get that this is just a little harmless boundary-testing. 

For my part, though, I feel like when you're past toddler age, certain behavior shouldn't be encouraged, and that behavior includes licking, kicking, or otherwise touching strangers. Really for the kids' sake as well as the stranger. Violeta didn't know where my butt had been, and I can guarantee that strawberry ice cream is far more salubrious than linen freshly basted in summer Metro seating. 

I'm not going to get into what's an appropriate parental response here, except to say that certainly in my family this incident would have resulted in a scolding for the licker and apologies to the lickee. 

Somehow though, I feel the need for a new tack here, in case I get Violetaed again. Any ideas?

I am just glad she licked my pants before she got the ice cream.

Monday, April 20, 2015

What Is a Daffodil?

A daffodil is a yellow, delicate flower.

That is what I would have told you before I moved to Silver Spring.

(Silver Spring is suburban hell. That is what I would have told you before I moved to Silver Spring.)

We saw this house on a rainy December day. It was warm and lit, the family evacuated temporarily, and there were just-baked cupcakes on the stove. It was a Home.

In the dark of February, we moved in, and so did the snow. The yard outside, white through the window pane, seemed like just a picture. Tree branches, low and forgiving, held out the precip measurements: two inches, three inches. Relentless.

The dining room was empty, and the extra bedroom was still pink, when my family came over to visit the house. My dad is the one who noticed something in the backyard, coming out of the mulch.

Daffodils, he said.

Really, I said. Wow. They were green blades slicing, improbably, through the nearly frozen soil. Having lived in the city so many years, I would have had no idea what the hell they were.

In the twentysomething temperatures, we turned off the humidifier, as warned, so that it wouldn't freeze and shut down the heat. We unpacked, and we waited.

My dad was right. The blades unsheathed themselves. Pale yellow flowers eventually marched into our yard. They lined the back wall, they streamed down the front walk.

We bought the house on hope, cupcakes, warmth, urban fatigue, and luck. It was built in 1948. 

A daffodil is a perennial, a bulb that you drop in the ground that flowers anew each year.

(Silver Spring is worth considering when your work is in the city but you're tired of sirens and exhaust.)

"They'll only last a few weeks," my dad said of the daffodils. I finally understood (i.e. finally asked) why he always went to the trouble of planting annuals, those cheery little flowers bound to last only until fall if they were lucky. 

The annuals would last until fall, that was the point. 

What else did he know that I hadn't asked about?

When I come home from work now, especially after a hard day, I go to see what new mysteries the backyard has decided to unveil. Someone who lived here, at some time, loved and knew daffodils, and planted many types.

"They're the soldiers of spring," I said one morning, watching them wave in a chilly breeze.

"What?" said Sir UncMo.

They're the brave ones, the ones who barrel forth on a bleak landscape, giving hope to the rest of us. They show us the way, then are gone too early.

Not to make it too heavy, but really.

The daffodil enthusiast who lived here planted different varieties. Never knew there was such a thing as more than one kind of daffodil. The yard has at least five types, including one with a sunny orange cup, another miniature and screaming yellow, another almost white like the snow. 

(Silver Spring is a place where I live happily now.)

I also never knew, until this season, that daffodils could inspire wonderfully nerdy columns with prose like this:

"I simply require Millennium Perfection, a buttercup-yellow trumpet of form and substance that makes King Alfred (or Carlton) look like a weed."

The couple who sold us house told us it had been meticulously maintained by two surgeons (it's near a hospital). Whoever planted those daffodils gave us a gift that goes way beyond blossoms. Did he or she know that, while kneeling in the dirt, thinking of spring?

A daffodil is a palliative, a show piece, a conversation, and a window on time.

Friday, February 20, 2015

What Do You Want, I'll Give You What We Have.

You'd think from the lack of posting here that my life has been one unbroken boulevard of comfortable moments.

But oh no. What it's been is one unbroken boulevard of overwhelm alternating with laziness, a hearty helping of awkwardness sprinkled liberally throughout.

The exchange I want to tell you about took place recently in Glendive, Montana, about 220 miles outside Billings. There had been an oil spill into the Yellowstone River, which provides drinking water for the town.

It had been a long day covering the spill. No proper meal. The progression from Billings, roughly: wolfed-down chafer eggs, Garmin fail, hasty turn in rental car, cop lights, verbal warning from said cop, three hours of driving through wondrous sky sky sky land land land beige beige beige cattle horses coal trains, and finally muddy riverside tours of the spill scene with people who had been working far rougher hours with far fewer proper meals.

We just wanted food. And possibly an alcoholic beverage. My companion for the evening was a photographer and native Montanan who knew Glendive. There was a good Mexican place, she said. We drove to the main commercial strip, which sat in the shadow of a parked coal train on the railroad tracks. I entertained visions of melted cheese.

Mexico Lindo, as it turned out, wasn't open on Monday nights. Not much was, from the looks of it. The Beer Jug, however, had the lights on. We parked on the empty street.

The Beer Jug carried not exactly warmth, but an impression of warmth, though the pool table was empty and the only patrons were clustered almost out of sight at the end of the bar. It was cafeteria-like and bright, the bar backlit by refrigerator cases. The bartender asked what we wanted.

Now, I've been the chick who tries to order the fancy drink at the dive bar before. In another life. I knew better than to order anything that comes in a martini glass, even if I'd been inclined to. I knew to order a straight, bottled pour. That's it. "I'll have a glass of white wine, a Chardonnay if you have one," I said. Even saying "Chardonnay" was pushing it, I knew.

The bartender froze. "Um, we have like a pink zinfandel, but I don't know if you want that," she said. She had short blonde hair and appeared to be less than half my age, but she was plenty wise enough to know that I sure as hell did not want a pink zinfandel.

"This is the Beer Jug, after all," I acknowledged. Sadly, I don't love beer. "No problem, I'll just have a club soda," I said.

The bartender remained immobile. "Um," she said. "What's that."

She didn't wait for the answer and walked toward the refrigerated cases full of cans silhouetted in fluorescent light.

"We have beer, and we have pop."

Maybe it was the fatigue, or maybe just simple, blind hope, that made us somehow continue ignoring the options, which were blazingly clear at this point. "I'll have a vodka soda," the photographer said. Another stare. "We don't have hard liquor," the bartender said.

Unbelievably, we kept going. "What about a cider?" I said. My friend nodded supportively as the bartender continued to stare at us. "Yeah! Like a hard cider?"she urged me on.

The bartender continued to watch us, waiting it out. The slow-turning gear in my head finally clicked in. "You know what? I'll just take a beer. What beer do you like?" Tell me, blonde bartender, please tell me. I don't care as long as it is a potable beverage.

She poured a stout for me and an ale for the photographer. We ordered sandwiches and popcorn, which the bartender popped on a burner in front of us. "Can we also have some water? I asked.

Here, unexpectedly, choices: The bartender lowered her chin. "Do you want tap, or bottled water?" The tap water had been declared okay to drink just a few days ago after benzene contamination from the oil spill.

There were not two people in Glendive more enthusiastic about trying the local tap water at that point than us. "Tap water is fine with me! Fuck it! Yeah let's try the tap water! WHY NOT."

So we did. It didn't taste very good, but according to the people we talked to, the water in Glendive had never tasted very good, spill or no spill. It's chlorinated to hell and back because, among other things, "animals die in the Yellowstone River," as the bartender mentioned.

Still, I wanted to finish the water, to show somehow that I wasn't a hopelessly fussy outsider (why does it still occur to me even a little bit to care what a random stranger thinks of me or my beverage preferences?). Couldn't do it. Didn't really do justice to my BLT, either. That's OK. I'm not too fussy to have a beer and popcorn for dinner.

Music: "Go Back Home"