Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rock and Sling--The Grotto

Rock and Sling recently posted a little creative nonfiction piece of mine on their blog:
Viva Portland!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Laughing Alone

In the back corner of the Teen Challenge thrift store, I found this treasure: Latchhook Jesus. He’s now hanging over my stove, presiding over my timer, leggy Easter bird, a couple of Marys, and two smoking cupcakes (not pictured).

Is it blasphemous? Blasphemy, like humor, is a thin dotted line separating the LOL lane from the Please Please Stop Talking lane on the conversation highway.
Is it blasphemous? Well, I’m a Jesus fan, and the rug’s design reminds me of my illustrated children’s Bibles and pictures on the Sunday School room walls. 
The rug picks up the colors in my furniture assortment. The plushyness of it even rhymes with Dickens’ cat tower that’s in my line of sight. I think what swayed me, if there was any doubt, is the Savior’s black bean eye.
My mother once made a semi-circle latchhook rug that must have been three feet in diameter and used to sleep on the floor by my bed. From a creamy white background bloomed three flowers, purple and burgundy, larger than cabbages.
I’ve never found my craft, but I had a latchhook phase, laboring on an owl pillowtop while watching TV. This was less demanding than cross-stitch, which I also tried for a season, even procuring a sewing basket and a clear plastic embroidery thread organizer with matchbook-sized flat cardboard spools around which you’d wind your skeins.
But back to blasphemy/humor: I’ll be the first to admit that plenty of my attempted jokes fall flat (just ask my students). My definition of fun(ny) might be way off. 
For example, you and your date go out to hear some swing music. You've been in the club for all of 30 seconds, and a guy you don’t know asks you to dance. You say that you don’t know how to swing dance. You just have to fake it, he says. He feels very strongly that you should try dancing. So you do. You hang your bulky purse on the shoulder of your date and proceed to the dance floor with a guy, in sandals, who you just met.
Funny? Was it a glimpse of the new and impulsive Nicole to be laughed off with an I-can’t-believe-you-did-that-you-crazy-girl smile?
Not this time.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Three Ladies, Two Moose & One Lonely Suitcase

We caught these rocks at Lolo Hot Springs, MT, in a
growing contest, kind of the NASCAR of nature.

Questionable guacamole: check. Camera: check. Books that will likely remain untouched in the tote bag: check.
Pink Aloha suitcase? Um.
K, B and I were headed to Lolo Hot Springs, Montana, for a weekend of taking the waters.
We left Spokane later than planned (mea culpa), so we didn’t get to Lolo before the soaking pools closed. I’d made a reservation for a camping cabin (no running water but electricity and groovy bunk beds), but we didn’t have a way to check in once the place was all closed up. I’d called the pool guy before we hit Missoula, though, and after a mild freakout involving a scramble for pocket change and a lonely payphone, we realized that pool guy had left a cabin unlocked for us. Success!
We unpacked quickly. I searched for my Pink Aloha bag, that wonderful rolling duffel unmistakable on luggage carousels far and wide. Warm fleecy tights? Clean socks?
I brought lots of food and work, which I’d arranged in my back seat and then loaded in K’s subaru.
I’d packed a suitcase with swimsuit, towels, Easter crocs, fashion mags, and pajamas, but in my haste I forgot to get it out of the trunk. So now it was waiting for me in K’s parking lot in Spokane.
It was one of those moments to remember that worry doesn’t help. The universe was telling me to lighten up. K and B were telling me that they could patch together a Montana-worthy bathing costume, so it was time for some hummus.
I took this photo near the picnic spot of
 two moose.

The weekend charged by quickly, even though we were only faintly aware of the clock.
We sat outside like suncatchers and read at our picnic table, on the patterned blanket, in a folding chair.
We soaked some crisp autumn smells. And sulphuric, church-camp-shower smells in the indoor hot pool boxed in with a clear corrugated roof. Teen girls in two pieces and earrings tantalized a tweeny boy who wasn’t allowed to go in the deep end of the cold pool outside. A guy downing his single-serving Sutter Home blush in the hot pool looked like his head might explode. I tried to decipher tattoos, to coax my shoulders out of my ears and into the mineral heat.
In the late afternoon we hiked along the creek.
The weekend belonged in the best-things-in-life-aren't-things montage that plays in my head.
Did I miss my toothbrush? I ate an apple, nature’s toothbrush, to counteract the dozen marshmallows roasted over a fire and bubble-crusted around the gooey innards.
Did we miss the two moose grazing? No way.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Contra Indications

It’s exhausting to have so many partners in one night.
But I couldn’t resist my new teacher friend’s invitation to a contra dance. She told me it was a little bit square- and a little bit line-dancing, and that the group usually has a lesson before the real action begins. Turns out it was jam night, too, so the stage was packed with a dozen musicians and their fiddles, banjos, accordions, and whistles.
            There wasn’t much of a crowd when we arrived, but there was an open box of white stickers, those labels on paper with perforated edges for the broken teeth of ancient printers.
            I knew not to expect too much from myself on the first night. I told myself it was ok to be clumsy. I didn’t get a Ph.D. in folk dance. Hazel and David, my mom's parents, were serious square dancers in their day, though, so I do have a genetic predisposition for this kind of thing.
            I found an inclusivity to contra dancing that I hadn’t really experienced since my days in Moldova, when everyone who could stand or stumble on two feet got roped into the widening gyres of the hora in the blocked-off streets of a festival or in the stuffy banquet hall of a wedding party. Contra steps aren’t terribly complicated, though once the caller stopped talking us through it and the music took over, I had a tendency to grab the wrong partner and mistake left for right. I was wearing a cute dress, though, so I was banking on that for a little help.
            There’s an anxiety for me in the steps of a dance because they’re unfamiliar. “I long for the imperishable quiet at the heart of form”—I've been thinking about that Theodore Roethke line. Dance is like counting out the rhythm of a song before you can just play it without thinking so hard. But there’s a relief in a dance form. One, it’s beautiful and orderly in a way that a free-for-all booty-shake mosh pit isn’t. Moving through the Virginia Reel or Sarah’s Journey both sounds and feels like dancing a quilt pattern. The designs can be basic, but the repetitions and variations are pleasing, interesting in a restful way.
Contra dance is also a smart social invention. I met everyone in that room in less than an hour. I locked eyes with them or right hand starred with them or let them spin me in a courtesy turn (nice term) back to my rightful place.
            And though the dances are strung together from a fairly small vocabulary of steps, each person has their own style. I guess it was clear enough I was new, so some men took the lead, spinning me and even throwing in extra turns so I could feel fancy, without any extra smarts on my part, while I figured things out.  Some of the dancers offered helpful hints: look your partner in the eyes so you don’t get dizzy while swinging. “Always place your right hand behind your back on a courtesy turn,” one guy explained. Why? “So I don’t grab your butt by mistake.” I hadn’t thought of this, but of course I noticed that once I started folding my arm, several partners reached for my hand. It was not unlike the moment I read that you’re supposed to take the communion chalice with both hands and drink for it, not wait for the lay Eucharistic minister to pour the wine daintily into your mouth.
Weezil was my first partner, and he always threw in an extra spin before the swing. “Only I do that,” he said. It was a cool move, and like a good teacher, he made me feel competent even with my minimal skill. When we crossed paths in other dances, he might say “I see you’re back.”

Monday, September 13, 2010

Busting Out All Over

I knew something was up when I saw a van from an assisted living community pull up to the terminal. And the marching band clustered near baggage claim. And a guy in Revolutionary War getup talking to women in neon yellow t-shirts.
John’s flight was leaving in a bit, so I was already on the weepy side.  
The band of high school kids played a verse of “God Bless America,” and while I thought of the bumper sticker “God Bless All Nations—No Exceptions,” I also started crying. 
If you know me, you know that crying in public is something I do expertly, and airports are just asking for it. I’m good with restaurants too, especially ones that play upbeat music like calypso or bluegrass.
“God Bless America” is best performed by my grandmother Hazel. She records a new answering machine message every month and sings a few bars of a season-appropriate song in her quavering alto. “June is Busting Out All Over” for example. You can imagine the December options.
The song for this past July was “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” but I’m sure “God Bless America” is in her rotation.
Hazel dances once a week at the senior center. I’ve picked her up from a dance a few times when I’ve been in town. Toward the end of the evening, everone sings a song together. “God Bless America” is a popular one. I mutter the words I don’t know and hope Hazel doesn’t notice (Hazel is big into memorization, and can still recite poetry she learned in school. If you didn’t pay attention in the “who’s on it?” game, she had no compunction about withholding the Lincoln, Hamilton, or Jackson she was all set to give you).
Yesterday, a woman at the Spokane airport told me the fanfare was for Honor Flight, a program that provides veterans, especially from WWII, with a free trip to D.C. so they can tour the war memorials. Men with American flags created a walkway near the luggage carousels for the arriving vets.
John left for his flight. I stood in the airport for a while, hoping to see this returning group. Without planning it, I was dressed in a patriotic way Hazel was sure to approve of: blue shirt, jeans, and red and white polka dot shoes. I waited for over half an hour, and forgot about my parking meter (the County of Spokane did not), and then I went home.
Sundays are prone to homesickness. At a new church, I missed the choir back at St. Mark’s, their sterling voices and kindness. I missed John, and he'd only just left. I missed my grandpas, both of whom would have been eligible for this Honor Flight business. They’d have made great really old guys. I missed my grandmothers, one who’s gone, and one who lives across the country and who likes to dance and talk on the phone.
I’d better call her.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Chaise your dreams

The middle-aged woman singing along to “Part-Time Lover” at Value Village gave me a sense that all was right in the world. I was wearing a leopard print cowboy hat on a trial basis, failing to steer clear of the store’s Halloween and knickknack sections and keep my eyes on the prize of furniture. I don’t need more kitschy figurines. I need a couch.
That afternoon I’d visited a couple of other furniture stores, consignment places with nice stuff but nothing I couldn’t live without. I had a mini-meltdown in a record store that used to sell quite a bit of furniture. I pointed to a chair in the window, one of the few pieces left in the store’s inventory. The guy working register quoted a price, then scoffed at my “Really?” There’s nothing like closely packed stacks of vinyl records to make me feel uncool in my marrow. I don’t like to bargain, and the window chair just wasn’t worth it.
I felt even farther from Operation Dinner Party.
Would all the furniture I need be either too expensive or too hip to belong to me?
I visited a couple of thrift stores to console myself. I say “I,” but it was “we,” because John has been in town this weekend and he’s supportive of my goal to achieve a baseline level of civilization in my apartment. Enough civilization to host a small dinner party.
As of this weekend, though, I am one step closer: I now have a bathroom door.
And also I have somewhere else for potential guests to sit. While I taught my Friday class, John assembled my IKEA chaise and little yellow table. For a couple of months, the components of the chaise languished as a 48 kg box in my moving pod and then in my living room.
Last fall I went through a period of trying to prove my independence by assembling IKEA furniture. Remains from this period include a white bookcase with a backwards shelf showing its rough rather than finished edge, and a white rolling file cabinet that came apart when I moved it out of my old apartment (I could put all the pieces back together again, though).
John holds a squirmy Dickens in my new old chair.
I didn’t want to mess up my chaise with legs coming out of the sides or the cushions hopelessly screwed to the frame.
IKEA furniture is like baking, I’ve discovered: there is a tipping point of no return. The cookies become charcoal, or the table faces its destiny as a stubby forlorn hat sorter.
For most of my life, I’ve been indifferent about furniture. This chaise, though, chose me and wanted to help me start my post-student life.
Thanks, John, for helping me realize my dream of corduroy lounging! 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I Teach in the Key of Rock

I’m settling into my new office. This also means I’m settling into the idea of having an office, not a cubicle or a choice table near an electrical outlet at a coffee shop.
In my office, I'm using as a bookend this rock I collected on my last hike in Utah. I should write a little song about it. It would start something like this: I hiked at Albion Basin/ with Harmony, Johnny, and Jason…” After a view of Mt. Timpanogos from the seam of Alta and Snowbird ski resorts, I swiped a light pink jagged rock (granite?) and this speckled egg and stashed them in my tiny pack.
A velociraptor (or maybe Benjamin’s dream bird, boredom, mentioned in my post a couple of days ago) might hatch some day when I’m grading papers or typing up a handout.
“Stones” and “bread” are stashed in the same file folder in my mind, in part because of the Sermon on the Mount (“what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?”) and also because of an essay by Anne Carson about the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. “Stones” and “loves” are the ring and echo of the same bell.
Sometimes I look at this rock and think it’s moldy prehistoric bocce ball bread.
Speaking of moldy:
I’m trying to leave my office door open as much as I can (unless I really need to concentrate on reading, and then I just have to close the door). One of my fellow teachers, a fine poet, stopped by my office yesterday. We talked about a cat I might adopt. Then from the depths of her bag she pulled out a shriveled, blackened ghost of a banana, fringed with gray fur. It was a brittle, singed finger from the underworld. It was a snack she forgot in April that sat in her teaching bag all summer.
“It’s post-rotten,” I said.
It’s a symbol of what teaching can do, we decided. Right now we’re taut, yellow fruit, no, we’re green and just beginning to ripen. But by the end of the spring semester? Yikes.
In other news, I got two gigantic wasp stings this afternoon on my way to sharing some pizza in the garden.
And a dozen shirtless undergraduate guys and a few women in sports bras ran full speed in the loop around campus. Like goats in an old world village, the runners for a moment took over. I had to stop my car to let them pass, and I more astonished and tickled than annoyed.
I hear the double rainbow guy on youtube: what does it mean?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Photosynthesis: My New Dream Hobby

Dickens the cat darts after the arc of the airborne mouse toy, a kitten habit I thought he’d forsaken in his emerging neutered dudehood. He skids on the painted wood floor like a Risky Business Tom Cruise in orange fluffy pants and white toesocks.
Today I ran along a bit of the Bloomsday course and then hooked into the Centennial Trail. My carne & carb loading this weekend hasn’t translated into speed or strength, just an intense desire to curl up like Dickens or a crescent roll in a big square of sunshine. If only I could photosynthesize in my spare time, how efficient I would be!
But I'm tossing the ratty yellow mouse toy across the room and thinking about my mood.
I like that yoga teachers get to say things like “observe the texture of your mood” (smooth? grainy? knotted? silky? Yes, I’m in a silky mood. Remember back in the days of myspace when you didn’t update your status, really, but you could indicate your mood?)

In yoga, we’re instructed to watch our thoughts and feelings as though they’re images on a TV screen. We don’t have to respond to the thoughts but just watch the parade. 
In a couple of classes, I’ve pictured my thoughts as fireflies condensed like dew on grass. The lightning bugs shine like jewels, and they are my thoughts. Well, there they are: this is what my mind offers up by way of a mantra. Yes, thoughts about pizza and homesickness and the lint on my yoga pants are blinking, but I don’t have to listen right now, or ever.
In the class last week, I imagined my thoughts were feathers, royal blue and berry pink. Some dream bird must have shed them ("Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience," wrote Walter Benjamin, though I feel unafflicted by boredom here except when driving). 
The feathers were my thoughts, falling in a gentle see-saw slow-mo onto the floor of my mind. Probably they were collecting in a soft duffy pile, and someone was going to have to sweep that big colorful nest off the floor, weren't they! But I didn’t see the floor, just the feathers falling. 
Fireflies and glam plumage--the pictures of my thoughts were beautiful. Not dust bunnies, eye crusties, dirty socks, moldy lunch, gum on a sandal, the drips from the hole in the trash bag.
I don't always think kind thoughts about my thoughts. But maybe my mind has a mind of its own, and my mind wants me to know my thoughts, dang it, can be silent, delicate things.
I like where this is going.

Last night I found out that my new teakettle’s built-in whistle produces two tones. It’s a pleasing interval, and sounds like a harmonica, and sings along sweetly with the flutters of my hobo soul and the wails of nearby trains.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

One Degree of Separation

“Are you free? Are you vegetarian?”
Ths txt ws vry promising.

I wish I could say I whipped up the feast pictured here, but I only lucked into it thanks to a friend of a friend (who henceforth I think I can consider my own firsthand friend).
Indie-style teacher and homeowner Harmony (of last month’s posts) put me in touch with Sarah, a college buddy of hers. Harmony is my Kevin Bacon.
After a couple of weeks of email tag, Sarah and I managed to meet tonight when she and her fiancĂ© were cooking up steaks and shrimp. The menu sounded decadent enough to get my attention. 
Am I vegetarian?
I explained that I try to be 80% vegetarian, but I could easily count the seafood and beef toward my 20% omnivore. 
Am I free? Well, sometimes I'm my own worst enemy, clipping my own wings, smothering my own joy, that kind of thing. But yeah, I had no plans.
I should clarify that the “shrimp” mentioned in Sarah's text invite were not little anemic commas with spicy ketchup. These were food-pleasure-coma-inducing bundles wrapped in prosciutto and basil to be eaten by the skewer-full. Well, and there was the steak. And potatoes. And green bean salad studded with pecorino.
Oh, dear.
Left to my own devices, I might eat a wedge of Costco cheese and drink a Diet Coke and call it dinner (though not always—see last night’s post about the Kale Thing. Look at me taking care of me!)
But a meal with others is something to get excited about. A “potluck” exceeds its parts. And really “potluck” suggests the specter of casseroles and crockpots and mayonnaise-based salads.
Tonight’s meal was a merging of gourmet minds.
Earlier today I had lunch at The Elk, a nearby restaurant, with a new colleague, his wife (who preached this morning), and their infant son (wearing this season's rainbow leg warmers).
I think I’m going to like it here. 

Kale yeah!

Sometimes I sit at my round white spaceship dining table, look at Spokane’s riverfront skyline, and think “I am having An Urban Experience!”
Tonight I made a kale/quinoa/corn/pesto/roasted cherry tomato concoction from the treasure trove of, then sat on my balcony with a full plate. Technically the balcony is supposed to have a railing. But I appreciate my landlord’s laidback approach: just don’t fall. I told him I was planning a back-to-school rave out there. 
Today was perfect hot weather. I spent most of it putzing indoors: firing up the Swiffer, unpacking some books, hammering nails in the wall to hang a small diptych by my friend Emily. The first panel shows the back of a billboard, and the second panel extends a marbled sky. I didn’t realize until today that the panels are a little asymmetrical, which makes me like them even more. "Landmark" is now one of the first things you see as you enter my apartment.
I met Emily when she lived in my hometown. She and her husband Eric now live in Ohio. Last summer I stayed with them for a weekend in their blue house, walking around their pond, eating roasted pork and a caprese salad, I believe, outside with neighbors under the trees and stars. I was still a wreck from a breakup earlier that summer, and so grateful for Emily and Eric’s hospitality and easy company. 

I was going to take a picture of the kale tonight, but Dickens is cuter in his makeshift playhouse. I fear this blog may not escape the gravitational pull of kitty photos! I can argue that Dickens is part of my life-stuff, way snugglier than my tea kettle. The best things in life aren’t things, isn’t that what they cross-stitch on little samplers or write in big font over an inspiration-in-the-cubicle photo of a boy in overalls hugging a puppy? In his essay “Asymptosy,” Patrick Madden calls clichĂ©s “sceneryless shortcuts” of language. But it's late, and dark outside, so the scenery doesn't count so much right now. I’ll let my sentimental proverb stand.

I posted last month that I couldn’t decide about the coffee pot situation, but as you can see from the photo, I swerved for the cheapo one. I can always demote this to the office and spring for the fancy ones if I have a change of heart. The coffee almost doesn’t taste like plastic.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Shelf Help

Tonight I was “installed” as faculty at a service in my new school’s chapel. I felt a flicker of embarrassment while standing up front with the other new folks. But my better self said to enjoy this moment. The feeling was a little like graduation. I almost didn’t go to my ceremony last May, but my advisor talked me into it at the last minute. And in the moment she draped my doctoral hood over my head in front of the crowd in the arena, I realized she was right to urge me to go. Ceremony is important. It gives us a way to cope with change.
In general, I’m finding that going is better than not going. I’m trying to say yes whenever possible, to accept all invitations.

Yesterday I bought a shelf at Goodwill in hopes it would fit under my sink and house my growing collection of dishes. Of course I could have measured the area under the sink, and measured this shelf before I wagged it all the way home in my car. But my eyeballing was pretty close. The shelf is about half an inch too tall. I may cajole my landlord to use his workshop tools and saw off the excess trim. Likely I’ll just move the shelf to another room. Dickens seems to have accepted it as another playhouse (complete with a patch of wheatgrass I picked up for him the other day).

The shopping I did tonight was just a quick run through Safeway on the drive home from campus: seven tins of cat food, a big carton of organic half and half, and a shingle of ready-to-bake cookie dough. “I’m becoming that woman,” I thought. “Yeah, that doesn’t really look like much of a party,” said the cashier. “Where’s the catnip?”