A Million Years Ago in the Pacific Northwest

Cherry blossoms and a path on the University of Washington campus

Ok, more like two.

In the way of travel fast and slow, I’m seeing what it looks like when spring awakens in this new place in which I find myself. We have blossoming trees here too, though they’ve been de-petaled somewhat with the buffeting rain of early and mid-March. I’m watching spring, and I can’t help but think of Seattle, where I spent my last eleven springs.

The University of Washington fountain and Mount Rainier

I was relieved when I realized I was falling in love with something about the Bay Area – anything about the Bay Area. We never do think we can love again, do we? Not until we do. How many loves do I get? I feel myself unfolding in Oakland and think enough. We get enough, if we’re lucky, and I seem to be.

University of Washington quad and blooming cherry blossom trees

These pictures are from my final quarter at UW, as I wrapped up my UCD certificate, counting down my last few weeks on campus. I knew I was coming to the edge of something, but I didn’t know what. I wouldn’t for another year.

I’m glad to be where I am. Seattle and I didn’t have an acrimonious end; instead, it was the boredom of one person overstaying. But I see people’s pictures of the UW quad on Facebook, the trees exploding in pink flowers once again, right on schedule, and I see my old world moving forward without me. And I move forward here.

I finally got my California driver’s license. My old Washington license has a picture of me at 21. As I sat at the DMV and waited to prove myself, I looked at the old picture and found that I don’t look remarkably different – more round-faced then, I suppose. I was wearing my magic green shirt, the uber-flattering v-neck that featured in some of my senior pictures. A beaded necklace I made myself. My hair at some in-betweeny length. (It’s usually at some in-betweeny length; that hasn’t changed.) I tried to see myself in me, and I asked myself what my 32-year-old self would say to 21-year-old me given the chance. Would I avoid this guy or go to Paris sooner or adjust certain expectations? Would I have pursued programming sooner? What would be useful advice that I could have acted on then?

In the end, I decided that I’d tell young me two things.

  1. There’s a really great therapist downtown, and it might be good to get started sooner than later.
  2. Do not trust your dad. Even if everyone else does.

The rest? It all happened more or less as it needed to.

Eleven springs, a million blossoms, a fresh start, and nearly no regrets. Not bad.

Young plum blossoms at a farm in Santa Margarita, California

I took this picture a couple weekends ago; some things don’t change. I probably have a hundred-plus pictures of blossoming trees on my computer at this point. You might see five percent of those, if I catch up with my travel writing backlog.

In the meantime, I keep on as I have been. Even on a ranch filled with antelope and goats and zee-donkeys, there I am, camera in hand, looking for the right way to show you a flowering tree.

Wherever I go, there I am.

Boring Postcard Pictures of Lake Merritt, or Discomfort with Comfort

Oakland's Lake Merritt in January

I have a few recurring photo subjects these days. The Bay Bridge is one, of course, elusive as ever but a pleasure to keep trying to capture. Another is Lake Merritt. At night, it’s like a live impressionist masterpiece. During the day, it’s… well, it’s what I told people about when they got nervous on my behalf when I’d tell them I was planning on continuing to live in Oakland.

“Let me tell you about the lake,” I’d say. “It’s surrounded by joggers. And yuppies. And families that just arrived or have probably been here for a decade or two. It’s absolutely terrifying. You’re right to stay away.”

Today, the sun was shining, and the sky was perfect and blue with punctuating fluffy clouds. The lake was in an un-stinky mood, covered with dozens of people sculling and canoeing and otherwise acting in ways that seem very un-January to me. I shed my light scarf shortly after I left the house. By the time I hit Lake Merritt’s northwest edge, I was a bit too warm and squinting because I’ve misplaced my sunglasses and have yet to replace them.


This is not a new discomfort. I’ve lived in a place other people found enviable, all white sand and endless sun and such. Unchallenging conditions, I scoffed. What, don’t you like seasons? Is it super hard to put on a coat a few months a year? Your life must be hard.

And then it made sense for me to move here. The Bay Area doesn’t lack weather, but Oakland gets less of it than San Francisco, and I hear that even San Francisco isn’t San Francisco anymore in that respect. El Niño helped me ease in a bit – cold mixed with unrelenting rain still feels like home today.

And then there are days like today.


Endless and perfect at precisely the time we should all be feeling mildly oppressed by the weather.

I get asked a bit less these days about how I’m settling in, how the switch in locations after my long relationship with Seattle is going.

I have a lot of thoughts on that, but I know the question most people are asking. So I give the shorter answer: “Overall, pretty good, but the weather might be something that doesn’t work for me, in the end. We’ll see.”

“Oh,” the person says, if they’re far away. “Yeah, I heard San Francisco weather could be pretty cold and gloomy.”

“No,” I return. “It’s… nice. Sunny, all the time. I miss my sweaters. I miss hunching against wet gusts of wind, and grey days for weeks at a time. I liked that. I might have been the only one.”

This seems to be hard for a lot of people to understand. I assure them that I’m not joking, but I don’t think they believe me.

I wonder: will I convert to this way of being, where weather is so gentle that cars and tombstones survive uneroded for decades on end? Will I relax into such gentle living?

And will a week and a half in Scandinavia at one of the hardest points of winter settle things for me just a little?

We shall see.

Current Delights, in Honor of a Gently Surly Week

The Cathedral Building in downtown Oakland

The ornate and varied architecture of downtown Oakland

Beginning to type and feeling my brain purr, going back to the thing that I am meant to do, above and around all else

Beer in the fridge, stocked by me, meant for me

Friends who reach out; the options of yes and no, both given joyfully

A fluffy cat, patient as I pick a little dread out from under his infinitely sweet chin

The awareness of being in another first act

Midwestern Nice used for the power of good

An unread shelf, unpacked after months, shining and new and alluring

Casting my own future as I pick lodgings for my next trip

A two-block walk to buy hair dye

The cheap cheese-end bin at the grocery store

Seeing my work attached to an icon on my phone, a real thing someone could someday use

That our knowledge of love and its strangeness and ways deepens for all of the rest of our days

Purple soup

My quickening breath, my capable body, the elliptical after a long absence

Reassuring wildly worthy people of my unmeasurably massive belief in them and all their dreams

Needing to buy more tea and planning an entire anticipated outing to do just that

A quick tongue at the right time

A sincere tongue when quickness isn’t the order of the day

A friend’s trust when I most need to support someone I love

The last Christmas fudge

Abundant teachers and the promise that I’ll someday join their ranks

My French teacher’s gleeful, pragmatic sadism

The particular intoxication of fighting a sleeping pill before plunging, willingly, beneath its wooly grey waves

That place where software engineering touches the older layers of the miracle of long-distance communication

Cats in bed, an unbounded morning, rain against the window

Realizing I forgot my untouched beer for several minutes, the spell of writing enough for a bit

Seeing the feast waiting where famine once was; seeing past an irritable moment to remember, again, fresh each time, that I have everything I need, plus things I haven’t even dreamed of needing yet

That even in the dark, the dim, the damp, my weirdly stalwart heart (sometimes labeled my stupid, persistent heart) lies shining, waiting for me to catch up, because oh, the fun we are going to have this year

Last Spring, in an Alternate Reality in Ravenna

Japanese Maples in Ravenna in Seattle

Last winter, I knew something had to change. I’d been unsuccessfully looking for a new job for a year. I’d earned my certificate in user-centered design from the University of Washington but was unable to use it much in my current job. I’d even grown distant from my beloved Capitol Hill after a decade. I was aging out, sure, but the neighborhood had changed in well-documented ways. Even when I was 21, I wouldn’t have been happy to live in this weird new place full of high-concept, high-budget restaurants and sidewalks crowded with groups of vaguely malevolent people who triggered something deep in my lizard brain. When I first arrived in 2004, I’d rejoiced in particular at the the residents – throngs of beautiful, interesting people who I felt an often wordless kinship with. Minus that, I began to feel distant from everyone around me, and – worse – relieved when I made it through yet another crowd of dickheads to the safety of my own apartment once again.

Clearly, it was time to make a move.

I’d seen a fair amount of Seattle, but, like a lot of carless Capitol Hill residents, I largely stayed within its dense borders. If I was going to pick a new home, I was going to have to do some research. My friend Rico was similarly disenchanted with our neighborhood, and he’d been considering a return to Ravenna, where he’d lived several years before. My knowledge of the area was mostly from going through it on the bus, or tracing ever so close to its borders at Cafe Racer. We set a date to explore – late March, last year, in another life. The air was brisk and misty, the sky was overcast, and I was excited to set out to find part of the next chapter of my life.

A bridge in Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood

Here’s one thing I didn’t know: Ravenna has a sizable park running through it, big enough that you can submerge yourself in the woods and lose the neighborhood around you. We started our outing walking on gently muddy trails, surrounded by hikers and joggers and those rugged Northwest dogs, all clad in enough layers of water-repellant fabric that the mist and chill didn’t seem to affect them. We went deeper and deeper into a valley, beneath a towering overpass, past streams, and up and down stairs. One thing I’ve always loved about Seattle is the municipal stairs its Pacific Rim terrain requires. It’s a thing I love about San Francisco and Oakland too – someone looked at one steep hill or another and decided to create a project to make walking hither and thither just a little bit easier.

More Japanese Maples

We climbed out and found ourselves among the Arts & Crafts homes that fill so many Seattle neighborhoods, especially in its northern neighborhoods. Tasteful, muted colors, and those yards full of just-off-of-regional plants that are common enough to read as belonging now. Tiers of tight-budded flowers, dense ivy, spiky and vibrant Japanese maples. I don’t know that I’ll ever have the patience (or, let’s be honest, the interest) to have a yard like that myself, but these just-this-side-of-overgrown yards were an early thing I loved about the city, in my first proper wanders in 2005, when I worked in Fremont. Lavender that loomed over cracked sidewalks, hydrangeas so big and lush they could’ve been transplanted from Jurassic Park. The mist and gentle weather creates mild-mannered people and absolutely gargantuan plant life – ferns and blackberry bushes alike that could take over the city in minutes if they ever got ambitious.

Seeing people roll with this lushness was like an invitation in when I arrived. Rather than fighting what grew almost unbidden, they encouraged it in pleasing directions. An early sign of a place I’d take root in myself for more than a decade.

Street kitty in Ravenna

Rico was right. Ravenna was beautiful – all these tranquil houses and quiet streets. The street cats surprised me most of all. People would sometimes ask me if I ever let my cats outside. I’d look at them for a long moment and then remind them that I lived on 12th Avenue. Letting cats outside in my part of the neighborhood would have been almost an act of neglect and certainly an act of stupidity. But in Ravenna, we saw cats every few blocks. One stalked us past several houses, winding in and out of bushes and staying just out of reach while keeping pace with us. More of them, though, approached us, flashing collars and oozing certainty. This was their place. They would accept your fealty, though, now that you mention it.

That a place this gentle shared the technical boundaries of my city was a bigger surprise than it should have been, considering this expedition took place within just a few months of my tenth anniversary of becoming a Seattlelite.

Dinosaurs on a mailbox in Ravenna

Best of all was that people were still weird up north. They didn’t give up on being goofy city people just because they were able to get a whole address all to themselves. A friend had moved from our shared building into a house in Northgate not long before this day; it had gotten me to thinking. I’d been considering leaving Capitol Hill since I’d started considering working toward a more permanent living situation. In late 2012, I took a first-time homebuyers’ class; while I didn’t end up buying anything, it was the first inspiration to consider what neighborhood I saw myself in for the next phase of my life. I didn’t want children and had no particular ambition to get married, but in my housing and neighborhood, I wanted something that fit better and would continue to for some time. Was the next logical step Queen Anne? Ravenna? A cheaper edge of Fremont? Going full Ballard and never seeing most of my friends again?

The plan was originally to go on a series of these jaunts, to walk around and study the people and surroundings, to spend a few hours in an imitation of a typical Saturday afternoon. Did I feel welcome? Was it a pleasant walk to the grocery store? Would I get bored? I knew no other neighborhood would have Capitol Hill’s wonderful, weird density, but I have the good luck to find beauty and intrigue in even relatively ordinary places. And I was getting pretty tired of sirens.

I was going to see Fremont and upper Queen Anne. Columbia City. Beacon Hill, Pioneer Square, the Central District. Points east and north and south, to see what I’d missed, to see where I could see myself.

Then I got into Hackbright, and everything began to tilt about 90 degrees.

I left Seattle for the first time on June 29. I returned in early October to pack up and move in two of the densest, most stressful weeks of my life. I returned once more last month to see Dina Martina. The city felt strange – I told friends that it felt like having dinner with an ex too soon after a breakup. It didn’t feel like home, but as Oakland also wasn’t home yet, it just emphasized my straddling state. I was glad to see friends and Pike Place in full holiday regalia, but otherwise, it was too soon and too strange.

When I drove into Oakland in October and when my plane began to descend in December from those two strange trips to my former sanctuary, I cried both times, so relieved was I to get back to the dinosaur cranes and the twinkling lights of Lake Merritt. Was it being glad to leave the past behind, or was it relief to return to the place that I could now assume would be my next home? Either way, when you cry at the mechanisms of a shipping yard, there are some major emotional forces afoot.

I write this from my home just north of downtown. There’s now a much, much bigger area to explore to see what might end up being the right place for me, a hunt that continues and will until the shifting sands of the last several months finally still themselves. But for now, there are no sirens, and I live among people who are just looking to live their lives, not to find the perfect setting and situation for their next Instagram picture. We’re not trying to be legendary. We’re just getting where we need to be.

The Incomparable Unknowns and the Potential of the Indefinite

The cranes of Oakland's harbor, magnificent sunset behind

One weeknight in late summer, I found myself on the Embarcadero BART platform with two Hackbright friends. It was rush hour, so the platform was crowded, but we were leisurely and chatted as we waited. I gazed past them periodically; while I knew time was passing, you wouldn’t know from the times to arrival listed on the sign. 12 minutes; 13 minutes; 12 minutes. At least five passed before I explained why I was gazing past them instead of making normal, meaningful eye contact. By then, the platform was almost full. By then, we looked up what was going on: equipment failure, a major delay.

Hackbright was an incredibly stressful period, and that day was no exception. But somehow, in the epicenter of it, we found ourselves with one of those moments of grace – a major inconvenience was transformed into adventure by way of a perfectly matched ferry schedule. We crossed the station, ducking through confused commuters, hoping they’d catch on just late enough for us to be able to get to the boat ahead of the East Bay-bound hordes. And so we did, catching a ferry precisely at the beginning of sunset. The three of us, uncertain and tired and operating in slightly different states of at least mild freaking out, climbed to the top of the boat and to the benches at its stern. We gazed in grateful awe as the sky cycled through nature’s most stunning gradients, as the city retreated and first the bridges and then the cranes became perfect silhouettes. The air was gentle, and we fell quiet, stunned at our good fortune, at this perfect moment when we all needed it so badly.

My only regret was that I only had my phone rather than my proper camera. It doesn’t matter, though: look at that. When people ask me for recommendations of what to do here, this is the only suggestion I get mildly persistent about. I don’t have the words right yet, because it’s hard to get across a sense of awe. Words are my superpower, but I can only hint at what was going on that evening, what we all needed so badly, what the earth gave us.


I got home late last night, coming from a comedy show in the Castro, delayed by a closed Muni. I’m tired and I have a cold, the kind that makes the elements, even the mild ones to be had in a San Francisco January, feel a bit like the lash, all angry membranes and breezes that cut to the bone. I walked to 16th and Mission and got to the platform just as my train arrived – another small bit of grace on a long day. I walked home on deserted Oakland streets. I realized that, despite a pretty decent if somewhat long day, I was a little melancholy. In the last year, year-plus, this has pointed at something. Sadness and anger were sometimes my compass, pointing at things that didn’t function the way they needed to, telling me where I should next focus my energy.

Tonight, I sensed it, and my attention snapped to it. Is it that I’ll want to move to San Francisco when my Oakland lease is up toward the end of the year? I wondered. Do I wish I were going home to another person? Is the difficulty of my job a bad difficulty? 

The answers are, in order, I have no idea, not really, and absolutely and completely the opposite of that. In the face of some mild sadness, I was fishing for reasons, and with uncommonly bad aim.

Because this was an ordinary melancholy. I was thirsty, my feet hurt after walking about 15,000 steps (per my phone), and the back of my throat had that slightly raw feeling following a couple days of a running nose.

My sadness has nothing to tell me except go to bed. 

If I could do celebratory cartwheels, I would.


I texted my best friend as I waited in the long line that snaked away from the theater and around the corner. When I’m tired and sick, I get touchy and ungenerous about other people. My usual delight in eavesdropping turns into pissy judgment – faces look ugly when you’re alone. Surrounded by fellow nerds, I was deeply not feeling it, swaying slightly on my feet and occasionally wiping my nose with a napkin filched from a coffee shop.

“When I was tired and felt shitty last night, I thought, ‘I am tired, but I am not sad.’ Such a difference from the second half of last year. It is such a contrast that it feels mildly like being on drugs,” I typed with one thumb, the other hand occupied by coffee.

And it startles me, even now, during ordinary things. I drink coffee, I read on public transportation, I cut a striking figure in my matron-of-the-arts coat. And all of them feel like dancing right now, the way even ordinary walking does for a few exhilarating seconds after you set down a heavy load.


I begrudge the dark right now in a way I usually don’t. I’m typically all about winter – I like mulled wine and hot cider and endless cups of tea. I look better in cold-weather clothes. But the dark means that work takes up all of my wandering time for five-sevenths of the week. When I leave work, it’s the opaque dark of deep winter, which means a walk to the Castro or a park or through the unexplored parts of the Mission would just net me a squinty tour of some doorways, walking past other people huddled in the relative cold.

I want to explore my cities so badly right now, but my exploration depends on some daylight. Instead, here in these post-Solstice days, I can only plot and dream, imagine the great sojourns I’ll take when the time changes back in my favor. Instead, I admire the gated doorways of the Mission and the stunning houses of Oakland and the murals and street art that color both cities in a way that just makes me swoon. Swathed in darkness lies my future, my new favorite restaurant and the patisserie I’ll come to adore, the perfect oyster happy hour and the most reliable source of sour beers. Friends I will make and people who will assume roles of great importance in my life in the coming months. This beach at sunset, this stairway hike on a perfect spring afternoon. I am hungry, but now, it’s not the sharp appetite of starvation, where you gorge yourself on the first thing you find. This waits, impatient but measured. This can plan. This anticipates.

I’m still breathing. I’m alive.

P.S. Friend of Deviation Obligatoire Christina wrote about as good a summary of this blog as you are ever likely to see – it’s gratifying to be so well understood from an endeavor that can be as occasionally gloriously nebulous as this one. Go for the incredibly kind words; stay for the beautiful, shiningly honest writing and wisdom. Two of the Smarty Mommies are officially favorites of mine; the third isn’t possibly only because we have not met.

The Meaning of Travel in More Ordinary Days

One of so many long, beautiful staircases in Montmartre

When the great shift has finished, and I’m left with a blank slate of a life and the quietest quiet I’ve known for months or maybe even years, my mind goes to Paris (and hopes the rest of me will follow).

I imagine a lot of us are there now, in some way, mentally if not physically – even if we had a trip planned. Reading that article, I realized something: if finances and responsibilities allowed, I’d be on a flight there tomorrow.

That’s kind of always true, but especially true right now.

My days as I progress into this next part of my life are marked by these kinds of realizations. It feels like luxury, after this long summer-into-fall, to be able to have the thought I would go to Paris tomorrow if I could and have it be something other than a clawing attempt at escaping necessarily hard days. I am gradually becoming a regular person again. Now that I’m moving past being completely tangled up in job searching, moving, and healing from some real heartbreak, I have sufficient brain and heart to have flights of fancy again. It feels good.

And so a dormant part of me is awakening – the part that thrills to finding how far my stash of airline and travel points will take me, or the part that feels a little frisson of excitement when I see how many airlines fly from SFO and OAK to such wonderful places. I could take one flight and end up in Dubai or Australia or Amsterdam or – well, Stockholm. Thanks to a staggering sale and the well-timed tip of a dear friend, I will be taking advantage of that one myself come February. (My somewhat curious decision to go to Scandinavia in February is not without precedent in my life, of course.) In the last week, I’ve thought or talked about going to not just Paris, but also Peru. Washington, DC. (I’ve never been. I know, it’s hella weird.) Stinson Beach. Los Angeles. Mexico City. Rome.

The power got reconnected, and the lights are coming back on in the house.

I didn’t stop thinking of traveling during the extremely stressful weeks between July and, oh, a couple weeks ago. It just had a different timbre: what if I just went to Paris and didn’t tell anyone and just didn’t come back, what would that be like, would that fix stuff? the little voice that comes from somewhere in my lizard brain said. What if you just put some underwear and a toothbrush in a little bag and went to SFO with that empty credit card and just blew this popsicle stand, huh? 

This isn’t a sign of real fear; this is a game I, veteran of a certain kind of anxiety, play with myself to find the truth in negative feelings. I feel bad right now. Ok, self, that’s fine. Is it the kind of bad we should just wade through? What if we picked up and went back to Seattle right now? Would that fix it? But I like learning programming. But I know that relationship needed to end, even though it hurts like hell. But I’m not willing to go back to that old paradigm of communication, just because it would seem easier in the moment. Cool, brain. Let’s just keep on learning. Stretching. Trying. Packing. Moving. Keep on going.

It’s been a theme of my life to be reminded, over and over again, until perhaps I really learn it, that the thousand small actions matter so much more than the one big one. It stayed with me this time. Just pack one more box. Just meet one more friend to say goodbye. One more phone call to arrange one more part of moving across multiple states.

One more, and one more, and a thousand more, and now I am really, honestly here. I signed a lease for an apartment last week, and it set off a series of events in my brain that I didn’t even realize were waiting to happen. I am good and here, and I see Oakland now as if I am seeing it anew all over again. The world has stopped being something to pass through, elbows tucked in and moving as fast as I can. Once again, for the first time in a while, life is a banquet.

And my god, but I am hungrier than a boxer at the end of the main event.

To refine this a little bit, to prevent myself from doing the travel equivalent of raiding the Hungry Man shelf at Safeway, I’m going to go back through my rather wonderful archive of travel pictures and tell you stories I’ve been sitting on for a year or more. The room to think again also means, for me, the room to write. Let’s go back to Paris and Rennes and Berlin and Amsterdam and Tokyo and Victoria and take the long way to Oakland, San Francisco, and all the points present and future.

See you in a few days. Meet you in Montmartre?

Goodbye, Seattle. I Love You, Seattle.

The weirdly much-heralded Capitol Hill mystery Coke machine

“Seattle is where I’ve spent basically all of my functional adulthood” is how I usually state it, so people could understand how the last five and then seven and then ten and now nearly eleven years have been spent and what it’s meant. It’s one thing to say “nearly eleven years”; it’s another to say that it’s where I’ve chosen to spend all of my time since I was able to choose.

I moved to Seattle in November 2004, when I was 21. Then, Seattle was a respite; I was moving away from an area fundamentally unsuitable for me, even worse in ways than the cultural mismatch that were my high school years in the Midwest. Make no mistake: I was fleeing. I had my car, one houseplant, and a backseat and trunk full of things I hoped would matter once I got there. I just wanted to dig in roots somewhere and finally be able to relax among people who, while not just like me (for that is boring), would be better aligned in some key philosophical ways.

Which is to say that I walked around Capitol Hill in the wake of the 2004 election, saw paired jack-o-lanterns carved to say “Fuck” and “Bush” on a porch, and thought that probably we were all going to get along ok.

It took me a few months to make friends, but then they came, first through craigslist and temping, and then through full-time coworkers and connecting to other established social circles. In the way of these things, I met one person, then two and three, and across a few years, something like a proper network of people came together, real and important enough that I would sometimes wonder what it would take to draw me away. I assumed it would happen eventually; I told my family back east that I didn’t expect to die in Seattle. But my family is fairly long-lived, for the most part, so I was allowing myself a lot of time to figure things out.

After settling in some, I became uncommonly stationary for someone in their early-to-mid-twenties. The city became, for a time, a place of convalescence and slow, responsible growth. I settled into a cozy relationship and got a full-time job that could become a career. I had used the energy some college students and new graduates get to use to backpack across Europe to instead find a home. Instead of a Eurail pass, I’d paid for gas to Seattle, catapulting across the country with $4,000 in savings and a strangely steady trust in myself. That expenditure of energy done and survived, I dug in. After a year, I was able to trust that this was real, as permanent as I wanted it to be. I hung pictures in the apartment and established traditions. I relished the ordinary because, for the first time, the ordinary felt ok. It matched me. Art and movies and wandering the city, being in love and relaxing into grooves I’d never had the luxury to enjoy. A quiet home with a door I could close, friends close by, and fascinating people on the street. It was exactly what I needed.

For a while, of course. The career-type job grew stifling; I began to learn more about what I needed socially and romantically. And the city became a Petri dish. I met new people and pursued and displayed a new part of my identity more prominently than before, digging hard and focused on becoming a cartoonist. Not for money or fame – anyone who commits to that kind of work with a specific goal of traditional definitions of success is a fool. I wanted another way to tell my stories. It felt daring and important, and I began to know another side of the city. Now I made the art sometimes, and admired that of my friends at others, and I found another part of Seattle that had been there all along. The city was a place to try and explore and, ultimately, fail in a way.

For the first time, I began to see reasons that another city might work better. Somewhere bigger, for one – that became alluring. Bigger and more varied, where people socialize differently. Somewhere that there isn’t a chronically closed social condition named after the city. Friends elsewhere (or at least from elsewhere) swore it was indeed different in other places. A mid-tier city is an easy target, though. If you’re not satisfied in some way, it’s easy enough to attribute it to the number of people, the cultural drain as the most talented are siphoned off by bigger markets, the relative newness of the place. There’s always a reasonable place to point a finger if you’re dissatisfied. But that’s only a legitimate move if you’re willing to examine your culpability in your own situation.

“All of my functional adulthood” began to seem like a limitation rather than a point of pride. And my relative steadiness began to feel like it might be fostering decay rather than good, strong roots.

It was around then that I began to travel, making up for the relative lack of it in my twenties. To Paris, to Iceland, to Amsterdam and Belgium and Germany and Japan. And, in each of them, I could see how I might exist there.* Magically multilingual, I would dress this way and live in this neighborhood, having a deeply satisfying and unspecified career, eating all the cheese/beer/tulip bulbs/whatnot, and living the beautiful life, full of truths and insights a domestic life couldn’t support.

In time, those imaginings became inspiration rather than torment. Fortunately, I don’t get the sharp emotional hangovers after trips that I once did. Instead, I took the advice of a couple of very sharp friends: bring something into your regular life from your travels and start planning the next trip as soon as you get home. And I tried. French wine and better beer and thoughts of a bicycle-centered life, yes, but also looking at my city differently, seeing both its shortcomings and where it shone brighter and taller than the rest of the American urban archipelago. Seattle’s nature and beauty, its manageable scale, its distinctive history. Travel let me love home more too.

In the meantime, I considered what it would take to get an EU visa by living in Berlin for a while and if I wanted to move toward it. What companies I might work for that would get me into Amsterdam. If I’d live in Reykjavik or Budapest or Mumbai for a job – or if I would take a job just to live in those places.

All the while, though, I stayed dreaming in Capitol Hill, wondering in a new and pointed way what leads an adult to change cities for reasons short of a great international leap toward adventure, leaving behind established friend groups, good (or at least good-enough) jobs, and beloved haunts. Jobs, usually. Having kids and changing priorities. Saying the hell with it and following someone they loved and having a bit of adventure. But, since my life didn’t contain any of these situations, these reasons all seemed flimsy and slight, and I couldn’t quite understand it. I did keep trying. I could tell it held a truth.

Then, this spring, I was accepted to a programming school in San Francisco. I was able to live with my friend in Oakland for the duration (and a little extra). Before I left, another friend asked me what I thought the chance was of me moving there.

“Well,” I said, “considering the industry and the connections I’ll make, but also my complete lack of intentions to do so… let’s say 30 percent.”

Across the summer, I waited to see if that percentage changed. It bobbed up at a very fine comics reading, at wrestling, as I sat on a bench in South Beach to admire the haze-cloaked Bay Bridge. It sunk at the sharp, harsh economic disparities and my unshakeable sense of the parallels between the Bay Area now and France just before the revolution. Mostly, I concentrated on school and tried to learn everything I could, aiming to get that software engineer job I’d come to so covet. Conclusions could come later.

And in the end, it was a job that tipped the balance, in the way of these things.

In September, I’d decided not to decide until October, giving myself the grace and freedom to pretend there was a viable alternative to moving to the Bay Area. But I was a new software engineer from a nontraditional background, and there’s nowhere that compares for establishing yourself. I fought it, and I resented the lack of options at times, silly though it was. But in the end, my fears of purgatory and leaping without a place to land vanished: I had the extraordinary good fortune to receive a job offer at an exciting company, and suddenly my decision to move could be made based on reality and not desperate hopes. I didn’t have to gamble.

By then, Seattle was a safe fallback and had been for some time. I kept my Seattle apartment while I was in the Bay Area so I could have choices when I was through.** So that, in at least one place, I would not have to reestablish life from scratch. In hard times, I could picture my beautiful studio and its period molding and cat tree and bookshelves, and know that, no matter what, it was waiting.

In early October, I took the art off the walls, boxed up the books, and put my life into a series of cardboard boxes. I felt a chapter closing, and I had the great pleasure of visiting with most of the people most important to me, each visit feeling like an excited, melancholy benediction. We will miss you. You’re going to do great. I have chosen to believe. I have put my faith in myself in the trust of those who love me for the duration of this necessary, turbulent period. They’ve done so well by me.

And I invite them all to visit me in Oakland. I hope they do.

Yes, Oakland. I could technically afford to live in San Francisco, if I put less of a priority on having privacy or a stove. But Oakland, in all its vibrant struggling and active conversation, all its hurt and beauty, has been the place that’s spoken to me. I want to be there and get to try in a way I haven’t had to in Seattle in a long time, if ever. I want to have unexpected conversations with people who aren’t just like me. I want to support important things in a place where so much crucial political change has either been born or fostered. I want to be real.

Seattle is a gentle place, mostly. It’s angrier in the last few years in the wake of Amazon, sure. But it’s also a place where I’ve gone to parties and talked to politically active liberal people who I am quite certain have no conservative people in their lives at all. People are polite and distant, and it’s easy to live unchallenged unless you try to do otherwise.

Seattle became a place for me to crouch and wait as I figured things out. I went to user-centered design school, I pushed and thrashed in my unsatisfying career until I began to, at long last, get what I wanted and needed. I learned and honed, and I realized that, while I could see perhaps committing to Seattle for the long term, I would not be happy doing so without giving myself the gift of contrast. We’d gotten together when I was so young, and I needed to see another way of being before I could settle down with any confidence.

I did not intend to move to the Bay Area, but I did need something else. And there it was, in all ways sensible and not.

Oakland is a place to try in a way I never have. San Francisco is the major international city I’ve never had. And both contain so many ways for me to learn and fly and flounder, probably all at once sometimes. And, in the way of me, I can’t say no.

Seattle, I love you. I love you, Seattle. And you may be where I quit my wandering days, if I indeed do such a thing, someday cultivating a home while still prizing a nearby international airport.

But I can’t be sure until I’ve tasted something else. I might have some realizations, or I might never come back.

I’ll let you know.

Until then: to Oakland, to San Francisco, to the horizon, and beyond.


*Well, maybe not Belgium.

**Or, on bad days, to ask myself if I wanted to turn tail and go home. I never did.

Other People’s Childhoods: On Visiting Fairyland

The entry sign to Oakland's Fairyland

My first time in Oakland, I biked past Lake Merritt with Amy. Trailing behind her and freaked out about the passing cars, poor cyclist that I’ve always been, I only just managed to catch the sign for Fairyland, unlikely colors glowing over the lake’s rippling surface. I thought quickly of Breakfast of Champions*, which only made the sight weirder. When we stopped later, I asked her, out of breath: what – no, seriously, what – is this Fairyland that’s on the edge of this lake in the middle of Oakland, a town I was only just starting to dispel my stereotypes about.

As I remember, she said, “Oh, that,” with a little smile. “We’ll go next time you come.”

I was here once more before I made it there, but made it there I did.

A cottage at Oakland's Fairyland

Here’s a thing about Fairyland: adults can’t come in without a kid. This is for safety, I’m sure. However, it also keeps it an entirely earnest venture, I think. And that’s part of both its wonder and wonderfulness. I wandered Fairyland for a couple of hours on a darkening August night, and it wasn’t enough. I want to, as I have joked/”joked” many times this summer, borrow a child and get to spend a little more time there.

Reading library at Oakland's Fairyland

There’s a natural echoing feeling between Fairyland and Disneyland, but Fairyland came first in this chicken-and-egg situation: Walt Disney toured it and several other theme parks when seeking inspiration for his own, a million times bigger and grander than Fairyland could ever be on its own little plot of lakeside land. But Disneyland’s size means it can never have what makes Fairyland so wonderful to me. Amy told me that there’s an annual painting party to keep it up. And that surprised me – considering the nature of most attractions trafficking in fiberglass and cartoon characters, I expected something a little rundown, illuminated for others by the light of their memories of beautiful days when they were five or six.

But no. Fairyland was, is, and remains beautiful, and beautifully devoid of irony. It is what it is and does so earnestly, which is something I admire a great deal in both people and places.

The chapel at Oakland's Fairyland

I got to go to Fairyland without borrowing a child for an afternoon. It turns out that my season in the Bay Area was perfectly timed: almost perfectly in the middle of it was Fairyland4Grownups.

Three hours, once a year. Money goes to keeping admission low for local kids; attending adults get to wander the park and enjoy complimentary beer.

The annual adult’s night is a Thing. A wonderful, wonderful thing. And so is dressing up for it.

Revelers at Fairyland4Grownups

I was fortunate enough to notice this tradition as I walked by the line on the way home from school. Doubly fortunately, I brought something costumey to wear in my tiny travel trousseau: my Auntie Mame caftan cape thing, all flocked peacocks and beads and fringe. I got to join in the fun at least a little bit. I didn’t bring as much joy to the world as the woman in the purple feathered headdress or the full-on ren faire-clad folks, but I brought a little fabulousness to Fairyland. Not that it needs my help.

Mushrooms at Oakland's Fairyland

When you walk through Fairyland, you get to be submerged in something a little magical.

Wizard of Oz puppetry at Fairyland

Like seeing dozens of adults quietly, respectfully watching this wee puppet show, acted out by small felt figures to a recorded soundtrack. They change the show once a season. Someone’s job is to make or revive a season of shows, four each year.

Playing card guards at Fairyland

These guys. Painted every year. They are perfect.

Fairyland path

And then, to my regret, night started falling. Fairyland is only open to grownups between 7 and 10, and I hadn’t gotten there until 8. So I took as many pictures as I could in the fading light, the place becoming absurdly pretty during that quick blink of the magic hour.


But I found a way to console myself.

Smoregasm menu

Because this is an event in the Bay Area, by law there must be food trucks. I started with this – it’s actually Multiple Smoregasms, but I only had one because 1. there are diabetics in my family, and one can only muck about so much, and 2. $6. I had red velvet, dark chocolate, and Guinness + chocolate. Small; mighty; worthwhile.

Smoregasm constructionAnd each made to order by people who’d gone to some length to make every aspect of this as beautiful and perfect as possible. (They do weddings more often than events, they told me, but do this night at Fairyland every year.)

Dessert dispensed with, I walked past piles of fried chicken, tacos, and succotash only to end up getting… pizza. I was hungry, it was ready, and I was very happy for it. I also got in a half-hour line for stroopwafel, one you could fortunately wait in via text. I felt my own insta-nostalgia of being in Amsterdam in November, where the stroopwafel comes in packs of ten in crinkling cellophane bags, and you place it atop your steaming tea so the caramel inside becomes soft and gooey. It is perfect, and when I saw the sign, I immediately knew I would be giving them money too.**

This was a little different than my beloved Amsterdam convenience store multipacks, but not nearly as much as I expected. They let me sub cheese for bacon in their Figgy Piggy, making it a Figgy Cheesy, and so, once I’d finished my dinner and hung out in the grass with friends for a while, I was summoned to pick up my fig-cheese-caramel stroopwafel, something which sounds mildly abhorrent but is actually exquisite. I talked to the guy making it, enjoying both his top hat and his (in this area) unlikely southern accent, and he kept remarking, with some admiration, “This is gonna be decadent.” It was.

I dispensed with my third course of the night fast, and then I was mildly nauseated and ready for another wander.

Fairyland bait shop

Where the light allowed, it was even prettier at night, particularly at this tiny village.


I wandered along winding sidewalks that threaded between tiny houses, few of them much taller than my knee. A complete labor of love.

Tower at Fairyland

This melancholy fellow was well above me, though. If it’s Pinocchio, he gets punished more at Fairyland than in the usual telling.

Looming statue at Fairyland

And some of it grew wonderfully eerie at night, minus sunlight and full context.

Dragon at Fairyland

Earlier in the evening, I watched a guy trying for a good minute-plus to get just the right selfie with this dragon near the entrance. Inside its nostrils were two plasma balls; its eyes moved when you pulled the tongue-strap back and forth.

And then it was ten, and the nostalgic drunks by the whale and on the astroturf-covered hill and dancing to incongruous music among Wild West-style buildings had to go. The staff looked a little wild-eyed as we left, finally done once again with this weird annual ordeal. Apparently beer-fueled adults are more daunting than throngs of ecstatic children. I’m not sure I’d agree, but I haven’t had a job corralling people in a long time.

Fairy and constellations at Oakland's Fairyland

This fairy and these constellations were tucked in the ceiling next to the ticket window, impassively watching as yet another group exited. And, to my amazement, I didn’t hear a single sly word: no one trying to be clever, no shitty irony. Just people quietly filing, figuring out what to do next en route to the parking lot or their awaiting Lyfts. Like the park, the crowd was surprisingly earnest. I saw and heard nothing that made my soft heart feel hurt on the place’s behalf.

Fairyland isn’t something people feel lukewarm about. Shortly after getting to the Bay Area (nearly two months ago now, wow), I went to roller derby and spotted a surprisingly large tattoo of the Fairyland logo on a woman, right where her neck met her shoulders, the colors and lettering vividly and accurately depicted. And when a friend visited recently (hi, Amity!), we were talking about the part of her childhood she spent in Alameda. I asked her about Fairyland, and she sighed and smiled. “Fairyland,” she repeated back to me, her voice dreamy. Fairyland is serious business.

I still want to borrow a child and go back to Fairyland, ideally a patient one who doesn’t mind me stopping and taking a million pictures, the way my company that night allowed me.

And so now, when I pass the part of the park where the trees are a little thin and I can see a brightly painted, 10-plus-feet-tall stack of books peeking through the leaves, it won’t just seem incongruous. It will seem wonderfully unlikely, lovingly kept, and a well-regarded beacon of memory to the many, many joggers circling the lake.

I get it. And I’m grateful I got to go.

P.S. They only do this particular event once a year, but there are other adults-only/adults-allowed events here and there. Another one is coming up on September 25: Drawn Together, which combines local art and Fairyland, SIGH. I won’t be here. If you can, though, I really hope you go.

*I tried to find the illustration Vonnegut did of the FAIRY LAND in the book, but it is apparently a vastly less popular scan than his asterisk asshole illustration from the same book.

**When I travel in a regular way, my non-lodging money mostly goes to museums, postcards, and food. In my time in Oakland and San Francisco, it’s similar. I bring my lunch to school most days, so on the odd occasion that I want to eat something beautiful without feeling like a bad unemployed person, I usually go for it. Examples include San Francisco burritos, a fine veg burger at 21st Amendment on a very hungry day, and Thai noodles for lunch about once every two weeks. It helps that I get at least a couple quite good free meals each week at tech meetups. Tech meetups: never buy t-shirts or dinner again.

Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, Where I Am

A most excellent shop window in Montmartre in Paris

I am yearning to travel.

I am currently, technically, traveling every day.

I look up flights in October every day or two lately.

I remind myself that I will probably want nothing more in October than to sit my ass down in my apartment, pet my own cats, and do the work on my home life.

It helps sometimes. For a few minutes.

I’ve just finished my first month of living in the Bay Area. I live in Oakland; I go to school in San Francisco at Hackbright. (You can read about what I’m doing there on my other blog).

I had some realistic ideas about what school would be like. I knew it would absorb most of my energy. I knew it would be a major undertaking. But I still thought of it as a kind of retreat, in that it would be me concentrating on myself and learning a skill. The focus part of a retreat if not the relaxing part.

I didn’t anticipate the difference between the energy that goes into a full-time job and the energy required for 40 solid hours a week of learning something entirely new.

(Spoiler: IT IS MASSIVE.)

And so my “SF planning” spreadsheet, with its optimistic tab of places to explore, is relatively untouched.

A month in, my energy is starting to come back. On Wednesday, I took an indirect route home from BART. I saw this.

Turquoise three-eyed cat graffiti in Oakland

That same day, I took a lunch walk that ended with me reading in Union Square for a while, surrounded by tourists and gobs of languages and the soft summer sunlight.

I have learned that I feel unlike myself when I don’t have the energy to explore. I feel like I’m inhabiting someone else’s weird, small life.

So it’s an interesting, evocative thing for me to think about things like “Shall I take a trip in October, before I (with any luck) get a job? Or shall I respect my limits and needs and stay the eff home for five minutes?” Traveling feels like who I am. Exploring is how the parts of me I love best work in the way I enjoy the most.

I had a sharp division in time about a week and a half after I got to the Bay Area. Except for my six-week depression national tour in 2007, 18 days was the longest I’d ever been away from Seattle in the ten-plus years I’ve lived there – that was my trip to Europe in November. Recognizing that I was approaching that limit and then surpassing it affected me more than I expected. While I’d been to San Francisco and Oakland before, I’d never stayed past the “Gee this is neat and new let’s eat this and see this ok wow windmills right then going home now” point. Doing that has felt like an umbilicus stretching and then going slack, if not actually breaking.

Part of the tasks of being here is deciding whether to stay or not after the program is over. I am training to go into tech; it would certainly make sense to try to stay. But my focus right now is on learning Python, and I think I won’t have answers until I go back to Seattle for a bit. See what I miss about the Bay Area when I leave it, see what feels like oxygen rushing back into the room when I return to Seattle.

In the meantime, five weeks in, I have the energy for a few extra things now. On Friday, after class, I went art supply shopping and then took the long route to BART from SoMa, walking up the Embarcadero along South Beach, past the paint-flaked workaday piers, the tugboats floating in coronas of golden light on the twilit bay, the bow-and-arrow sculpture, and finally the synapse sculpture, its LEDs cycling through the rainbow in a way that seems to have been scientifically calibrated to the way I appreciate color. Tomorrow, quite early, I am going to the Alameda antiques market with my friend/roommate. I am seeing things and doing things.

Just in time to start projects season at Hackbright, during which I may disappear. I hope not. I don’t know.

I had to stop myself from doing that thing of avalanching Amy with iPhone travel pictures earlier tonight, instead showing her just a couple of street art from Montmartre. When I do flight searches lately, I look at Reykjavik and Paris; I’ve gone to enough places that I’m considering repeats. Maybe part of it is that I also recognize that I basically want to go everywhere, so I might as well go somewhere. Central and South America. Morocco. Italy and Greece. Turkey. Croatia. Japan, again, more. India. Korea. Australia and New Zealand. The better known, the lesser known, the easily accessible and the ones where you have to squeak by in single lanes, via tiny boats, such tenuous connections to the rest of the world that you wonder if you’ll be able to squeak back out.

But my difficult adjustment – which is, granted, exacerbated by school – has given me things to think about regarding long-term travel, or even living elsewhere. Whether it still has any appeal. Whether what I’m doing now has that many parallels. I don’t know yet. I don’t know a lot yet. I guess that’s one of the things going new places will teach you. For most of us, a lot of our basic daily intelligence is based on familiarity. Pull that, and you’re lying if you say “I know” more than you cheerfully shrug.

I’ve thought of writing here often over the last several months. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been posting about school on my other blog. A couple people in my cohort have said that they’d have a hard time writing that much; we’re all basically exhausted all the time. And I say, “I’m a writer. It’s what I do and what I’ve trained to do; it doesn’t take much out of me.” And it’s true. And it’s time to do it again for myself too.

I have such a backlog of pictures. Paris and Rennes and Berlin and Amsterdam. Victoria. Japan and Japan and Japan, where I had my new camera that captures things almost as beautifully as I see them. San Francisco and Oakland.

I’m very lucky.

The backlog has been daunting. I prefer to knit together narratives, stitching together themes and my observations and those feelings and impressions that stick with me still, that I think of when I stare off into space these days, trying to figure out indentation and functions and just-so syntax in a way that’s both familiar to me and radically new. Turning a corner in Montmartre and seeing another piece of street art so stunning and perfectly placed that I feel something pierce me slightly in the vicinity of my heart. Gently rocking houseboats in Amsterdam, generous guides and new friends and being able to see the beauty of a place but having no chance to get its full context, the glory and tragedy of it. The insight of the outsider without the context of the insider. It’s all we have sometimes.

And it’s late, and tomorrow is early. And I’ll be back soon. I’m going to start writing moments. If there are themes, they can grow from there. But I’m long overdue to tell you where I’ve been lately. I’ll fix that soon.

P.S. The top picture is a Montmartre store window I passed on the way to get breakfast before a walking tour. I wanted to go back; I didn’t get to go back. Not yet.