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.

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.

A Walk in the Wood: In Which I Go to the Folsom Street Fair

There are no pictures with this post.

It’s strange, I realize. Because if you go outside, particularly in smartphone-saturated San Francisco, and you are wearing an equestrian bit, or a sheer bodysuit, or nothing at all, you’re as good as consenting to have your ass and all the rest of you put on the internet.

But there are things I can’t participate in, and that’s one of them. For those people brave or horny or otherwise sufficiently compelled to go outside in full fetish gear, I will grant them one less picture on the internet, one less bit of exposure to anyone who cares to do a wanky little Google search.

Sorry, exhibitionists.

I’ve wanted to go to the Folsom Street Fair for some years now, probably dating back to my late nights of surreptitiously watching Real Sex and other HBO-sponsored contributions to my early sexual education. And finally, this year, I did. I didn’t dress up (except making a point to wear my traditional stompy boots), and I didn’t go to any parties. I just wandered and watched and stood in awe.

And saw penises. Oh yes, the penises, the infinite penises. Penises au naturale, penises minus hair and with tattoos and piercings, penises held wobbly and at half-mast by rubber rings and metal rings and little leather collars. Penises dangling under the bottoms of shirts like fleshy little pendulums, penises poking like inquisitive mice through the flies of boxers and sensible khakis*, penises bobbing up and down on naked dancers.


One I did not see: that of the 60-something man who faced away from me, hands proudly on bare hips, standing astride on these, using the easy sway of them to wave his penis like a metronome, like a languorous dowsing rod. I saw the orthopedic shoes and the knee socks atop them, the relaxed ass, but not the front.

And that is ok.

Beyond that, it was like a prom where sex is guaranteed at the end, and often during, all the horny people of the greater San Francisco area and beyond decked out in their fetishy best. An equestrian store’s worth of harnesses across shoulders narrow and wide, hairy and freckled and tattooed and not.** Horse tails, hooves, and dozens of eerie leather dog masks. Adult babies in playpens and furries posing for pictures. A full, delirious rainbow of brightly printed briefs. A parade of sexuality largely unconcerned with a cis-woman in her early 30s. And so I was left to watch – its own proclivity, of course.

When I happened by one stage, I was entranced by the rope play being demonstrated, the wide grin of the woman being tied up as her binder pushed her up toward the cheering crowd. Immediately after, I learned I can still be shocked, even to the point of gagging quietly in a crowd, as I did when I saw a woman pee, spitefully and delightedly, into the mouth of the man beneath her. I looked away, some.

And then: 24 ounces of beer, consumed fairly quickly. It was needed.

The rest? A dancer, engaging in my favorite kind of deeply demented, boner-confusing burlesque, stripping down to a rainbow-striped merkin that matched her wig, tail, and unicorn horn. A suspension act that lasted a glorious 45 seconds before something snapped, sending the performer a couple feet to the ground and the audience’s hands to their mouths. A beautiful pole-dancing couple, cups and bowls decorated with artful carvings of sex, a police officer who informed people that they didn’t have to cover their nipples with tape today. Today, it was cool to show everything, nips and all.

But most of all, Folsom was the inside brought outside. People bedecking themselves in the stuff of fantasy, unbothered by the fear of exposure, happy to be among the leashed and the leaders, their desires brought to the surface and the street, and paraded around for just one day.

Well, just one day of synchronized parading, anyway. Folsom Street exists at all times, as do sex parties, as do well-trafficked St. Andrew’s crosses and whips and people glad to wield and yield.

Dan Savage has called Halloween Straight Pride, the day that heterosexuals take to wander around with cleavage and bare skin and deliberate, grinning intent. Folsom combines the two, resulting in one big, loud, delightfully overwhelming cacophony of lust, and the knowledge that most anything that can be asked could be answered nearby by someone, by multiple someones, by a line of eagerly waiting someones. It’s always true, to a point, particularly in cities like San Francisco or New York or Seattle, but on that day, like candy doled out to trick-or-treaters, it’s all nearby and offered up, consensual and celebrated.

It may not be for you, but it’s good that it’s there for all of us. For every Texas that outlaws sex toys and every too-recently overturned sodomy law, there’s a man strutting a bit as he adjusts the thin suspenders keeping his tiny underwear in place, and a smirking woman leading her two partners with shining leather leashes, and a woman with impeccably tattooed breasts resting architecturally atop an engineering feat of a corset. The middle can exist because of what brackets it. And the edges need to be pushed, adjusted, redefined, and reexamined now and then to mean anything.

And so it goes, once a year in San Francisco. And I’m glad I got to witness it.


**My favorite: pink shoulder straps that connected across a wide back piece featuring… Hello Kitty. Beautiful, sir.

Hither and Thither #31

This rainbow-covered individual was at Fisherman's Wharf.

I wound up back in San Francisco this weekend. When my friends and I returned from a Muir Woods and wine tour, we collapsed into a mediocre restaurant that I realized only too late tacked on a 4 percent protest charge about having to provide healthcare for its employees. It was too late to ditch. Sigh.

I did get to see this person from the window, though. Seattle doesn’t really have living statues and other beyond-human busking oddities. It makes for an easier walk, but a less magical existence.

Related: wine tours are excellent for responsible people who have dreams of being winos on their vacations. High marks.

division squiggle

Take a couple minutes and let Andrew W.K. make you cry. It’s worth it. Related: what happens to your social media when you die.

division squiggle

My inclination is more slow travel than mad dashes these days, but these maps laying out five-hour forays into a variety of cities are a great start when considering what to see in different places. I think they’re either a little optimistic on the travel time or a little pessimistic on the attention span, but that’s ok. Hand-drawn maps!

silver gate bridge

I do love miniature versions of things. For instance: Miniature World in Victoria, Mini-Europe in Brussels (which I will see soon), and the tiny reproductions of California missions in the California Mission Museum at Cline Cellars in Sonoma (which I tipsily shambled through this weekend). So how charmed was I to find this tiny, shakeable bridge on the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge? Extremely charmed. How much more did I shake it than is becoming for someone in her early 30s? Oh, a good sight more.

But I am also a person who went to an indoor trampoline park this weekend and merrily bounced for an hour alongside people a third my age. Or younger. There’s no accounting for me.

division squiggle

When I was very young, my mom presented me with dog tags embossed with her and my dad’s names and childhood addresses. I have always loved ephemera, so I adored these immediately – the texture, the sound they made clanking against each other, the idea of these elements of their lives before each other clanking together now on the same ball chain.

Then I thought about it and asked my mom where they came from. Neither of my parents were ever in the military; military makes dog tags; where did kids get dog tags?

That’s when I learned about the Cuban missile crisis and what threats became part of daily life for a weird period of my parents’ very middle Midwest childhoods.

I still liked the dog tags (see: “I have always loved ephemera”), but I appreciated that I got to wear them without the gravity that had once been attached to them.

99% Invisible (yes!) recently explored the fallout shelter economy and other weirdnesses that sprung up during this surreal part of American history.

Me? I share my mom’s opinion on this. No bunkers, no cement shelters buried in the earth. If I feel the end is coming, I’ll walk out on the street, arms outstretched, content to share the earth’s fate.

Being in San Francisco Inspires Me to…

koi stencils on haight street in san francisco…make and carry stencils.

heart stencil on haight street in san franciscoSeriously.

zines copy shop sign san franciscoTo make zines! (Granted, that doesn’t take much. The only thing I lack these days is time.)

colorful houses off haight street in san franciscoTo live in a beautiful cake.

extremely ornate house off haight street in san francisco…to live in a freaking work of art.

very very ornate house off haight in san franciscoDude.

mission-drug-poster…to make silly bullshit, make a bunch of copies, and post them everywhere.

mission-cereal-poster…to eat cereal.

golden-gate-park-rainbow-steps…to own a big rainbow staircase. In pretty much any context. I can live under it like Harry Potter, I don’t care.

golden-gate-park-musicians…to lay in the grass and talk for a while. (No, not to dance. I am not shy about dancing, not even a little, but San Francisco and I diverge in that I do not do it in the full daylight in a park. No.)

fishnet legs on haight street in san francisco…to think about Bourbon Street.

the alembic bar, san francisco…to drink cocktails made to be paired with Girl Scout cookies. One of the only regrets of my trip is that I’d already reached my booze threshold for the evening by the time we passed The Alembic. (That I reached it by splitting a couple wee pitchers of sangria at Cha Cha Cha makes it almost worth it. Almost.)

And also:

  • To drink more awesome beer. That’s a greater quantity of awesome beer, I mean – not beer of increased awesomeness. I’ve got that down. But San Francisco? Also has their beer game nailed.
  • To get a job that pays a lot more than I make now (ah, the life of a writer)
  • To be a character in Tales of the City, which I surely need to go back and finish reading

This was my fourth or fifth time going to San Francisco, and for some reason, it hit me so much closer to the heart this time. Now I get to figure out what to make of that.

Sometimes You Want to Go… Where You Can Bite the Head Off a Bread Turtle

We were walking through Fisherman’s Wharf, trying to figure out exactly where we would be eating fish for our dinner. (Most of my friends are not pescetarians, but the best of them are just as fish-loving as I am.) Suddenly, my friend stopped and said, “The bread at this place always smells sooooooo good.”

I asked if he’d had it before; he confirmed he had not. I knew my mission… particularly when I saw this:

sourdough turtles in the window at boudin at fisherman's wharf in san franciscoWHAT.

So, yeah. Boudin.

boudin bakery signExcuse me: BOUDIN.

I spent three summers in a tourist town, and it left me, in the immediate aftermath, extremely leery of anything targeted at tourists. A surprise pleasure in the last few years has been giving into these tourist-oriented honeypots sometimes. Turtle bread is not for normal people. Turtle bread is for visitors.

Turtle bread is for ME.

And not only that:

sf-boudin-bearBear bread.

sf-boudin-gatorGator bread.

sf-boudin-seasons-3Seasonal bread. For Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day and… January Crab Jubilee. (Of course, we all know that March is crab jubilee time.)

sf-boudin-seasons-2Cable car bread, for… funsies.

sf-boudin-seasons-3I don’t even have a remark for that last one. It’s just smart, like the bread roll wreaths at Le Panier at Pike Place Market. (Confidential to Le Panier: you need more pictures on your website. Your bread is too pretty to present solely in words.)

Soon after, we ended up splitting chowder from a bread bowl, so my turtle remained whole until I got home, when I ate it with some leftover broccoli-potato-cheese soup. My friend’s? Didn’t actually make it even a block from the bakery intact. Because yes, the sourdough at Boudin smells so good that sometimes you’re compelled to ignore the cuteness of your roll and do a full Ozzy Osbourne on your bread turtle as your friend is still digging in her bag for her camera. And that’s just as it should be.

Going Places, in Spite of Taxidermy

four barrels smiling pig nooooo

“Hey y’all!”

Go to Four Barrel.

Ask for the affogato. It’s not on the menu, but they’ll probably have it. Pay closer attention than I did when the wizard behind the counter is making it. I don’t know what she did, but something about it made it one of the finest affogatos I’ve ever had. The texture, the ice cream, the just-right slight bitterness of the espresso, even the feeling of the cup against the saucer… yes.

And as you leave, look back at the taxidermy. Look back and up, look at the pig heads, and think… why.

I will be glad when this fad passes. I’m looking at you, Smith, Linda’s, and Assembly Hall. Especially the latter, where there’s this moose head that sits at eye level next to you, mouth open as if he’s just waiting, just waiting, for his chance to interject. Shudder.

Post-script: despite all this sincere icky-poo-pooing, I must tell you that I spent a couple parts of a fine afternoon at Loved to Death, which I found fascinating. I bought two postcards and a fossilized ammonite. For some reason, the context is ok, because they know this shit is fucked and are profiting off just that. Go figure.