Post-Pandemic Vacation Planning, Actual Leisure, and Threat Modeling

What does it even mean to plan a vacation for pleasure after more than a year where we felt like being outside your home was the most dangerous thing?

I’ve planned two-week trips before. I’ve planned many trips to New York. I’ve planned solo trips, unstructured trips full of wandering, and trips meant to answer some kind of built-up longing.

My upcoming trip is all of these things, and yet this is new.

What is it to just be starting to leave the house again, to retrain my brain to not think that BART cars and other enclosed spaces are shared incubators of guaranteed death, only to immediately go to one of the most populated cities in the world?

Difficult, I’d say. And also as necessary as anything has been for the last year.


For this trip, I wanted to try existing in New York in an ordinary, “I live here, actually” kind of way. During my last longer stay there, I split an apartment in the Upper West Side for a week with my friend who lived in Astoria for many years, who was always a commuter train ride away even once she had to leave the city. I’ve never been there without that backup. I have other friends there, but the focus won’t be the same.

This time, I’m going to spend a week in the Lower East Side and then a week in Fort Greene, at the advice of another friend who used to live there. I think highly of Astoria, but my visits to New York were based there for more than a decade. A fact-finding mission needed to be based elsewhere.

For the second week, I’m pretty sure I’ll have relaxed enough to stay in a bedroom in someone’s apartment – or I certainly hope so, because that is what I’m doing. After a week bouncing around the city, I will have gotten used to some things. But upon arrival, after hours and hours in airports and a sky tube and all this proximity, I assume that I’ll be essentially broken. I did manage to find one of the only flights from SFO to JFK that didn’t leave at either 7 am or 11 pm, so I’m not destroying myself (AGAIN) with a red-eye flight or one that’s so early it might as well be. But after six hours in a plane following 15 months in my apartment and almost only in my apartment (with a handful of exceptions), I’ll be wrecked. And heading from that into a stranger’s apartment is too much. My first week will be in a modest li’l hotel, and that is fine.

I realized that the following things will be especially important on this early voyage back into the world:

  1. A door that closes and that no one will come through. A ton of Manhattan Airbnbs had a single bathroom accessed either through the guest’s room or host’s room, and while I understand what’s up with this, I also know that my tolerance for risk and weirdness will be bottomed out upon arrival and likely won’t replenish fast enough to make this something I can deal with.
  2. A reasonably predictable situation, which sleeping in someone’s living room, rules for where snacks may and may not be eaten, a living room full of forbidden exercise equipment but no furniture, or sleeping behind a curtain do not permit. Yes, these are all real examples of options I (briefly) considered.
  3. A place to stay where, if it does take me until 4 pm the day after I arrive to reemerge into the world – not unheard of for me on first days of trips – it won’t be observed, keep anyone from having a pee, or otherwise affect anyone except me.

I’ve always tried to minimize strife when planning trips, working to balance that with budget concerns so I can do more for less. Rarely, though, has the definition of strife included “I want to do everything I can to ensure I don’t end up hiding under a blanket, wishing I was back home.”


A central part of my job is threat modeling, which means considering a system (either built or just planned) and figuring out where risk lies and what those possible risks might be. With something like a website, some of the risk comes from anything that takes in text or other parameters. You can mess with the servers behind them by putting in input that does weird stuff to databases, or you can compromise other users by sending them links with parameters that make things misbehave. You can overwhelm an unprotected server with traffic, taking it offline. What systems does it connect to? What data does it present or allow users to update? These are all things to consider.

I like threat modeling, and it’s been an interesting era to have cultivated this skill. Now I threat model myself. What happens with my own vulnerable system once I go somewhere new, full of new inputs and uncertain motivations?

I can address some: I’m still being cautious, but my antibodies should have reached full strength more than a month ago, so my caution is mostly for the benefit of other people as we scramble to figure out exactly what the risk of transmission is with new variants as a vaccinated person among people with compromised immune systems or other risks. I’ve been figuring out how I want to work within those risks and trying to err on the side of being conservative. I decided to not go out for the two weeks leading up to this trip because the chance of dragging some California variant across the country to an unsuspecting city felt like an unforgivable risk.

And then there are the others.

The brain-breaking people fear, old social anxiety amped up by a lack of practice and so many months of stranger danger, all this aquarium living. How I know handling necessary things, like feeding myself in an unfamiliar place, gets more complicated when I’m freaked out. And then the ever-present curiosity of whether I’ll return to not trusting said vaccination, which has nothing to do with the vax itself and everything to do with this being the first time I’ve had a vaccination for a current and newly arisen concern rather than a piece of distant-to-me history, a new kind of trust fall.

As with websites and servers and networks, there are mitigations. I’m getting out among people a bit before taking the big plunge. I’ll bring snacks with me, and I’ll plan at least a couple of meals for my first full day there, so my decisions will be fewer as I adjust. And the last?

No system can be perfectly secured. Eventually, you just have to go live and plan to respond to any incidents that come up.

With travel in other years, I depended on my reliable love for leaping into the unknown. Things would be awkward sometimes, because I would need to learn things as I went, but in the end, they’d all be good stories. This was, I learned in 2020, the difference between anxiety and fear. Anxiety is a thing to vanquish, to push against and congratulate yourself on your bravery.

Fear is different. I understand that better now. It reminds me of this amazing article about Airbnb trying to make headway into Japan, only to discover that different cultures weigh risk and uncertainty differently. I used to have an American risk tolerance, all acceptance of failure and encouragement to try again and again, but I find myself feeling more like many of the Japanese people in that article now. I assume that’ll diminish, but I can’t guess when.

I used to consider myself brave in what turned out to be a fairly flimsy definition of the word—harmless, generally, but not something that stood up well in the most recent era. And my ability to rely on that quality has taken a beating in the samey-same last year-plus of living, this cheap cartoon repeating background version of life, this phase where “I saw a person” becomes an anecdote worth relaying, this era where donating blood is fascinating enough that it fuels more than an hour of excited conversation.

What else is there to do, really, but fling myself into one of the biggest cities in the world? I can be mindful of what I know, understand that the problems I can’t predict can probably either be dealt with by throwing money at it or running away to regroup, and trust that my old instincts are somewhere in there.

And if not, and you happen to see a story about a pink-haired NYC tourist who absolutely lost her shit in a newsworthy way? Spare a little kindness before you keep scrolling.

Tentative Hibernation Emergence: a Selection of Recent Social Encounters

I am at my first indoor social event since March 2020. My date/quarantine buddy goes to the toilets. I stand next to the bleachers in this space in Westfield Center that’s done up like a pretend gym hosting a pretend prom, watching people dance and figuring out how I feel being by myself in a place that isn’t my apartment. I decide I’m content, alone among strangers.

A woman in a pink wig turns to me. “I have too many jello shots,” she tells me, raising her voice over Boy George. “Would you like one?” It’s not that I’ve spoken to zero strangers in the last year-plus, but it’s been rare, and I was never exceptionally good at this even when things were ok. I say yes to the jello shot. “It’s really stuck in there,” she tells me. “You need to loosen it up with your tongue or a finger.”

This is a lot of information for me. I run a finger around the edge of the jello shot, trying and failing to remember what that finger might have touched in the previous 30-odd minutes, and then tip the entire thing into my mouth. While I chew it, my brain starts to try to figure everything out. Is this the start of a conversation? Are we talking? What is the expectation? What do I actually want?

My body decides my exit, because I am now holding an object that needs to be disposed of. I’ve spent so long in my apartment, where there are no surprise objects of uncertainty, so obviously the best thing is to go throw it away right now. I cross the space to the recycling bins, deposit the plastic cup and its lid, and stop. Holy shit, the compulsion I had to deal with this stray object. It feels like an irresistible force, so much that it overrode the “what do I even do here” social anxiety. I come back to myself by the trash cans, empty-handed, wondering exactly how abrupt I was without meaning to be.


I walk down Telegraph in Temescal here in Oakland, heading to BART. I am not wearing a mask, which is safe but still feels so novel. A man walks toward me. He’s ten-odd years older than I am and has that casual feeling of belonging about him that always makes me think people were born here. He gives me a nod and a small smile. I nod back at him – I like the nod – and to my surprise, I break out into a really big smile. It surprises him too, and he grins back.

It’s been so long since all of my face was visible in public on the regular. It’s been so long since I’ve been able to give that small, easy, “Hey, hope your day’s good” kind of expression at people I don’t know. I’m visibly female in public, so smiling, particularly at men I don’t know, isn’t a simple order of operations. But this felt good, like a ray of sun emerging through clouds. I think we made each other’s day better, and I like that so much.


The same afternoon, I wait for BART at MacArthur. I left a little early to walk to the station that’s a bit further from me so I can get to the Richmond train without a transfer, and there’s a train delay, so I have almost 20 minutes to wait. I write in my journal and enjoy the breeze from the highway. Warm; silty; nice only because I like cities and density.

A man sits next to me, another one of us in a row, all of us at least four feet apart. He waves at me, and I reluctantly take off my headphones. “I like your toenail color,” he says. He’s right to: it’s really good, a glittery magenta I bought from an Instagram ad. “Thanks so much,” I reply. He’s managed to comment on something fairly intimate without making it weird. Not all men (hashtag) have this skill. I leave my headphones off one ear for a minute to see if this is going anywhere, hoping it doesn’t. He gets up for his train a couple minutes later, and it’s clear that will be that.

It’s very strange being visible in public again. Everything was a private matter for so long, in the way of wealthy Georgian ladies and the gowns worn only in the house. Now there are public clothes again, and I’m not sure how to manage that yet. This is a reminder: I do reflect light, I am composed of solid matter, I do leave the house, and I will have to budget energy to deal with interactions I can’t predict.

The train arrives and overshoots the platform by an entire car. We all look at each other, quizzical eyebrows over striped masks, Raiders masks, solid-colored masks, surgical masks, wondering what tf is going on, what’s with this conductor, is the train going to back up or nah? It’s a moment of togetherness after so much being apart, united by irritation and disapproval. It feels like home.


Another day, I’m taking BART toward downtown to meet a friend for patio dinner. I get into the first car and see that no one else is there. Private transportation. I take a couple dorky selfies to commemorate it. When we stop at the next station, the conductor comes out from behind his door to wake someone up. I wasn’t alone after all; a woman was slouched across one of the bench seats, and he’s come out to tell her this is her stop. She groggily collects her stuff and walks off the train.

We pause to do a transfer, long enough that she walks onto the other train, stays there for a minute, walks back out and across the platform to my train to get something she left, and then emerges onto the platform again only to watch the train on the other side pull out.

I’d forgotten these little moments of triumph and despair. The bus you didn’t catch, the train leaving in front of you, the joys and sorrows of parking, lines for restaurants. We used to see each other so much more.


I get my hair cut for the first time in seventeen months. I have curly hair and am not extremely particular, so this could’ve been a great era for punky, choppy bobs and the like, the best of home haircuts and nothing to lose, but I opted for the inverse of something a messageboard I once belonged to would say whenever anyone was going through a hard breakup: notice your hair. Your hair is growing, and you are healing. You don’t notice it daily, but one day your bangs will be in your eyes, or some layer will be where it’s not supposed to be. And that day, remind yourself: time is passing, and you’re healing.

I used my quarantine hair as a reminder that I was justified in feeling so awful. It brushed my shoulders at the start of things; it nearly reached the bottom of my shoulder blades by the end (or “end,” let’s be real here). Why does it feel like my brain’s on fire? Why do I feel like some desperate captive thing? Ah right, my hair is six inches longer than the last time I really felt good. Of course. I used the length to remember exactly what was going on; I used my gradually expanding undercut to reclaim a little bit of control.

It’s really good to see my stylist (Brittany at Pirate Salon, highly recommended). She’s smart and kind and funny, and she interprets my vague directions (“less? more curly? to roughly this length? I don’t know?”) into real things that grow out really well. We frantically catch up on almost a year and a half of living: where’d you go, how’d you do, how are your primary relationships, what are your resolutions now that we know a somewhat different way of being?

What is it to condense more than a year of lovely quarterly interactions into an hour? We did it, and it was good. It’s intense. And welcome. And feels like healing. We stand before each other when we’re done, both reading for hug-friendly cues. “I don’t mind if you don’t–” I start. “It’s fine if–” she says. And we hug, and it’s just fucking fabulous.


After, since I’m already in the Mission, I decide to treat myself to fancy lady food. There aren’t any free tables at Tartine Manufactory, so instead I get it to go and wander to a nearby park. I try for one gate at first; it’s locked, and as I double back to try the other side, I pass the man who had been yelling into his cell phone as I approached. He’s in his 60s and gives a vibe of having been here for a while, which I love. As we pass each other, he says, still irritated at the world, “Yeah, I wouldn’t go that way either.” He proceeds to go the way I came from.

As I settle in on my bench, figuring out how exactly one eats soup and bread with butter on a bench during a moderate breeze, he comes in with a couple similarly aged friends, and they shoot the shit in the gazebo behind me. My favorite is when one of them says that he’s having neighbor problems with someone upstairs. “The other meth heads I know are all mellow, but not this guy,” he says. Another older guy with a beer in a paper bag sits one bench down from me. I’m drinking root beer from a brown bottle and hope I don’t attract attention that could be inconvenient for him.

It all feels very exposed, me with my fancy bread, drinking cold corn soup from a plastic container, wrangling an elaborate banana tart topped with chocolate shavings, entranced by people around me yet hoping I don’t have any surprise conversations because I’m just not ready for that. I prefer not to be weird at strangers. A lot of them don’t deserve it.


I go to Death Guild. I had never gone before; it’s easy to mean to go to something for years but never make it because it happens on a Monday, because it’s in the city, because I’m tired, because because because. This quarantine has given me so many months to marinate in all these rationalizations that can take over your life if you let them. You can rationalize yourself straight to your fucking grave leaving all these things undone. I don’t believe in silver linings, but I am choosing to make use of the perspective that came from more than a year of one big because that eliminated all possibilities. I vowed to go to a goth night almost as soon as I could. I waited a couple of weeks just to see how the world would work once we did things again, but shortly after that? OUT.

Everyone is startlingly beautiful. I sort of remember how to talk to bartenders and not be a nuisance. I work to remember how to watch people without staring. There are incredibly involved ensembles, corsets and long coats and headpieces, often worn by people I immediately name queen/lord of the underworld or other honorary titles, but there are also people in denim jackets and fairly ordinary clothes. There are people who have clearly been pining for this in a way I understand across the last year and are emerging with LOOKS, and they are FANTASTIC. And also people trying something new and behaving themselves.

I dance until my left knee hurts. I dance on top of a go-go platform. I dance on stage. I dance upstairs and downstairs. I remember how bodies can work. I’m grateful for my lighter hair, this thing that actually moves again rather than being a thick, long fall tethering me to this timeline.

A couple times, while moving between rooms or sipping a beer and watching people (people!), I think that rare thought: I am happy in a thorough and uncomplicated way right now. This is what that feels like. That thing I don’t feel very often, where my brain is neither in the past nor the future, but only holding tight to the present, and the present is excellent. I spent many nights in quarantine dancing in my living room, including to the online version of Death Guild, my lights off and my galaxy projector going, dodging cats as I tried to inhabit my whole body and not just the part that participates in a Zoom call. It was good and important, and it got me by sometimes.

This is better – as good as I hoped it would be, in fact. How often do we get to long for something and then get precisely what we hoped for?

I dance until the last song is done and then emerge onto the street, grateful for the night air on my sweaty neck. We get a car home, pulling up in front of my apartment building after three. I think “this is what it’s like to be young,” but really, I wasn’t often young in quite this way. I think I’m going to be older in this way instead. Next time, I could stay out for two fewer hours, have two fewer drinks, and generally not borrow happiness and energy from tomorrow in order to have a good night. But for a first outing after all this confinement?


The next day, I sip water, find a couple mystery bruises, and have zero regrets.


I am at the optometrist, another medical or medical-adjacent thing where half my face is covered. The tech adds a piece of tape to the nosepiece of my mask so I don’t fog up the peripheral vision test machine. The optometrist looks at my retinal scans and finds my old friend: the little grey dot of histoplasmosis that exists in my right eye, a forever souvenir of growing up in the midwest. If it were in the lung (as happened to a friend of mine), it’d be Ohio Valley Disease. Instead, it lives next to my optic nerve, and it’s called presumed ocular histoplasmosis.

“We call it presumed now,” Dr. Kim says, “because we can’t really diagnose it conclusively.”

“Without an autopsy,” I say.


I kinda love talking to optometrists.

“There’s a local version called Valley Fever,” he says as he scrolls around the newest portraits of the inside of my eyes, looking for other shadows and spots. “It’s caused by coccidioides, though, but it can cause a similar thing in the eye. It’s normal if you train in California, but if you do a rotation in another part of the country and get a chance to recognize it, you look like a genius because people from other places don’t know about it.”

I think about my childhood training in hypervigilance and the finer points of reading other people’s passive aggression and the strange, unwanted skillset it gives me in my work as a software engineer, but that’s too much to explain through a mask to someone I’ve just met.

After, I walk around the glasses showroom, putting likely pairs into a box so they can be sterilized after I try them on. The woman who runs that part of the shop is my favorite kind of person for this work: sharply opinionated and precise. “No,” she says immediately after I try the first two pairs on. “Too old. Too serious.” We agree on the one truly acceptable pair. She has me take my mask off to actually see myself, which would have been unnerving if I hadn’t been trying this out a little elsewhere. “See?” she says. “Those are the ones.”

I stare at myself in the purple-and-red frames I’ll be adding to my collection, my suddenly exposed face in someone else’s space, and appreciate the small risk she took in order to do the work well.


I sift through CDC bulletins and news from the Bay Area and the world. I read about variants and possible future booster shots. I consider the risks to myself (fairly insignificant) and the risks I pose to others (controllable if I keep on with my current habits of mask-wearing and caution in enclosed spaces). I ask myself what I get from reentering the world and try to balance being a person again with functioning in a way I consider moral.

I begin to tentatively make plans.

The Pendulum and the Rest of the World

When I started seeing a therapist in 2012, she told me that changes in behavior I made wouldn’t be graceful at first. “You’ll be trying something new,” she said. “And usually, when people do something against how they were raised or learned to be, that first try at something new and different results in a clang. Like when a pendulum was in the middle, and you pull it to one side and let go.”

My Seattle therapist has a way with metaphors. It’s one of the reason we did such good work together; my brain works that way too. I think about her pendulum a lot lately, because mine is moving.

When the June 15th changeover for California Covid practices was first announced, I said a bunch of faux-chill stuff that sounded responsible to me. “I probably won’t change anything immediately,” I said to my small cat. “I’m just going to wait and see how things go for a couple weeks first,” I told my boyfriend. “I’m sure it’s based on data, but I don’t need to do anything new right away,” I said to my empty apartment.

All of this felt true. And yet, as some paths have reopened, allowing possibilities that have felt forbidden for a very long fifteen months, a storm grew behind all of my responsible utterances. The storm yelled.



The storm yells despite us both being aware that this pandemic and everything going on during it has been hell on my energy. That a couple weeks ago, I walked around SoMa for errands, completely safely, but felt exhausted to the point of wordlessness after two hours. That my lower back has some stuff to say about this “long nights of dancing” and “let’s go stand at concerts for hours” shit and has for the last several years. The storm yells, and I howl like a dog singing along to an old country record. Awooooooooo. I wish for things. I long. I’m so tired.

I’m starting to let myself think about travel, beyond the part where my thwarted longing shrieks in my brain. Oh, a deal to Ireland, how interesting. Why, I could get into Iceland again? That’s lovely. I think I’ve realized that my first long trip after all this probably shouldn’t be to somewhere I don’t speak the language, because honestly, English hasn’t been super reliable when I’ve spoken to people outside of my house over the last fifteen months. Once I realized I was freaked out, I got a somewhat better handle on it, but I’m still likely to have an “Enjoy your coffee!”/”You too! Oh god, just kill me” kind of exchange with people.

In the meantime, I’m considering things I never would have before. I looked at a sales page for a writing instruction cruise today. A couple of months ago, I began to more viscerally understand what appeals to people about all-inclusive resorts. I get them – I used to write lengthy and loving descriptions of the properties and their amenities for work – but the idea of an itinerary and such bounded geography didn’t appeal. But now I’m like, “Fewer choices? For days? And they feed me? Let me think about this.” I don’t think I will, but I’m trying to keep the fact that the soft animal of my body needs a vet in mind. Boldly striding out of a hotel on day one has been hard when I’ve had much more substantial emotional reserves than I do right now. When everything’s been uncertain and often vaguely humiliating for so long, the once-delightful moments of awkwardly figuring things out in unknown lands doesn’t sound fun, it just sounds like a spicier version of a dish I’m already sick of.

I’ve learned over the last year-plus what travel once did for me. I used it to bring contrast into my life; without it, I have gotten thoroughly sick of my aggressively attractive Oakland neighborhood. I used it to learn more about people; without that distraction, I just went ahead and created my own fictional world that covers like 25 years of imaginary people’s lives. I used it for a break; without being pulled away from my day to day, it’s a lot harder to disconnect. I can rock a staycation, but physical and mental distance turned out to be really important. I’m great at shoving my work phone and laptop into a drawer, but there’s also value to not endlessly trucking the recycling out to the same bin or still getting the same stupid mail. I need to see other lives. I need to know how other versions of me act and feel. In their absence, I ask larger questions: maybe I should live somewhere else? What are other jobs that a person like me could do?* I’ve scrutinized all the aspects of my everyday life at this point, and – unsurprisingly – they all come up wanting in this era. Because most things, as a default, kinda really fucking sucked.

It’s the kind of mood that results in me saying, honestly, “I only like writing.” Because everything else hurts at least some. Because everything else hurts.

So I dream lightly of Ireland. Of a cabin in Montana by a lake (but with wifi, for god’s sake). A van on the road with a cat in the passenger seat, a flight to Hawaii. Far but not the farthest. A training-wheels trip, designed to make me happy with the least effort. Not an all-inclusive resort with all its problematic shit, but a gentler version of what felt restorative in the past.

Lots of us are going back to the gym right now. I started climbing again a couple of weeks ago and have felt old functions come back to me. First, I remembered how not to be afraid of heights when I’m on a sturdy rope. Then my wrists and forearms remembered how not to be exhausted so fast. Most recently, I saw my first visible climbing callus on my left hand; others followed shortly after. It’s just going to be like that with everything. The body and heart remember. You’ll still love what you loved before. You’ll remember how to travel further, be embraced by the unknown, be a part of a wider world that has so much to show you.

It’s just going to take a bit. The pendulum will swing wildly before settling into the new normal. It’ll be messy, but I believe we’ll find a good middle ground eventually. I’ll see you there.

*Answer: nothing as well paid or as consistently interesting as what I’m already doing.

I miss drinking

The weirdly much-heralded Capitol Hill mystery Coke machine

I wrote this last May and never published it. I guess I was a little busy completely falling apart or something. Here, enjoy a time capsule.

It’s a luxury, I guess, to mostly back off alcohol for physical reasons and not for staring-at-the-precipice-and-backing-away or “Oh fuck I’m in the crevasse and need to climb out oh god oh god” reasons. It’s a better reason, if one must have one. I’ve held for some years that if you say things like “Perhaps I should quit drinking” or “Perhaps I should quit Facebook” or “Perhaps I should get a therapist,” you probably should at least give it a try, if resources allow. Last fall, I found myself considering giving up the sauce for a while, and I realized I should probably heed my own advice.

My advice is solid but annoying.

There was one bad hangover involved in finally making this decision, but it was a catalyst and not a cause. Instead of fearfully thinking, “I am doing myself damage with this and ought to stop,” I felt a familiar feeling: deep irritation for wasting my own time on what was more broadly a stupid night out anyway. I traded everything and got nothing.

I had recently realized I’d been feeling that hangover irritation after, say, a glass or two of wine with dinner. Or a beer that I wanted, to try to make an anticipated event even more luminous to experience. I’d have a very modest amount of alcohol and later – often even before bed – be deeply annoyed at myself for using my limited amount of energy on something that sapped me so badly. That slowed my brain, that made my newly sensitive stomach quail, that wasted my fucking limited time on this earth.


The physical shift was dramatic enough that I scheduled a physical. It’s an interesting thing to look at a doctor and say “Drinking treats me a little differently than I’m used to,” seeing them switch into, “Whuh-oh, we maybe have a problem drinker,” only to see them back off that concern after hearing that the “problem” happens after a single drink.

Alas, my liver count (and all the other blood tests) came out fine. “Age!” said my friends, my contemporaries, when I mentioned this. So maybe it’s age! Ok! But I thought I’d make it past 40 before another great metabolism shift. My last one was when I was 27, when suddenly three beers was not so much the recipe for a good buzz but the recipe for a hastened end of the night. But I could still have wine with dinner, a tall Tecate at wrestling, or a mimosa with lunch, if I felt so inclined. I didn’t always, but I appreciated the option.

In stepping back from booze, that’s mostly what I feel I’ve lost: the option to commune with my fellow adults. I love bars, I love sitting at the bar, I love asking the bartender what they’re excited to make (if they’re open to conversational noodling with some random). I loved turning 21, I loved learning to like beer when I moved to Seattle shortly after that birthday. I loved inexpensive wine in Paris, feeling just a little bit warmer and more in step with the people around me. I love learning more about a place when I taste its beers. I often feel so separate of people, and it’s meant a lot to me to be able to be one with so much of humanity in something.

It’s been a loss to have that opportunity mostly squelched.

Now that I’ve learned that my new limit is the booze equivalent of a night at the penny slots, I’ve adapted some. If I line my stomach a bit first, I can have a beer or two with dinner without being furious at myself for squandering time and energy. If I stay up late enough to drink a ton of water and have a snack after, I can have a wrestling beer without much regret. It’s a lot of thinking, though, to make possible something that so many people take for granted.

Usually I end up wondering if all this bargaining is worth it. I’ve thought, for a long time, in the way I knew when I was younger that I’d eventually return to a version of vegetarianism, that I would most likely have a point where I backed off the sauce for a while, maybe for good.

To be honest, though, I thought that was more likely to happen when I saw some of my family’s unacknowledged alcoholism rise in me like an unbidden tide. I have watched people I’m related to lean on it more and more until it was less a crutch than a part of them, and I wondered when it would be my turn. When did their drinking change from recreation to necessity? Did they notice it right away or at all? Would I notice it if it happened to me?

I watched for that moment on the occasions when I would have the calm but deeply unsettling feeling, a couple of drinks in, when my anxiety would unclench, and my body would say, “Hey buddy, it could always feel this way. This gliding, easy feeling could be all the time,” and I’d shudder with unwanted understanding of how some of my friends and relatives used booze. Joining the Inebriati comes at a price, after all.

Instead, the turning point was a newly sensitive gut and a suddenly decreased tolerance – for both alcohol and wasted time.

I know our perception of time changes when we age. I think a lot lately about how, as we grow older, we sometimes exchange youthful energy and ingenuity for the mastery that can come with age, for the ruthless prioritization that comes with less energy and a diminishing balance of time on this earth. I just didn’t expect it to be at least half of the reason that beers now sit in my refrigerator for months. I thought I’d have to stare my family’s least-acknowledged genetic legacy in a blaze of fury and self-love and declare I SHALL DRINK NO MORE, FOR THIS SHALL NOT BE MY WAY, FOR I HAVE SEEN THAT PATH, AND IT ONLY LEADS TO A BLOATED FACE BLOVIATING AT PASSERSBY.

But no.

Now, it feels like an event. I’m going to have a beer with dinner tonight. Better add a side of bread, better bookend it with pints of water, better ensure dinner isn’t too late so I can cycle it out of me before I sleep. More mindfulness than I ever wanted, more care than I ever wanted to require. Is it a problem to think this much about drinking? Is it any different than the thinking I do about getting away from my family’s legacy of passive-aggression while still having relationships with other people? That’s a lot of thinking too, and both help me make better use of time.

When I travel, I often rely more on caffeine than I do at home, and I’ve used booze to make it easier for me to limp through the local language without being completely halted by self-consciousness. I’ve been leery of caffeine for a long time, because its utility comes with the risk of punching my anxiety button, making my heart race and my brain unable to fix on anything for more than a second or two, because somewhere in there it’s convinced there’s a predator afoot, and I become a jittery rabbit of a person. But I process it differently when I’m nine hours off of my home time zone. Will it be like that with wine too? Is there an exception when I’m on another continent? I’ll find out someday. Maybe not in 2020 [ed: lol], and I’m not making any set plans for 2021 either. It’ll just be one more aspect of a strange new world.

One of the regular jokes of quarantine times is how much more everyone is drinking – or, as I can attest, most everyone. Cocktails are available to go, beautiful concoctions in clever mason jars, and I’ve partaken of none of so little of it. (Exceptions: a beautiful smoky paloma from Marica here in Oakland; a jar of what’s basically alcoholic Hawaiian Punch from DNA in the city – AKA “Oops, I bought a $33 jar of hooch, oh well” night.) When we get oysters from our local sea-SA, we pair it with sparkling wine. When we make risotto, I have a little of the two-buck Chuck we use for cooking wine, but it’s all ritual, undertaken with caution. I may be the soberest American adult in the quarantine, or at least the soberest one without a specific religious or physical reason. So it’s a new kind of outsider life, here inside my apartment. I’m delighted at all the bars offering to-go service, a flat of tall PBR cans here, a box of rice and flat of toilet paper there, and I’m mostly a spectator in this interesting evolution. Sigh.

Alcohol is a drink, and alcohol is a tool. To make the lights brighter, to make the communing easier, to help get through situations that can only be solved by endurance. And the price has largely gotten too high for me to pay.

So instead, there are memories.

The bilingual trivia contest in Paris in 2013, where I quickly drank a liter of mediocre French beer in order to speak French better (which worked, by god).

Mulled wine in Montmartre, like the universe welcoming me home.

Craft beer in a hipster rooftop bar in Guadalajara, surrounded by cornhole boards as if we hadn’t left the Bay Area at all.

Pulque at a much different bar that same trip, its soothing and slippery effect as my friend and I drank into the night from big clay mugs, surrounded by locals, feeling so happy we’d found something innate to where we were.

Molsons upon Molsons in Canada, slipping into the stream of life around me.

The 0.5% sour beers I was able to guzzle freely in Stockholm, one of my favorite inventions ever, and one I’m still trying to find anywhere near home.

Cantillon at a Belgian beer bar in Sweden, next to a kilo (a kilo) of mussels, and only stopping because I knew I had to safely get myself home on a long walk around the waterfront.

Drinking a Westvleteren 12 in Amsterdam on American Thanksgiving in 2014, after mentioning it in passing to a friend, only to have the bartender light up and then go into a tiny cellar to pull out a couple of bottles.

Passing a bottle of cheap, perfect French wine back and forth on bleachers in front of Notre Dame in 2013, put up to allow people to celebrate the cathedral’s 850th anniversary, on a deeply flawed trip full of sharp awareness of these small, perfect moments, little jewels mounted in a setting of confusion and pain.

A pint a day in London, to make sure I saw lots of different pubs.

POG cocktails in Honolulu.

An unfiltered blond in Bruge, a bright spot in a grueling day.

Scorpion bowls at the tiki bars of the Bay Area, gazing at friends as we both sipped through long straws.

Limoncello on the Amalfi Coast, and too much of it… but, also kind of just enough (if I skip the part where I puked on a ferry to Capri the next morning).

I find it hard to talk about things like this, booze-centered memories, without wondering if a recounting like this will be read as a problem. These are a lot of memories, but they’re also across a lot of years years. Bars are like coffee shops, laundromats, and grocery stores: one of the ways I like to see how people live in new places. How do you order, how do you tip? Does the waitstaff want to talk to you at all? Is wine priced as a luxury or as an assumed part of the meal? Are people obsessive about cocktails or happy with meh beer that flows freely? It’s a lot to feel on the outside of.

It felt stranger when it wasn’t paired with so many other deprivations: no BART, no office, no friend gatherings, no movies or plays, no sense of general ease while being within 15 feet of strangers. It’s just one more shift off of ordinary, and so my separation from the world has been unexpectedly virtuous, at least physically.

I suppose I’ll just have to learn to be celebratory in bars with soft mixed drinks and to take delight I don’t usually feel in unusual sodas or whatever fancy mixers bars around here have to offer. Kind of like life in quarantine itself: the contents that are left are fine. There’s just something that’s missing, but there’s no choice but to learn to deal. I go outside, but usually it’s more stressful than is worth it. So I go strategically and with precautions, and I have learned how to have it feel like something like enough. Life as a short glass of Sprite with a wedge of lime – enough to get by, but with the hope that there’ll be something more again someday.

Also, P.S., this sounds like bullshit, but I swear this method has been really helpful. I’m still pretty light on the drinking as of when I published this, but if I combine it with what I now call booze vitamins, I get by pretty painlessly. I look forward to trying it out with a wrestling beer later this year.

All I Never Wanted

A swing hanging from a branch in front of a verdant wooded valley

Normally, the money I spent to stay an hour from my apartment for my spring vacation would’ve been more than enough to take me across the world. It’s bizarre that staying so close by required so much more: money, energy, STUFF. 

My god, the stuff.

I used to have these easy habits, these little portable compartments of necessities. My work backpack contained lip balm, nail clippers, Excedrin, period gear, hair ties, bobby pins, no fewer than five pens for several different purposes, index cards, mints, my journal, at least one book, a small umbrella, a folding fan, a small power strip, cuticle cream, a small fiction notebook, my planner, and safety pins. These things rarely left the backpack. If they did, they returned to it when I was done.

On my staycation, I forgot the Excedrin, because for 13 months, I had headaches exclusively in my apartment. Fortunately, there were six loose ones at the bottom of the front pocket, a relic of when the backpack moved around, enough to occasionally agitate the pill bottle top off. It worked out, but the effort of forgetting, the realization that I’d have to drive a headachy 25 minutes to the nearest everything store, was enough to stop me in my tracks for a solid minute, motionless and reeling at what I’d done.

To go to Europe for 2.5 weeks in 2014, I brought a backpack and my beloved, ridiculous rolling carry-on that’s printed with graffiti. Excellent for identifying on a conveyor belt; harder to describe to a stern German airline agent after managing not to pick it up before I left the secured gate area.

To go to an Airbnb in Portola Valley for a week, I brought two pillows, two fleece blankets, a new Lego set, a crossword puzzle set supporting an abortion fund, the same rolling bag full of clothes, a tote with some additional clothes, hiking and exercise gear, my sun hat, ten books, a tote and a half of art supplies, cloth napkins, a medium hoodie and a heavyweight one, my planner, my new journal and another one just in case, my light headphones and my noise-canceling ones, and three totes of groceries. This last was in case I didn’t care to leave the Airbnb for most of the time I was there, despite being near the California coast and having the rare luxury of a car.

And I forgot the Excedrin.

I used to know how to leave the house. I had my kit down. That’s what we anxious people do sometimes: we nail the kit so we don’t have to think about it anymore, and we get rather upset when the kit is compromised. When I learned the maker of my favorite, perfect pink hair dye was suspending production in late 2019, I was rather upset largely because it meant I had to figure something out, AGAIN, after I’d had it sorted. I like for things to just work, once I figure out the best way. The last ten years of my career has been built upon this exact tendency.

The pandemic has left me rather upset.

Naturally, in the midst of all the things being thrown in the air, I decided to leave home for a while. Not to go too far – I have extremely minimal patience for Bay Area traffic and furthermore do not like driving in the best of times. I like a plane and a train. I like a subway. A ferry or a bus? Also just fine. I don’t mind things taking longer if I don’t have to worry about anything beyond being at the right place on time. I am the only person you know about who got Pre-Check and still showed up at the airport at the exact same time I would have before I had it. I didn’t get it to save time; I got it to reduce unpleasant possibilities and the anxiety I get when power is applied inconsistently. I bought into a corrupt system because I wanted to spare my body a little more unnecessary panic.

In the absence of all of these once-reliable options, I rented a car and took a trip. I told myself I didn’t have to do anything, with the quiet goal of waiting to see how long it would take to get bored enough for driving somewhere to be worth it.

How’d that go, then?

fog over a wooded valley

Day one

I arrive at the Airbnb around six, following approximately six hours of potent medium-grade anxiety. It’s a lot, after a year-plus of primarily being on my couch, to have to go pick up a car, drive the car home, pack up enough stuff to exist comfortably for eight days, put it in a car, take the car to get groceries, get the groceries, and then drive an uncertain route somewhere new. I swear to god I used to roll more easily with change, but I’m so out of practice. I reminded myself today that first days of trips are almost always like this for me: jittery and arch, and remaining so until I’m at the first point where I don’t have to think anymore. Once upon a time, that usually meant my butt in an airplane seat. Now it means all the way at the place

I miss my interstate exit because of airport signs and a box truck cutting me off hard at just the right time, but I make it before dark, the only important thing. The refrain for this trip has been you do not have to do anything. I brought frozen meals and endless entertainment. You do not have to do anything. This sounds almost like incomprehensible syllables after 13 months of utter and absolute panic on multiple fronts in my life.

The top-of-mind anxiety burns off once I get there, but the evening proves to be an excellent time to think through everything that’s felt shitty lately that my brain thinks might actually be partially my fault, despite it clearly not being so. This trip is right after my birthday. This trip is right after receiving a birthday card from my mom that took the opportunity of a visit to Hallmark to inform me that I’m terribly closed-minded about her politics. I spend some time on this first night thinking of the unmitigated gall to use a birthday card this way and to act like our politics are the same trivia to trot out every two to four years before returning them to the silent shelf of Midwestern self-repression that all unpleasant things belong on. 

My politics and morals are inextricably interwoven and have everything to do with making the world better so that everyone can exist without, say, being murdered and having it made to look like your fault because of who you are or what you look like. Or, to look at the news this week, having your lifesaving healthcare literally fucking outlawed.

We are not the same.

While I start and give up on a book, start another book and stay with it, write in my journal, and do my daily hour of fiction writing, there’s a quiet refrain in my head. These things are not comparable, twinned with if you only explained things right, it wouldn’t be like this.

I’ve explained it just fine. It’s not like this because of my substandard efforts in language. If you’ve read the preceding paragraphs, you’ve probably figured out already that nothing in my life is due to a lack of effort with words.

I sleep solidly for ten hours because of sleeping pills, waking up briefly at ten am to put earplugs in due to exuberant birds in the trees outside the bedroom window.

looking up the trunk of an old, gnarled tree

Day two

You do not have to do anything.

I lumber out of bed after noon and eat pastries a dear friend left outside of my door the morning of my birthday. It’s the theme of meals today: pastries, one of the bagels I summoned from New York, the cupcakes I summoned from closer by. I lightly destroy myself with sugar today. I finish the book I started yesterday, one that burns so slowly that it’s only by four-fifths of the way through that one main character says to the other that, if he wanted, he could address him by his Christian name. (And saying even that feels like a spoiler.)

I write on the porch, diving further into a short story. Historically, I only really wrote short stories for college, because getting feedback in workshop classes was more useful with a complete story than with an excerpt that would lose people’s attention for being incomplete. But I’ve spent the last eleven months living in a world of my invention, which has spawned three first drafts of novels (one of which has lived in a purgatory of partial second revision, stymied by the general on-fireness of the world, since December) and a bunch of smaller ideas, some of which want to be written out rather than only referenced as backstory in longer pieces. 

So now I write short stories. Like, on purpose, for their own sake. 

It’s been a transformative year in exactly one good way, which is the one that’s led me to write maybe half a million words of fiction at this point. I tell people close to me lately that I like one thing in my life, writing, and it’s only mildly hyperbole. It’s been the only thing that’s reminded me that I’m not lazy, I’ve never been lazy, but this year has been absolute murder on most aspirations that require something above subsistence-level energy. It’s in my nature to do things and to go above and beyond, but it’s felt impossible this year except for this one beautiful, essential, revelatory thing.

I make the coffee my host left for me, and it’s delicious but sends my nerves jangling. When I talk to my aunt and uncle later, I say, “I had real coffee today after only having occasional decaf for the last year, so if I either talk fast or sound like I’m trying not to talk fast, that’s what’s up.” They’re having their 50th anniversary in a month. I know they’ll celebrate properly later, but they love traveling and regularly take cruises and tours around the world, so I know that in an ordinary year this would be a big celebration in some form. I’m grateful they’re happily hunkering down together, but it’s the same quiet sadness as everything. I’ve had two quarantine birthdays. It’s nice to be alive, but if you’re behaving ethically, everything feels washed out at best.

I stay up too late doing the onanistic thing of rereading things I’ve written. I edit a little, but mostly it’s the self-soothing I’ve done this year. I’m up past three with it, and it feels so pleasant, but in kind of a fake-sugar way. It’s not what I need, but it’ll do for now. Still, in a pursuit usually riddled with self-loathing, feeling soothed by my own work seems like a little miracle in itself. I’ll take it.

Day three

I wake up much too early to take a class about bringing a story from rough first draft to something suitable to show beta readers. I look puffy and mildly out of it in my little Zoom rectangle, but that’s ok. I still take good notes and listen carefully, and that is everything.

The instructor is someone who writes novels based on other people’s intellectual property, and her carefully laid-out structure for going from an initial idea to something worth getting outside feedback on is a really useful counterpoint to how I’ve written for much of the year. It’s gotten more regimented lately in a really useful way – thanks, London Writers’ Hour – but for months and months, I spent the last three-odd hours of any given day “writing,” an activity that did contain a fair amount of actual writing but also contained Twitter, RSS, texting, videos, and then writing again in a cycle until I had to go to bed in time to get up for work the next day. 

I had a pretty good wordcount output that way, but the focus of LWH – a timer, DND on, all other windows minimized or closed – has been a revelation. In a way that I’ve never been able to, I can bang out 1,000 or 2,000 (or more) words of fiction in a concentrated hour. It’s like discovering an additional arm on my back, one I could’ve badly used for so many years. But work, circumstances, and needs have coalesced, and now I can do it. The only thing I enjoy.

So yeah, a process where someone says, “Plow forward, do not look back until draft two, and keep adding until you get to something useful but imperfect and unfinished to show trusted readers” has an appeal. It would’ve been terrifying and impossible once upon a time. Now it feels like something I’ve evolved into wanting.

I fall asleep for three-and-a-half hours after, though. When I wake up, I make late breakfast. I write and read on the porch again until the mosquitos get to be too much. I’d had ideas of walking to the trail I’m told is nearby, but instead I just read again, finishing the last of a five-book romance series that I’ve been reading off and on for the last few weeks.

I didn’t used to read romance, in part because I had a very 1980s view of it: kinda weird, kinda rapey, and broadly not of interest to me. During quarantine, though, I learned that there’s a whole sector of more recent romance books that are… fun. Fun and funny, actually feminist, embracing all the good, weird ways that people are. Some are more rom-com, some are more contemplative, and all of them combine humor and horniness into the one genre that has faithfully kept my attention during quarantine. I read other things, but it’s rare that anything really keeps me that focused. More recently, Neon Girls did it. Earlier in quarantine, I had a long, strange phase of avidly reading most of the primary resource kind of books written about Joy Division and New Order (except those by the drummer; even I only need to go so far with these things). These small obsessions that feel like life until I run out of pages, and then I wait for the next one.

In the romances, it’s pleasing to read about things working. It’s pleasing to read about people fitting together without losing themselves. The boning is good, don’t get me wrong, but I think the thing that eases my weary heart the most is reading about adults talking, compromising, and working things out. I want to believe that can actually happen. I have less evidence these days, so I read fiction instead.

I round out the night by watching The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo, which has been an open tab on my computer for many, many weeks. I complete a Lego bouquet set as I watch, a very thoughtful birthday present. The instructions contain annotations that note the petals of the roses are usually car trunks and hoods, that the snapdragons include half-sphere pieces usually used for Star Wars droids. I get the sense of a clever internal project at Lego HQ, and it’s enormously pleasing.

You do not have to do anything.

Yes. And also I’m waiting to see when I’ll get antsy. Usually this is a predictable reaction in me, one that faithfully gets me past first-day anxiety to leave the hotel room and see the world again, even if it takes a few hours. However, in those times, I haven’t spent the past 13 months almost unceasingly in my apartment, hiding for my own safety. Have I lost the part of me that wants to know more? I’ve had my share of smug enjoyment of those “introverts: now’s our time to shine!” memes, but in ordinary times I’ve still needed to leave the house occasionally. Is that still there?

I’m not obligated to leave at all on this trip, or not until I run out of food around Thursday – a tactical choice. Thing is, I want to want to leave. I want to still need to see things, to have curiosity outweigh fear and inertia. But when fear and inertia have been the only flavors on tap for so long, when they’ve been the only sensible approach to existing, can curiosity come back? I’ve come to enjoy finite things: meal kits and Lego sets, exploring stories in a world contained in my head. I wonder if exploring will ever feel rewarding and natural again.

I assume they will, but I’ve assumed lots of things across quarantine. The feelings will come back. This will feel like it used to again someday. I will enjoy old hobbies again. Fewer things will be terrifying again eventually. Life may never be “normal” again, but it will be good.

I carefully maintain the hope I have like some people maintain bonsai. Small, preserved on a little pedestal, and with a preference that it doesn’t outgrow its container.

Day four

I wake up right as London Writers’ Hour is about to start after a morning of fitful sleep and weird esophageal pain. Because I’m leaning into my crone years, I take an antacid at night so the fires don’t escape their rightful home. Apparently last night, it wasn’t enough. So I had weird family dreams and a line of pain up through my guts.

One of the stranger parts of the last year (you know, beyond the abundant strangeness we’re all swimming in) has been writing family relationships. I’m not close with much of my family. I have a fondness for parts of how I grew up, but I tend to think of myself as having escaped from a toxic stew of rigidly enforced guess culture and that white bullshit where the person who points out the bad behavior is considered just as bad as the person who transgressed.

Early on in this fiction project, I thought, “Maybe all of my characters will be estranged from their families. Or their whole families are DEAD.” I thought of a friend’s description of Disney movies as a cavalcade of matricide and decided to try to be better. So instead, I write sibling relationships, and I try to forge unfamiliar parental relationships from my imagination. I’ve found it oddly healing: this is a world where people actually can treat each other better. And I write those. People step on each other, and rifts arise sharp and sure, but the characters I love make a real effort to make room for the people they care about. They consider it worth the trouble.

It’s warm to write. It’s cold to live without. So: fiction.

I spend the evening communing with the universe, first willingly and then increasingly less so. It’s a useful exercise, but I’m grateful when the passage of time goes back to its normal rate. The funniest thing is when, deep in the midst of this, I look at my phone and see that I got a phishing text. I’m seeing connections between molecules, and some dipshit is trying to get me to click on a nonsense link to try to extract money or credentials or who the fuck knows from me. The juxtaposition is so good that I laugh until I cry again.

Once I come back to earth, I talk to some people I love, and then I watch about six episodes of UNHhhh to ground myself back in the world.

sign for a trailhead

Day five

One thing from last night’s communion is that I realized I needed to get the fuck out of the Airbnb. It takes a while: I sleep until 12:45, do London Writers’ Hour, eat actual breakfast, deal with some logistics at home, and manage to get out of the house sometime after four. I walk to the trailhead that’s about 15 minutes away from where I’m staying. Two does are grazing in the yard when I leave, unperturbed by my presence, and it feels like an immediate welcome back to the outside world. 

I wander blearily through trees and Spanish moss, past ponds, and up and down hills. I encounter a few people. They’re less interested in my cheery hellos than city hikers are. I have a broad sense of where I’m going, and Google Maps does show the trails, but it doesn’t always have the finest sense of where I am. In the span of a minute, it might tell me I’m 15 minutes from home or two hours and 38 minutes. After last night, this feels meaningful somehow.

The nature preserve has a number of trails that overlap each other and blend, and because of this I manage to take a different route out than I did in. I honestly have no idea what I did, and the whole thing feels a little mystical when I emerge back at the original trailhead. I walk past a swing on the way into the woods (and paused to swing back and forth for a bit) but don’t pass it on the return. When I’m coming back, I go by an enormous tree, a mystical-looking thing with a dozen thick branches going in every direction. When I walk around it, I find that someone’s left a piece of quartz as long as my hand at its roots, tied with a gold ribbon, a moon charm, and some lavender. If it weren’t for the two vicious blisters I spawn halfway back, the whole thing might feel very mysterious Mists of Avalon. Instead, I just feel like a benignly silly city mouse taking a walkabout.

a deer looking at the camera on a grassy hillside

After I return, panting from walking up the steep-ass hill that leads to where I’m staying, I hear a crunch outside and find one of the deer from earlier having a munch on the hillside beyond my deck. We study each other, and I promise her I’m not going to come any closer. She grazes and occasionally tries to address an itch on her shoulder, first by bending her head back to nibble it, then by having at it with a rear hoof. It’s so like a cat or dog, but I never knew. I’ve mostly seen deer illuminated in a field, eyes bright from traffic for a moment before they go “NOPE” and run away. It’s nice to not to be taken as an immediate threat.

A rarity: I wish I had a hot tub here. There’s only a shower, and I keep doing things where I need some heat to regulate my temperature after. Instead, I turn on the heater and eat gnocchi while sitting about a foot from the grate.

The night is for writing this, for reading, for movies. For rest, because I think I’m finally going to do it tomorrow: I’m going to drive somewhere and do something that isn’t just hanging around in my rental.

the shore of Half Moon Bay, sand meeting water with some standing driftwood

Day six

I’ve figured out some tactical errors.

I’ve almost never rented a car for a trip because I hate driving. And, possibly more than that, I hate parking. I never get so salty so fast as I do when I realize I’m spending any of the finite balance of my time on earth looking for a place to put a large object I don’t even like – not having, and certainly not depending on.

However, vacation to those denser places that allow a car-free trip – transit to plane to train to transit –  is still not a safe proposition. So I conceived of something else, and now I’m reminded of why I don’t take trips like this. I don’t like them.

Which is why I’ve left the rental once in the last five days.

I’m making myself go to Half Moon Bay today, in a state that reminds me of how I am at home: a meme of a grumpy eagle, making myself leave the house because I ought to.

The best things I’ve managed this week are writing-related, and I could’ve done those at home. Have done, do regularly.

Transcribing a handwritten story that I did way back in January 2018, that I’d forgotten I wrote out, was pretty cool, though. Like a gift from my past self. I forgot I’d been doing the handwritten fiction thing that long ago. I thought I started it later in 2019, when I more regularly got a seat on my bus into San Francisco in the mornings after my commute changed and ended further north in downtown.

I go to Half Moon Bay State Beach and walk along the cliffs, edged with an amazing array of plants in an astonishing depth and breadth of colors. I walk along the beach, watching people with their dogs or kids or both in the distance, barefoot because yesterday’s blisters make any shoe more serious than a sandal impossible. I walk to the north end of the beach then back south to Venice Beach before doubling back to get the car. I pick up Chinese takeout in downtown Half Moon Beach after, wandering past cute shops as I wait for my black mushrooms to be done. The food I brought to the Airbnb had some plant matter but was a little heavier on the gnocchi end of the food spectrum than is ideal for several days in a row.

It is indeed good to go outside. I call my boyfriend and tell him: I’m ready to actually go places sometimes. He’s gently offered before. He has a car, and while he doesn’t like driving anymore than I do, it’s more ordinary to him, and his psychological barrier around these things is relatively low. We talk about coastlines and woods, creameries and small towns, all the things that aren’t so hard to get to if one gets over their resistance to Bay Area traffic.

It won’t always be like this. But for now, flights aren’t a thing, so we have long, not entirely pleasant drives instead. It’s ok.

I finish the night watching a documentary about art theft at a museum in the city I went to college in, the one I never made it to, something I’ve always regretted. I’ve vowed for years to go back there for vacation sometime, but the vow sticks harder now. Once things are more open, I’m going to do everything.*

*Slowly, gradually, and carefully, because I know if I try to do too much at once, I will have my first full-fledged panic attack, rather than merely playing around in the foothills like I have until now.

brightly colored coastal plants above Half Moon Bay Beach's shore

Day seven

I got bored in a way I haven’t gotten to feel in a year, so I invited my boyfriend over. I talked to my therapist before he arrived; he got here shortly after, and now he’s talking to his therapist while I write outside on the porch, sliding door securely sealed. The circle of life.

It feels so good to have the luxury of opting into company. For a year, most of an entire year, I couldn’t, and it was utterly toxic to my heart and brain. Like shitting in the reservoir. 

We go to the Alpine Inn for dinner at early bird o’clock, which means it’s slightly less wildly busy than it will be when we leave, when the parking lot is stuffed like a mall on Christmas Eve, with Teslas and those boxy, bonkers-expensive Mercedes SUVs being strongly represented. The beer garden is big enough, and their online order system well-designed enough, that we’re able to eat in public without feeling like we’re being pointlessly risky. A plaque out front informs us that in 1976, a message sent from a computer set up behind the restaurant went from radio network to SRI to motherfucking ARPANET to Boston, marking the beginning of the internet age. Sometimes, sometimes, this Silicon Valley stuff can be ok. Stuff like this is my favorite part: excited nerds with the freedom and information to do interesting things with such massive effects. It reminds me of learning about RFCs and working groups in the wider Bay Area that had such an impact on the internet as we know it. It’s a wonderful reminder that our actions can matter so much more than we’d ever guess at the time.

At night, he makes a fire in the woodstove I wouldn’t have touched if he hadn’t come over, and we watch Sneakers in bed while I point out the things I think are solid representations of stuff like encryption and where they might’ve fudged a little. There are reasons this movie is well regarded by the hacker community.

I’ve missed the cats the whole time, but sitting on a bed watching a movie with Sean, I have the first phantom impulses: the very specific physical inclination to dip down to the floor and pick a cat up, the flicker of a hand that wants to pet one of my buddies, because one has been within arm’s reach for most of the last year. It’s weird being without them, but it didn’t become a thwarted reflex firing until the other half of my confinement joined me in a new place. 

Day eight

Aspirations: I had them. I scheduled a guided hike south of Half Moon Bay, and it sounded exquisite: walking through the woods with someone interesting and knowledgeable, seeing wildlife, all these things I love and have missed. But I wake up feeling fuzzy-brained, and the blisters on my heels from a few days ago haven’t healed like I wanted. I cancel the hike. I’ll come back again sometime when I haven’t royally fucked my feet so recently.

Instead, I read in bed for almost three hours, finishing Get a Life, Chloe Brown before taking a mid-afternoon siesta. I get up, eat leftovers, and go write on the porch one more time before hopping onto Friday happy hour with friends.

It’s a small day, but a truly vacation-like day, and so it’s good. I spotted a fawn in the yard next to where I’m staying, my fourth deer sighting but my first chance to see one so young. 

Cleaning up the space to leave tomorrow morning, I feel a strange muted sadness. It contains ordinary end-of-trip feelings, but there’s more. Things are complicated at work. Many large decisions await me at home. And even though this isn’t the trip I would’ve chosen in ordinary times, there’s still the melancholy of having to go back to my regular little world. I try to think through what I’ll do differently: go more places, be less precious about driving for more than 20 minutes, get outside more, go walk around other neighborhoods, take more ferries, take more short walks during the workday, continue to try to find specialness in things where I can.

Like a lot of people, this piece about the state of languishing resonated hard with me. My brain feels mushy from not processing more information than it does. I have to search for words more. I had a preoccupation earlier in the pandemic about feelings of aging and decay, something I’ve mostly dealt with and digested, but which still lingers a little. Is this all there is. Is this how more of my one and only life will go. How many days and months and years will be half-lived because of the state of things.

If I hadn’t been writing up a storm for the last eleven months, I don’t know how I’d be ok right now. No one is obligated to pour themselves into some quiet achievement – becoming super fit, learning a language, putting everything you have into some disproportionately large creative work – but it’s helped me. I’m not sure how the rest of you are ok.

I hope you’re ok.

four young goats, one sitting in an empty food bowl, eyes closed and looking blissed out

Day nine

I get up early. I go to goat yoga.

Goat yoga is amazing. A teacher leads us through positions, while a helper brings baby goats to people, guides a full-grown goat named Tinkerbell to stand on people in tabletop position, and generally ensures everyone gets as much goat access as they care for.

three tiny black and white goats on hay next to a fence


Afterward, I sit in the car and think about what to do. I could go back into Half Moon Bay, get lunch, return to the beach, say hello to the ocean. Or I could go home.

In the end, I realize I wasn’t super psyched to be in a between stage for a few more hours, my trunk full of my shit, my writing untouched for the day. I mostly wanted to be home, to pet the cats and write some fiction, to be in one place again and start the work of reacclimating to my life. 

I drive home. I pass two recent and very bad car accidents on the way and do some thinking about how the thin line between a good day and a devastating one is so often just happenstance. I make it home. I eat lunch, pet cats, write a couple thousand words, and think about the week to come.

It isn’t going to be an easy one. However, after the thinking I’ve done this week, I feel more certain that I can handle it than I would’ve a week or two ago. There is change coming, most of which is probably not going to be anything I’ll consider good. But I’ll abide. I have resources and skills, and I have a newly sharpened sense of what I’m willing to put up with. The next few months may be tumultuous ones, but it’ll be ok. I studiously avoided putting together anything like a professional plan while I was on vacation, with the curious effect that I’m actually excited to do it this week. I’m excited to plot out the shape of the future.

I guess, in the end, that’s one measure of a successful vacation: concentrated avoidance of one’s life so that one doesn’t want to keep avoiding it. Welcome home.

Cinnamon Rolls, Travel, and the Future

Ten years ago, I had surgery for what turned out to be endometriosis. It happened in what I have considered for many years to be the worst year of my life (and yes, I’ve thought a lot about that ranking this year, thank you for asking).

In the spring of 2010, I quit my job of several years. I had plenty of savings and intended to meticulously plan out my next job search, but instead of embarking on a careful professional journey, I had a drunken cartwheel of a year that included a devastating breakup, finding a new apartment while unemployed, some incredibly bad interpersonal choices, and – finally – finding a large, hard lump across my lower belly a week before my health insurance kicked back in. I had to ask questions like: “If I see a doctor before the first of next month, will what is eventually found become a preexisting condition?” This is why I want to choke the life out of people who want to take health insurance back to those dark ages (which is not to say that it’s great now, of course). That fear was pointless, an absolutely useless application of time and thought when I should’ve been concentrating on my health. To have to worry about that rather than questions like “Am I filled with literal cancer?” is so stupid I still can’t think through it without feeling static bursts of rage through my brain.

I got it sorted. Afterward, things went sufficiently back to normal with my health that I have to remind myself sometimes that I do actually have a chronic health condition.

The aftermath of surgery for it was a vivid introduction to that. I was at a low weight for me before it all started anyway, because heartbreak makes it hard for me to eat (and then a big old ovarian cyst pushing my organs hither and thither did not help). And I diminished a little more post-surgery, as my body consumed itself a bit as I healed; I refer to how I looked then as uncommonly cheekbony. I was hungry all the time, on so many levels. And suddenly, I thought endlessly about cinnamon rolls.

To qualify this, I’m not really prone to food cravings. I got to grow up with a mostly healthy relationship with food and eating, so there aren’t too many dragons in there. When the cinnamon roll preoccupation arrived, I looked at it and thought, “Yeah, there’s a lot of weird shit in my brain right now. Get in line.” It did and patiently waited for several days, never diminishing in intensity. I realized it wasn’t going anywhere and apparently meant something. I made my way to a North Seattle diner, ordered the most frosting-covered cinnamon roll I have ever (briefly) seen, and disappeared it into my face in less than sixty seconds. I have no memory of eating it except for a big, amorphous cloud of OMG THE FUCKING SATISFACTION.

The craving vanished.

Between reaching the ten-year anniversary of getting four little scars on my belly and having a lot of time to think this year, that period of my life has lingered in my mind lately. I’ll add the obligatory disclaimer here: my quarantimes have been on the easier side. My well-paid job can be done entirely remotely with fairly few professional side effects. I don’t have roommates, my neighbors have been very careful, and my building doesn’t have halls with dozens of apartment doors facing it, so it’s fairly easy to be safe where I live. And I’m inclined toward solo pursuits anyway, so I’ve been able to self-amuse pretty easily. This year has sucked shit, but my personal portion of it has sucked less. Rather than an unending exercise in horror, I’ve spent some time better understanding the parts of my life that make living feel more fully worthwhile, because I’ve gotten to see what’s left when they go away.

Yarn-bombed sculpture of rings in front of the north Amsterdam waterfront

Which is why I’m writing about this here, on what is ostensibly a travel blog. Early in this period of history, back in March and April, I had the idea to write more here, pulling pictures out of my archives and telling stories to go along with them. Little snapshots for the few friends that read this, little reminders to myself that I used to regularly go more than half a mile from my legal address. Every time I’ve intended to do this, however, something has happened that made it seem either superfluous (in the way of spring into summer, with protests about police brutality and systemic racism in my country) or not the best use of my limited energy (during times of political fear; I channeled that energy into postcards and letters to voters, plus a lot of rage-donating).

Now I’m here, and it’s quieter than it has been. And, in the way I always do in the last week of the year, I’m thinking about the future.

I dislike Christmas enormously. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to strongly dislike all the holidays that come with shoulds. You should have fun, you should be surrounded by family you should get along with, you should have a life that meets certain expectations. I don’t like New Year’s Eve either. However, the week in between, that liminal time? I like that a lot. I think of the year behind, I think of the year ahead, and as the veils part and graze each other, I think of how I want to spend my time in the next year of my life.

This has been a fine year for evolving expectations and being malleable (and for possibly nothing else). In past years, I’ve written a list of five-odd countries I’d like to go to. Sights I’d like to see. Lots of things involving planes, trains, and other things that are bad ideas for now. My current draft of this goal for 2021 is I want another stamp in my passport. It can be anything, basically. I don’t care. I just want to start here and stop somewhere else and have new streets to look at. I live in a quaint-ass neighborhood, but do you know what? We are sick to death of each other’s dumb, familiar faces. Every well-kept house, every clever yard, every political sign that I completely agree with: fuck it all, man. It turns out that one of those pillars of my life that makes everything work is a highly varied diet of visual stimulation and different locations. I considered getting an Airbnb by Ocean Beach in San Francisco for this week before it became first an obviously bad idea and then actually illegal. An Airbnb to stay less than 20 miles away because I just want to gaze upon some different bullshit.

In the spring, I found it enchanting here: I took walks, I became familiar with everyone’s flower beds, I could perceive the passing of time by the rise and fall of the different colors of irises. In December, I just stomp around listening to industrial metal and practicing a very weird and particular form of mindfulness. “You still like that cool pink house, deep down in there. You do.” “You don’t actually hate little free libraries. You think they’re interesting when people don’t fill them with useless how-to-use-this-1995-software books that should be recycled.” The last half of the year has been a frequent mental recitation that I haven’t come to hate the things I used to love. Instead, it’s that I used to be able to count on variety. Without it, I lose my taste for what used to be reliable joys. I burnt myself out on twice-baked potatoes in the first two weeks of December in a similar way.

I’ve been thinking of what I actually want, when I’m in a position to ask for and get more again. I miss the water. I miss different accents and languages. I miss having to be nimble and figure out things like how to get a table in a restaurant or how to order food when I’m not sure of the steps or words. And when I think of this, I’m torn between wanting to revisit all the old beloved places I miss so desperately and going on a wild tear around the world to all the new places I used to think were a constant option until, for a terrible time, they weren’t.

I want to go back to New Orleans, New York, Paris, Montreal, Seattle, Vancouver, San Fran-fucking-cisco, Portland, Amsterdam, Japan, Mexico City, Iceland, Rome, the Amalfi Coast, London, Stockholm, Berlin, Copenhagen. All of it. Just to revisit everywhere I’ve gone since 2013, a frantic reminder that we still exist on this one same earth, or will once it’s smaller again.

Townhouses of central Amsterdam with streaks of blue-and-pinky dusky sky behind them

And I also want to finally go to Peru, Greece, Vienna, Spain, Vietnam, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand… all of it. I want basically all of it. I read an essay called something like “You Don’t Want to Be an Expat, You Want a Vacation”, which I’m not turning up right now, but… yeah. This has been a time of flinging myself against the confines of my newly 600-square-foot life, and it includes thoughts like MAYBE YOU WANT TO LIVE IN NEW YORK and MAYBE YOU SHOULD HAVE APPLIED FOR CANADIAN RESIDENCY IN 2016 LIKE EVERYONE ELSE and I WONDER WHAT THE INCOME REQUIREMENTS AND PET IMPORT RULES ARE FOR $country. And other thoughts that come with being afraid, tired, and possessed of more privilege and panic than sense. “No big decisions in 2020,” I’ve told myself repeatedly (and assured my therapist). 2020 is for observations; 2021 can maybe be the application of what I’ve learned.

For now, the working hypothesis is I need a vacation. I’ll take a couple of those before I work on Project Abrupt Uprooting.

In the meantime, I’m dying for things like looking at graffiti and street art in other countries, or fucking up an order in a hilarious way at a restaurant. Petting cats in public places. Going on long, ambling walks to see how lost I can get before finding my way back. Feeling my brain getting more nimble as I try to interpret languages I don’t speak. Reading unfamiliar public transportation maps, doing currency conversions in my head, figuring out the nuance of how people dress and move and what those nuances mean about the lives they lead. I love and miss all of it. I love my own company, but like everything else I’ve had in relentless abundance this year, I could use a little distraction from my own reliable inner monologue.

I’ve been tempted a few times, once refundable flights became the norm, to place a bet of sorts by buying a ticket for a time that I think might be safer. Surely borders will be open by August, surely vaccination rates and public behavior will make movement safer by September, surely…

Brick walls and arches, light shining through behind them, at the Cloisters in New York

It depresses me to write it. I realized that the cost of having my bet proved wrong was higher than any perceived savings from buying a ticket when everything was still fucked. No, I’ll wait. And I’ll wait a while, according to the NYT Covid Vaccine Calculator. As it should be. Since that wonderful day when we all sat glassy-eyed in front of our trusty screens, looking at pictures of people getting vaccinated, I’ve joked that I should and will be the last person vaccinated in Alameda County. The calculator puts me six from the end of the representative line of 300. I’m not essential and can hide up here in my apartment for a very long time. I’ll wait.

And in the meantime, I’ll plot and plot and plot. I’ll try not to break my fast on an onion, when that day comes. Though really, the idea of flying anywhere might feel so magical that there might be no onions at all: only beautiful cinnamon rolls of opportunity, all of them too exquisite to turn down.

I miss wonder.

Several human-sized brightly colored alebrije sculptures made with paper, gathered on a white balcony at the Museo Artes Populares

I miss Mexico too, which was what I originally meant to write about, when I thought about returning to writing on this site. Looking over my pictures from my Mexico City visit in November 2016, though, the thing I realized that I missed above all was possibility and that sense of looking.

On that trip, I took pictures of my teapot at breakfast, a bike in the background against the brick entryway of the cafe’s courtyard. Of spicy corn puffs being sold in tall, upright, cylindrical bags on tables on the sidewalk. Ads pasted on walls. Vendors selling tiny wrestling rings at a lucha match. Food and drinks, shiny garlands over streets, dozens of alebrijes in museums, everything sold in mercados, everything everything everything. I was immersed in somewhere new, and my brain was alive, gorging itself on color and art and all of it at once, or things slightly familiar but suddenly in front of me in three dimensions and colors so vivid that I couldn’t completely comprehend them immediately. So vivid they seemed to vibrate in front of me. Things that shook my rods and cones, and things that rearranged my brain.

A vendor in a crowd at a lucha show sells a tiny lucha wrestling ring

My boyfriend and I, quarantine buddies here in my apartment, talk sometimes about where we want to go, you know, after. The real answer is everywhere. The answer is also Mexico. Philadelphia. Montreal. Paris, again, always. Los Angeles. Vietnam. Peru. Iceland, as he’s never been. Anywhere but here.

In the perpetual habit of the employed and guilt-laden, I think fairly often that it could be worse. It can always be worse! We usually aren’t literally on fire, so yes, it could be worse. But I am not currently afraid for my job, and I have a good home situation in the form of a one-bedroom I share only with someone I love and with one cat, perpetually annoyed with us. I think a lot of people are facing some realizations about their lives right now, things that felt tolerable when they could be outside 40 or 50 hours a week but absolutely are not fine when they’re immersed in it almost every hour they’re alive. Mostly, I’ve had the realization that I’ve had a nice meeting of good planning and good luck.

It’s all true. It can be worse.

And also, worse than I usually am, I am buried in FOMO. My last trip was in the second week of March to go to my niece’s first birthday party, which meant going to Canada. I was less than confident about getting home according to our initial plans, bought with credit card points in a completely different era. Concerned but not quite fearful, I had brought cash and some tentative knowledge of alternative ways of getting across the border, imagining grounded planes and disrupted movement. I brought resources to fund a frantic game of Ticket to Ride meets Planes, Trains, and Automobiles as I would try to get us back across the country in a time of unknown panic and danger. Alternatively, we could have stayed in my stepsister and brother-in-law’s spare room for a few extra days, taking over cooking and diaper duty while waiting out uncertainty, so as to be decent guests. These were the two forks in fate I foresaw.

Instead, we boarded our plane, cleaned our seats and trays with alcohol, and adopted the handwashing rituals that are now part of what it means to be human and even vaguely careful and conscientious. On that flight, watching Rocketman in the dark and occasionally peering around the emptiest plane I’m likely to ever see, I had the strong feeling that this would be our last flight and trip for a while. I had already flown less in 2019, in part because I was trying to wean myself off casual air travel for environmental reasons, to approach old habits in a newly mindful way. So it had been a while already since my last significant international trip.

I didn’t fully understand what a while meant, though, on that quiet Air Canada flight. A couple of months? That’s a long time, right?

And so I think about the things I could have done, if I’d ruthlessly overstuffed my life before all this with things I couldn’t energetically fit in. I changed jobs in December; I could’ve gone to Europe for a couple of weeks between gigs, instead of taking just a week to do a little personal admin. I could’ve taken a long weekend somewhere in January. I could’ve just flown places last year, like anywhere, I could’ve FLOWN FUCKING ANYWHERE AND I DIDN’T JUST DO IT CONSTANTLY, WHAT WAS I FUCKING THINKING, FUCK FUCK FUCK–

And other thoughts while spending 23.5 hours a day in an apartment. I am lucky: my apartment is literally my favorite place in the world. What I’m discovering is that, like with my favorite people and experiences, I can only really enjoy my apartment when I get a break from it sometimes, when it isn’t mandatory. We don’t want cake for every meal for days on end, you know? It needs a carrot contrast to be a treat.

Shiny garlands stretch across a view of the sky and trees from below

I split my time, outside of my blessing of a job, giving myself space to do nothing productive or useful – and getting ready for things, when I have the ability to do so joyfully. I’ve returned to learning French, because my god I am going to Paris for at least two weeks once we can travel safely again, and I am going to be able to understand at least 20 percent of what people say to me! I exercise a lot, because my god I will not have my next trip spoiled by back fuckery! I read and I plot and I cook and I put aside some of the money I usually spend on going out. (Not all of it, of course. I keep some flowing to the people who make food or provide wonderful entertainment or other important parts of being human. I put some money toward preservation, so that we have something to look forward to when we emerge, so people with jobs that were put on hold don’t all get pulled under by this.)

I watercolor and make clay animals and sometimes try to write, the things that always light me up but so often get set aside with work and showing up for people I care about and going to other places and then being at them. It’s what I have. This is what I have. It turns out that being a self-regulating and misunderstood kid is great practice for having to amuse yourself while also keeping from circling the drain too hard. I don’t believe in silver linings; I believe we’re a really adaptable species with a skill for making the most of what we’re handed. I’m adapting. I generally feel salty, and I treat myself like I’m approximately 20 percent rage by volume as a baseline these days, but I’m adapting nonetheless.

Frida Kahlo's glitter collection, on a wood counter in her house, in front of a paint set

I keep having this vision of how it’s going to be when people can go outside again. It looks a lot like this, only more exuberant. For me, I wonder if it’ll look like a quick DM to my manager saying, at the same time as all my other coworkers, that I’ll be back in three weeks, that my passport and I are on a train to SFO, and I’m going to just run to an airline desk and see where they can take me that roughly matches the three outfits I frantically stuffed in a tote bag.

Do you know what I really want? It’s not adventure or thrills or amazing new cultural immersion (though I will take that too). I want to fucking people-watch. I dream of doing it in my own neighborhood, of having a coffee at a sidewalk table and getting to see people without being scared, without them being scared of me. I dream of other people being microcosms of possibility instead of the vector that might lead to my death, or being the cause of someone else’s sickness or horrible death. I dream of it so much that I realized a few days ago that I miss talking to strangers.

I mostly do not like talking to strangers. Or, to be more precise, I don’t like it when strangers talk to me unbidden.

Usually. But, in the way of humans, something is forbidden to me, and now I want it more than almost anything. I want to see people enjoying the spring flowers as much as I am. Instead, the blooming irises and wisteria in my neighborhood are my new soap opera, viewed mostly solo; I go out not quite often enough and check in, seeing them rise and blossom and wither, and I have sunny thoughts about infinite possibility and gloomier ones about the circle of life and death.

I’ve spent a lot of time there lately. The first couple of weeks of the quarantine were also the two weeks I spent saying farewell to one of my cats, my first cat, my buddy who’d been with me since 2009, my friend who I loved beyond description or measure. I spent those two weeks periodically exclaiming, “It feels like the end of the fucking world!” and Sean would assure me that it wasn’t, not in total, while I laughed darkly in the way I do when I’m immersed in grief.

But seeing restaurants and all these other places we go to be alive together close while watching my buddy wane before me, the entire outside world and almost my entire heart closing up shop at once, it felt like being buried in armageddon, like everything actually was on fire, like these were things that would never be redeemed or healed. Like my new state was hurt, and there wasn’t anything that could temper it, let alone end it. There was only through, to walk forward and forward and keep enduring.

I’m still alive. And the only useful thing I can do now is stay inside 23.5 hours a day, possibly a little more. The same place we all are, mostly, if we don’t have one of those essential but often curiously badly paid jobs that requires that we go outside and keep the world moving.

I don’t have any resolutions or even any conclusions, not yet. Maybe the only ending now is the way all emails and previously light encounters end now:

I hope you’re safe.

I hope the people you love are safe.

And I hope to see you again someday.

In the meantime, I’ll be here, making polymer clay nudibranches and dreaming, trying to stave off the despair long enough for the world to enter another kind of spring, all of us blossoming safely together again.

Marigold-covered looping shapes in front of a purple-lit wall

The spirit is willing but the flesh is just absolutely destroyed: an infirm week in Amsterdam

A photo of blue-and-white stenciled graffiti with a pigeon, a woman on a bike, the Girl with Pearl Earring, and other scenes from Amsterdam

Here is the optimistic way to explain it:

Oh, you know, it’s actually really interesting and educational to have to do normal everyday things in a new country, even if they’re not exactly fun. Like going to get coffee or going to the grocery store, you know? So going to the pharmacy and being sick are another way to explore the culture.

All of that is true. And it’s thanks to getting an ugly cold in Amsterdam that I’m now conversant in medical stereotypes about the Netherlands versus, say, Belgium. The latter is apparently the place to be for a cold; not only does Belgium have the good-shit OTC cold drugs (whereas Dutch OTC culture tells you to ride it out because that’s what healing is), but also apparently, if you bring your cold-plagued self to a Dutch doctor, it’s fairly likely that a medical professional will actually laugh in your disease-riddled face. Belgium, one presumes, would instead greet you with a sympathetic embrace. This is counter to my own more pedestrian experiences in Belgium, but one doesn’t get the spirit of an entire country when you visit it for four days.

I couldn’t get on a train to Belgium for cold medicine. I couldn’t do much of anything. I took it easy the week before Amsterdam because I thought I felt something incubating in my face; I kept waking up with a mild sore throat that felt like something more than just being thirsty. The incubation period ended a couple of days into the trip, conjured forth by interrupted sleep, period fatigue, and shitty luck. It’s bad enough to saunter through a museum with a pocket full of damp, used tissues, knowing you’re that person whose snotting and coughing is echoing all the way to The Night Watch at the end of the gallery. Worse still is when it compounds into something more complicated, like a back that seizes up with every cough and sneeze.

Which mine did. It does that sometimes. Being a mortal meatbag has all sorts of fun surprises as you move through your life.

So I was a snot monster, and also my back hurt so much that walking – walking, my most favorite way to explore new places and just generally exist – was a grinding, exhausting, and sometimes excruciating act. I’d hobble home from a destination I got to only via sheer stubbornness and fall gratefully into bed, where I’d wedge a frozen bag of Albert Heijn peas under my lower back, pushed against my furious left QL. It radiated down over my hips to my quads, and the whole angry works felt like it was laced with little slivers of glass slid into muscles so tight I thought of timpanis tuning, of ratcheting straps into place for securing loads on trailers, of two kids playing tug-o-war with fruit leather. (Yes, I do try to make sense of pain with metaphor, welcome.)

I’m glad I went to Amsterdam. I like Amsterdam a lot. I’d like to go back again.

This was not a good trip to Amsterdam.

A photo of a man walking down a canal street in Amsterdam, toward a truck with an extended ladder for lifting furniture into open windows

I had good food and nice beer. I saw beautiful houses and admired the canals. Amsterdam is an easy place to feel grateful to be alive – all uniqueness and culture collision and well-documented history. The many many layers that happen when people don’t pull down old things and instead adapt them, add plaques to document what happened there, and put the gleefully modern and beautifully old right on top of each other. And I was there in February, which meant we were safely away from the casual horrors of Black Peter season.

And I also spent so much time being so angry at my body, and feeling so wounded, because I was badly in need of a real vacation full of ease and discovery, where you come home refreshed and well rested, full of art and beauty, reawakened and ready to tackle your life with renewed excitement.

Instead, I literally limped home, and it took a week to begin to feel anything like myself again, part of which involved paying a skilled massage professional to put most of her weight onto my tense, angry muscles with her knees until said muscles finally began to remember how to release from a permanent state of rigidness.

If I had it to do again, I would get a massage in Amsterdam as soon as I started losing mobility in my core muscles. I’d go to the Rijksmuseum sooner (instead of going my second-to-last day there, determined to use the ticket I’d already bought on a more optimistic day). I’d stop feeling sorry for myself and seek out something local and medicinal that would help with pain and tension, at least at night. (I didn’t, and all I can say is that the idea of smoking and having a coughing fit was so terrible that I wouldn’t consider it. Yes, I know edibles exist. No, I was not in a space to carefully consider lots of options for anything.) And maybe then I might have made it to the Catboat, and rode a bike in North Amsterdam, and eaten even more herring sandwiches than I did, and walked the canals more.


Instead, I managed this:

A photo of a cat curled up and sleeping on a pile of souvenir tote bags, in front of a rack of postcards with photos and drawings of cats on them

I went to Katten Kabinet early on, when the cold was just beginning to emerge but wasn’t yet a full-scale body-altering event. It is a wonderful, distinctive place worth visiting, most especially if you aren’t allergic to cats or sensitive to a mild but persistent smell of cat pee.

A photo of leaning Amsterdam canal houses on either side of a narrow cobblestone street with cyclists, in front of a pink-and-blue sunset-streaked sky

Because we stayed right in the middle of the Nine Little Streets area, I still got to see lots of beautiful canal houses and twinkly lights and clever shop windows. Unavoidably, I had to limp through those blocks to get to anything, and I became grateful in a new way that we worked hard to stay centrally.

A photo of a white person's hand holding a plastic bottle of karnemelk (buttermilk)

We discovered that Dutch folks drink buttermilk like other countries drink, well, not-buttermilk. We discovered this when the tea tasted funny after adding what we assumed was regular milk. Karnemelk is not what you are looking for, not for tea or anything other than scone-making, if you are almost any nationality that is not Dutch. We read up on why the buttermilk was featured so prominently at the grocery store and learned that it’s a popular pairing with a cheese sandwich for a dairylicious snack. I took a careful sip of it to try to understand, and I failed.

I was reminded that it’s a cycling paradise but that it makes it a little hazardous for pedestrians. I can’t imagine getting stoned outside in Amsterdam. I assume I’d end up tourist roadkill, and two additional cyclists would appear to kick whatever squishy debris was left. I was pleased to learn that mopeds and other motorized two-wheel vehicles were legislated out of bike lanes about six weeks after we were there. Better late than never.

I saw some wonderful art at FOAM, the Rijksmuseum, and (of course) the Van Gogh Museum. I saw old canal house wealth at the Van Loon Museum. I wish I could’ve gorged on two more museums, four, ten. But what I got to see was exquisite.

I got to walk through the Albert Cuyp Market, which was full of food and crafts and some of the more random stuff you see in certain markets (tube socks, cheap polyester clothes, a bunch of shampoo). On the way there, we stopped at a vintage store and had possibly the best experience either of us have ever had at such a place. My date is built in a way that’s pretty friendly for European sizing, but I expect iffy luck at vintage stores even in the US. But they had a ton of stuff that fit me, and I got a glorious Abba-looking dress, sold to me by an adorable woman who I hope gets as much pleasure out of all of her life as she seemed to be getting out of that particular day.

I felt shivers through my entire body at plaques indicating which Jewish people lived where and when they were deported and killed. I’ve seen the brass cobblestones indicating as much in Berlin but hadn’t seen them in Amsterdam last time I was there. It resonates even more terribly right now. I hadn’t known that was possible; it is.

A photo looking up at painted wood carvings of cherubs and gilded garlands, below a ceiling made of light-brown wooden rafters

I stood in Corrie Ten Boom’s house and stepped into a recreation of the hiding place.

I ate rijstaffel and so many herring sandwiches. I went to a food hall and ate tiny exquisite cakes. I laid for many hours on my beloved bag of frozen peas, contemplating the diminishing returns many of us get in quality of life as we age.

You know. Light things.

In certain ways, alas, this was one of the hardest trips I’ve ever taken. I needed a break, and instead I hurt and hurt and hurt, and ugly alchemy turned some of my absolute favorite parts of being human into a slog, where my biggest, most important muscles stopped working in any predictable way.

A photo of a modern statue of a man helping a boy with work at a desk, surrounded by bags of parsley in a bustling farmers market

And also Amsterdam is always a good idea. A supportive partner who will go out and buy every cold remedy the pharmacy has can help. Sitting and using Google Translate on the packaging for no fewer than six different possible remedies can make even the darkest moment ludicrous enough to be funny. And narrow streets lined with beautiful and wonky old buildings can make even tentative, painful walks rewarding. One can’t help but emerge a little stronger after the particular conscious act of resilience that is taking a couple hours to sob and feel sorry for yourself — and then to resolve to get up, ask for help, and make the best of what you have.

I made it home. I think of the trip ruefully, but I don’t count it as a waste. I made the trip, and I braved some hard things, and I can still picture another life where I walk to work along a canal everyday, and I’m an even grumpier cyclist than I already am, with steely muscles from bumping along cobblestones like it isn’t any old thing.

So, even in pain, I got what I wanted: I saw beautiful things, I ate wonderful things, and I made it even easier to picture yet another version of what my life could be.

That’ll do.

A photo of a table and chairs inside an apartment with a broad skylight and orange curtains framing sliding doors that lead to a patio
The Photoshop grid guide that pops up while cropping photos is an excellent reminder of the lack of right angles in Amsterdam, including in the wonderful apartment we stayed in, pictured here.

The Infinite Gone Finite: on Going Home Again

Mural of two interlinked hands on the wall at the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station

I walked around the hole that grew into this station for more than six years.

I remember, walking up Olive in 2009, seeing the sign in front of where the Jack in the Box used to be, saying the closed-off blocks would reopen in 2016. “2016?” I said. “No one will be alive then.”

I am alive, it turns out, but my old life is gone.

I lived within four blocks of that enormous hole for years, first one side and then the other. Then, in late 2015, I left, ending my 11-year residency in Capitol Hill, in Seattle, in the first home I chose.

Mural of fingers walking on the wall at the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station

I’ve been back since, just once, though too quickly. I moved in October 2015 and returned in December to partake of my favorite holiday tradition, to maintain some kind of through line. But it was too soon, too weird. I was still heartbroken, still unraveled. I got tired easily, like I was much older than I was. Without enough distance, I still knew things intimately but couldn’t stop feeling the newly created separation. The city felt like mine but clearly wasn’t. It was like meeting up for a drink too soon after a breakup, the severance and the familiarity mingling in a queasy way. I love you, but we haven’t reset yet.

I went home to Oakland, feeling chastened somehow. It had been so good to see my people – oh, how lucky I am in people – but I’d fucked up in some way and hadn’t done right by myself when I still needed such careful handling. I’d been in my new apartment for about two weeks at that point and mostly needed to stay inside, making food, watching Netflix, and convincing my adrenal glands that things were calm now and were going to stay that way.

An open window with sunlight shining through it

This time was better. The time was right. The last threads of magical thinking after all that grief had long since been tucked back in. I stopped looking at my new life in disbelief some time ago. It was time for a social visit.

I spent two nights in a friend’s spare room in the north of the city and then two nights on a friend’s couch just a couple blocks from where I lived from 2004 to 2010. Throughout, I ended up in different spots of Capitol Hill – at Laughing Buddha for a second nose piercing, finally patronizing a business I’d walked by a million times. Tracing paths across Cal Anderson, by the sport courts, the empty wading pool, the new murals by the reservoir, and finally laying atop Teletubby Hill in the dark, watching the blank sky at 2 am. Savoring a white velvet at Vivace. And all the while, feeling my mastery of the place disappear – I no longer know which lights are long and which are short, and a request for restaurant suggestions brought me up short, even though there hasn’t been that much turnover. Mastery used to mean a lot to me, when I was younger and more anxious. If I learned things perfectly, I could stop thinking about them. This weekend, I just waited longer at lights, being more careful, accepting that my hard-won knowledge had slipped away some.

Stained glass over the entrance at the Volunteer Park Conservatory

It’s a weird feeling to play tourist in my own life. Eleven years of my life, friends and jobs and love and a rotating, evolving series of mainstays and assumptions. Now it’s something I can step back into, this diorama that used to contain a variety of my past selves. Once, it was infinite – I had no end date, so I felt I had all the time in the world to wander down the streets, make routines, or ignore things – I didn’t need to go to the Frye right now, I can go in a week or a month or sometime next year. Pike Place wasn’t going anywhere. It was all right there, whenever I needed it, so there was no need to rush.

Twisted into the shape of a vacation, it becomes an itinerary, with a list of things to do and a list of things that will wait for next time. An afternoon piercing excursion with a stop at Dick’s for milkshakes before ending up at Elliott Bay Book Company for late lunch and book shopping. An evening along the edge of Ballard for dinner. Meeting a friend at the Stumbling Monk, to see him but also to make sure I visit it. A long walk in the finite expanse of four hours, surveying Broadway, stopping at Volunteer Park, checking out how 15th has changed, and trying teas at Remedy. A stop at my old dance class. The different flavors of my old life, assembled as a kind of thali, and when it was done, it was done.

Two hours here, four hours there, trying to do justice to a life I sought and made and ultimately left when it didn’t fit anymore. Visiting people I love, but also myself and all the paths I walked.

I noticed more changes during that first too-soon visit than I did this time – the new restaurants, boxy new buildings replacing beautiful old houses, construction started and ended. This time, maybe because the Bay Area inures you to weird things, it was less dramatic. The house at 12th and John finally went; well, that’s no surprise. Ah, they finished the big boxy thing that replaced what were once twin B&Bs. They painted my favorite pink house beige.* Maybe I’m just being worn down by the aggressive change of the Bay Area, sure, or maybe it’s just distance. My sense of space and change lives in Oakland now, the way it did in my first couple of years in Seattle. Without the attachment that can only grow over a decade, restaurant turnover and other natural shifts just seem like interesting change. I’ve been gone for almost a year and a half now; things wither, and it can’t and shouldn’t be helped.

I purposely took 2016 off from my old home, especially after the weird, mingled feelings of that first visit. Like a breakup, sometimes you just need to quarantine these things, to let the old feelings die back so the new version of knowing each other can fill the vacated space. And then you get to know each other in a new context, to appreciate each other all over again. As I took off from SeaTac, I looked down at the lower Sound, all threaded with islands that looked like the richest lumps of green moss, the air misty and thick. I feel more alive in the Seattle air; it’s the weather I’m built for. Pressing my face to the window, I thought, “The place is so damned livable.”

But to be fair, I’ve also thought that about Amsterdam** and Stockholm and Copenhagen, among other places. It’s a certain broad metric that encompasses weather, people, the beauty of the place, and a certain ease that’s hard to describe. They’re places I want to return to but don’t necessarily need to live in. They’re settings for pleasing alternate realities. They’re places I’m sad to leave – but which I leave in favor of home every time.

I see how I lived in Seattle for as long as I did – it’s a very easy place to be. But I’m glad to be just where I am, where I write this, here in Oakland. And grateful that my old home and so many absolutely fantastic people are just a two-hour flight away. I think a lot of people don’t even get one great life to inhabit; I get two.


A strange thing about this post: every picture in here was affected by the space I was in – never able to back away enough to see everything I wanted to. I don’t think that’s happened on this blog before.

*Ok, not gonna lie, that one got to me.

**Did I not write about Amsterdam before? What the hell? It’s so great!

California Adventures: Tilden and the Campanile and Other Things in My Backyard

I don’t have some big trip planned for this year, or not just yet. I am a planner, and I make lots of lists to get my darting thoughts in order as a matter of course, so I gave some thought to this around the beginning of this month. If I write something down, it’s more likely I’ll make it happen. So I take list-making at the turn of the year very seriously, and it felt telling that I couldn’t think of a particular international destination I wanted to work towards. This is not to say I won’t be over the moon if I end up in Thailand or Amsterdam or Italy or Mexico (again, again, please), but it’s not the priority right now.

A big part of this is because I live here now.

Two green hills and the San Francisco Bay, leading to the horizon on a sunny day

Ok, I don’t actually live in Tilden Regional Park. But I do live a mere six miles from it, and I’d never been up it until yesterday. I was somewhat aware of it, but I had no specific plan to go to it, except in the vague way that I kinda want to go everywhere ever, if you ask me and I answer honestly.

This picture is the best I managed. The reality of it was much better, one of those moments that I find really reassuring, to remember that cameras can’t get everything, at least not as I wield them at this point in my life. What’s obscured there by the haze was an unfolding of the horizon before us, distinct layers delineated by barges and rolling hills and cities before cities and other large shapes that brought to mind the word leviathan. Apparently, with the haze, the view was not at its greatest advantage, but I was very happy with it. I am collecting hills and views as I live here: the peek of the Bay Bridge as I crest the hill before I get to my apartment; the collection of San Francisco all piled on itself from the highest point of Mountain View Cemetery; the broad spread of the cities along the bay from Indian Rock Park; and now Tilden. I fruitlessly took a few different pictures, shifting and bracketing, but I’m just going to have to go back another day. Drat.

The same little trek contained this: a very popular blue whale, perpetually lounging outside of the Lawrence Hall of Science, which is very close to Tilden (and, to my newbie eyes, all part of the same winding hill full of Stuff). Next to it was a giant spiral of DNA that is so much more enticing to climb than I would have expected. I was wearing a pencil skirt and tights and still clambered up both. To do otherwise would have been wrong.

Looking out from the rail at the edge of the whale-containing plaza, I saw a grand tower that looked like it might be part of a church. “What’s that?” I asked. So the next order of business became finding out. Down we drove, winding and winding, the tree-covered hills giving way to research labs and other big, very square buildings.

Coming down this way, the full collegiateness of UC Berkeley comes up hard and fast. I’ve been to Berkeley. I have had beers and Indian food, I have bought a used book, I have seen some amateur storytelling. I’ve been to the Bowl more than once. I’ve had some Berkeley in my life. But I’d never seen the university, and that was a mistake. My companion had never been up the Campanile, it turned out. I didn’t know what a Campanile was, it turned out. (Hint: it’s that big grand tower I’d spied from on high.)

And it holds cantillons, of course. Its real name is Sather Tower; Campanile is a nickname because it resembles the one in Venice. This one has 61 bells, and a little speech in the ascending elevator will inform you of the layers of gifts that furnished this full complement. (Bells can be a very big deal, it turns out.) A little electrical outlet in the elevator control box lets the elevator operator continue playing phone chess while he escorts tourists and other randoms up and down the tower.

Carillons require a player. We did not get to witness this, but based on the quick BONG from one of the regular, automatic, thrice-daily rings, I don’t think I want to witness it from up there. It did, at least, lead to one of those nice moments where a bunch of strangers go from startled as hell to laughing in relief in that particular communal way.

It’s $3 to ascend. It’s really worth it. It’s kinda extra great if you go in tandem with someone, and your pair contains one new arrival and one knowledgable person who just hasn’t had this particular experience yet.

You do not have to conclude your day at the Sacred Wheel, a cheese shop in Temescal that might be literal magic, but I do strongly suggest that you do. Any day will do, cantillon-containing or not. Ask for the perfect goat cheese to put on a chocolate chip cookie, then get a couple pickled eggs (choose from four flavors) before you go out the door. Even if you do not encounter the cheese wizard of Temescal, you will be doing just fine.

I did.