Last Spring, in an Alternate Reality in Ravenna

Japanese Maples in Ravenna in Seattle

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

Clearly, it was time to make a move.

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

A bridge in Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood

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

More Japanese Maples

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

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

Street kitty in Ravenna

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

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

Dinosaurs on a mailbox in Ravenna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Incomparable Unknowns and the Potential of the Indefinite

The cranes of Oakland's harbor, magnificent sunset behind

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

If I could do celebratory cartwheels, I would.

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

I’m still breathing. I’m alive.

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

The Meaning of Travel in More Ordinary Days

One of so many long, beautiful staircases in Montmartre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye, Seattle. I Love You, Seattle.

The weirdly much-heralded Capitol Hill mystery Coke machine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll let you know.

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

 

*Well, maybe not Belgium.

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

Artifice Can Scour Your Soul ’til It Shines Like New

When a simulacrum of Rome shines from across the street and compact, artificial Venice is next door, what persists from the reality I left behind a few days ago is given a renewed heft. If it can keep being heard over the sound of slot machines and background music and the excited hum of thousands of strangers, it must be real. It must be heard.

Heart mural on Las Vegas's Fremont Street

In Las Vegas, I look at the people around me and quickly account for how we are different. This isn’t much of a departure from my usual MO, but it’s heightened here.

They are happy. They are bro packs, intent and at least dimly malevolent, toothy predators in striped, collared shirts, sheep’s clothing. Bachelorette parties and sash-wearing birthday girls, three and five and nine and twelve of them, staggered and staggering across the sidewalk and the casino corridor. People who take the opportunity of being in Las Vegas as a chance to dress like they are somehow acquainted with sex work, or at least a distinctly 70s-flavored version of swinging, all cleavage and embroidered denim jackets with rhinestones and everything short or tight or lavishly embellished or all three. Families with small children, everyone drinking sweet, brightly colored slush of different proofs from strangely similar vessels. They are here to cut loose and see shows and run wild and let their hair down and have what happens here stay here. They want to quote The Hangover and eat a thick steak or a shrimp cocktail and let their woohooooooos echo down the street like thin, waving, fluorescent ribbons, dancing in the sky, evidence that they lived and lived it up and had fun with their boys/girls/various people in their lives.

I take pictures of intersecting architectural lines and contrasts that make me laugh, trying to capture what I noticed at even half the potency it had in person. I try to figure out the stories of the people walking by me. I take pictures of myself reflected in doors and windows, wondering if what’s inside of me is visible on my face. The set of my face is a little melancholy even on ordinary days, though, so I can’t tell if today is different.

It would be inaccurate to say that I have a love of over-the-top artifice, but it’s fair to say that I find it absolutely fascinating. I have seen enough marketing plans and mood boards to be able to get a sense of the feeling a hotel or restaurant is trying to give, the thesis or phrase that powered their plans visible in this lushly striped wallpaper or that ornately cast fake column. This is, of course, a state that makes actually experiencing what the creators intended impossible. But I am an observer, and I feel at least somewhat outside of things most of the time. In Las Vegas, it goes into overdrive; I feel like the child in the crowd in The Emperor’s New Clothes, except I’ve long since learned what happens to that child, telling truth to power. Her sticky remains get washed away with the next rainy day.

But, joyfully unavoidable: I also love lights and neon and glittering strands of crystal drops and unlikely spaces made with conscious opulence. Vegas is for me too, in that way.

These days, though, I walk through an intersection of real and intended. What was once meant to be, among other things, a trip to introduce my significant other to my family is instead a family trip where I have the luxury of a room to myself and the unparalleled sting of one fewer person to text before takeoff and after landing.* I had thoughts and loose plans around what it would be like to mix these two parts of my life that had never touched; instead, I’ve been largely content to go along with my family’s ideas, offering suggestions to bolster their plans more than my own specific ideas. I don’t have many specific ideas right now; I came here feeling almost startled after finding myself sitting on a plane somewhere over the desert, trying to count the steps that led me from my immersive school to seat 8C. For the last three months, I’ve been buried in semi-relocating and then learning and then trying to find a job, all processes that have been at least somewhat frantic, a constant race against a certain idea of self dissolution. I have been absorbed in computer science, heartbreak, and a growing likelihood of real relocation. As such, I had researched no restaurants or attractions. I made no loose itineraries. And, without the usual preamble of thinkery, anticipation, and research I usually go through before a trip, I felt dumped headlong into it.

Really, though, that’s how I feel about most of my life right now. A little startled, a little groggy, and another sprint to try to adjust just enough to get the most out of what I’m doing.

Circus Circus door; faux-surly author

It’s a time of triage, of unpredictable levels of energy and feeling. And it happened that I ended up in one of the weirder places on earth just as I’ve started to feel like I might be happy again someday, with a life gathered in one place, me, my cats, and my stuff all under one roof with a good yearlong lease ahead of us. Sometimes, I can kind of see it.

In this trip, I’ve eaten speakeasy pizza. I bought art from a vending machine. I’ve seen Cirque du Soleil twice.** I’ve drank regrettable slush. I roamed, drunk and alone, through the back hallways of Circus Circus. I walked past a street full of different bands covering different decades of American pop music, all just a half block from each other. I’ve visited multiple make-believe versions of multiple great cities, gazed at gondolas and passed a Colosseum and strolled imaginary, indoor versions of New York streets. And the only money I lost to a machine was when I tried to buy stamps and only succeeded in losing eight quarters.

My regular life right now is about making large decisions. I think often of steering a large ship, something so big that there’s a pregnant pause between spinning the wheel and seeing the bow turn against the horizon. Where shall I be, and what shall I be, and who shall I be with, and what shall I do, and what shall things look like in three and six and twelve months?***  Switching to questions like “Do we want another buffet meal?” and “Do we see the show with the naked people or the acrobatics?” and “Do you think we can fit Hoover Dam and the Neon Museum in one day?”**** are a nice change.

Which I guess is what traveling is for: contrast of a most heightened kind, departure and a return that one hopes brings perspective. Now: to find out what that perspective will be.

*Nothing shows you the stark reality of your life like realizing how many or how few people you have to text from a runway. It’s a quick, sharp accounting like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Whenever it shifts, I end up breathless the first and second time.

**My second-biggest goal for this trip, despite the lack of planning. Seeing more Cirque du Soleil is always a goal of mine. The actual goal of this trip: hanging out with my family. It’s rare that I get to lure them west, that I get to make the easy trip, and it was even better than I thought it would be.

***Your guess may be as good as mine. Maybe it’s better, because maybe you have a better ability to be fanciful than I do right now.

****No. Or we didn’t, anyway, because we like to actually relax on our vacations.

Where Berlin Meets the Pacific Northwest (and has coffee)

Flat whites and fruit tart at St. Oberholz in Berlin

Paris is a place I long for, but Berlin is a place I can more reasonably see myself ending up. To me, it’s like Seattle meets Olympia meets any beautiful, beleaguered city in Europe, which means it combines several things I like very much with a financial feasibility that’s hard for an American to find in a European city.

Let me explain.

In Berlin’s friendliness toward tech and startups, its beautifully and quirkily shod young people, and its abundant coffee shops, I see Seattle.

In its often cash-only economy, its abundant and generous public art, and its stunning parks, I see Olympia (or any college town, really – I originally wrote “Bellingham” up there).

And in its long and difficult history, its resilience, and its centuries of beauty and struggle, I see Europe. It’s something that no American city can possibly have, and it’s something I admire very much.

So it was funny to be in the mood for a coffee and inadvertently end up enjoying flat whites and a fruit tart at the most Seattle-ly place I saw in Europe.*

Saint Oberholz is one of many startup-friendly establishments in Berlin. (You could argue that Berlin itself, or Germany as a whole, is a startup-friendly establishment. And win.) They self-publish a guide to making your own damn Berlin startup, in fact.

I ended up there about a week into my November trip to Europe. And it was there that I realized, surrounded by blue-faced zombies staring into laptops, delicately picking my way across trailing power cords, that I felt more at home there than I had in the previous several days.

I’m still figuring out whether that speaks well of it or not.

Also up in the air: whether I should dedicate my scanty spare time to learning French or German. Feel free to make your case to me in person if you have an opinion on it.

 

*And that includes the Microsoft store in Berlin – though I later found out that it wasn’t officially sanctioned by Microsoft! I was in an off-brand, third-party Microsoft store in bloody Germany that mimicked the branding perfectly – down to the cheery “Hello!” someone called out in relatively unaccented English when we walked in. The only reason I know it wasn’t officially sanctioned is because, several months later, I had a conversation at a party with someone who has worked in opening stores like that for the last several years – and Germany is an untapped market. Huh.

The Warmest Welcome, the Enduring Oasis

A cup of hot wine at Place de Tertre in Paris

When I am at loose ends with things, my mind goes to Paris (and hopes the rest of me will follow).

I know Paris is not a sustainable kind of situation for me, or at least not at this point in my financial and professional life, and a sustainable kind of situation is what I need these days. I need to find somewhere that I can plant myself for a year or two, avec mes chats, and spread out a bit. Paris is attainable for only a few days at a time, here and there, when I am both lucky and plan well.

But, even knowing that, I still go there in my mind when things are hard. And they are right now, so there I am.

Because the memory of beautiful days can outweigh the incredibly difficult reality that surrounded said days.

Because readily available vin chaud can feel, over and over, like the world is welcoming you home.

Because sitting, warmed by heaters and overlooking the Place du Tertre in Montmartre, watching the artists pack up and the coat-clad tourists slipping by, waiting for onion soup (the French is implied, of course) and tipping just enough sugar into your hot wine can be enough to obscure (if not actually erase) the 12-hour travel ordeal proceeded it, as well as whatever unfortunate reality prefaced or followed it. Warm and comfortable and on the cusp of an adventure, an hour or a meal can stand out as one of the handful of perfect moments that we get to keep and hold in a life, if we are very lucky indeed.

And so, when things are hard, it’s easy to long for moments like that, because they stand out, independent of context. Were things perfect then? Before or after? No, of course not. But just for that moment, that hour, my needs were met, and things were good, and the future stretched out ahead like infinite possibility – or I could at least pretend that possibility was infinite.

There will always be Paris. And there will always be me. And the only thing to do is to try to recreate that feeling wherever I end up.

It could be vin chaud in Paris. But it can also be just the right dinner from my own kitchen in a clean apartment. Pulling over on the 101 to look out at the seeming infinity of the ocean, knowing I have what I need to get wherever I’m going. Warm arms around me and nowhere else to be. And these are better things to aim for, because although I will have vin chaud in Paris again, it won’t be the moment when I took the picture at the top. So better to aim for a multitude of perfect moments; the inevitable failures will be fewer and easier to take if I’m looking to augment rather than recreate.

Still, these days, the vin chaud is the thing that calls to me. Autumn seeps into my room at night now, and I can feel the equinox approaching. Times are hard, and I am me, and I treated myself to this book this weekend. I just bought brie and a crusty loaf at the grocery store, which I will enjoy by Lake Merritt in the next couple of days. I do what I can, and I try not to envy my past self too badly.

And I trust there will be more perfect moments ahead. Because I am lucky, and because I plan well.

Other People’s Childhoods: On Visiting Fairyland

The entry sign to Oakland's Fairyland

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

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

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

A cottage at Oakland's Fairyland

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

Reading library at Oakland's Fairyland

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

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

The chapel at Oakland's Fairyland

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

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

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

Revelers at Fairyland4Grownups

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

Mushrooms at Oakland's Fairyland

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

Wizard of Oz puppetry at Fairyland

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

Playing card guards at Fairyland

These guys. Painted every year. They are perfect.

Fairyland path

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

Smoregasms

But I found a way to console myself.

Smoregasm menu

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

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

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

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

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

Fairyland bait shop

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

oakland-fairyland-laundry

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

Tower at Fairyland

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

Looming statue at Fairyland

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

Dragon at Fairyland

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

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

Fairy and constellations at Oakland's Fairyland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Didn’t See the Auction at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo

A big giant fish head in a case of ice at Tsukiji Market

But you know what? That’s ok. I still saw plenty.

A thriving street and crowd in Tokyo's Tsukiji Market

This is the crowd at about 8 am on a Sunday in April at Tsukiji Fish Market. (Say “tskEE-jee.”)

I had arrived the day before and barely managed to make myself wander Akihabara before calling it a night. The thing to do, per every guide and every person who has been to Tokyo or maybe heard of it once, is to get up ass-early (that’s any time between 3 and 7 am, per my body’s clock), somehow get yourself to Tsukiji even though the trains aren’t running yet, and register for the tuna auction audience, for which only 3.5 seats are available*, and, and, and…

I set an alarm for 3:30 (sorry, hostel-roommates), just to see how I felt. I woke up, still fully dressed, underwires pressed into permanent grooves on my ribcage. (Woe to the person who thinks they’re just going to lie down for a quick nap at 7 pm after flying across an ocean, for thou art fooling thyself.) I squinted at the streetlight coming through my window, said a very quiet yeah no, Houdini’d my bra out from under my cozy wrap dress, and rolled back over.

I woke back up at 6:30, the first time that has ever been considered late for me. I took a shower in possibly the nicest hostel shower on earth – not fancy, but immaculately, reassuringly clean, and so needed after my 10-hour flight the day before. I shuffled out by 7:30 for a quick breakfast (ordered from a picture menu, of course) before I hit the train for my first proper Tokyo outing.

Octopus posters in a window at Tokyo's Tsukiji MarketMy first job was at a farmers’ market, when I was 14 and new and being paid under the table. (Soulard Market, I still adore you, never question.) I’ve had an affinity for open-air food markets ever since. Tsukiji is a mix of things in the way that happens when a market is both functional and a wildly successful tourist attraction: dizzying tables full of beautiful, intricately painted sushi dishes; tanks of beautiful, doomed fish; readymade food stands; and crowds and crowds and crowds. Still too shy and jet-lagged to make the most of things, I instead wandered through like a wraith, ducking down narrow alleys with counters with a scant five or six stools, peering into knife shops, and marveling at the mix of locals and tourists. (You can tell the latter from the former by their ability to maneuver a corridor or any other straight shot of pedestrian thoroughfare. This is a universal language; these days, I navigate Union Square in San Francisco five days a week, and my ability to tell a tourist at 50 paces has grown even sharper.)

This is my favorite near-miss picture:

Crabs and crabs at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo

Still getting used to my new camera, I knelt before these crabs and fiddled with settings for a moment before I was ready to take this one. In the moment before the shutter opened, an older man ducked down, knelt into frame, and gave me a quick peace sign and a giant, cheesy grin. He then leaped up and apologized profusely, even though I laughed and tried to ask him to do it again. It’s easy to get bitter at tourists when you just want to buy your damn fish and get home to make lunch; to see someone take the piss in such a good-humored way was a good way to start the trip.

I also didn’t go to the most famousest ramen place. I will let you figure out why.

Ramen line at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo

Not all of this is the line, but more of it is than you might think.

After I roamed the narrow hallways and alleys and streets, taking in my first bit of Japanese morning, I went to the more industrial area of the market. These pictures are fewer because I had to make sure to, well, stay alive.

Tsukiji Market don'ts and don'tsThis is all really good advice with not a bit of overstating present.

Once you emerge from the market aimed at individuals, you find yourself in a lively shipping yard, threaded by small, screaming trucks, one seat wide with a tiny flatbed behind, which zip around and by you in a somehow flawless ballet while emitting the most appropriately eerie high-pitched whine. No drunk indeed – you’d be street pizza.

I ended my trip with a few oysters, pulled from running saltwater by a man standing sentinel between two tanks, patiently weathering tourists taking picture after picture. I just gave him money and took these to the little eating area across the way. I couldn’t find chopsticks, so I just tipped them into my mouth, scandalizing someone, I am sure.

Oysters from Tsukiji Market

So: Tsukiji Fish Market. I shaped my plan with Lonely Planet and a featureless amalgam of “So you’re going to Tokyo” to-do lists on various travel blogs – I found them remarkably consistent. Maybe you’re more patient than I am and are game to wait in a long-ass ramen line, or maybe you’re willing to get up at ass-early and take a wildly expensive cab across town. But the way I did it was just fine too – wading through crowds, gawping at fish, dodging certain doom via people just trying to do their job ok thanks. A fine welcome to Tokyo, and a good introduction to the very particular kind of keeping on my toes that I found crucial while I was there. Plus oysters.

Lanterns at Tokyo's Tsukiji Market

*Ok, it’s like 40 or 60, but every recommendation drips with doom at the LIMITED SEATS and YOU ARE GOING TO MISS IT no really GET THERE AT FOUR, GET THERE THE NIGHT BEFORE AND CAMP OUT LIKE YOUR SAD BUDDY DID FOR THE PHANTOM MENACE, oh god you’re already blowing it, it’s too late.

Entering Ueno Park in Tokyo

Ginger at at Ueno Park in Tokyo
Here’s a thing about traveling a good amount in a shortish period of time: wherever you go, there you are. And you get to find out exactly what that means.

I have a cat tendency. I spot them, I study them, I follow them, and when I come across them, I feel I’ve intersected with the actual life of the place. (Other repeated things I enjoy: coffee, outdoor food, pastries, popular city parks, walking tours, and cemeteries. These constants give me some easy, interesting comparisons between the places I go. Coffee in Japan is much different than coffee in Paris, for instance. I love them both.)

In Ueno Park (which I will get into more soon), this was the second cat I saw. The first was grey and soft and gently misted over by the day. An older lady was kneeling next to him, opening a carton of milk and then pouring some into a bowl. The cat dug right into it. I considered taking a picture, but I decided to observe and leave it be, imagining she was doing a daily or weekly ritual of giving this cat a little treat.*

Real estate is tough in Tokyo, and I understand that pet-friendly housing is exceptionally hard to come by, hence the explosion of cat cafes. So to see a woman doing a bit of gentle caretaking for this furry friend in the city’s most popular park felt like getting a glimpse into how people stay sane and balanced in a place of such extremes. Furthermore, there was a particular beauty to  a private moment taking place within sight of what I immediately named the Selfie Tree, a red bud tree so profusely blooming that 1. it was a solid, searing tree-shaped field of magenta, and 2. it was perpetually surrounded on all sides by singles and groups selfieing in front of it. Behold:

Selfie-ridden red bud tree in Tokyo's Ueno Park

If I hadn’t also spent a morning at Shinjuku Gyoen, I might declare this the most-selfied flowering tree in Tokyo. I grabbed a snack from one of the nearby tents so I could munch while watching people take pictures in front of this tree, over and over again, delicately keeping the shoulder-to-shoulder hordes out of frame. I wonder where the pictures go, whether they’re only for social media or if they get printed and added to some more permanent archive. I wondered this while biting off Hello Kitty’s waffle head.

A paper bag full of Hello Kitty-shaped waffles

Twenty of these for ¥500 (about US$5 that day). A bargain at any price, though, to be honest.

Ueno Park was my first day setting out alone in Tokyo. This trip happened when cherry blossom season was about 60 percent past, which meant that while I was scouting cherry blossoms, so was most of Tokyo. We didn’t plan the timing this way, but I recommend it, and not just for seeing blossoms. The flowering trees there are lusher and bigger than the ones in Seattle, so I found them worth seeing for that reason. But to visit a country at the same time that the locals are marveling and flocking to see the area’s natural beauty with the same fervor as someone who crossed an ocean to do it – that’s a special thing. While I never felt of Tokyo (hard to do when you’re a 5’8″ white lady with some pink hair), in that moment, I felt brought along for something special that Japan has been rejoicing at for centuries. I do love some flowering trees, to the point that they’re among my favorite things in Seattle. But to see locals picnicking on tarps, feasting and sitting and watching and taking picture after picture, all of us thrilled to be there, all of us so glad at that moment? That’s worth crossing an ocean for.

*Once, years ago, when my small cat was sick and had trouble taking in calories, I tried giving her cream, hoping the nutrition in it would outweigh any lactose-intolerant effects. Later, cleaning diarrhea off the side of the litterbox, I apologized profusely. She was unimpressed. But then she is always unimpressed.