If I must be sad, I will be sad in Paris

Content note: I talk about depression and past suicidal thoughts in this one. If those aren’t safe subjects for you, it’s a great time to close the tab or try something else.

Early in my trip to Paris and Barcelona, I took the Metro from Montmartre to the center of the city. I sat by myself, watching the texture of the tunnel racing by and feeling how deeply sad I was. Unlike other depressed trips, trips I’d taken hoping for distraction and even managing it sometimes, it felt like different environments only made it purer, this distilled sadness washing over me, cold and astringent.

I laughed at myself a little, at the absurdity of being on an amazing trip I’d looked forward to for months and feeling like refried shit. It’s useful to be able to do this without thinking the harder feelings aren’t legitimate and real, but I’ve learned to, and I did that day. Sitting on the train, looking around at all the lovely people and their beautiful winter coats, heading between one place I loved and another, I knew that the weather in my brain was utterly absurd and utterly true.

It was then that I found my frequent mantra of the trip: if I’m going to be sad, I’d rather be sad in Paris. I could be sad on my couch, but instead I’m sad somewhere I adore where all my senses get fed. I have a less-glamorous version of it for home: if I’m going to be sad, I can do it while wearing clothes I don’t hate, while enjoying takeout from my local Thai place, while my hair is clean, while reading something good, while the floors are swept, while feeling a little soothed and seen. It still sucks, but it can suck marginally less with some effort, when I can spare it.

The Louis Vuitton store in Paris with a large sunburst decoration spanning one entire side of the building

At the moment, I assume that everyone is massively emotionally wounded in some way, and I have since roughly June 2020. I think people were largely doing not great, thanks in the beforetimes too, but after almost two entire goddamned years of downs and ups and downs, things opening and closing, good guidance and terrible, dreams deferred and altered and abandoned and resuscitated and held close and shoved away, no one’s ok. The depth of the wounds varies wildly, of course. Mine right now have to do with my scant handful of emotional outlets (dancing, readings, seeing art, trying to make more friends) suddenly being unavailable again after I’d become accustomed to some small liberties, to say nothing of the unaddressed damage of the last pandemic length of time.

And these things do not disappear simply because you choose to travel.

Like my time in New York this summer, this trip slipped into a tiny gap of space and possibility that I chanced into through stupid luck. This one landed neatly between “everybody get boosters” and “oh fuck, a new variant.” We left on November 25th; if it had been three or four weeks later, I think I would’ve canceled all of it. Instead, it was merely complicated. Instead, it was a few days into the trip, out of North America for the first time since my fairly disastrous 2019 trip, that I read that a new variant was rising, that the US was already issuing racist travel restrictions, that things were happening and the larger meaning and the effect on us remained unclear.

Running home didn’t seem wise. Instead, there was only to dive ahead with precautions.

A closeup of a small part of a Monet waterlilies painting with streaks of purple, brown, and green

But yes, as the prophet Adam Sandler explains in the video linked above, being in Paris and Barcelona didn’t change who I was and how I felt. I went to Europe and remained the same sad me who’s been circling the drain since March 2020, when the pandemic started and my cat died and other personal things went absolutely off the rails, when I wraithed around my apartment asking my partner over and over if this was the end of the fucking world.

He told me, with confidence I still do not share, that it was not.

In the months that followed, I became accustomed to everything being painful most of the time. First I lost my interest in cooking; later, I lost a lot of my interest in eating, a deeply surreal state. It didn’t mean I needed to eat less, but I lacked the energy to put any real force or interest behind it. Strangely, traveling did not entirely resuscitate this. I delighted at these fish-covered flatbreads in Barcelona we had for several meals; I bit into a ball of goat cheese like a creamy apple on the Île Saint-Louis; I remembered my love of those one-euro waffles you can get on Metro platforms in Paris and crunched my way across the city. Gratins and soupe l’oignon and pintxos and infinite croissants. I experienced brief moments of joy that were heavily enabled by old memories, and I considered that a victory.

I’ve been reluctant to talk or write much about this, since lots of people don’t have the cash for this kind of trip (as inexpensively as I try to travel and as much as we lucked out with relatively cheap direct flights) and my luck at slipping out just before another wave in 2021 was extraordinary. But the thing is: if you’re depressed at home, you’ll be depressed there too. And that’s ok! It’s still worth trying things and reminding yourself, however briefly, that being alive can be pretty fucking good.

In 2007, I embarked on what I called the Depression World Tour. It’s the last time I was what I think of as chemically depressed, though I’ve been situationally depressed a couple times since, including now. Working with a psychiatrist and trying to trick my brain into wanting to be alive via a series of medications, I decided the best thing I could do was hit the road for six weeks, my laptop and remote job in tow. It was actually a national tour, not a world tour: I saw friends in St. Louis, Chicago, and New York before visiting my family in Florida and New Orleans.

Sometimes I even kind of forgot that I’d spent the previous several months having visions of laying down in the grass and staying still for long enough that the rain would dissolve me. Or that I had to remind myself to wear a seat belt in cars because a part of me welcomed the risk. Friends and new places jostled my brain away from routine enough that the background noise of this living shit’s a lot of trouble, isn’t it got crowded out.

It worked until the flight home. I had a window seat and stared across the wing at the setting sun, and the feelings settled onto me like a wet wool blanket: heavy and total and like a dark hug. Ah yes, I thought. Here I am.

I got home, found the right antidepressant, and stayed on it for a year. The thoughts vanished. Better living through chemistry.

The interior of a Barcelona restaurant, with a hanging sculpture of a voluptuous woman dancing through the air

In this era, the feelings seem to stem from having survived via learned helplessness. I’m not an essential worker, so often my best contributions to things not being more terrible were donating money, tipping heavily, and staying the fuck home. I did this for long enough that I’ve lost some of my old skill for pushing back on things that need to be pushed back on, even in this era of laying low. I got some of that temporary agoraphobia that I know lots of people have experienced. Outside is bad. Inside is good. Ergo: stay inside, where it’s all predictable and safe. No room to thrash, no room to dream. Just put another episode of the show du jour on.

My entire adult life has been predicated on wanting more, and suddenly it was actually dangerous to do so. It’s had effects on me that I’ll be unraveling for a long time.

And, of course, it makes travel difficult because travel is only about uncertainty and trusting that you’ll be ok. Pushing back against a language you don’t know to find an understood shared space, pushing back against the unfamiliar to go boldly forward and experience wonderful new things, pushing back against homesickness with the confidence to believe that worthwhile living is on the other side.

For the last two years, that hasn’t been true. We’ve all been wading through life that’s tepid at best, a horror at worst, assuring ourselves that continuing to be alive is worthwhile and all this living shit actually is worth it.

It took me two weeks, but I think I came to believe it again.

We spent five nights in Paris, six in Barcelona, and then another three in Paris before our flight out. At the end of the first Paris segment, I sat in the bed of the adorable Montmartre Airbnb, crying and feeling a weight on my chest because I was doing this wrong.

Quick aside: you can’t do this wrong. It’s not possible. You can have a bad vacation; I certainly have. Still, the only real risk is being a shitty guest somewhere you’re visiting. You can’t do vacation wrong.

But I sat there in the adorable bed nook beneath a robin’s-egg-blue duvet that matched the cabinets and curtains, and I knew that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing. I had managed a thing or two per day – this museum, that meal, trying to see and do things without asking too much of myself – but it wasn’t enough. Paris is my favorite place in the world, and I was trudging. I knew I was trudging. Everything hurt, and I was just passing through, like a pale visitor in my own life.

When I get these big feelings that I want to turn on myself like a weapon, I try to make the feelings into specifics. What did I think I should be doing, since apparently I wasn’t doing it? I made myself list all the things I hadn’t done that suddenly weighed on me: a street art walk through Montmartre, another walking tour, Sainte-Chapelle, a proper fromagerie visit, more vin chaud, Pere LaChaise, one of those zoo lights things that are everywhere now, walking along the Seine, the thumb at La Défense. A lot for two days! But I promised myself I’d come back and do everything I wanted until it stopped being fun.

Tall stained glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, with part of the altar in the foreground

Part of the problem was that I’d lacked the ability to plan properly before we left. All I’d managed to do were the obvious time-sensitive bookings: the Louvre, the Orangerie, the Sagrada Familia. All these top-billed things, but none of the stuff that I usually ended up thinking about after a trip, the small random joys I linger on as I ease back into my life. And without a plan and something to work toward, I felt like I was squandering this thing I’d longed for.

And I spent two joyful, madcap days in Paris when I got back. One day I walked more than 15 miles. I zoomed back and forth across the city in a way I’d never recommend to anyone else but which felt like freedom. I saw centuries-old stained glass and said hello to Oscar Wilde. Illuminated, articulated tardigrades. Wheat pastes decorating apartment building walls and bulletholes from the liberation of Paris. Finally, just in time for all the panic of getting home, I remembered how to feel open and safe – at least for an hour or two at a time.

I’ve tried to keep it with me as I return to my life, but it’s been hard. Going out dancing (vaccines and masks required, bless San Francisco) had become a regular catharsis, but less than a week after I got home, that began to feel unsafe too. Masks required but not entirely enforced inside; rising omicron rates; the ongoing threat of long covid; the fear of possibly giving it to one of the scant handful of people I see in person. I’ve shuttered myself inside again.

An ink-and-watercolor drawing of a figure with arms, legs, a large mouse head with red eyes, and a little horn-shaped musical instrument

It’s better than the terrible 2020 months of the pandemic era because I am mostly alone, because I know these steps, because I know how to get regular exercise without the safe option of a gym, because I know where the armor starts to buckle and how to address it when it comes up (and it will again). And because I have more recent memories of eating a galette along the Seine and watching people walk and bike by, of dancing on a goth boat in Paris (yes), of seeing 400-year-old costume sketches at the Louvre and being totally enchanted by this cartoonist of yore, of lighted creatures in the Jardin des Plantes, of good meals, of the winding streets in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, of laughing like a stupid child at caganers, of seeing the Mediterranean beneath our plane, of deciphering the constantly evolving graffiti in Gràcia, of long train rides and easy Metro connections, of other ways to be. Of life sparkling again, just for a little while, and of that sparkle happening because I made it happen.

They’re distant again, but they aren’t gone. I’m contained again, but I’m not dead, and I don’t want to be.

Usually.

Large illuminated lanterns in the shape of jellyfish and other sea creatures

Travel, like other big experiences, gets enjoyed in stages. There’s planning, which I largely missed this trip. There’s the relatively brief period of actually experiencing it. And, after that, the memory, the longest stage, and the one worth optimizing for, if I have to choose one. I knew, sitting on that train and feeling my heavy, lonely heart, that when I thought of the trip later, I’d feel happy. “If you’re going to be depressed, kid, you’ve picked a great place for it,” I thought. I laughed, wrote in my journal some, and set off into the future, where those memories are sustaining me now that I’m an indoor cat again.

The trip was never going to be anything but a mindfuck, and it delivered. But it delivered on everything else too, so even though I cried, even though I wrestled with deep and difficult feelings, even though everything was twice as hard as I remember it being for the intrepid traveler I used to be, it was worth it.

The thing for me to remember: it is almost always incredibly worth it. And when that falters? It’s still pretty good.

How to vacation during a pandemic: week two

Previously.

Day eight

The day of action. I get up, pack my hotel room sprawl, and leave my bags with the front desk. From there, I head across town to the American Museum of Natural History. I’ve been here once before, back in 2008 or so, but that day I came straight from a red-eye flight, needing to kill time before my friend was off work and could take me and my stuff back to her apartment. So I dragged ass for a couple of hours, and I remember little except for looking longingly at empty corners, thinking I could sleep there.

Today was better. If my phone and feelings are right, I walked more than three miles inside the museum; their app is good and helped me see just about everything, but it led me back and forth so many times, through the gift shops one way and then another. I stared up at a Titanosaur, gazed at so many skeletons, felt strangely moved by the blue whale (and the covid vax clinic still happening by it), and learned that there’s such a thing as an effusive volcano eruption. I stayed there for more than four hours before beginning the biggest trek: to the hotel for my stuff and then to Brooklyn for my second location for this trip. I took a car across the bridge because, despite my well-earned reputation, I do take it easier on myself sometimes than I could. Sometimes.

I picked up my keys from the neighboring deli and checked in. After flopping on the bed for 20 minutes, I set out for the comedy show I’d bought a ticket for a couple of weeks ago, a local place with Janeane Garofalo headlining. I get there too early and circle the block for a while, talking to Sean and taking in the sights. I immediately feel more at ease than I did in the Lower East Side. I fit in the continuum of people here. The houses are beautiful, and so are the residents.

The comedy show is mainly local folks, which was what I wanted. I am one of maybe 17 people in the audience, which meant a lot of crowd work. I sit separately, hidden in a shadowy corner to stage right, drinking palomas to meet my two-drink minimum. I avoid the crowd work and am pretty much the only person who does. Not present in the evening: Janeane Garofalo, who had a scheduling conflict. Hey, ok. I saw comics I wouldn’t have otherwise, I laughed, and I got out. It’ll do.

a stencil of Robin Williams and patterned tile on a wall

Day nine

The day of friends. I wake up to drop laundry off for fluff and fold, and then I get a veggie-cheese wrap from the bodega and take it to Fort Greene Park to read, think, and eat. I watch people play tennis and am amazed that people make the same sort of quasi-sex grunts that they do with weightlifting. I had no idea. After, I head to Greenpoint to meet a friend for lunch. We have Mexican food in the restaurant’s robin’s-egg-blue outdoor structure. It’s wildly good to see her. We used to work together and still have tales; I think that, every time we talk, we both learn something new and weird about our shared experiences.

After, I walk an ambling path toward the water, through neighborhoods and past so many cafes. It’s overcast, the clouds thick and low, and the wind whips around me. I love this; I feel so alive in this kind of weather in a way I never do in the eternal-72-degree tepidness of northern California. I find a bench under a building’s overhang and write in my journal as I stare out at the grey-tinged water, waiting to see if the rain will come. It doesn’t until I walk to the subway, and I pull out the umbrella I brought mostly for sun and use it to dodge mist instead.

That night, I head to Crown Heights to meet another friend. (I am very fortunate in people.) Our intended lobster roll shop is closed for renovations, so we end up at a seafood soul food shop run by a man who’s a pure ray of sunshine (and the grilled seafood platter’s pretty great too). We go back to her apartment to eat our riches, including perfect tins of peach cobbler, and we just… catch up. It’s always felt like a miracle, connection and finding people I like so well, but after the worst lockdowns, renewing that connection feels like its own compounded miracle. How did I ever get this lucky? I stay late, talking about everything and nothing, and take a late train home. It’s gone cool and gentle out, and the considerable sweaty murk I build up waiting almost 20 minutes for my train begins to recede. I’m tired but happy.

A stone on a wall with the caption "vulva or hoofprint engraved on limestone"

Day ten

The day of ordinary living. I sleep in (after the last two days, I badly needed it) and wake up by eating a leftover quesadilla in bed along with a pint of blueberries. I find I do this every couple of days, this making a meal out of the odds and ends I’ve collected along the way. Around two, I head to the subway and go north to meet friends to climb. I got into a short routine of climbing again back in May, keeping at it for more than a month, but scheduling stuff put a pause on it for the last six-odd weeks. I don’t have to remember how not to be afraid of heights and falling the way I did back in May, but I’m shaky. My borrowed shoes are too big and make me feel unsteady, so I have to swap them out after the first climb. The harness is an unfamiliar model with a single loop. They use a different belay device than I’m used to. The holds aren’t what I’m used to, the route setters have different mental models of things, it’s actually air conditioned: it’s just a lot of change for my brain to chew on. But my friends are good climbing companions, and I climb until the skin of my hands hurts. Perfect.

After, we meet friends of theirs for late lunch, and I have genuinely excellent vegetable pho and a jar full of bubble tea. It feels good to just sit and talk to new people and remember how to trust myself to relate to other humans as a fellow human, to remember what it is to actively find other people fascinating while also having useful stuff to contribute to the conversation. By the time we’re done, it’s past six, and I realize I might be done for the day. I leave the option open to take myself out to dinner, but I find I’m content to write in bed, catch up with friends online, think for a little while, and talk to no one. It’s been a wonderful day and a half of catching up with people I adore, but like my forearms, my socializing muscles are out of shape. Best to go easy as I learn to use them again and trust the strength will return.

a tree-lined piece of land meets the water, the cityscape behind it

Day eleven

The day of uncharted territory. I get up and have an excellent brunch, sitting outside and watching Brooklyn walk by as I write postcards. Fortunately, plenty of restaurants here define “brunch” the way I do: anytime until dinner. After I’m full of eggs Benedict with salmon, I head into the city and seek out the PATH train. I have story research to do, and that means… Hoboken.

Which is like any other second- or third-tier city I’ve ever been to: pretty, with nice restaurants and the kind of old buildings I like a lot. It reminds of me St. Louis or Tacoma or Albany, any of these places that would be known as a nice place to go if they weren’t overshadowed by another major city in the vicinity. I walk along the waterfront until the path runs out and then turn back, and then I roam through downtown. I verify some of the things I made up and figure out which ones need to be adjusted. I walk through the old train station, which also serves ferries. My dinner plans fall through, so instead I go back to Manhattan, where I swing by Stonewall to take pictures for a young friend. I get a cup of Big Gay Ice Cream and wander around while I eat it.

After that, I return to Brooklyn for the important writing I punted until the end of the day. It’s the last day of the Clarion West Write-a-thon, and I’m going to finish a first draft of a fantasy novel. I write a bit over 1,600 words, and then I’m done. I intend to celebrate by going out to dinner, but I realize that a pre-pandemic weakness of mine has only gotten worse: I cannot tell when restaurant kitchens close. It’s not when the restaurant closes. Is it 30 minutes before? An hour? Something else? I inquire at a couple of places that the internet told me would still be open, but they are not. Instead, I go to the bodega by where I’m staying, and miraculously their deli is still open. The guy in front of me turns to me when he finishes his own order. “Sister, you’d better order fast. They’re almost closed,” he tells me. I thank him and then do exactly that. I celebrate finishing a novel with a Nantucket Nectars orange-mango juice (an old favorite from college), a falafel wrap, and a pre-packaged chocolate-dipped waffle. Very well, then.

a mosaic on a sidewalk reads "I ain't no goddamned son of a bitch"

Day twelve

The day of the depths of Brooklyn. I wake up a little early and head out for my 12:45 reservation at the City Reliquary, a suggestion from a friend who lives here, whose mom loves weird little museums. This is an excellent one: all ephemera, the pointillist approach to museuming. A wall of Jackie Robinson, cases of World’s Fair souvenirs, handles from many eras of subways, pieces of rubble from demolished buildings of note. There’s just so much packed into one room, all staffed by a volunteer. I am utterly charmed.

glass domes cover rock samples; the one in the foreground has a card that reads "Flatiron Bldg."

After, I grab a very heavy slice with large blobs of ricotta on it. I’ll need it; it’s going to be an active day. I stop at Quimby’s (but not Desert Island; they won’t be open again until Wednesday, too late for me). Among other things, I buy a fanzine for The Cure that was published in 2020. Bless. I also buy a copy of We’ll Never Have Paris, which includes an essay from the owner of Quimby’s NYC that explains, among other things, how he came to open this one after the original Chicago location. As I had no idea there was a second one until I walked by it, this is pleasingly full circle.

I take the subway to Park Slope and, instead of transferring to another train for the last 15 blocks, I just walk and see what things look like. I stop at a bodega for a water and ask the cashier how he’s doing. “Not great,” he says. “People today.” I ask him if he thinks the problem is him or everyone. “Everyone,” he sighs. “A lady started yelling at me for not wearing a mask while I’m unvaccinated.”

I thank him and vacate the bodega quickly, just short of levitating backwards out the door.

After, appropriately enough, I go to Green-Wood Cemetery. It’s been on my New York to-do list forever, but when you have three days or five or seven in New York, it’s really easy to focus on Manhattan. Two weeks gave me the chance to finally get down here, and it’s wonderful. California cemeteries are intriguingly weird to visually parse because things don’t age the same way they do elsewhere; graves from 80 years ago look like they could’ve been put in place last year. Not so here; there are graves going back to the early 1800s, and all manner of extensive aging. They’re beautiful and sometimes strange.

I have a rough plan to walk across the cemetery to emerge and point myself toward Prospect Park, but the combination of following my bliss and Google Maps being like “I dunno” when I check my location means that, after two hours of walking, I see the same entrance I came in. Dang it. I reposition myself and try again; 30 minutes later, I’ve looped around yet again. The next time, I stick strictly to specific streets, following a deliberate route, and I finally get to the other entrance.

I walk through Park Slope and get to Prospect Park, where I begin another wander, past elaborate barbecue setups and volleyball games, flocks of joggers and cyclists. I end up at an outdoor concert, where I hear an opera singer and catch a Marina Franklin set. I move at one point to avoid being hit with a piece of wood as a consequence of a certain whimsical style of parenting. Ah, Park Slope. I may have moved out of Berkeley in 2019, but it’s a bit like Hotel California: you can check out, but you’ll never really leave.

molded copper gone green in the form of pine branches and roses

As I start walking out of the park to catch my 8 pm dinner reservation, I end up on a path and stop short as I understand what’s happening in front of me: they have lightning bugs in New York. I didn’t know that. The last time I saw them was probably 20 years ago at my grandparents’ house in southern Illinois. The population steadily diminished as I grew up. I try and fail and try and fail to take a long exposure that captures them, despite not having a tripod or a cable release, and so instead I end up staring into the woods, utterly entranced.

a dimly lit scene of the woods
Note the tiny yellow swirl in the middle bottom. Lo: a lightning bug in the best of a meh set of pictures.

But I do have to get going. I make it in time for dinner, and I have the celebratory meal I didn’t manage yesterday, as I made an actual reservation at an Italian restaurant. I eat a brick of polenta with creamy mushroom sauce, black spaghetti with kale and shrimp, and panna cotta with a cherry sauce. I’m stuffed but very happy.

I’ve walked ten miles, so I come back to my Airbnb and promptly flop onto my side for an hour, waiting to get the energy to shower. It comes eventually. It usually does.

Day thirteen

The day of low motivation. I peel myself out of bed just before two and go to a restaurant the friend who pointed me to Fort Greene recommended. I tried to go on day eleven but came by just as their kitchen had closed. Blessed art platters of cold hummus and chickpea salad on a hot day. After, I read in Fort Greene Park for a little while, watching people go by, listening to tennis players grunt again.

I have generally tried (but often failed) to keep from becoming a giant sweatball while on this trip, but today has a special need for it: I am going shopping. I’ve had a goal to go to Trash and Vaudeville this entire trip, but between energy, sweatball status, and not wanting to accumulate more stuff before my mid-trip location change, I waited. And mentally, today doesn’t feel like a great day for it. Shopping for clothes requires a certain force of will, which I’d say I have about half the time. It requires the mindset that something not working is the fault of the clothes, not the wearer. And today’s just been without that force. If I hadn’t bought a ticket for a 6 pm museum slot, I might not have left the house at all.

But it turns out it’s… great. They’re playing Peter Murphy when I walk in, which I appreciate. I talk to one employee about shared California backgrounds, about changing mask mandates, about how cute my hair is. (Telling me my hair is great is a wonderful way to get off on the right foot with me.) And then I try on things and they’re… really good. A couple things will be good for work, once that’s a thing again and I once again get the chance to be the resident Office Character, but the silver vinyl zip-up top and the black one with boning and a couple dozen hooks and eyes will probably be only and exclusively worn out dancing. (Probably.) I am reasonably sure I’ve never deliberately bought clothes specifically for clubbing before. It took me a while, but here I am. When I check out, I have a fun conversation with the other person working there – about hair dye being discontinued, about what you can and can’t depend on. I walk out with a bag of fancy new things and a smile.

I go hang out in Tompkins Square Park for a little while to kill some time, just listening to people and reading. When it’s time, I head north to Fotografiska NYC, a New York location of a photography museum in Stockholm that I loved. This one’s great too – they’re trying to straddle Serious Museum with “you can get a drink from the bar and take it with you” (which is what I was told when I walked in). I see Tom of Finland’s photographs, some with the sketches they inspired. I see wild, bright, surreal, and rather wonderful photos from Miles Aldridge, which I love, but alas, his books are expensive – the one I pick up is $420. (I put it down quickly and carefully.) Stunning photos from a famous Houston strip club by Adrienne Raquel, beautiful explorations of a relationship and gender roles from Pixy Liao, and an inquisitive look at the collision of international fashion from Hassan Hajjaj. I loved it, and it was worth leaving the house for.

I hang around Madison Square Park for a while after, on the phone, watching people eat Shake Shack. After, I walk to the Peter McManus Cafe, a suggestion from my friend who used to live near it. Not McSorley’s, he said – go for the real thing. Since I’m only eating outside, “real” is relative, so I order my cider and veggie burger at the bar and get them at the al fresco dining shack across the sidewalk. But I see it, and I like it, and I learn it was the bar in Highlander. The bartender has that serious air about him that I like in people who do his job; he genuinely just wants everything to work well. He’s very earnest when he asks me if everything was ok. And it was.

After, I walk back north, intending to finally get that shake… but Shake Shack closed early tonight for building work. Oh well. I go home instead, still carrying my bag of new clothes, via a trek that includes four wrong subway entrances before I find the single correct one and then get on a train that goes only one stop before going out of service. But I get back to Fort Greene eventually, and I get a cookies-and-cream ice cream bar at the bodega on the corner before I go back to my Airbnb.

Tomorrow is my last full day. It came fast and also took a beautiful forever to get here. I’ve already decided I’m coming back here for a couple weeks in the spring. I think I decided that on about day two, really, wordlessly and deep inside of me, once the initial OMG PEOPLE terror began to wane, and dormant parts of me started to come back to life.

trees wrapped in red cloth with white polka dots

Day fourteen

The day of public transit and infinite pumpkins. I put today’s outing so late in the trip because I wanted to build up to long journeys across public transit and also because it was the first day the infinite mirror room was available. Today, I went from Brooklyn to the Bronx to see the Yayoi Kusama exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden. It’s not the worst trek, but it’s a long ride on the 5 and then a bus, and if today is any indication, buses in the Bronx are a whole thing I’m not excited to do again.

The exhibits, however, are just right. All joy and sparkle and brightness and color and whimsy and untethered imagination. Setting them in the garden worked perfectly. The way they managed access and crowds worked perfectly. I don’t think I could’ve picked a better finale for this trip.

On the way back, I sit next to a gentleman in a beautiful war bonnet, all black and teal feathers. Sharing a bench on the train, I felt like we could’ve been another “this is the future liberals want” picture. I love New York.

That night, I go to one last brass night at Barbés, a last hurrah before I go home and quarantine until I get a clear covid test. On the way home, I order an omelet online from the one-block-further bodega, the one open 24 hours. When I walk in, I join two cops, a guy talking fast about how the cigarettes weren’t for him, and another guy just loitering in the way people sometimes do when it’s one am and you’re in a convenience store. “Hello, lady!!!” the cashier greets me. He has my omelet. I speed home. Late dinner or early breakfast? Or maybe just both.

Day fifteen

The day of endings. My flight isn’t until seven, so I have some time to go do things. My hosts are kind enough to let me leave my stuff at their apartment, so I fly untethered. First I go to the Museum of Chinese in America, which I didn’t make it to last week. It’s good and dense, and a friend gave me a couple things to look for that figure into her family history, which added a lovely dimension to things. I walk around reading for an hour and emerge to a protest, which I learn is scheduled twice weekly, that has to do with management and funding. More dimensions. From there, I wander around a little before taking the subway north to Madison Square Park, because I really want that shake. Alas, the line is predictably long, and it’s not to be. (This is not wildly upsetting; Oakland has a Shake Shack now too, and this is more reason to make myself go there.) Instead, I walk across the street to Eataly and get a pizza, which I eat back in the park as I write some last postcards.

I am aware (and have it confirmed later) that I could stay another hour there, but I also know how I feel on travel days; going to a museum and having lunch out without feeling out of my mind is enough achievement. So I get back on the subway, go collect my stuff, and take the LIRR to JFK. I considered taking a car, trying to be nice to myself again, but the price would have been over a hundred dollars – no thank you. Instead, I end up on the train, listening to three guys who have a look of construction or maybe electrician to them talk. Deep New York accents, jokes about cramming themselves into Priuses when they get rides between jobs. I’m travel jittery, but they’re a joy to listen to.

JFK is kind of my least-favorite airport, largely because of a really terrible international connection there in 2013, but it’s… fine. I get incredibly dodgy pad Thai for late lunch. I try to mentally prepare myself to go home but realize I kinda can’t, and that’s ok. Mostly, I just wait.

After the flight, I encounter a bunch of weird SFO problems in trying to just get to BART and then have the single worst BART ride of my life on the way home. It’s a hell of a thing to spend a couple of weeks feeling very independent and steady (though that’s mostly just money; I have money, therefore New York is of a manageable scale to me) and then to reenter the familiar and find myself terrified of one shitty dude. But I make it home, and I wonder what it’ll be to reacclimate. Remind myself that I don’t actually believe in signs. Remind myself that I’ll probably be just fine. I most always am.

But I wonder, once again, where home is now and what that means in this era. To be determined.

a yellow sign reading "END" in front of a waterfront, with the New York skyline beyond it

How to vacation during a pandemic: week one

There are extremely valid reasons to not do this kind of travel in this era. Here’s why I did.

  1. I booked it when things were a little calmer, before infections rose again and we had Delta Variant feelings. So it goes. I also paid extra for direct flights in the interest of less exposure (and potential exposing).
  2. I was particularly cautious about what I did in the two weeks before I left. None of this stuff – only necessary errands, carried out in exactly the same way I did in, say, October 2020 and other similarly dire pre-vax periods. I wanted so badly to go out dancing, but I couldn’t justify it when I knew I’d be crossing the country soon, when other people would be in proximity to me without the ability to consent to the risks I’ve opted into.
  3. I was going from the Bay Area to New York, which have similar vaccination rates. This was very important to me both for my own safety and for people I’d encounter.
  4. Even so, I was, if anything, even more zealous with masks while I was there. Sometimes, especially late evenings in the Lower East Side, I was the only person wearing one. I reasoned that the biggest benefit of a mask is specifically to protect people from my California cooties. I don’t mind looking paranoid if it keeps other people safer. I’ve been the dork in a room before and will be again.
  5. A lot of my activities and all of my meals were outside.
  6. I gravitated toward Official Tourist Activities where masks and vaccinations were required. These let me relax. Bless you, Tenement Museum.
  7. If I didn’t do something other than existing in north Oakland for another several months, I was absolutely going to lose my entire fucking shit.

I’m a security engineer and believe in harm reduction over goals of perfection we’ll never live up to. I took the trip.

a painting of a Dala horse on a building in the Lower East Side of Manhattan

Day one

I arrive at JFK in the early evening, just in time for a sudden rainfall to reduce the west coast smoke that preceded me here. I had hoped this trip might help me duck some of the fire and smoke back in Oakland, so seeing those hazy pictures ahead of my arrival was a disappointment. But when I arrive, the air is wet and fresh and heavy. Alive.

I’ve only slept for 4.5 hours, so my subway ride into the city is a little surreal, my rumpled self draped immobile and sweaty around my bags as my brain begins what will be a constant practice during this trip: seizing on all the small details of the people around me. I’ve always done this, and in fact love it, but after so many months of not being able to immerse myself in other people, my brain starves for this in a way that makes it not an entirely voluntary activity.

I promised myself I didn’t have to go out on my first night unless I really wanted to, and that was before I realized how little sleep I’d get on my travel day. I summon Chinese food to my hotel room, eat most of it, and pass out for nine hours.

feet in sandals below a blue-and-white-dress next to a social distancing floor sticker

Day two

Since I’m still getting used to this “no longer in my living room” thing, I kept my plans modest for my first full day. I do well when I tell myself things like, “Do this one thing, and then you don’t have to do anything else.” This applies for activities like preparing for job interviews, but it also applies to fun that I know could stress me out.

I order a bagel with lox from Russ and Daughters to pick up, which I eat in bed. An everything bagel with lots of poppy seeds is, I will say, an interesting choice of bed food, but here we are. I eat it while I start my work during London Writers’ Hour. After, I take a walk around the neighborhood, get a coffee, and go on a Tenement Museum tour. I chose Finding Home, which takes us into a recreation of two eras of a tenement apartment, one from when a Jewish family moved into it just after World War II, and the other from a later era when a Puerto Rican family moves in. Everything feels connected to my awakening brain, so an hour-plus of a super-informed guide augmented by tales from several older Jewish New Yorkers on the tour just makes the synapses sparkle. I feel so lucky.

I go back to the hotel to decompress a little and realize that my occasional travel problem of sorting out food in a timely way is extremely likely to be an issue on this trip. I make myself go out and get a veg burger, which I even eat outside, before going back to the hotel for my online appointment with my therapist. I stay in bed and think and write and read until I realize, again, the food thing is an issue, and I dress up a little and shove myself outside. What I didn’t anticipate was that Thursday in the Lower East Side is basically Friday. Almost all the outdoor tables at restaurants are full, and the sidewalks are crammed with the young and drunk.

This is a lot for me right now.

I wander around for more than 25 minutes, coming up empty-handed, vowing to make more reservations if I’m so hellbent on going out to eat in the future. Finally I spot a couple empty tables at an Italian restaurant with a stunning indoor bar, all twinkle lights along the ceiling, just a glittering golden oasis of possible inebriation that I cannot go into right now. I stuff myself with burrata and cheese-filled shells. I listen to the table next to me having a fairly ruthless and joyless political argument, a European lecturing an American and being what I think is correct but also pretty exhausting about it. I see people ten-odd years younger than me thrilling to their own hot vaxxed summers, coming within six inches of my sidewalk table.

I resolve that I do not need to go out for dinner tomorrow if I don’t want to.

Day three

I set an alarm and head for my time slot at MOMA. I have a Clif bar for technical breakfast and then, after saying hello to “Starry Night” and some other lovely things, I eat macaroni and cheese at their Terrace Cafe. It’s overcast and soft when I go outside, but the sky laser turns up to 11 approximately 30 seconds after I order. Like any common vampire, I cover myself in the large light scarf I usually have on me, and thus I survive to see the rest of the museum.

After, I walk north into Central Park, meaning to amble toward Bethesda Terrace in a roundabout way. I see dogs and read bench plaques. I see bike rickshaws, so many bike rickshaws, plus those tourist carriages and dozens of aggressive cyclists. And it’s wonderful. I dressed light, so I’m not dying from the humidity. I’m kind of wondering what my hair looks like, but I’m not uncomfortable. I get to my destination and sit on the cool stone ledge inside to write, listening to a guy playing the duxianqin, mixing the more traditional stuff you hear from one of those with things like the theme to The Godfather. I watch people selfie (the true theme of the day; MOMA was constant shit for the ‘gram, in a way I found more melancholy than annoying), I watch a guy making giant bubbles with one of those rope wands, I watch people living out their Real New York City Experiences, and I feel fairly content. I get up after a while and walk further through the park. A bit later, it begins to rain.

I haven’t felt soft summer rain in a long time. California doesn’t really have that: rain the same temperature as your skin, that feels like it grows things, like encouragement. My bag is full of moisture-averse things like my journal and the museum postcards I bought, so I can’t exactly luxuriate in it. I end up walking down Fifth Avenue, hopping from the shelter of one tree to another, until I end up under a Bergdorf Goodman awning and realize I’m close to the train back to my hotel. I wrap that sun-shielding scarf around my head, draping it over my bag, and make my way there, getting to the platform just as my train pulls up.

True to my word to myself, I get home and hang out for a while before getting crepes from the little shop across the street from my hotel. It stays open until two, and the crepes are exactly what I want. I do my daily writing. I do my first batch of sink laundry. And after I stayed outside for seven whole hours without having a pandemic agoraphobia-induced panic attack, I start to make more plans.

It feels safe to make more plans.

a mural of the Notorious B.I.G. on the Brooklyn Love building

Day four

I keep staying up later than I mean to. It’d be easy to blame this on time zones, but the reality is that I have a Kindle full of excellent library books and zero ability to cut myself off of anything joyful at this point, even if I know it’ll be waiting for me tomorrow. Last night, I stayed up past three finishing The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune, which was described to me as a warm hug, and it delivered. This meant, however, that getting up with my 11:30 alarm was… pushing it. I finally lumbered out of my hotel room around 12:45 (after washing my hair, because I’m rediscovering how curly hair works in humidity) and walked to Tompkins Square Bagels to grab breakfast and lunch, which I took to Battery Park to meet friends. “Meet us by the Seaglass Carousel” were the magical instructions, and I found a shady bench and devoured my nova lox bagel like any common large sea mammal. I came here to try to see what it’s like to live, and sitting in a park with friends, watching Zelda the dog roll ecstatically in the grass and try to eat mango, then walking back to my hotel with one of said friends, weaving through neighborhood after neighborhood, stopping to buy fruit at a sidewalk table, seeing layers of city give way to each other… it’s good. It’s very good. This could be your life, my soul whispers to me. I know, I whisper back.

I collapse back at the hotel, diminished after hours of sweating, before resurrecting myself to go out to dinner. It’s month-long restaurant week here (ok!), and I found a place around the corner with a prix fixe menu that includes both shrimp risotto and panna cotta (I fucking love panna cotta; a useful thing to know about me, because now you know to keep your hands away from my mouth and dessert when it’s on the table). It takes a good 15 minutes for someone to take my order, which is five minutes less than my limit for waiting on that kind of thing. The Lower East Side, it turns out, makes me feel very on the outside. I’m pretty accustomed to feeling that way, having been a weird kid for many many years now, but I’m not accustomed to being among people again yet, so it’s a little difficult. I sit alone at a four-top with another excellent book, content enough, but feeling outside, as I’m surrounded by friend groups fueling up for a night out (with both food and, in the case of some table neighbors, rounds of tequila shots). I have no problem eating alone, but eating alone at a place that’s all about large groups is a slightly different situation. I order champagne, because yay me, but am informed they only have rosé champagne that night. Oh no, not that. I say that’s fine, but the waiter brings me regular champagne and then a bonus on-the-house glass of the rosé, with a wink of that particular kind that comes from a career waiter. It feels like extra oxygen in the room to be visible and judged worthy of a little kindness and delight. The panna cotta is excellent too.

He comps me another glass of champagne with my check. I tip well and happily. I am very happy to be seen as that woman who dines alone and warrants champagne.

mural of Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the Lower East Side of Manhattan

Day five

I stayed up late last night, waiting for the champagne to work its way out of me, and then decided at 2:30 am that it was definitely time to do a first revision/editing pass on that printed-out short story I brought with me, and so I give myself the gift of sleeping as late as I damn well please. I emerge from my hotel just before three and walk back to my favorite East Village bagel shop. The ice melts in my coffee before I get to Tompkins Square Park to eat them, but fortunately, the coffee is mostly gone by then too. I am relieved that travel’s magical transmuting quality on coffee still works for me. At home, it’d give me an elevated heart rate and a sense of vague danger; elsewhere, it provides more of that awake/alive/ready feeling that seems normal for a lot of people.

I find a place on the lawn to eat, drink my lemonade, and write in my journal a little. A cover band plays mostly Beatles songs, and excellently, with one single deviation with an Eagles song, for which I can forgive them. I smell weed and watch dogs try to chase squirrels and see everyone in their shared yard in public. I realize I’m too warm to eat more, so I stop at half a nova lox bagel. It will be the last thing I eat for more than six hours, well into the evening.

I need to get to the Upper West Side, and I screw the directions up a little, somehow missing the stop on Houston I sought. Instead, I end up walking a long, warm mile and a half, mostly avoiding the sun for all the good it did me, arriving at the next station approximately seven hours later (meaning probably 30 minutes) and certainly down a pint of the humors I need to keep me alive. Seriously, I become a freaking lawn sprinkler as I wait on the platform. I know it’s gross when my shins are sweating. The train I needed pulled away as I stepped onto the platform, so I have the longest wait possible, 13 minutes to stand in the shared sauna, breathing deeply and reminding myself that suffering is as transient as joy. The AC of the train is a balm, is an absolution, is a reminder that maybe I’ll live to see another day.

I get to my destination at least 30 minutes later than I’d intended, just long enough to talk to my boyfriend and spot a minivan with the license plate 1-HOTMOM parked outside. I’m there for a performance of Twelfth Night at a community garden on 89th Street.

“I, uh, didn’t know you liked Shakespeare,” Sean says as I talk to him before going through the gate to find a seat. “You’ve never seemed especially interested when I’ve proposed it.”

“I’m not when there are more options,” I tell him. “But I like seeing theater when I come to New York, so I like it just fine when it’s one of the few outdoor performances happening.”

It’s a lot of fun to watch. My attention span remains spotty and unpredictable after all that time in my apartment, and I watch some and drift away in my mind some, going back and forth, but enjoying the performances. I like a whimsical interpretation of a Shakespearean comedy. They do a nice job, and I’m glad I stumbled onto it online. The president of the garden sits next to me sometimes, on the edge of a planter, and we both have hand fans in motion most of the time.

After, I go get dinner at the Mermaid Inn, where I drink almost two liters of ice water. I eat a giant pile of kale, because one of my weekly goals is to try to get more salad. (My last few days were more bagel-based than is ideal.) They bring me a little surprise chocolate pot to finish things up, and I feel blessed by waiters again.

After, I wander down Amsterdam and into some of the more residential blocks. I have to figure out where a character of mine lives, and I take pictures of front doors of likely looking places. It’s interesting roaming around an area I kind of know but who someone I’ve invented knows very well. May I recommend writing a novel set somewhere else and then going there? It’s a new kind of orientation, the imagination overlaying the half-familiar.

I walk down to 60th, frown at the people taking stupid selfies in front of the shitty former president’s shitty hotel (I mean, seriously, still?), and duck onto the subway. Some deeply odious bros are being exactly as you’d expect, and I put my headphones on for the first time since the plane here. Lots of things are easier with an application of Nine Inch Nails.

I arrive home and discover new blisters on my left foot in places I generally don’t get them. It’s good; it means I’ve been walking a ton, one of my primary goals for this trip. But it also means that tomorrow’s a great day to try to take it a little easier physically.

Day six

In fact, I take the day off.

I get up before 11 to do London Writers’ Hour while eating a bagel from yesterday. After I get my words done, I realize I’m still zonked, so I go back to sleep for a couple of hours, having those shallow, vivid dreams that pop up sometimes with out-of-band, uncertain sleep. Between my feet being kind of fucked and the fact that it’s somehow warmer out today than yesterday, I realize that the best, most honest approximation of living here today is… staying the hell inside. I eat longan for the first time, piercing their shells with my incisors before shelling them and spitting the dark seeds into my crepe bag from several nights ago. I write and catch up on neglected emails and responses on Slack and Twitter. I wash my hair after all the sweaty hours of yesterday and get to let it dry before I go outside. I do the next London Writers’ Hour and work on some editing.

If this were a week-long vacation, it would feel like such a massive squandering of time, but I’m realizing that this is the luxury of a longer trip: I can just veg sometimes and be a person who gets tired and needs a moment. If I’d gone outside today, I might’ve forced myself through a couple hours at the Met or some other museum that I probably would have liked well enough but which didn’t really sing to me today. Anyway, it’s Monday, and lots of cultural things are closed. Instead, I’m letting my body rest a little, limiting the push of sharp, sharp summer on soft, pale limbs that really aren’t into marching around in 90-degree heat and sweltering sun. I’m starting to understand what it would be like for me to live in New York in the summer: I’d do less some days, like you always do if you’re just home. It’d be easier if I could just go see a movie or luxuriate in restaurant AC, but I’m not doing either of those things right now, so my options for climate control are my hotel room, the subway, and museums. Instead, I stay inside, and it’s just right.

In the evening, I take two trains over to Fort Greene to meet online friends for German beer, and it’s nice to just sit and talk and exist with people who have at least a little context of who I am. I love this version of traveling: a couple of days to wander and feel only barely tethered to the world, then getting to see friends and be a person in the context of the rest of my life for a little while. We talk hacking things and security conferences and mutual friends. (It’s security; there are always mutual friends.) When I go home, I’m able to make the return trip without consulting my phone. Not the most complicated route, but it’s just such a joy to be able to figure things out again for fun reasons. A memory of letters and colors, understanding what the endpoints on the trains mean, and getting to be just another blase person on the subway platform.

I realized during dinner that I seem to have walked off the unhelpful portion of my “I am among people, oh shit!!!” anxiety, leaving only the useful stuff (masks inside, a general disinterest in unsafe indoor things and people). I book a ticket for a day at the American Museum of Natural History and am surprised at how excited I am. This kind of unadulterated looking forward to stuff has been largely out of reach for the last pandemic length of time. Always, some part of myself had to be left on the shelf in order to emotionally survive things. What a gift it is to look at even one thing without that weight sitting across my shoulders.

I learn during dinner that the place I’m staying in the Lower East Side sits neatly within what’s called Hell Square.

This explains some things.

Day seven

For my last full day staying in Manhattan, I go to… Staten Island.

I’ve meant to take the ferry for my last several visits to the city, but do you know, it’s really easy to just keep not doing that. Not until a friend mentioned the Alice Austen House did I have the double-barreled reason to actually go. I book a 1 pm tour, set an alarm, and spend the last hour of the morning making my way to the ferry. On the other side, I get a bus down Bay Street to the museum.

It overlooks the water, and it’s fitting to learn about Austen’s work there, because she documented so much local stuff: street life in Manhattan in the late 1800s, quarantine islands in the same era, and her robust social life, which seemed to be full of sardonic nerds. I like them immediately.

Lobster Newburg recipe typed on a card
Alice and Gertrude bribed the chef at Delmonico’s $75 for this recipe and never really recouped the money. You can enjoy it for free.

When I get back to the hotel, I give myself the gift of a couple hours in the AC before I go out, eating an egg salad sandwich from Pret-a-Manger in bed to tide me over before fancy dinner.

My new favorite kind of bar is the kind that wants to see my vax card. It doesn’t fix everything, as we know, but it’s harm reduction, which will do. The room at the back of the bar in Brooklyn is small, probably the size of my living room and bedroom put together. Mambembe is a ten-person ensemble (that night, anyway) that takes up between half and two-thirds of the space. I’d forgotten what it’s like to feel the strike of a drum in my bones, going resonant through my ribcage. Turns out it’s everything. New Heights Brass Band is all women, and their solos, I just… I get FEELINGS much more easily right now than I usually do, and I found myself on the edge of tears at a guitar solo during an arrangement of “Genie in a Bottle”, to say nothing of all the other actual brass solos.

I am not the same as I was, and in some ways, that’s pretty ok.

I dance and I dance and I dance, and I drink pulque that even the bartender didn’t realize was on their bottle list, and the bar staff is extremely kind, and everyone’s so glad to be there. Including me.

a lightbulb sticks out of a Supremes record

I take the subway back for my last night in my hotel, and I’m struck again at how simple it is: how frequent the trains are, how clear everything is, how stuff just works. I’ve been here enough to know that’s not always the case, but I am pretty sure it often is, and for someone who has gone through elaborate thinking to figure out how to get from Rockridge to Ashby via BART without wanting to tear things apart or wait a pointless 28 minutes for a transfer, that is everything.

Tomorrow brings trip part two: the Brooklyn-based days. I cannot wait.

This… MEANS Something (to me, anyway)

It turns out that if you spend the vast majority of an entire sixteen-month span of your life in the same three rooms, moving yourself very far from that context absolutely floods the brain.

And it turns out that, if you’re in the state of being where “I saw a person” still feels like a riveting story, putting yourself in a place with roughly eight million people means that every one-hour span feels like an entire thick-ass anthology of flash fiction.

Including…

The skinny young guy, mask below his nose, on the phone, sticker still on his snapback hat, who got up from sitting on the subway by lifting himself just enough to put his hand on the rail above him to pull himself to standing using only his arm strength.

Another young guy, this one sitting next to me on the train, clad in brilliantly teal scrubs, who told his friend on the phone about his series of upcoming night shifts. He collapsed slightly onto the rail next to him as he awaited his stop during our long trip on the J. I’d had 4.5 hours of sleep before approximately eleven hours of travel, so I felt a quiet kinship with him.

The lanky 14-year-old on my Tenement Museum tour who, when we were all told to stand somewhere so we could see the subtitles on the TV showing the video interview of the apartment’s former tenant, walked into the middle of the room of twelve other people on the tour, blocking the view of at least two-thirds of us. When I tapped him on the shoulder and made a hand gesture that meant, roughly, “Other people exist, young squire,” he scurried to the side in understanding. Thanks, my guy. You’ll get there.

The trio of older New Yorkers on the tour, city accents gloriously deep and rich, all of whom had stories to add about the Jewish and Puerto Rican families’ experiences we were discussing. One was using WhatsApp in Hebrew in breaks between the guide’s stories. Another was involved in developing the first ESL curriculum in local schools in the early 60s.

Every counter person or cashier I’ve dealt with, all of whom have exuded east coast kindness (in contrast to west coast nice). I think this is my favorite thing about the east coast and what I miss the most, though the west coast version usually gets me by, just without this particular spectrum of heartwarming feelings. Give me brusque and actually concerned when I’m in need any day.

The man in painters’ whites, sitting on a literal pile of metal ladders on the sidewalk, looking fully at ease as he chats on the phone in a gently reclined position, despite being on something barely more comfortable than a stack of loose Legos or perhaps an actual cactus.

The bench dedicated to Kamari the dog on the west side of Central Park, next to which crouched the single fluffiest, best-groomed, freshly blown-out Golden Retriever I will ever see in my life.

The woman who stopped to ask me, as I sat next to the lake in Central Park, if I was from there. “Alas, no.” I said. “Why?” She turned to look over her shoulder. “We want to know what that is.” She pointed to a tall building that stretched above the trees, its corners each graced with elaborate enough toppers that they could each be a monument. “Well,” I told her, “now I want to know what it is too.” I looked it up later and found out that it’s The Beresford, which has just as many notable residents (Diana Ross, Meyer Lansky, and Helen Gurley Brown???) as its fabulous exterior deserves.

The people I huddled next to under a Bergdorf Goodman awning as we waited to see if the soft summer rain would let up or turn into a proper downpour. One of them was a cop, and I tried to spy on the beat report he was writing, but I was too distracted with figuring out how to get my cloth bag full of my journal and postcards safely indoors to concentrate.

Remembering how you can end up in a cohort of sorts of other museum visitors, which can be delightful or deeply, deeply irritating. Particularly as none of us seem to remember how to maneuver through crowds anymore. If ever we did.

The gothest horse and carriage along Central Park, all purple-and-black ostrich feathers and studded black leather tack.

The middle-aged guy with long curly hair and a beard – Sammy Hagar type, let’s say – riding a city bike around the Seaglass Carousel at Battery Park. “Woooooow,” I hear him say as he circles it. On the next rotation: “It’s so pretty.” I don’t see him again, but I hope so hard that he got to ride it, because it was indeed so pretty, because we’re guaranteed nothing in this life, and exchanging a few bucks for such guaranteed joy is an excellent investment. Grown-ass people can ride carousels too. Now I’m wondering why I didn’t. (Answer: I hadn’t had breakfast yet and had a bagel with nova lox waiting for me in my bag.)

The buff man in a surgical mask who stands, arms crossed, in front of the bar entrance next to the restaurant I have dinner at. He deals with group after group of young women in tiny dresses, in airy dresses, in sparkling sandals, in brand-new eight-eyelet Docs, checking IDs, letting them through, and being a traffic controller in a night that’s sure to need a lot of it.

The member of the acting troupe who stepped in at the last minute after one of the troupe tested positive for covid, despite being vaccinated, who had to occasionally consult the copy of Twelfth Night he held, but often didn’t. Everyone coming together to put on a play in a garden in the Upper West Side. All of us sitting and beholding the product of collaboration. Also the people who occasionally were clearly just taking a shortcut through the garden, slowing their walk for a moment to figure out exactly what the hell was going on.

And the always-at-least-slightly-sweaty tourist in the black shirt and rust-colored backpack, eyes wide, taking all of it in while she can, because the return flight comes a little bit closer every day.

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?

Perfection.

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.

“Yep.”

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.

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

I MEAN.

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.

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.

Maybe.

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.