27 June 2012

a burned brown

Everything is the wrong color, a bland brown, a sickish yellow, a lack of verdant.

Verdant—what a word with the lush verd- in there.

Verte en francais, bien sur.

Even saying it—verdant—feels lush with the rush of air, the teeth pushing forward, then ending with that arch, that high, that distinctive, that definitive T.

But the world around me isn't verdant. Everything is the wrong color as the grass reaches deep into the ground, deeper and deeper still, looking for water.

The grass has reached the center of the earth, and that scorching molten center has charred it. Has made it a fire hazard. Has made us all forget that a verdant world can exist.

It does, in fact, exist, somewhere underneath this burned brown.

One morning, we'll wake up, and the world will be the right color again, right?

24 June 2012

baggage claim tango

At the baggage claim, you stare at the chute, bags tumbling and sliding down the conveyor belt. Will yours come out?

You’re not sure why you doubt this. You have done everything you should—more even. (When do you not do more?) You bag is just the right size to just barely fit (but fit it does!) into those size-checkers airlines have installed at the gates.

It is, you suppose, like those signs at amusement parks: you must be this tall to go on this ride. And there’s always a lion or an elephant or a pirate holding out an arm (or a trunk, as the case may be), helping little children know who can have fun and who needs to grow up.

The airline bag size-checker is just like a lion holding out his arm, and you’ve discovered that making flying more like a game—and making the airport more like an amusement park—is essential to keeping your spirits up while flying.

Your pre-flight ritual of treating yourself to a tall latte and a slice of lemon cake also helps.

Your bag fits in the substitute for a lion, but today the United gate attendant sweetly said—or you assumed it was sweetly said. Those airport intercom systems make everyone sound like a relative of Darth Vader. He, with his forced, harsh breathing never sounded sweet, but the gate attendant must’ve been going for sweetness when she said, “Folks, we have a full flight today to Houston, and we’re going to be limited on overhead space.”

Here she paused, allowing her eyes to sweep over the waiting area, as if calculating the dimensions of every bag, dividing by existing overhead space. Length times height time width, and it did not compute. “So if we could have a few of you gate check your bags, that would be so helpful. Thank you for your attention.”

You realized that no on else had given her their attention.

She was thanking only you.

You alone could be helpful.

Everyone else clutched their carry-ons to their hearts. They were more attached to them than to their first-born children. (Maybe their first-born children were in those bags?)

You were the gate attendant’s only hope, so you walked up to the counter, smiling but without any of your teeth showing. A Mona Lisa look, an acknowledgment smile: I heard you, sweet gate attendant, and I am now being sweet.

Away your bag went after small talk about oh my, what a full flight and your bag will come back to you in Houston and thank you for gate checking, Miss…?


Walker. Miss Walker.

Walker handwritten on the tag the gate attendant had attached with a snap of elastic.
“Is there a scannable code on that?” You wanted to ask that question—such a small but mighty question!—but your bag had been taken away.

Down the gangplank, into the lion’s den (you’re mixing your metaphors again), and a small but mighty fear arose that your bag would be lost.

Forever. Lost.

It was no longer clutched to your heart, and you started to miss everything in it like you would miss your first-born, if you had one of those.


Here you stand, several hours and hundreds of miles later (and oh, it is so hot in Houston, even in the airport!), in front of the baggage claim chute. Will yours come out?

You watch the other people standing around the baggage claim carrousel, for what are airports good for if not for people watching?

This baggage claim #6 is also supposed to be spitting out bags from a flight that just landed from Orlando. A little girl, maybe 5 years old, is wearing a shiny yellow dress that looks just like the one Belle wears in the big dancing scene in Beauty and the Beast. This little girl, who could be a younger version of Belle, has been to Disney World, and she does not look happy to now be in Houston.

Houston is not Disney (a point in Houston’s favor, in your scorebook, although who will ever look in your scorebook?), and you briefly consider telling the little girl a few things:
One, her dress is very pretty.

Two, you were once told by the lady who animated Belle in the Disney movie that you looked like Belle.

Three, a dream is a wish your heart makes. Wrong Disney movie, and it’s always been a perplexing concept to you, given that your dreams sometimes involve people breaking into your house. Do you wish that? Does your heart really want that? But a dream is a wish your heart makes is just the kind of thing Disney sells so well to 5-year-old girls. That and dresses so that they can feel like a princess.

Four, you don’t need a dress to feel like a princess.

Five, you don’t need to be at Disney to feel like your life is charmed. Remember that, kid: you’ll find it useful in 25 years when you’re living the life you always wanted but find that some days still leave you empty. At the end of days like that—when comfort food seems to be nothing more than calories—you will want to escape into an easier, more charmed world, even though you don’t know where that is. You just know that it’s over there somewhere.

You will remember, then, this lesson: A place isn’t charmed just because it’s somewhere else. Greener grass and all that does not exist elsewhere unless it also exists in your own front yard. A place is charmed because you choose to make it so. That lesson will get you through days when you want to run to the hills because you were just sure, from your spot in the valley, that the sun was shining more brightly and more beautifully there.

But at this moment in front of the baggage claim, you do not tell the little girl any of that about Disney, although imagining this conversation has been a welcome distraction from staring at the baggage claim chute.

If you had not been sweet and gate checked your bag, you could’ve been on the shuttle to the hotel by now, you think.

You could’ve been almost to a place where you could lay down and take off these heels, you think.

You made the wrong choice in letting your bag go, you think.

You always make the wrong choice, a voice that is not you but has somehow gotten into your head thinks.

You shut up, voice. I did the best I could, you think and then see that from the top of the baggage claim chute, more bags are starting to tumble and slide down.

There had been a several minute pause in the bags coming out, and other people had filled their time by looking at their watches and sighing, but not you. No, you filled the time by forcing your face into a neutral, relaxed, of course everything will work out expression.

Forcing relaxation is a concept that rarely works.

But here come the bags—no, the boxes! Someone has checked several cardboard boxes, just as if United Airlines were UPS. They are shrink-wrapped, much like DVDs that are impossible to open easily (why such a barrier to entertainment?), and they are covered in black marker scratchings that must make sense to someone who speaks a different language.

It never occurred to you to pack your clothes in a box, what with the existence of perfectly good suitcases (that fit into the airline bag size-checkers!).

“Well, would you look at that!” you say to the older Asian woman standing next to you. She has been making small, ant-like darts around the baggage claim carrousel for minutes on end, and you’re hoping that conversation will calm her. “I didn’t know you could check boxes!”

She practically leaps forward—nimble movements, craning her neck to see farther up the baggage claim chute—and then turns to you, “Oh, you can check anything. Even people. You could put people in boxes and check them.”

You realize she is not the woman you should be talking to and that you yourself now need someone to bring a level of calm to you after this conversation. Checking people?

It’s no matter, no matter at all (although it probably would be a matter of great importance to anyone who’s ever been sent aboard a flight in such a fashion). You move away from the woman who can’t stop moving, and try to get your mind to stop moving toward worst case scenarios.

The worst being: your bag is lost and will never come back to you. You will never see again your new Mizuno running shoes or your swimsuit or your work dayplanner where you keep all your to-do lists.

These things will be lost forever, but why are you so attached to things?

That question is a bigger one than you intended to encounter on this trip to Houston, but this is what happens when you lose control, even the littlest bit of control, such as over your suitcase: you start to question life.

And why does this loss of control—

Ah, no time for that question now: Your bag has come down the chute.

You always knew it would.

23 June 2012

the last time i was in houston

I am in the JW Marriott in Houston.

Across the street from my hotel is the Galleria Mall—more specifically Saks Fifth Avenue and this very popular {judging from the number of people crowding its outdoor patio} bar called Prohibition.

Prohibition's tagline is: The Craft of Cocktails, although I doubt that's what the original proponents of prohibition would like as a tagline. They probably would've suggested: It Was a Good Idea Then and Maybe We Should Bring It Back.

Probably the people opposed to prohibition wouldn't like this bar, either, seeing as it's so out in the open and so not like a speakeasy. To get in, it appears that there is no secret password—no whispering at the door so much as dancing on the patio.

A mariachi band just came down the escalator here in the hotel lobby, all in Bordeaux-colored embroidered suits. Are they made of velvet? I've always thought they were made of velvet.

I can barely get back to my original train of thought now; this is what mariachi bands do to you. All I can think of now is how they were singing "Guantanamera," which is a song we had on a tape when I was little. I couldn't understand the words {possibly because they were in Spanish}, but that didn't stop me from singing along like this: "One ton of marrow, I need a one ton of marrow."

That is a lot of marrow.

Okay, away from marrow, away from mariachi bands, away, even, from prohibition.

The last time I was in Houston was three years ago on a cross-country trip with my sister and her husband. They were moving from Melbourne, Florida, to Los Angeles, and to save you from Google Mapping it: that is, indeed, from sea to shining sea.

SUCH A HUGE COUNTRY. So many miles we got by manifesting destiny, and I have seen all of them on I-10.

{And coming up later this summer: another cross-country adventure! Los Angeles to Rochester, NY! I will see so many more miles. And then I will lodge a formal request with the Air Force that they stop moving my sister from one end of the country to the other. How about a gradual move, huh, Air Force?}

We blogged our way across the country, and just for fun {and to stop myself from talking about prohibition any more}, I thought I'd share my post from Houston on The Great Weaver Migration.


The Last Time I Was in Houston

I have to admit it: I was not excited about Houston. The rest of the stopping points on our trip evoke a little ooh or ahh, but Houston...eh. It made me so non-plussed that I actually said "eh."

So I decided a week or so ago to reframe Houston. Yes, I realized that I needed an attitude adjustment when it came to Houston, and that's when I registered for the 5 mile race.

Maybe a 5 mile race sounds like punishment -- as if I was angry at Houston and in some twist of logic decided to take it out on myself.

But for me, a 5 mile race was a chance to see a different side of Houston...and by that I mean, not the Galleria Mall and not anything directly off I-10.

This morning as I was running -- I did 5 miles in 42:30 -- I found out that Houston has some beautiful parks. Hermann Park, where the race ended, reminds me of Forest Park in St. Louis, and you know, oddly enough, downtown Houston reminds me of downtown Kansas City.

It seems my mind wants to connect Texas with Missouri.

As I was running, I said "Hi!" to pretty much every police officer I passed. And they closed off a lot of streets for this race, so there were a lot of officers on the route.

Every one of the officers responded to my very chirpy, very bright "Hi!" with a "Good mornin'." Some even added "miss."

I felt very much like I was in the South then, what with their drawl of "Good mornin'" that sounded more like "Guh mawnin'."

It also made me want to burst into "Good Morning" from Singin' in the Rain, but I refrained. Showtunes have their place -- actually in my world, they have many places -- but seeing as my life isn't actually a muscial, I should probably avoid singing showtunes at non-sequitur moments, such as while running in Houston.

Instead, I listened to This American Life.

I know Oesa already showed you pictures of me running / me looking skeptically at a beer (and that's how I always look at it, regardless of whether I've just run a race), but here's one more picture of me looking race-y (and yes, I know what I just said).

Stretching after the race, which translates to trying to look cool, hold my water bottle, and not fall over. Actually, the more I look at this picture, the more weirded out I get by my leg.

{This could be used for a "Don't Drink, Kids" ad campaign. My disdain for beer is that evident.}

21 June 2012

in which i eat a dime and have a grand adventure {part 2}

This is Part 2 of a story about the time I ate a dime when I was 3. {I love money so much, I eat it!} You might want to read Part 1, if you're one of those "tell me stories chronologically" people.


We were on RAGBRAI: Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. Every July, thousands of people bike from the western edge to the eastern edge—over the rolling hills that Iowa does indeed have, contrary to what many people think.

See? That is a hill—in Iowa, as proven by that field of corn. And in this particular instance, that row of bikers also helps prove that this is Iowa and RAGBRAI; it sure as heck isn't the Tour de France. If it were France, that would be a vineyard and the people would have baguettes attached to their bikes, just in case they got snackish.

RAGBRAI takes a week, and you bike past corn fields {see above}, soy bean fields, wheat fields, and pigs.

Along the way, you go through tiny towns that show off the best of Iowa: hospitality and food. One town—with American flags hanging from every light post and a hand-painted banner strung across Main Street that says "Welcome, Bikers!"—might offer a pancake breakfast.

Another town further down the road might have pork tenderloin sandwiches, that Iowa specialty of breaded goodness.

This is an Iowa specialty because well, it's made of pork. Even people who know nothing about Iowa know that we have lots of pigs. Unless they're confusing us with Idaho and think we have lots of potatoes. I realize that people from the coasts tend to blur on what's in-between, say, Las Vegas and Philadelphia, but I think it should be a high school graduation requirement to know the difference between Iowa and Idaho. This isn't asking much; it's not like asking people to explain why the League of Nations never caught on and how it led to the United Nations. It's just about pork and potatoes. That's all.

The best part of a pork tenderloin sandwich is that it's bigger than your head. Meat bigger than your head! Although in this picture, your head would need to be rather oddly oblong, much like Bert's head from Sesame Street, and I hope you're not a puppet. But I hope that one day you get to eat a pork tenderloin sandwich in Iowa, maybe even on RAGBRAI. When you bike past a pig farm, you can say, "Little piggy, I'm going to eat you later!" if you're the type to talk to your food.

You bike about 70 miles a day on RAGBRAI, and every night you camp in another little town. Those thousands of sweaty, tired, over-fed people take over parks and school grounds and front yards.

I realize this all sounds like an incredible recipe for a party—like a cycling Woodstock but with fewer musical acts and {you would hope} fewer drugs. But keep in mind that no matter how hard you party the night before, you still have to get on a bike the next day. Have you ever tried balancing on two wheels while hungover? I certainly have not, but it sounds impossibly challenging.

Also, sometimes after biking/eating/making adoring noises about the cute towns in Iowa, your body is tired.

Your legs don't bend right.

You never want to see another bike.

You don't think you'll ever be able to sit down again.

That is not the ideal attitude for going to an all-night party—at least I don't think it is. My ideal all-night party involves pink pajama pants and reading historical non-fiction or Jane Austen in bed, so I'm probably not the best judge of who should be partying and when.

Parties aside, RAGBRAI was made for my family:
  1. We like camping.
  2. We like biking.
  3. We like eating pork tenderloins.
  4. We like Iowa and understand that it has hills.

In the early 80s, my parents and my brothers—Patrick and Eric, who are 13 and 14 years older than me {and technically half-brothers, leading me, a confused-in-math child anyway to think I had one whole brother}—went on a biking trip in Colorado. There were mountains involved, as there often are in Colorado, and my parents and the boys went up and over them.

If someone were to publish a collection of stories about my family's vacations, it would be called Every Other Kid You Know Went to Disney World on Vacation and They Were Bored. Now Get on the Bike: And Other Lies I Was Told.

In that book would be a story about Patrick and Eric, stopping with my parents at a gas station in Colorado before heading up a particularly daunting hill, the kind that might be called a "Rocky" and that would make Rocky himself cry.

A woman looked at them, their spindly teenage legs, their helmets that looked to be left over from World War 2, their bikes that were heavier than they were, and said: "You're going to make those boys go over that hill on those bikes?"

And my father, who would probably contest the fact that he lied to us about our vacations, said, "You better believe it! Let's go, boys!"

You can see why RAGBRAI was made for us. Or made for my father, who brought the rest of us along and said that we'd have fun.


I know what you're thinking: THERE ARE NO DIMES IN THIS SECTION. Why aren't you eating more money? I mean, I love this thing about biking across Iowa and your crazy and demanding family vacations, but get back to the dime.

Coming up next: I get back to the dime.

20 June 2012

in which i eat a dime and have a grand adventure {part 1}

I opened my mouth to give the rallying cry of little sisters everywhere: "So there!"

This phrase, I'm sure, was uttered by some cave-dwelling little girl as she and her sister played with their toys—made of bones and dinosaur teeth—while their dad desperately tried to figure out fire and their mom painted the walls of their cave with pretty pictures of animals.

"Girls, stop fighting, and come look at how I've decorated the cave," their mother might've called out. "It's not like these mean anything, these cave paintings; I had to paint a hunt because animals are so easy. Don't you think they really brighten up the place? I bet nobody else in Lascaux has a cave like this."

As the girls stared at the cave art, thinking they would've rather had paintings of their toys, the little one probably pulled her older sister's hair, then whispered, "So there!"

In another classic baby sister move, she probably then turned sweetly to her mother, gave her a big hug, and pretended to have done nothing wrong.

It's a useful phrase, an essential phrase&mash;this so there—but when I opened my mouth to really stick it to my big sister, nothing came out.

No rallying cry.

No triumphant argument winner.

No so there at all.

What did come out was a slow-release hiss of air, as if I had become a fat bicycle tire with a small leak. Or as if I were trying to imitate the dull roar of a crowd at a football game, an odd thing for a 3-year-old to imitate, especially when she's in the midst of a fight.

My entire body panicked, and I stared at my sister, trying to silently communicate—well, besides the hiss/crowd roar sound—that other essential line little sisters have been saying to big sisters for generations and generations: "Help me! You're bigger and know what to do!"

Not taking her eyes off me, my sister yelled, "Dad! Come here! Kamiah swallowed a dime!"


But why would I eat a dime, beyond that I was a stubborn child? {One frequently referred to as "that little hellion," possibly because I once broke my grandma's statue of Jesus and showed no remorse.}

You can read Part 2 to find out more.

19 June 2012

the happy children of life

This excerpt from Laurie Colwin's "A Mythological Subject" keeps popping into my head:

It is often to the wary that the events in life are unexpected. Looser types—people who are not busy weighing and measuring every little thing—are used to accidents, coincidences, chance, things getting out of hand, things smeaking up on them. They are the happy children of life, to whom life happens for better or worse.

Those who believe in will, in meaning, in intentionality, who brood, reflect, and contemplate, who believe there are no accidents, who are born with clear vision or an introspective temperament or a relentless consciousness are quite another matter.
And so I thought I'd share it with you and let it pop around your head for awhile.

Laurie is, in case you don't know, one of my favorite short story writers {and food writers; a worthy combination, there}, and this quote is underlined and bracketed about six times in my copy.  I love stories like that:  ones that I can pick up at any moment and feel like I've run into an old friend, one whose smile I know so well.

14 June 2012

histories {a poem}

This airport hotel in Philadelphia is a place set apart—

so near history on a grand scale
that declaration of independence that tried to knock the crown off the king
that shout of freedom written large not 10 miles from here
in the second story of a brick building
where the men sweated under their wigs
from the oppressive heat and of course,
from England’s oppression.
History is so near
but I’m in this concrete block
this vacuum-sealed room to keep the jet fumes out
this airport hotel, an uncomfortable mix of
almost-there and nowhere.

On the runways, planes come and go,
carrying tourists off to see Michelangelo.

I make up histories for their adventures:
The United flight has a man off to visit his blue-haired grandma in Owen Sound, Ontario, and he thinks it might be the last time. One more time, he wants to hear about how she fished the Georgian Bay when she was just a little girl: the cold water, the smell of the fish, the sunrise. All these moments will be lost soon.

The American flight has a woman off to her college roommate’s wedding in Kansas City—she’s seeing a girl who used to know everything about her, including that she snores lightly, but who now feels as distant and formal as the calligraphy on the wedding invitation. She didn’t even get to bring a guest, and so she’s alone on this flight, thinking about how she decided to RSVP yes because she didn’t want to miss out. Fifteen years after freshman year and she’s still worried about the in-crowd.
There are histories all around,
out of every window and
on every runway and
in every building

as we all live in this astounding mix of
almost-there and everywhere.

12 June 2012

superior ratatouille

Is there any felicity in the world superior to this?*

To coming home from a work trip—overtired, overtalked, overpeopled, just over—and realizing you have everything necessary to make ratatouille, that French vegetable dish that tastes like Mediterranean sunshine, tiled roofs, and that joie de vivre Americans always envy in the French {even if they can't define joie de vivre}?

And that, in the several days you were away, nothing has gone bad?**

It was a lottery prize of joy and comfort food—the Mega Millions, I tell you, and when I started to pull out everything I needed—eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, onion—I thought: It will feel so good to chop and dice and sautee and eat.

Days of living in a hotel tend to make you excited about using a knife.

No, that came out wrong: days of living in an airport hotel {the runway just outside your window, reminding you every five minutes that someone is always leaving on an adventure} make you excited about being in your own space again.

And days of eating other people's food {and I had some of the best meals of my life on this trip: a wild sage martini and Berkshire pork chops and an asparagus bisque and Brussels sprouts ravioli and oh, the cheeseboard with a triple cream cheese from Normandy...!} will make you excited about eating your own food. Prepared by you in your kitchen with your knives and afterwards you can go to bed under your own sheets.

Tell me, truly: Is there any felicity in the world superior to this?

* I'm sure Jane Austen would think there was a felicity superior to ratatouille, especially since she had one of her characters—Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility—say this. But I've never wanted to be much like Marianne {and who would when there's Elinor around?}, so I'm stealing her line and applying it to vegetables. I don't think she'd mind.

** You can chastise me now for my poor produce planning, but first an explanation: it wasn't much produce that I left in the fridge while I flew off to Philadelphia. It just so happened to be the perfect amount of ratatouille ingredients, and I'd like us to pretend now that I planned it that way. Thank you for indulging me.

09 June 2012

you're in business?

A little story for you from my business trip to Philadelphia:

As I was going through security today at O'Hare, I got pulled out of the line for extra screening on my bag. The TSA lady told me they had "seen something flashing orange" when it went through the scanner.

And seeing as that made no sense to me (flashing orange? Did I leave a strobe light of some sort in my bag?), I asked what exactly that could mean. It seems that on their scanners, things glow a variety of colors for various reasons and orange could indicate a powder of some sort.

I assume they aren't concerned about baby powder so much as the explosive kind of powder, and that's what they were potentially, maybe, it's-glowing-orange, seeing in my bag.

Now, I am the kind of person who assumes every alarm, car horn, and buzzer is meant for me: I have done something wrong, and I will now get in trouble.

Driving to the gym the other morning, I made a full stop at a four-way intersection, made eye contact with another driver, who waved me through. As I gently accelerated, someone honked loudly and ferociously; in an instant, my face turned red, my heart raced as if I'd already finished my workout, and I instinctively—and simultaneously—hit the brake and apologized. Out loud. To no one.

Looking in the rearview mirror, I saw that another driver had seen a friend biking and so he'd honked to say hello. They were chatting through the car's open window and there was even laughter involved.

No one was in trouble, least of all me, and it must be some detail of my personality that relates to the goody-two-shoes, perfectionist thing, but that gut-dropping feeling of "being in trouble" overtakes me more than I should admit.

Of course when the TSA agent pulled me out of line, I assumed I was going to jail. I had an urge to recite the preamble to the Constitution or sing "My Country 'Tis of Thee"—anything to prove that I'm a good, law-abiding citizen.

The TSA lady unzipped my bag and went straight for my box of business cards. "Ma'am, I need you to tell me truthfully what's in here," she told me, looking and sounding very, very serious.

"Um, business cards. I just picked them up last night from my friend Katie, who works at a company that makes all sorts of things, including magnets, but in this case, they made me business cards. I'm taking them to a meeting in Philadelphia for the weekend. That's why I'm flying today. For business. With my business cards. In that box."

When I get nervous, I tend to babble, speak in fragments, and provide too many details.

I got the idea that she didn't believe me, especially when she asked, "You're in business? Is this your first job out of college?"

As a life-lesson note: babbling rarely makes you look older and more mature.

"Oh, no! I'm 30! No, I am, really!" (Should I show her my driver's license? Conveniently enough, it's still in my back pocket, where I put it after showing it to the security guy.) "And this is not my first job; I'm the Editorial Director of a medical media company. It says so on my card. Which is in that box. In your hand."

I gestured helpfully at her hand, and then smiled hopefully.

Please stop looking at me like I'm in trouble, TSA Lady. Please please please please.

She opened the box and pulled out a card. "Kamiah A. Walker. Editorial Director. Well, look at that. You really are a grown-up. I have to run this back through the scanner to make sure it's all right, but it seems like you're fine."

I repeated to myself: I am fine. I am fine. I am fine. My government isn't mad at me. My government isn't mad at me.

"But honey," she said as she turned away towards the scanner, "if you're the Editorial Director, does that mean that you're in charge of things—and people?" Her face suggested that she thought maybe I should only be in charge of Playskool people—and even in that case, perhaps just drawings of Playskool people.

"Yep, sure does! Hey, do you want a card? I would totally give you one. I love handing these things out." My enthusiasm made her smile.

"Well, thank you, honey. You seem to have a knack for enjoying the little things, and I guess that's a good trait to have. Certainly keeps you from getting too bored, huh?" She handed back my box of cards—it having been approved to fly by the TSA—and chuckled as I handed a card back to her.

"Miss Editorial Director, you have a good day, and just keep handing out those cards, ok?"

And that is why I love flying, my business cards, and not getting in trouble with the TSA.

08 June 2012

the transit of venus {part 3}

I tried to remember all I could about telescopes as the man arranged his, aligning it to see the Transit of Venus.

Concave and convex: one of those terms applied, maybe both, and do you ever fear how much knowledge you've lost?

I once sat in a windowless classroom, hair in a high ponytail and tied with a purple bow—next to a boy who stared too much when I wore my cheerleading uniform—and drew diagrams of telescopes. Mr. Summerson, the physics teacher, had graded those; what would he say now if I asked him, "But if you point the telescope at the sun, doesn't it just intensify the light?"

That's what the man was doing: looking to the light.

"I got this"—here he patted the telescope before taping a piece of paper to a ladder he had set up about a foot away from the telescope—"when I retired from the school. They said it wasn't good enough for the classroom any more, but it's good enough for me, so I took it when they offered. Kind of a retirement bonus, I guess."

I liked that he didn't bother to explain which school he was talking about; it was as if, only for a moment, we lived in a small town out on the prairie: one school, one church, one store. Everyone knows everyone, and too many people know too much.

We don't live in a small town, this man and I: we're in the suburbs of Chicago, surrounded by millions of people, not millions of ears of corn, and he could've taught at any one of the hundreds of schools around us.

But he just said "the school," and for that moment, on a quiet street in the suburbs, our town shrank, and I suppose that makes sense: we're all, big towns and small towns, under the same sun, aren't we?

"Ah, yep, there it is: Venus." The man had channeled the sun's light, down through the concave or convex lenses {or both?}, letting it bounce around inside his telescope from the school, and out onto the piece of paper a foot away came a big, bright circle—and a small black dot.

"Do you see it?" he asked the little boy, who had spent most of this set-up time telling Miss Daisy about his toy pug. Perhaps he wanted them to be friends, and he was some sort of modern-day Christopher Robin.

"The sun! The sun!" the boy yelled, jumping up and pointing it out to Miss Daisy, who did nothing more interesting than sniff one of the telescope's legs. "And look, pug, there's a planet!"

And there it was indeed: moving so slowly across the paper, Venus was making itself known. It was blocking out part of the sun: how audacious of it, that tiny planet taking on that fireball.

I wanted so much to glance up at the real sun, not the circle on the paper. I wanted to stare at it and say: There, even though I can't see it, something amazing is happening. Something that will never happen again for me. Something that you have to trust is there.

How many other amazing things are happening right now, even though I can't see them? On mundanest of days of to-do lists and stress, planets are crossing the sky, and we don't even know it. Or remember it. Or pause to wonder at it.

And then there's this: on those days when you feel that everything is shifting—and your own street looks like a stranger—on those days, there is a level of comfort in knowing that planets are in motion as they have been for generations. There is order to the world, even when we can't see it.

I watched the Transit of Venus with the little boy, his parents, and the old man for several minutes. We all stared at the paper and said nothing but "Wow" the entire time.


The Transit of Venus, and it has to mean something, doesn't it, that I saw it on that Tuesday night?

07 June 2012

the transit of venus {part 2}

“I didn’t like today,” I told Miss Daisy as I put on her harness for her evening walk. She looked up at me with her big and sad eyes and then sneezed on my hands.

“That didn’t help, baby pug,” I sighed, opening the apartment door and ushering her out.

Once outside, everything changed.

How could it not? The late spring evening sun was giving the world that golden glow. In its light, nothing could remain wrong for long.

Suffused with the sun; that’s what you could say.

On my street, a whole row of ash trees were cut down recently. The emerald ash borer, that pernicious pest that has thrived in the Midwest, had gotten to them, and the city, in one day, had cut down an entire history of trees.

They used to line the street and lead the way, I though, to the big brick library: Books this way!

But without the ash trees, both sides of the street were the sunny side. So much harsh optimism and glaring concrete without those tall, generous but infected trees. The day the city had cut them down had come as a surprise (why didn’t they tell me? I could’ve said goodbye), and I’ve been quietly mourning their loss ever since.

My street does not look like my own, and it’s somewhat like having gone to the salon on an impulse, cutting off your long hair for a pixie cut because you’re tired of being weighed down—and then jumping back in shock every time you look in the mirror because the person there is not who you expected.

But my sunny side street soaking up so much spring sun—was a sight for a sore soul. The grass was a deeper green, a green that belonged by a glade, not by a parking lot. The little trees the city had planted to replace the ash trees looked hopeful and promising in that sun, as if they were endearing kindergartners standing on their tippy-toes to appear older.

Miss Daisy and I turned down a side street: she sniffing that deeper-than-a-green-glade grass with her curly tail wagging and me starting to let frustrations—at my to-do list, at the presidential election, at the day—melt in that golden sun.


Just down the street, a man and a woman were setting up lawn chairs in their front yard, as if to watch a parade.

“Yes, but Maggie,” the man was saying to the woman, plunking down his chair, the metal clanging on the sidewalk, “we don’t have the time for that. Tell your mother—”

Here they saw me coming, little pug sniffing and wagging, and the man’s tone changed. This big man, who looked like he may have been a linebacker at some point, said in the voice you use talking to small babies, “Well, there’s a cutie! Maggie, look at the pug! Look, she likes me! Yes, you like me, don’t you, pug? You’re wagging your tail—oh, yes, is that a good spot for me to scratch?”

Whatever Maggie was supposed to tell her mother—whatever tense line that man and woman were about to dance around—was forgotten in the scrunched-nose face of a pug. That’s Miss Daisy’s typical effect on people.

A little boy of maybe 6 came running out of the house. “A pug! A pug! I have a pug, but it’s a toy. Can I pet your real pug?”

“May I pet your pug?” his mother—Maggie—prompted just as his father prompted, “Please. Remember to say please, please.”

The boy (in a blue striped shirt that hung too big on him, having been bought, I’m sure, in a size he would grow into by the end of the summer) looked up at me. “May I, please?”

“Of course you can—may,” I self-corrected my word choice since my mother wasn’t there to prompt me. “This is Miss Daisy, and she likes to be petted behind the ears.”

The boy tapped Miss Daisy twice behind her ears, as if he were a magician planning to turn her into a rabbit or a white scarf. “We’re watching Venus,” he said—perhaps to Miss Daisy, perhaps to me.

“Oh? Venus?” I glanced at his parents, hoping for an explanation of this. Was Venus a dog? A baby? Another toy? His parents busied themselves setting up a table with drinks and snacks next to their chairs.

“Yeah, Venus. It’s going across the sun right now!” The little boy pointed up at the late spring evening sun.

Out of instinct, my eyes followed his finger, looking up, and an older man who’d come out of the house next cautioned (or was it a chastisement?), “Well, for Pete’s sake, don’t look at the sun! You can’t see Venus like that, and you’ll burn your eyes.”

This man—in his 70s and wearing a Grand Canyon t-shirt tucked into his jeans—carried a telescope. With confident ease but with careful movements (how many times has he done this?), he began setting it up at the end of his driveway.

“It’s the transit of Venus tonight: didn’t you know?”

I pulled Miss Daisy back from getting too close to his telescope, now pointed right at the sun. “No, I guess I didn’t know,” I admitted, wondering why NPR had not covered this fact instead of the unemployment rate. Transit of Venus sound more lyrical, more mystical, more beautiful than numbers.

“Oh, boy, are you ever in for a treat! Let me get all set up, and then you’ll see something that you won’t ever see again. It won’t happen again until—”

“2117,” the little boy finished for him. Clearly, the man had been educating his neighbors.


And tomorrow: the actual transit.

05 June 2012

the transit of venus {part 1}

Doesn’t it have to mean something?  That I chose to walk in that particular direction at that particular time—towards that particular meeting with those particular people?

It has to mean something.  (We always want it to mean something, don’t we?)

And what I mean is this:  tonight, on June 5, 2012, I took my little pug, Miss Daisy, for a walk at 6:11pm, and then I saw the transit of Venus.

I will never see it again.


“I didn’t like today,” I told the empty space of my car.

Or maybe I was telling NPR.  A calming, authoritative, informed voice out of the NPR headquarters in Washington, DC, was telling me about the presidential campaign—Romney vs. Obama, a bickering contest that will never end and November is so far away.

The voice didn’t exactly answer back but told me instead about the unemployment rate and how the same number can be presented so differently—in a positive light, in a negative shadow—by the two candidates.

Did you ever think about how the word candidate has candid in it, but most of the time, those slick, shiny, demographically-researched, American flag pin wearing candidates are anything but candid?  How can you know what is true, what is real, what is pure, what is lovely—when you’re not sure what to believe in their heavily-scripted, pandering-to-someone speeches?

Like with the unemployment rate:  it’s a number.  Numbers are supposed to be solid facts.  Bold, heavy, reliably rigid like the imposing stone facades of the Pentagon or the Post Office.  You shouldn’t be able to sculpt them with rhetoric and political blah-blah-blah—because if we can’t trust numbers, how do we count?

I turned off NPR; empty silence is better than empty words.

The problem with the day, the reason I hadn’t liked it, had been this:  nothing felt sure.  Deadlines shifted, there were delicately worded emails to write and interpret, and my to-do list kept growing, taking on an Alice in Wonderland life of its own:  the more I crossed things off, the more things were added, and I must be late for a very important date.   I was Alice through the looking-glass and wishing for clear direction and not such a topsy-turvy world.


In a mood like that, I was clearly in need of the transit of Venus—something, anything, to take me out of the mundane. More to come tomorrow.


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