Q is for Quaker

I attended a liberal arts college affiliated with the Quakers, also known as the Society of Friends.

Often when I tell people I attended a Quaker school, they say, “Quaker? You mean like the oatmeal?”Or they say, “Is that like the Amish?”

Um, no, not like the oatmeal, though the logo on the Quaker Oats carton does feature a man  in “Quaker dress” possibly circa the time of William Penn. And no, not like the Amish, who shun modern technology and thus use horse and buggy as their means of transport and do not have electricity in their homes, etc.

If you’re not familiar with Quakerism, you might have heard of a “Friends” school near you. (President Obama’s daughters attend a Quaker-affiliated school in Washington, for example, Sidwell Friends. There’s a Friends school here in San Francisco, and, as you might expect, quite a few in the Philadelphia area.) Or you might know that Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were both Quaker. Without getting into too many details of the religion itself, Quakers, in general, believe that God exists in all of us, or at the very least can speak through all of us. Quaker services are called meetings, and traditionally, no priest or minister leads the group. Each member of the congregation sits in silence until moved to speak or sing, by God. Quakers value peace, simplicity, equality, and education. They tend to be involved in community service or social justice projects.

I was not raised Quaker, nor do I attend Quaker meeting now. But I came away from my college experience having internalized Quaker values. Everyone in my college referred to everyone else by his or her first name, whether that person was a student, professor, or the president of the college. I found some hierarchies I encountered after college foreign and hard to navigate, because I had spent four years in an institution essentially devoid of hierarchy. Problems there were solved by consensus, meaning that everyone involved in the decision making had a say, and that as a group we would reach an understanding. I found bosses, afterward, strangely dictatorial, and could not understand why my opinion was not always welcome – I had been taught that everyone’s opinion mattered, always.

Quakers have been known for being conscientious objectors in wartime. Several of my college classmates’ fathers had been jailed during the Vietnam War for their refusal to fight. Some universities offer degrees in military history, or memberships in ROTC. The school I graduated from offered a major in Peace, and courses such as “Nonviolent Responses to Conflict.” It’s hard to be surrounded by that kind of thinking for four years and come away unaffected. I was reminded, recently, of my school’s commitment to these values when I read this speech, written by my former English professor, in response to 9/11. I was flooded with relief when I read it on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. I did not realize how much I had been looking for a response that made sense to me, after all of the bellicose rhetoric and actions by our country over the past decade. That, “if someone else has decided we are at war, we nonetheless have a choice of the weapons we will use.”

I did not fully comprehend at the time how much Quakerism impacted every aspect of my college life: My studies, my friendships, my extracurricular activities.

I played field hockey during college.  Our team would gather in a close circle before games and cheer, raising our sticks into the air, as if ready to attack. I did not see a disconnect between Quakerism and sports and I suppose there is not, if sports are merely games or exercise and not metaphors for conflict and aggression. We embraced the irony of the cheer we chanted before our games; we screamed it until our voices cracked, almost with a kind of Quakerly pride.

Fight! Fight!
Inner light!
Kill, Quakers kill!

One coach made us cheer a more peaceful version, but it did not fill us with the same glee.

It came to my attention recently that my college has acquired a mascot, which does, indeed, look like the guy on the oatmeal, which I suppose I find endearing. It’s perhaps more endearing to me that the college has not had a mascot until now, some 150+ years after its founding. There’s a contest to name the mascot — the choices are Big Earl, Barnabus, Quincy, and, wait for it …  Oatis.

My experience was not that of the typical American undergraduate, obviously.

Our campus did not support fraternities or sororities, since membership in exclusive clubs creates inequality. Ours was a dry campus — Quakers were, historically, against the use of alcohol. Of course, like college students everywhere, we drank, we smoked and we debated. We grew up. But we called our professors Bob, Jun, and Chuck, because those were their names. We joined the college’s president at his home for dinner. We studied world religions, not just Quakerism. We learned how to serve others, and a great many of us went on to become teachers, aid workers, and counselors. A disproportionate number of us studied abroad, because the world is small and only through communication and understanding can there be peace. We lived and studied together in a small, respectful community that I miss. My nostalgia reaches beyond the place, however, and beyond the people who inhabited that place those four years I spent there; it infuses my thinking and my actions in ways I am still, nearly two decades later, noticing.

I’m joining Christine at 80,000 words and other bloggers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History. (I’m doing the letters out of order.)

Some previous posts:

N is for neighborhood

T is for Taro, and tsunami

J is for Jeremiah Townley Chase

F is for Fort Wayne



N is for neighborhood.

We lived, in the mid-1970s, in a suburban development where the moms did not work and they hosted Tupperware parties and sleepovers instead. The houses, a repeating pattern of five different Colonial styles coated in aluminum siding and fake brick panels, were each allocated a fraction of an acre. Tiny lots and tiny yards, each family’s grassy lawn right up against the next. But I could walk a few houses down the street to visit my friends; we could ride our bikes over the uneven panels of the sidewalk; our neighbors knew us and we knew them. I remember our neighbors on one side well: an older couple whose kids were in college or about to be. They had a grandparental air; perhaps they found my grade-school girl antics a relief in their mostly empty nest. I remember marching up to their front door, alone, visiting whenever I felt the need. I was fed cookies and milk. The couple’s son sometimes walked me home from the bus stop, though it was only about a block from my house — there was an old-fashioned neighborliness about the place we lived. Our house had dark blue aluminum siding, wall-to-wall shag carpet and a brick fireplace. The kitchen was olive green and coated in linoleum. It was strangely comforting to know my way around friends’ homes, even if I hadn’t visited before, because they were in layout and décor very similar to mine.

In between my fourth and fifth grade school years, we moved. My parents had built a house with some inheritance they’d received, a modest Cape Cod on about two acres, some 20 minutes south of our previous home. It was a greater distance that it seemed. That short drive took us from suburban to rural, to “peace and quiet,” to open space. There were no sidewalks. Our new house was in a development with only two intersecting streets and few homes. Empty lots bordered ours on all sides. The land had once been a farm, probably tobacco, and had been carved into lots for people like my parents to invest in and build upon. There were few trees, and fewer children. I rode my bike up and down the middle of our street, back and forth, back and forth, and some days I didn’t see another soul. We grew berries and corn and peas on our new land, and I learned to dig potatoes and coax squash from Maryland clay. The fledgling community was surrounded by hilly pastures and fields of corn, soybeans, and tobacco, and occasionally a stray dog would appear. In the country, people dropped off what they no longer wanted. I came home from school one day and found an old racehorse grazing in our yard. I watched a bull trot down the street one morning while I ate breakfast. We were all displaced. Birds flew into our chimney, snakes slithered in the front door. My cat caught field mice and crickets in our basement. Our dog had a run-in with a skunk. We could hear gunfire in the spring and fall, and got to know when goose hunting season began. The Canada geese flew overhead year-round, and I found their constant barking companionable and soothing in the country silence. Rabbits nibbled on our lawn nightly.

We live on a 17 percent grade in San Francisco at the place where the fog turns to sun. The houses have been built at odd angles to accommodate the slope, and we are crammed onto this hill: wall meets wall, roof meets roof. I have met a few of our neighbors, but our relationships are guarded and suspicious. One blond woman three houses down looks me in the eye every time I say hello, but keeps her lips pursed. An older woman who lives two houses up the hill waves when she sees us and gave us a pot full of prickly succulents when our son was born, but she is not interested in conversation. The middle-aged couple who rent an apartment next door smoke so much pot we can sit on our front steps and get high on their second-hand smoke. Another neighbor meditates every morning while sitting on the wall between our houses, and I have to explain to my son why she won’t say hi. Here the land is too steep for a yard. We have a deck, and I grow flowers in pots and built-in beds. I find myself looking for my former neighbors, sometimes brought low with nostalgia for them. I watch city birds from our bay window, ravens and sparrows mostly, and wait for my once-a-year sighting of the fat raccoon who roves the neighborhood. When I notice mice darting into the bushes near the street, I stop to watch. I take the time to point out to my son the spiders in our flower beds, the hummingbirds whizzing by, a ladybug. We visit friends on weekends, city-dwelling friends who moved to the suburbs and now have grassy yards and pools, and deer that eat their landscaping; friends who know the neighbors from whom their kids beg for candy at Halloween. Our visits feel like vacation.


Joining Christine at 80,000 words and other bloggers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History. (I’m doing the letters out of order.)

Some previous posts:

E is for everything, everything, everything

H is for Hokkaido

S is for snake

F is for Fort Wayne

T is for Taro, and for tsunami

The year was 1996. Four friends on the equivalent of an American post-college road trip — except this trip was in Japan. I had been traveling alone, by train, northward from Kyoto to Tokyo, where I met my college roommate, Hiroko. Two years before, we had graduated from a small liberal arts college in Indiana, where I had majored in Japanese.

We stayed with Hiroko’s family for a few days in Tokyo before meeting Mariko, a Japanese woman who’d been an exchange student at our alma mater some years before and remained a friend. The three of us got on the Tohoku Shinkansen and headed north to meet by another good college friend, an American named Pete. Pete was teaching English in Morioka for a few years, and he had a car and an apartment there in Iwate Prefecture.

The four of us piled into Pete’s car and drove into the mountains. Northeastern Japan is rugged and cool, with fall colors to rival New England’s. It was late summer, nearly September, and the smell of fall was creeping into the air. We visited small, out of the way tourist stops: A dairy farm, a cave, a hot springs resort nestled in the woods. We snapped pictures of ourselves at the tops of mountains, with the dark green hills in the distance. We took winding hillside roads down to the coast, where fishing villages were trapped between the mountains and the sea.

Pete drove us to  Taro-chi, a small town clustered around a protected cove. A narrow inlet offered a view of the open ocean. The sun dropped and softened rocks along the shore. We took pictures. We read a plaque on a memorial at the docks.

Taro was destroyed by tsunamis in 1611, 1896 and 1933. In 1933, the village lost nearly half of its total population and most of its buildings. The town decided to build a protective tsunami wall, 26 feet in height. It became the largest such seawall in the world. The problem, aside from the earthquake-prone geology of Japan, was that narrow inlet, which protected the boats in storms but channeled powerful tsunami waves inland.

We were respectful, reading that plaque in Taro on a late August afternoon, but the thing about being in your early 20s is that the world seems full of unlimited, shining possibilities. The kind of destruction that comes from stories-high walls of water is unbelievable, an impossibility. A seawall seems like it could be enough. The bravery of those people who lived in Taro, some of whom remembered the 1933 waves, surely could not be tested again.


Taro was destroyed by tsunamis in 1611, 1896, 1933 and on March 11, 2011.


The Wall That Taro-cho Built. An article about Taro’s residents who remember the 1933 tsunami and about the building of their seawall.

A photo of Taro’s sea wall, before.

Video (in German) of Taro before, during and after the March 2011 tsunami.

The Red Cross is helping victims of this disaster in Japan. Please donate if you can.

S is for snake.

For a long time the only other neighbors at our end of the street were Mr. and Mrs. C. What I remember most about them is that their house had a peaked roof, and was often struck by lightening. When that happened a terrifying blue light shot out from our electrical outlets and the sky cracked open with thunder that shook everything.

They were perhaps in their 40s. It seemed unfair that they had no children for me to play with, and yet they had a pool — complete with a diving board — in their backyard. They kept several horses in a small paddock adjacent to their house, as well as a Doberman Pinscher who leaned on me when I scratched her head, and a black cat. I liked to visit with their animals and had a horse of my own, so when I got a little older, in high school, the C’s would pay me to take care of their pets when they went out of town. With that job came the privilege of swimming in their pool.

I remember that Mrs. C was a nice woman with brown hair feathered Charlie’s Angels-style on the sides of her head. She was soft-spoken. Her husband was brusk – obnoxious, my mom said –with a sort of shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude. He was graying around the temples and had a bit of a beer belly, but I could see, even as a teenager, that he might have been attractive as a younger man. He gave off a feeling of aggressiveness and newly acquired wealth (he’d started a communications business) that made me uncomfortable around him.

The incident I want to write about is clear in my memory, but the circumstances leading up to it are not. I can’t explain why it was I was in the C’s barn with Mr. C that day. Mrs. C was certainly not at home, that I remember. I was feeding the horses, I think, or perhaps Mr. C was showing me what to do in preparation for an upcoming trip of theirs, when I would be taking care of the horses. I don’t know. It’s possible I had been swimming and Mr. C had come home unexpectedly and I felt strange about being in their pool without an invitation and so followed him, chatting all the while, into the barn.

Mr. C was not wearing a shirt and he was sweating. I was uncomfortable, alone in the barn with him. I did not want to see that exposed chest hair and freckled skin. He was shoveling in an empty stall, grunting as he did so. I did not want to hear him. I stood back, watching. He lifted a bale of hay from the ground, and all of the sudden he was yelling. “It’s a goddamn snake!” He brought the shovel down on the black snake before I could react. “Goddamn snake!” he cried again and again, the back of the shovel hitting the poor creature as it twisted and squirmed, exposing a gray underbelly. When it was over, blood splattered Mr. C’s chest, the shovel and the barn walls. Some of it had reached my bare legs. I swallowed my revulsion, not just at his brutality, but also at his cowardice. We saw black snakes in our barn all the time and though I never relished discovering one, I knew that they kept the field mice out of the hay and the grain, and that they weren’t dangerous.

That afternoon I learned that Mr. C was.


Joining other bloggers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History. I am, you may have noticed, no longer writing in the order of the alphabet but rather doing letters when the inspiration strikes.

Some previous posts:

J is for Jeremiah Townley Chase

H is for Hokkaido

C is for crème brûlée

K is for Korean Fish Market

Monday things: the L edition

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to post one of my “Friday things” posts, and so, this week, I give you: Monday things.

Monday thing #1: I’ve just spent far too long in the library. It’s a joy I’m rediscovering. I was raised going to the library often and carrying out giant stacks of books and records (yes, I’m that old). There’s something freeing about checking out books from the library. Experimentation feels more … possible. If you don’t like the book (or music, or movie) you can simply return it. When I buy books, I am more risk-averse. I tend to stick to things I’ve read reviews of; I seek out what I know. As I have written here before, my love affair with the library ended when I moved to San Francisco. Now, ten years later, with a toddler in the house whose interest in books is growing and changing daily, I have been visiting the library again on a regular basis. I’ve discovered the smaller, neighborhood libraries of San Francisco, which (depending on the neighborhood) tend to be relatively free of drunks, homeless people, loud teenagers, people eating lunch, desperate men hitting on young women in the stacks, and the other related reasons I stopped visiting the city’s main library. The neighborhood libraries seem to have a better selection of books. And by that I mean, fewer books seem to be lost or stolen. New(er) books can actually be found on the shelves. For example, today I came home with two recent story collections that I have been eager to read: Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned and Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds (LOVE that title).

Monday thing #2: L is for…. I don’t know what L is for. I am due for another Alphabet: A History post, but L … L is eluding me. L wants to be lilting and lovely, and yet I can’t figure out how it links to my life. It would be easy to get carried away, emotionally that is, by L. After all, L begins love. And loss. L is for late and last. I’ve been thinking of possibilities: latitude, perhaps? But then I think: I have never been to London, or Laramie, or Lahore. L might be a letter that’s hard to love. Consider: labor, leper, leeches, leftovers. Yes, I am aware that Monday thing #1 was all about my love affair with libraries. And, yes, I am aware that library starts with L. I guess the issue is this: I can’t quite seem to find an L thing to write about that moves me to write something that has a bit of wow factor, but isn’t too personal to share here. But I will, letter L, I will.

Monday thing #3: I am hard at work revising the short story I wrote during the month of April. The short story that may or may not be part of something longer. The story is full of firsts for me: my first time writing a child narrator, my first time writing a story that takes place some decades ago, my first time interspersing bits of a fictional journal in with the action of the story. It’s daunting. This morning I printed out my pages, read them carefully, and then covered them in red ink. Changes need to be made. A library makes an appearance in the story, and this morning I also spent some time researching card catalogs. It has been so long since I’ve used one, I’ve forgotten what the cards looked like. Updated library technology has hijacked my memory. In case that’s happened to you, too, you can view some old cards here and read about how such outdated modes of library research worked here. (Seriously, I need to stop dating myself here on the blog. Alas, it’s happened before.)

J is for Jeremiah Townley Chase

At some point riding horses became all-consuming. I’d been taking riding lessons for five or six years, and I had been riding other people’s horses in shows. My parents spent a lot of time driving me to various horse-related events and meetings. It was somehow decided that it was time for me to own my own horse. My mother was very involved, and I suspect that she wanted me to own a horse just as much as I wanted to. She’d been taken riding lessons off and on, too.

We bought a chestnut gelding from a farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I don’t remember how we settled on him, though I do think the relatively low price had something to do with it. He was a nice-looking animal, with a white blaze down his nose, a muscled chest, and a thick mane and tail. My mom, who worked for the state archives, suggested naming him after an early Maryland legislator: Jeremiah Townley Chase.  Such was the geekery that pervaded my childhood. The only child of two history buffs, I didn’t have a chance against it. But we thought the name had good nickname potential  — for the horse, that is. We could call him J.T. for short, or Chase. He was Chase from then on, except in shows, when we bestowed upon him his full, unwieldy moniker for all to see in the program.

I was afraid of him. It was partly physical: he was a tall, solid horse, and I was a slender waif of a ten-year-old girl. I knew that I didn’t have the strength or riding ability to control him, a fact that soon became obvious to my riding instructors and parents. But there was something else. Chase was part Morgan horse,  a breed known for its intelligence. And Chase was very, very clever.

Not long after we bought him, the owner of the barn where we boarded him came home one day to find the water pump on and the entire pasture a flooded, muddy mess. All of the horses had rolled in the mud and were in need of baths. The barn owner couldn’t track down who might have left the pump handle up, but not long afterward she caught the culprit. It was Chase, pulling the handle up with his teeth.

The barn underwent security measures to combat him. The feed can lids had to be held in place with bungee cords, and the feed room itself locked with extra care. Water buckets couldn’t be left on the ground, or Chase would kick them over and play in the resulting mess. The lift-and-slide stall door latches did not stop Chase, he easily lifted the metal mechanism with his teeth –from either side of the door – and pulled it across, then kicked the door open. He let injured horses out of the barn when they were supposed to be resting, spilled bags of grain, and playfully nipped anything that moved.

I delighted in my horse’s mischievous personality. I found him funny and intelligent and loved telling the latest guess-what-he-did-this-time story. And then.

And then, during a riding lesson he bolted across the ring, tried to scrape me off on the fence, and when that didn’t work, he bucked me off. I landed flat on my back. Bruises of yellow, purple and green bloomed all over my back for the next week. It hurt to climb the stairs at school.

It wasn’t the first time Chase had bolted with me. He knew exactly what time the horses in the barn got their dinners, and if I was still riding him then – he took off for his stall. He was smart enough to know that dinner was being served, and he did not appreciate my delaying his enjoyment of a scoop of fresh grain.

I refused to ride Chase after he bucked me off. I’d had enough of out-of-control, unstoppable gallops across the pasture, the riding ring, or on a trail. Once I became frightened of the possibility that Chase would bolt, there was little point in continuing to ride him anyway. He could (as many horses can) sense my fear, and was smart enough to take advantage of it.

So my mom, in an effort to prove that the purchasing of Chase had not been for naught, began riding him herself. She is a petite woman, and weighed little more than 100 pounds. He bolted with her, too, and threw her off on more than one occasion. The last time, on the way home from a trail ride, Chase decided it was dinnertime again and bolted for home. My mom fell off, but her foot caught in the stirrup and Chase dragged her some distance on asphalt and gravel before she was able to free herself.

That was the last straw. We sold him to a teenage girl who wanted to gallop him bareback across open fields. It was a perfect match. She renamed him Shadow.

Joining other bloggers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.

Some previous posts:

I is for introvert

H is for Hokkaido

G is for geology

F is for Fort Wayne

This post was inspired in part by Dad Who Writes‘ recent post about returning to riding lessons for the first time since adolescence.

I is for introvert

As a child, I got in trouble for not speaking up. For not speaking at all. Other kids probably got grounded for getting home late, or going somewhere they weren’t allowed to, or maybe, setting things on fire. I occasionally got in trouble for those things too — even, once, for sparking a fire. In general though, I was an obedient kid, if a shy one. My mom often had to encourage me to say “thank you,” after I received a gift or a compliment. It wasn’t that I was trying to be rude, for I knew that one was supposed to express gratitude in certain situations, just like it was appropriate to say “please” when asking for something, or “excuse me” when getting up from the dinner table. But my silence was something that had to be overcome. I was scared to speak to strangers and was timid even with people I knew.  On one occasion – I couldn’t have been much older than five or six – I remember my mom prodding me to say thank you to our church’s pastor, and I simply could not. I knew that I was supposed to say thank you, and I knew I’d hear about it if I didn’t. But I couldn’t will myself to speak. I stood next to my mom, looking at the ground, silent and ashamed.

When I did manage to speak, adults rarely were able to hear me, and that tended to compound the problem. I didn’t like to repeat myself, and raising my voice was hard. It felt like having to lift something heavier than my own weight. With children and adults I was always the one to hang back, to observe, to need time to get comfortable with others. Other kids, particularly those with siblings, seemed to bound into group settings, while I struggled. I made friends slowly and one by one.

I’ve grown less timid with age, but I’m still quiet. My mother complains she can’t hear me. I still tend to be an observer. I prefer to test the waters before diving into social situations. Making a phone call to someone I don’t know requires extra fortitude. I’m most comfortable one on one, and my friendships reflect that. It’s not that I don’t like being around people — I do. But I hoard private time: to write, to think, to observe, to read. I need that space. For a long time I relied on alcohol to make me more extraverted, but that solution turned out not to be a solution at all. Post-drinking, I became shyer: I was always embarrassed about the uncharacteristically outgoing behavior the alcohol induced.

Sometime between childhood and adulthood I learned that there was a label for me. Introversion is not the same as shyness, and understanding that gave me some confidence. Being “shy” always seemed to me a negative trait; the kind teachers commented on in report cards, or the kind I was scolded for at home. But introvert! It was a label I could embrace without considering the judgments of others. In high school we took the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, which proved that some people are extroverted and some are not. It was matter of fact. I knew without taking the test which category was mine.


Joining Charlotte’s Web, Jade Park and The Contact Zone in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.

Some previous posts:

H is for Hokkaido

G is for geology

F is for Fort Wayne

E is for everything, everything, everything

As a side note, “I” could have easily been for insomnia. But I’ve written about that here already.

H is for Hokkaido

I lived on the island of Hokkaido for six months. “It’s the northernmost island in Japan,” I used to tell people who looked blank when I told them where I was going. For some people, my explanation did not explain anything. They asked why I’d want to go there. They told me, as if I’d asked, or cared, that they’d never buy a Japanese car.

When I arrived in Sapporo, in March, bulldozers were pushing mountains of snow into the river because there was no where else to put it all.

On Hokkaido, I rode to the top of an Olympic ski jump. I climbed volcanoes, and smelled sulfur that came from deep within the earth. I traveled to the farthest point north on the island, and also to the most southern. I thought I could see Russia.

On Hokkaido, I traveled alone for the first time; I was nineteen. I took a train that snaked along impossible cliffs between the mountains and the sea, and spent nights in cheap inns with bathrooms down the halls. The other guests stared at my white skin.

On Hokkaido, I felt my first earthquake.

On Hokkaido, I got the worst sunburn I’ve ever had — my shins reddened and blistered and later, my blood pooled in a puffy layer around my ankles. On Hokkaido I ate raw scallops the size of half-dollars, right from their shells. I ate raw oysters and raw shrimp and raw clams and raw eggs. I ate crab meat from impossibly hairy, giant crab legs. I gained 20 pounds.

While on Hokkaido I studied and spoke Japanese so constantly that I began to dream in Japanese. I forgot English. In phone calls home, my speech was peppered with Japanese words that seemed to convey more meaning than their English counterparts. I learned ikebana, and tea ceremony, and calligraphy. An old woman played the koto for me. I gave speeches. I danced in a parade.

On Hokkaido, I lost sight of who I was and where I came from. I got drunk four nights a week. I dreamed of going home; I dreaded leaving.

On Hokkaido one evening I soaked in an outdoor hot spring on the shores of an alpine lake. Snow fell into the black of the water and disappeared.


Joining Charlotte’s Web, Jade Park and The Contact Zone in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.

Previous posts:

A is for Aaron

B is for Biddeford Pool

C is for crème brûlée

D is for dog bite

E is for everything, everything, everything

F is for Fort Wayne

G is for geology

G is for geology.

In college I took a course called “Geology and the Environment.” The class was part of a brief flirtation I had with minoring in geology, a feat that seemed likely until I discovered that the requirements for a geology minor included courses in chemistry. Which as everyone knows is just math disguised by Bunsen burners. And, as you may remember, math and I don’t get along. I gave up the idea of minoring in geology, though I secretly coveted one of those bumper stickers that say “Geologists rock!”

I took what non-number-oriented courses were available, in which I learned names of various rocks and minerals and studied how plates shifted on the earth’s crust. I liked the classes, I think, more than the actual information. We packed into vans and drove around to various creekbeds and rock formations to look for evidence of the glaciers that had flattened the Midwestern landscape around us some millions of years ago.

If the field trips were better than sitting in a lecture hall, geology textbooks left something to be desired. With chapter titles such as “Lava: A Peek Inside Our Earth,” and “Water: Shaping Our Landscape,” I was often reduced to Nap: Head Down and Drooling in the Library.

My “Geology and the Environment” textbook included an entire chapter about California (California: Living With Geologic Forces), and we devoted several class periods to the state. Since I had lived my entire life on the East Coast, I knew only vaguely that California suffered from periodic earthquakes. I had seen footage of wildfires raging there on TV, but I had never really given the state’s dangers much thought. As I read my geology textbook, however, I understood this: California wasn’t a safe place to live. If the shifting tectonic plates didn’t get you, the mudslides would bury you alive. If your house wasn’t built on a seismic fault or cliff full of slippery shale that could shear off after a rainstorm, well, by god, the wildfires would sweep through and take everything you owned. I had seen the geologic forces, and I did not want to live with them.

“Why on earth would anyone choose to live in California?” I asked my mom the next time I called home.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe Californians wonder why anyone would want to live in Maryland,” which might have been her way of pointing out that I couldn’t possibly see into the mysterious minds of Californians, and since I’d only been there once, on a family vacation when I was seven, I probably shouldn’t be mouthing off on the topic.


When I declared to my mother that California was a dangerous and unlivable place, I did not foresee the following: Six years later, I would choose to live in California. The why had absolutely nothing to do with California and everything to do with the boyfriend (who later became the husband), who’d left the East Coast to take a new job in San Francisco.

It’s hard to imagine anyone more ill-prepared for a move to California than I was in the year 2000.  What I mean is: I did not know what I was getting into. I had long since forgotten (mostly) about the state’s geologic dangers and had, on one or two weekend visits, learned that California makes good wine, a discovery that I now see may have clouded my judgment. This is, I suspect, how many of California’s transplants end up here. A suspicious number of us have stories about being taken to Wine Country by “friends” on our first visits, and “falling in the love with the place.”

Despite the wine buzz, however, I couldn’t deny that no matter what the weather was on the East Coast when I left, the sun shone when I arrived in San Francisco. Palm trees swayed in the breeze. I got to eat myself into a sushi coma. Friends kept proffering bottles of Pinot Noir. What wasn’t to love?

Turns out, earthquakes, fires and landslides, for starters. But that’s just geology.


Joining Charlotte’s Web, Jade Park and The Contact Zone in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.

Previous posts:

A is for Aaron

B is for Biddeford Pool

C is for crème brûlée

D is for dog bite

E is for everything, everything, everything

F is for Fort Wayne

F is for Fort Wayne

When I was 18, I returned to college in Indiana with my good friend Pete after the winter holidays. We followed an itinerary that neither began where we started nor ended where we were going.

I’d booked us tickets on an Amtrak train that departed from Union Station in Washington, D.C., and my mom grumbled about driving us there, as there were several stations much closer to our house in suburban Maryland. I don’t remember what my motivations were for wanting to board the train in the city rather than from the more convenient park-n-ride stations outside the beltway. Perhaps it seemed more adventurous. I was new to travel, but I liked to think I was not: I dreamed in journeys, devoured travel books, and planned out routes across continents I had never visited. I studied languages, because I assumed they were the tickets I needed to get where I was going.

We boarded the train late in the afternoon on a cold New Year’s Day. The sky was an unrelenting steel gray. The air smelled of snow. Late nights out drinking with friends caught up with me just after the train slid out of Washington, and I came down with a cold. My head filled up, and I was sneezing, wheezing and sniffling before we even crossed into West Virginia. We soon grew hungry for dinner, but I don’t remember visiting the dining car, only that we had little money and ate the Christmas cookies my mom had sent along with us. We joked about being stranded on a train to nowhere with only cookies to sustain us. I sneezed a lot. Pete was an exuberant travel companion, and we wandered through the train’s cars as if we might be able to get somewhere else. As darkness fell the train grew chilly; I shivered in my wool sweater, and later, in my coat. I suspected a fever.

I remember climbing the steps to the domed view car, and sitting mesmerized as the train’s light revealed a slim, moving snowscape that blackened at the edges. The view of the mountains of West Virginia was like an old film. Trunks of trees flickered past in black and white. At some point in the night we tried to sleep in our seats. Between my stuffy head and inability to get warm, I remained awake for much of the trip. Pete dozed off for a while, and I remember feeling lonely when he did. I rummaged in my bag for more cookies (we were down to the last few) and tried to read a book I’d gotten for Christmas.

In the morning, the early morning, the part of the morning that still feels like night, we reached our stop: Fort Wayne, Indiana. I was eager to get off the train, get warm, eat a hot meal, take some cold medicine, and climb into the familiar cot in my dorm room. The train squealed to a stop and we waited with our bags behind some other passengers at the door, feeling the cold night air seeping in. When the doors opened, we stepped out into nothingness. My memory places us in a vast field of broken cornstalks plowed under for winter, an enormous Midwestern sky full of stars above. But surely that’s not where Amtrak passengers disembark at five in the morning. What I know is that it was cold; the kind of cold that penetrates even the warmest coats and makes your breath catch and freeze. What I know is that an Amtrak employee directed us to a shuttle bus waiting on a nearby road. We scrambled for the bus, our breath made visible in the winter darkness, and shivered into our seats. The bus driver told us we were headed for the Amtrak station, in downtown Fort Wayne. I pictured the vast train stations of Europe with all of their conveniences. We let ourselves imagine McDonalds, and our stomachs growled.

The “station” was in a strip mall. No McDonalds — nothing, really. Just Amtrak representatives, closed storefronts, and chairs for waiting. I don’t know what I had expected to happen when we arrived in Fort Wayne. The city was nearly three hours north of our little college. Did I think we would simply change trains? Were we planning to take a bus? Did I realize Fort Wayne was so far from our destination?
I think I did not.

And so when we asked about getting to the school, we were told to go to the Greyhound bus station a few blocks away. It did not open for a couple of hours. We waited. We ate the last of the cookies. Pete smoked the last of his cigarettes. When the bus station was open we lugged our bags through the frigid dawn, where we learned that a bus to our college town had to go through Indianapolis and thus would take more than five hours instead of two and a half and cost $75 each, money that neither of us had. Seventy-five dollars was nearly half of my spending money for the next 10 weeks. I remember huddling together, counting out our cash and coming up short.

We trudged back to the train station, defeated and hungry. We freaked out. Pete tried to call his mom from a payphone. We considered begging for money. We considered hitching. Pete began asking if anyone in the Amtrak waiting area was headed to the college or the town. He got a lot of shaking heads and a lot of looks.

And then, a few hours later: “Are you guys trying to get to E___?” It was another student from our school, a senior who recognized Pete. He had driven to Fort Wayne to pick up friends arriving from Philadelphia, and he could give us a ride, he said. My relief buoyed me throughout the uncomfortably jammed car ride to school: Five students, their bags, and a guitar squeezed into a tiny Toyota.

Record rains had fallen in Indiana that winter. The fields we passed on the way back to campus from Fort Wayne resembled frozen lakes; the landscape was devoid of color. I felt that the excitement of my first term at college might not sustain me through the winter months. We stopped at a McDonalds and though the three of us pressed together in the backseat with the guitar and a huge duffle bag on our laps couldn’t move to reach our wallets or get out of the car, the student who’d rescued us from Fort Wayne bought us breakfast. He wouldn’t let us pay him back when we got to school.