On Sept. 11

When I turned on NPR in the kitchen that morning, Robert Seagall’s voice was somber and uncertain. It lacked the confidence, I soon realized, that comes with knowing what you are going to say. He was reporting off the cuff, and I turned up the sound while my bagel toasted. He repeated the events: a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers in New York, then a second plane, hitting the second tower. I understood that these were grave events, but I remember thinking that I couldn’t understand what he meant, that a plane had crashed into the tower. I couldn’t conceive of it, and for the first time ever I thought that the radio wasn’t conveying what I needed to know. I turned on CNN, and watched, transfixed, as they replayed footage of the burning towers, of the planes hitting them.

At some point I knew I had to leave for work, craved, in fact, the analysis of my current events-obsessed colleagues at the business newspaper where I was as an editor. I felt the loss of information as soon as I turned off the TV. The disconnection made me uneasy. I hurried to the train. I remember studying each of the other passengers and wondering if they had heard the news yet. I remember wanting to tell them, the man reading yesterday’s news in the paper, the other 20-somethings looking dazed and still asleep in the rocking of the train. The cars seemed quieter than normal.

I did not feel scared until I exited Montgomery Station downtown and was immediately engulfed by throngs of workers walking the opposite way — into the station. Everyone was going home, and I was pushing through the crowds to get into the Financial District. We did not know yet what was happening, or why, and all those people were going home because it seemed safer. I felt that I was the only person walking against the tide, though surely I could not have been. I made it to my office and immediately my colleagues and I asked each other, “Did you see?” Some had managed to arrive without having heard news of the events. We began scrounging about the office for a radio. We were a small paper that, unlike many news organizations, did not have CNN going in the office. There wasn’t even a TV. I think eventually one of the editors went to Walgreens and bought a clock radio. We listened all day, heard the emotion in the newscaster’s voice when he announced that the first tower had fallen, then, later, the second.

When enough reporters and editors had arrived, we met in the conference room. Our editor began by saying if any of us felt uncomfortable being there and would rather go home, that we should go. That I should go home had not really occurred to me until then, and I felt a twinge of fear. No one left. It was decided that we’d drop what we’d been working on, and get to work finding out what businesses with offices in the towers had Bay Area ties. We were a local paper, looking for a local angle. Because this is what we did every day, every week, this is what we did that day. We paired up, with editors and researchers feeding leads and information to reporters who made the calls. I remember the adrenaline of it; frantically looking up companies on the web, struggling to figure out what businesses had been in which towers. A reporter might hear something from a contact – speculation that a particular Bay Area businessperson might have been on one of the planes, for example, and then the race was on to find out as much as we could about that person, their business, and what the loss of he or she might mean to the company. The adrenaline carried us through early afternoon; that and perhaps some fear – we as a country still believed there might be other hijacked planes out there and we had heard that at least one had been headed for San Francisco. All of those workers fleeing downtown that morning, that was what they had been avoiding. We in the newsroom had considered possible targets, read these rumors online. The Transamerica Pyramid was two blocks from our building, the Bank of America tower (the tallest tower in San Francisco), three. I imagined these scenarios, as well as the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge, that day and for many days and nights following.

By afternoon, the act of trying to spin this loss of life, destruction and fear into news stories began make me feel ill. One of the seasoned reporters noticed my discomfort and reminded me that it was our job to report the news, that people needed information, now more than ever. I understood that, and in some way felt proud of our obligation and yet — I had never felt so revolted by my profession. I suspected I was not cut out for the job, yet I continued to research, dig up phone numbers and plan additional coverage with the other editors.

By mid-afternoon I needed a break. I rode the elevator down to the lobby and walked out into a desolate city. The sun shone cruelly over everything. I walked around the Financial District for 20 or 30 minutes and in that time, I passed not a single person. Restaurants and stores were closed, office buildings locked. Many had makeshift signs in their windows that read “Closed for national tragedy.” The beauty of the day was at odds with events at hand, and with my emotions. I am not a religious person, but I wondered if God was cruel or whether he was mocking us with the sunshine and warmth, or whether, in his kindness, the weather was meant to soothe a grieving people. I remember thinking that the weather was beautiful in New York, too, according to the images I had seen, and that there must be some kind of solidarity in that. In retrospect my thinking about the events of that day was strange and disoriented, I suppose because the events themselves were so disorienting.

Not long after my afternoon walk, I decided to go home to Billy. We had spoken on the phone that morning. Unlike me, when Billy heard the news on the radio, he understood immediately the gravity of the situation, and pulled his car over to listen. His company had sent workers home right away and he’d been in our apartment watching news coverage all afternoon.

By the time I reached our apartment I felt truly ill, sickened by the horrifying deaths of all of those people, and by the daylong attempt to turn tragedy 3,000 miles away into local news.

My instinct was to hide in the apartment for the night, to try to push the news away with some kind of diversion, but our good friends invited us to their house for dinner. I remember thinking I didn’t want to go, that I couldn’t eat — but when I arrived I felt so grateful for the company and the shared discussion and the homemade meal. 

Events of the next weeks and months and years point to our collective jitters as a newspaper, as a city, as a country. Our office was evacuated for bomb scares several times in the weeks after Sept. 11, and we received mail containing fake anthrax powder in the newsroom. The cover of a special publication I had been working on about fast growing companies had to be scrapped because it (not so subtly) depicted a rocket taking off, complete with fireball to indicate speed and power. It was deemed insensitive. Always when I think back to that time, I remember the heart-quickening sound of the helicopters that flew so frequently overhead. There were war protests. I dreamt more than once that terrorists flew a plane into the Golden Gate Bridge, and that I climbed the hill near my apartment to watch it burn. One night I dreamt that I sold a photograph of the bridge engulfed in flames to the Associated Press, and I awoke feeling sick about it. On the way into work I encountered war protests that had turned into riots. One morning a protester flung a newspaper box across an intersection and it skidded to a stop at my feet.

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

 

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

The unreliability of memory

I’m reading Jeanette Winterson’s novel Lighthousekeeping, which contains (in addition to a forlorn Scottish lighthouse, an anguished pastor, Charles Darwin, a dog with legs of different lengths and a sage orphan) ruminations on the nature of storytelling and, in a way, memory. For example:

The continuous narrative of existence is a lie. There is no continuous narrative, there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.

Memory is like that — we remember the highs, the lows, the oddities, the moment of laughter, or the moment of tears. But whole days, weeks, and months of  existence, perhaps banal, perhaps not, disappear from view. There are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.

“What is startling about memory is its willful persistence and its obsession with detail,” Robert Angell wrote in his collection of essays Let Me Finish.

This is also true.

But the details can be so elusive, and when uncovered prove surprising. My 19-month-old son has in the past few months fallen in love with music. If he likes a song, he wants to hear it over and over again, sometimes to the point where I think I cannot survive another rendition of, for example, “Splish, Splash Elmo’s Takin’ a Bath.” I am trying to expand his musical interests and tastes, both for his sake and my own. I’ve done quite a bit of browsing on iTunes. I struggled to remember what I used to listen to as a young child, thinking that Aaron might like the same. My parents listened to a lot of the folk music that was popular in their generation: the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas. Their tastes became my own preferences, for a time. I have fond memories of singing “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

At some point, perhaps in high school, I noticed that “Puff the Magic Dragon” is more a bittersweet than happy song, as I had long thought. As a kid, I imagined a dragon and a child who were friends, and that was enough.

The other day I remembered a song I used to sing, loud and full of glee. I had not thought of the song in many years, Pete Seeger’s “Garbage.” Throughout much of the song, Seeger chants “garbage, garbage, garbage” in a low, almost comical (I thought) voice. As a kid, I loved belting out that “garbage, garbage, garbage” chorus over and over again. I thought it was hilarious, maybe even a little bit forbidden.

I thought my son, for whom the weekly appearance of the garbage truck is a bit like a gaggle of pre-teen girls encountering Justin Bieber, might also like a song that reveled in trash.

I listened to a clip of the Seeger song on iTunes yesterday. I heard Seeger’s growly chant (garbage, garbage, garbage!) and was stunned to find that the lyrics that followed were not of a fun, children’s romp, but a serious, angry manifesto of sorts. A sampling:

Mr. Thompson starts his Cadillac and winds it down the freeway track
Leaving friends and neighbors in a hydro-carbon haze;
He’s joined by lots of smaller cars all sending gases to the stars.
There they form a seething cloud that hangs for thirty days.
And the sun licks down into it with an ultraviolet tongue.
Till it turns to smog and settles down and ends up in our lungs, oh,
Garbage garbage…Garbage!
We’re filling up the sky with garbage (garbage…)
What will we do
When there’s nothing left to breathe but garbage (garbage…)*

Oh, the nature of memory! So selective and so slippery. There are lit-up bits, and the rest is dark. The lit-up bits persist, stubbornly. And rest that’s dark: that part is just as stubborn in its absence. I remembered my joy in the song, not the anger or the almost apocalyptic future Seeger describes at the end.**

In the introduction to Let Me Finish, Angell wrote:

Our stories about our own lives are a form of fiction, I began to see, and become more insistent as we grow older, even as we try to make them come out in some other way.

I don’t think I quite understood what he meant when I blogged about that collection of essays a couple of years ago. I think I’m starting to.

______

* You can see Seeger performing “Garbage” here.
**Let’s put aside for a moment the obvious questions about what my parents were thinking, what listening to this sort of thing as a small child did to me psychologically, etc, etc.

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.

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

taste of a childhood Christmas

I dragged myself to the walk-in clinic over the weekend and the doctor there asked me to take a deep breath while he listened to my lungs. I fell into a coughing fit that left me unable to speak. I walked out bearing the anticipated diagnosis of bronchitis, and a prescription. A Pacific storm was churning offshore, and the downpour and the cold made my feverish view of the city seem a little narrower. Fog clouded the windshield. I worried what the cold, damp air would do to my already-struggling lungs, and I vowed to get inside and stay there.

A metallic taste in my mouth, along with a slight feeling of light-headedness and a relentless, hacking cough have brought back memories. Bronchitis was the illness of my childhood. The taste in my mouth I had often as a kid; I missed weeks of school at a time when a cold would drop into my chest, my fever would rise and the coughing would start. Bronchitis and pneumonia, we go way back.

The taste in my mouth and the time of year have stirred up memories of a childhood Christmas when bronchitis (or was it pneumonia?) also kept me inside. It snowed that year, unusual for mild-mannered Maryland in December, and I’m sure I was disappointed that I couldn’t go out in it. Sick on Christmas, snow in the yard, and my cat had been gone for an unusually long time. Fudge — named for the character in the kids’ books by Judy Blume  — was a huntress. She was a petite cat, but a tough one. She tolerated me dressing her up in pearls and doll dresses, but then slunk outside and killed cardinals, baby bunnies and field mice. She rarely brought her quarry home to us, as some cats do. She dined on what she killed, leaving red feathers strewn about the garden, or bits of fur in the grass. She often stayed out all night, stalking her prey, hunting when small creatures stirred, and so it did not seem odd when she didn’t show up for breakfast one morning. Or even that afternoon. But when she did not return the second night we began to worry.

If I had been well, I would have bundled up, trudged outside in heavy winter boots, and marched around the neighborhood, calling for her. Since I couldn’t go out, I opened the back door and yelled “Fudgie” over and over until my mom scolded me for letting cold air in, or until a fit of coughing forced me to stop. I expected to hear Fudgie’s meow in response to my calls — she was a vocal cat and when close to the house would often cry to let us know she was there before she trotted inside. Instead I heard the silence of snow, saw ice forming on branches. Meanwhile Christmas approached, my fever and cough worsened. At some point we probably visited the doctor and I began swallowing spoonfuls of cough syrup and antibiotics. Days passed. I called for Fudgie again and again. Dread combined with my fever made me cry. Because I could not, my mom went out and called for Fudgie, but still no mewing reply.

We made gingerbread men that Christmas. My mom baked cookies every year, but gingerbread men were not one of our staples. I’m not sure why she decided to make them that year, whether it was a plan to distract us both from the fate of our missing cat and my illness, or whether it was just something she wanted to do. I was in charge of decorating them, adding red hots for buttons, silver balls for eyes, a dusting of red or green sprinkles for clothes. We made buttercream frosting that I dyed a garish blue to spread on some of the cookies. I remember my excitement over the cookies battling against the sinking feeling in my stomach, the resulting guilt, and a knot of worry over Fudgie’s absence. I wanted to enjoy those cookies. I expected them to make up for my illness, my missing pet, the snow I could only stare at from our bay window in the kitchen.

My mom imagined the worst, and she suggested that perhaps Fudgie was not well and had gone away to die in peace. She mused that an animal — a dog? a raccoon?– had attacked our little cat. She tried, I suppose, to prepare me, in case Fudgie did not come back. But I didn’t want to believe any of that and I remember my lip quivered with the effort of trying to remain stoic in the face of these possibilities.

Fudgie was not the kind of cat to crawl off to die. I knew this, I think, but did not trust my intuition. A day or two after Christmas, we opened the door to find her there, very thin and yowling for food. She seemed happy to see us. It had been exactly a week since she’d disappeared, and we speculated that she’d gotten locked in a neighbor’s garage while they were away for the holidays. She survived a week with out food, and later other trials, and went on to live a long, full, multitude of cat lives.

Being sick affected my taste buds, and those gingerbread cookies tasted wrong to me. The frosting — something about that awful blue color — was too sweet. I could taste only my illness, my fear of loss, my worry over the possibility of death. I still don’t like frosted cookies.

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.