5.31.2009

Long-Distance Pity

I'm not going to get compassion for living in a long-distance marriage any more than I'd get pity for having a bad job in a roomful of unemployed people. Putting yourself in someone else's shoes and acting sympathetic is hard. It's harder to fake pity when you're thinking, "What are you, nuts? I don't feel sorry for you. Ray Charlies could have seen this coming."

I'm on the winning side anyway. I've already moved, living in our new place and enjoying everything but my husband's companionship. Charlie left for Oregon four hours ago so he could get back to work and get paid. That getting paid thing is the only reason he didn't call his boss and say, "I can finally sleep at night! I'm not stressed from work! I quit!" But getting paid is useful when your credit cards are bursting at their limits, which ours are thanks to the lucky break we got selling our condo.

I'm on the winning side again, for selling my home in this dead real estate market. I didn't even know there were people stupid enough to buy right now. I guess they weren't that stupid as we had to bring a check to close. We basically bribed someone to live in our beautiful condo. Now Charlie has to work off that bribe, like a serf or a Soviet. "You like condo? We give you little bit money. For you buy house, yes?"

It didn't seem like we had a choice in our circumstances. We could sell and owe credit cards, and Charlie would stay and pay them off. I had to move now, so I did. The only thing I was worried about was how Charlie would survive. He's gone from living with parents to living with wives. He didn't know how to make a bed or make toast when I married him. He still can't make toast.

I knew I'd be okay but I do miss the little things. I miss the way Charlie took out the garbage after I reminded him three or four times. I miss him doing the laundry and me trying to figure out where he put my shirts. I miss watching really bad TV. Okay, I could do all this on my own (except hiding my own shirts), but when you're on your own there's no obstacles to work around. You get your way all the time on everything. It's like running a fifty-yard dash vs. crawling on your hands and knees through a muddy, messy obstacle course. The obstacle course is much more entertaining.

When you're on your own you can avoid going to the Y for an hour. An hour later there's still nothing to distract you. You still have to go to the Y and you have to make up a new excuse. This gets tiring, always making up excuses to talk yourself out of doing things you don't want to do.

When Charlie's around, I don't have this problem. If I don't get up and exercise right away while he's still asleep, fat chance I'll do it once he wakes up. There's just too much garbage-reminding, too much looking for hidden clean shirts, too much bad TV to watch. I'm a good wife so I do my part and share the bad TV-watching duty. The Y will have to wait.

When I lived in England there were public service announcements directed at the old-age pensioners. "Try to eat at least one real meal," the announcements said. "Aim for One Meal a Day." How stupid is that? When you're old, what the hell else would you do? I assumed older people in America pretty much set their lives around mealtimes. Who doesn't know an overachieving senior who has dinner before 5 PM? We're the People of the Early Bird Special. That's how we get things done in this country. Those silly English and their public service announcements, always creating problems where there aren't any.

Now, being alone myself, I can put myself in those English pensioners' shoes. It's not the eating that's the problem. I'm not to the point where I'm forgetting to eat, unfortunately. It's the real meal bit. Does three cups of tea and half a box of wafer cookies count as lunch? How about an old apple and whatever's left in the ice cream carton? I never would have guessed good people ate like that. I never did until nobody was there to not witness it.

I notice I'm hungry, speaking of eating. I've put it off and put it off until I'm too hungry to do the right thing and have a real meal. The closest thing with the most fat and calories is a leftover hot dog. I heat that up and eat it in about five seconds.

I'm still hungry. I gave Charlie most of the cookies to take back with him but I know I have a few left. Funny how that's something I can recall with perfect clarity. At any given time I can tell you exactly how many cookies I have in my kitchen. Ask me what's the next digit after 3.141592693 and I have to look it up. Today, by coincidence, both these numbers are five. I only had to look up the pi digit. The cookies have been in my mind since I put them back in the cupboard

That's the problem. When you're all alone, who's there to stop you? I don't mean stopping you by saying something like, "Do you really want that cookie?" or "Wait fifteen minutes and see if you really want it."

If you know Charlie, you know he more likely says, "Oh, go ahead. Have another one. C'mon, have two." That helps much more. It puts the responsibility back on you, where it belongs. Now you have to think, "Do I really want another one?" If anyone's going to say no, it's going to have to be you. You can't count on Charlie to control yourself for you. "Come on," he'd say. "You deserve it."

Normally Charlie eats regular meals, he doesn't snack, and unlike me, he won't count popcorn and an orange as dinner. He gets hungry so immediately he decides it's time for dinner. Now. He's not good about thinking or planning ahead. I figured out a long time ago that I had to organize, shop, cook and schedule his meals without any input from him. He is completely incapable of anything mealtime, but he eats anything and thanks me often.

I told his colleagues that when he's on his own, he's either going to get really thin or get really fat. He might eat at least one real meal but only if he can plan ahead and shop for real food, which nobody ever witnessed him doing. I had visions of him turning into me. He'd get hungry but since he didn't shop he'd have nothing but Ben and Jerry's in the freezer. There's dinner, right out of the carton.

The first week he called me every night. "I'm at Safeway and I'm hungry," he'd say. "What do I do?" I'd talk him through the aisles, giving him suggestions of foods that might go together. "Have you found the bread aisle?" I'd say. "Pick out something familiar. Now let's see if you can find some tuna."

Being Charlie, he found an easier solution. He'd tell someone at work, just one person, that he was living in a camper trailer parked on the boss's property, alone. Without plumbing. "It works every time," Charlie said. "I'd get a dinner invitation once I told someone my situation. I'm careful to tell only one person at a time so I don't get too booked up. Gotta spread out my real meals."

"If I tell them I don't have TV, they invite me to stay and watch a movie, too," Charlie says. "I'm really enjoying getting to know my colleagues. Besides, anything beats sitting at my desk at ten at night eating two cans of tuna on a hot dog bun."

In these circumstances you do what you gotta do to survive.

5.25.2009

The Odd One

"As soon as I finished mopping," Kaitlin says, "my brother chooses that opportunity to come in wearing his dirty boots."

"You didn't have to chase after me with the mop," Patrick says.

"Yes I did!"

"You didn't have to corner me in the garage."

"Yes I did! I spent two and a half hours mopping and you messed it all up," she says. "Mom said to clean and you ran off to ride your dirt bike. You came back right when I was finished."

Patrick walks over to Kaitlin and puts his arms around her. "I love you, Kaitlin."

"Don't touch me!"

She looks at us and says, "You should try sharing a bathroom with him."

Patrick smiles, like he's proud of himself.

"He's in there for an hour, at least. He's in there so long he could be reading the whole Harry Potter series. You try getting ready for school sharing a bathroom with him."

We're visiting my sister Joy and these are her kids. Joy, I have heard, has some issues because we teased and played jokes on her. She deserves having issues, come to think of it, but as I recall we never cornered her into the garage or told other people about her bathroom habits.

"You came after me with a knife," Patrick says.

"I had a knife in my hand," Kaitlin says. "You started pushing me. Did you really think that was the best time to start messing with me, with a knife in my hand?"

Patrick smiles. He is really, really cute when he smiles. He smiles like he knows that's all he has to do to get away with bothering his sister.

Joy doesn't even bring up the teasing we used to do to her. My parents took night classes and we babysat. As soon as my parents left, even if it was as early as 5:30 pm, we'd put on Led Zeppelin. That was her cue to go to bed. She'd do it, even if she could still hear kids in the neighborhood playing outside her bedroom window.

We didn't even have to tell her it was bedtime. She'd say, "I know, I know. I'm going to bed right now." As soon as she was out of the way, we'd call up our friends and boyfriends and tell them to come over. Joy never told on us, not once. She was the perfect little sister. Did we reward her? Of course not.

Her first word was "horse." She loved horses so much she worked cleaning out the stalls at the local stable, as soon as she was old enough, in exchange for riding lessons. She has three now, running around on her property. It's like meditation to watch them roam around. It's like watching her life-long dream come true.

When we were little, she'd bring her Breyer horses with her on road trips. She'd be playing with them in the car seat in the back, oblivious to whatever else was going on in life or in the car. My other sister and I would say, "Horses! Look at the horses!"

She'd look up, saying, "Horses? Where?"

"Too late," we'd say. "You just missed them."

This was endlessly funny to my other sister and me. We'd do it so much my mom caught on and told us to stop. Joy didn't hear this, of course, as she was in the back of the car pretending to feed her Breyer horses or lining them up to put them down for a nap.

"Horses, Joy! Look at the horses!"

"Horses? Where?"

"Oh, back there. You must have missed them."

"Stop it!" my mom would say.

This continued for the whole road trip, for every road trip. She kept looking, every time.

When she got older, my parents took my other sister and me to Europe. Joy didn't get to go. Instead she got the opportunity to get to know our bipolar alcoholic newly-widowed step-grandmother. Dolores, the intolerable woman my grandfather was married to for only six months before he died to get some relief, came to stay with Joy.

Dolores, we heard later, yelled at Joy and called her the devil because she had a messy room. There was more to the story as you'd imagine, crazy stuff about Joy being a whore or something, which seems weird as she was about twelve and obsessed with horses, not boys. She was the most low-maintenance kid I knew. You stick her in front of a horse and she's happy. You put some Led Zeppelin on and she'll go to sleep, even if she can hear other kids playing outside before dark.

I heard Joy never wanted to have an odd number of kids. My other sister and I were older and very similar. We were pretty close and she was the odd one, the baby. I heard she felt like the odd one and didn't want another kid to feel left out like that. Unlike my other sister and me, she's the only one who ended up having an odd number of kids. She had two girls, close in age, just like my other sister and me, and then she had Patrick. Not only was he the odd one, the baby, but he's a boy. He's really reliving my sister's childhood.

"Mom, Patrick's outside shooting the horses with the Air Soft rifle," Kaitlin says.

The horses run as far away from Patrick as possible, up the hill. They stand there looking at him like they've done this before and they know they have to stay up here until he gets in trouble and stops.

Kaitlin looks at me and says, "those horses are going to need therapy."

Joy yells outside for Patrick to stop. He stops shooting and it's quiet until he gets on his dirtbike and starts riding. He rides around the hills on the property, right toward the sheep. The sheep run straight toward the cars in the driveway, hiding for protection like they've done this before, too.

"Mom!" Kaitlin says. "Patrick's chasing the sheep!"

Patrick rides by where we're standing, notices we're watching him, and smiles. He seems like he's getting a lot of mileage from being the odd man out.

5.21.2009

Many Ways to Win


The lesbian across the hall knocks on my door, "You wanna watch the American Idol finale with me?" She's the most interesting person in the building, which is saying something. This is San Francisco. Everybody's interesting here. I am in people-watching heaven.

"Sure," I say. "I'll get the kids upstairs to come, too."

The kids are my kids: my one kid Dylan, his fiance Michelle and their baby. I guess I should stop calling them kids, especially to people who don't know me well. Examining what you say and how it sounds is never a bad idea, I think, particularly when you're the new person and you come from Portland where everybody's forgiving, green, and most likely thinks very similar to you (unless they come from, well, outside Portland).

Dylan and Michelle and the baby arrive and we're getting ready to watch. Miss D, the lesbian, opens her door. I use this term, the term she uses to describe herself, as a compliment because she's an outgoing, fun, happy person who knows who she is and is so infectious that you kind of wish you were more like her, in a way.

"Our part of the hallway is the fun side," she says. "We could put up signs, keep our doors open and make everyone jealous they don't live over here."

"Who do you want to win?" Michelle asks Miss D.

"Who do you think? Isn't it obvious?"

"Who do you want to win?"

"Adam, too," Michelle says. "He's just better."

"How about you?"

I was hoping I wasn't going to be outed.

"I like the ones who'll never win. I like the least slick ones," I say. "Jason Castro was my favorite last season and I liked Megan."

"You want Kris?"

I am used to agreeing with people. I can work both sides of this. I tell her I once said Adam is like Freddie Mercury in a high school talent show. I tell her this, hoping she'll still like me. I want to be like her, like people who don't care what other people think about them. I want to be me and let people take it or leave it. I could never be a lesbian, I realize. I'd be back-pedaling all day, saying, "I'm a lesbian but I'm not like that, really, please like me."

"You drink beer?" she asks.

I don't but I really want her to like me. I'm from Portland, microbrew heaven. Maybe I can act like a beer snob and she won't notice.

"Not really, but what are you drinking? What do you like?"

"All different kinds. We have too much leftover from the party last weekend."

She runs back to her apartment get some. "I'll get some for the kids, too." As soon as she's out of range and I can't quite hear her, we hear a loud crash. We both live on the front side of the building, facing the busy street. With single paned windows, everything you hear on the street outside is loud but this is really loud.

"Oh my God!," Miss D yells. "There's a big crash out front! It's a really bad one!"

She runs through our apartment, trying to see out our windows. Michelle happens to be at the living room window and looks out.

"I can see a baby seat," Michelle says.

"I heard the crash so I looked out the window and I saw this white truck flying through the air, spinning around," Miss D says. "Oh my God! I'll call 911."

We all head downstairs. I'm not even realizing I'm holding the baby. I can't rescue somebody else's baby if I'm already holding one but I don't want to put her down.

We look around outside. There have been two crashes at this intersection in the past two months. This is the third one. People don't notice there's a light and just keep driving. It's stupid to park out in front of your own apartment, unless you want to total your car.

We decide the light was red on our street and the cross traffic had the green. A white truck didn't see the red, kept going, and hit one of our neighbors moving through the signal. The white truck took flight, along with our neighbor's bumper, tumbled in the air and landed in front of my living room window. There's a baby stroller and a bottle in the middle of the street. There's broken glass everywhere.

Nobody's inside either car when I arrive although the white truck is pretty smashed up.

"She crawled out the window," Dylan said. There's a young woman, the white truck driver, holding a less than six month old baby and standing by the truck. "She pulled out the baby, too. I can't believe the baby isn't even crying."

Miss D runs around talking to everyone: tenants, neighbors, accident victims.

"Did you see?" the driver of the hit car says. "Did you see?"

"No," we say.

Miss D points to some people standing by. "She saw," Miss D says. "She was in the bus and saw the whole thing."

The neighbors and tenants talk about how amazing it is no one's hurt. The truck is completely smashed on the front side and the windshield is smashed close to where a regular person would be sitting. The baby's car seat is inches from the truck frame.

The white truck driver holds her baby while talking to some of our other neighbors. I put my hand on her back and say, "Thank God you're both okay." It's more for me. I feel like I have to do something and that's all my shy mind can think of. "I don't even know you but I'm so relieved."

Ambulances, police, fire fighters all come and take over. I really want to leave. Now we're at somebody's job site.

"You'd better get that baby inside," the woman in #302 says to me. "You don't know what kind of damage this might do to her, and that's coming from a child psychologist."

Oops, but now I know what you do for a living.

Soon we're back inside watching American Idol. The baby goes to sleep right in the middle of Kiss.

"Kris won," Michelle says.

"No!" Miss D says. "How do you know that?"

"I looked it up."

"But it's live."

"No, it's live on the East Coast."

"Now I'm really upset. Really? Why'd you have to tell me that?"

I wish I could tell someone something directly like she does, like that. It's good she knows, I think. It's easier to watch, knowing your favorite lost, and prepare for it. I have lots of experience watching my favorites lose.

She's over it already, back to watching Adam sing with Kiss.

"That's why he lost it," she says. "Look at the crazy shit he's wearing. Middle America doesn't go for spiky black leather. Oh wait, everybody already voted."

She doesn't get annoyed about anything. She says it like she sees it and lets it float. I'm still busy thinking about what I should say from ten minutes ago when Miss D said, "I hear Queen Latifah dates the ladies."

"It's true," Michelle said. I've seen it on the blogs." Michelle, I notice, doesn't care about what people think either. She likes stuff that my mom frowned upon. If I admitted I liked reading about famous people, my mom wouldn't have let me out of my room. You just weren't supposed to do that and you really weren't supposed to admit it if you did. You were only supposed to say good things about yourself.

They might think you have something to say and you aren't worried about what people think. Examining what you think all the time might have its negative side.

We look out the living room window to see the busy street out front back to normal. There's lots of glass on the road but there's nothing else left to prove there was such a commotion.

Nothing to prove here, either.

5.20.2009

Balanced Diet

Being the child of a nutritionist, food was way too important in my life as a kid. There were so many rules and so many no-no's. Every mealtime was like a science project or well, Judgment day. It mattered more than grades if you were "good" and ate only lean meat, mostly vegetables and never, ever anything processed or white.

By high school I had to simplify or I'd go insane. I figured I'd eat one healthy food for every one unhealthy food. It was my version of a balanced diet. My friends used to tease me but there was a lot less teasing than when I tried to follow all my mom's complicated rules about food in public.

Even this kind of balanced diet wasn't easy. Life gets in the way. Instead of thinking and talking about what you ate, what you should have eaten instead, and what kind of rash or headache you might get from what you already ate, it's more interesting to talk about life. Nobody cares what you ate. You get another crack at it in just a few hours so consider that a make-up quiz.

Balancing life is much harder still. You wish you could make good things happen to balance out the bad stuff. You probably don't wish the other way around except to people you don't like. That kind of thinking has nothing to do with balance, though, does it?

I hit my limit today of exactly how many strange and nasty smells from inside my own apartment I could tolerate. I also hit the limit on how much garbage and recycling I could take out, how long I could go without a shower, how many days I could go without doing laundry, and how much tea and chocolate I could possibly ingest and call it dinner. I hit the limit of enjoying talking to my husband on the phone only late at night when he's not working. I hit the limit of enjoying the icy-cold wind whipping through the apartment's dry-rotted, single-paned windows. I hit the limit of listening to Miss Stomper pound around wearing heavy shoes in the apartment above and the shaking and banging from noisy boiler in the utility room below.

My niece calls to invite me to a jazz festival in their town. She's chatty and cute and funny. My sister's driving but my niece is talking. They're both talking. I can hear both of them and it's like eavesdropping except they're both talking to me. It's very exciting. I can keep up just fine. This fun phone conversation makes me feel better. It's a good thing, balancing out my bad morning. Everything's going well so far.

My sister says, "Which apartment are you in?"

"101."

She lived here twenty years ago or so. She knows the history of this place, the strange tenants we've had, the smells and the weird way my dad used to coat absolutely everything with Navajo white paint: doorknobs, hinges, even the furnace cover.

She's quiet.

"The tenant who lived here before had birds," I say. "It has a certain smell."

"That's Bill Metcalf's old apartment."

"No!"

You know how some toxic people are in your life for most of your life, like some sort of plague or handicap? That was Bill Metcalf for my dad. His mother was one of the original tenants when my great-grandfather built this place in 1930 so Bill moved in when he was maybe four.

He lived here his whole life and left a legacy of dirty shoes on the shared hallway carpet, smoking so much you could smell it, constantly drinking crappy beer, and bothering absolutely everybody since he didn't have a job, ever. He only left a year ago by dying.

When my dad, now the owner, came by last week he pointed to stains in the carpet on the stairs and said, "Those are Bill's bloodstains from when they wheeled him out." Yup, even after he died, he had to stain the carpet one last time.

"I wish you hadn't told me that," I said.

My dad bought me a carpet cleaner.

It's going to take something big to balance that out. I try chocolate even though it's not going to work in the quantities I'm consuming. Tea doesn't balance out this much chocolate.

I quickly feel the effects of my unbalanced diet and not in a good way. But the phone rings so I'm excited because this is my private phone. Only good people call me on it.

My husband ducks out of a meeting to use the restroom and instead, calls me. He's talking a lot, all excited about the two guys he promoted, and high on cheap, white celebrate-the-promotion cake with pineapple filling. It's so good to hear his voice, so nice to hear all his compliments that I feel like I've tipped onto the positive side of today, finally.

As soon as I hang up, my son calls. He lives upstairs in the apartment with a sunny view, clean white grout, only one or two coats of paint and no nasty smells to Febreze away. Seeing him, his fiance, and their crazy-cute daughter are more than worth it to live here.

I love my kids so much there are no words. I love them all more than I love anything and I don't love one more than another like you sometimes do with dogs. It doesn't matter which kid I'm around, they're all fun and interesting and make everything worth it, and that includes living in a super-stenchy apartment with a dead man's carpet stains and highly toxic bird feces' smells.

"We're at Safeway," he says. "We're going to make ribs for dinner for you, okay? Do you want us to get you anything?"

I can't think of a thing. No matter what I smell for the rest of the day, I'm way into positive territory now.

5.19.2009

Poo, not Pooh


I woke up on the first morning of moving here and the first thing, the very first thing I did was step in horse poo. Luckily it was outside my apartment across the street and on the designated walkway where no bicycles are allowed (but apparently horses are). Inside my apartment is a mess, as the former tenants had birds they obviously let poo freely, but the floors are clean enough and there's no horse poo as far as I can tell.

You can smell bird guano concentrated in certain places in the apartment but unless you squat down like you're pooing yourself, looking at our baseboards up close, you don't know where that smell originates. This horse poo had no smell even though it was clearly fresh. It won't be on my shoe, able to mingle with the bird smells at home since I'd just started running. But I'd just woken up in my new apartment in my new city to my new life. If you believed in omens, you'd get a little edgy with this one.

I kept running, watching perfect-looking runners in tight lycra with butts that don't shake step in the horse poo, too. One exceptionally good-looking guy: tall, thin, dark and with a perfect gait, squished right in the middle with his right foot. It caused him to slip but only for a slight moment and only an inch or two. He regained his posture and continued on, galloping gorgeously. Nobody would ever know about his little slip but me.

I ran far enough so I was now out of poo-viewing range. With nothing to look at, I put on a podcast. It's Donald Trump talking about a book he must have just written. Right away I notice a weird thing he does. The interviewer says, "You have a chapter here on mentors. Would you like to say something about mentors?"

"You have to have a mentor," he'd say. "I always tell people to get a mentor. If you don't have a mentor, get a mentor. You have to have a mentor. It's good to have a mentor. I had a mentor. My father was my mentor. You have to have a mentor."

Say it again, Donald. Say "mentor." It's like he was getting a dollar for every time he said it. Maybe it was a game he was playing with the interviewer, like, "I'll say a word and you see how many times you can use that word in your answer. See if you can beat Kathie Lee. She said the word 'crazy' twenty-seven times in one single response."

I fast forwarded to the next author. It's some guy talking about poo. He wrote a book, "What's your Poo Telling You?"and now he wrote another book, a poo journal. "You can keep it in your bathroom," he says. "I keep mine in there with a pen and I tell my guests to feel free to add comments."

I couldn't get my mind to think about poo, especially now that he's commenting on the various shapes and textures and what they mean. I fast-forward, but not far enough. He's still there. "Deja Poo," he says. He says something about corn and ". . . familiar portions of a recent meal embedded . . ." Stop! I'm fast-forwarding again. "How did something that large come out of me?" he says. "There is a great feeling of accomplishment and pride after the discharge of a monster poo . . ."

Off! No more podcasts for today. This was my sister's idea, this podcasting thing. I was fine with listening to public radio while exercising. But then I suffered through one too many "World Have Your Say" shows, which my friends and I hate so much we follow them on Twitter just to reply to their tweets with nasty, nasty comments.

To be fair to my sister, she isn't listening to Donald Trump or people who've made a career out of poo. "I listen to uplifting things," she says. "Things like Joel Olsteen or Focus on the Family. I need a good word to get through the day." Here I was thinking I could get away with listening to more earthy podcasts when I should have been focused on a family. Donald Trump and poo are my punishment. And now I can't get poo out of my head. What's a Deja poo again?

For the next couple of days I run by the horse poo on the walkway first thing after I wake up. Nobody cleans it but it quickly turns into disarming balls of hay. It's smashed and dried out and straw-like. It kind of looks like Donald Trump's hair, come to think of it.

I spend the next week scraping bird poo from the baseboards in the apartment and it starts to smell acceptable. The closets never will, though. I think the previous tenants locked their birds in there when they were naughty. If I keep the doors closed and if I am quick in my clothing decisions, I will survive. The smell is something else, even for a minute. I can't see where it's coming from and I refuse to squat in a dark, stinky closet to find out.

I've thought too often about poo every day since, particularly when I'm in the musty bathroom but not for the reasons you think. I'm trying to visualize a bathroom where I'd be comfortable writing in a public poo journal. I can't do it. In fact, I can't visualize knowing someone who is interested in poo so much that he draws pictures of it and gets them published, and not even under an assumed name. We have so many words for poo yet it's just something I'd prefer to keep private. Don't tell me your secrets and I won't tell you mine.

When I was young my grandparents led a very steady life, particularly toward the end. Nothing ever changed except for their poo. They talked about it often and wanted to invite you into the conversation. "Have you had a good bowel movement?" they'd ask me when I was ten. I said, "No," without thinking about it. I didn't know what a good bowel movement was. Even if I had the book and knew, who remembers something like that at ten? I can't even remember if I ate lunch or not, today.

Wrong answer. It was like I became an exciting project when I gave that answer. They had a purpose in life now: to get me to poo. They gave me citrate of magnesia, which was the closest thing to soda I'd ever had, and told me it'd bring me success. It did and no, I don't want to talk about it. That's the last time I went public with my own personal poo. Even though everybody does it and if you live, you poo, you certainly don't have to share. Or ask. Or journal.

Dylan, my son, and my future daughter-in-law Michelle walk with me and their baby to the museum. Strangely the horse poo is still there and we walk right by it. This time it doesn't even look like poo at all. It looks like dried grass and it blends in with the actual dried grass. Nobody else knows what this particular dried grass really is. I make sure I tell Dylan and Michelle. I tell them the history of it and I tell them the transformation I've witnessed. Before I finish, I realize I'm becoming my grandparents.

The baby plays and runs around in the grove in front of the museum. Around her are some unusual-looking trees, like fat arms with balled fists. I remember these trees from when I was little and from when my kids were little and we brought them here. "I think we used to call those 'monkey trees,'" I say to Michelle. "They're kind of weird."

She looks over at me like she smelled something bad. She hesitates. "I don't like those trees," she says. Her voice goes quiet. "I think they look like poo."

Deja poo, I think to myself.

5.10.2009

Paul Bunyan's Bathroom


It’s Charlie’s first “Paul Bunyan” weekend, living all alone in his boss’s plumbing-free trailer. He’s living like a real man, my sister says. She’s the one who came up with the Paul Bunyan thing. “It sounds manly without plumbing,” she says. “Like something a guy would like. No aiming, no flushing, no putting the seat down.”

Charlie does sound happy when he calls me while driving to work to pee. I suspect he’s secretly going out in the middle of the night when no one’s looking and peeing near the side of the house by moonlight. When we fixed up houses, I’m convinced he secretly delayed finishing the bathrooms just so he could have an excuse to pee in the bushes. He talks about those days without plumbing way too fondly.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, and I know I have but you weren’t listening, we had to cash advance our credit cards to get someone to buy our 700 square feet of fun in Multnomah Village. We have no equity and no savings and now, only a couch, bed, dining room table, and some IKEA red bookshelves we couldn’t give away, and a burned-up pot I won’t give away.

I love this pot because I can make popcorn in it the old-fashioned way and it doesn’t burn. I’ve burned a lot of pots in my popcorn past so even though people say, “Isn’t it about time you got rid of this?” it’s my pot and my it’s kitchen so no, it isn’t time. I’ve lived without plumbing but I won’t live without my popcorn pot.

I’m comfortable in our new apartment in SF, with only the smells of 79 years of peeing and eight years of bird droppings and an unknown duration of stinking cat urine. Tenants weren’t allowed to keep cats but one obviously was living here and got stuck in the kitchen cabinet (where I currently keep my popcorn pan) and peed. As far as the birds, I have a witness. Dylan, the son who lives in the clean-grouted, sunny apartment in the top back of the building, lived here at the same time as the previous manager. “She let the birds fly free all the time,” he said. “I saw them.” I see their effects.

I smell their effects still. I can sit in one place in the apartment and with just a slight turn of my head go from smelling coffee and toast to bird and shit. We’ve painted almost every inch of wall (and wallpaper, ugh) and ceiling so it’s on this side of a health inspection. Before we did that, though, Charlie took all of one morning scraping and sandpapering the baseboards in the living room, freeing the decorative indentation from the treasures of free-flying fowl.

The only remaining aviary aroma is in my closet. I keep it shut all the time and when I have to trespass into the guano graveyard to make a clothing decision, yes I keep my clothes in there, I have to move quickly or I’ll get a headache and become unable make any decision, clothing or otherwise. It’s a smell you can’t quite figure out and if it were the only smell left that I couldn’t quite figure out in here, I’d have no reason to think so much about what my nose is doing.

There are other, unknown, mysterious odors I cannot explain but about which I can certainly complain. I’ll be sitting at my table, drinking my coffee, minding my own business and certainly not telling anyone what to do with their cookware, and I’ll smell the definite odor of weed-killer. Hopefully it’s coming from outside as I keep the windows open. Even though the cold air tends to kick the heater on, I think it’s better to die by freezing than to die by paint fumes. We haven’t painted for a week but the smell won’t go away.

I look out the windows. One side of the apartment faces an interior, concrete courtyard so there’s no spraying happening there. The other side faces Golden Gate Park but it’s all the way across the street. You’d have to do a lot of spraying for me to smell it in my kitchen. I look outside and the park ranger woman who usually runs around working like crazy on the plants isn’t in view and neither is anyone with any sort spraying apparatus. I try to ignore it and I don’t smell it after a while. It’s just one more unexplained apartment mystery aroma.

What I smell now is something sort of musty and dusty, like the smell of fixer-uppers. When we fixed up houses, we moved in at closing, before they were in any sort of habitable shape. The kids refused to live in them right away for one good reason: there were mice. There were mice and rats and spiders and spider webs and asbestos and earwigs and a snake once, and a family of squirrels living under the downstairs shower and bats in the attic and peeling lead paint and a nutria running along the edge of the family room studs and out what should have been a sliding glass door. I thought I had said goodbye to fixer-uppers and this particular smell since we can’t afford to buy a house again, but we’re getting all the reward of living in a fixer-upper without the financial benefit: the sweat without the equity. But mostly, we’re getting smells.

I asked my Dad, the owner (you have to know someone to get a joblike this) if the previous manager had a cat. “Oh I think they did have a cat,” he said. “But that’s because they complained about the mice.”

What?

“The manager said mice used to crawl out from the heater.”

The heater in the apartment is right in the middle of the hallway. You can’t see it unless you’re standing in front of it, looking at it. Mice could be crawling out from there right now and I wouldn’t know it. I move over a little to watch, just in case.

“The heater connects to everyone’s apartment from the basement so the manager put mouse traps there,” my dad said. “I don’t know what happened to the cat. Let me know if you see any mice. Meanwhile, you might want to keep watch of your recycling. They’d love that.”

Later when he left, I opened up the heater and cleaned everything I could see. It wasn’t dirty and I didn’t see any mice feces, just so you know. I didn’t see bird droppings, either. I won’t think about what’s going on where I can’t see. That’d just be paranoid.

The garbage cans are stored in the courtyard almost directly underneath my window so you’d think I’d get the whiff of rotting garbage. I clean up the courtyard every now and then, being the apartment manager, and I take a look inside the garbage cans when I’m dumping stuff inside. Doesn’t everyone do that? How else am I going to know what’s going on? Oddly, though, it doesn’t look like anyone lives here. It’s almost empty except for some laundry sheets and plastic bags with bright colored smell-less objects inside. The garbage cans don’t smell that bad. The smells I’m enjoying must be all mine.

All mine is the smell of my own bathroom. The building is 79 years old so I figure the first person living here was a guy with bad aim, or several blind guys with bad aim. The original manager must have decided instead of cleaning it up, he might as well rent to more of the same. What was once a beautiful art deco bathroom is now another reason why grout should be outlawed. There’s gorgeous green and black art deco tile decorating the lower half of the bathroom walls. I’d love to look at it without having to see a grid of gunky dark brown grout. I scrubbed at it twice with all the chemicals I could buy and now it’s a grid of gunky light brown grout. I tell myself not to look as I could really get weird thinking about how these walls got this icky.

The floor, however, is the big beast of the bathroom. I know the original grout color was white. After two serious, backbreaking rounds with Comet, grout cleaner, an industrial brush and a sharp knife, it’s still black. It’s deep, nutty black; lumpy and gross and it smells like a gas station, which is seriously the last time I saw a toilet like the one I have in this place. It has a black seat and a big pipe coming out from the wall instead of a tank and when you flush, you use at least twenty gallons. It makes a huge waterfall sound and splashes everywhere. I won’t mention the buildup of unmentionable stuff around the toilet but I will mention this is where the sharp knife came into my cleaning process. I didn’t get it all and the little art deco white and green tiles next to the toilet will never be green or white again. Let’s just say you should never see that color brown in a bathroom.

Unless, of course, you’re peeing by moonlight.

5.08.2009

It All Comes Down to the Bathroom Beast


I used to work out a lot and eat right and be very disciplined and listen to myself. You could tell just by looking at me. You can tell if you look at me now that I don't care as much. I'm not fat and lazy, but I take days off and eat Ben and Jerry's a little too often. I wish I could remember what I was telling myself back then. It must have been convincing. The only thing I remember at all is that when I was doing something particularly painful, I'd tell myself, "Nothing lasts forever." That's all I needed to hear to do another ten thousand lunges or whatever I told myself to do. What happened to make me stop listening?

Charlie and I sold our condo, moved the last few pieces of furniture he hasn't Craigslisted to my Dad's apartments and spent nine whole days and nights cleaning, painting and fixing the four rooms in which I current live. Alone. Charlie flew back to Oregon to work and he has to keep working until we either stop spending any money at all or we pay off the credit cards we had to cash advance to "sell" the condo.

I know we're lucky we sold our condo in this market, but after owning it less than a year and a half, losing a hundred thousand on the place we sold previously, it sucks to give someone everything we have left and then some so they can sleep in our old bedroom. It's a nice bedroom. There are no bugs and the windows closed completely and aren't rotted, which is more than I can say for the bedroom where I currently sleep. The bus didn't stop directly under my bedroom window all night, either. The garbage trucks didn't screetch at five in the morning, and . . . stop! It's not all that bad.

I live across from the freaking Golden Gate Park. I live in the same building as my son and his girlfriend, who makes me dinner when I feel like sitting around lazily eating popcorn, and their happy little daughter. It's the same building my great-grandfather Alfred built in 1930 with his brothers, for him and his wife Jennie, to retire in, which they did. The same building where my sister lived when she was first married, and where we'd stay overnight while doing races, using the porta-potties at the park when there were too many people sleeping in her one bathroom place.

It's this same building where I learned how to paint over hardware and whatever else got in the way with Navajo White paint, the only color my Dad ever used for everything, everywhere, every time. I'm painting over that Navajo right now. It's painted so badly, so completely ruining the 79 year-old gorgeous doorknobs and latches and things that I suspect I was the one who originally painted it. I was thirteen years old, probably. I did what I was told. I've gotten better.

Right away Charlie noticed the way all the hinges and doorknob plates and anything metal was covered in lumps and stripes of very old, crusty Navajo White. How could he not? My sister visited the apartment building right before we moved here. As she left, she called me. "Are you sure you want to live here?" she said. "This place brings back horrible memories of painting over things that should never have been painted over. Remember Dad told us to paint over everything, telling us, 'that's good enough: tenants don't notice?' Even Ray Charles would notice paint on the fire alarm box. Are you sure?"

Now Charlie's joining the choir. "Who paints like this?" he says. "It's not difficult to remove a few screws and do it right." He makes a few grunting noises, removes the hardware and runs down to the workroom where he drops the offending Navajo White-covered hinges into a bowlful of paint remover.

I kept silent the first six times this happens. The seventh time (yes it takes me seven times to listen to myself and admit this sin), I say, "It was me, okay? It was probably me."

By this time Charlie didn't expect an answer to his rhetorical frustration. He didn't really care about assigning blame so I got away with it. My bad painting sins were absolved and he was already downstairs soaking the crap off some knobs, excited by the improvement he was making. I feel good too, like I gave him an opportunity to make the world a better place one hinge at a time. Things look so much better when they look really bad in the before picture, right?

The apartment isn't done, of course. Once Charlie got on the plane, I put away his tools and hid my brush. The paint's in the closet where I won't hear it calling to me. But the beast in the bathroom, the 79 years of old urine and cat pee saved for posterity in the black fuming grout of the art deco tile floor, screams at me every time I use that room. I can't hear anything else.

I already used up a whole can of Comet, the biggest can, dumping it indiscriminately on the floor along with pitchers of water, scrubbing with the brush reserved for the garage until I couldn't talk myself into believing this wouldn't last forever. Lunges and squats can be convincingly completed through a little self-talk. Breathing urine and Comet fumes while ineffectually scrubbing gobby black grout? I don't have the words to tell myself to continue.

Right now nobody comes in here but me. If I hold out for as long as possible, I don't have to enter the beast more than a couple of times a day. I can ignore it from morning until at least after lunch and then hold out until night. If I don't drink a lot of liquids, I can ignore it for even longer.

Besides, the park still has porta-potties. Even their worst contents aren't 79 years old.