29 May 2010

to go somewhere useful

I am trying to change my attitude toward walking. I love walking, and I often do it for fun and exercise, but I am trying to look at walking as one of my legitimate transportation options. I have lived in Gone West for nearly two and a half years. I've never had a car here, so I've gotten quite adept at the bus and train lines, but I am only now starting to see that many of the places where I go by train or bus could be easily reached on foot. For example, I sometimes wait fifteen minutes for a train to take me two stops across the bridge so I can walk to one of the trendy new neighborhoods. It takes me ten minutes to walk those two train stops.

And so, I've started walking for the purpose of actually getting somewhere. I walk to Trader Joe's, forty blocks from here (although I do take the train back when I'm loaded down with a gallon of milk and sundry other heavy items). I walk home from work, thirty-five minutes along the water. I walk to my friend's apartment across the bridge. I walk down over the highway to a new coffeeshop.

It's a whole different way of looking at things. Instead of wondering how many bus transfers I would have to make, I'm starting to ask how long it would take to walk (and sometimes, now that I have a new tire pump, to bike). I like looking at walking this way. It is much more satisfying to arrive somewhere with tired legs than it is to hop off a bus, slightly motion sick. It is much more satisfying to walk when I have a purpose. I can feel my legs growing strong as they carry me. I can feel my blood flowing. Walking to get somewhere makes me feel alive and strong. My body feels useful. My bag gets heavier as I go, as I make stops to pick up things I need for my life.

That, and I see the flowers as I walk. I say hello to the woman working in her front yard. The man walking his dog nods to me as the dog sniffs my open hand. I can see life as I walk, and I can be a part of it.

28 May 2010

helium baloon

Soon after I came back to Gone West in January, after Christmas in Michigan, I went to the eye doctor. "My eyes just cry and cry and cry here," I said. "Is there anything I can do about it?"

In a most incredibly patronizing tone, he said, "It's winter. The air is dry, and the dry wind makes your eyes water."

I wanted to stomp on his foot. Why is it that health care professionals so often treat us like we are stupid? "I just came from MICHIGAN," I wanted to tell him, "where it is about 30 degrees colder and much windier. Don't TELL me about dry air. My eyes don't water there like they do here. It is not the cold, dry air. It's raining here, see? That means there there is, in fact, some moisture in the air. Have you, in fact, ever been to a dry place? Because this place? Is not dry."

I had a similar experience today. I actually left work early because I had such an awful sinus headache. My eyes are red and puffy from constant watering. I have been taking @llegr@ religiously, but to no avail. I know that the cause is something in Gone West, because last week in Michigan, I felt great. As soon as I left the airport here Sunday morning, my eyes started watering again.

A few months ago, at my annual physical, I told the doctor that allergies were really bothering me. She suggested a nasal spray, which I duly used for several months, to no effect whatsoever, and I finally reverted to last year's prescription of the @llegr@. It helps, a little, but my head feels like a filling balloon that might just pop off and float away. I have a sinus headache almost every day. I am constantly exhausted. I did not feel this way in Michigan, or even here in January and February. The headaches and exhaustion start, every year, on March 1, the beginning of spring, and they continue through December.

I called the doctor, and her assistant called me back to say that the doctor suggested:
  1. a neti pot (I've tried that. Repeatedly. Doesn't help.)
  2. CHECKING MY APARTMENT FOR ALLERGENS. (Does NO ONE listen? I SPECIFICALLY said in my message that I feel ok until I leave my apartment in the morning. Then by the time I get to the train (1.5 blocks), I have a pounding headache. I told the assistant so again. She blew me off.)
  3. eye drops (if I get to the pharmacy and these eye drops are incompatible with contacts, I am going to drop kick someone).
My head is still pounding, despite taking extra medication (I am sure I am not supposed to mix @llegr@ and other allergy medication, but desperate times...), and now I'm furious, too. I want to call back and yell at my doctor, who I generally love, "STOP TREATING ME LIKE I'M STUPID. I could BE you." And I could.

For the first time in quite a while, I am wondering if I should leave Gone West. I don't know if I can live this way.

27 May 2010


We loitered in the room, but not next to the coffin, mostly, except at the beginning, when we gathered around and said, "That doesn't look like her at all." For a moment, I thought they had the wrong old lady.

But of course it was her. It's always like that, at the funeral home, and it was her.

"She was so sick," my mom said. "She was so sick."

I coaxed my Aunt Lisa to try to fix Oma's mouth. "See if you can get her mouth to turn up," I urged, and she did try.

"It doesn't move. It's like a stiff sponge, or foam."


"You really need a baby in situations like that," my friend A. said when I came back and we were talking about it all.

"Oh, my brother's little girl was there. I spent a lot of time sniffing her head."

"Yeah, there's nothing like huffing a baby's head to help with grief."


I looked back from my seat in the church to watch the funeral home staff take off Oma's jewelry and close the coffin, and I had teared up by the time they wheeled her into the sanctuary. A. and I both started crying during Abide With Me. I don't know why A. started crying, but I was crying because the last time we sang that song was at Oma's birthday party, and I kept thinking that she should be there. If we were singing that song, she should be there.

By some convention, it's always the men who carry the coffin, but my mom reversed it. We seven granddaughters were pallbearers. It looked so smooth when my uncles did it for my grandpas - had they done it before? - but we girls in our heels and skirts fumbled through putting the coffin in the hearse.

We had it down at the cemetery, where the sun was shining on spring flowers and bright grass as we carried the pretty blue box to the grave. "Don't trip on the headstone," several people warned us, and we didn't. We placed it carefully on the rollers.


We ate black bean burgers on the deck in the sunshine with my great-aunt H. from the Netherlands, and A. walked in graduation, and we took pictures on the green, green lawn.

"Oma would love this," I kept wanting to say.

"Oma should be here," I kept wanting to say.

16 May 2010


6:31 am. Observation from DTW: those U-shaped neck pillows are one of the most helpful traveling tools, however painfully geeky they seem. I bought one on my forever-long journey to Michigan on Christmas Eve, and it has been revolutionary in my plane- and bus-sleeping habits. A. thought it was funny, in Honduras, until she tried it on the bus, and then she, too, was a convert. They are brilliant.

That being said, it is not acceptable to walk through the Detroit Airport with the neck pillow around your neck. Not ever.

I am sitting in Detroit next to the fountain. Detroit’s airport, as I am sure I have complained before, is a long tube. Gate A1 is at one end, and Gate A80 is about a mile away down an incredibly long hallway. If you have a short connection and you come in at Gate A3 and are supposed to fly out from Gate A78, well, good luck with that. Do not allow yourself to be fooled into thinking, “But they are in the same terminal!” They might as well be on different planets. See you at the rebooking desk.

(This is not even getting into the horrors of Terminals B and C. If you have to go to Terminal B or Terminal C from the main terminal, you will pass through a long underground tunnel filled with creepy moving lights and eerie music. It’s like you are trapped under the sea, drowning. I am sitting here working up the courage to go through it right now.)

There are three redeeming qualities: first, it is bright and airy. Second, birds get caught in the rafters and you can hear them cheeping of a morning, as if you were pleasantly outside (which, um, might not be good for the birds; if so, I take this one back). Third, there is this fountain.

The fountain is a huge black marble disc, about twenty feet across and maybe two feet tall (I am terrible at estimation). There are a whole bunch of jets in the smooth surface of the disc, and they all, at various times, shoot streams of water toward the middle. My favorites are the short little streams, because they seem to be leaping like fish out of their jets and diving into the middle, unattached to water before or behind. All the water runs off the side of the disc like a constant, barely discernable waterfall. You can reach out and touch it. Nothing separates you from the marble – not a pool, not a wall.

Kids are mesmerized by it. I am mesmerized by it. I have sat in this very place, staring at it, for more hours than I could count, caught somewhere between my hometown and Liberia, Rwanda, New York, and Gone West.

6:50 am. I flew the red-eye to get here, but somehow in the brilliance of having flown to Southeast Asia last year, I managed to be a Medallion member of SkyMiles, and so they upgraded me to First Class. Not only did I actually get some sleep, sprawled out in seat 1A, but in the last half hour, after they announced that service was finished, when the flight attendant noticed that I was awake, he came over and asked if I wanted juice, water, coffee? And so I sat there, legs comfortably crossed, holding a little cup of warm coffee and watching the red morning sky over Michigan.

If flying were always so comfortable, I would do it for fun. It’s so nice not to feel like the flight attendant hates you (see: coach class, all the time).

Random funny moment: I reached down under my seat to see if there was a footrest, halfway through the flight, for some reason, and accidentally grabbed the toes of the guy behind me. Oops.

15 May 2010


Last fall, I finally destroyed my watch. I destroyed it by slamming it against the knob on a door, if you must know, and the crystal, which I'm sure was not a real crystal, shattered. It had actually been cracked since about three weeks after I bought it, two years earlier, and it had periodically gotten more cracked when I slammed it against various things. (Clumsy is a trait of mine.) This was just the final shattering. It broke into a whole lot of hazardous little slivers of glass, which I of course put into a ziploc bag and carried around for weeks in a pocket of my bag, until the little slivers of glass started to work their way out of the ziploc and into the bottom of the pocket and every time I stuck my hand in there I got stabbed.

I finally took the ziploc out of my bag and put it, uh, on the counter, where it remains to this day, I think. I thought vaguely about buying a new watch, and I looked at a couple of stores when I was in the mall anyway, but then I decided to try going watch-less. I could be one of those people who doesn't care what time it is! I could be one of those carefree people!

Unfortunately, you either are one of those people or you aren't. I get along fine without a watch most of the time, but only because I check my phone incessantly for the time. It worked, for a while, but I ran through the battery on my phone a whole lot faster. And then I started traveling: to Vietnam, to Michigan, to Honduras. And, I don't know about anyone else, but I find being on a plane with no idea how long you have been flying is just utterly infuriating. I started leaving my phone on, in airplane mode.

And yeah, I know, they tell you that airplane mode is not good enough and it has to be all the way off until you are over 10,000 feet and blah, blah, blah, but I have flown in Africa, where pilots are texting while they fly and where mobile phones routinely ring and are answered as you are lifting off, so I wasn't that worried about airplane mode. Anyway, if you turn your phone all the way off and then turn it back on in airplane mode, it has no idea what time it is. It isn't communicating with whatever magical thing it communicates with to tell you the time, because the entire point of airplane mode is that your phone will not communicate with anything so that it does not "interfere with airplane navigation systems." The only way the phone will continue to know the time is if you leave it on. So, YES, I broke the FAA rules. And my planes were fine.

But, at last, one day, a week and a half ago, my coworker mentioned that she has seen lots of nice watches at M@cy's, and I went over there on my lunch break. I came within dangerous seconds of buying a $200 Citizen watch (because they last! forever!) and then pulled myself back from the brink and had the guy point me to the cheaper watches (he sort sniffed as he directed me to "Fashion Watches" - so much for lack of snobbery at stores in Gone West, huh?).

In Fashion Watches, I finally found a watch that meets all of my exacting criteria:
  1. Silver and only silver band (I do not like the silver/gold combination).
  2. No fake bling. Ugh.
  3. No white face. I prefer blue, silver, or black.
  4. A round face.
  5. Not too small and wimpy.
I bought the watch (this particular one has a black face, and I love it)* and part of the thought in the back of my mind was that I would soon have to fly to Michigan, again, for my Oma's funeral.

This morning, my momma called me at 5 am to tell me that my Oma died. (The journalist types call that burying the lead. Seven paragraphs in.) Tonight, I am getting on a flight to Michigan. I've thought a lot of things in the hours since five am, but one of them is that I have been getting ready for this for a while, we all knew it was coming, and that buying the watch for the flight home was one way that I was preparing myself. It's impossible to be prepared. But at least, when I fly overnight to Detroit, unable to sleep on a flight taking me home to my family, I won't have to wonder how much longer? How much longer?

I will never make it as a watchless person, and I've accepted that. I like to know what time it is. It grounds me. And having a watch saves me a whole lot of cell phone battery.

* A friend of a friend said, as I was showing my friend the watch the day I bought it, "That is the watch version of a boring executive in the Midwest." Apparently my idea of classic is another person's idea of boring. He can have the obnoxious fake bling, then, on his watch.


14 May 2010


For someone who will get on a plane to any country in the world, I am not very good at going to new stores or restaurants. There is always a little part of me that thinks, "But... is this a store where they allow people like me?" And that's funny, because I pretty much top the world in ridiculous levels of privilege (class, race, nationality, education; everything but gender, and even there I have some privilege: I comfortably conform, in appearance and behavior, to the gender I appear to be). The only place I have ever lived that might have stores that do not welcome people like me is New York, and that is only because New York has Old Money.

We don't really do Old Money in the Midwest or the Northwest. We are pretty firmly egalitarian: we all worked service jobs in high school. We all pump our own gas/petrol. We all shop at the same stores. If you can pay for it, you can have it, out here. It's the snobbery of the middle class of Middle America: we are more likely to look down on you for being a snob than we are to look down on you for not having money.

And yet, I still feel shy about walking into a new store. So I heard about this coffee shop that I wanted to try, and today I went for a walk-by. I just wanted to see what it was I would be facing when I braved walking in. I felt shy even walking along the row of shops where it was supposed to be. I felt shy asking an employee of one of the stores about it. It turns out, though, that the person who told me the location was all wrong, and tomorrow I will have to brave a whole new corner in search of it.

I read about it online, though, and I am pretty sure that it was intended for people just like me, namely, coffee snobs. It helps to have a mental picture of this place I am going.

On my walk home from the unsuccessful walk-by of the coffee shop, I passed a woman who held flowers in each hand. "Here!" she said, as she approached me, "Smell this!" and she stuck a bunch of lilac into my face.

13 May 2010


On my way to the coffee shop this morning, I saw one of the employees leaving the store carrying a big paper bag with colorful things sticking out of the top. For just a moment, it seemed like a picture of a morning in a small town in France, with a woman carrying her bag of bread and flowers home from the shops. It was really just tall piles of cups, it turned out, but the lovely picture stayed with me.

I have taken to walking home from work. On rainy days, it is pleasant to be out walking along the river, holding my bright blue umbrella over my head. On sunny days, it is glorious. The whole world turns out, it seems, on sunny days. People walk and run and bike and rollerblade. They lounge and snuggle. They throw frisbees and footballs. Boats race through the water. Yesterday, a man stood on some sort of surfboard-like thing, paddling with a long paddle. Gross, I kept thinking, watching him, what if he fell in? That river is disgusting. Today, two families of geese were out, paddling through the water. One family had seven little goslings, and they were visibly working harder than their parents to move through the water. Their whole little bodies wobbled from side to side as they swam.

As I crossed the bridge, talking on the phone to my mom, a guy in his twenties, carrying his world in an old backpack, called to me, "Hey, can I get a high-five for peeing off this bridge?" His friend, sitting on the ground on the other side of the walking path, laughed. I tried to finish the sentence I was in the middle of speaking to my mom, but I was horribly distracted.

11 May 2010


I read an article in the New York Times yesterday - this article, in fact - that made me gnash my teeth and want to move back to Africa. I mean, okay, yes, the last time I lived in Central Africa, c. 2005, people were dying of AIDS. I know this. But somehow I had the (apparently delusional) hope that things were getting better. I thought anti-retrovirals were, I don't know, reducing transmission rates? It was depressing to hear in the accompanying video that for every 1000 people who start anti-retrovirals, 2500 people are newly infected. That's... not good.

I made five lunches this morning, five little containers of beans and rice and cheese. I had made too much rice, and I stared at the extra rice morosely. What bothers me the most about the AIDS crisis in Central and Southern Africa, sometimes, is not that it is happening, but that we can ignore it. What bothers me is that I can waste rice here in my happy little North American life while people I met in Rwanda in 2004 could not take anti-retrovirals because they couldn't afford the food they needed to take with the pills. I find it less depressing, actually, to live in a place where people are dying of AIDS than to live here, where AIDS is invisible, and to know that I can live my merry life without ever thinking of the people living and dying across the world.

I remember, when I first moved to Rwanda, being surprised at the casual way that my educated friends and colleagues, both African and Western, spoke of being tested for HIV. "Every year," they said, even the married monogamous ones. They know too well what AIDS looks liked. They have seen friends and coworkers and neighbors die of it. Contrast: a few weeks ago, I was talking with a couple of friends about the transmission of HIV. One friend said that despite her party days in college, she has never been tested for HIV. It doesn't feel like it applies to her. Another, an over-educated lawyer like me, said that he understood that HIV could only be transmitted through blood.

Something is seriously wrong. This is someone with decades of education who does not know that HIV can be transmitted through bodily fluids other than blood (s3m3n? v@g1nal fluid? bre@st mi1k? hello? how did you think transmission was happening? it's not some stereotypical primitive blood-sharing tradition we are talking about). If my over-educated friends here don't even know how HIV is transmitted, what then do we expect in Bwindi, Uganda, where hardly anyone makes it to secondary school?

It costs $11,000 for life-long anti-retrovirals for one person in Uganda. Apparently, a life is not worth that much to us. The war on HIV/AIDS? It was the one war I thought we could win. I guess we don't care enough. It's not happening to US, right?


09 May 2010


Everything smells like campfire: my hair, my clothes, my coat, my bag. I rinsed my hair (I refuse to change my hair-washing schedule for a little thing like the smell of smoke), but I can still smell it, faintly, when my hair falls in front of my face.

It was warm yesterday, and clear, and I brazenly declared it summer and wore a flippy dress to S.'s birthday party. I baked, first, and then when the party started, I got a drink and a sombrero and sat in the hammock.

After a few minutes, I abandoned the hammock because it was stiff and too small, and I gave the sombrero to S., who needed it to cover up the scab on her forehead where she had impaled herself on a branch riding her bike home in the dark. The scab was variously described, as people peered at it straight on, then sideways, as a cat, a flamingo, and an unidentifiable country. A while later, I changed back into jeans and my softshell. "That's better. It's not summer just because you want it to be," someone said as I came back outside.

There was grilling and talking and drinking (I make a mean berry lemonade vodka). There were yard games and glow bracelets and cupcakes (I also make a mean coconut chocolate cupcake). "I don't like chocolate," L. said. "But I will try one." A few minutes later, she said, "I don't like chocolate, but this might be the best cupcake I've ever had."

"You have to say that!" someone else said, and L. said, "No, I have no problem telling people when things are bad. This is an incredible cupcake."

In the end, we huddled near the outdoor fireplace and looked up at the few visible stars beyond the city lights. Planes flew over low and close to land at the airport. "I want to grab my sleeping bag and throw it down here," N. said, "and fall asleep outside, listening to the crackling of the fire."

But instead we cleaned, and then we all went home to our own cozy beds, inside.

01 May 2010


I went for a long tromp in a big square around this side of Gone West this afternoon, twenty or so blocks north, twenty or so blocks east, twenty or so blocks south, and then twenty or so blocks back west to get home. I left in the middle of the afternoon, but it was very nearly completely dark by the time I got back to my apartment and walked into the oddly-sweltering lobby.

I walked through the neighborhood of big old houses where the churches still say Missionary Baptist, even though the white people are moving in. I walked past the crumbling storefronts on a street that used to be booming. I walked along a gentrifying thoroughfare. I walked past an old mossy wall. I walked through perfect manicured front lawns. I walked through the mall.

At approximately each corner of the square, I stopped. At the first corner, I drank a cappuccino while sitting in the sun that turned to gloom that turned to sun that turned to gloom. Each time the sun disappeared, I got a little bit colder, until I had to move or lose the feeling in my fingers.

At the second corner, I bought rose hips and echinacea at the co-op, and had a big warm cup of Assam tea at the tea shop. People played games at the tables around me: Uno at one ("Is there a strategy to this game?" the guy asked), canasta at another, and Guess Who? at at a third. At the canasta table, the girl explained to the guy how to play Guess Who? when they saw the other table beginning it. I sipped the malty, sweet tea, and then left with it. I finished it a few blocks in, but there was no trash can for miles, so I carried the paper cup a very long way.

At the third corner, I tried on pair after pair of sunglasses. My old pair is scratched, and the tiny screw keeps falling out of the hinge. It is unpleasant to pull out sunglasses and find them missing one of the earpieces. It looks weird when you wear them that way. I bought a new pair a few weeks ago, but they pinch my nose. So now I have two more pairs, tested extensively for comfort, and I'll have to donate the pinchy pair. S. can have them. Hers were stolen a while ago, and she replaced them with a bright yellow pair. She looks strikingly like a toddler when she wears them. Who else has plastic yellow sunglasses?

I ran my hands over the journals in the bookstore. Lined paper is my Waterloo. I cannot resist it. I picked up a leather one and smelled it. Ah. Leather and paper. I plotted which one will be my next constant companion. And then, reluctantly, I left them all there, and walked the last side of the square home without them, through the chilly night air.