Saturday, August 16, 2008

Next Chapter

Thirteen years ago I moved from New Hampshire to Seattle with a back-pack full of flannel shirts in a pick-up truck stocked with household goods. I was Elly May Clampett without the boobs or the investment capital which in retrospect makes it all kind of sad. The loot included an old-even-then television set and a Jan Sport backpack that my father bought me for the trip because all the students at the University of Vermont were carrying them and they seemed pretty durable.

It was almost poetic that on my last day in Seattle, I was carrying the backpack after 4,745 consecutive days of use – unwashed, some will insist I mention – and sneaking down the block with my older-still television that I was depositing on the lawn of a neighbor who creates sculpture from an assortment of household junk. The Salvation Army won’t take TVs made before 2000 which I found rather snooty and the garbage man would have had to don a HazMat suit and file an incident report if I even considered placing it near the dumpster. I had few options. Leaving alms to the artist seemed a suitable solution.

Thirty minutes later, I was sitting curbside in my neighborhood on a 1960s turquoise Naugahyde chair with wooden arms and stainless steel legs – the last of my impressive collection – as I waited for my friend who would drive me to the airport. He had agreed only the day before to stash the chair in his basement all because of a last minute attack of nostalgia that had me wailing over the phone, “I should be able to keep ONE chair, MY FAVORITE ONE, Why not ONE!” as if this had been somebody else’s decision and they were prying my furniture from my desperate grasp. He’s a bachelor and has absolutely no equipment to deal with irrational girly episodes. I counted on that.

A man on his bike with the guitar on his back took a moment to stare at me as he sped past. It was, after all, 3:30 a.m... Shortly after I had settled comfortably in my chair outside, it had crossed my mind that some undead thing might creep down from the adjoining park right out of the Thriller video to eat my brains. That would be suitably tragic for sensational local news coverage given that I was moments away from an amazing journey when the aforementioned spooky thing chose me as its victim. I was just creating the proper ambiance by crooning, “It’s close to midnight and something evil’s lurking in the dark . . .” when the bike rider whizzed by.

Since we can only guess that the grim reaper wears black and carries a sickle rather than rides a bike and wields a guitar, I held my breath for a second, which technically, would not discourage said reaper in any way since his job would be easier if I ceased respiration first. “You try to scream . . . .”

The man on the bike looked a little frightened which instead had me wonder if this was really just some dude in a band who thinks there’s nothing scarier than a woman perched on a throne of Naugahyde, singing ‘Thriller’ in strained tones with no range (for those of you who have seen my YouTube contribution, you know what I mean). In fact, that’s grim reaper kind of frightening.

I was still singing in spite of the audience simply because I wanted to get to the part where I punctuated the line, “. . . but ‘terra’ takes the sound before you make it” because I find that particular pronunciation of ‘terror’ so darn amusing that it needs to be belted out regardless of who’s within earshot.

Moments later my friend arrived in the Subaru that would take me out of my neighborhood for the last time. I would have cried one last sentimental cry but I’d exhausted my tears over the last couple of weeks and, again, reminded myself that I was sitting next to an ill-equipped bachelor. The sappy behavior had already culminated anyway in a mid-afternoon sobbing call to an ex-boyfriend after I had sifted through every sweet card he’d ever sent me. It ended up sounding like a 2am drunk-dial with a lot of drippy I–love-you-man’s. Mortifying in retrospect. Sorry, Taha – I love you, man.

Three weeks earlier I had decided to move to India. After the initial surprise wore off, my Dad made one of his 6 a.m. phone calls – I stopped mentioning the three-hour time difference to him awhile ago – to voice concern about inoculations because someone had a cousin whose friend’s sister’s boyfriend got really sick there. I assured him that I’d get shots and wear saran wrap over my head and hands whenever I went outside. As well as guarding me from contact, it should keep the locals farther than sneezing distance from the weirdo wrapped in plastic.

What’s particularly funny about this call is that my father lives all summer at a camp in Vermont near Lake Champlain with no running water, no electricity, questionable refrigeration and an out-house. Whatever power he needs runs off his truck battery so that his entire life requires less juice than my smart phone. With meager culinary prep, my father and his like-minded friends sustain themselves with meat-loaf sized hamburgers and vegetables plucked from the garden. Sometimes the only obvious attempt at sanitation appears to be a quick glance upward and a plea to God. One of my Dad’s famous ‘camp burgers’ could take out his entire little commune if it wasn’t for the liberal use of an antiseptic called Gin in it’s most economical form. Apparently, Jesus and Gin trumps e-coli.

Most of my friends smiled and nodded when I told them I was moving to India but I don’t think they believed I’d do it even after I set about breaking camp like a nomad packing up the yurt. Probably because they knew any nomad would have known better than to accumulate that much stuff. With my 1950s and 60s collectors kitsch – it could either be considered a $300 find on Craig’s list or a $5 this’ll-work-cut-it’s-cheap compromise at the Salvation Army. It was love-it or hate-it stuff and we’d been growing old together, my Naugahyde and me so it was tough to be objective.

This would also be one of the few occasions in which I could honestly blame my mother. Most of the baggage I’d like to assign to her is actually my own but the boxes of yard-sale finds can actually be blamed on her since she did indeed ship them across country. Her motto, “if it’s ugly, it must be worth money” combined with “heck, it’s only a quarter” culminated in a collection of artifacts that I could only now sift through because she passed away. I wouldn’t have dreamed of getting rid of a single item while she lived and I still had to call my sister for her blessings at least a couple of times in the process.

As I would explain later, my mother was a shyster. This isn’t the time to explain how she passed off Duncan Hines brownies as her own at all the bake sales or how she convinced me that the Pillsbury Pie Crust was homemade after she rolled out the fold and floured the counter liberally, but I discovered it wasn’t the last of her capers. I agonized over the ‘Depression-era, hand-blown glass’ vase she sent me trying to decide if I should keep it simply because to her it was a valuable find even though to me it was cranberry, a color I would never decorate with. After electing to save it with the few meager items I was keeping, I turned it over to slide the candle out and I noticed the ‘HD’ sticker on the bottom which I would recognize as a Target brand household good but she would not since she seldom went to department stores. I’ll never know why she attempted to pull that one over on me since this is a woman who knew her depression-era glass but it’s yet another of the complicated reasons why I loved her so dearly.

I also elected to paint a house before I left. As I settled all my clients elsewhere, I needed something to do other than keep myself company and cry over old birthday cards. I walked into the project blind, had no concept how much work it would be and longed to be done with it because it was stressing me out. File “house painting” next to “marriage” in a pile called, ‘Things to try only once.’

I’ve been known to do experiments in manual labor and this was what I thought would be another lab to determine if my functional conditioning is actually functional. Most importantly what I learned is that men who shop in upscale supermarkets only flirt with me when I’m dirty and covered in paint which is weird and worthy of further study. Had I known this, I could have changed the face of my dating history simply by rolling around in the parking lot on the way in.
I also learned that paint is really hard to get out of your hair, that people who climb to the top wrung of ladders positioned on uneven ground have brass balls or no understanding of physics, gravity or medical coverage, and that what little sanity I maintain can be preserved in trying situation only as long as I have access to podcasts of ‘This American Life’. Physically painting was no problem but if it hadn’t been for Ira Glass the mental game would have beaten me. If this had been the Navy Seals of monotonous labor, I might have wrung the bell.

I had hoped this project would be reminiscent of my drywall experiment of 2002. Then however, I got to work with a crew of Romanians who where all a lot of fun with the exception of the plumber. Since apparently the Romanian wives would not be happy to discover that their husbands worked on a coed crew, I was scooted out the back door whenever the plumber arrived. Of all the men in this little congregation, the plumber talked when he drank. Oh, and he drank a lot. As Sam, the dapper young family man I worked with frequently would say sternly as he shook his head, “this no good.”

Their wives had no reason for concern. They were not attracted to me as they would continue to attest that Romanian women were the most beautiful women on the planet but rather, as devout Christians, they were fascinated to be in such close proximity to any human being that in their minds would be fed-exed straight to hell upon expiration. Sam found the blasphemous lifestyles of Americans almost as offensive as their ungodly preference for drywall over stucco. He also couldn’t understand why we weren’t smart enough or considerate enough to learn any other language fluently and he thought my divorce was a tragic mistake because it would leave me with few prospects. So far I’ve done little to disprove his theories.

His mudslinging always began during the literal slinging of mud. Sam would fling trowels of mud at all the wall’s seams while complaining nonstop about how this was a stupid American invention and far inferior to the genius that is stucco. I still preferred taking a browbeating for my fellow citizens to standing on saw horses propping sheets of drywall in place while he screwed them in. The vibration of the screw gun made it hard to see how much my muscles were quivering at the effort.

What I learned from that job was that any task performed at full range of motion for greater than twenty reps was outside of my training and challenging for me to do. All the training I did in the gym up to that point did not prepare me at all for the demands of real labor. That particular epiphany about the dysfunction of conventional training turned me towards CrossFit and I never looked back. I had hoped for a breakthrough of equal magnitude with my little paint project but other than it’s Zen-like moments which could have been attributed to the wax-on/wax-off sort of focus or the combination of dehydration, sun stroke and paint fumes, I can only be sure I met my RDA of Vitamin-D out in the rare Seattle sun.

Wolfeboro, NH, where I’m now staying with my sister, docks on Lake Winnipesaukee. Visitors rent boats, splash about in the lake and probably fish for trout. It’s a lake. So when the tourists swagger up to Dockside - what would look like your typical Oceanside seafood and burger joint if you were hours south at Hampton Beach - and ask if the clams are fresh, the teenagers working the window try not to be too sarcastic. Did I mention it’s a lake? You’d better hope the clams are previously frozen ‘cause anything caught in the gulp of water that’s Winnipesaukee, ain’t a quahog.

My nephew Dustin works at Dockside washing dishes while my nephew Gunnar works at Garwood’s doing ‘cold-side’ prep and I am spending the month flipping crepes at a crepery a few doors down. I haven’t asked what they’re making per hour and not because I haven’t considered comparing wages. Though you can imagine that after ten full years of fighting obesity with no downward trend, I’ve thrown up my hands and joined ‘Team Diabetes’ just to play on the winning side for once, there is no nutritional angle to this. In fact, I only grimaced internally when a father ordered Strawberry, Nutella, Candy, Syrup, Honey-smothered Crepes for his two scrawny offspring for dinner and then explained proudly that his children are vegetarian. He then looked at his robust niece when she asked if she could please have chicken in hers and said, “Fine. You’re mother’s paying – she can kill animals.” “Coming right up, sir,” I said grinning.

Yes, I have the pleasure of working at ‘Crepes Ooh La La!’ where I walk past the phone quickly before it rings so I can avoid saying it. It could force me to acknowledge the midlife crisis I’m pretending not to notice. I stand on display and prepare crepes to order and in spite of my wheat sensitivity, spend most of my day smelling like pancakes. Instead of paint in my hair I now have to contend with Nutella which, unlike paint, can be removed by licking though I wouldn’t advise it. If I hadn’t been spending my evening making runs to 7-11 for tacos in a car full of teenaged boys going 70 m.p.h, I’d walk through a bar just to see if men buy drinks for girls that smell like breakfast. (Disclaimer: It was not Gunnar driving and they may not have noticed an adult in the car because I was the shortest one there. Oh, and I didn’t eat tacos and it wasn’t my idea).

As for the rest of the teenagers in town, I think I work with all of them. My favorite is a budding Einstein dressed all Abecrombie. I'm sure he'd display his natural brilliance if it wasn't for an unfortunate roominess between synapse. When we're all operating on DSL, he's dial-up. It's odd to be moving at the pace of crepe only to have you're rhythym disrupted by the slow ardious shuffle of untied sneakers moving at the pace of a dimwitted knuckledragger. He was country when country wasn't cool.

I’m willing to consider the job at the crepery an inventive way to mingle with the locals while I spend time with my family and learn yoga before heading off to India. So far I took three or four of my sister’s classes and so far my mind is more open than my joints. I promised myself I’d chase away whatever thoughts I had like, “this isn’t functional,” “this movement is dangerous”, “I can’t do this,” or, “holy Krishna it’s only been five minutes!” and give this thing a chance for the sake of sisterhood. Stacey told us in soothing tones at the beginning of class to pick a spot to ‘work-on’ and after spending the first couple of classes trying to ‘breath through my shoulder,’ I decided to shift my spot from my shoulder to my attitude. I think I hit the spot. In spite of my inability to wear my own limbs as a straightjacket, I remained composed and open to the possibility of one day swaddling myself and at the same moment realizing why you'd want to.

Stacey’s been to Gordo’s gym with me, too, which I joined moments after stepping foot inside the city limits. After we spent 30 minutes rearranging a jungle of benches and elaborate machines designed to test whether pullies work, we were set up to do a ten minute workout. I started showing Stacey how to do dumbbell cleans and I believe within the first five minutes she said, “This movement is dangerous,” “I can’t do this,” and “Holy Krishna, It’s only been five minutes!” She hasn’t been back yet but I think she should hurry. My show at Gordo’s might be a limited engagement after I horrified the locals with a little Push-Jerk Squat medley that turned me three shades of red. Historically, they’ve burned witches nearby with less tangible evidence of demonic possession. Or maybe they were just peeved because I smelled like pancakes.