Gutted

I was showing a friend pictures from our demolition. The friend’s friend had an op-ed she needed to share. One that bit.

“So, if you hate your house so much, why don’t you just buy a new one?”

Ouch! That throw away comment from a grinning stranger really did burn. It freezes, too.

I, in my shock at that unthinkable thought, objected. Too much, in retrospect, methinks. Too much because her unwelcome comment was based on her observation. Of the evidence. That I provided.

Looking at the photos of the bare and picked over bones of the edifice I had sworn to protect I thought, “What hath I wrought?”

The next day, I hesitated as I stepped onto the porch as part of my daily construction inspection. I gingerly inserted my key. I slowly opened the door. There was almost no floor to speak of–just a bunch of planks that forced me to leap from one to the next at the risk of falling through to the basement below.


And I’ve been stuck here. Right here. For two weeks I haven’t been able to move this post forward. Not able to skip past it. Because I can’t skip it. It has to be dealt with. I have to deal with it.

Usually, I have posts and pieces of posts trolling through my head–all of the time. I sit down and tap them out and hit publish. That’s how it works. Sure, there’s a bit more than that, but not the writer’s black hole I’ve had.

Usually, the hardest ones come out the fastest. Usually.

I’ve been stuck in the unusual.

I’ve reopened this page again and again. I’ve tweaked some words, moved a comma about and walked away. I’ve sat down with a brew in hand and a strict self-imposed deadline to put a bow on it. Three beers later, I successfully avoid any accomplishment. I’ll do it tomorrow. I don’t.

I’d walk into the house and take more photos. I’d look at the skeleton of the house, and see that the specimen is incomplete. Some of the bones are missing. No floor, not just exposed joists, but an entirely missing kitchen floor. No stairway to the second floor, the ladder carefully balanced over the canyon of the basement stairs.

The radiators were all piled up in the former toy room, like the mountains of blocks, legos and Hot Wheels from a recent past.

This week the siding was torn off. The chipped paint along the thin wooden boards were stacked in dumpster number six. Or are we up to seven boxcars of the house toted away? What could be left?

I didn’t know what gutting the house really meant.

GUT: to clean out. strip. decimate. ravage. ransack. disembowel. eviscerate. empty.

That was it. Empty.

I haven’t been able to come to terms with what I’m doing to the house. I started counting what was staying.

  1. The roof. (Which we replaced 8 years ago).
  2. The foundation. (Which is getting parged to shore it up.)
  3. Most of the original sheathing that was diagonally hung, keeping out the elements. (It’s being covered with some kind of new-fangled water impervious wood and then foam insulation and then new man-made siding.)
  4. Most of the original posts and joists. Many of which are being sistered with new, man-made materials.
  5. All of the woodwork and trim in the living and dining rooms. The fake fireplace mantels are STAYING!
  6. I saved the floors in the first two bedrooms, now known as the den and the office. (Over objections of some/one. I can’t let them all go.)

I’m looking at this list and the house that I swore to protect that I can’t recognize and I start hearing Obi-Wan telling Luke that Luke’s father is now more machine than man.

And then I get to thinking. And I feel better. Because in the end, Darth Vader was alright. He kept his soul.

Publish!

I Fall to Pieces

One of the many boxes of legos.

Bear had done right by me when he cleared out his room. Per instructions, he left the books for me to pick through. And the Legos.

There were four or five plastic containers full of the red and yellow and blue and green and gray blocks. There were some block blocks–squares and rectangles. There were some windows that opened and closed. There were also a few doodads that could turn around like a faucet or maybe could be a flower. There were bodied and disembodied yellow heads to pick through. And an amazing number of little gray connectors that must have been from the many Star Wars and knights kits that were under Christmas trees and gifted for birthdays.

I found Legos to be a wonderful mindless manipulative. It wasn’t mindful for me, as I didn’t focus or concentrate on my creations. I’d sometimes make a color pattern, but, for me, it was always indeterminate.

The Bear and the Big Guy spent many hours assembling and disassembling roads, houses, towns and worlds. It was the journey of a Creator, trying different combinations, making evolution happen and then reshaping a next one.

There were kits that were constructed following the guidance on the box. But only once. After it was made, it was rejoiced and then deconstructed and the spoils added to the pile. There were no Lego trophies that were saved for posterity. Legos made fluid sculptures.

On Saturday, I returned to my boxing duties, back to the Bear’s room. I cleaned out the craziness in the closet. I don’t believe that the back of that closet was cleared out in fifteen years. Frankly, it was scarier in thought than in fact.

For some reason, there was a big pile of coins on the dresser. Next to the pile, there was a box full of even more coins, as well as with a bunch of little rocks. Why don’t people (in my family) recognize that nickels and dimes and quarters and, yes, even pennies, are money to be spent rather than items to pile. There was once a day when I ordered a pizza only to realize that I had no cash (before delivery took credit cards). I paid for the pizza with coin I conjured from pockets, under the pillows on the couch and from the bottom of my bags–even going to the closet to rummage through every bag I owned. The Pizza Hut guy wasn’t particularly jazzed, but at least I found enough silver to include a decent tip.

I picked through the rocks (why rocks in that box, too??)  and tossed them as well as a number of wires and quite a pile of empty wrappers that made me both relieved and a little shocked.

I parsed through the books, fondly putting some in boxes and others in the to-go pile. I soon found myself sitting on the floor picking through those Lego boxes.

I started tossing out the tiny green army men I found in one box. There was some nerf bullets in another and a fuselage of a plastic airplane. The dust in the uncovered bins was charring my fingers and making me sneeze. I started combing through one of the bins to shake out the chaff, the unique Lego plastic-on-plastic sound whistling as I shook through the box.

WHAT THE HELL WAS I DOING?

Seriously. What. The. Hell. Was. I. Doing.

I was spending fifteen, soon to be thirty and likely sixty minutes going through old toys. That had more than a decade of dust on them. I said I wasn’t sentimental and here I was. On the floor. Picking through junk.

Nope. Nope. Nope. Done. Said my sane self.

I took a photo of the boxes of little colorful blocks and posted them under FREE on my neighborhood listserve. I identified them as dusty and recommended running them through the dishwasher. In less than ten minutes I had a a taker. In five more minutes I took the two trips downstairs and to the front porch to await pickup. I had two more pings for them before I took the listing down.

I went for a beer and a sandwich and when I stepped on to the porch I looked down. They were gone.

And I’m good with that.

 

The Green Sweater

An old green cardigan. It's mine. Now. Not for long, though.

So there’s this picture of me. Standing next to the Spouse. It was Easter dinner. I’m wearing these old glasses that are a little too round for my face. And, even though it’s a family holiday dinner we’re hosting, we’re pretty casual.

Many Easter dinners started on the back porch. Those early sunny spring Sundays have served up the first al fresco parties of the year. There was that IKEA set we had with the bargain wood table, two chairs and the bench. Then we got the metal chairs with comfy cushions to surround the mosaic tile table with the red and white awning-ed umbrella.

The back porch served up our renewed love of pink wine.  Our guests recoiled at the petal hue of that early rosé. The color that–back then–telegraphed sticky sweet wine. But not this one. It was French. It was dry. And it had stone fruit, actually peach, esters that surprised.

I poured this beautiful wine and challenged our guests. There were olives and cheeses and I don’t know what else–maybe prosciutto wrapped honeydew?–providing culinary cover. So we got drunk before the crown roast of pork or salmon roudelade.

This Easter, the one that I started talking about, the one in the picture, had me with my period glasses perched on my nose and standing next to the Spouse. My hair was unattractively pulled back in a way that kept it out of the meal but that did me no beauty favors. Like I was the before picture from a makeover.

The point of this photo, when it was taken, was to display the wine. There’s me and the Spouse, like I said, and we’re holding an amazing bottle of French champagne between us. The wine with the super tiny, micro-fine bubbles. And the taste of toasted biscuits. And the color of diluted honey through a slightly bronzed lens. You might recognize this description as Cristal. And you’d be right.

The Spouse was gifted this fine vintage bottle from an academy award winning director after a rare personal print that he lent was projected with great care. That’s what Hollywood folks do, I guess. Have a very expensive champagne shipped to a dirty projection booth.

Legend has it that The Spouse was ready to pop the cork to share the nectar with his colleagues after the show when one of his staff stopped him. “No!” said he, “This is the good stuff. The stuff that the rappers drink. Share this with your spouse.” For this, I am forever grateful.

So the rescued bottle was hidden in the basement for a bit, until that Easter when we had family over and popped the Cristal. We shared with the boys and compared it to another bottle of champagne we poured. There was a notable difference–even for the barely teens. On this day I was wearing my green sweater. I know because of the photo.

I ordered the sweater online. I chose two shaker stitch sweaters, one a medium olive green and the other an ocean blue. I also ordered the matching shells. The blue set was donated first. The green shell a bit later. But the green cardigan? That became my go-to wrap.

From fall through the end of spring, I’d wear that heavy-stitched cotton warmer. I wrapped a decade of Christmas presents wearing it. I made about twenty-thousand-million pots of coffee with it over my shoulders. I checked homework and watched hours and hours and hours of Star Wars on repeat with the boys wearing this cape.

When I’d get home, I’d take of my work clothes and don the green sweater. It was my house sweater.  Like a Mr. Rogers-came-in-the-house sweater.

Over the years I baked three or four cookie trays, oversaw 8-12 science fairs, popped four-thousand bowls of corn, read two hundred books, bought $58,726 in online merchandise on Amazon, listened to 60 million songs and paid a gazillion bills while wearing it.

I didn’t really wear it much at all last winter. And also not so much the winter before. When I put it on this year it was misshapen. It was stretched out in weird ways, and shrunk in the most unattractive ways. The buttons didn’t align quite right, and the cuffs were a little frayed.

I was parsing through my wardrobe, trying to do some purging before we have to move out. No reason to pack away or to move junk. You know? And my hands lifted the sweater to eye level. I saw what must be the grown-up version of a teen looking at a beloved stuffed animal. It meant so much. And it was time to let it go.

It still brought me joy, but in the form of memories, not in function. I gave it a hug, like you’d give your scruff teddy bear, and placed it in the donation pile. Thank you, green sweater, for the years of joy. I will remember you always, like a fine, ephemeral champagne.

Amazing Blues

Football is a game of inches. It’s a game of forward motion–you can be knocked back, but usually you get credit for as far as you got before you were touched. It’s also a game of spots. There are humans that decide how far you got, and they put the ball on that spot. It’s a little squishy.

Football is about where the ball is, not where the player is. Except, of course, when the player is in bounds or out of bounds. Then it’s all about the number of feet that touched the ground on the correct side of the line, even if the ball itself is physically out. Scoring, though, is about where the ball physically is–has it crossed the line?–plus where the player is, plus whether he has a good hold on it.

So you could have the ball in the scoring area, but be in the air and float out of range. No score. You could be in the scoring area, have both feet in bounds for a hot nano-second, but bobble the ball as you hit the ground. No score. It’s hard for the player catching the ball, who has to have an amazing sense of exactly where he is while accomplishing a crazy-amazing athletic feat while having people trying to knock him down. Respect!

While this madness is occurring at super speed, some old guys in zebra suits are looking to see if the player crossed into the scoring area before being knocked down (knee positioning is critical here) or pushed out, and that the player actually was in control of the ball–seriously, this whole thing is out of control–and, if there are any opposing players nearby, that nobody is mauling an opponent. That’s pass interference. It can happen either to the receiver or to the defender. There is frequently much motioning to the old guys in the stripes that the other guy was mean. Really, I don’t know how the old guys in the stripes can make their decisions so quickly. Game speed is fast.

But really, why do we care about it so much? Why do we spend hours watching men with helmets and pads that make their huge selves even more huge and that we identify by the color of their shirts and the numbers on their backs?

Seriously, I have no flipping idea. All I know is that I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid. I’d watch with my Dad. It was me and Dad. Nobody else in the family watched football. I don’t know how it started. Likely I just sat down and found the entire game curious. I’d ask him a lot of questions. He’d patiently explain the rules and what was happening on the field.

We liked the same teams–which wasn’t a big surprise since he introduced me to his teams. But still, we shared many Saturdays watching the Wolverines play. That’s where I learned to hate the team in Columbus. It’s a rivalry. It’s like an infection. We are all zombies for our teams.

I didn’t have a clue about college, except that I intended to go. Nobody in my family had done college. When I selected a school, it was based on my love for the football team. Probably not the best way to choose a college. But it was a state school. They seemed to like smart people. I applied. It was good I got in, because I didn’t apply anywhere else.

So this last Saturday, I pulled out a twenty-five year old Michigan sweatshirt–the light gray one with the dark blue letters. The blue one with the gold letters isn’t a sweatshirt anymore as much as a thinning pajama top. I plopped myself in front of the TV for the noon kick off. And the officiating went all haywire. Forward motion, ball placement, the location of butts and shoulders and arms and hands were in a primordial stew of a set of overtime rules that were more akin to a soccer shootout than a college football game.

It seemed like none of my teams are winning this month. I don’t like losing. I am really full of character right now. But I’m thinking that if I was watching this game with my Dad, he would have been so mad. Even madder than me. Every time I saw a replay of the call that was blown by the old guys in the stripes, I know Dad would be calling them dumbshits. That was his exclamation when something went wrong with his team. And thinking about that, for some reason, made me feel just a little bit better.

We so had it. Go Blue. And thanks, Dad. xoxo

Further and Close

The Potomac River breaching the park to the bench.

It starts just below my breastbone. It’s very localized, in my chest. It’s a time when I recognize my heart is a muscle. It tightens.

Heat radiates from that beating muscle down toward my tensing stomach. And I feel my throat close a bit. My nose begins to swell and my eyes itch. Almost itch.

I fight back with a deep breath and it all subsides, just before it spills over into tears.

It happens again and again today. From the first reminder on a screen in my hand, through interviews on news shows and sprinkled liberally in football coverage.

Over and over I push it aside. I struggle through. I feel the hurt. Of watching the towers fall again and again. Seeing the smoke from the pentagon over and over. Listening to the reading of the names. Names of those lost, the innocent and the brave. Even after fifteen years, it still cuts. It still shocks. It still hurts.

In remembrance of all that was lost that day. And our search for peace.

 

Postcards

A triangle, a pool cue and a few balls inside the triangle and a few balls outside the triangle. The table is green. The balls in the triange are 3, 5 and 9. Nine is striped.

There was this joint a few blocks away. It was tiny. There were two rooms, not including the johns. It was on the far corner of Colorado Avenue, and you had to walk a few steps down to reach the entrance. Not many. Maybe two. Max was three.

The door wasn’t the sturdiest, but the bar was solid. When you walked in you’d see a few dozen coffee mugs hanging from the wall. And, when you walked in, it was as a bell heralded your entrance. There wasn’t a bell, but you still felt a chime. As you crossed the threshold, Becky would come from behind the doorway to greet you.

She was a slight woman. She had thick bangs that topped big, thick plastic glasses. She wore her hair pulled back in a pony tail. It wasn’t long and luxurious. It was thinnish and a dull blonde. The rubber band was functional. This was her joint and she had work to do.

I don’t know that anyone else worked there. She must have changed her own kegs. She made the sandwiches–my favs were the turkey and the roast beef. I really really liked her ice cream scoop of potato salad. It was a big scoop. I don’t think she made it herself, but it was standout in freshness and flavor. The food wasn’t cooked. It was fixed–in the kitchen behind the bar. The only thing served hot was the coffee.

There was a great story about the robbery at Becky’s joint. A guy walked down the steps where he knew a small, fortyish woman tended bar, and he had a gun. He very nervously pointed it at the proprietor and demanded her money. She looked at him and said she would bring it from the back. As she stepped through the open doorway to the kitchen, the sweaty guy heard the click, click, click, click, click, click,  click, click, click, click of  ten guns being drawn. A heavily mustached man sitting at the far end of the bar spoke. His eyes were facing the shelves at the back of the bar. He didn’t move his head.

“Man. You done went ahead and fucked up. See all those coffee mugs on the wall. This is where we come to get a coffee. During our patrol shifts. Why don’t you put that gun down now, son. And I will have the police officers behind you lower their weapons.”

It was a cop bar. The would-be robber fell to the ground, was cuffed and taken away. Then Becky came out of the kitchen. She refilled the mug of the man with the mustache. Nothing else was said.

Just to the right of the bar was another open doorway, to the second room. That room was mostly for darts. There were leagues that played there some nights. Other nights people would pull their flights from their pockets and throw. It was fun.

There was also a misshapen pool table. You’d ask Becky for the balls if they weren’t on the table. If she didn’t know you, you might need to leave a driver’s license. But if she didn’t know you, why would you be playing pool there?

We were drinking Miller, the champagne of beers, from longnecks. We met up with some union brothers of The Spouse (when we were dating and not married, but let’s not confuse things by giving The Spouse a new identifier). Five of us were at the pool table playing a very unskilled game of eight ball. Slop counted. Someone brought another pair of handfuls of Miller.

She was a bit aloof, but not for any reason other than she didn’t know everyone. She was tall and had a quick smile and a throaty laugh. Her eyes were big and expressive, especially when she was making or parrying a point. Her layered dark blonde hair was heavy enough to stop it from flying all over the place. Still, her bangs danced just above her brows and cascaded along her cheeks and down her back.

I knew her husband, but she wasn’t with her husband. She was with a different union brother. I liked the one she was with better than the husband anyway. The crowd were mostly members of the local, except for me, her and her future her sister-in-law. Then there were four of us at playing pool.

In those next minutes, which were less than ninety, I became friends with my best friend that I ever had in Washington. The most regular person I knew here. She mostly grew up around D.C., versus the transplanted folks that were the majority of my colleagues, acquaintances and friends.

She had both a kindness and a take-no-prisoners air. I think that any prisoners would have been glad to spend time with her, though. Even if she upbraided them, she would relate to their experiences while demanding better. They would try harder.

She was an artist. She had huge feelings. She was the best mother I knew. She honestly and lovingly challenged my own failures in a way that pushed me to fail less. I want to be more like her.

Today would have been her birthday. Facebook told me. I found my head in my hands and cried again at losing her. Every year I cry a few times because I miss her.  I wish she was here to slap me upside the head and tell me the truths that I am too dumb to see. And I remain grateful, so very, very, very grateful, that she was my friend.

Dearest Kris, having a wonderful time and so wish you were here. xoxo

Mourning In America

Detail from William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Pietà, 1876, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Mary is so sad. She lost her son.

Women with loss. Loss of a child. A boy, a man, a son, a girl, a woman, a daughter.  A Gold Star mother saying these words, “I became a Gold Star mother,” into a microphone. To millions of people. And tucked deep inside her story of bravery at the unspeakable, she thinks, “Keep your star.” It’s an exclusive club. Nobody wants to join.

Wailing women. Weeping. Pounding their chests. Grabbing their heads. Pulling out clumps of hair. Faces wrenched. Clenching jaws and grinding teeth, trying desperately to hold back the bellows of grief. Of their worst moment. Of falling to the ground with horror. Of being unable to breathe. Of minds going blank, no thoughts, no feelings, nothing, because the alternative is that this is real.

Women of grace. Standing there. Alone. Together. Some with anger. Many with anger. Some struggling to find meaning. Others taking the mantle of meaning. Sharing their heartache, despair, agony and anguish. Pleading with us to see them. To acknowledge their children. To imagine their pain. To warn us. All searching for peace.

There are no words. But I am so sorry for your loss.