The Writing Prompt*

She set down the scary applesauce,
Lid like a soft petri dish
Not unbeautiful
Fine feathers in soft shades of green and grey
Mold caressing the edges.

Something went wrong
As it always does
So instead, she picks up her sweet pencil
Always her friend
Ready to capture her latest fragrant fever dream.

Whatever crazy thought comes next
And travels down her straining neck
Into her arm, tense with tennis elbow
Wrist cocked, thumb pressing into wood 
And chipping blue paint of a #2
Just like she used in school.

But those memories won’t come
Like still milk not flowing 
Blocked
Something she doesn’t want to see, feel, 
Remember
Lest it come rushing in
Like a scalding reverie, the full
Force of it slamming into her
Its realness, sorrow, and 
Shame.

Better to focus on the here and now
Pick back up the peppery canning jar
Ready to add her pickling cukes and garlic, dill and peppers
Try again
Hope it seals
Hope for the future. 

* Thanks to Cris Mulvey for this delightful writing prompt in which you match 20 random nouns with 20 unlikely adjectives, then write a poem that incorporates some of them. We had 20 minutes from start to finish and this is what came out. 

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Delight (a la Ross Gay): Nasturtiums


That weirdest of words for such a delectable, delightful plant. They are the opposite of “nasty.” In fact, they are quite tasty for humans and other wildlife, especially, it would seem, gophers. Such that we failed again and again to grow nasturtium, to be delighted by it, in our seaside garden where we know it should thrive and meander (take over) wildly, like you see along garden fences next to cow pastures, the sea off in the distance. 

But no. Every time one would creep out from underneath the fuschia or amongst the California poppies, we’d get excited, maybe get a diminutive orange blossom or two atop the silly roundish lily pad-like leaves, before the ultimate wilting. You’d reach down and pull up what remained with ease. The plant had been severed at ground-level. The root, gone. A tell-tale tunnel nearby.

So after a couple of years of this, David took half a packet of nasturtium seeds, looking like little dried chick peas, and pushed them into amended soil in the wooden planter box he’d made, hoisted onto our upper deck, miles from gophers and their dark, cool tunnels. Now, after months of watering and feeding, we have the most boisterous riot (jungle!) of leaves and huge trumpet-like flowers of more colors than we’d imagined. Orange and red and yellow and paler yellow with scarlet centers. The hummingbirds have tasted every one. A triumph!

Equally delightful is the funny and strange indoor nasturtium we tried, nested in another of David’s hand-made creations—a ceramic flower pot perfectly shaped for hanging with macrame—which it is, from a hook in the (again!) handmade light fixture in the kitchen, made out of 4×6 fir beams suspended by 4×4 posts, all lightly sanded and sealed, their undersides hand-carved like canoes and inlaid with LED light strips to illuminate our counters, which are way down below the decadent eighteen-foot sloping ceiling that caps our great room. 

This nasturtium[1], unlike its brethren outside, stretches and seeks the not-enough-light and so has grown like a little mobile, the disparate leaves held together with thread, and snaking its way down almost to the counter, but despite this, has produced a miraculous orange flower, turned hopefully toward the window, suspended like a jewel, and as proud. It’s David’s proudest thing in the house! We just hosted a Mother’s Day brunch for his mom and sisters. A nephew brought his girlfriend, whom we’d never met. Someone said, “give her a tour of the house,” which really isn’t much more than the great room in which she was already standing, and David said, “look at my nasturtium!,” his childlike, unimpeded joy, another of my—our—daily delights. 

What delighted you today?

[1] I Googled “the common name for nasturtium” because there must be, right? for this very Latin-sounding name. Turns out, it is the common name for the plant classified as Tropaeolum majus (decidedly more Latiny). Though there is another one: Indian cress, which makes sense as cress is edible. The plant is native to the Andes mountains of South America. Wild! A mountain plant that loves the ocean.

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Instructions

Go outside, obviously. 

Then get on the ground. 
Take off your glasses. 
Get your nose a few centimeters from the hedge nettle blossom. 
Notice the tiny ant with wings crawling upside down. 
Notice how the pink flowers open like tongues. 
An enticing upward slide for one tiny, thread-like proboscis.
Be enthralled. 
Lose track of time. It’s never served you anyway.

Go alone. 

People are distracting. They take you away from yourself and stop 
You from seeing. 
People are greedy and needy. 
So are you. 
You want their attention, the warm flush of ego admired. 
Forget them.

Stop and watch. 

Let nature happen around you. 
Stare at a flower or bud until it reveals the spider, fly, beetle 
Shimmering, eight-eyed and neon green like you never knew existed. 

Become the watcher, not the watched.

-Written during a writing workshop at Wild Wonder, June 2021

I’ve been thinking about nature journaling, and being in nature, and wondering, do people need people or do people need nature? Are they mutually exclusive? Some days, for me, they are. I want to be alone in nature, taking what I call “meditative walks,” where I can slow down, get lost in the moment, the sunlight or fog, the green moss underfoot, the sudden burst of raptor from out of the fir tree in front of me. I first learned about walking meditation, or mindful walking, from the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who was nearly a century old when he passed last month.

Yes, we are community beings, and lately I feel lonely. COVID continues to keep us at a distance, and as an introvert I have always struggled to make friends. Nature grounds and connects me, fills me with love. Yet sometimes I cannot seem to extend this love to my fellow humans, many of whom are running around at the mercy of their ego greed for admiration, money, power, and control. How can I love that, when I see all that it destroys? 

I was reading an excerpt from the book Mine to Carry by Christine Mulvey, who recently moved to our area. The author recalls meeting the Dalai Lama, and the immense and all-encompassing love, child-like and joyous, bubbling out from his eyes and into hers, enveloping and changing her forever. How amazing that must be, to find and carry that love and give it so freely. 

But I am still wounded. Worried. Stuck inside myself and not quite ready to forgive everyone of everything. I’ll continue my walks alone, and with one or two others. Continue my nature journaling, observation, writing, and sketching. It will come. 

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On Love and Dogs

Jasper (Photo by David Yager Photography)

I lightly scold Jasper for picking up a wood chip fallen from the stack near the fireplace and chewing it up. He’s not supposed to be chewing anything hard since his oral surgery over a week ago, which removed a tumor and six teeth, and which we found out today, was malignant and likely aggressive. The doctor said something like “months” left for our sweet, sweet dog. I’m having trouble taking that in. We’ve had this incredible, smart, loving guy for close to nine years. 

So he lays his little triangular wedge of a head between his paws, sighs, and looks up at me, then back down. I glance over at him, and he looks at me again, then back down, then back up. That’s how they steal your damned heart away – with their near constant attention. Nothing that pays you that much unconditional attention will fail to win your heart. 

Now he’s a little hungry for his dinner. He wanders over to his bowl, licks its emptiness, and looks at me again. He drinks some water instead. Now he lays again, head on paw, mostly hidden behind a poof in the living room where I’m sitting. But half of his face is visible, and with that half, his one eye is now staring me down, giving me the border collie eye (he’s half border collie and half golden retriever, looking like a small golden but with the assertive, all-seeing personality of a wily herding dog). His stare now bores through my left eye and into the back of my head. “You will feed me, Mom.” Every time I flit my eyes away from this laptop screen and onto him, he raises his eyebrow in a question. “When?”  

Food is perhaps one of the clues to how dogs became our best friends. DNA evidence uncovered by researchers led by Dr. Morgane Ollivier of ENS de Lyon, France found that dogs developed the ability to eat starchy foods (something wolves, who are strictly carnivores, lack) between 4,000 and 8,000 years ago, coinciding with humans’ first transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers. 

Dogs have indeed learned to rely on humans for food and care. Some fascinating and, to my mind hilarious, studies of the difference between wolves and dogs with respect to problem solving bears this out. Researchers Marshall-Pescini, et al. write in Frontiers in Psychology:

“In the first studies comparing equally raised wolves and dogs, Frank and Frank (1985) presented pups with puzzle boxes of increasing complexity, noting that wolf pups were overall significantly more successful in obtaining the reward. Interestingly however, authors describe wolves “attacking each puzzle immediately” (pp. 271) and persisting “until the problem was solved or time ran out” (pp. 271) in contrast to dogs quickly reverting to seeking human attention upon discovering that the food was not immediately available, and then laying down until time elapsed.” 

We’ve managed to spoil a whole species of animal, much like we have our children. Are humans and dogs locked in an unhealthy co-dependent relationship? Maybe. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

We have several names for our dog, most emerging from his original name. David has come up with many of these, owing to his habit of singing silly nonsensical songs, and his propensity to give everyone he knows a nickname. These two habits often coalesce as David works around the house, singing about his best friend and making up more names. Here are some:

Jasper dog • Jaspernicus • Mr. Bo Jasper • J. R. R. Asper • J. R. Pup-n-stuff • Pupper dog • Mammual • Buster • Buddy • Wedge Head • Wedginald • Bobert Beggington of the North Coast Beggingtons.

So now Mr. Bo Jasper has been fed and cuddled and told how ridiculously good he is, has always been, and always will be, and is resting on his “dog barrier” old sheet on top of our bed. And I’m wondering, how much longer do we have? And thinking, boy is he gonna get all the love he can bear until he can’t no more. 

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Consciousness, Creativity, and Ego: Ruminations While Reading The Marginalian

Human Tangents series. Creative arrangement of human lines and graphic elements as a concept metaphor on subject of Math, Nature, Universe and human existence

Taking some time this Sunday afternoon (November 7, 2021) to sit at my new “pop up desk” in the window seat (new MacBook Air, folding fir and metal table, coffee, water, to-do list, crumb-laden empty plate upon which formerly resided pear slices and a wedge of home-made sourdough focaccia), watching and feeling the late afternoon sun – later due to the time change this morning – and reading The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) newsletter. 

She (Maria Popova) is talking about the interconnectedness of all life, and about the nature of consciousness, and how the idea of self is largely (entirely?) illusory. I looked up and it struck me with such certainty, how deleterious our egos are for getting the full use out of our brains. I mean, if we let go of ego and its motivations, we’d have so much more room for using our brains to learn, understand, invent, and create. They are little, ravenous machines up there, cranking away, burning calories, firing synapses, decoding our world. Taking in information in milliseconds and doing shit with it that we can’t even understand on a conscious level most of the time. There’s a theory that gut feelings, or intuition – like when the hairs stand up on the back of your neck for no apparent reason –can actually be explained by the rapid intake and processing of information that tells you: danger! though you are not sure why. 

But when motivated by ego, by seeking validation for our thoughts from others (look at meeeee!) we lose time and focus. Narcissism forces certain decisions. We know that creativity typically (always?) suffers when it is too focused, or focused too soon, on pleasing an audience. I believe (though am not completely certain) that the best art I’ve seen, music I’ve heard, writing that’s punched me in the gut, was created purely for the self, or because it somehow had to come out, not in any calculating way but in a simple, profound, truthfulness way. 

Ego run amok can be even worse. I think it actually “eats your brain.” It’s a disease that seems to bring on a sort of dementia (see Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani as recent examples). Though that could also be just regular old dementia. But no, Trump has and continues to make terrible political and other decisions because his ego will not let him stop. He must tell everyone how he won, even when he didn’t, always playing the short game for short gain, even if it’s worse for him in the long run. His biggest blunder of all could be running for and becoming President, and the ensuing light-shining on his decades of fraud and money laundering. 

Speaking of narcissism and ego, I know I have a healthy dose of both. When I opened up my folder for creative writing, I started skimming some of my file names, and they intrigued me: “You Don’t Belong Here,” my latest piece about money and shame, which I really would like to do something with, but also “Sourdough Starter Saga,” “Visiting My Folks,” “Doing Costco,” Bezos Isn’t Happy Take Two” (a re-write – I really wanted to submit this somewhere), and “Men Taking Credit,” among many others.

The fact that I like my own titles maybe isn’t so much ego as it is simply entertaining myself, which according to my theory above, is actually a good thing. But then, and this is the ego part, I think, “I should start my blog again, and put this on it. It’s good!” Then I think, “Really? Get a grip!” Is that just my gnarly inner critic? Yes. But also, maybe it’s a good self-moderator to keep me from just putting everything out there (and seeking responses and strokes – the lame part). I want to share things but why do I want to? Ultimately I do like to entertain and inspire people, and that’s not all about me. That’s not so bad.

Are you entertained?

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Embracing Quirkiness: The Case for Airbnb

img_1268I carefully place my brown Eddie Bauer overnight bag on the floor, shake my backpack and purse from my shoulders, and look around. A litter box, which appears to be clean, is in the corner of the room. Dozens of framed photos of family members young and old hang above a long dresser. Heavy denim blue drapes obscure half of each of two windows on either side of the dark-wooded four-post bed, upon which is hanging, prominently, a rosary made of round lapis lazuli beads. I am to spend the night in the private bedroom of my Airbnb host.

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. I had reserved the guest room of this small, Oakland flat (the first floor of a renovated gray Craftsman owned by a sweet, widowed grandmother I had rented from before) but an emergency caused the prior night’s guest to need another night in the room. So the host made do by sleeping upstairs in the spare room of her son and daughter-in-law’s apartment, and I was to cozy myself up in my host’s own rosary-bedecked bed, her cat crying outside the door, clearly pissed at this rude and confusing interruption to the routine. A little weird, yes, but it was still better than a sofa in the living room.

I’ve since learned that this kind of quirky situation comes with the territory when using Airbnb. So do last minute cancelations from new hosts (which Airbnb does its best to remedy when they occur), overly eager, talkative, or nosy hosts (to be fair, they are letting strangers into their homes), and miscommunications about arrival and access to the space.

And yet, I still love Airbnb.

I’ve used it for more than two-dozen stays in the past two years. In addition to vacation rentals, I use it for overnight work travel from my hometown of Chico, California to the Bay Area three hours away, which is something I’ve been doing almost weekly for the last eight months. As a seasoned Bnb’er, I know what I want and can usually determine if a given room or studio is going to hit the mark. And I’m an Airbnb host’s dream guest: Female, professional, quiet, respectful, clean, conscientious, non-complaining, and leaves early in the morning for work. Typically you wouldn’t know I was there except for a damp towel and wash cloth hanging by the shower. I even pack out any large trash or to-go containers.

From Couch Surfing to World-Wide Empire

If you’ve never heard of Airbnb, it’s an online network (or to be fancy, a “peer-to-peer accommodation marketplace”) enabling people to rent out their residential properties for short-term stays. Hosts are charged a fee to use the system, which they can pass on to guests in the form of “service fees.” Most charge a cleaning fee as well. Both hosts and guests must have valid online Airbnb profiles and are rated for each stay.

Founded as Airbed & Breakfast (now the name makes sense!) in 2008 by Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, Airbnb is based in San Francisco. The concept was born out of the need for lodging for conference attendees of the Industrial Designers Society of America, and took shape as a way for people to offer untraditional lodging (i.e., their living room) for major events during which conventional hotels and motels were sold out. According to the Wall Street Journal, as of September 2016, the company was worth $30 billion.

Critics of Airbnb argue that the company is having a negative effect on communities in which a growing number of homes have become “full time” Airbnbs—in neighborhoods not zoned for this kind of occupancy—creating inflated home prices and displacing residents, among other impacts. The argument is not without merit; clearly, renting an entire home as a full-time Airbnb, provided that it is rented for much of the time, would net a property owner substantially more monthly income than a regular long-term rental. According to the website InsideAirbnb, which is critical of the company, the vast majority (nearly 74%) of Airbnb listings in New Orleans, for example, are for entire homes.

The system is now being used not only by private individuals trying to rent out a room in their primary or vacation home, but by online-savvy Bed and Breakfasts, property management companies, and other businesses to market their lodging. Before I became an avid Airbnb’er, I had occasionally used HomeAway (though I knew it by its former name, VRBO – Vacation Rental By Owner), which was founded in 2005 in Austin, TX, and which incidentally has begun using Airbnb to market some of its listings.

Whatever your opinion on the political, economic, and community ramifications of Airbnb (and I believe that they are real and policy makers should look carefully at them), from the perspective of a traveler, I will say that Airbnb is not for everyone. When I asked my brother-in-law, a tidy, gentle bookworm, if he would consider using Airbnb, an emphatic “ewwwww!” was his response. When pressed for fuller explanation, he added, “I don’t want to be in someone else’s house!” I can see this; there’s a strangeness in being among a stranger’s belongings.

And if you like the total anonymity of a hotel, including the freedom to throw shit around and not care how you leave the place (shame on you), then Airbnb is definitely not for you. On the other hand, if you are overly concerned with taking up space, and not messing anything up, then Airbnb may just cause you additional stress. A worldly and well-traveled tennis friend of mine, who is hitting her seventh decade on this earth in stride, recently complained of her stay at an Airbnb because she couldn’t get completely comfortable in what she felt was someone else’s space.

Parking Will Not be Guaranteed

There are some inconveniences, like parking. In the big cities, it’s not always available. I recently came to a more experiential understanding of the term “luggage” as I literally lugged mine up a steep hill for three blocks to get to my host’s third floor condo in Oakland after a long day of travel and work.

One of my first Airbnb experiences was a room in a home in Pleasant Hill that I found for my ceramicist hubby, David, and I to stay while selling his work at an art show. Street parking was frowned upon, and when moving our windowless cargo van into the designated spot (which we learned of only after already perfectly parking it in a non-designated spot along the narrow street), a slight tapping occurred to the neighbor’s jalopy parked behind us. So any money we saved in hotel fees on that trip was neatly stripped away and then some. The next morning, while still feeling lousy about the rear-ending, and just needing that first cup of coffee, we stumbled into the hosts’ kitchen to find them well into their morning and peppy as hell. They were nice enough, but it was all slightly uncomfortable.

So now I know to check into the parking situation ahead of time. And, unless price is a huge factor (and rooms inside homes that share a bathroom are the cheapest out there, other than “couch surfing,” which is also available), I always find a “Mother-In-Law unit” or “Garden Cottage” or otherwise private suite with its own bathroom, and if possible, it’s own entrance from the outside.

Why Then?

So for all the strangeness, potential inconveniences, and awkward social situations, why would anyone use Airbnb? The fact that you can find a space at a cheaper rate than most decent hotels is the obvious, but not entire, answer. It’s just more, well, homey. I don’t much like hotels—never did. The stiff white towels smelling sharply of bleach, the hermetically sealed bed sheets, the thin walls, the fake art, the freeway noise, the suspicious stains on the worn gray carpet, the creepy feeling that things might not be so clean and who the hell knows who has just slept and done whatever else in here!?

Things feel different at an Airbnb stay. First of all, the owners or managers are people you can see and meet. They have an online profile that they want to keep squeaky clean. For this reason, and often just because they like running a B&B, they try. Towels are often lush, bedding is soft, and there are a lot of extras like yummy-smelling liquid hand soap and shampoo, books, free wifi, guides to local restaurants and things to do, and snacks. And there’s another factor: it’s kind of interesting and, ok I’ll say it, slightly voyeuristic to stay in a stranger’s home. It feels like you’re getting a sneak peak at someone else’s life.

In an effort to get inside the head of your hosts without actually having to talk to them (the introvert’s biggest thrill), you can look through their available book selections. A fun game is to try and determine: are they liberal or conservative? A businessperson or an environmentalist? Christian, or New Age, or Intellectual? In an upscale mother-in-law unit in Montclair (the Oakland hills), the book selection included a large number of cookbooks, though the unit had no way to cook other than a microwave. Also included were Healing Crystals and Gemstones, the Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes, and Primary Care Medicine: Management of the Adult Patient. Not books I would assume go together. Plus, the latter being an odd choice for some light traveler bedtime reading.

Airbnb Commuting: Dos and Don’ts

San Francisco and Oakland are now among the most expensive places in the U.S. to live. Business Insider just listed Oakland among the top 10 most expensive cities in which to rent. This might explain the generous supply of rooms for rent via Airbnb in the Oakland, Berkeley, and surrounding areas that I identified in my search for the perfect once a week overnight stay. People are offsetting their high mortgages by renting out space.

After eight months of business travel Airbnb’ing under my belt, and I’ve learned a few things. The descriptions of the house, neighborhood, and residents are important. If you see words like “Historic,” “Victorian,” and “Colonial,” expect to enjoy interesting architecture, but also creaky floors, pocket doors that don’t close, two-inch gaps under the door of your not-so-private room, bathroom doors that don’t lock, and a lack of grounded outlets. It all depends on how much the home has been updated.

My desired attributes in an Airbnb stay can be summed up in the Three Ps: Price, Privacy,[1] and Parking. Safe, quiet neighborhoods are also important. Interesting architecture and eclectic furnishings are bonuses. Cleanliness goes without saying. And a word to the wise here: READ REVIEWS. If a listing has fewer than five stars, find out why. To provide a flavor of the typical Bay Area Airbnb experience, I kept a log of my first month of stays.

My Awkward First Time: Germans in the Kitchen

My very first Airbnb in the Bay Area taught me the importance of neighborhoods. This one was “in transition,” a euphemism for gentrification. Here you get a mix of beautiful three-story turn-of the-century homes, some run down, some fixed up, alongside mid-century apartment buildings with sheets covering the windows. But the transitional nature of this neighborhood was not necessarily the problem. It was the 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. trains that went by about one block away, but which, for all I knew, sounded like they were going to bust through the wall.

As is sometimes the case, this particular home was large enough to have more than one room being rented through Airbnb. I’ve found this set up to be less than ideal, if for no other reason than the multiple rooms typically share a bathroom (see my previously stated bathroom hang-ups). My room was large but centrally located, with ill-closing pocket doors directly off the dining room and attached kitchen. The other guests were from Germany, staying for over a week, and had pretty much moved into the kitchen. They would stay up late and chat in German with the homeowner, meaning I got to go to sleep when they did, and I didn’t even get the benefit of eavesdropping.

Historically Accurate

The second week I stayed in a rental that was described in the online profile as a “historical house.” “That sounds cool,” was my initial thought. This home, located on one of the steep side streets snaking up from Lake Merritt, where I work, was definitely convenient location-wise, but less so modern amenities-wise.

The staircase to my room was petrifyingly dark, narrow, and steep, with no handrail. I typically have my large overnight bag, my backpack with laptop in it, a purse, and a grocery/cold food storage bag.[2] This made getting up the stairs particularly treacherous. Also, the stairs were enormously loud. Every other step emitted a loud, long creak, which served to alert the two small dogs that lived at the house. They apparently were not included in the family meeting in which it was decided that opening up the place to travelers was a good idea. They were confused. They didn’t like it. So each climb up or down set off a new round of incessant barking.

This house, too, had more than one room for rent, and a shared bathroom. And that bathroom door not only didn’t lock, but wouldn’t latch, and therefore close, all the way.

My room, though, was spacious and lovely, filled with antique furniture. It contained no fewer than five doors. One leading in, two connected to separate closets, and two on either side of the bed that I was, frankly, too afraid to open. The window, one of those deals with the pulleys and counter weights common in old Victorians, would not stay shut. And it was getting cold. Next to the window was a large bookshelf filled with some great old classics. (These people had good taste in literature; I wondered if they were English professors. But I was shivering and didn’t have time to dwell on that.) I selected a few hearty-looking hard-bounds and wedged them end to end up the window to force it shut against the foggy Oakland chill.

Americana (and Jesus)

I briefly majored in anthropology as a college student, before switching to English. I realized my introverted nature made the idea of travel and having to talk to people extremely frightening, while learning about them in books seemed much more comfortable. So Airbnb can present a challenge for me. I have to move out of my comfort zone and chat with strangers. Sometimes this is hard after a harried day at work and a more harried time finding and parking at the designated venue. I’ve persevered and it’s generally been fine. But the introverted anthropologist (sleuth?) still lurks within me, and I learn a lot about my hosts from checking out their décor and their stuff.

On week three I was treated to a room in a home in which I have since stayed several times. The place is an old split level Craftsman that has been converted into two apartments. The downstairs one, where I stay, is home to a widow. Her son and his family live upstairs. The color scheme is navy blue, dark red, and cream. Lots of American flags, old crockery, things meant to resemble old crockery, framed needle point, and wooden signs suggesting the importance of family and prayer. Although I am not religious, I rather liked the comforting and calming messages. The host always gives me a giant hug when I return. I’m not a hugger by nature, but I’ve come to appreciate the caring that is conveyed through a sincere, loving hug.

The Human Habitrail

On the fourth week I decided to try something more outside the bustle of Lake Merritt. I found it in a little hilltop hideaway in a neighborhood called Oakmore, tucked into the bottom floor of a separated three-floor building occupied by two unrelated families. Finding it was somewhat challenging, as I tried to listen to my iPhone’s navigation device and negotiate tightly wound, narrow streets with beautiful but packed-in homes and cars on both sides. The streets were so narrow that the parked cars required drivers to err toward the center divide line, creating the effect of a one-lane road. This worked okay until a giant white FedEx truck came barreling around a blind corner directly in my path.

The place had an epic view of Downtown Oakland and the Bay, even from my bottom floor unit. The hillside sloped unrelentingly up behind the house, and my view of the Bay was partially blocked by the steeply pitched roof of the next-door neighbors below me. This so called “bottom floor” did not seem to be originally meant for habitation, but was more like an embellished crawl space. The ceilings were maybe seven feet high, and that’s being generous. The ceilings were so low that it took exactly 60 seconds for the forced air heat to become stifling. Efficient, yes. The narrow unit consisted of a bedroom, kitchen/dining area, office, second bedroom/t.v. room, and bathroom, all in a linear footprint about six to eight feet wide. This, along with the low ceiling, created the hamster habitrail effect.

But to make up for this, the place was wonderfully appointed, with an automatic, programmable, insulated carafe coffee maker, down comforter on the bed, fast wifi, a desk area with printer, and great water pressure in the shower. The deck and all the windows had the same stunning views. The host even left a Toblerone chocolate bar on the porch (see notes on food, below, definitely another check in the plus column for Airbnb).

“There’s Nothing Better Than a Bald Guest”

It takes a certain kind of person to open up a room in their home to travelers. Well, maybe several kinds of persons. For some, it’s a near desperate need for additional income. I spent an hour chatting with one host, a single woman in her late fifties who admitted she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to afford to keep her home, which had been her mother’s. The need for extra income is obviously a factor for most hosts, but some also thoroughly enjoy getting to know strangers…especially those from other countries (see Germans in the kitchen, above). As an introvert and boring old California native, I often feel as though I’m disappointing the particularly social host. “Um, ok well it’s been a long day so I think I’ll just go to bed now,” said by me at 8:05 p.m.

I asked the host of one of my regular stays via text message what she found most difficult about renting a room for short-term stays. Her answer was fast and unfiltered. “Hair.” What? “It’s nigh on impossible to pick up every one!” (She’s delightfully British, which comes across even in texts.) She added, half-jokingly, “There’s nothing better than a bald guest.” Since then I’ve taken to scanning her bathroom upon vacating, trying to wipe away at least the visible remnants of my DNA.

Competition is Good for the Consumer… of Food

As competition mounts as more people list their spaces, snacks and other kinds of food offerings seem to have become popular. At the room of the wonderful British lady who wages a daily war on hair there is always a croissant and a choice of multiple jams in the mini fridge, along with Walker’s Scottish shortbread cookies, to which I have formed an addiction.

David and I returned to the Bay Area recently to sell his pottery at another street fair. Our host was baking a dozen chocolate chip cookies when I arrived…for us. I thought this unusual but was not complaining.[3] As soon as I got to the door, she invited me to see the rest of her house and to sit out on the back patio, where she pumped me with questions and as often happens, I told her my life story out of nervousness. On our second night there, I got a text from her at about 1 a.m. that she had baked bread and left some outside our door. At that point I was somewhat creeped. The skeptic and fantasizer of horror movie scenes in me wondered, what was her ulterior motive? David surmised that she was just lonely. We’ll never know.

If you aren’t sure if this is a recommendation of Airbnb, neither am I. I still love it, both the concept and the reality. If you’re feeling that our current culture is dominated by the impersonal and anonymous, Airbnb could be another route to actual personal connection. It’s also, at least for the moment, still new and exciting, adding an element of comfortable adventure to your travels.

 

[1] Mostly meaning a private bathroom—for which you pay a premium. But if you’re like me and George Costanza, it’s hard to just “go” anywhere.

[2] Admittedly, this is a lot of carry-on for an overnight stay. Others could probably do it much more streamlined. I like to be prepared.

[3] I was raised to never leave free home baked goods, or chocolate, and certainly not the two combined, on the table.

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My Body: Judgement -or- Are Women Supposed to be Fat?

Girdles

I’m okay if I can still see a shadow under each cheekbone. I try to ignore my neck, which though slender and relatively long, in this light, is clearly wrinkling. And attached to the top of my neck and the bottom of my chin is this bizarre chicken flap that pulls and strains when I move my head. It’s the sack that alternately fills with fatty tissue or loses it depending on five pounds in one direction or the other. I’m not sure which is better, the empty swaying sack (affectionately dubbed “the wattle[1]”) or the double chin.

The wrinkled neck gives way to what I think of as one of my best features: My protruding collarbone and flat chest, which give me the illusion of thinness. I highlight these with sloping, generous V-necks, even when I am out playing tennis. And this, of course, will be my downfall. I’ve seen what the sun does to sun-lovers’ exposed chests: They become a mass of deeply crevassed, wrinkled, loose-hanging flesh. Tanned, yes, but so what?

I always wanted the lower half of my body to mirror the upper half. Long, slender arms and thin, if a little bony, fingers. Flat chest, long neck, small head. Gazelle-like elegance.

But instead I got the hips and ass and thighs of a Neolithic Venus goddess, a child-birther (which is of absolutely no interest or use to me). My mom’s hips. Her gynecologist told her, “You were born to have babies.” And still, she got a spinal on every one. They had to reach in and yank us all out because her numbed lower half, the half born to breed, could not flex a muscle. That was what we did in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Modern medicine and male doctors who know best can save YOU from the pain of labor! Pop out those pooches with time left to put dinner on the table.[2]

During the high-boot fashion craze a few years ago, I was trying some on in the cramped shoe department of T.J. Maxx. They wouldn’t zip up. Yeah, I got cankles. Thunder thighs. Saddle bags. And a butt that used to be bodacious but, let’s face it, has drooped a bit with middle age. I’m not sure how I ultimately figured this out. Maybe it was a dare, but yes, I have the honor of being able to cradle a water glass between my ass and the back of my thigh. It’s a great party trick. You should try it.

One thing I don’t mind is never having to worry about men staring at my barely A-cups. I have, though, caught them looking at my butt. Wow, you have to be really slack-jawed with drool forming at the corner of your mouth-oblivious to allow me to turn around and catch you before you look away. As in, “Um, my eyes are up here…way up here and on the other side of my body.”

Then I was told by my ex that every problem I had, from being a little tired to PMS to migraines had to do with those extra 10 pounds I carried around.

Body shaming, like most other shaming in my life, was brought to me at an early age courtesy of my family. My brother was particularly good at it, telling me that you could play connect the dots with my moles. Or that my chest looked like two mosquito bites.

One of my earliest memories is of wanting to play in the garden hose on a hot summer day with my two older brothers, and naively coming outside without a shirt. This was met with immediate objections and yells for “Mom!” to come make me put a shirt on. My mom explained that girls can’t do that, which of course, made no sense to me but I was forced to comply.

Some of my friends will say, “my God, woman, shut the hell up. You look fine!” But here’s the thing about Body Dysmorphic Disorder. It’s not rational. And it can result in destructive behaviors like anorexia and other eating disorders, themselves yet another source of shame. It can result in excessive exercise (to the point of injury), and self-mutilation (such as plastic surgery[3]).

Some people are blaming the mirror for our obsessive focus on how we look. I just learned that “Mirror Fasting” is a thing, in which people pledge not to look in the mirror for months on end. But the mirror isn’t entirely to blame. It’s the unattainable “ideal” of feminine beauty portrayed to us in movies, magazines, t.v. shows, and even the nightly news, combined with looking in the mirror at what is often far from the supposed “ideal.” Top models have, on average, a Body Mass Index of 16.3%. The World Health Organization says anything under 18.5% is underweight and malnourished. So then, in an annual national survey of teens, two out of three girls ages 14-15 say they want to lose weight. My god, I was a toothpick at that age…and I remember thinking I was fat. In fact, post-adolescence, I can’t remember not thinking that.

So I got lost down the rabbit hole of Internet research, and became fascinated with the images of American female beauty standards from each decade, starting in the 1910s. There were the extreme hourglass years in which some models look literally deformed, with generous breasts and hips and a waistline of about 18 inches. Then there were the Twiggy years of the ‘60s. Full body shots of Twiggy reveal an emaciated physique that reminds me of a skinny, knobby-kneed seven-year-old.

What does the image of a shrunken stick figure say to you? To me, it says weakness. Is this a subtle way of saying the ideal woman should be weak, has to be taken care of, can’t run away, and therefore is not a threat to men?

The truth is, women, with our inherent higher percentages of body fat, usually outlive men in extreme conditions (see Donner Party as Exhibit A). We are designed that way, so we have the capacity to carry little baby humans in our bellies. We have to be stronger. But instead of celebrating this life-giving strength and ability, it’s demonized, and we are left fighting a losing battle to remove the fat that is fucking supposed to be there in the first place! No wonder it’s so hard.

Luckily there are examples of strong women who are not the currently accepted physical “ideal,” and they are still embraced in the media. Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer come to mind, though a critique of their popularity could be that if you’re fat, you’d better be funny as hell.

So though I am still watching it, I am going to try and stop whining about it, and embrace those parts of my body that are big and strong. After all, a hard-hit tennis ball starts in the legs, does it not? That’s something I can use. I can even stroke my wattle as I ponder this essay. Helps me think. Even though I don’t want to have kids, I can still marvel at this superbly amazing thing that a woman’s body can do. And, that extra fat on the back of my thighs? That’s going to come in handy when the apocalypse hits (which, my bunker-building brother says, is any day now) because I just keep forgetting to stock up on canned food. So, you know, I think I’m OK.

[1] Wattle is one of those words that sounds about as appetizing as it looks, and so too are the words used to define it. My favorite is from Wikipedia, which says that wattle is “a fleshy caruncle hanging from various parts of the head or neck in several groups of birds and [middle-aged] mammals. A caruncle is defined as ‘a small, fleshy excrescence that is a normal part of an animal’s anatomy.’”… particularly if that animal is a slightly overweight, older adult with a genetic predisposition toward jowls (which, I’m not going to define, but you should know are something pigs have in addition to humans. Sadly, here, Google has a series of frowning human examples of jowls. Trust me, all frowning.)

[2] My mother was, in fact, in the process of cooking a Thanksgiving turkey on the day I was born. My grandmother later commented that it was the worst turkey my mom had ever made. Yes, helpful feedback in my family goes back generations.

[3] Did I just put boob jobs in the category of self-mutilation? Yes. Yes I did.

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The Awkward Hugs I’ve Known

awk-hug-1

I’m not the first person to write about hug awkwardness. I just read a Reader’s Digest column by humor writer Mary Roach on the subject, and life coach/self help writer Martha Beck describes a disastrous mis-hug with a client in one of her books. These stories strike a chord with me because I can be socially awkward, often fretting about how to get through social situations (including seemingly innocuous hugs and handshakes) without mistakes, and of course in overthinking it, I usually blow it.

I am not a hugger by nature, but I am happy to hug, generally, when someone else initiates it. And sometimes the hug gets botched – big time. Here is my list of the Top 10 Most Awkward Hugs:

  1. The Face Plant: This most often occurs when the two people engaged in the hug are of radically different heights. I’ve slammed my teeth or nose into the shoulders of tall huggers and likewise rammed my shoulder into the face of short huggers too many times to count. Neither of us ever mention it. I just smile, turn away, and run my tongue over my front teeth to check for looseness.
  1. The Sit-Stand: Recently I was finishing up a meeting when a male colleague of mine came in for the hug. He’s a frequent hugger so I wasn’t surprised, but my chair got stuck underneath me and I couldn’t pull it out in time, so I just grabbed him around the waist with one arm, my head on his stomach. “OK, this isn’t weird!” I think one of us said.
  1. The Letch-Press: So hugs among acquaintances of the opposite sex often seem weird to me. More so when that acquaintance, is, well, something of a letch. I worked with a man once who seemed to use the causal hug as a means of inappropriate closeness. After a meeting one day he hugged me and then wouldn’t let go. My arms had meanwhile dropped to my sides and I was basically just paralyzed in his 10-second grip. Ten seconds may not seem like much, but in casual hug years, it’s an eternity. You should not hug anyone for more than five seconds unless you are sleeping with that person or it’s a family member in the military who is being sent overseas.
  1. The French-Press: I have a friend whose husband is from France. To be fair, I am not entirely sure if this is a French thing, but when you greet him, he comes in not just for the hug, but the kiss, and not just a peck on the cheek. He goes for the mouth. The first time it happened, horrified, I was barely able to swing my head away to the left just in time to feel a warm, wet one on my right cheek. I’m still traumatized.
  1. The Full-Body-Press: Again, I am no expert on social interaction, but I’m pretty sure that hugs among friends and acquaintances should be upper body contact only. As the name suggests, a Full-Body-Press is just that. All parts touch. Not good.
  1. The Over/Under Arms War: This is when you attempt to hug and the other person tries to put their arm over your shoulder, while you’re simultaneously going over, so your arms collide. Then both of you switch to under at the same time, then back to over. Nervous laughter ensues. Repeat. It really takes all the fun out of the awkward hug.
  1. The Forceable Hug: This is when you force an extreme non-hugger into a hug. You know it’s a terrible violation of their personal space, especially when they recoil as you approach, your arms extended, their eyes widening in horror, but you can’t seem to stop yourself. “Oh, we’re doing this.”
  1. The Over-Exuberant Hug: This is when you accept that this hug is going to happen, even if it’s the last thing you want, so you overcompensate and latch on, squeezing for all you’re worth, like, “damn it, if I’m going to do this, I want it to mean something!” It’s an odd opportunity for me to press my admittedly boney and flat chest into other women’s generous, soft bosoms. I’m not trying to be the letch-hugger here but it’s always a mind-blowing experience. “Wow, you have those things. How amazing.”

The Over-Exuberant Hug reminds me of the same dilemma I’ve had in the few awkward religious activities I’ve found myself occasionally engaged in over the years. There’s that moment where it’s expected that everyone holds hands. So I’ll be standing next to some pasty-faced dude I’ve never met, and I guarantee you his hand is sweaty, and now I have to endure contact with his sweaty hand for possibly a minute (a lifetime in hug years) while someone says a prayer. I don’t want the pasty-faced guy to know how awful and uncomfortable this makes me feel, so I give his hand a meaningful squeeze, as if to say “this is great! I love that we are holding hands right now!”

  1. The Atta-Boy: This is the male-on-male half handshake/half hug in which one guy goes for the hug, while the other anticipated a manly, formal handshake. If you can’t get your hands out of the way quick enough, it becomes a handshake plus one-armed pat on the back.
  1. The “Let’s See How Far Apart We Can Stand and Still Hug” Hug: This is the opposite of the full-body press. Both parties must lean in and only the shoulders and arms lightly touch. This is typical of two extreme non-huggers who somehow were forced by social norms to engage in this massive violation of their spaces. It lasts for about 0.3 seconds.

And that concludes my catalog of awkward hugs. I look forward to engaging in some of these with many of you this holiday season.

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“At Least He Died Doing What He Loved”

PrintAbout eight years ago, I was writing grant proposals for a land trust on the North Coast of California. The Executive Director, who’s fiancé was a former river rafting guide turned realtor, took us on a team-building exercise of rafting down the South Fork of the Trinity River in spring. It was a Class III river in spots—nothing too daunting, but some fun, if chilly, rapids were in store. I’ve always loved being in the water so I was more than game.

My only complaint about the experience was unexpectedly having to change into and out of borrowed, ill-fitting wetsuits in front of our co-workers, including two rather good looking young men. I had planned on wearing cut-off blue jeans shorts over my bikini bottoms – my standard river swimming attire designed to hide my body’s favorite fat-storing regions. I think the worst moment was having to give back the wetsuits before our vehicle arrived from our put-in point with our dry clothes and towels. When it finally arrived I had to make the “march of shame” to the vehicle in nothing but my bikini and my ill-prepared (as in non) bikini-waxed aforementioned fat-storage/thigh region.[1] Who knows? Looking back this might have been a real turn on. But at the time and for years after, it was mortifying to think about.

While we were on the river, the Director’s fiancé talked about being a rafting guide. His worst experience was when a little girl fell out of the raft in a big rapid, and was actually trapped underwater for what was probably under 30 seconds, but would have felt like a terrifying eternity. But it was something else he said that has never left me. “Don’t do what you love for a living. It’ll kill it.”

I never thought grant writing for a living was necessarily “doing what I loved,” but rather, “doing something I’m good at, for which I get paid decently, and which (sometimes) results in some good in the world.” Not a bad deal. And for a while, it suited me well. That is, until a few years ago, in my late 30s, when I began to feel more and more dissatisfied. Now, in my 41st year, I still enjoy certain aspects of my work, but find myself less and less able to put up with the parts I don’t like: ridiculously complicated government grant applications, unrealistic expectations from clients,[2] or trying to write about a program I have no interest in and know little about, and yet somehow be able to inspire a funder to support that program.

And even when I am working with a client I love, who’s work I wholeheartedly support, I realize that good writing, no matter how easily that comes to you, is hard work. My brain is often not up to the task eight hours a day, or even six. I am looking around at what I can do that I actually love, or if that is not possible from a financial standpoint, then carving out time in my life to do what I love despite having to also log the hours doing what I must to get the bills paid.

I recognize that this quandary is one of a privileged nature. But that doesn’t make it any less real for those of us seeking—requiring—a life of meaning, creativity, fulfillment, and fun. And really, that should be all of us. In my perfect world, everyone would have enough money to support themselves and be able to practice and master whatever craft they chose, sharing that creativity and joy with the world.

It seems that everywhere I look, people of varying age and social strata are grappling with this issue. Some, like me, are directly acknowledging it and want to talk about it with anyone they can. A friend from high school who is an expert baker of gorgeous and clever cakes, cake pops, cupcakes, you name it (clearly a labor of love), is also stuck in a job she hates in order to support her family. Her Facebook posts about this are becoming more and more frantic. Some are quietly stewing about it, but their dissatisfaction with their lives nonetheless comes out, usually in the form of extreme grumpiness.

A recent case in point: the coffee shop owner who sullenly refuses to make eye contact, and rolls his eyes if your order takes longer than five seconds. I was trying to decide whether to go with whole-wheat toast or an English muffin alongside my scramble. I made a decision but I wasn’t one hundred percent in. After a moment, I said “whole wheat, I think.” At this point the owner had had enough. “You think, or you know?” he demanded with irritation. Images of Seinfeld’s famous Soup Nazi immediately came to mind. The last thing I wanted was to be turned away with no breakfast—and worse—no coffee. Theorizing that he doesn’t much like his job, I mentioned the scene to one of my writing group friends. Her first words were, “How could you be unhappy owning a coffee shop?”

My friend is a part-time instructor at two different community colleges, but is working on a cool murder mystery novel on the side (that is, when she is not commuting to and from two campuses or busting her butt grading sub-par or plagiarized essays from her less than enthusiastic remedial composition students or dealing with office politics, all while praying she gets hired again the following year to do it all over again). She admits that she loves her job, making all the crap somehow bearable. But she also spends her recuperation time at local coffee shops, hence the wistful longing for a sensual life surrounded by pungent roasted coffee beans, bacon and cheddar quiches, and blueberry scones.

I thought for a minute about the romantic idea of owning a coffee shop versus reality: The expense of all your young, self-absorbed baristas and other staff, and dealing with the public all day long and their annoying, self-absorbed needs (“I want a vanilla decaf latte, but only one pump, and don’t over-steam the milk, and it needs to be non-fat milk—oh actually do you have almond milk? You really should because…”).

Doing what you love can also be financially straining. My partner David has been making pottery for 25 years. He has honed his craft and now produces exquisite bowls, mugs, and vases. But because, though beautiful, they are utilitarian, they don’t count as “fine art” and therefore do not command the price tag that goes along with that moniker. He sells them at craft fairs and art shows around northern California. This used to be a viable method of making a living, provided that living didn’t involve cars less than 20 years old or roofs that didn’t leak (What? You want a perfectly dry ceiling? So picky!) But these days, it’s gotten downright impossible.

I’ve taken to accompanying David on his summer craft and art show circuit so that at least he doesn’t have to be the last, lonely vendor packing up pottery after the sun goes down. The shows go something like this: I sit in the shade of a pine tree on a park lawn, watching crafters set up for the Graeagle Arts and Crafts Fair in the northern Sierra foothills. There’s a dense circle of bear poop, about half of which consists of shredded plastic food wrapper, about 20 feet to my left. Directly in front of me stands a hot-pink Easy Up with a giant glittery banner that reads: “The Original ‘Ring Around the Toezies.’”

That’s right, this is not your garden-variety imitation custom fitted toe ring booth. This is the real deal. Woe to the pedicured foot that lacks a custom fitted toe ring. Behind me is the Graeagle Restaurant where the homestyle breakfast potatoes smell like onion soup mix (no, that’s not their tag line). Crafters young and old (mostly old), importers, and a few artists like David erect their booths, moving slowly and deliberately in the beating, late-afternoon July sun. They’ve done this a hundred times. Every year the profits are less but the workload’s the same. But what else are ya gonna do? “At least I work for myself” is the common refrain. The crafters ask each other, how was your show? “Pretty good” is the vague reply, said quickly, softly, in case the one who asked didn’t fare so well. Or, “not bad, not bad,” with a relieved nod. Or, “terrible” with a slight drop of the head. More and more often, it’s “not as good as last year.”

After half a life spent making pottery, David is realizing that the time in to money earned ratio is not cutting it, and schlepping and setting up heavy ceramic pots all over the place is not as fun as it used to be. (Plus, his partner is sick of driving around in old cars in which something else breaks every other week.) So he’s shifting to photography, and he’s great at it (in part because of his excellent artist’s eye, attention to detail, and perfectionism—but also because he loves it). Though starting a new business is a leap of faith, especially after age 50[3].

I think this is what keeps people from taking the plunge into “doing what they love.” Fear of financial failure—or fear of failure in general. If you fail at “doing what you love,” then what’s left? On the other hand, is that even possible? If you love it, and are doing it, then that’s success right there. It’s probably our accepted definition of success and failure that’s part of the problem. Ultimately, it’s not a requirement that we attempt to meld our money-earning activities with our passion and creativity. And maybe, as the river-rafter-turned-realtor surmises, it’s not even optimal. When you get the business side of things mixed up with the creative side, things can go haywire, and you may end up overworked and worn out, with a watered down product to boot.

For an example of a master craftsperson who got big and then downsized to find happiness, check out this little write up on Chico’s own local baker, Dave Miller (who I recently heard, is also featured in Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked). I am inspired by what Miller’s done, and grateful I can buy his luscious whole-wheat sourdough bread each week at the Farmer’s Market.

I’m not going to end this with a commandment for you, or anyone, to quit their day job and lunge themselves chest first into their passion, in part because I myself haven’t mustered that courage, that faith. If I did, I’d plunge myself into creative writing and design—maybe publish my own magazine. But instead right now I’m doing just a little bit—“using it so I don’t lose it.” As another friend, also a writer, put it: “Give yourself an hour everyday to write. Don’t judge it. Just do it.” Sage advice.

Do something you love even if it’s just an hour a day. Surely we can all find a way to afford that.

[1] TMI? I apologize. More on this topic? See my piece on living the life…in the buff…at Harbin Hot Springs. [2] Including but not limited to: Providing the 17th round of micro-edits, scrapping a project at the 11th hour and starting over, and my favorite: “Can you write a 30-page proposal for this program we haven’t fully thought out and have no idea how to implement? It’s due on Friday.” [3] And now for a shameless plug: Hire us to beautifully capture your daughter’s wedding! Check out David’s web and Facebook pages for his striking portraits.

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If I Had Cleaned

Golden Orb spider wrapping prey, Kakadu National ParkDeath by spider would be a pretty tough way to go.

The thing is, they don’t actually kill you—not right away. They ensnare you in a sticky trap. Maybe only your left foot is caught, but caught it is, and in your jerking motions to disentangle, you not only make it worse, but you herald a giant, eight-eyed monster, rushing in quick as lightening. From where?

Before you know it you’re hit hard from behind, and spinning, wildly, woven tighter and tighter until you can just barely breathe. But breathe you do. Cruel. For now you are being carted off to some back alley crevice for no doubt more torture. You continue to jerk your arm muscles, futilely. They remain pinned to your sides as hopelessly as when your older brother would sit on you, hold you down, and merely threaten you with aggressive tickling, sending urine shooting down your pants.

Only peeing yourself is the least of your worries now. The end is frighteningly near. As you gasp and are about to attempt another, sadly weaker, wrenching—she is upon you.

Now, if I had cleaned my bedroom windowsill, none of this fascinating and harrowing scene would be visible to me. And, too, what is so bad about one less fly in the world?

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