To Make Anything at All

To make anything at all is kind of a miracle. To do anything other than exactly what you need to do, to eat and stay well and stay sheltered, is the height of magic. This world doesn’t make it easy, and it’s only become more and more grinding in the last year, because not only are we just trying to pay the bills, we’re wondering whether there’s a nuclear attack or some disastrous new rule about to land on our heads.

It gets to be a lot.

But for some of us, me included, there’s some bizarre compulsion at work to make things. And to make things even when it seems like the best answer is to sit home and rock in a chair in a corner, maybe with headphones on, maybe while eating a giant piece of chocolate sheet cake, maybe after having boarded up all the windows.

Sometimes it’s even a stretch to make dinner.

Pat and I made Thanksgiving dinner the other day. Well, on Thanksgiving day. This was a last-minute idea. November is one of those months that feels like there’s a vortex in the middle where time shovels itself when no one is looking. The end of it comes up fast, and the jack-o-lantern carcass is barely scraped off the doorstep before you’re supposed to be defrosting a turkey.

After emailing a few people that I knew (and one last-last-minute Twitter DM), we had a fine guest list. Two pals and two dogs would be coming, for a total of four adults and three beasts. Pat went to Costco in a crushing crowd to bring home a semi-frozen bird, a few bags of groceries arrived from The Internet, and I made one day-of run to the fancy grocery store for things that were the unsung (and thus forgotten) components of various things: walnuts, five-spice powder, tapioca, twine.

As is pre-holiday tradition for my family, I worried. Our apartment is too small, and so warm with the oven that we’d have to open the windows and run a fan. The dogs would be too many, what if they hated each other? The pals hadn’t met before and quite possibly had zero things in common. The sweet potatoes had been on the stove much too long.

But, it was totally fine. The pals were their awesome sociable selves.  No one was mad when the cork fell in the wine bottle and the dogs turned into a three-pup tumbleweed. The turkey got cooked. Poorly spatchcocked with thighs weirdly akimbo, and an hour late, but it was done eventually.  At the end of the night, we sent everyone away with leftovers and hugs; the dogs were like, “Wait, we don’t all live together now?” And the next day Pat and I had the best turkey sandwiches.

To make anything, anything at all, is a miracle. On Thanksgiving morning, I was sitting on the floor of my office thinking about how we were going to get dinner together after all, and the worry began to expand into totally unrelated spheres: how I hadn’t heard from a friend who lived far away and maybe he was dead, and how my projects were behind, and how time suddenly felt so choked, like the grocery store was about to close and also how was I so unsuccessful at such an advanced age?!?

Then I did one of my weird calming tricks, like a Bible dip but just for your bookshelf. I reached for the closest book and flipped it open. It was a book of poems by Campbell McGrath, one of my favorite poets—a signed copy. And inside the cover, he’d addressed it to me, writing, “Keep the faith.”

I’ve made a lot of things. Weird and quirky and ambitious projects, all of them. And each launch has brought up exactly that same feeling, the feeling of standing nervously by the oven with a thermometer. Looking over at the well-meaning grins of people you want to do right by. You’ve checked the thing, and it’s bloody and terrible and fucked up in at least three ways. The good people are happily munching on veggie chips and sipping wine with bits of cork in it. You hope against hope that another twenty minutes in the oven will do it.

Keep the faith.

==

Speaking of weird, homemade, wonderful projects — new podcast! I made this with my sisters: http://www.unsolvedsisteries.com.

I forgot to say

… That I like it here. The strangest part is just liking something, anything. It’s strange to like things when the news is very bad. It seems sort of wrong. So sometimes I just have to say, “We are going to see my friend’s band.” Or, for my birthday, “We are going to all sit in a the back garden of a dive bar and talk about plans to hike the wilderness, and the ways that the gardens are beautiful in New Jersey, and I’ll have a pineapple and ham sandwich called The Hawaiian and someone will buy me a drink.”

It’s strange to like a place with fewer people that I know and love. Just looking at the numbers. But then, some of my Chicago people have visited. And then hanging out is a vacation.

I went on a long hike for two days, an overnight camping thing on the Appalachian Trail, and nearly gave up halfway through and my left big toenail is still black and blue from boots that didn’t quite fit. It’s amazing how something not fitting just the tiniest amount can really get you. My friend Manon, who was the guide on the trip is French–and she says in her elegant French accent when we co-tell our adventures, at the bar for my birthday, “Remember, we have to say it was one of the toughest parts of the Appalachian Trail.” Which is true. We climbed and climbed and climbed and I thought I might perhaps rather lay down in the poison oak and save the trouble of ever getting up or down another mountain. But we did it.

In the van on the way back from the end of the trail, still in our hiking clothes and grubby beyond grubby, a song came on the radio, with the chorus, “That’s what I like, that’s what I like,” and Manon sang along only to this part, above the rushing wind from the rolled-down windows, and our disgruntled driver glared in the rearview mirror.

It’s ok to like things. I don’t like everything. But I like enough things. How people leave little unwanted items on the front steps of their brownstones — children’s clothes, books, snow boots, dolls, cassettes. Anything and everything. How the golden fall sun looks coming in through the trees in the back, just beyond our fire escape. It looks like a jungle back there. How there are like six bakeries within five blocks, and all of them have good Italian bread. One has cannoli which are completely acceptable, and sometimes I stop in and buy one and tuck it into my backpack for later. Another is mostly chocolate things, and no bread, but it does have dark hot chocolate, which is perfect for dreary days when everything seems unmanageable.

Which, still, is some days. Because our routines aren’t quite right. The food cupboard forgets how to stay full. The dish soap runs out when we’re not looking. The dog wants to eat dinner earlier and earlier, and now he’s nudging my hands off my keyboard at 1:30pm.

But these things are small, and nothing compared to what the world looks like on my screen(s) every day. It is strange to have knowledge of and care for such a large geographic area that you don’t even get the same weather. I’m not sure many generations of humans have ever had to feel this way. By the time they got the letters from their sailors or pirates at sea, the storm was already over.

Oh look, the world changed

Here’s what’s happened. You may have not noticed. Here in the United States, from which I write to you, there are the following differences:

-New president

-Everyone is protesting on the weekends

-Reading the news is similar to pouring boiling oil on one’s face

-Lots of chaos, all the time

I just wanted to point this out. Maybe you’ve been living somewhere lovely, like a spa. Maybe you’re a caretaker at a spa in Iceland and have spotty wifi and no need to check out CNN.com, and reading this website is the last remaining thing in your RSS feed, and since I haven’t posted in a while you maybe just didn’t know.

Me? Awash in coping strategies. I’m listening to podcasts about murder. I’m going to the arcade a lot, and playing the Jurassic Park game where you shoot a bunch of dinosaurs. I’m listening to Nirvana and Brian Eno and Chance.

Also? Moving to New York in June. I’m winding down work on certain projects, and ramping up work on new ones. Transitions are not my strongest talent. Usually they make me crazy. So, bracing for crazy, but maybe it’ll be different this time. I have all those coping strategies, and the world is falling apart at the seams anyway, so maybe if this little thread comes loose, it won’t even make a difference. We’re boxing up the books and typewriters, and KonMari-ing our clothes. (Turns out, I mostly own t-shirts with event logos and alcohol brands on them, and a million pairs of novelty socks.)

But, it’s ok. It’s time to try something new. Spring is a time for new things, and spring is almost here; for real. I saw buds on the trees, goddammit. I saw them. So we go.

The only regret I had

About five years ago, I was lying on a hospital gurney in an E.R. in Bangkok, with my friend Oriana and a mystified doctor standing over me.

I had come down with some mysterious ailment, which, I now know, is not that weird for a traveler. Stress and new foods and 20 hours on a plane with unknown germs, they all do things to us. But at the time, of course, it was a crisis, and I was ultra-weak and nearly unconscious, and convinced this was my last day on the planet. Not to mention: The city was flooding, because of course it was, and the power had been unreliable in some parts of the city. We’d stepped over sandbags just to get in the door.

One would imagine this would be troubling. Time to panic. There were other times for panic, for sure. But in that particular moment, I surprised myself. Looking up at the overhead light and the blank ceiling, not only did I feel totally peaceful, I almost laughed out loud.

What was funny was this: I’d been trying so hard. So hard. To find the right thing to do with my life. To spend my energy on beautiful, purposeful things. To not be suckered by money and prestige, to try to find meaning and authenticity instead. I’d selected these stars to steer by very early on, and I hadn’t questioned them since I was maybe 22 or so. This was the plan.

Of course, this could beget a very anxiety-filled existence. You’re always wondering: is this the best use of my time? Are these the right people to be with? Is this the most perfect path?

You can see how this would make a person crazy. It sounds insane, to write it out.

But, again, I hadn’t stepped back to consider this.

And suddenly, flat on my back, imagining the waters rising around Bangkok’s city center, I thought, “What if this was the story? What if this is how it ends? I spent all that time trying to know everything, be a stronger, better person, and for what? For some imagined future that’s never coming. I could have just relaxed a little. I could have just been nicer to myself.”

And that, for whatever reason, was hilarious. In a sort of slapstick, I Love Lucy-esque way.

So I laughed, in my head. I don’t think I laughed out loud, although maybe I did. And then, the power went out in the hospital, and I don’t remember anything else until I woke up in the ICU.

But anyway.

People of a certain disposition think they need to be constantly improving themselves, that they are not enough as they are.

(Other people, of course, are big fans of taco bowls and think they don’t need any improvements whatsoever.)

For those who think they need to start mainlining self-improvement before they’re certified to walk out the door, I’ll just gently suggest that this is not the case, and state the obvious: a lot of people make a lot of money by telling people, especially women, that they’re serious fixer-uppers. And in fact, the very thing making you feel crazy is probably that you’re inundated by chipper tips to “boost your self-confidence” and “lean in” and “stop apologizing” and “live the life you’ve imagined.”

In the face of such an avalanche, it’s easy to see why a quieter, less marketable philosophy like, “You are sufficient,” becomes easily lost. There’s no great mystery about it, it requires no multi-step processes, it makes for terrible clickbait, and it won’t sell any books. But on my last day on earth, it’s the only thing I knew.

 

Looking inside glass boxes for fun and profit

A couple weeks ago, I was downtown for a work thing but had time to kill, so I walked over to the Macy’s holiday windows on State Street. These tiny encased worlds, every year they’re there. This year the theme was “Santa’s Journey to the Stars” — lots of outer-space imagery; planets aglow.

I’ll be honest, I was surprised at the crowds. I assumed that kids were beyond this sort of thing. IMAX or it didn’t happen. But no, there they were, huddled amongst parents and siblings, pointing and exclaiming just as always. What is it about these windows that makes us cluster around?

Something about the enclosed nature of these windows always makes them irresistible. There’s glass between us and this super-interesting thing? Of course, that’s where we press our noses.

But even more magnetic is this: everything inside is MADE OF REAL THINGS. Fake things, but real. Moving parts, set to music. Pieces of robotic machinery that make dolls come to life, that make backdrops turn. An arm raises up a gift box, a star zings across an imaginary sky, and suddenly we’re inside that glass. Inside, with the robots who seem more lifelike than anything on the outside.

On every level, the visceral becomes more valuable in a digital world. It’s the same reason that live literary performances have become so popular, where it’s one writer onstage with her own story, breathing the same breath as everyone else, full of pauses and coughs in the wrong place.

I have a strange, through-the-looking-glass perspective on this one. I was hired to be a real-life mannequin in store windows, in high school. On Saturdays, I stood in a mall window. In an outfit that would otherwise have been on a mannequin. And I pretended to be made of plastic. Then, after fifteen minutes of not moving, I’d change clothes again.

Kids always clustered around. Some banged on the glass occasionally, but mostly they were reverent. Suspicious, but charmed by the idea of something living in that window.

Of course, the weird part was, as a friend recently noted, “You were literally objectified.”

I didn’t do this gig for long, just a handful of Saturdays over a few years, where it earned me twenty bucks an hour. The grocery store paid me five. But I did learn what it’s like to be on the other side of that glass. To be lingered over, to wondered about. And this was before so much of our world became screens, without so much as the texture of a pressable button.

Texture. Realness.

We need these things.

And underlying all of our slick pixels there’s still wires, still circuitry. Nothing is actually made of magic– not yet. I did get a Raspberry Pi for Christmas, which reminds me of the engines my grandfather and uncles used to work on in the driveway. All the parts laid bare. So clean you could eat off it, they used to say. I haven’t done much yet–just opened the box–but everything inside glitters.

Things we don’t forget

A long time ago, in a land far away–called Evanston–I lived in a dorm with a lot of wonderful people. We were misfits who tromped across town to get pancakes or burgers at midnight. (We sang songs from Rent as we walked, just to complete the nerd-ness). Some nights, we stayed up late talking in packs of 10 or 12, shouting theories about filmmaking across the communal living room. I got the sense that these conversations were everything, that they were simply not to be missed, even though I had zero to say about the aesthetics of Evil Dead 2. We were weird and snarky and silly.

Our realm felt so safe. I could say whatever I thought, and chances are, someone in the room understood me. I could fall asleep in the middle of those conversations and curl up like a puppy, just happy for the hum of voices overhead.

Somehow or other we all grew up, and became the creative professionals we once dreamed of being.

One of those people was Max, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Paris now, and he presents us all with a scene from a bench near the recent attacks. 

Wild hearts need telescope-kaleidoscopes

I make a literary podcast each month, with some funny and smart people. Part of the schtick between me and my co-host is that we answer questions related to each episode’s theme, debate-style. In the latest recording session (for our upcoming Study vs. Cheat episode) I was asked which three items I’d want in my ideal study. With reality being no object.

I said, in that case, I needed just one item: a telescope-kaleidoscope.

My persona on that podcast is a little sillier than the actual me, and it’s meant to juxtapose the gruffness of my co-host. But I would actually like a telescope-kaleidoscope. A device that is a telescope at night, a kaleidoscope by day. Right?

It’s because I like to drift. My mind works in waves; sometimes I’m so focused, it’s the equivalent of being in a deep dream state. Other times, I can’t latch in to any particular task or topic. In between, there’s a weird idea phase that works when I’m partially engaged and partially just floating.

It happens when I’m just waking up or just falling asleep, often. I’ll be 40 percent awake, inventing something to solve a problem. And by the time the alarm goes off, there it is. I’ve mocked-up apps, written treatments for a television series series, problem-solved soundproofing issues, framed out screenplays. Are they good? I usually write everything down in a rush on my phone when I wake up, convinced it’s a priceless idea, and then look at it after I’ve brushed my teeth and wonder what I was thinking.

Here’s what I woke up with most recently, with a vivid mental picture of the whole first quarter of the film:

James is a kid dating a beautiful but cruel girl (Katie) who is into ice skating, and one day at the rink he meets a girl who is less beautiful who just needs a partner for a particular exercise. (SARAH JESSICA PARKER). They hit it off and leave together, with Katie yelling at them, and the new girl is mad because she didn’t know Katie was with James to begin with. SJP loses her ID and can’t get on the train home, she walks home with James and stays the night, his mother feeds her soup, we see SJP start winning and James proves to be an awesome partner. Although of course obstacles ensue. Set in Buffalo or Philly, Rocky and Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken but on ice and no horse. The woman is a manic pixie dream girl, but it is her who needs the help. 

What obstacles ensue? Who knows, I woke up. Given the Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken reference, maybe she goes blind! Also, maybe we recast Sarah Jessica Parker.

A telescope-kaleidoscope would be the perfect little pause in my every day day-ness, maybe if I wrote these things while zoned-out but not half asleep, they’d solve world peace or something. Kickstarter, make it so.

UX and the concept of play, or: disappearing into an ATM

If we want to get really technical, I designed my first user interface at age 11.

Sort of.

I made a series of paper “screens” for a fake ATM, each attached to long strings that we dropped down from the second floor. They were essential props for a game of “bank” which my two younger sisters somehow agreed to play with me. We had a basket of old poker chips and checkers, for money. We reeled the papers down over the second floor’s low wall, which overlooked the stairwell. Each piece of paper mimicked a screen of the ATM I’d seen when my parents withdrew cash at the drive-through bank.

Welcome! Enter your pin. Deposit or withdrawal?

Someone played the customer, who stood at the bottom of the stairwell, and the others of us hurried around dropping the paper drawings of screens so that the ATM worked. We lowered the right amount of money at the end.

I wish I had those old props and fake screens– I do wonder if they made any sense at all. I also wonder why, oh why, this became a game. What did we even do? So many of the games that we used to play as children are totally incomprehensible to me now. They weren’t games with rules or narrative structures. Playing, for us, was just slipping into an alternate world and living there for a little while. I don’t remember us assigning characters and developing a plot. We simply “played bank” for a few hours.

These are the kinds of things that children are permitted to do; no one questions the sanity of little girls who are pretending to operate an ATM — although they might wonder why they’re not playing something a little more traditional, involving tea and dolls.

I still lose my rootedness in reality, and in the moment. Some of that is because of an over-developed sense of empathy that vaults me into others’ experiences. When I see someone who has been injured in a visible way, I often feel that wound in my body. The gash in a stranger’s arm blooms in my own; it’s not usually a sharp pain, but it is a strong, ethereal tingling, similar to hitting the funny bone of one’s elbow. I also experience something called hyper-focus, where entire hours spin by without my noticing–what some people experience when they fall into a Wikipedia hole, except it happens for anything that I’m really interested in or curious about. Now that I spend most of my days doing things I love, Pat has to text me to eat lunch. It’s not considered to be a good thing or even a normal thing to lose oneself so easily. It seems a little odd.

But for people who design experiences, especially narrative ones, making people “lose themselves” is the holy grail. The best stories, the best designs, are so seamless that we don’t even know we’re slipping into them. They envelop us; shroud us from our regular lives. We lose ourselves and also lose the world. Not because something claims to provide an immersive experience, whatever that is, but because our self-concept of me, myself becomes momentarily malleable. We are Juliet clutching the poison. We are Furiosa in the desert.

It’s not so different from falling in love, just on a micro, temporary level. Those heady romances make our self-borders porous and filmy, especially in the early years. In psychology, this is called having boundary issues. But there are times when our boundaries are best dissolved. We said we were playing bank but really we were just playing.

I tried Google Cardboard, by the way. I can’t say that it’s the future of everything, but something like it could bring us into so many more corners of experience. And maybe we lose ourselves again. Or maybe, because that sense of losing is so forcefully and artificially induced, it just makes reality less bearable. I fumbled around my upstairs hallway as though it was Rome, but when I set the device down, the walls seemed more iron than ever.

Fire in a bowl

We moved in August to a new house, which has been the kind of place that asserts its place-ness at every turn. It wasn’t interested in our convenience; it had its own drama from the start. The front steps wobbled like the teeth of a veteran boxer, the wall in the downstairs bathroom bubbled with water from a thousand rains, and then, oh, a whole nest of yellow jackets rooted itself in the gutter and sent its little tiny emissaries in through the cracks. By the half-dozen, they roosted on the wall in the upstairs hall every morning. Waiting.

These things got fixed. One by one. And we unpacked boxes, and books went onto bookshelves, and- and-… we live here. It is good. We’re across from a big park, situated on a corner so there’s light on all sides, and we have a big front lawn that’s weedy and weird, bordered by thorny old rose bushes. It’s me, Oriana, Whit and Pat, and this is the best. Because it means the house is always full of food and friends, and this makes such a difference for things like mental health, peace, safety and general calmness. Someone else is making coffee, someone can listen to the bad day and the good day, and someone knows just what cocktail to make for each.

Last night Oriana made a big dinner for us and a childhood friend of hers, and afterwards Pat built a fire in the fire pit out front. It made me remember just how calming a contained piece of fire can be, and how watching an element at work can erode the layers of worry that build up over the course of the day. You can be the happiest person, and still worry, and still need fire to stare at until the logs split, into glowing embers pushing through a spiderweb of cracks.

But the good part is, I don’t have as many questions as I used to. I don’t have all the answers, but I don’t stare at a fire and wonder what it all means. I know exactly what it means, that we are insignificant and mutable, that we hold on to what we have until it falls away.

Pat and Lindsay, who are now married

The boy asked if Pat was a ghost.

Our house is tucked behind a brick storefront, separated from the back of a bike shop by a narrow lane of concrete. There’s a front porch, though — a relic from before the store, we think, and we sit out there sometimes. Yesterday Pat was writing on the porch when an older woman and a little boy came around the side of the store and stopped right in front of our house.

She carried a sporty hiking stick, had short Grandma-coiffed red hair (dyed?), and clip-on sunglasses. The little boy wore spectacles and could have been a young Harry Potter. They froze when they saw Pat.

“Oh, we’re just out here looking for zombies and ghosts!” she said, casual and jovial like she was in a department store “just looking”.

She went on: “We found this house back here one day and now we have to go check on it every day.”

The boy whispered something up to her and she whispered something back. Then he called out manfully but shyly to Pat, “Are you a ghost?”

I was watching all this from a chair by the window.

Pat looked positively tickled but held it together. “No, just a person!” he called back. The boy nodded, the woman nodded, and off they went.

Pat and I got married! We did. A wedding a wedding a wedding. With so many of my favorite people there in actual life and many well-wishes sent via electronic digitalness and paper. I wore a short dress made by my friend Rachel’s Cambodian clothing company, cut to fit on my dining room table the day before.

Our ceremony at Humboldt Park — where everyone sat around us in a circle, felt electric and serene at once. Violin music, flower petals, and we walked together. Our funny, kind friends wrote and read things. Thea played a silly, lovely sing-a-long. We did it. Our friend Josh officiated and at the end said, “I present to you Pat and Lindsay, who are now married.”

We exited the building into a tunnel of people blowing bubbles. Then we piled onto a school bus, docked at an old loft space in a warehouse district and slipped into a dream — the most light and love I have ever seen in one place, radiating through two stories of glass, across gleaming wood floors and sparkling china. This was for us? It was.

Pat and I danced to an Otis Redding song. I danced with my dad, to a lullabye he used to sing us girls. Everything was good, and okay, and better than good or okay. Oh, and pie. Instead of cake. Of course.

Senior year of college I wrote a list of what I wanted out of life. It was a joy-centric list, in opposition to the success-centric pressure coming from all around me that felt strangling.
I said on this list, more than a decade old now, that I wanted margaritas, Cadbury eggs, and music I could dance to. And, strangely, at the wedding I got all of those things. We ate margaritas and tacos. There was a basket of Cadbury eggs (IMPORTED FROM THE UK SO THE CHOCOLATE WAS BETTER) by the door, for people to take as they left. I danced every single song.

All the while I wanted to bottle it. Our parents, healthy and happy, our siblings, knitting into one goofy, dual-familied pack, our friends, dressed in bright spring clothes. If you’ve never danced in a twirly white dress in a circle of people screaming that they love you, well, you are missing out.

When everything wound down, we took a black car to a fancy hotel, where we managed to drink two more beautiful goblets of room-service champagne. In the morning, we woke up to time that felt molasses-slow. I shoved my dress into a clear plastic bag and ferried it homeward in a taxi. A useless and lovely parcel. We got out about a ten-minute walk from the house and stopped for coffee. Pat, talking to the cashier at Starbucks, referred to me as his wife for the first time. We walked home on a cloudless April day through our sleepy neighborhood — the buds just coming out, me swinging that dress in the bag.

It was pretty great.

——

My sisters and I had a mysterious house that we checked on, when we were kids. It was set way back in the woods, and we only knew it by its mailbox, which said, “Shube”. On long drives with our grandmother we would pass it. We never went back there. But we surmised that a woman named Mrs. Shube lived there in a wooded hermitage, and we longed more than anything to see her. We imagined her life so vividly. Every time I am back in the area, I look for it, even though I know the house is gone now.

We eventually found out through the yellow pages that the name was actually “Shubert” — and if you told me you knew something about that house, to this day I’d be all ears right away.

Now it’s funny to be that mystery house for another kid and his grandmother. A special kind of life cycle, a circle of imaginative children and the adults who let them dream.

We are ghosts, though, contrary to what Pat told that little boy. We are happy ghosts and loving ghosts and ghosts of immense intelligence and purpose, but ghosts just the same, to be checked on every day. We are here for just a flicker and constantly shape-shifting, ghosts of our old selves, not yet our new selves. Surrounded by ghosts, too, of our grandparents and great-grandparents, their guidance still flowing through our veins.

Ritual eases that ghost-y feeling, I learned.

I wasn’t always convinced about the wedding— why have one? So much work and money and time! So many people, diverted from their daily routines! But the wedding is a pause. It freezes us. Full stop. Exist here. Be here, just for now — ye shapeshifting, translucent, unpinnable ghosts, with these people, in this place, with this love.

Crossings + the holdout hollering in the back

I’m thinking about borders again. It’s that old saw, that old pull. Maybe it’s because I grew up a stone’s throw from Canada, where THE LAWS were different, and television news anchors pronounced their “ou” sounds differently. Maybe it’s because I grew up on the edge of a subdivision on the edge of a town that was, itself, edging away from its farmland roots. On the edge of the working class, on the edge of the century.

It’s a chant in my head — push the edge, cross it. 

What edge? Where?

I’m not even sure.

Everything I am doing is my favorite thing I have ever done. Writing about the intersection of journalism, social good and data. Musing about user testing for civic apps. Co-writing a play about digital media, and performing it for audiences three times a week. Giving a Pecha Kucha talk with 300 people excited to hear my theories on cultivating a dynamite creative practice. Oh, and — you know, a new book of essays.

I’m combining media, non-fiction, performance, design and publishing in new permutations, which is what I have always wanted to do.

Maybe this push-pull is from a holdout contingent in the council of my brain. One old wheezing member hollers from the back.

“What? You are doing what you love? For money? For people? And they LIKE it? Well, this is absurd. Rewind time, get back in your box.”

Trouble is, I don’t think I can.

Or maybe it’s a voice in the hallway, on the other side of the door. Wondering what’s taking me so long.

One day we will eat the pie

“How’s the wedding planning going?”

So funny that you ask.

It is, in a word, going.

I love flowers. I love good food. I love music and dance, dance, dancing. I love all of the humans on our little list of guests. I love pie. All of these things will be present at the wedding. This sounds like an overflow of riches, right? I mean, you can never have too much key lime pie.

But you can have too many details about the pie, such as:

Would you like the pie purchased through the caterer or dropped off directly from the bakery?

I guess… with the caterer is good, why don’t we just–

Would you like it pre-sliced for an extra $5 charge, or would you like to slice it yourselves? 

Well, I guess, $5 isn’t so much, but–

Would you like it in basic tins or do you want to purchase ceramic serving plates?

WE DO NOT HAVE ANY MONEY FOR CERAMIC SERVING PLATES.

Would you like to– 

NO! NONE OF IT! WE JUST WANT TO EAT THE PIE.

And we will. We will eat the pie. Everyone calm down*. It’s going to be great.

*Everyone means me.

Two proposals, one wedding

The strangest thing happened. I decided to get married. It was a decision, and not just a proposal and an okay-yes!, because of how the whole thing went down. And LADIES, this non-traditional process is not the worst idea ever.

The guy proposed, with the bended knee and an origami ring. The Guy. I should say: Pat! That’s his name. Writer/curious soul/friend since 2007 and boyfriend for the past two circles ’round the sun.

We were in Phnom Penh, my one-year hometown, my touchstone on the other side of the ocean. And I had woken up thinking about so many things. Like: Move back? Like: Will it be hot today? Like: Such jetlag! Like: I want all the things I love and miss, want the iced coffee and the moto rides with my students and soup from that good place and…. Everything that year was a first kiss, and I was churning back through it all in my mind, which had floated a million miles away from Pat as we took a walk.

Which Pat couldn’t have known. And he pulled an origami ring out of his pocket, which had been painstakingly folded and then transported for more than 24 hours of travel time.

It looked like the perfect scene, probably — a walk by the river, before breakfast, just after waking.

And I was like, “What?”

//

Not right then.

//

Pat suggested, with the most love and kindness of any human I have ever seen (although I never did get to meet Mother Teresa) that I propose in return, when ready. And I believed that it would all be ok because he articulated my tendencies and quirks so precisely. He knew that I am easily rattled by change, even though I sometimes mainline things like trips to Phnom Penh and fast rides on two wheels. A reluctant adrenaline junkie.

//

Paused it. Kept on.

//

And one summer day back in Chicago, I tricked him into coming to meet me by the Chicago river (such trickery, these proposals always involve). Then I opened my backpack to reveal a bottle of champagne and a typewritten letter, and two rings. One, a ring made from a dime taped to a circle of wire. Dime. On. Ring. My grandfather’s gambit with my grandmother. Another, made from a binder ring, to go with the DIY theme. We slipped these on together and drank the champagne, and somewhere in there he said yes but I don’t remember how it all went.

You don’t remember?

I truly don’t. My memory during important moments is like a chalkboard in a rainstorm, and I rely on tangible objects to remember what happened. The empty champagne bottle. The ring on my finger is now a real diamond, from a vintage shop in Buffalo, bought a few weeks later. He said yes.

Because I proposed in return, I learned just how nerve-wracking it is to ask someone to marry you. It is terrifying. Even if you have been with the person a long time. Even if, no matter their answer, you are going to be fine. It is far more terrifying than sky diving, which by comparison was a walk in the park. It’s scary for a reason that I’d never considered before I tried to do it: You are holding the kill switch on Life As You Know It, in hopes that when you push it, the future is magically ransomed free and rises like a genie released to say: Hey. I’m supposed to be here. Where’s the party?

Well, the party is in the works.

We are in fact planning a small little thing called a wedding, where we will gather with our many, many family members and whatever friends we can fit in around them without the whole place collapsing. Yes.

Remembering in the time of unnumbered pages

Cambodian coffee brewing. The New Yorker fiction issue spread in pieces on my lap.

It’s July. Just the beginning of July, feeling like May, and time seems slippery. Fish-slippery — or tiny-crab slippery. Always running away from me.

(On the beach of the island where Kerpowski and I landed after our long boat ride into the sunset, tiny crabs burst up from the sand, one after the other. Dodging them made me think of heroes in the movies, the bullets always missed. I kept Not Stepping on Crabs but unsure of the physics.)

July. I wanted very much to start pie-making, because it’s summer and there’s fruit now, but I’m headed to Copenhagen for a SOMETHING I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED TO DO which is take a workshop at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. 

So, pies have been delayed while I pack.

No, packing has been delayed for this coffee, which has a maple-y sweetness to it that no other coffee does. And the New Yorker fiction issue, which was a June thing. It’s the best way to spend a morning, sinking and rocking into a sheaf of pages that someone else wrote. Not even all the pages, just the hand-picked ones. The best ones.

I have lots that has not been written, and time keeps happening before I can write it. There’s a menace about that feeling. It floats lazily through, yellow-jacket menacing. Things will just keep happening, and I won’t be able to record them.

The island felt totally wild and completely inhabited at the same time. We stumbled over rocks, dodged crabs, and then walked under an archway of bent branches and down a dirt path until suddenly there was a circle of candelight, a thatched-roof hut and the slow murmur of traveler’s conversations. I guess we were at the front desk.

The porch in the alley

I live in a house that’s directly behind a storefront, but it has a front porch. A pretty bold front porch. Wide, deep, big white columns. And yet now it looks out on the back of a bike shop and is hemmed in on the other side by an apartment staircase. Our house was the biggest thing around, at one point. It must have overlooked land. There may have been something of a vista. 

I’m thinking about change, impermanence. When I was in college, I thought about getting all Buddhist and zen and meditating. It seemed good for my claptrap ramshackle nerves. But it was also a lot of work, and I never went deep enough or far enough into a practice to really get a lot out of it.

Reading about it, though, I loved. And still love. Sometimes when life is being a crazypants, I look at my bookshelf and just pick something at random. Well, no, not at random. Something that, when my eyes skate over the spine, sends a telegram of a tug into the back of my mind, and I reach for it. Tonight my hand rested on Long Quiet Highway by Natalie Goldberg

About twelve years ago, Chris Pirsig, the son of Robert Pirsig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was senselessly murdered near the San Francisco Zen Center. The killers knifed Chris and ran. They did not take a wallet (I don’t even know if Chris had one on him). I was sitting a seven-day meditation retreat in Minnesota. It was December. We all knew Chris. Rumors spread quickly during breaks, even though we were supposed to remain silent. We all awaited our teacher’s talk that morning. Katagiri Roshi was close to Chris. He would make it all better.

Roshi walked into the meditation hall, bowed, lit incense, sat down. We chanted. Then he spoke: “Human beings have an idea they are very fond of: that we die in old age. This is just an idea. We don’t know when our death will come. Chris Pirsig’s death has come now. It is a great teaching in impermanence.”

The bell was rung. It was the end of the lecture. I was furious. What kind of thing was that to say? How could Roshi be so cruel? I knew he cared about Chris.

Years later, distraught by learning that Katagiri Roshi had cancer, I cried for many weeks. In May, as I drove to the airport in Albuquerque to fly to see him, I suddenly remembered his talk about Chris. His talk had not been cruel. It was brave. He was willing to cut through all sentiment and touch the fundamental truth of impermanence. I appreciated it. What he said then helped my life now.

This is how we learn. Human life is very big. There is no short cut from Minneapolis to New Mexico. My car had to cover every mile. We learn with every cell and with time, care, pain, and love. I’m sure that many times when the marathon monks woke at midnight to prepare to run, they had an urge to go back to sleep, but the path was ahead of them. We, who are not marathon monks, wake up and have the toothbrush before us–brushing our teeth! the great ritual that gets us out of bed–and then we have the blank page in front of us, or the school bus, or the phone ringing. We all must go on down that highway. Our life is the path of learning, to wake up before we die.