psychopomp

an apple for the grave

My great grandmother Stephania Pocztarska grew up in Julianowo, in Russian dominated Poland, and left the port of Bremen on the SS Cassel on Nov 22, 1902. She arrived at Ellis Island on December 8, totally alone, at the age of 16 and with $4 to her name. Since she didn’t speak any English she was detained until her sister arrived from New Jersey to accept her. Eventually she met and married Michael Sledz, a saloon and soda shop owner in the Warszawa neighborhood of Slavic Village in Cleveland. After he died she became a shrewd landlord and savvy business woman, while somehow raising five children on her own. Michael’s parents immigrated in 1881, during a time when Poland was part of Prussia, and they helped establish Slavic Village, with Joseph Sledz operating successful businesses. Joseph was also the first elected councilman of the Warszawa neighborhood, and helped construct St. Stanislaus Church in 1886, which still stands today. My father’s side of the family fled Russian and German domination, to send clothes and money back to Poland during more periods of Russian or German domination. They took great risk to be here, and could not return to Poland to visit until living in the United States for 30 years and thus achieving naturalization. Knowing your roots encourages empathy. All land is borrowed or stolen. Families who built something didn’t build the last thing. There are more innovations to be mined by unfamiliar faces. If your gut reaction to refugees from struggling nations seeking new opportunities in Europe or the US is to tell them to go home, consider your own ancestry carefully, and whether your world would even exist if sanctuary had been denied.

Observation 7: Barroom

I like bars that look like hollowed-out bowling alleys, right down to the lingering smoke smell and people arguing over phantom scores. The booths all plastic and faded into beige, strange folds chased around metal until they anchor. The lights are overhead and on until someone who refuses to remove sunglasses complains, and with a flick of a switch the sad remains of a brown carpet better suited for a 70s-era airport, or a hotel room in Idaho, are suddenly disguised. Replacing the overheads is a slow moving globe of holiday colors, orbiting every face: the world is red, the world is green, the world is blue. These places don’t have jukeboxes, they have a DJ who hasn’t left the booth since 1986, a prisoner of records with Jehri curls on the cover and shoulder pads and shirts buttoned right up to the top and pencil mustaches. The Electric Slide is going to be played; it’s only a matter of time. The waitress has also never not been there, and she doesn’t come to take an order, she arrives with a great big bucket of ice, bottles of cheap beer jutting out from the frozen slab like they grew that way. Choose, and choose often. The chalkboard behind the bartender announces Tuesday as 10 cent wing night, and mozzarella sticks as a thing every day, all the time, along with a couple of things that come with a side of ranch dressing. There’s a bottle of Jack and another of Absolute and the Maker’s Mark occupies the high shelf, and the bartender is kind and twice the size of an average man, and the glasses he pours heavy into are dirty and no one is going to say shit. Then the DJ is moving his hands and talking fast to wild-drive us into George Clinton. Without a word every citizen of the middle-aged crowd herds onto the tiny dance floor for obligatory booty shaking. I am Pavlov’s Atomic Dog.

The world is red, the world is green, the world is blue.

Observation 6: Terrible things

I don’t think I truly love where I live until another describes it as a den of horrors.

Blame my Cleveland childhood. Going to school meant boarding a bus with the windows stuck open in winter and stuck shut in summer at 5:30AM. The bus took a snake’s path through the industrial parkway, before crossing the Harvard Avenue Bridge, which felt like crossing Mordor. Steels mills spouted fire all around us, dragons singing their death song. Between swallowing fat mouthfuls of this air and swimming in the grim green of Lake Erie, to the instant mashed potatoes and cardboard and ketchup pizza of school lunches, my body programmed to thrive on poison; too much organic material leads to rashes.

I’ve often wondered if the Cleveland Browns call a segment of the stadium “the dawg pound” because of the perpetual underdog status of the team, and the city itself, with hard to swallow nicknames like “the mistake on the Lake” and “city of the burning river.” Media (and movies) focus on the ongoing failure of sports teams, the staggering poverty, the government corruption. It’s also one of the only major metropolitan areas with a totally free art museum thanks to unusual commitment to the arts. It’s a city where I was able to get a scholarship to college, a city that supported the earliest days of my writing career, and provided opportunities that I happily took. It was where I got to be in a crowd shot of the movie “Major League” courtesy of free tickets distributed to Cleveland Public School students, where I stuffed tacos and burritos for $4.35 an hour, where you can still get a donut for under a dollar. It’s also where my great uncles were Saloon owners until prohibition (where they ran “soda shops” instead), where my great aunt worked as a secretary for Elliot Ness, and where my great great grandfather was the first councilman of the Warzawa neighborhood.  It’s a city thick with history from 1796, and long before, where walking in older places means Rockefellers or fossils or rust, where the portions in restaurants are ridiculous and shopping malls don’t have to make fake snow. I love it. I hate it. You think it’s terrible; I like it more.

Then there’s Portland, the cuddly darling of the New York Times, the top place to move for San Francisco’s rent-suffering residents and small town sorts strangely dazzled by the douchery of D-grade TV shows. It’s described in squeals and exclamation marks, with the O replaced with a heart shape by thousands of starry-eyed people desperately seeking exodus. None of these adoring articles championing bicycle culture, liberal politics, and excellent public transportation mention the massive homeless camps that recall the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression, the rapid rent increases that sharply contrast with salaries that have been stuck since 2000, the high unemployment and heavy reliance on food stamps, the lack of support for the arts and the ridiculously low corporate contributions to struggling nonprofits. They don’t mention how sickly so many become in a climate where mold and fungus thrive, how agonizingly long and grey the winters can be, how difficult it is to form community when so many are transplants in transition, and unlikely to stay. These affectionate declarations rarely note that the street fairs that once celebrated regional culture are constantly under threat, that New Seasons and Little Big Burger have kinda become our Walmart and Applebee’s (they’re everywhere), and the artists and strange sorts that once kept Portland “weird” are now being exiled to neighboring suburbs. I have loved and hated everywhere I’ve lived, but this is the first time I felt that the city hated me. After 12 long years I’ve been feeling ready to leave, my eye on just about anywhere else.

Then the New Yorker article happened, the great panic button reminding all the excited new citizens that they’ve moved into the Ring of Fire. In Cleveland, you know that the Cuyahoga River is the one that famously burned; in Portland, most of the new citizens and many of the old don’t understand that those mountains are also volcanoes, and there’s a little thing called the Cascadia subduction zone. When Hurricane Katrina happened, internet know-it-alls liked to scoff about how the whole city was built below sea level, so what did they expect? In the case of Portland, the whole city is doomed…and yet people keep moving here like the streets are lined with gold.

And yet this coming-doom thing isn’t new to me; I’ve been dreaming about Portland’s forthcoming boom for years. In the dream the ugliest part is that the skies darken in warning of a coming storm, which inspires many to hunker down in their houses and seek shelter in basements, when they really need to be running for the highest point they can find. This is what I do in this dream, and when I reach that high point I look over at what used to be my city and all I see is water. I’m an unexpected island dweller, clinging to an old cedar, flanked by a few friends who also remembered to run high. I’ve been writing about it for years, and wrote a young adult book around it that perhaps now is ready to be read.

If the promotional tide has finally turned and the golden city is one waiting to rot, I can’t help but love it just a little bit more. There are no heroes and no villains, and as soon as the hero shows his weakness or the villain outs himself as soft, they suddenly become so much more relatable to me. If these great trees and glorious hills are not the promised land, but soon to sink into murky waters, with internet blow-hards lying in wait to tell us all the reasons we should heed the warnings and run, isn’t that a very good reason to cling to those cedars a little bit tighter so that they’re loved all the way down? This is not the sort of thing someone seeking out an easy life will develop any affection for, but someone who was born and raised an underdog biting for every scrap might thrive in such a climate. If there’s any climate left to thrive in at all.

 

Observation 5: Food for Crows

It started with trail mix. Since I’m allergic to nuts this is something that I shouldn’t eat, but laziness convinced me that once almonds and cashews are weeded out, the chocolate chips and sulfur-infused cherries that remain qualify as dinner. The nutritional takeaway is somewhere between Snickers’ bar and frozen pizza, and my stomach is still appalled.

The pile of pieces and parts was impressive, and grew as I pressed my own dumb again and again. I couldn’t toss them into the compost bin without feeling more California than Oregon, and since my bank account says I don’t live anywhere at all, they needed to be used.  As an experiment I left a handful of nuts in a wooden bowl in my yard, assuming they’d make gourmet fare for foraging squirrels or nutria (Portland’s ROUS, for Princess Bride fans). Between compost and the sloppiness of humans, such creatures have grown accustomed to feasting on our food anyway. Ever see a bird flying with half a sandwich? It happens.

The bowl attracted the attention of one crow, who watched me very carefully from her perch on a nearby satellite dish. She watched as I watered outdoor plants, fussed with cats. She watched me right through my kitchen window, and while she monitored my activity, let the neighborhood jays feast on the contents of the wooden bowl. Crows are smart; I don’t doubt that they regularly use jays as their personal tasters. This crow also had an eye on my cats, who took turns arranging themselves in the window to try out their best bird calls on the jays. They’d have to toss aside several IQ points to try that on crows. Portland crows are big beautiful birds, and they gather in great noisy roosts all over the city. The average crow is basically larger than a cat, so the only cat this crow was interested in getting a read on was the Maine coon, Scooter, who lazily occupied an entire Adirondack chair. It doesn’t take extensive inspection to surmise that this largest cat is also the gentlest: a great big Buddha who once got an abscess because of his habit of capturing a bee in his jaws, holding it until it tickles, and then letting it go with a squeak. Really. He sulks when I kill house centipedes, and fully supports my capture-and-release spider program. Not a threat. The crow flew away.

The next day I rose to find three crows waiting for me, each arranged around the nearby satellite dish, looking into the kitchen window. I took a handful of nuts from the stockpile, and placed them in the bowl. They cawed, then took the cashews, leaving the almonds for the jays.

Now every morning starts more or less the same. The youngest crow, an adolescent who seems committed to the family unit (or maybe the crow equivalent of an adult reading comic books in his mom’s basement) starts squawking. Her squawk is different from the full throated “caw” of her parents, and she won’t quit under I wander outside dazed and toss a handful of nuts into the bowl. Note: they have to land in the bowl. For a few days awhile back I just tossed them into the yard, and the crows looked at me like I could no longer be trusted with nut distribution, and left them all to the jays. Logically one could deduce that the nuts are easier to see in the bowl from the air, but I think that’s how they know for sure they are for them and from me or my partner, and therefore safe. Or maybe they like the ritual. Within three minutes of proper bowl placement, all the nuts will be gathered, while at least one maintains watch on a wire. The adolescent will up her squawking game, furiously flapping at the crow with the most nuts stored away in her jaws. This crow will then mash up some of the nuts on the ground, gargle them, and regurgitate them into the mouth of the adolescent. This usually quiets her down. I keep an eye on the cats the whole time, as I don’t have the budget for the emergency room visit that would likely be required if one felt ambitious, and put a large bowl of water out on especially hot days for impromptu baths. We are friends.

They return the favor in unexpected ways. We used to have a neighbor who would amuse himself by rising early to stand on the sidewalk and play the same six bars on his trumpet, over and over again. Consider for a moment the tidal wave of curse words that would trail from my partner’s mouth in response to this unwanted wake-up call. The crows were equally unamused, and decided to demonstrate their feelings by dive bombing him one day, right in front of us, as we stood outside. The trumpet player screamed. Can you high five a crow? There are ways.

This is not my first friendship with crows. Awhile back I decided that I needed to get okay with handling dead things, and so I started lifting crows that had been hit by cars off of the roadway before they were pancaked flat. Crows mate for life, and form elaborate communities; when a crow is struck by a car, the full family sometimes assembles nearby to honor the fallen friend and support the widow. The ruckus is amazing. It is hard for me to imagine witnessing a friend’s death, and then watching him get brutalized again and again. The first time I lifted a crow from the concrete, the noise of outrage was deafening; when I placed the body on the green, they fell silent. I can’t say whether they understood what I was doing, but the next time they were silent the whole time, from when I lifted the dead remains to when the body touched green. I did this maybe a dozen times before I relocated to a neighborhood with fewer crows, but while I lived there I felt close to the crows, and that they remembered. It felt special, but I know that they don’t just remember me.

There have been many experiments to test the intelligence and memory of crows, the most famous of which involved men in masks who captured and tagged a small number of crows. The masks were then passed on to different people, over and over again, to see if the crows remembered the faces of the men that captured them. The crows not only remembered, but word of the offense spread, and crows dive-bombed the wearer of the mask in larger and larger numbers. It’s good to be in with the crows, and is quite bad for your health to not be.

These crow friends of mine provide a sense of security. They alert me when one of the neighbors’ crosses the street, when the mailman approaches, when the morning is getting too warm and I need to wake up before I miss it. They gobble up the bits of loneliness that inevitably afflict anyone with the occupation (or preoccupation) of writer. And they provide their own answer to Alan Moore’s query of “who watches the watchmen?” The crows, of course. The crows are always watching, observing, recording.

 

 

Observation 2: July 4

Waiting for the sun to set so Portland’s heat can lessen by a few degrees, and my mind can lock onto activities beyond sleeping and complaining again. Me and a watering can go for a romantic stroll around the drought-dead yard, moving from bonsai to birch tree to hedge to six-week tomatoes to Evening Primrose. While citizens are discouraged from indulging in bombs bursting in air, with the Oaks Bottom Wetlands bone dry and Mt. Hood seeing only a single snowflake in June, that doesn’t mean that many folks won’t commit to setting their lawns ablaze anyway.

The slow roll of drums in the distance = fireworks being lit off the Ross Island Bridge by the pros, gun powder trailing into the waiting river below. There’s nothing glowing or sparkling in the sky, just a few stray bottle rockets. That’s when the first craft came up over a neighbor’s roof, four green eyes winking at me, two red lights at the tips creating an orb illusion. My alien abduction dreams often start this way, but as it goes over head wings are easier to identify as drones. Four of them, doing laps and maybe helping the officials monitor for fire. They do laps around the distant dots of Venus and Jupiter. They do laps around the Evening Primrose, which has finally decided to awaken and announce its independence. This is the night’s show stopper moment, far away from the flashing lights.

 

Observation 1: Reverence

The challenge: one observation for every day of July. 31 days, 31 observations. Day 1 took me to Cape Meares and the Three Capes Scenic Route along the Oregon Coast. It’s one of my favorite spots in Oregon, thanks in no small part to the Octopus Tree and Big Spruce. Observation after the photo!

Scaretree

Scaretree

Cape Meares boasts woods that whisper, and the only path in has found our feet. A fallen Sitka spruce leaves a dry canyon to our right, its spider roots reaching skyward. Life is already hatching from its corpse; moss and ferns find the vein. It’s less a walk than a stop and whoa, as we move around marvels that have crafted themselves into scare-trees to banish some and call others in. News of our arrival is traded from branch to leaf, through circle roots and stacked limbs. The tallest spruce in Oregon winks through the cover of neighboring trees, offering a peak at dinosaur skin. She knows we’re coming. One final turn and there: what 800 years of living can do. Reverence. I wonder if I should have brought such an elder a gift. Her knuckled base moans: bring only yourself, and leave with exactly this. She is thunder dug deep, and with a touch to root she relieves me.

The largest Sitka Spruce in Oregon. 144 feet tall, 48 feet in circumference, 750-800 years old

The largest Sitka Spruce in Oregon. 144 feet tall, 48 feet in circumference, 750-800 years old

motivation

at Powell's on Hawthorne

at Powell’s on Hawthorne

witness

I was obsessed with politics and current events from a pretty young age; I blame the first gulf war, and Scholastic for selling that map that allowed me to track battles and occupations with tiny flag stickers. And for my entire life, I wanted a president with heart. Reagan was interesting in that all of his speeches seemed broadcast from space; I don’t have a single memory of seeing him on tv in a room with other people, though he did take a lot of walks from helicopters with Nancy in tow. Heart? Not really, but Nancy was excellent at making all of us terrified of jail and instant aneurysm from any use of drugs. Bush Sr. seemed like a good guy to have around if you wanted everyone to be terrified of the USA’s military capabilities. For all the memories I’ve lost, I still remember his inaugural address where he said:

“A new breeze is blowing, and a world refreshed by freedom seems reborn; for in man’s heart, if not in fact, the day of the dictator is over. The totalitarian era is passing, its old ideas blown away like leaves from an ancient, lifeless tree.”

Though I was only 10 years old at the time, I remember thinking he was an excellent, terrifying specimen of humanity. When that speech ended, my 10 year old brain said: *boom.* He’s a good peer for Dick Cheney, and I think having dinner with both of them would be like chilling with Darth Vader and the Emperor, and I mean that in the best super villain fangirl way possible.

For most of his presidency, Bill Clinton seemed kinda surprised that he pulled it off. He was a good president for an era when everyone was kinda reclining and assuming economic prosperity would last forever. It’s still hard for me to believe that we spent more money investigating his blowjob than we did investigating 9-11, but there you have it. I’m not saying anything about the idiot who came after Clinton, other than that he should probably stick to painting, and should maybe amend that to paint-by-number. Then there’s Obama, who does things on a regular basis that cause my eyebrow of suspicion to reach for the sky. I’m fully aware he’s an imperfect president. Still, the fact remains that his presidency has been the most profound of my lifetime, and he’s pulled it off in the face of enormous opposition, hostility, and suspicion. He had a lot of heart during his first campaign, and he seems to have gotten comfortable with letting it breathe again in his second term. And this right here is one of his finest hours. Try to imagine Reagan doing this, Clinton, Bush 1 or 2; you can’t. They wouldn’t. You can’t fake this. This is heart. This is history.

AWP Trek Part 6: Red-eyed gnome invasion

Over 15 years ago I attended Ohio University and lived in Athens, Ohio: a tiny oasis in the Appalachian foothills, beside the Hocking River. It is a place of old buildings and older graves, haunted landmarks and giant iridescent beetles, of purple lightning and scorched summers. In my sophomore year the 17-year cicadas hatched and covered every tree and fool wearing green with their writhing, sex-starved, red-eyed bodies. These cicadas were amazing, a dark prophecy made real. Only earplugs and patience allowed folks to sleep through the deafening dawn, when the cicadas would rise and begin the mating songs that would carry on for hours. After a few weeks of shrieks and screams of horror, and growing used to the crunch of walking across brick paths covered in discarded larval shells, the flooding method cured many of whatever entomophobia hadn’t already been banished by june bug and ladybug infestations. Soon people were wearing living and dead cicadas as pins and earrings, and eating them dipped in chocolate or fried in a pan with butter.

This is what I’m thinking about when Amtrak rolls in to Minneapolis/St. Paul — not the cicadas so much as the flooding method, and how I’m far more likely to run screaming from the word “pedagogy” than I am to flee from singing insects. My worst anxieties come from interactions with people who greet me with set expectations regarding conversation structure, as I inevitably search my interior for the right words several seconds too long, and then unroll my tongue and a strand of dialog that informs a funny look on a good day, a hasty retreat to a bathroom on a bad one. Example from something that happened just a few moments ago:

Girl drops something in front of me, laughs, says: “I’m a klutz.”
Response: “That’s okay, I think I project rays that make people embarrass themselves.”
Scene.

Why, self? Just why?

And just like those who fear insects have little choice about dealing with cicadas if they want to live in a land of rolling green hills, I have little choice in dealing with other writers and publishers if I ever hope to escape my bubble.

This was not my first AWP conference. I attended in 2004 and 2005. Chicago in 2004 felt like a storm of people desperate to sell their books, operating alongside professors who traded in blazer cliches for ones that involve condoms and tinted sunglasses, a fishing line with cheap bait tossed into a pond of cool. My response to this observation was getting completely drunk as quickly and often as possible, preferably on drinks bought by boys. It wasn’t a conference so much as conjuring Hunter Thompson without the guns or blow or substance. There was a lot going on, and I didn’t see it. In 2005 I was excited about the chance to see Ursula K. LeGuin grab the podium and slap a room full of writers around. They deserved it; I couldn’t believe how many people didn’t know her, and were annoyed when they found out she was a genre-writer, kryptonite of self-important authors everywhere. She gave an amazing presentation, and I walked away with a renewed desire to “write stories” as she did during the hours where she wasn’t standing at a podium, wondering what the hell she was doing at a writers’ conference. The panels I attended were the wrong ones to attend, and they grossed me out, especially a memoir one where one author talked about banishment by relatives in the aftermath of publication like it’s a good idea, before Philip Lopate offered the thoughtful reflection: “Sometimes you just have to wait for someone to die.” The publishers I talked to about the memoir writing I’d already done didn’t want me to wait for anyone to die, and were hoping I’d be willing to give my mother a heart attack, while any mention I made of genre blurring or magical realism caused the curtain to drop. Unmarketable. Too risky. Too difficult. Too much. This was still better than what I’d hear much later: “Can you make your writing less literary?” Meanwhile, Vancouver, BC was about as gorgeous as a city can stand being without aborting itself. It was a slide down a mountain into a river, and grabbing a latte and poutine on the way down. I left feeling like there was no need for me to go to AWP again, not until I resolve feeling like a collectible figurine in a China cabinet, and every reason to go to Vancouver over and over.

In the years that followed I published what I could, and battled a desire to categorize everything as “home and garden” on account of being a gnome. I vomited all over Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and never called it a platform, since those are for jumping and all, and who knows what I would land in. Still, there was a part of me that longed for a gold star from people I secretly wanted as peers, even if I have always been occupied in the garden, sun starved and up to my waist in dirt.

And it was the sun that started all this nonsense, patting at my skin and refueling deficient vitamin D levels until I thought applying for a RACC Professional Development grant was a good idea. And it was. RACC pro-dev grants are enormously helpful when at a career crossroads, when you’ve gone far in a particular direction and threaten to loop if you don’t switch roads. So I asked myself: what if I made the approach as someone who writes a lot and is looking for a publisher, instead of as a wayward wanderer on the hunt for new friends and foes?

I wrote the grant and got it (thank you, RACC!) thus removing the financial obstacles, and a few months of obsessing and making lists later I got on the very train I’ve been writing about: 39 hours on the back of a whale.

Someone was smoking on the train, and so my suitcase smelled like childhood, and in the final hours I acquired the sweaty mouth of a jogger. St. Paul was a slow rumble passed towers of garbage pushed around by construction equipment, a good reminder of wading through writing the night before. Only the longest and shortest stories survived inspection; everything else was shoved into a newly created folder labeled lame. These cast-offs were treasure maps without the X marking any place to dig.

As I stepped off the train with garbage on the brain, my first thought: What am I doing here?

Minneapolis was the X. Me, the red-eyed invader. This is when the flooding begins.