Monday, December 29, 2008

Grace in small things: five

1. Being grown-up enough to initiate an amicable parting from the four noisy employees of [nameless-large-environmental-organization] who sat behind me for the 9 hours it took my Amtrak train to get from Seattle to Portland on December 20th.

2. Finding a box full of free cheese-and-cracker packets in the bistro car of my Amtrak train to stave off hunger during the 9 hours my train sat motionless, locked, and apparently abandoned at the Portland station on the night of December 20th.

3. Encountering a sympathetic Amtrak bistro car steward who gave passengers free hot cocoa on the morning of December 21st (since I had only brought enough cash to pay for meals during a 7-hour trip, not one three times that long).

4. Snickering at the snarky commentary made by the two teenaged girls across the aisle from me during our epic 21-hour train ride from Seattle to Eugene.

5. Realizing that even having an Amtrak train delayed by 14 hours and abandoned by all Amtrak staff overnight is preferable to being stuck in an airport for several days.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

O Tannenbaum

Thursday I mentioned that I had a chance to put up the Christmas "tree" I created last year.

When I was growing up, one of our holiday traditions was a growing collection of ornaments for each of us kids. Every Christmas we would get an ornament or two from our parents and grandparents. Usually our name and the year got written or taped somewhere hidden on each ornament. Our ornaments were stored with all of the other Christmas decorations in a grand old wooden chest, painted green, which had been in the family for two or three generations. The chest was stored away in my parents' bedroom through the rest of the year, only brought out when it was time to decorate the Christmas tree.

This ornament always makes me think of my sister. Oddly, the smaller girl's smile reminds me of my mom's.

I can still recall the exact piney scent that wafted out when the chest was opened each December, the slightly musty smell of old tinsel and holiday candles and garlands. My mom and dad would untangle the knotted strands of Christmas lights and wind them carefully around the tree. Mom always made sure the last light on the strand got tucked into the hand of the angel that topped the tree, so that light had to be yellow or white for extra realism.

This is one of my oldest ornaments, a figurine from the Nutcracker from long before I ever saw the Nutcracker ballet.

Finally, when the lights were arranged evenly, the ornamentation could begin. Mom would open tiny boxes and unwind tissue paper to reveal the little treasures we only saw this one month per year. We oohed as each familiar ornament was presented, as delighted as if they were brand new.

The three of us had to take turns hanging our ornaments, although as the eldest I had the advantage of a slightly larger collection. A lot of thought had to go into tree placement: the sturdiest twigs should be saved for the heaviest ornaments, but who could remember whether there were more heavy ornaments to come? My sister and I had several nearly identical ornaments, and those had to be spaced far apart on the tree for visual variety. And although nobody could really see the back of the tree, some things still had to be hung there so the tree didn't look lopsided.

A middle-school favorite, this elaborate tiny clock was a gift from my Gran.

When I graduated from high school, my ornaments remained at my parents' house, and the same ritual was repeated every year when I went home for Christmas. When I finished college, though, it was deemed time that I take my ornaments for my own house. My sister took hers shortly thereafter when she got married, and my brother followed suit a few years later.

This is another of the oldest ornaments in my collection. I love these older wooden ones.

Now each winter when I take them out and hang my ornaments, alone, I am a little overwhelmed with the sense of glad nostalgia that wafts out of the box with them. These are some of the few things that I have known my entire life. Bringing them out of their tissue-paper wrappings and boxes is like greeting old friends. I can't decorate my own "tree" without hearing echoes of small squabbles with my sister and brother, seeing little ghosts reverently placing their pretties on a tree, and smelling that musty, piney old chest. It's honestly the only time that I ever miss being a kid, lost in the annual excitement of decorating for Christmas.

Christmas lights on the windowsill with an unusual Seattle snowfall in the background outside.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Open Letter Without Apology

To the woman I bumped into downtown this evening around 7:15, who gasped in audible terror at my touch:

I had been running for two blocks when my path crossed yours, my friend. You couldn't have known, but I had stood outside waiting for a bus for an hour and a half earlier in the afternoon. My toes had gone numb, my fingers were cold even inside their mittens, and my nose had nearly developed its own tiny icicle. When I left work this evening I was dreading the chance of repeating the experience to get back home, so when I saw my bus pulling away just as I turned the corner to the bus stop, I could not allow it to escape me.

I trotted awkwardly down the iced-over sidewalk after the departing bus. The right combination of traffic lights would let me catch the bus at its next stop in three blocks. The bus was still in view, so I ran across the first cross street as my pedestrian signal changed. Clumsily, I galloped on down 3rd. Most people kept to the ice-free sidewalk next to the buildings, so I veered precariously onto the icy outer walkway several times to pass other pedestrians. Wheezing in the cold air, I crossed the second cross street with time to spare. My bus was stopped at the end of the block, and I did my best to speed up.

It was at that moment, my friend, that you and your male companion ambled out onto the sidewalk. You were strolling slowly, your well-layered arms sticking out at angles, much like those of the little brother in the movie A Christmas Story. My bus was still stopped, but its line of boarders was shrinking. You and your companion spread out to meander past other folks. A small gap between you and another walker presented itself. I darted through, and I bumped your elbow as I did so.

You sucked in air like a drowning person, like somebody in a bus about to crash through a guardrail onto a freeway below, like a seer of ghosts and demons and woe. Your enormous lungs seemed capable of inhaling more air than the cold city contained in all its core. Perhaps you were terrified, dear lady, of the clear threat I presented in my slacks and wool jacket. I do stand an imposing five-foot-six, while you were but a diminutive five-foot-five, so I understand your fright at my looming height. Or maybe you saw only the paper bag in my hand, full of leftover snacks, and panicked at the thought that I might bludgeon you to death with a Wheat Thin and a cookie.

In any case, your desperate gasp lasted so long you may not have heard me cry, "Excuse me!" as I passed. But in case you missed what followed, I want you to know this: with barely a second to spare, I caught up to my bus. I boarded and sat wheezing, my lungs aching from the cold. Oh, my voluminously-lunged friend, my haste in our encounter had rewarded my joints with a blessed reprieve from another long wait in the cold.

And so you see why I am not even slightly sorry for bumping into your own elbow joint in order to do so. Your overly dramatic inhalation was wholly without result. I am free of remorse, my friend. Free of remorse--and warm.

Ta, and happy holidays,


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Snow day

I went to bed last night cynical. Seattle had sat in the hole of the "snow doughnut" all day yesterday, and I tried not to believe the forecasters' insistence that snow would arrive in town overnight.

This morning I woke up before the alarm when Chloe the timid German Shepherd started pacing in agitation, perhaps because of the brief loud thunder that hadn't awakened me. As we woke up, Mr. Thel looked out the window and gasped. "Oh wow!"

I squinted suspiciously. "You're full of it." I peeked through the blinds and hey, look at that white stuff!

My supervisor called at 6:15 to notify me that our office would be closed today, so I had a lovely unexpected day off to finally put up my "tree." It was the perfect gift.

Chloe hates thunder, but loves the snow.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Grace in small things: four

1. Chapstick.

2. Conversations with unexpectedly kind people on the phone.

3. A delicious free lunch at work.

4. Free delicious leftovers from a lunch at work.

5. A fresh haircut.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Grace in small things: three

1. Being able to breathe through my nose.

2. The man with white hair who set up his battered upright piano at a corner outside Pike Place Market and plunked merrily away in the cold on Saturday afternoon.

3. The puppylike glee which led Chloe to sprint and roll around in the field next to Chief Sealth Trail yesterday morning, a manic black blur against the bright white snow.

4. Sky-blue hand-knitted mittens.

5. Anticipating the train trip to Oregon on Saturday. Hooray for trains!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Seattle snow adventures

We went to bed last night while the snow was still falling thick outside--huge snowflakes illuminated in the glow of the streetlight, so many of them blowing sideways in the wind that we could hardly see the houses across MLK. When we awoke this morning, we had an inch or so of snow on our block, and the sheet of ice coating our street gleamed.

It's not much by the standards of many wintry locales, but for Seattle it was stupendous. Any little thing seems more glorious, in this Pacific Northwest native's experience, when it takes place against an icy, snowy backdrop. So today I had two "adventures" in the snow:

1. Having run out of time during our busy day yesterday, this morning my best-beloved and I still had some basic grocery needs. Eyeing the slick little hill of our street, we opted to walk to the grocery store, about a mile and a half round trip. We each wore a little backpack for hauling home our supplies. Sidewalks proved treacherous for most of the way, so we tramped along their margins in the snow where footing was more secure. Mittens and scarves proved useful, and wearing my bicycling headband under my knit cap helped keep my ears safe from the bitter wind that was blowing. We were out for about an hour in the cold, and although it was just a little jaunt, the setting made it feel like a true expedition.

2. Coming home from work tonight I had two bus routes to choose from. I hopped on the first one that came along, forgetting that it was probably rerouted at the hill behind my house. Sure enough, the bus stopped short of its descent back into the valley. "This is it," the driver said; "they aren't sending us down that hill."

We last three passengers disembarked and began trudging down the steep-ish hill. The roadway was clear and dry, while the sidewalk was frozen over; keeping an eye out for cars, I opted to walk in the street instead of skidding down the sidewalk. The newly waning moon loomed in the clear sky above us. We paused to let a couple of police cars go wailing and blazing up the hill past us to calls unknown.

We all had made it about two blocks down the hill when we saw a different bus heading up our very hill. I grumbled under my breath about the apparent contradiction between drivers' attitudes, but I should have had more faith. The next thing I knew, the bus we had just left made the turn and headed downhill after us.

When she caught up to us, she stopped and opened the door to let us back on. "I guess we can make it down after all!" she said. "They told me before just to stop at Cloverdale, but I saw that other bus coming up and I went, 'All right, I'm going to go get my people.'" Chains rattling all the way, the bus inched down the hill. The lovely driver let me off just a block from home, and I walked back to coziness and warm food waiting.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Tonight we went to a friend's dinner party in Tacoma. There was much laughter and easy conversation with friends and brand-new acquaintances. As the twelve of us sat around the dinner table eating dessert, I looked at the faces around me, at these women whose decisions to live their lives with authenticity have taken more courage and grace than I can imagine or summon. These are some of my heroines, I realized: women who have been through the wringer and faced uncountable experiences of ugliness and discrimination, and who yet are able to be present with grace and joy, laughing and telling stories over an apple tart.

After dinner we drove home through the falling snow that was just beginning to accumulate on the grass and trees, and I hoped I could look back someday and be satisfied that I had lived my life with that kind of grace and bravery--to be ready to name hatred for what it is when I see it; to be able to know and manifest my true, core self; to be willing to laugh as heartily as ever at the end of any day.

Later we let Chloe out to snuffle, surprised, in the skiff of snow that had gathered in the yard. We watched the snow fall fast and heavy outside. The arctic chill was beginning to deepen, but we turned up the furnace and put an extra blanket on the bed. Maybe if I practice meeting this prosaic challenge with grace and good cheer, it will become easier to do the same with more serious challenges.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Grace in small things: Two

1. Once again being able to toss my heaviest hand-knit scarf around my neck.

2. Lightly scented candles.

3. Reconnecting with long-estranged friends over birthday drinks.

4. Cilantro chive yogurt dip.

5. Finding, deep in a pocket of my backpack, the tiny Obama flag that adorned one of the celebratory mini-muffins I ate on election night.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Grace in small things: One

Because I have been excreting truly impressive quantities of snot from my nose, and working two jobs, and only being at home between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., I haven't been a consistent Holidailies contributor this year. Still, I remain determined to participate!

Perhaps, if nothing else, I can join Schmutzie in recognizing the grace in small things in my life during a season of challenges.

1. Coming home late from a long day working two jobs to find fresh, hot, homemade chicken noodle soup ready.

2. A large German Shepherd resting her triangle head on my foot.

3. The bright red pocket-sized Moleskine 2009 weekly calendar that I bought last month is already improving my organizational skills.

4. The plastic Avon figurines--Scamper Lily, Blossom, and Daisy Dreamer--that my siblings and I received for presents long ago. They each stood on a leaf-shaped base, which was perfect for tucking between your index and middle finger while you grasped a My Little Pony in the rest of your hand, so the doll could stand gracefully atop the horse while you galloped them through the wilderness of the back hallway.

5. The childlike quiver of anticipation I get at the merest possibility of lowland snow.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Day 2

I was looking forward to Holidailies. I'm working two jobs right now and only home for an hour in the evenings, but I figured that would just hone my speedy stream-of-consciousness writing. Everybody likes poorly constructed navel-gazing at the holidays, right? Plus, I rationalized, at least on the weekends I could construct nice long posts.

Then I woke up yesterday morning with what felt like a tennis ball in my throat. A tennis ball covered in velcro. And phlegm. I managed, barely, to get out of the house for a little bit of gift shopping, and then I came home and pretty much collapsed for the day. I did a bit of knitting, but after an hour or so even that took too much effort.

Today was pretty much the same way: all couch and blanket and whimpering. Man, I hate cold season. I'd had grand plans of putting up the Christmas "tree" and hanging ornaments this weekend. I suppose they can wait until next weekend.

Since this is such a lame non-entry, here, have a picture from happier, healthier times. This was taken on one of our recent Port Angeles trips.

Friday, December 05, 2008


Today at work I was putting together a project using artwork made by children. Children who had used a lot of glitter. I'd been working on it for half an hour or so when my co-worker stopped by with a question about a different task. I stepped away from the project to answer her, pontificating on the topic for a few moments. "So I think it should work out fairly well," I concluded.

She nodded gravely and said, "Yes, I think you're right, Glitter Bear."

So I guessed a lot of glitter had transferred from the artwork to, well, all over myself. This was confirmed later when another friend asked to use my cheek as a mirror so she could touch up her lipstick. I don't know, is that better or worse than surreptitiously checking yourself out in somebody's glasses while they talk to you about TPS reports?

When I was a kid there was this area in our house, right off the living room, which served as my dad's den. He had his comfy chair in there, and the record player and stereo and speakers, and cupboards full of tools and things. The wall with the cupboards had this huge mirror that ran all along the wall between the lower and upper cabinets. For some reason my sister and I had the bad habit of focusing on the reflection of my dad in that mirror when we were talking to him, instead of looking directly at him. Looking back, this seems odd (and also, ooo, kind of foreshadowing of my later tendency to prefer email and internet interaction over face-to-face relationships!), but at the time we seemed unable to break ourselves of the habit, no matter how much it irritated my dad.

And it irritated him endlessly. I'd go in to ask him a question about homework, and as he started to explain the difference between the distributive property and the commutative property of numbers I'd watch him and pay close attention at first. But then, irresistibly, my gaze would drift over to watch the reflection of my dad explaining the math properties instead. As soon as he noticed, he'd launch into his frustrated rant. "You look people in the eye when they're talking to you! I swear I'm gonna get a hammer and smash that goddam mirror if you kids don't stop staring at it all the time!"

You know, that rant was always much more interesting the way it was delivered by my dad's reflection in the mirror. I could have watched that distant red-faced image wave its arms for hours.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Thoughts for my skeptical friends

The only reason to be disappointed that a president is not a perfectly flawless messianic figure is if you originally held the mistaken belief that any president could ever be a perfectly flawless messianic figure.

The only reason to remind me that a president will not be a perfectly flawless messianic figure is if you think I originally held the mistaken belief that any president could ever be a perfectly flawless messianic figure. You needn't, for I didn't.

If we both accept the fact that no president ever could be a perfectly flawless messianic figure, it makes little sense to express disappointment or to "temper your enthusiasm" based on the insufficiently leftist leanings of, say, a particular president-elect. Knowing that no real president can fully embody your platonic ideal, you know that yours will always be the task of an activist. You will always be working to push and pull and insist and cajole the powers-that-be into making the decisions and taking the actions that bring the world closer to your vision. This is the case whether the president were a moderate Democrat or a radical Socialist.

This is not a bad thing! This is forever our task and our fight and our very mission in life. Why look so disappointed when you say, "We'll just have to keep holding his feet to the fire?" If that's our task in any case, why not take a moment to rejoice that the feet will now belong to someone more thoughtful, gracious, and sincere than his predecessor? If our task will never be done, we rejoice that for a moment that parts of it may become a bit less arduous. We rejoice that the feet belong to someone who at least speaks to ideals of oneness and equality. We rejoice that the feet belong to someone who finds it important to make his core message the notion that there is now no male nor female, slave nor free, gay nor straight, red nor blue...

Maybe it's a generational thing. Maybe, like you said, you've just had your heart broken too many times. You've watched too many charismatic leaders killed or co-opted, and you can't muster up the excitement one more time. From your perspective, after many broken love affairs, we revelers seem foolish and naive, entirely too optimistic and unaware of the hard work that lies ahead of us. But warnings from elders about broken hearts has never stopped young people from falling in love. This is our first real taste of it, and it's glorious. We're excited by these heady beginnings and these wonderful new feelings, true, but we're also energized by the sense of potential ahead of us. We feel like nothing is impossible; we feel willing to pour our lives into the work our love demands. So we have laughed, and cried, and danced, and drawn accusations of messianic fervor when--for almost the first time in our lives--we have refused a sneering cynicism as our first resort.

We're no dummies, really. This love will be hard work. We know. But we want to do the hard work, because love is also beautiful and delicious and crazy and good.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Two down

On August 4th I met with an otolaryngologist to discuss the excision of the melanoma on my ear, and to discuss doing a sentinel lymph node biopsy to find out whether the cancer had yet spread beyond my ear. Dr. H surprised me by saying it didn't matter, clinically speaking, whether we did the SLN biopsy or not. He said if the melanoma had already spread beyond my ear, it wouldn't matter whether they found out immediately by doing the biopsy, or whether they found out in several months when the cancer would have grown enough to enlarge my lymph nodes and be found non-surgically. The survival statistics, he said, are the same.

"Really, it's completely up to you," he said. "Are you a person of faith?"

I may be a person of some faith, but I didn't feel calm about just waiting around for my lymph nodes to start bulging, so I scheduled the surgery anyway. I had it on August 20th. They removed a good chunk of my ear (repairing it to remain ear-shaped, though slightly smaller) and three nodes from my neck.

That was a Wednesday. At Dr. H's suggestion, I had taken the rest of the week off work to recover. Fortunately, this time the recovery was a breeze. They sent me home with codeine, and I faithfully took the recommended dosage all day Wednesday and into Thursday, but by midday Thursday I realized I wasn't feeling any discomfort at all, and stopped taking it. The incisions on my neck were slightly sore, but nothing like last time. So on Friday Mr. Thel and the doggie and I took a little drive down to the Green River Gorge just to get out of the house and see something pretty--and to try to take my mind off the fretting.

After a very long weekend of trying unsuccessfully not to worry, I got a lovely little pathology report emailed to me on Monday, August 25th, with the words "No evidence of malignancy" repeated three times, once for each sample.

There's been a lot of celebrating in the weeks since then.

Dr. H was exuberant in the follow-up appointment I had with him on the 26th. He said there was "virtually no chance" of it being a false negative result, based on their testing technique and the fact that they biopsied three separate lymph nodes. I'll have to go see him every 8 weeks for a year to monitor the site on my ear. He said, "We don't have any way to know whether this was kind of a random event, or whether this is your body's way of telling you that you've reached your limit of sun exposure, so I'd recommend getting a wide-brimmed hat and wearing it." Done. And I now carry a little tube of sunscreen with me everywhere I go, and am much more diligent about wearing it.

But all in all, that was pretty much the best outcome I could have hoped for, once diagnosed. As far as we know, I'm now in remission from melanoma.

Praise be.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Braggy Blogger

As of today, I've ridden my bicycle over 500 miles in the last 8 weeks. For some cyclists, that wouldn't be much of a milestone. For me, it's pretty darn cool. I've noticed that the same hills whose slopes used to make me want to vomit, fall over, and cry (Beacon Hill, Jackson, MLK, I'm looking at you) aren't the obstacles they used to be.

In fact, these days I tend to prefer riding up over Beacon Hill to travel to and from work: the streets are wider, and the views are enough to make me forget all about my sweat and toil. Every time I cross the Jose Rizal Bridge and see downtown spread out below me, Elliott Bay and the Olympics in the distance, or cruise south down the Chief Sealth Trail and gawk at the panorama of Mount Rainier and Lake Washington, I fall in love with Seattle a little bit more.

(The steep streets behind Interlaken Park, among others, continue to make me want to vomit, fall over, and cry, so I still have plenty of room for improvement.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

The one that changes everything, in which nothing really changes

I mentioned in January that 2008 would be my tenth year free of cancer, although I then spectacularly neglected to share here the process of revisiting that ten-years-old experience. Honestly, I didn't even get around to reading all of my journals from that year. As the 10th anniversary of my final radiation treatment rolled around on July 17th, I began to feel a bit remiss for not better celebrating my remission. (That's not strictly true: I didn't know the exact date of my final treatment until I looked it up just now. I just knew it was toward the end of July.)

Now, though, I'm kind of glad I didn't already spend the first half of this year thinking about cancer.

Last Thursday I went in to have a dermatologist examine a suspicious mole on the tip of my right ear. She took a punch biopsy of the mole for testing, leaving me with two stitches. The dermatologist and her nurse both independently assured me that although I'd have a small notch in my ear, they'd do everything they could to minimize scarring. I appreciated their concern, but I think the existing scars at the base of my neck from my 1997 biopsies will sufficiently attract attention from any wee divot on my ear.

This morning the dermatologist called me to pass along the unfortunate news that my mole is a melanoma.

My attempts to talk seriously about this so far feel as awkward as trying to talk around a mouthful of saltines, all dust and garbles. So instead I made jokes about the bandage on my ear last week (I was going to make Mike Tyson jokes until someone brought up Van Gogh, which was much funnier) and poke fun at my own tendency to grin and laugh nervously when I'm given bad news (that dermatologist probably thinks I'm crazy, what with my frequent giggles in our conversation this morning: "I'm sure I'll be looking at your knowledgebase online right away, hee hee!"). A part of me is thoroughly, bitterly amused that I could manage to come down with a totally different kind of cancer after 10 years in remission from the first kind.

I started to write the following sentence: "The truth is, I feel_____." Trouble is, the word to fill in the blank changes at least hourly.

The truth is, I feel confident. Maybe this melanoma hasn't spread beyond the tip of my ear, and a little more surgery can be the end of it.

The truth is, I feel secretive. I don't want to tell anyone at work yet because I don't want people making assumptions about my capabilities.

The truth is, I feel angry. Two different cancers before 30? You're fucking kidding me, right?

The truth is, I feel defective. Nobody else in my immediate family has had cancer. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad they haven't, but, you know--I feel like the pimply-faced, crooked-toothed, tumor-ridden, malformed cuckoo in the nest.

The truth is, I feel hopeful. I have good friends, good family, good health (yes, except for the cancer), and a good job with health insurance.

The truth is, I feel balanced.

The truth is, I feel erratic.

My next appointment, to discuss upcoming surgery to remove the rest of the melanoma on my ear and to find and biopsy the sentinel lymph nodes, will be a week from today (sooner if they have a cancellation). Until then, I feel calm.

(Except for when I feel devastated.)

Monday, July 07, 2008

Train Trip 2008, Days 3-5

Monday, 14 April 2008
I woke up feeling pretty good after my first night on a train. I wouldn’t say I slept well, exactly: between the rocking motion of the train, the cramped quarters that kept making me shift positions, the intermittent snoring of someone nearby, the loud conversation of the elderly gentlemen in front of me (who must also have required a midnight snack or two, as even through my earplugs I kept hearing the brisk crackling of a bag of chips), I don’t think I slept more than an hour or two between interruptions. Still, I did doze off more than I’d feared. I was glad of my extra blanket, too, as the car seemed quite chilly when I woke up during the night. It was good to have a blanket long enough I could tuck my feet beneath it.

I awoke unaided at 6:30 a.m. and watched the snowy pre-dawn outside. We were winding our way among ever-grander snowcapped peaks, along swift rivers with ice still solid along their banks. Spring hadn’t travelled this far north nor this high up yet; between the evergreens, the other branches were bare.

The coach car on the Canadian had two restrooms, one at either end. I pulled clean clothes out of my suitcase and took a few minutes to tiptoe quietly to the larger restroom and freshen up. I was sick of them by the end of three weeks, but moist towelettes were handy and useful in the absence of any shower facilities in coach class.

Back at my seat, I jotted down a few notes and ate some bread and dried peaches for breakfast. As the rest of the car began to stir, I walked to the Dome car, one car back from mine. A popular way to take in the scenery, the Dome car’s seating is up a short flight of stairs to put passengers above the level of the train. The top of the car is enclosed in a long dome of glass; you look out over the tops of the other cars at the passing sights. On the lower level of the same car are several train attendants’ sleeping quarters, the “snack car” (it turned out to be just a tiny cubicle with an attendant inside to dispense candy bars and microwaved food), and, further back, an entertainment area with more tables. At night they showed movies and played Bingo games in that area.

I filled my travel mug with coffee from the snack booth and spent some time in the Dome car watching our progress through the mountains. Late in the morning we wound our way past Mount Robson, the highest point in the Canadian Rockies, and through Yellowhead Pass toward Jasper, Alberta--our first scheduled daytime stop since departing Vancouver over 18 hours before. That was an aspect of Canadian train travel that was totally different from Amtrak travel in the U.S.: the infrequency of scheduled stops. The train schedule marked several dozen smaller towns at which it could stop, but noted that the train would only actually stop there if someone had prearranged to be picked up or dropped off there. Otherwise, there were only about 7 or 8 stops (some of them in the middle of the night) between Vancouver and Toronto. The smokers were undoubtedly miserable.

Our late-morning Jasper stop lasted almost an hour. I think just about veryone piled out of the train to stroll down the main street through town, buying mementos or food. I did a little of both, tossing off a quick postcard to my grandma and visiting a tiny supermarket to supplement my limited food stores with some crackers and sesame snacks. I even had time to walk over to the post office and mail my postcards before our departure.

When we pulled out of Jasper, just past noon, the conductor made an announcement (in English and again in French, of course; I overheard a couple of my new Canadian acquaintances in coach gently poking fun at his French) that we should keep an eye out for wildlife in this area. Sure enough, just a few minutes later he came back on the intercom for a hasty announcement: “Look for the bighorn sheep on the left side of the train!” I stood up and craned my neck in time to glimpse two of them; not five minutes later came another announcement. “Moose on the left!” That one I didn’t see, unfortunately, so I’ve still never seen a moose in the wild. I did spot a beaver on my own later in the trip, though. Plus plenty of Canada geese, which amused me greatly. Something about seeing Canada geese in Canada, after seeing them in Oregon and Washington all my life, struck me as unaccountably funny.

After Jasper the landscape quickly began to change. We traded snowy cliffs and imposing mountains for more boggy marshes and grassy hummocks. Instead of evergreens, we saw mostly barren deciduous trees and red-tinged underbrush. The few evergreens that remained were smaller and scrubbier, too. The terrain kept flattening until we were on the tabletop plains heading toward Edmonton, the horizon level all around. After the evergreens and icy blues of the mountains, the flat plains seemed drab and brown; however, I overheard an Edmontonian passenger remarking to her daughter, "It's certainly gotten a lot more green here while we were gone!"

Edmonton was another smoke stop, and we lingered there half an hour or so while the train took on more water. The station itself is outside of Edmonton proper, alone on the plain away from town. One of the train attendants said the train used to stop right in downtown Edmonton, but that a local university purchased the original station some years ago and the passenger stop had to relocate. It was a fairly drab stop, with not so much as a vending machine or a postcard rack inside the station--a wide opportunity for some local entrepreneur, I'd think. (Train passengers do get tired of the same packaged snack fare after a day or so.)

I splurged on dinner in the dining car that night: halibut baked with wasabi crumb crust, butternut squash soup, vegetables, and a chocolate torte for dessert. It would prove to be the most delicious train meal of the entire trip. The dining car was all snazzy and ornate, too; it really felt a bit like we'd stepped back into the golden era of train travel.

Picture from wikipedia:

Tuesday, 15 April 2008
My second night in coach, I felt like I was starting to get the hang of it. I awoke quite chipper and had another cheerful morning, enlivened by our hour-long stop in Winnipeg that allowed for a stroll over to the Forks Market where I had half a sandwich and a smoothie for lunch. The train conductor announced that Winnipeg is known as the "Chicago of the North;" now, granted, I hadn't yet been to Chicago, but even so, I thought that comparison might be a bit of a stretch.

Once we were on our way again, I decided that afternoons are the hardest part of a 3-day train trip: the scenery gets monotonous, my snacks unappetizing, all my distractions boring. I had anticipated that this leg of the journey would be the least exciting; although it wasn't as bad as I'd feared, the sitting was still starting to wear a bit thin, exacerbated when I started to get an itchy rash on my chest where my underwire rubbed me wrong.

On the other hand, it was nice to have made the acquaintance of a few fellow passengers to chat with during the long afternoons. The gentleman behind me was on his way from Vancouver to Montreal for a job interview that he was deliberately vague about. He talked about the history of Canada to me sometimes as we passed through towns. The woman across from him had done reflexology for a long time and was on her way to see her daughter near Toronto. Of course the two men in the row in front of me kept up their railfan patter, pointing out to each other incomprehensible-to-me data about the train markings and other cars and our own progress. The man across from me never said a word that I could hear, just read and napped.

Tuesday was the day I kept being surprised by the ice and snow in Ontario--especially the ice, floating on rivers and locking up lakes. We passed from flat fields of dark stubbled earth in the morning, to endless icy lakes throughout the afternoon and evening. The pale white branches of the birches (?) clustered among the evergreens really did look ghostly in the flat, cloudy light--more so, somehow, when they were the only thing visible, without hills or anything else visible in the distance to put them into perspective.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008
I awoke at dawn on the final day of my cross-Canada trip (easier to do when you start to nod off at 9 p.m. the night before). later that morning I knew I'd successfully made the transition to a more relaxed, vacationy perception of time when I thought happily to myself, "Wow, only 12 hours to Toronto!"

I treated myself to a second & final dining car meal for breakfast, where I sat with a delightful elderly couple from Virginia who were also in the middle of a North American Rail Pass trip--and bless their hearts, they too were traveling in coach, quite cheerfully. They confessed to being originally from Seattle, and then we discovered that Beverly and I were fellow SPU grads, although she had graduated back when it was still Seattle Pacific College. They were a treat, very interested to hear about my itinerary and happy to share stories from their own journey.

We arrived in Toronto Wednesday night right on time--actually a bit early, just before 8:00 p.m. I marched off confidently on foot to my hostel, the Canadiana Backpackers Inn, and managed to only get slightly lost in the process. The first thing I did after checking in and happily throwing my bags down on a single bed in the 7-woman dorm room I'd selected (for the bargain price of $25) was to rush down the hallway and enjoy a blessed hot shower. I'd suspected that I was starting to smell a bit unpleasant despite my judicious use of wet wipes every day...and it was nice to have clean hair again.

The hostel was shabby but clean and well-run, in the way of the best and most convivial hostels, and 2 of my 3 roommates were already sleeping when I came back in (the 3rd would very quietly and politely slip in around 11). After using up my complimentary 20-minute internet credit to send a quick email out to family and friends, I lay in bed reading for awhile before falling asleep. I still felt the illusion of rocking gently as I lay there, and my second-to-last thought before sleeping was to wonder how long it would take that sensation to wear off after I finished the entire trip.

(My very last thought before sleeping was, "It's so nice to have clean hair again.")

Friday, July 04, 2008

I love the whole world, part 2

A couple of days after I got a little happy-weepy at the Discovery Channel commercial, someone pointed me at the newest "Where The Hell Is Matt" video.

The utterly unprovoked, beautiful goofiness of it builds a little birdhouse in my soul.

The lyrics of the song are based on the Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. Translated into English, the lines from the video, according to someone at Boing Boing and, go like this:

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

I love the whole world

We watch the Discovery Channel quite a bit. I'd seen bits of this commercial, and only saw the full thing just this morning. I've never forced a commercial upon you before, but this one is truly lovely. Watch for Stephen Hawking near the end!

I love the mountains
I love the clear blue skies
I love big bridges
I love when great whites fly
I love the whole world
And all its sights and sounds
(Boom De Yada...)

I love the ocean
I love real dirty things
I love to go fast
I love egyptian kings
I love the whole world
and all its craziness
(Boom De Yada...)

I love tornadoes
I love Arachnids
I love hot magma
I love the giant squids
I love the whole world
Its such a brilliant place
(Boom De Yada...)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Train Trip 2008, Day 2: Sunday, 13 April 2008

Seven years ago, my then-roommate E. and I, being fairly broke after 4 years of college followed by a year of Americorps service, occasionally entertained ourselves by watching free videos she’d check out from the library. I have a vivid memory of the two of us sitting on the floor in her bedroom (the other roommates didn’t want the TV in the living room), watching on her 13-inch TV a documentary program about the cross-Canada rail journey, both of us dreaming of trips we couldn't begin to afford.

When I started planning this train trip in earnest early this year, I wanted to take that cross-Canada journey myself at last--partly out of nostalgia for that post-college year, and partly because it just sounded so epic. I went back and forth about actually doing it, with my limited number of available vacation days: the Canadian train from Vancouver to Toronto only departs three days each week, so getting off the train for sightseeing would require at least a two-night commitment to the place. Still, the North America Rail Pass requires passengers to take at least one trip in Canada and the U.S., so I chose to head eastward on a nonstop trip through Canada. In some ways it felt like my train journey would truly start when that train departed Vancouver at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, beginning my travels into areas of the continent I’d never seen.

I woke up on my own Sunday morning in Vancouver just before 7:00 a.m., thanking my lucky stars for the earplugs that allowed me to sleep soundly despite the pedestrian and vehicle noise outside. (After one night I was already pretty sure those were going to be one of the smartest investments of the trip. Foreshadowing!) I dawdled around and took a leisurely shower before carrying out my plan to breakfast at Granville Island Public Market. It had rained during the night, but the clouds were rolling away as I meandered down the hill.

Browsing through the marketplace was so much fun. I bought this beautiful blueberry scone and a bowl of fresh fruit, and took them outside onto the docklike patio to eat in the sun while savoring the views of the mountains and the water. Every time I visit Vancouver I’m struck anew by how close the mountains seem to the city, how they loom up imposingly just behind the skyscrapers. This scone put those dry bricks from Starbucks to shame. It was crispy on the outside, light and moist on the inside, loaded with plump blueberries that burst sweetly with every nibble. While I sat there lingering over my delicious breakfast, I had the funniest sort of reverse-deja-vu moment. I thought, I am going to look back on this morning--on these very minutes--for the rest of my life. It's going to be one of those experiences I carry joyfully in my heart forever: this perfect scone, these juicy strawberries, the magnificent sensation of freedom and power as I begin a trip I’ve been dreaming of for nearly my entire adult life.

It was good.

Breakfast gone, moment over, I headed back into the market to stock up for the three-day cross-Canada trip ahead of me. Two big apples, a demi-loaf of multi-grain bread still warm from the oven, a small package of creamy Havarti cheese, dried peaches, and small crunchy dried apple bits. I thought it would be nice to have such wholesome treats to munch on for the next few days; I didn’t plan (and couldn't afford) to eat every meal in the dining car, and the “snack car,” at least on the Amtrak trains I was familiar with, were mostly overpriced convenience-store kinds of foods. Believe me, I love me some convenience-store foods, but I didn't want to have nothing else for three days. What can I say: stocking up on bread, cheese, and fruit? Yes, I’m a peasant at heart.

Reluctantly I tore myself away from the market and walked back up to the apartment so I could keep the cheese refrigerated as long as possible before my evening departure. While I walked, I dithered about what to do with the rest of the day. I considered taking a bus out to the Capilano suspension bridge, which I’ve never done; however, I didn’t quite trust my skills and the Vancouver bus system to get me there and back successfully, on a Sunday, in the allotted time. Instead I took the 98 express bus back downtown, figuring I could walk around in Stanley Park at least. Increasingly nervous about the looming fact that I was about to spend three days and nights mostly sitting down during the train trip across the continent, I wanted to try to exhaust myself beforehand as much as possible.

I walked across downtown all the way to Stanley Park before it occurred to me that I could rent a bike and ride the whole loop around the park. Luckily, my handy tourist map led me straight to the Spokes bike rental shop, and for $10 I was soon riding back to the park on a big old hybrid/city bike. It was way heavier and more upright than my bike at home, but its large, springy seat was certainly comfy! I made no effort to hurry, enjoying the views, the stiff ocean breeze, and the warm sun. I also enjoyed the intelligent design of the pathways, with the section for bikes & rollerblades almost always divided by an actual curb or elevation change from the lane for folks on foot. It seemed to flow more smoothly and with less aggravating cross-lane drifting than a place like Greenlake.

Even at my leisurely pace, with a couple of stops for pictures, I was still around the loop in an hour. That was the most enjoyable $10 I spent in Vancouver, for sure. I walked all the way back up to Burrard Street and took the express bus back to my friends' apartment one last time. I showered again, gratefully, well aware that I wouldn’t get another chance until Toronto on Wednesday night at the earliest. I cleaned up, packed up, and trundled myself back out on a different express bus line (bless them!) to connect with the SkyTrain to the train station. As usual, I’d been far more cautious about my timing than necessary, and was an hour and a half early. I wrote some postcards to friends and nieces, used my cheap phone card to check in with Rob, and had a snack.

Still anxious about how unpleasant three nights in coach might be, I asked a ticket agent (a young man whose close-cropped curly hair and toothy smile reminded me of my brother) about the cost to upgrade to a sleeping compartment. With no available discounts (he did try to find me one: “Are you under 25? Are you a student? No? Well, um...are you over 60?”), it would cost $431 to upgrade--significantly lower than the price I’d originally been quoted by phone three months ago, but still too high for my budget. He said it would cost $275 to upgrade for just the final night, which was mightily tempting--all meals are included for the sleeping car passenger. I decided not to do it, though, as he assured me I could always opt to do it later on, if I was having an unbearable time in coach.

By about 4:30 other coach passengers were beginning to line up, so I joined them. I was only about the third person in line; the man in front of me was on his way to Montreal for a job interview, and clued me in that VIA Rail didn’t hand out seat assignments the way Amtrak had-- “It’s just a free-for-all to the train once they start boarding,” he said. This made me twitchy to contemplate, but when they loosed us at 5:00, it ended up being much tamer than his description. They pointed us to different cars, depending on our final destinations, and there were so few of us going all the way to Toronto that the car attendant sorted us out to each have a two-seat row to spread out in. Peter, the man from the line, was sitting behind me; two elderly gentleman had both sides of the row in front of me. They were clearly rail fans who had traveled this route many times; I quickly learned to brazenly eavesdrop on their conversations for tidbits of information about the towns we were passing through.

We began inching our way out of Vancouver at 5:30 p.m., right on time. The train crossed over the Frasier River several times as we headed east, clacking through some lovely little hamlets in flat valleys ringed by mountains. For half an hour or so we took turns passing and being passed by a freight train running on a parallel track, which the two railfans in front of me enjoyed immensely. “Now it’s our turn!” they would crow when our train pulled ahead. "We're winning!"

As the sun set and the light dimmed, I peered out into the gloaming as long as I could at the lovely landscape--small towns tucked at the base of rugged, snowy mountains. Mr. Thel would like this, I kept thinking.

Bedtime wasn’t much of a problem. Our car attendant, Jeanine, came through the car in the evening and distributed not only small airline-style pillows, but also generously-sized blankets, earplugs, and eyeshades. I’d come prepared with all those things, but I still accepted the free supplemental pillow and blanket. The main lights in the car were turned off around 9:00. After visiting the restroom at the end of the car to change into pajamas and brush my teeth, I put my two seats back all the way, pulled up the footrests to make a sort of platform, pulled on my eyeshade and put in the earplugs, and curled up with my blankets in my little nest. Next stop: Jasper, Alberta, tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. Mountain Time.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Train Trip 2008, Day 1: Saturday, 12 April 2008

The day of my departure was Seattle’s sunniest day of the year so far. Mr. Thel drove me to Seattle’s King Street Station (a moody, wintry photo of which had graced the cover of the Amtrak timetable I’d been poring through for the last six months). He sat with me until the train began to board around 7:30 a.m. I found myself getting anxious: not panicky, just suddenly emotional about being apart from my husband for three weeks. We haven’t been apart for that long since we first got together six years ago, after all.

Despite my anxiety, I felt as excited as a little girl on the first day of school as I lined up and shuffled out to the boarding platform. As I exited the station, I looked back to exchange one last cheery wave and blow kisses with Mr. Thel, and set out toward Amtrak’s Cascades train. I had deliberately packed everything into a set of two bags, a suitcase and a backpack which could be combined into one hefty article, so that I would never have to check any baggage and could hop on and off the train without delay. The Cascades is a one-level commuter-type train; I slid my suitcase into a luggage rack at the end of the car and found my assigned window seat on the east side of the train.

We smoothly glided away from the station at 7:40 a.m., exactly on time. As we slid through Seattle and up along the water, I kept wanting to narrate to anyone listening about what we were passing. I was well aware that these would be my last moments of familiarity for three weeks: the Magnolia Bridge, Kiwanis Ravine, the Ballard Locks. Pulling out of the city along the water on that gorgeous morning made me preemptively homesick. Joggers swarmed in Myrtle Edwards Park and Golden Gardens, the Olympic Mountains gleaming brightly across Puget Sound. The hazy gradation of blues westward made me wish I’d postponed the trip a day to enjoy it: the dark, bright water below the hazy blue of the trees on the islands; then the faraway blue of the Olympics and the pale blue of the morning sky. The lovely views of the morning made me speculate a bit smugly to myself that this particular route would be hard to top for beauty.

The train crossed the Canadian border at 10:20, just over two and a half hours from Seattle. The Canadian town of White Rock, barely north of the border, has an adorable waterfront street next to the train tracks, with shops and restaurants and parks, full of people already out picnicking in the sunshine. I spotted a bald eagle just south of town; I’d already seen a blue heron near Everett earlier that morning.

It was about another hour and a half before we arrived in Vancouver, B.C. I got through customs after being asked extensive questions about my itinerary by the female Canadian customs agent. She even wanted to see my reservation for my single night in Toronto later in the week. It was a very short walk from the station across the street to the SkyTrain, which took me into downtown Vancouver for an exchange to a bus to the South Granville neighborhood. A friend’s family keeps an apartment there; they were out of town for the weekend, but they had set me up with a key to stay for Saturday night.

I was truly impressed by the 98 express bus from downtown to their neighborhood. I don’t know if it’s what they’re calling “Bus Rapid Transit” in Seattle, but it was a route with fairly limited stops, and a bus came along at least every 15 minutes throughout the day. It made getting around much less stressful and troublesome. In Vancouver you can also use a credit card to purchase a bus ticket at certain stations, which was very convenient as well.

After finding the apartment and unloading my bags with a sense of accomplishment at having successfully navigated the first of several new-to-me public transportation systems, I went right back downtown to enjoy the afternoon. My friend had given me a pass to the Vancouver Art Gallery, so I went there and spent some time in their exhibit on trees in art. There was one piece, a film loop, displayed alone in a dark room--trees rotating around the viewer with a mix of natural and industrial noise as the soundtrack. I watched it all the way through once or twice. A woman who had just entered turned around and came right back out behind me as I moved on. Unprompted, as we exited she said, “Trees scare me!”

A headache made me head back to the apartment for a nap, after first having some disappointing Chinese food from the restaurant on the corner. There was an extremely inebriated man at the restaurant hassling the waiter. First he was appalled that he was too early to order something for delivery, and tried to convince the waiter that the time was an hour later than it was. Then he got belligerent: “Do you know how to cook?” he demanded. When the waiter affirmed that he could cook, the man persisted, “But do you really know how, or do you just think you do?”

Refreshed and pain-free after a nap at the apartment, I embarked on a walk down to Granville Island and up above the wall along False Creek out to Vanier park. The brisk salt air and the bright setting sun made it a lovely long stroll. Plenty of people were out enjoying the evening along the water on foot and by bicycle, but as I looped back uphill toward the apartment, I was more or less on my own through some quiet neighborhoods. Realizing that sunset was imminent, and not really wanting to end up wandering alone in the dark in unfamiliar areas, I increased my pace, arriving “home” just as the dusk began to deepen, around 8 p.m. I stopped at the corner store just long enough to buy some chocolate milk, went back to the apartment, watched part of a movie on TV, and went to bed.

Happy "June," y'all!

Contrary to the impression given by this blog for the last two months, I did successfully complete my long-anticipated train trip and survived, without so much as a keychain pepper spray for defense. Three weeks, ten thousand miles, 8 nights in coach, and seven cities later, I still think it was one of the best ideas I've ever had. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

In the meantime, I'm going to do some belated posting of how it all went, expanding on the notes I took throughout the journey. With gas prices climbing daily, I can't help thinking that train travel will begin to seem a more and more appealing alternative to road tripping--and I believe people who do try the train are almost certainly in for a pleasant surprise.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


Train: 510 Cascades
Departure: Seattle (Amtrak), Washington
Saturday April 12, 2008 7:40AM
Arrival: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Saturday April 12, 2008 11:35AM
Accommodation: 1 Reserved Coach Seat

[I don't have an email confirmation for this leg, since it's on VIA Canada Rail, but the next bit goes like this:
Depart: Vancouver, BC
Sunday April 13, 2008 5:30 PM
Arrive: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday April 16, 2008 (7 PM, I think)]

Train: 7097 Maple Leaf
Departure: Toronto, Ontario
Thursday April 17, 2008 8:30AM
Arrival: Canadian Border New York
Thursday April 17, 2008 11:08AM
Accommodation: 1 Reserved Coach Seat

Train: 64 Maple Leaf
Departure: Canadian Border New York
Thursday April 17, 2008 11:12AM
Arrival: New York (Penn Station), New York
Thursday April 17, 2008 9:35PM
Accommodation: 1 Reserved Coach Seat

Train: 160 Regional Service
Departure: New York (Penn Station), New York
Sunday April 20, 2008 9:00AM
Arrival: Boston (South Station), Massachusetts
Sunday April 20, 2008 1:07PM
Accommodation: 1 Reserved Coach Seat

Bus: 8257 Thruway Bus
Departure: Boston (South Station), Massachusetts
Sunday April 20, 2008 2:15PM
Arrival: Portland, Maine
Sunday April 20, 2008 4:10PM
Accommodation: 1 Reserved Thruway Seat

Bus: 8256 Thruway Bus
Departure: Portland, Maine
Tuesday April 22, 2008 5:30PM
Arrival: Boston (South Station), Massachusetts
Tuesday April 22, 2008 7:25PM
Accommodation: 1 Reserved Thruway Seat

Train: 67 Regional Service
Departure: Boston (South Station), Massachusetts
Tuesday April 22, 2008 9:45PM
Arrival: New York (Penn Station), New York
Wednesday April 23, 2008 2:01AM
Accommodation: 1 Reserved Coach Seat

Train: 51 Cardinal
Departure: New York (Penn Station), New York
Wednesday April 23, 2008 6:45AM
Arrival: Chicago (Union Station), Illinois
Thursday April 24, 2008 10:35AM
Accommodation: 1 Reserved Coach Seat

Train: 59 Cty Of New Orleans
Departure: Chicago (Union Station), Illinois
Thursday April 24, 2008 8:00PM
Arrival: Memphis, Tennessee
Friday April 25, 2008 6:27AM
Accommodation: 1 Reserved Coach Seat

Train: 58 Cty Of New Orleans
Departure: Memphis, Tennessee
Monday April 28, 2008 10:40PM
Arrival: Chicago (Union Station), Illinois
Tuesday April 29, 2008 9:00AM
Accommodation: 1 Reserved Coach Seat

Train: 3 Southwest Chief
Departure: Chicago (Union Station), Illinois
Tuesday April 29, 2008 3:15PM
Arrival: Lamy, New Mexico
Wednesday April 30, 2008 2:20PM
Accommodation: 1 Reserved Coach Seat

Train: 3 Southwest Chief
Departure: Lamy, New Mexico
Thursday May 1, 2008 2:24PM
Arrival: Los Angeles, California
Friday May 2, 2008 8:15AM
Accommodation: 1 Reserved Coach Seat

Train: 14 Coast Starlight
Departure: Los Angeles, California
Friday May 2, 2008 10:15AM
Arrival: Seattle (Amtrak), Washington
Saturday May 3, 2008 8:45PM
Accommodation: Superliner Roomette

Yes, that's a roomette on that last leg, there. It was under $200 to upgrade to a room for that final day and a half--and all meals are included. I know my tendency to start moping at the end of a vacation, so I thought it worthwhile to give myself a little something to be excited about for the final leg of this amazing journey.

I'm only able to take three weeks for this trip instead of the full four weeks, unfortunately. But I still get to see some amazing sights, stay with some of my favorite people, meet some new people, and (I hope) exhaust my facial muscles from grinning with joy at all the random fun I will have.

Ten days to departure!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

"Practice Resurrection."

excerpt from
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
by Wendell Berry

So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Happy Easter, friends.

Thanks to Slacktivist for pointing to this beautiful poem, and several others, which brought tears to my eyes. Do click at the top of the post to read the whole poem!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Ominous portent, or minor frustration?

This afternoon I noticed that my tax refund had been deposited into my checking account.

I immediately called Amtrak to start the process of purchasing the rail pass for my long-anticipated month-long trip this spring. The cheerful customer service representative told me I needed to set my itinerary at the time of purchasing the pass. This was not a problem, since I had already spent hours and hours poring over the Amtrak timetables and setting various itineraries; however, my spreadsheet was at home and I was at work. Could I call back later?

"Sure," she said. "We're here 24 hours a day for your convenience."

"That is convenient!" I agreed.

I came home, pulled out my itinerary spreadsheet, tinkered with my dream trip one last time, and called Amtrak back.

The customer service representative told me that the department I needed is only open 8:30-4:30, Monday through Friday.


It's that kind of confusion and misinformation that could really derail (metaphorically, I hope) a train trip like this. On the other hand, if that's the biggest screw-up I encounter, I'll be thanking my lucky stars. Here's hoping.

Two weeks ago

Mr. Thel is taking Chloe to have the staples removed from her surgery incision today. Two weeks down and six to go until we can start walking her outside on a leash again. I'm not looking forward to another six weeks like the last one; Chloe thinks she's better, and wants to be allowed to run around again. She's tired of being forced to lie down and stay all the time, or of being confined to small parts of the house. I'm tired of keeping her contained.

At least her hair is growing back in again, so she doesn't look quite so much like the victim of a deranged groomer's out-of-control clippers.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

You know, I sympathize with parents' fears for their children's safety, both on- and off-line. But my reaction to this article is...not sympathy.

Ernest and his business partner Jason Thurston put their tech-savvy heads together and created, a database parents can use to zero in on suspect screen names children should stay away from.

The site posts reviews on screen names. It's akin to a movie review. Most are posted by other online users who had a bad experience and want to warn others. With each screen name review comes a sample of their online chats.

"It can get really dirty or nasty, if you want it call it that," Ernest said.

Take Fanfest 2004, for example. The name may sound innocuous enough, but a search of the new database reveals a conversation in which Fanfest, a 30 year old, describes what he wants to do sexually with a 7-year-old girl.
Where to begin? I mean, I'm hardly the queen of all geekdom (in fact, I don't think I'd even qualify to be a duchess of geekdom), but I feel like Inigo Montoya--"You keep talking about the internet. I do not think it works the way you think it does."

First of all, let's fix that last sentence: which Fanfest, who claims to be a 30 year old, describes what he wants to do....
See how that works? You don't know anything about "Fanfest 2004" except what he (or she!) tells you. Isn't rule number one of the internet, "Don't believe a word anything says about themselves unless you can independently verify it?" Teaching that principle to your children would do a heck of a lot more to protect them than building a database of "bad screen names." What, you want your kid to think that anyone whose name isn't in your database must therefore be trustworthy? Way to go with the teaching of the critical thinking skills, there.

Second of all, what parallel internet do these "tech-savvy" people play on? They themselves reluctantly admit, "there's nothing stopping the bad-guys [sic] from changing their screen name." Unfortunately, they make no mention of the corollary: dozens or hundreds of different people across the internet can share the same "screen name" in different venues. Nothing prevents someone else from writing a blog under the name of "Thel," having a livejournal account in the name of "Thel," or signing in as "Thel" in chatrooms for people with very specific kinks. Go do a blog search for variants on the name "Arwen" and see how many thousands of different individuals you can find conducting their online activities in the name of Elrond's daughter, for God's sake.

(Third of all, I feel compelled to note that "talking about wanting to do something" is not actually illegal. Plenty of people get their kink on by roleplaying activities that you [and, often, they!] find repellent and rightfully unlawful in real life. Deal.)

I was going to compare this "" database to the no-fly list--databases that can seriously screw with your plans even if you've done nothing wrong. But this is even worse, in some ways. Who's going to stop the trolls, the disgruntled employees, the unbalanced ex-spouses, and the pranksters from posting people's "screen names" along with a filthy little manufactured snippet of their purported deviancy? What recourse would such a wrongly slandered party have?
Are any measures in place to ensure that folks who share a screen name with one of these "bad guys" don't find all of their own online activities slandered?

I'm pretty sure the answers are "nobody, none, and no," not that anyone gives a damn. Poorly executed vigilantism may be a useless exercise, but (oh, baby) it feels so good.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Caucus Chaos

Hey, slap a sticker on my jacket, I caucused yesterday!

This was my second caucus; since we moved across town last year, this was my first time caucusing in our current precinct. There were 21 of us in our precinct: 20 for Obama, 1 for Clinton. The lone Clinton supporter was delightfully good-humored about the fact that the percentages, when applied to our allocated number of precinct delegates (7), gave all the delegates to Obama and none to Clinton.

I enjoyed the hands-on feel to the caucus; I liked chatting with neighbors about politics for a few minutes, hearing voices raised passionately in other precinct caucuses smashed into the same elementary-school library. I was impressed by how many people crammed into the building. And when the caucus organizer asked people to raise their hands if this were their first time caucusing, probably about three-quarters of the people present raised their hands, to whoops and applause from the rest of us. It felt very personal, and intimate, and very much like the core root of democracy.

Still, just as in 2004, I was a little taken aback by how chaotic and disorganized the process was. When I showed up at the elementary school where 7 or 8 local precincts were meeting to caucus, I was told we were all gathering in the cafeteria to begin. In the cafeteria, folks were sitting in their precinct groups, but the signs were taped to tables and thus invisible from a distance. It was all but impossible to squeeze through the crowd of hundreds of people in order to find the right precinct. And I was one of the lucky ones who had already registered to vote and had known my precinct number! If you didn't already know it, you had to go scrutinize a single map taped to one wall, and there were reports that the map was incorrect, anyway. I'm still unsure whether I was supposed to have shown my voter registration card to anyone; nobody asked to see it.

And I must admit that as much fun as a caucus can be, I still don't quite think it gives everyone a voice. I think of that lone Clinton supporter in our precinct, whose choice is not represented on a statewide basis. His fraction of a delegate doesn't get to combine with the other fractions of delegates; they all just get rounded down and shunted out. So I guess a statewide vote would be a bit more fair, after all, even if it doesn't cultivate a sense of community the way a caucus can.

Anyway, I caucused and volunteered to be a delegate to the county caucus in April. That will be a new experience! Then I walked back down the hill to sit and cuddle with my Chloe. She had her knee surgery on Thursday, and it went as well as can be expected. Her entire leg is shaved, hip to ankle, with a long line of staples holding her surgery incision closed. It looks bad, but I know she should be getting back to normal just in time for sunny weather and outside play!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

And that's how I learned it stands for "Anterior Cruciate Ligament"

This little dog of mine was loping cheerfully around with me outside last Saturday when she halted with a yelp, holding her right hind leg up from the ground. Turns out she tore her ACL, which is apparently a very common injury for larger dogs. Alas, it is not quite so common as to make it what anyone could reasonably consider "affordable" to repair. As it happens, the surgery will end up costing just about the same amount as my anticipated tax refund this year--the tax refund I was planning to use for my train trip.

She had the surgery today, though, and will come home tomorrow to begin her three months of recovery. One month of severe motion restriction, followed by two months of slow rehabilitation. And I plan to go ahead and take the damn train trip, anyway. Credit cards are pay-off-able (or so I have heard, at least), but travel memories last forever. I'm hoping to stretch my credit as far as it will go by using Couchsurfing for at least a few of my lodging options along the way. I leave in two months, if we can make it that long without having anyone else tear any ligaments, cut any arteries, or break any bones.

Thursday, January 31, 2008


By the way, I've baked five more loaves of bread since I reported to you two weeks ago. Six loaves of homemade bread in two weeks...I'd better start riding my bike to work again soon.

2008 Books 4, 5, 6, and 7

4. Shade's Children, by Garth Nix. I picked this up spontaneously at the library because I enjoyed Nix's Abhorsen series. Shade's Children is so-so science fiction, I thought. It brushes up against questions about free will, human agency, and artificial intelligence; it's interesting, but the characters never seemed fully developed. (Or maybe I've been too spoiled by Robin Hobb lately.)

5. Harpy's Flight, by Megan Lindholm (the author who now writes as Robin Hobb). I enjoyed reading a shorter novel by this author. I dearly loved the two trilogies of hers that I have so far read, but Harpy's Flight provided a nice change of pace. Lindholm's worlds are so vivid and crisp, her characters so fully fleshed, that even a relatively brief story like this one is a delight.

6. Shaman's Crossing, by Robin Hobb. Book one of her newest trilogy. Hobb has created a new world (all 9 of her previous books, as far as I know so far, were set in a different world) and describes it for us as vividly as ever. Obviously I adore her descriptions and characterization skills; even more, I admire her ability to create and use political and military histories in her stories.

7. Forest Mage, by Robin Hobb. Book two of the newest trilogy. I should mention here the way Hobb resolutely pushes her protagonists through trial after trial until they are all but wrecked. Perhaps it's because I spent so many years of my life in a subculture that more or less ignored those kinds of stories in favor of Jeanette Oke-style rainbows and warm fuzzies, but I find this painful, true kind of storytelling absolutely gripping.


Shade's Children, by Garth Nix. Published 1997, 345 pages. Fiction.

Harpy's Flight, by Megan Lindholm. Published 1983, 202 pages. Fiction.

Shaman's Crossing, by Robin Hobb. Published 2005, 591 pages. Fiction.

Forest Mage, by Robin Hobb. Published 2006, 718 pages. Fiction.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Knead? No need!

Several years ago my parents moved into a much smaller home than ever before, forcing them to downsize considerably. They took many loads of stuff to Goodwill, held a yard sale or two...and surreptitiously sneaked things into the trunk of my car whenever I visited them during this period.

I believe that's how I ended up with a rusty ancient 12-inch cast iron Dutch oven--I think I found it in the back seat of the car one weekend when I was unpacking after a trip to Oregon. I was too amused to get rid of it, and I suspected it had been in the family for too long to let it go, anyway. Mr. Thel and I hatched cheerful schemes of taking it camping to cook over a fire.

Since our tiny kitchen had no available space to store the hulking blackened thing, we stored it carefully in a corner of the garage. Naturally it sat there for the next two years. When we moved into this house, it migrated into a corner of the basement. There it sat all year beneath a growing pile of cardboard and camping detritus.

Recently someone (probably Kimberly) reminded me about the No-Knead Bread Recipe from the New York Times over a year ago. Everyone on the internet loved this bread recipe so thoroughly that I wanted to try it for myself...but my crusty, rusty dutch oven deterred me all year.

Yesterday I finally clomped down to the basement and dug it out. I was quite afraid that I'd pull the lid off and find a seething mass of black spiders inside, but was pleasantly surprised to find its sturdy innards completely insect-free. I hauled it upstairs and cleaned it out. Still unsatisfied with the weirdly tacky texture inside, I put it upside-down in the oven at 500 degrees for almost two hours, which seemed to do the trick. Last night I mixed the ingredients for the bread; today I baked the bread.

Now, I already liked baking bread. I don't even mind kneading bread all that much (more of a deterrent for me is the gluey floury mess afterward). But this loaf --this effortless dome of crispy, crusty, chewy goodness--is the best bread I have ever baked. Friends, I'm afraid it may not last until morning in this household.

When I called my mom to boast about my perfect bread, she told me that this particular dutch oven came from my great-grandma Mickey's house. It's probably been in use for over 50 years. Somehow knowing that, and feeling that link to a great-grandmother I hardly had a chance to know before Alzheimer's disease took her away, made my second slice of bread taste even more satisfying.

Monday, January 14, 2008

2008 Books Two and Three

The second book I finished reading in 2008 was The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman. I'd read it once before, a couple of years ago, but I felt like I'd rushed through it too quickly to give the story and the writing the level of attention they deserved. After a second reading I realize that I missed certain elements the first time around, but that I still don't feel any deep affection for this series.

Don't get me wrong--I like these books quite a lot. The writing is excellent, the storytelling superb, and the details imaginative. Still, too many of the characters feel like puppets--and, even worse, they acknowledge that they're puppets; they seem to know that they're only doing certain things because the author needs them to. Dr. Malone gives Lyra an inexplicable little expository speech in chapter Four, saying even as she does so, "Why am I telling you this? I shouldn't.... I'm a little crazy this afternoon." But she goes right on telling anyway, because that's what the plot requires. At the end of the book, in chapter Fifteen, Will is struggling with a witch and we are informed that "because she was a witch she wouldn't have been afraid of a boy, normally. But she was afraid of Will. This young wounded figure held more force and danger than she'd ever met in a human before, and she quailed." She wouldn't have been afraid of him usually--but she recognized him as the Protagonist, and was therefore terrified. Hm.

On the other hand, I'm always having trouble understanding people's motivations even in real life. So this could very well be a problem with me and not the text.

The third book I finished in 2008 was The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories. I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (once I finally stopped being so intimidated by its length and popularity that I could undertake reading it at all), and this was a pleasant collection of stories set mostly in the same world, with one story that's set in a sort of hybrid of that world and the world of Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Susanna Clarke's deft use of a writing style straight out of the early 1800's is just as delightful to read in these stories as in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and it's fun to get additional tidbits of the sort that were sprinkled in footnotes and allusions throughout the novel. All in all, The Ladies of Grace Adieu added nicely to my picture of that parallel England. And it was satisfying to get a story about the Raven King in there, as well.


The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman. Published 1997, 288 pages. Fiction.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu, by Susanna Clarke. Published 2006, 235 pages. Fiction.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Crisscrossing a continent

On Friday the mailman brought me the Amtrak book of timetables that I had requested online. I pored through the book greedily, slowly accepting that one month is not long enough to experience every single route that Amtrak offers, even if I never spend any time exploring along the way. And what kind of trip would it be if I didn't spend some time lollygagging and sightseeing along the way?

Yesterday afternoon I sat down with the book and set up a tentative itinerary:

Seattle to Vancouver, B.C.
Vancouver to Toronto (!)
One night in Toronto
Toronto to New York
Three nights in New York (I've never been!)
New York to...somewhere in Vermont. Or Portland, Maine. Somewhere up east.
Two nights in whichever place--including my birthday.
Vermont or Maine to Washington, D.C.
One night in D.C.
D.C. to Chicago via one route
Chicago to Charlottesville, VA via another route
One night in Charlottesville
Charlottesville to New Orleans
Two nights in New Orleans
New Orleans to Memphis
Three nights in or near Memphis
Memphis to Chicago
Chicago to St. Louis
Two nights in St. Louis
St. Louis to Kansas City
Kansas City to Chicago
Two nights in Chicago
Chicago to Seattle

Believe it or not, this itinerary actually leaves a couple of days of wiggle room in case I decide I need more time to explore somewhere, or get sick, or miss a train and have to linger for a day...

This itinerary is bound to change, but putting it together made me feel for the first time like this trip is really going to happen. Here's hoping!

Saturday, January 05, 2008


My friend asked me if I could spare a few hours to help out the organization she works with. Several nights a week they seek out folks sleeping on the streets of the downtown Seattle area and offer blankets, hats, socks, gloves, scarves, sandwiches, and hot chocolate to whoever wants some. Last night the wind kicked up, slicing up the streets with a chilly malice, so the blankets especially were quite popular.

I took the bus downtown to meet them, and on the way I finished Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. It's a fantasy novel about the hidden Other World that exists in and under London, and what happens when unassumingly mousy Richard Mayhew finds himself inexorably entangled up in a plot and a quest with the people and creatures of London Below. Neil Gaiman has a way with description and plot and OtherWorldly characters (and their plots) that makes for an absorbing read.

It also makes for a bit of a haunting afterward. All night I kept doing these little double-takes--at the bright red light I glimpsed, ten feet beneath my feet, through a sidewalk grating. Or the little plaque at the edge of a pier that memorializes a ship that "sank beneath your very feet on this spot in 1909;" Tim pointed out a padlocked iron door at the edge of the platform and said that when he was a kid the door used to be open. "You could go right down and look at it," he assured me.

Saying that the world is a "magical" place tends to evoke rainbows and unicorns, twee talking animals and harmless, dainty fairies that sip from buttercups. Neil Gaiman remembers that "magic" is deep and dark. He knows that if there are talking puppies with limpid eyes, then there are also slinking creatures, all pointy teeth and rapacious hunger, who prowl in the dark and disembowel the puppies and feast on their eyes. If there are gleaming towers and languorous feasts, there are weird dirty caves hacked out under the freeway concrete, small worlds clustered in the hidden places, and thin, bright-eyed men with curly beards who speak sadly but firmly of others that have been tossed into the dark, cold waves...

So, then, the world is a magical place. Shudder at the thought.


Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman. Published 1996, 352 pages. Fiction.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

January 2, 2008 - Minus Ten

I had my second chemo treatment exactly ten years ago today--Friday, January 2, 1998. My parents had taken me to the first one, back on December 18. A girl named Michelle who'd lived on my floor the year before drove me to this second one. My doctor was extremely upbeat when he found out I'd never been sick after the first treatment.

"That's great! he kept saying, and told me that if one is going to be sick at all, one would be sick the first time. "So," he smiled, "if you didn't get sick at all the first time, I'd say that's a pretty good sign you probably won't get sick."
Two treatments in, I was beginning to be surprised that Having Cancer wasn't a continuously grueling ordeal every moment of every day. I was about to start the second quarter of my sophomore year at SPU, trying to maintain as many of my routines (school, work, campus volunteer activities) as I could and amazed that it looked surprisingly possible. With two down and ten to go, I was 17% done with chemo already.

More than anything, I was beginning to be humbly astounded at how many people were adamant about wanting to do what they could to help me. I've always tended to be a shy kind of person, standing on the sidelines dragging my toe awkwardly through the dust and assuming nobody likes me. So I was taken aback that so many people who were so much cooler, smarter, more popular, prettier, richer, more spiritual, and funnier than me--in my own true opinion--were genuinely enthusiastic about wanting to help me out.

I was also beginning to be flattered (and slightly uneasy) by the number of people who were already telling me I was inspirational, strong, and brave. Some had already started appropriating my cancer fight as a parable for whichever sermon or object lesson they happened to want to tell. At the time I remember being flattered and proud to be so recognized; but I remember a stirring of discomfort with that aspect of it, too.

And meanwhile I was secretly mourning that the boy I had a crush on had started dating someone else.